Fireside this week! I know we’re all anxious to get to the last part of our look at the Roman Republic – a discussion of Roman courts and the legal system – but academic job season is upon us and I needed to take a week to focus on getting some of those applications out. On the flipside, that makes this a good opportunity to talk about how professors in academic fields are generally hired, something I’ve discussed more with Patrons but not on the main blog (worry not, Patrons, for you shall soon have the inside scoop on another, different topic).
Academic hiring is seasonal, based around the academic calendar, because every department wants their new hires to start at the beginning of the academic year in August/September. In practice this means the process works in two rounds, the main affair in the fall (through winter) and then the consolation round in the spring.
The academic hiring calendar starts for applicants with the posting of new jobs, usually in August or September. For hiring committees, putting up the job posting is actually the culmination of a bunch of work getting a job description put together and a tenure line approved that started at the latest in the previous spring. In any event, the fall season is mostly for tenure line jobs, which is to say, permanent positions as full members of the department. Generally speaking, jobs are posted in August and September with applications due in September, October or early November, with first round (‘long list’) interviews – usually these days via zoom1 – in November or December. Then three finalists are selected (there may be a second round of interviews) for the ‘campus visit’ and the ‘job talk’ which take place between January and March, usually.
The ‘campus visit’ generally consists of flying out to the campus in question for what is effectively a multi-day interview. The core of this process is the ‘job talk,’ a presentation of the candidates research (usually 45 minutes plus a Q&A), but that ‘main event’ is in turn surrounded by a host of interviews with members of the departments, the department chair, the dean or other administrators and so on. There are a lot of stakeholders in an academic job search and because the expectation is that the new hire will be part of the department for the rest of their career (‘forever’), all of those stakeholders want a voice in the selection. Consequently every part of the experience, from the drive from the airport (it’ll usually be a faculty member picking you up) to the meals (generally also hosted by faculty members) to the actual formal interviews are, in fact, interviews.
By this point the second round has begun: postings for non-permanent positions – adjuncts, post-docs and the like – usually go up early in the spring semester and then move through an abbreviated form of the process. The idea here is of course everyone in the second round is also applying in the first round, since the first round’s jobs are objectively better, so you don’t want to interview a whole bunch of people for your post-doc only to find out they all got tenure-track offers (and thus will most certainly not take your post-doc).
Note that effectively all permanent, tenure-line searches have to be full, national searches going through the whole process.2 The days of getting hired to a tenure-line post via the ‘old boys’ network are long gone. However such informal hiring is often used to fill out adjunct positions (but not post-docs, which at least ought always to have competition applications), especially since few people will move for an adjunct position, meaning that if you know someone local, you tend to rely on that someone local.
Applications have a set of standard elements, with the full list being: cover letter, CV (curriculum vitae), teaching portfolio, diversity statement, research statement, a writing sample, letters of recommendation (usually three) and sometimes transcripts. The academic cover letter is a pretty rigid genre, with standard expectations on length (exactly two pages, no more and no less) and content.3 While you’ll generally have a ‘standard’ cover letter, these do need to be tailored to each individual job, so the application process involves editing that standard cover letter each time. Academic CVs are also rather different than resumes; I keep a copy of my CV in the ‘about the Pedant’ section (often not quite up to date, I admit), so you can see what they look like; it is much more of a list than a traditional resume, focused on publications and achievements, not skills.
Then you have the three statements: teaching, diversity and research. These are not always required and every application will have some different set of them. A full teaching portfolio consists of a ‘statement of teaching philosophy,’ evidence of teaching effectiveness (awards, student feedback, etc.), sample syllabi and sample assignments. Many applications will ask, instead of for the full portfolio, for some combination of these parts. A research statement is an opportunity in a few pages to expand on how you described your research in the cover letter.
Diversity statements are…controversial…and not all applications require them. The statement is supposed to both demonstrate how a candidate handles diversity in their classrooms and also how they address it in their research. They are often mandated by university administrators (often as an excuse to be ‘doing something’ for diversity without actually doing anything for diversity), which means some committees care deeply about them and others consign them instantly to the circular file. In at least some cases (but not all) it seems clear they function as political litmus tests, which would be impermissible for public universities, something I suspect will end up tested in court before too long. On the other hand, given the diversity of college students today, “convince me you can handle a class of people who do not have your background” is a pretty reasonable request when hiring a teacher. My own standard version of this statement – which then gets tailored to each job – tries to emphasize my ability to appreciate and handle different kinds of diversity in my classroom, including not just socioeconomic and ethnic background, but also things like previous military service (an important thing to consider, teaching military history).
That leaves transcripts (‘unofficial’ usually fine, unless you are applying to an institution run by the federal government), letters of recommendation (usually three, from fellow scholars in your field) and the writing sample. The writing sample is typically something article or chapter length and is usually something you’ve published or are otherwise working on; you aren’t creating bespoke writing samples for each job. A article or chapter that has gone through peer review and is published is generally the strongest thing to use.
Naturally, that’s quite a lot of materials. I think everyone has ‘standard’ or ‘blank’ versions of each standard document, but each still needs to be tailored to each job, which can eat a lot of time. And you will be applying a lot in this system, at least in history. Because on the one hand, placement rates are horribly low, so you need to apply to many jobs – in practice, every job in your subfield – but of course that means that every job gets a huge pool of applicants. To give you a sense of that, in my field (ancient history) it is not uncommon to see 6-12 jobs in a cycle (not counting teaching for the Department of Defense) and to know that the best ones have 100-200 applicants.
Who do committees pick? Every committee is its own unique creature, a product of the incentives and views of its members, but when you aggregate them all together a few basic statistical patterns come out. There are two things that clearly really matter: pedigree and time-from-the-PhD. It seems insane for pedigree to matter as much as it does given how low placement rates means that there are excellent candidates from all sorts of schools not being picked up, but most committees are old fashioned and it isn’t hard to see in who they hire that ‘candidate quality’ is often just a very baroque way of saying, ‘received their PhD from an Ivy League school.’
Alternately, it is really clear that even despite the low placement rates meaning that excellent candidates do not always get picked up on their first year through the system, it is nevertheless the case that your chances of being hired decline every year after you get your PhD. Committees prefer the fresh and exciting and even the best candidate who has been on the market for three years isn’t ‘new.’ Once again, this is old fashioned, a holdover from when placement rates were 60+% and thus it really was the case that most very solid candidates were picked up in the first couple of years. That is no longer true, but hiring committees are generally composed of academics who were hired in the much better days of yesteryear, so they may not have fully internalized how things have changed. There are other incentives that push to this result too: a fresh PhD doesn’t have as much of a record and so can more easily be sold as everything to everyone, making them more natural compromise candidates (which matters more as tenure lines become more scarce and thus more precious), and of course it dovetails with pedigree since the available candidates from the highest prestige programs are going to be the ones fresh out.
What does all that mean for my job hunt? Well, in practice, it makes things tricky: in a world where most committees are old fashioned, I am looking for a committee willing to get with the times, both in considering someone with a ‘stale’ PhD (thanks COVID) and also in considering someone with an unusual scholarly profile. I have my share of peer-reviewed research, of course, but a lot of old fashioned committees will not consider things like ACOUP – heck, even things like writing for Foreign Policy – as valuable or appropriate scholarly activity; this project can, for some committees, be an active negative (they don’t understand it, its scary, they think it isn’t serious, etc.). I think I have a decently strong application all things considered, with a wide-range of peer-reviewed and traditional media publications, a large outreach footprint, a lot of teaching experience (and very good teaching feedback), but I need a bunch of things to line up to catch a break here: an open-minded committee whose department needs exactly the sort of historian I am and which appreciates the value of the sort of work I do, comfortable with both military and public history, in particular.
That’s a hard square to circle, but there’s no way to find that unicorn of a department except to apply to all of them and hope for the best. Though the upshot is that the departments that won’t really bother to give me a second look at probably, on balance, not departments I’d want to be at long-term anyway.
I should note before we move to recommendations that one group of places I apply to I have left out here, which are professional military education (PME) institutions, which is to say the war colleges and their equivalents in the other services. Those are their own topic and worth discussing on their own at some point.
On to recommendations!
First off, a our brave narrator has created audio versions for another set of posts, in this case the series on generalship!
Next, let me note that my interview with noted naval history YouTuber Drachinifel has finally gone live; we talk about the First Punic War and ancient naval warfare generally. I will admit, I find it kind of funny that of all of the things I have done – peer reviewed articles, write in the New York Times, write for The Atlantic, appear on EconTalk – this is the thing my students have been most impressed by. I think that says something about my students and it is hardly bad. Drach is one of the better history YouTubers, being quite careful and source-oriented with his videos.
Meanwhile, I want to highlight this article on retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley at The Atlantic (in theory that ‘gift link’ should get you past the paywall), not for what it says about him, but for what it says about the nature of the civil-military relationship in the United States. It’s quite a ‘rich’ text on the topic, both Milley’s own musings on the civ-mil relationship, the American tradition of an apolitical officer corps and what that means for his own actions – some of which he clearly regrets and some of which he is clearly proud of – but also in examining Milley’s own example of trying to walk the tightrope between loyalty to the Constitution and civilian control of the military when the civilian leader in question appeared to be attempting to overthrow the Constitution.
Also from The Atlantic, I wanted to highlight “Bakhmut, Before It Vanished” (also should be a ‘gift link’). We talk a lot here about conflict and historical wars and it is easy in the clinical discussions of foraging or cohesion or leadership to lose sight of the very real human cost these wars impose. So as much as it can be unpleasant, emotionally, to read, I think there is great value in reading the stories of survivors whose plans, lives, futures were transformed or simply wrecked by war and reaching out with empathy, to imagine how we would feel in that situation. Because while we can rationally know that ‘war is bad, we should do less of it,’ humans are emotional beings and so there is value, every so often, in driving home the emotional lesson, that “War is an ugly thing.”4
Finally, for this week’s book recommendation, I am going with a recent release, Wayne E. Lee, The Cutting-Off Way: Indigenous Warfare in Eastern North America, 1500-1800 (2023). This is one of those books I have been waiting to come out for quite some time, as I studied under the author at UNC Chapel Hill and so had heard parts of this argument laid out for years; it is a delight to see the whole thing altogether now in one place.
Fundamentally, Lee aims in the book to lay out a complete model for Native American warfare in eastern North America (so the East Coast, but also the Great Lakes region and the Appalachian Mountains), covering both the pre-European-contact system of warfare and also how that system changes as a result of contact. In presenting this model of a ‘cutting-off’ way of war, Lee is explicitly looking to supplant the older scholarly model, called the ‘skulking way of war,’ which he argues has been fatally overtaken by developments in history, archaeology and anthropology. As a description of a whole system of war, Lee discusses tactics, the movement of war parties, logistics and also the strategic aims of this kind of warfare. The book also details change within that model, with chapters covering the mechanisms by which European contact seems to have escalated the violence in an already violent system, the impact of European technologies and finally the way that European powers – particularly the English/British – created, maintained and used relationships with Native American nations (as compared, quite interestingly, to similar strategies of use and control in contemporary English/British occupied Ireland).
The overall model of the ‘cutting-off’ way of war (named because it aimed to ‘cut off’ individual enemy settlements, individuals or raiding parties by surprise or ambush; the phrase was used by contemporary English-language sources describing this form of warfare) is, I think, extremely useful. It is, among other things, one of the main mental models I had in mind when thinking about what I call the ‘First System‘ of war.5 Crucially it is not ‘unconventional’ warfare: it has its own well-defined conventions which shape, promote or restrict the escalation of violence in the system. At its core, the ‘cutting-off’ way is a system focused on using surprise, raids and ambushes to inflict damage on an enemy, often with the strategic goal of forcing that enemy group to move further away and thus vindicating a nation’s claim to disputed territory (generally hunting grounds) and their resources, though of course as with any warfare among humans, these basic descriptions become immensely more complicated in practice. Ambushes get spotted and become battles, while enmities that may have begun as territorial disputes (and continue to include those disputes) are also motivated by cycles of revenge strikes, internal politics, diplomatic decisions and so on.
The book itself is remarkably accessible and should pose few problems for the non-specialist reader. Lee establishes a helpful pattern of describing a given activity or interaction (say, raids or the logistics system to support them) by leading with a narrative of a single event (often woven from multiple sources), then following that with a description of the system that event exemplifies, which is turn buttressed with more historical examples. The advantage of those leading spots of narrative is that they serve to ground the more theoretical system in the concrete realia of the historical warfare itself, keeping the whole analysis firmly on the ground. At the same time, Lee has made a conscious decision to employ a fair bit of ‘modernizing’ language: strategy, operations, tactics, logistics, ways, ends, means and so on, in order to de-exoticize Native American warfare. In this case, I think the approach is valuable in letting the reader see through differences in language and idiom to the hard calculations being made and perhaps most importantly to see the very human mix of rationalism and emotion motivating those calculations.
The book also comes with a number of maps, all of which are well-designed to be very readable on the page and a few diagrams. Some of these are just remarkably well chosen: an initial diagram of a pair of model Native American polities, with settlements occupying core zones with hunting-ground peripheries and a territorial dispute between them is in turn followed by maps of the distribution of actual Native American settlements, making the connection between the model and the actual pattern of settlement clear. Good use is also made of period-drawings and maps of fortified Native American settlements, in one case paired with the modern excavation plan. For a kind of warfare that is still more often the subject of popular myth-making than history, this book is extremely valuable and I hope it will find a wide readership.
- In the olden days, these interviews always took place at the discipline’s Big Conference which always happens in early January. The shift to zoom has enabled a lot more flexibility and has led to the end of conference interviews.
- As an aside, this means your academic friend or relative has absolutely no control over where in the country they end up living, so do not ask them where they would like to teach. If there are, say, 10 openings in your field in a given year, you apply to all of them and you go to whichever one takes you, if any do.
- A ‘research first’ cover letter in history has the following paragraphs in order: salutation, then a sketch of the book project, then the project’s contribution and impact, then a paragraph for other scholarship, then a sense of what you can teach, then evidence of teaching effectiveness, then a valediction. A ‘teaching first’ cover letter inverts this order.
- “…but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriot feelings which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse.” – John Stuart Mill.
- Itself an ultra-broad category with many exceptions and caveats.