Getting hired into academe?
August 29, 2007 9:23 AM   Subscribe

Looking for help breaking into academe - fellow academic Mefites, what am I doing wrong?

I have a PhD in Ethnomusicology, specialization in Irish music/singing (now the MeFiMu posts make sense, don't they?). I want very much to get into the academic setting, as I *love* teaching and doing fieldwork. But getting a job in academe has been proving difficult.

I graduated 6 years ago, and wound up in the public sector because, well, student loan bills needed to be paid.

I give talks at conferences and publish papers to the extent that my schedule and vacation time permits. I'll admit, the publishing side needs some TLC, and I am currently taking steps to remedy that.

I did some teaching while doing my higher degrees, but I figure it's not enough, so I volunteer-guest-lecture for professors at my two local universities, just to keep my chops up.

I'm active in the music scene here in town, teaching at the Ottawa Folklore Centre, giving workshops, organizing sessions, running choirs, etc.

I network like a fiend when I go to conferences, hoping the next mat leave or term hire that comes up, they'll think of me.

I apply for jobs, too, but get bounced out for reasons that seem very strange to me, like having a B. A. hon Mus., as opposed to a B. Mus.

What more can I do to make myself attractive to a hiring university?
posted by LN to Work & Money (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should also add, I'm a member of CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers), SEM (Society for Ethnomusicology) and the College Music Society.
posted by LN at 9:25 AM on August 29, 2007

I don't think you'll be able to pull this off without adjuncting. If you're lucky you can find a VAP position, and then start looking at tenure track jobs at community colleges.
posted by nasreddin at 9:37 AM on August 29, 2007

Have you thought about getting a Master's in Library Science? When I was at library school, a good half of my cohort had doctoral degrees. Apparently, doctorate (in any field, no matter how obscure) + M.L.S. (or equivalent) = academic job.

And if you can do the M.L.S. at the same place where you adjunct, you should be able to handle the tuition, and earn enough to keep a roof over your head for the duration, too . . .
posted by deejay jaydee at 9:46 AM on August 29, 2007

Network like crazy. Be prepared to move for a job. Apply for everything. Go to conferences and give papers. Take sessional positions. Put your CV online.

Good luck.
posted by jokeefe at 10:17 AM on August 29, 2007

When I was applying for jobs in mathematics, I sent out on the order of 120 applications. I got maybe 10 phone interviews and 3 or 4 on-campus interviews. I imagine there are even fewer jobs in music history/ethnomusicology.

I network like a fiend when I go to conferences, hoping the next mat leave or term hire that comes up, they'll think of me.
I assume you're giving them resumes, also? Since otherwise, you'll almost certainly drop off their radar.

I agree the reasons they've been giving you sound kinda strange.

Does SEM have any job stuff they do at the national meetings? I know that in math, there's an entire employment center where lots of in-person, short interviews take place.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:35 AM on August 29, 2007

I have a friend who is going through something similar in Ethnomusicology right now and I'd be happy to connect you with him if you think it would be helpful (my email is in my profile) but I think it's a tight market. My best advice is

1. be willing to MOVE for a job
2. start with some weird small teaching jobs waiting for that slot to open, not do a non-teaching gig.
posted by jessamyn at 11:12 AM on August 29, 2007

I hesitate to say "adjuncting," because adjuncting is its own potential route to hell, but your relatively minimal teaching experience is going to raise a red flag at a lot of schools. So, yes, you need to start teaching part-time.

Definitely work on the publishing. If you're six years out from your terminal degree, a hiring committee is going to expect that you've done some writing.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:39 AM on August 29, 2007

I would second jessamyn's points: it's going to be very hard for you to land full-time tenure track job without doing some kind of adjunct teaching first and without being able to move. I was *very* lucky in that I only applied for about 25 jobs before I got my current position (emphasis again--*very* lucky), but my wife, who works in a more impacted field, applied for nearly 200 jobs before landing her current position.

Also: what jobs are you applying for? Your Ph.D. is in ethnomusicology, but from what school/department? (I ask because I've known people who've done dissertations in this field, and who attend SEM meetings, who have been trained in history, anthropology, and folklore departments. I'm not familiar with people who've done Ph.D. work in music schools/department, but that's my own parochialism.)

There could be a turf war question here; some departments resist about hiring "outside" their discipline. For instance, I know individuals who are essentially historians in terms of their research and teaching but who make history dept. hiring committees nervous because they have degrees in Religious Studies, American Studies, Classics, or other interdisciplinary fields. A friend of mine who has a Ph.D. in communication had a similarly hard time getting cultural sociology jobs even though that's what she did, essentially.

This is a long way of saying that you could be running up into a "fit" or "turf" problem. You may be applying for jobs where you'll have to go that extra mile to convince them that you match the position they're looking to fill. You need to get them to look beyond any issues that might exist. You can often accomplish this by beefing up your teaching and publications in specific ways. If at all possible, get adjunct gigs where you can teach the classes a search committee might want you to teach. (If you want to convince an anthropology dept to hire you as their ethnomusicologist, then try to teach introduction to cultural anthropology, for example.) And try to publish in venues that a particular department or field values. I wouldn't score a lot of points in my dept publishing in the *Journal of American Folklore*, for example, but my anthropologist friends would.

What does your doctoral adviser say? Where does s/he usually place students? Talk to your dissertation director and ask him or her to get on the phone and/or email with some contacts to help you out.
posted by historybuff at 11:55 AM on August 29, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone, it's a lot to think about, and demonstrates a lot of spots to work on.

Historybuff, I don't understand what you mean by "place students". Place them where? The last that I saw of my doctoral advisor, was a wave she gave me over her shoulder as she and the head of department took the external examiner out for lunch after my oral defence.
posted by LN at 12:06 PM on August 29, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, I should mention, my PhD is from University College Dublin, in Ireland.
posted by LN at 12:17 PM on August 29, 2007

Historybuff, I don't understand what you mean by "place students". Place them where? The last that I saw of my doctoral advisor, was a wave she gave me over her shoulder as she and the head of department took the external examiner out for lunch after my oral defence.

A major function of doctoral advisers, at least in the US (and probably Canada too, since I see that's where you are), is to help their students get (academic) jobs. (and a department's reputation over here is often built on their job placement record). In fact if she's not writing one of your letters, it may be setting of flags for people reading your application, though I don't know how they judge someone who's been out in industry a while.
posted by advil at 12:37 PM on August 29, 2007

Based on my past experience as a member of an academic search committee (though not in ethnomusicology), "fit" is the single most important factor in the hiring decision.

Most important fit factor is to realize what TYPE of an academic institution you would fit best with. Is it a research heavy one? A teaching-heavy one? Evenly split? Someone who'd be snapped up by a R1 is not someone who'd be desirable to a small liberal arts college, and vice versa. You can send out 200 applications, but if they're all to the wrong type of schools, you won't get a single bite. And once you've figured out what your niche is and you apply to those schools, you should make your "fit" crystal clear. Your experiences in research and teaching should reflect the fit. Your cover letter, research statement, and teaching statement should all refect this as well. To be brutally honest, it is not unusual to place candidates in the "reject" pile after reading the cover letter (and possibly skimming the CV) because it's pretty obvious that the person is applying to the wrong sort of a school.

In addition, the search committee wants to know whether you yourself is a good fit for the department, the college, as well as the location.
At the departmental level, does your teaching and research area compliment what's available? Do you overlap too much with what's already offered? Furthermore, the committee wants to know whether you will fit, interpersonally, with others. Will you do your share of service? Will you be a decent person to work with? At the school level, will you fit in with the general vision and direction of the school? And also, the committee wants to know that you would be happy at the school and not up and leave when a better offer comes along. So the committee is wanting to figure out if you can live in a huge metropolis, rural middle of nowhere, etc.

The good news is that none of this is personal. So don't take it personally. It's not about you, but whether what you bring to the table is what the school wants. So there's a perfect school out there for you--you just have to find each other. And you can make it easier for the school to find you (and vice versa) if you yourself know what type of school you want, and build the kind of CV that would be most attractive to that type of a school, and market yourself as the kind of person who would be a perfect fit for school type _____.

Good luck!
posted by jujube at 12:44 PM on August 29, 2007

Response by poster: Evidently the Irish system is different than the North American one.

My advisor is definitely one of the people writing letters of reference for me when I put in applications to positions, but she doesn't "pull strings" or whatnot to help chase down leads. Perhaps that's not understood to be a function of professors at overseas universities?

Or maybe it's just a function of how small the job market is!
posted by LN at 12:50 PM on August 29, 2007

Response by poster: Jujube, thanks for the advice. Would you be willing to email me (email should be in the profile)? I have some more specific questions regarding how to convey some of what you're mentioning succinctly in a cover letter and teaching/research statement.
posted by LN at 12:53 PM on August 29, 2007

Sorry for posting again, but also wanted to second advil's warning. No letter of rec from advisor = will definately raise a red flag. And again, your letters should reflect the type of job you are going for. Teaching heavy job, you should have 2 letters that specifically address what a great teacher you are. Your advisor should also address what a great teacher you are as well. Even if she never saw you teach--she could address that by saying something to the effect of--never say LN teach, but have held lengthy discussion with so-and-so, who supervised her teaching, and have heard praise. Have also had many discussions with LN about her enthusiams for teaching, blah blah blah.

Also, one more thing. Since you say that you went to school in Dublin, you might also want to give your advisor or any other letter writers who are non-US (assuming that you are applying to positions in the US, as that would definately widen your net), that Americans, in general, tend to be overflowing and gushy in their letters. Because this overwhelming gushiness is not the norm in may countries, this places you at a disadvantage (Not sure what the norm for Canada is). So if you think that lukewarm by US standards/high-praise by Irish standards might be a problem for you, you might gently suggest this to your letterwriter. If she can't be gushy--which many people can't, then giving concrete examples of how great you are works best. So saying something like, of the 100 students whose dissertation I have supervised, she was among the top _____, in league with other former students who have had successful academic careers at Some High Flouting University, A Recognized Liberal Arts Schools, etc.

Good luck, again.
posted by jujube at 12:58 PM on August 29, 2007

LN-will do.
posted by jujube at 1:06 PM on August 29, 2007

This is very discipline-specific, so take what I'm saying with a big pile of salt, etc. However, in my field the situation you describe -- six years post-phd, unrelated or semi-related work in the public sector, very little teaching experience, and a "needs TLC" publishing record during that time, would together be a huge red flag. Each on its own might not -- I'm in a field where people can move between academia and other options; many people choose to emphasize teaching over research or the reverse; and so on -- but taken as a whole, if your cover letter and CV reflect your description here, I can see why you are having trouble being taken seriously as a candidate.

Look at who you might be competing against -- your grad school cohort are now coming up for tenure, presumably have a book or a significant body of articles out, and are becoming prominent in the field. People in their first year out of grad school, who are probably applying for the same adjunct and entry-level jobs as you are, may have even less publications and teaching experience than you do, but their committee members are writing them letters talking about their glowing promise and so on -- those letters are harder to write six years out, when many people will assume that one has shown one's promise or lack thereof.

In other words, academia is a really closed club in many ways, with tremendous barriers to outsiders, and right now (despite your phd, active research agenda, etc) you are firmly on the outside of that club.

So I would suggest that you look at ways of getting back on the inside, from which you could move towards a tenure-track position. The possibilities that come immediately to my mind are post-docs and research fellowships. A one to three year post-doc at a decent university will give you professional contacts (who will be able to write you current letters), a huge boost to your CV, and the intellectual space to make serious inroads on your research and writing, while generally having low teaching responsibilities. Similarly, a year-long research fellowship will bring you back into the academic fold, as it were. Twelve months researching and writing under the imprimatur of a prestigious foundation or government research body (isn't there a Canadian equivalent to the SSRC or the Fulbright?) might reestablish you as a serious scholar, in a way that doing the same work completely independently won't.

Adjuncting is also an option, as long as you don't get tracked into becoming a permanent adjunct. Your teaching load may be high, your pay low, and you will be given little respect. But you will be able to send out letters on the department letterhead, and sometimes will have access to university funding for conferences and research trips.

Have you read through all the applicable "first person" columns in the Chronicle? There are many by people in positions at least somewhat like yours; that and more can be found here.

Finally, many people in your situation end up choosing careers in other parts of academia, such as administration, university libraries, etc. Whether or not that is an option you are willing to consider I don't know, but you may find it less of a closed society than is tenure track teaching.
posted by Forktine at 1:23 PM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Fellow (senior) ethnomusicologist here, with some news you might not like to hear, but I've hired enough recent PhDs and served on enough search and program and publication and grant committees (and read nearly every dissertation written in the field in the last decade in North America) to speak with a bit of credibility on this . . .

The focus on Irish music is a large part of your problem. I could go on at length, but in a nutshell, the world is crawling with Irish music buffs who know all the technical details and lineages and so forth the way many people imagine an "ethnomusicologist" would, many of whom are primarily musicians, some of whom dabble (the right word) in a little academic ethnomusicology. A lot of them are drawn into ethnomusicology because they think the field deals with "traditional" musics, or is hospitable to people who primarily want to play "traditional" musics, when in fact for the last 20 or so years the major move has been away from the rhetoric of "authentic" traditionality and towards deconstructing what such words even mean applied to music, (and away from the ethnomusicologist-as-performer/promoter/translator/teacher-of-traditional music model). Very few "folk" based traditions are more self-consciously caught up in the authenticity problematic the way Celtic musics are. It's oil and water, and it's also awfully easy to poke huge holes in the rhetoric of traditionality and authenticity sourrounding Celtic musics, much to the irritation of Irish/Celtic musicians and music buffs (and unfortunately, a lot of ethnomusicologists who are invested in the mythologies of "folk" music). I can count on one hand the number of PhD dissertations on Celtic music I've read that have been engaged with the cutting edge in the discipline -- dealing with issues of globalization, mediation, circulation, hybridization, crossover, diaspora/migration, or power and politics in the present. Irish music has very little of the political thrust it once had in the high years of the Irish nationalist struggle or of the massive diasporas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- it has a politics of nostalgia for an era when the music was politically significant to nationalist struggles and the experiences of generations of immigrants.

The vast majority of PhD dissertations I've read on Celtic music act like none of this ever happened -- the social theoretic turn, serious ethnographic studies of music-mediated dimensions of social life and not just musical performance, the present rather than the past, or technological change as such. There is very little to be said or learned about the *musical* elements of Celtic music, which have been described, analyzed, dissected, transcribed, and frozen as "traditional" and "authentic" for two or three generations, at least. The music, while popular worldwide, has stopped being politically relevant to any contemporary conflicts or problems. Or maybe not, but you wouldn't know it from the so-called ethnomusicological literature on Celtic music. (There are exceptions, but very few.)

This general situation has given "Celtic" music studies a bad name and you are experiencing the effect of boredom with Celtic music studies' refusal to move forward. It may be different in Canada, with a much more self-consciously Celtic population pitted against other ethno-nationalist conceptions of Canadian identity, and the persistence of a few pockets of truly oral traditional musical communities in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. But not that different. What more is there to say about fiddling on Nova Scotia when Toronto is a hub of, say, Iranian and West Indian diasporic musical communities?

Basically, when I see a job application from a recent PhD who worked on Celtic music for the dissertation, I prepare myself for lame-assedness, and am surprised if I am interested and if it goes beyond issues of authenticity or the techniques of ornamentation or the transformation of melodic forms, etc. Sometimes I *am* surprised, but not usually.

This is not to say there aren't interesting issues to be limned in the globalization of "Celtic" musics, the way in which Celtic musics have provided a substantial element of the international language of film music style, the impact of new technolgies on celtic music's stylistic and political cultures, etc. But when you are competing with people writing about hitherto undocumented new popular styles in East Africa, or hip hop in the former Soviet empire, or expressive culture and climate change in the Arctic, or music in post-Katrina New Orleans, or the Japanese electronic avant garde or the musical lives of children in indigenous Latin America, you had best not romanticize the importance of the local pub session or the brilliance of some particular piper's ornamentation techniques. It's been done to death, by generations of young people just entering ethnomusicology (Celtic musics are vastly over-represented in MA thesis work in ethnomusicology). That piper, very possibly, also has a PhD in ethnomusicology, or at least an MA. And it shows.

I think a fantastic book about the global circulation of Celtic musics could be written. I don't know who is writing it. But my straigt-up advice? Get working on something else with a more dynamic and contemporary focus, or else set your work far apart from the usual Celtic music work in a forcecul way in your publications and presentations.

Finally, academia is a tough racket. No matter how driven, smart, productive, or skilled you are. The best jobs go to people doing the most original and interesting research. And there are a lot of PhDs out there looking for work. You gotta keep plugging, but as others say above, it might not work and you should be prepared to shift directions with your work, or your career. Your fellow academics have to *care* about the subject you work on if they are going to hire you.

I could say the same thing about a few other musics -- Hindustani, West African drumming, Candomble -- that have been done to death in the old style, and that don't require academic assistance to be understood, experienced, or popularized. The best approach is to do them in the new style. Or work on something less tired out.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:26 PM on August 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Fourcheesemac, I appreciate your candor here in explaining "lameness" of Celtic music from the point of view of the Ethno discipline. Being out of the academic world for a couple of years, I value your perspective as someone "from the other side of the table", so to speak.

And as much as I hate to admit it to myself, you are likely right in saying that I'm doing my academic career a disservice in maintaining Irish music as my primary focus.

Thanks for your comments.
posted by LN at 6:38 PM on August 29, 2007

I want to re-emphasize that I mean no insult to the music or musicians or to you or other ethnomusicologists who might be doing interesting work on it. There is plenty to be done and said, but it is drowned in dross.

I speak as someone who played regularly in sessions at the Village Coach House in South Boston in the early 1980s, and (indeed!) as someone who did his first fieldwork, as an undergraduate, with immigrant Irish musicians, though what interested me was the young folks -- recent immigrants, well educated, preferred cocaine to Guiness -- who played rock after the bar closed and their American-born elders left and stopped expecting them to play "real" Irish music. I love Celtic music. It's the literatures on them that bores me.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:15 PM on August 29, 2007

Response by poster: I have no doubt that you love Celtic music, fourcheesemac, as do I. But I came at it from a completely different angle, having been raised in Ottawa by two Nova Scotians with links to the East Coast tradition. Wherever I turned, I was getting a diasporic view of things, if you want to look at it that way. Going to Ireland and spending some quality time with musicians and singers there was a revelation, but the bigger revelation being called a "tradition bearer" of Canadian music by an Irishman!

The authenticity issue was one I had a hard time wrapping my brain around when I was doing my PhD, because it seemed to pervade everything around me, including my own credibility as a researcher in Ireland! I agree with you, it got very hard indeed to break free of the standardized discourse - it was practically expected of me. I rebelled to the extent I could, and wound up positing a notion of transmission in the session setting that was so out there, my poor supervisor had to ask someone in the engineering department to review the idea for her. It involved flow theory and fluid dynamics. I guess that's taking things to their logical and absurd extreme!

Do you still play, even just for fun? What instrument (if you don't mind my asking)?
posted by LN at 7:44 PM on August 29, 2007

Interesting background, and it presents many of the conundrums and ironies of being a "native" ethnographer. You may have been ahead of your time -- a lot of new work on improvisation in many traditions, mostly jazz however, is using models from information theory, if not fluid dynamics.

I was a guitarist, and after my Celtic phase I went on to other things, including what I ended up doing for the dissertation (a totally uncool topic I made my own by doing differently from anyone else in a large body of literature). I don't play much these days, though I am planning to get back into it seriously now that I am "mid-career," as they say.

Hang in there. 8 of my first 10 PhD advisees are working in good tenure track gigs now, but it can take a few years out of grad school during which it is easy to lose heart or stop growing your work, which is deadly to your chances against fresh ink PhDs all hyped up about their projects. You'll be OK if you believe strongly in your own work and get a few breaks.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:46 PM on August 29, 2007

Something I look for when I am on recruitment panels is some evidence of future planning on behalf of the applicant. Most aspects of the academic job are self-motivated: you will need to come up with ideas for research projects of your own, apply for research funding for projects that you have devised, lead innovations in teaching within your speciality, et cetera.

Therefore I suggest having future plans sections for both research and teaching on your CV. Be specific: give approximate dates for when you plan to submit research papers; name specific conferences/journals/publishers; highlight specific areas of teaching that represent important up-and-coming topics that aren't typically taught in universities yet, and say that you are prepared to lead teaching in a new module in that area. That'll show a serious committment to development within the job, and lift your application above the level of the typical "Got PhD!; Gizzajob" type.
posted by Jabberwocky at 12:51 PM on August 30, 2007

Jabberwocky is dead right. One of the most common interview questions for an academic job applicant is "so what is your next project, and how have you gone about moving into it?"

You'd be amazed at the number of recent PhDs who can't answer this question well because they have just finished a huge project or think their current project will sustain them for years or whatever. A prepared, rich answer to this question sets the best job applicants apart from the others, and a discussion of new research plans should certainly occupy a few sentences of your inquiry letter.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:27 AM on August 31, 2007

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