First-Hand Job Market Experiences

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Tamara Popic

Tamara Popic

By Tamara Popic, Academic Careers Observatory

From June to October 2013, the Academic Careers Observatory (ACO) of the Max Weber Programme (MWP) carried out interviews on the job market experience of the former Max Weber Fellows (MWF), both early- and mid-career scholars. The main purpose of these interviews was to hear about the Fellows’ experience on the job market, compare these experiences across countries and disciplines, and provide first-hand information about the different job markets for all those interested in academic careers in the social sciences and humanities.
Interviews were conducted with 15 former MWF, who participated in the MWP from 2006 until 2013. The questions ranged from the more general, focused on current trends and characteristics of the job market in a given country and discipline, to the more specific, concentrated on the details of the application process and individual experiences from job interviews. There are several preliminary conclusions that could be drawn from the information gathered at these interviews.
First, the job market differs across disciplines. While the market in Economics is very standardized and centralized, the market in History, Law, and Political Sciences is less organized, with jobs being advertised on an irregular basis and depending on a university’s needs. Additionally, while PhD graduates in Economics often apply for up to 100 positions at a time, graduates from the other three disciplines apply for significantly fewer posts and tailor their applications to each particular post.

Second, job markets across countries display significantly different degrees of openness. While the UK and the American job market seem to be the most open, in Central Europe this is less so. Eastern Europe, as well as Southern Europe, seems to have the most closed job market for young academics. In these countries, the chances of getting a job at a university, without being the national of a given country and without having previous contact with the university, are very low or non-existent. On a more positive note, it should be noticed that even in these countries there are interesting exceptions (e.g. some of the more open academic institutions in Continental Europe are in Southern Europe); furthermore, recent trends suggest the job market in these countries could become more open and competitive in the near future, although the recent Southern European recession has also slowed down these trends towards greater openness.

Third, there is an increasing trend across all disciplines, even Economics, that the applicants for tenure-track positions are expected to have one or more years of post-doctoral experience. Previous experience in teaching, especially for lectureship positions, as well as peer-reviewed publications, and – particularly in history – a book contract with a good publisher, are becoming crucial for tenure-track position at high-ranked universities.

Fourth, the job market in England is becoming increasingly dependent on the method of assessing the research of British higher education institutions, the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF affects job market applicants in several ways. One of these is the emphasis on publications, and even more importantly, on the timing of publications, because what matters, for example, in the current REF are publications between 2008 and 2013. Also related to the REF, there is an increasing emphasis on the ‘impact’ dimension of academic research, especially in History and the Political Sciences. Job applicants are often asked at interviews about the significance and potential impact of their research on policy and society more broadly.

Fifth, the impact of the financial crisis on the job market in academia seems to be diminishing. In the US job market for graduates in Economics, for example, 2009 and 2010 were very difficult, while in 2011 and 2012 there were more positions on offer. The problem however was that this created a backlog of applications, so in 2011 and 2012 the market became more competitive. At the same time, and independently of the crisis, the job market across all disciplines seems to be much more competitive than one or two decades ago, simply because universities produce more PhD graduates, while the number of positions offered at universities is not growing accordingly.

Finally, as a useful tip for current job market applicants, almost all former MWF stressed the importance of tailoring your application to a specific post (in all disciplines but Economics) and being extremely well prepared for the job interview. Here are some of their more specific tips:


Former Fellow in History, now with a tenure-track position in a US university.

“Take each application very seriously. Tailor your cover letter according to the specifics of each ad. Do not use the general cover letter. It feels, it shows, right from the very beginning, that they are not going to take you seriously. Try to put yourselves into their shoes. Think what you imagine they expect from a candidate they would be interested in. When you do that, start writing the letter from that perspective. Try to focus on the links [between you and the position] and if there are no such links, forget about it, it’s a waste of time.”

“The interview is one thing, and the job talk is another. They are two complementary parts of the campus visit. It is important to rehearse with friends [other MWF], to anticipate questions about teaching, why is your research useful, and questions like this. Make sure you research the department. The more you know about the department, the more it shows that you are interested. Make sure you read about everyone’s research interest. If you know who is a part of the committee, make sure to even read some of their publications. Before the job talk, have it rehearsed. My first rehearsal was bad, I practiced with friends, and I had to re-write it completely, and again. The final job talk, the real one that I gave at the campus, was the third talk. The more you rehearse, the better situated you are.”


Former Fellow in Economics, now with a tenure-track position in a Swedish university.  

“It [the interview] lasts half an hour, and it is the first two minutes that will decide what people think of you. Two minutes are not long, so you should have this down to the word, there should not be any thinking. You should be able to say [in those two minutes] what your research is about. If they do not interrupt you with the questions, you can go on and extend your talk. Then they would typically interrupt and start with questions and then the conversation develops more naturally.”

“The most important thing to do is ‘practice out loud’. The most important is to practice, practice, practice [for the job interviews] and be in close touch [if you can] with your advisers. Try to inform them about every step on the way. In my own experience, they were always willing to help, and they always have contacts in one way or another. I think I have underestimated how useful the practice was and I think this is something people usually underestimate.”


Former Fellow in Political Science, now with a tenure-track position in a UK university.

“You need to find the position that sets you apart. It is important that you show that you have done some research on the institution which is offering the post. You also need to show that you are familiar with the topics not directly related to research, not only academic work. If you are a PhD students, you might know everything about your particular topic, you also might be very good, but you need to show that you are ready to do some admin work, that you know how the whole business of research works, that there are grants out there, and that it is important for the department to get money, and to get good publications.”


More first-hand job market experiences here