How the Academic Job Market Sets PhDs Up for Failure

Whenever I visit with a PhD or graduate student who is beginning their career transition from academia to a nonacademic career, one of my standard questions is: “tell me about your current job search strategy.” What I usually hear is that the PhD is looking at job ads and sending out resumes and cover letters. 

Some PhDs know they should be networking, but they don’t understand how essential this is to their job search strategy. Part of this, I think, has to do with how the academic job market is structured – and how it sets PhDs up for failure when they start their nonacademic job search.

The Academic Job Market

I was on the academic job market for three years, and I think the approach I was taught in my department graduate seminar was standard: we spent early fall crafting a job letter, teaching statement, and research statement. We made sure our CVs listed absolutely all of our accomplishments and teaching experience (but usually just the course titles). Then we hit the job boards. 

If you’re on the academic job market in history, most jobs are listed on the jobs Wiki, where you have the added benefit of reading all the gossip and internalizing everyone else’s stresses (it’s a total anxiety-inducing nightmare). When you submit your materials for a tenure-track job, you might modifying the job letter a bit, but not a lot, because it’s already been “perfected” through multiple drafts read over by three faculty members in the department.

Oh, and these documents are loooonnngggg. A two to three page cover letter is standard when applying for academic jobs. A CV of less than four pages seems light. Then there’s the teaching statement, the research statement, the sample syllabi, transcripts, teaching evaluations, and an article or draft chapter. It’s not uncommon to be sending out upwards of sixty pages for one job application.

If your advisor knows someone in the hiring department, a good advisor will send an email or pick up the phone, advocating for their student. Maybe someone from the department was hired there a few years earlier; someone else will probably call and put in a good word. It’s a rare moment to be applying for a job where you – the candidate – have a solid in. Never in 10000 years would I drive up to CU Boulder and ask the department chair for an informational interview to learn about working at Boulder. I’d be labelled as mad, and it would seriously damage my professional credibility.

On the rare occasion that someone who is already teaching as an adjunct or visiting assistant professor at that institution, or someone with a degree from an institution with several alumni already on faculty, lands the job, then we roar with rage on the jobs Wiki about the unfairness of an internal hire. Rightly or wrongly (and I think wrongly) the academic job market is imagined to operate on merit – international job searches to find *the best* candidates. In reality, that’s not true, but it’s how job search candidates are trained to think about the academic job market.

Nonacademic Job Search

Well. The nonacademic job search is the OPPOSITE. Hiring someone internally, or who comes with a recommendation from someone who works within the organization, is standard and considered smart.

Hiring is expensive, so if someone who works with me assures me that Candidate X is a good fit for the organization, and I like this co-worker, that personal reference is probably all I need to bring that candidate in for an interview. Most likely, if the candidate does well in that interview, I’m going to hire them. And that’s not nepotism; that’s effective hiring. Why risk hiring an unknown? Or someone with no experience? Josh Magsam did a fabulous presentation on the non-academic hiring process.

So, fellow PhDs looking beyond the professoriate: If your job search strategies are those of someone on the academic job market, you’re setting yourself up for a very tough, and very long, job search, if you ever successfully land a job at all. For PhDs with technical expertise in industry, you might have better luck applying for jobs with strong professional documents and strong interview skills than someone who is making a more dramatic career transition.

Those of us who are relying on transferable skills and repackaging our work experience to move into new career fields, need to network. We need to meet people, learn about the needs of organizations, and think about how we can effectively communicate, in person and in professional documents, our value to the organization. That might not be obvious.

Informational interviews are an important part of expanding your network. Reaching out to new people, asking questions, learning, and connecting. Rather than spending the time writing resumes and sending them out for jobs, about 60% of your time should be networking and looking for new leads.

You can get started by finding organizations of interest and then looking for people on LinkedIn who work there. You must, must, must learn how to use LinkedIn effectively for your job search. Anna Marie Trester hosted a wonderful webinar on why LinkedIn is an essential part of networking and building your professional brand.


Are resumes/cover letters important? They are vital! But the resume and cover letter will seldom work on their own. You need to build a network/community of people in your new industry so that when opportunities come up, you are the person with the connection.

Your network will get your professional documents a look –> Your strong professional documents (carefully curated 1 page cover letter + 2 page max resume specific to the job) will get you an interview –> and your strong interview skills which showcase your knowledge, skills, and abilities, will land you the job. Eventually. If you keep at it.

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L. Maren Wood earned her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate.

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