Alyse Knorr | December 2013
How to Approach the Job Hunt in Today’s Tough Climate
Writers today, whether pursuing an academic or a nonacademic career, face a more competitive market than ever before. Job-seekers can take heart, however, with the knowledge that, by taking advantage of opportunities and cultivating one’s professional self, success on the market is possible.
In the academic arena, the growth of creative writing PhD programs, combined with the scarcity of jobs and lower enrollments in the economic downturn, has meant even fiercer competition for MFA graduates in particular.
“Any time we have a position open at the Academy, we receive hundreds of résumés,” says Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets.
Job-seekers are increasingly turning to more innovative tactics on the job market—something writers excel at, according to Jayne Anne Phillips, professor of English and founder/director of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program.
“Writers think outside the box normally,” Phillips says. “That’s why they’re writers. They have to be encouraged to use that approach when thinking about ways of making a living.”
Tim Lockridge, hired last year as an assistant professor of communications at Saint Joseph’s University, suggests that, rather than trying to follow the same path your advisors did, look to your peers and see what job-seekers in this year’s or last year’s market did. Consult as many different people as possible and try to think as differently as possible. That doesn’t mean excluding traditional plans, but also considering alternative options such as government jobs, grant writing positions, or staff positions in university teaching centers or other campus services.
“There’s ten million reasons why you might not get the job,” says Erika Meitner, poet and associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. “That’s a really hard thing, and that’s why I like to tell my students to make sure they have a back-up plan that they don’t mind implementing. Find something else that you really enjoy doing that you can do in the meantime.”
Finding jobs to apply to
The key to a successful job hunt, Meitner says, is starting with some soul-searching. Before applying to anything, you need to determine what kind of work will best feed your writing and feed your soul, while still feeding yourself.
“[People with] MFAs have often had the chance to figure out if that’s teaching,” Meitner says. “But for some people, it’s not. The answer for everybody is different. It’s not always this one path.”
Both Meitner and Marilyn Abildskov, professor of creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California, stress the importance of deciding whether teaching is really the best option for you.
“You have to be brutally honest with yourself about what you want the most,” Abildskov says.
The same brutal honesty is necessary before embarking on a career in nonprofits, says Benka. “The nonprofit sector calls for sacrifice. It’s not an easy sector. But the reward, for me, has always been great. To wake up every morning and go to work to either help someone or to promote an art form, and now to be able to dedicate my life to poetry, it’s a dream.”
Begin your search looking for nonprofit jobs on Idealist.org, or editing and publishing jobs at Publisher’s Lunch or Media Bistro. Other good listings for jobs in the arts appear in the New York Foundation for the Arts classifieds, the AWP job list, and the Poets & Writer’s job list.
For part-time teaching jobs, Deborah Miller, associate director of the first-year composition program at the University of Georgia, suggests writing query letters to schools in July, when they may suddenly have a higher enrollment than expected and a last-minute need for extra adjuncts.
Stay open to unexpected possibilities. For Lockridge, the most surprising aspect of his job search was landing a position in a communications department instead of an English or writing department. He found the ad by accident but saw that it sounded like a perfect fit. Being flexible and saying, “Why not apply?” led to Lockridge’s position today.
Meitner agrees: “I always tell my students to apply for as many jobs as possible and if you feel like you’re on the cusp of the qualifications, let them eliminate you. Don’t eliminate yourself.”
Research the school or organization
After you’ve determined which openings to apply to, research the school or organization as much as possible. For academic jobs, read the school and department mission statements, the department’s course listing, and the recent department news. Research the faculty members, their research areas, the courses they teach, and awards they have recently won.
Determine whether a school is more research- or teaching-oriented by looking for its Carnegie Classification. Lockridge suggests looking at a school’s course listings to determine teaching loads. If professors are teaching a 2/2 load, the school might privilege research, whereas a 4/4 load might indicate a more teaching-centered institution.
While researching the school’s course offerings, look for classes you could teach and gaps you could fill, in order to show your value as a hire. Lockridge, for example, put together a course about the depictions of hackers in fiction that he could easily pitch to schools with a themed first-year seminar. For other schools, he pitched a hypertext fiction, or digital creative writing, class.
Detailed prep work and research on the institution pays off during interviews and campus visits, too.
“Since I had looked up who wrote what book recently,” Lockridge says, “at dinner, I could ask that person a question, showing that I cared about their work and wanted to be their colleague, as well as filling up that idle chatter.”
Research is just as important for nonacademic job applications.
“You definitely want to talk about yourself and your skills,” Benka says, “but you also want to make it clear that you understand the organization and who they are. The more that you can customize your application, the better.”
Demonstrate a clear knowledge of what the organization does, and try to sell yourself by addressing what skills and perspectives you uniquely bring to the organization and its mission.
Position yourself for success
“It’s much easier to get an academic job if you’re already teaching somewhere,” Meitner says. The more teaching experience under your belt, the easier it will be to navigate the job market.
To escape the adjuncting loop, Meitner suggests applying to post-MFA fellowships and visiting professorships, which can be a useful transition step between adjunct work and tenure-track jobs since they allow you to gain teaching experience while avoiding a high service commitment.
In the meantime, if you’re currently adjuncting, Abildskov says, try to focus on both teaching and writing. Take advantage of the flexible schedule to give yourself some time to write every day, but devote yourself to your students, as well.
“It's vital for someone on the job market not to act like teaching is a great imposition, the thing that stands between him and getting his writing done,” Abildskov says. “Teaching and writing don't compete against one another as much as they complement one another.”
Another option is to apply to a PhD program. Many schools now require PhDs for full-time teaching positions, Meitner says, and even for those that do not, having the highest degree possible makes you more competitive in the market. PhDs in creative writing also allow students to have a second manuscript in hand by the time they finish, and they can offer protected years of funding during the job hunt. Meitner herself spent five years on the market before she landed her Virginia Tech job, and she is grateful for the years of funding she had during this time as a PhD student in religion.
Of course, luck (with emphasis on making your own) also plays a big factor. Abildskov received her first post-MFA job when she happened to be in the University of Iowa Rhetoric Department office at the exact moment someone called to cancel teaching a class that was just about to start.
“It sounds like impossible advice to follow, and it is, of course,” Abildskov says. "But what’s underneath it is this more comforting fact: that it’s not hard to be in the right place at the right time since people—especially writer types—are always dropping out, dropping acid, and dropping dead. When they drop, whoever is standing gets a shot. Think of it as a game of musical chairs played by eloquent and hungry vultures.”
Cultivate your professional self
Abildskov encourages her students to articulate, in job applications, how their skills at assembling details, distilling ideas, and shaping a story can help an employer in practical ways.
“I never thought of the MFA as a practical degree,” Abildskov says, “But in watching students from our program graduate and find work—in advertising, in publishing, in education—I have been pleasantly surprised by how many practical skills the program seems to cultivate. In a way it makes sense. What field doesn't demand some kind of narrative intelligence?”
For those on the teaching path, Miller points out that composition instructors with a creative writing background “know how to approach a class from a workshop attitude versus a lecture attitude,” a valuable skill in this field.
To best prepare yourself for the job application process, begin cultivating a sense of your professional self now. If you’re still in graduate school and planning to teach, Abildskov suggests drafting a teaching philosophy statement, as well as starting to put together sample syllabi for some of your dream composition, literature, or creative writing classes.
Make yourself more versatile by building a second area of expertise, whether it’s another genre of writing or a specific area of literature, and develop syllabi in that area to use in a job interview. For Lockridge, a secondary specialization in digital production meant Lockridge could teach not only fiction, poetry, or nonfiction classes, but also web design and cultural theory. For schools with shrinking budgets, this versatility is an important factor.
If you’re still in graduate school, take advantage of the many ways your program offers for you to get involved and add to your C.V. The Rutgers—Newark MFA, for example, gives students the opportunity to lead a community reading group, curate a student reading series, judge a high school writing contest, or transport visiting writers to and from readings. These volunteer opportunities, Phillips says, allow students to demonstrate their organizational abilities while giving faculty members concrete skills and experience to write about in a letter of recommendation.
“To distinguish yourself further,” Phillips says. “I think you need to take advantage of whatever volunteer opportunities there may be within the scope of your MFA program.”
If you’re out of school, Benka suggests finding an organization you care about in your community and volunteering for them. Even if the group isn’t literary in nature, you’ll be showing that you understand the nonprofit sector and that you are proactive and involved.
“You want to connect with an organization that speaks to your passion,” Benka says. “It’s going to feel like drudgery if you’re making yourself go volunteer somewhere because you feel like that’s going to fill out your résumé. Think about all the ways you could get involved in something outside of your self, outside of your schooling, but that’s authentic to who you are.”
Start with a strong cover letter
Assume the employer will read your cover letter first and use it to frame all the documents that follow.
For part-time teaching applications, Miller suggests keeping the cover letter to a few paragraphs and pointing to the C.V., syllabi, and teaching evaluations with phrases such as “As you’ll see in my X,” or “I can provide Z and Y upon request.” For composition adjunct positions, Miller recommends emphasizing experience teaching composition over creative writing publications.
Cover letters for full-time teaching positions can be longer and more detailed, possibly reaching a page-and-a-half or two pages.
Try to show, rather than say, that you are dependable and flexible, and that you have a positive, collegial attitude. Emphasize department service and leadership, whether that includes sitting on a textbook committee or helping out at a used-book sale. Showcase your initiative by describing workshops you have led or collaborative group work you’ve participated in. For composition jobs in particular, emphasize your technical and multimodal skills, which would allow you to teach hybrid courses.
For nonacademic jobs, though, make sure to stick to one page. Benka says the best cover letters are usually the ones that “say the most with the least,” at about two to three paragraphs long.
“Strong cover letters demonstrate such a clear understanding of the organization and effectively communicate the applicant’s skills that their writers don’t need to go on for three pages,” Benka says. “They’re able to make a case in a more condensed frame.”
Be warm but professional, Benka says, always erring on the side of being professional. Being casual in a cover letter (writing things like “It would be really awesome if you would consider me for this totally amazing job”), might backfire, Benka says, if your prospective employer expects a different tone during the application and interviewing process.
No matter what job you’re applying for, ask a trusted mentor to read over your letter and give you advice, or offer to swap with a friend who is also on the market. For Abildskov, this was an incredibly helpful move.
“Two friends sat me down after my first try on the job market and helped me revise my materials,” she says. “One told me I was too shy in my letter, too vague. And when I told her it seemed unseemly to talk about my writing and teaching in a way that a job letter seemed to demand, that it felt too much like bragging, she told me, ‘Don't think of it as bragging or not bragging. Think of this as your chance to talk about two things you love: teaching and writing.’”
Tailor your C.V.
C.V.s for full-time teaching positions can range in length from six to fifty pages, Miller says, whereas C.V.s for part-time positions can read more like résumés, with a focus on teaching.
Lockridge recommends re-organizing the C.V. for each school you apply to: “It cannot be a ‘one-size fits all.’” A Level 1 Research institution, for example, might be more interested in seeing the scholarship category appear first on the C.V., above teaching experience.
As for which categories to include, advice varies significantly based on personal preference. For academic jobs, however, Miller recommends including a detailed section on teaching experience, including what classes you have taught at which schools. Benka suggests including information about publication history and scholarly talks given.
For a public relations or advertising position, on the more administrative end of an organization, Benka suggests using a standard résumé instead of a C.V. When in doubt, Benka says, just include a note in your cover letter stating that you have enclosed a copy of your C.V., but that you would be happy to provide a résumé in addition.
Ask for letters of recommendation early
Meitner encourages graduate students to ask for letters of recommendation before graduating, even if they aren’t sure whether they’re going into the job market right away.
“While we still know you, our ability to write a letter will be much better,” Meitner says. “If you even remotely think you want a letter, ask.”
When asking for a letter of recommendation, says writer Sandra Beasley, make sure to provide your recommender with your supplemental application materials. Ask with about six weeks’ notice, or four if you know the letter is already written. Always offer to provide a stamped, addressed envelope. Ask your recommenders to update your letter about every two years if you are on the job market.
When it comes time to send letters to potential employers, using a dossier service is a standard, accepted practice, and Meitner recommends Interfolio for its speed and reliability. AWP also has a dossier service for its members.
Be bold in your artist’s statement or statement of intent
Beasley has judged applications for the NEA and the Virginia Commission of the Arts. She says that on decision day, judges come to the table ready to go to bat for three or four applications. If those judges have clear key words and phrases from your application to use in arguing for your project, you are more likely to be selected.
To that end, she says, don’t be bland in your project statement, and don’t be afraid of being polarizing. Be vibrant, Beasley urges, and view the application “hoops” you jump through as further opportunities to show off your discipline and vision.
Be honest with yourself, and avoid cliché sentiments about your passion for writing. Focus on what differentiates you from everyone else. Develop a sense of your creative lineage to mention in your application materials—a set of mentors both in the classroom and on the page, some you know and some you have never met or are no longer living. Judges and committees like to see that you are interested in and influenced by a balance of contemporary and older work, Beasley says.
Finally, provide as many details as possible. For example, don’t just say you want to use a grant to travel to Spain for a writing project. State what you want to see there: which author’s house you want to visit, during what time of year, and why.
Create an effective and professional online portfolio
A clean, easily navigable web portfolio acts as a thorough repository of information, Meitner says, and gives you a quick way to send more information or materials if a potential employer asks. Maintaining your own web space also allows you more control over what employers find first when they Google you (and they will). A web portfolio also takes away some of the pressure to “represent your life’s work in ten pages,” Meitner says, by allowing you to post more material than the application’s page limit, as well as audio and video.
Apply often, to as much as possible
When the market seems to be at its most ruthless, it helps to remember that persistence pays off. Benka’s twenty-three-year career in nonprofits began with volunteer work at a soup kitchen and later, a paid job at a homeless shelter. Abildskov adjuncted for six years after her MFA, without health insurance, and went on the job market three times before earning her position.
“For a long time I was known in my circle as the poster child for persistence,” Abildskov says. “And even though that isn't exactly glamorous—I mean, I would rather be the poster child for brilliance, wouldn't you?—I suppose it's true. I just tried to hang in there long enough that eventually someone, somewhere offered me a job. At the time it seemed boneheaded, but now I'm glad I did.”
For Beasley, persistence meant applying strategically—and often. When she applied to the Maureen Egan Exchange Award in 2008, the application was one of twelve others she had sent during that month alone. She remembers running to the mailbox to make the deadline.
“Those who think of writing as less of a profession treat each application like something epic,” Beasley says, but she asserts that they are just a necessary, albeit less glamorous, part of the job of being a writer.
For Beasley, submissions are a numbers game and sending out creative work and applications is a key aspect of being a hard-working writer—relying not just on talent, but on sweat and perseverance, as well. Beasley says her ratio of time spent writing new work to time spent performing administrative tasks, such as applying to grants or sending out submissions, is 2:1.
“I get turned down for way more than I get,” Beasley says.
The same theory of aggressive applying held true for Lockridge, who applied to thirty-five job listings in 2011—all while teaching and completing his PhD dissertation.
“Once I got into the rhythm of it, it felt pretty normal,” Lockridge says. “I realize in retrospect how much work it was.”
While there is no set formula to follow during the job hunt, and no “secret” that will ensure success, the general principles of persistence, open-mindedness, and attention to detail are important to remember. The key to approaching job applications is more a state of mind than any series of concrete steps. Take advantage of as many opportunities as possible, and say “yes” more than “no.” When there don’t seem to be any opportunities, create your own. Have confidence in yourself and what you have to offer—and don’t give up.
Alyse Knorr is the author of Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books 2013) and Alternates (Dancing Girl Press 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, RHINO, Puerto Del Sol, the Minnesota Review, Sentence, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. She received her MFA from George Mason University. She is the cofounder and coeditor of Gazing Grain Press and teaches college English at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Lockridge recommends Kathryn Hume’s book, Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs.
Meitner has developed a “Life After the MFA” talk and accompanying resource packet that includes a sample C.V. and cover letter, list of post-MFA fellowships, and resources list for the academic job hunt. The packet is available on her website, www.erikameitner.com, at the bottom of the “Contact” page.
AWP Career Services - https://www.awpwriter.org/careers/career_services
Idealist - http://www.idealist.org
Interfolio - http://www.interfolio.com
Mediabistro - http://www.mediabistro.com/joblistings/?nav=mmj
New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) - http://www.nyfa.org/opportunities.asp?type=Job&id=94&fid=1&sid=54
Publishers Marketplace - http://publishersmarketplace.com/jobs/