The Academic Job Search in North America


No matter how bad the word on the street is, there ARE academic positions to be had for recent doctoral graduates. For the last 30 years, about 50% of graduates in our field have succeeded in securing a tenure-track job within 5 years of graduation. In Canada, especially, most of these positions have not been in Comparative Literature, but in a related language and literature department. Given that reality, it is important to prepare early to be “competitive” with those earning PhDs in those departments.

Your major resources for information are your supervisor and the placement officer of the Centre. This will give you the most current information. There are also print resources: the MLA publishes a Career Guide that is geared to literary positions, in particular. There is even more on the web. (The MLA website is the best.)

Budget Plans:

Going on the “job market” and then getting a job will cost you money: think of it as a necessary investment in your career and plan to put away enough to cover the following expenses:

-sending out dossiers when applying for positions (see dossier information)

-photocopying CV, work samples, etc.

-purchasing appropriate clothes for an interview

-going to MLA convention (flight, hotel, food), perhaps

(on-campus interview expenses will be paid by hiring institution)

First Things to Consider:

-where do you want to live and work?

-is your preference urban, suburban, rural?

-what country?  what region of the country?

-are there family considerations?

-research needs? If all your library materials are in France, living and

working on the west coast is more expensive than the east for research


-what sort of institution attracts you most? (North American choices)

-large, medium, small?

-unionized or not?

-undergraduate teaching only?

-graduate as well?

-community college?

-religious affiliation?

-what sort of department suits you best?

-large or small? (what fish-to-pond ratio fits your personality?)

(do you want to be the sole expert or one of many?)

-socially active or professionally distant?

Types of Positions:

-tenure-stream or tenure-track

-sessional; contractually limited or “adjunct” (not tenurable)

-part-time (not tenurable, usually)

How and Where Advertised:

-advertised by specialty within language discipline (e.g., French)

-usually by period (and/or genre) or canonical author

-check also: drama; comparative literature; women’s, gender, or cultural studies

-places advertised:

University Affairs (Canadian) (on line:

CAUT Bulletin (Canadian)

Chronicle of Higher Education (U.S.)  (On line)

The Times Higher Education Supplement (U.K.)

MLA Job Information Lists (American and some Canadian)

(available on line or in hard copy at reference

libraries or by subscription [Oct., Dec., Feb.] from MLA — website:


-Two years before completion:

-make sure several professors know you and your work well

(for future letters of recommendation)

-begin submitting articles to journals

-consider giving conference papers

-think about where you want to live, what sort of job, etc.

-get teaching experience and have a professor observe you and write about it

-One year before completion:

-discuss the job market with supervisor and placement officer

-consider which faculty members to ask to be your referees

-keep trying to publish and give conference papers (not too many)

-spring/summer before going “on the market”:

-plan to defend the dissertation as early as possible

-prepare curriculum vitae and have it checked (see below)

-set up dossier (see below)

-prepare “teaching dossier” (see below)

-try to find a North American conference to speak at the next year

(best = MLA or major one in your field)

-attend any special session on job searches:

-career centre; MLA runs sessions before the convention

-prepare materials for applications:

-20-, 30-, and 40-minute versions of a job talk to give

-written submission–your best work (different from paper above)

-ideal: published; if thesis chapter, add context

-course outlines in your area; survey courses

-think about future research plans

-fall of the year of completion:

-finish thesis and defend as soon as possible

-finalize CV

-get supervisor to keep letter updated–agree on completion date!

-watch job listings and apply (see below)

-be prepared to go to MLA for screening interviews

Preparing Your Curriculum Vitae:

(see also “The Curriculum Vitae”)

-this is your professional biography, so to speak

-adapt suggestions to your particular needs, eliminating those that are not applicable

-make it as long as it needs to be

-be sure to include all relevant information and not to bury any real accomplishments by excessive (or even minor) “padding”

-for publications, use MLA format

-proof-read many times and have your supervisor review it for layout, content, tone…and typos

-since this is your “representative” (before a committee meets you), check that you are happy with its physical appearance as well as its content; revise until you are

Assembling and Setting Up a Dossier:

-the Graduate Dossier Service at the Career Centre (214 College St.) operates a formal dossier service, so you only have to submit these materials once and they send it out each time requested.  Otherwise, you’d have to do each application separately–and this would take time, both for you and for your referees. Also, hiring committees expect dossier service letters.

-dossier contains:   transcripts (leave time for them to arrive)

letters of reference (confidential)

-approach 4 or 5 faculty members (consult with supervisor) to write letters of reference for you; they should know your recent (grad-level) work well and you might ask if they feel they can write a strong letter for you or would rate you highly in relation to others applying for the same position; always give them an “out”–you don’t want a cool or negative letter–so try something like: “I would really appreciate a recommendation from you if you feel you know my work well enough to write one”

-a knowledgeable, detailed letter from a junior faculty member can be more valuable than a quick string of platitudes from a famous scholar who barely knows you

-your supervisor is a must; others can vary:

(e.g.)-someone whose course you took earlier

-someone on your dissertation committee

definitely: someone who can write about your teaching

-expert in the field whom you have met and who knows your work

-if completed: external examiner, if report positive

-provide them all with the following:

-your CV, a thesis abstract or chapter, etc.

(i.e.–give them enough to write about!)

-a stamped envelope addressed to the university you are applying to

-your future plans: a partner willing to move, etc.

-give them enough time to write: they may have dozens of requests plus a ‘few’ other things to do, at any given time

-keep them informed of which jobs you are applying for: often hiring committees phone referees–and they shouldn’t seem surprised that you applied!

-select 3 or so of the most appropriate letters (by writer, not content–which is confidential) for each application

Preparing a “Teaching Dossier”:

(see also “The Teaching Dossier”)

-advertisements often call for submission of a “teaching dossier”

-what should definitely be in it:

-a statement of your educational values and pedagogical “philosophy”

(be brief; give examples from your own experience, if possible)

(combine pragmatism and idealism–both are necessary/attractive)

(danger: what seems ‘news’ to you may seem obvious, trite, naive to an

experienced instructor–have one check this carefully)

-other possibilities:

-list of professional development courses taken

-list of courses taught, with brief course descriptions

-selected samples (one or two, especially in advertised area) of:

-course outlines

-essay topics

(again, have an experienced instructor check these–they may do

more harm than good, otherwise)

-summary of teaching evaluations–NOT done by you, but by someone in

the department (TA chair, undergraduate chair, etc.)

-if done by you, it won’t be given much credibility

-this can be a numerical summary (if applicable), but some remarks

about departmental averages should then be included

-a descriptive sampling of student remarks is also useful

-ask that such a summary be done for each year you teach

-letters of reference from those who have evaluated your teaching

-if confidential (=best), these will be in your dossier, so simply

list their names and addresses and note that the letters

will accompany your dossier (and then be sure to have them


Preparing a Letter of Application:

(See also “The Letter of Application”)

***This is the single most important thing you will do.***

-for each application, a cover letter must be written

-while each letter must be a specialized one, you can prepare a general and generic one–but only if you remember to personalize each and not to let inappropriate information slip into the wrong letter: computers make this kind of error only too easy to make

-like the CV, this should be carefully written, proofed, and printed–and  checked by your supervisor: often slips of detail or even tone will not be obvious to you but can be caught in time; in applying for jobs in a language department, how you write will be scrutinized as carefully as what you write about

-the function of the letter is to elaborate upon and highlight relevant information on the CV and to interest the hiring committee in you as a candidate, obviously; it also allows you to show that YOU care about what THEY care about–so research the university carefully (study their website)

-state in the opening sentence which position you are applying for (departments often advertise more than one) and show interest in the department and school; your comments here should be appropriate, informed and sincere

-briefly outline your education and relevant experience for the position.  Stress your qualifications and achievements (modestly).  Mention your areas of specialization (thesis; publications; conference papers) and competence (minor areas; past teaching, etc.)

-if applying for a tenure-track position, you will want to emphasize your long-term research and teaching interests; you will also want to say more about your thesis than appears on the CV or thesis abstract

-for sessional, short-term or part-time appointments, stress your versatility, breadth of experience (field exams are useful here) and your interest in teaching

-if you haven’t completed the dissertation, explain why and when your supervisor thinks it will be defended; have your supervisor repeat this in her/his letter of reference

-never falsify or “pad” your accomplishments; put the best face on what you’ve done and don’t be self-deprecating

-if there is a special reason why you want to be at that university or in that city, repeat it here and expand upon it

-be personal…in some non-irritating way; this may be your only chance to get the attention of the committee; don’t sound just like everyone else!

-offer to provide extra materials or additional information

-say how and where you can be reached; if you will be at MLA, say so (and if you are giving a paper, tell them when and where)

-if you are having the dossier sent, tell them it will arrive soon

-thank the committee for its consideration

-keep the letter reasonably short (usually no more than 2 single-spaced pages)

-retain a copy of each letter–if you do get an interview, you should review what you said

-write concisely and as elegantly as you can; pay attention to the physical appearance of the letter

The Application Process:

-when the ad appears, read carefully and decide if you are qualified: don’t waste your or their time if you are not

-prepare your letter and CV—have supervisor check both

-read the ad carefully and do what it asks: some will want writing samples, transcripts, and letters of reference; others may not

-send all in by the date set in the ad



-keep your morale up; use the time constructively

-if you get an immediate rejection note, don’t get discouraged: you cannot know the particular situation in that department; don’t respond

-you may get a request for more material; respond promptly

-you may get a call, relatively late, arranging an interview at MLA (which until 2010 begins December 27th): make sure you have an answering system armed with a professional message (i.e., not music, not fun noises or identifying phrases that your friends might enjoy, but not a prospective employer) (and pick up your messages!); make sure that you have indeed planned to go to MLA (it is a large financial investment in your future career, but think long-term)

-if you get an interview (see below) either at the MLA convention, you are on the “long list”—about 8-10 possible candidates. For “on campus” interview (see separate files on campus visit and on the interview process), this means you are one of 3-6 candidates on the “short list” chosen from, often, hundreds of applicants

-at some point after the interview (it depends on when, in the whole process, your particular interview took place), you will be notified; offers are often made first by phone and then in writing: thank them, always sound pleased (even if you have decided you don’t want the position) and avoid making a full commitment right away

-you will be allowed time to make a decision: take it

-ask how soon you must respond; if you are waiting on another possible offer, be honest and say so, but be reasonable–they too have feelings and needs

-discuss multiple offers with supervisor

-clarify details; call if necessary

-consider implications for family, partner

-if you should be lucky enough to get a post-doctoral fellowship (see separate file) as well as a job offer, negotiate: it may be possible to retain both, if the hiring department is flexible

-never reject an offer until another one is “in hand”

-if your first offer is not your first choice, contact the other departments and let them know about the first offer: this may speed things up (IF they are interested); buy time

-now is the time to negotiate all the practical aspects of the job: salary (if you have been teaching for a while, will they count that in salary and sabbatical calculations?) (some unionized institutions will have zero flexibility here); moving expenses; teaching load (will they ease up for first-year teachers?); fringe benefits; starting date; first sabbatical date; tenure conditions and timetable; availability of research funds for junior faculty

-be pleasant–don’t make them regret the offer!

-get all this in writing after discussions; don’t consider yourself hired until you have a written contract or letter

-make your acceptance or rejection, first by phone or email and then followed by letter

-if you decline, do so politely and thank the department for their time and attention; let them know where you will be going

-don’t burn your bridges–you will likely meet these people again

-be sure to tell your placement officer, supervisor, referees, etc.: they should be kept up to date on all decisions

-if you don’t get an acceptable offer on this round:

-don’t get discouraged

-talk to supervisor for advice

-learn from the experience

-realize that it may have nothing to do with YOU

-departments have their own politics, agendas, memories

(and you can’t second guess any of them)

-keep publishing!

-consider asking for constructive feedback

The Interview Process:

(See also “The Interview Process”)

-kinds of interviews: telephone; MLA (1/2 hour); on-campus (full day)

-for MLA, you will be expected to pay your own expenses

-in Canada, your expenses will be paid for on-campus interviews; in the USA, this is usually, but not always, the case: be sure to ask and to keep your receipts to send in afterwards

Telephone interviews:

you can have notes in front of you; be sure to sound lively and enthusiastic–no body language or facial expressions to do this for you; watch “um” and other “fillers”; silence has different associations on the phone than in person; be clear and direct; dress up and stand during the interview—it really does change how you “project” yourself; prepare as below

MLA screening interviews:

-take place in hotel suites, rooms

-check the MLA website: there are important advice articles about the MLA


-everyone is rushed and stressed

-schedule interviews sensibly: leave time for delays

-have name and phone number of contact person (if delayed)

-clarify time and place; find out before how to get room number

be on time (these are timed carefully)

-find out who will interview you; learn names (check website and library

catalogue for what they’ve written, etc.)

-3-6 people or more may be present at interview

-you have 30 minutes to make yourself memorable

-be succinct, clear, polite and interesting

-prepare as for long interview (see below)

-conduct yourself as for long interview (see below)

-at end, briefly summarize your interest and qualifications

-when signs are given that it’s over, leave

On-campus interviews

-may involve interviews with the hiring committee, chair, dean; a presentation or lecture; perhaps a class to teach; social events (lunches, dinners, parties); informal meetings with faculty and students: hang loose and keep your sense of humour; the important thing is to be prepared and to find out from your contact person exactly what will be required of you


travel arrangements: the hiring department will normally reimburse your expenses, but you may have to make the flight reservations, etc.: leave resting time (especially if jet lag is an issue); go early (weather, traffic problems)

-when arrangements are being made with the department, remember how important first impressions are: be flexible and pleasant; be forthright about other commitments; be cooperative

-you will likely be met (find out by whom) or will be given the name of the hotel (ask) where you will stay; keep name and number of contact person and let her/him know if there are any delays

the institution: your enthusiasm for the position should be clear and based on facts; read websites; check publications of both committee members (find out who will interview you) and experts in your field in  that department; ask supervisor or others who might know the department; study their curriculum; try to find out about the students

the place: know something about the town, city, etc. and region; be prepared to ask intelligent, informed questions about what it is like to live there

dress: convey a neat, well-groomed, “professional” appearance: suit or jacket for males; dress, suit or pants-skirt/jacket for women; ask if there will be any informal events you will need to dress for; women should wear low heels and  be prepared to walk around campus, etc.; carry a briefcase for extra materials (see below);

Discussing your research:

-be prepared to explain your present (and future–this is important) research to a range of people, from the experts in your field to someone outside the department, and in a range of ways–from the short description to the long and detailed analysis

-answer with aroused curiosity and enjoyment: always sound as if you are interested in your work–even if by this stage (=utterly normal) you are “bored” with it and it seems “obvious” (that’s because you‘ve spent years on it; the committee has not)

-be concise and forthcoming about what particular aspects of it fascinate you (and thus, you hope, your interviewers); ask yourself “what am I writing about?” and “what have I read en route?”; give a history of your choices (of topic, focus)

-show both your knowledge and your “ignorance”–that is, what is still important for you to know (both are important)

-if you plan to rewrite the dissertation into a book, be prepared to say how; articulate what you have to offer as a scholar

-think about the relation of your research to your teaching (in practice or in theory): talk about cross-fertilization, how new scholarly areas can be opened up through teaching assignments and how scholarship can open up new perspectives on undergraduate courses (graduate = more obvious)

-if you work in a “politically-charged” area, be prepared to talk about the political charge of your work, both in your research and in the classroom; if you are being interviewed, chances are they want you, so be open about your politics

Discussing teaching:

-be ready to talk about your approach to teaching large and small classes, any successes you have had in the classroom–be aware that, to most interviewers, teaching ability is usually judged to be a mixture of enthusiasm, ability and learned skill

-teaching is also a deeply personal act: don’t be afraid to show your passion for it (don’t be manic, though!)

-treat the interview as a teaching assignment

-explain why teaching is important, not simply interesting to you–since what people know is part of what they are, your values as teacher count (e.g., honesty, openness to criticism, curiosity, strength of character, humility, etc.); remember that how you teach (as much as what you teach) has impact on students; talk about the contribution of teaching to your own on-going education (teachers are always students)

-sound enthusiastic about introductory teaching (you will likely have to do it, so…); get as much information as you can about the department’s philosophy, programmes, etc.–from calendars or other sources–and, based on that particular department’s curriculum, prepare sample outlines for courses (both early undergraduate and more senior or graduate) in your area, including anthologies to be used, and have enough copies of these for the entire committee ready in your briefcase (check these with supervisor first: s/he has more experience); be prepared to say which courses in their programme you’d be interested in teaching (and why…and how)

-remember that teaching is a matter of design as much as performance: show that you’ve thought about both


-find out from the contact person the following important information about the presentation: to what audience should it be pitched? (think about the implications: undergrads and expert colleagues will expect different things); how long should it be? (20, 30, 40 minutes?  whatever is chosen, take ONLY that long; practice in advance and time yourself); prepare for questions afterwards (never get defensive; answer even unreasonable or hostile questions reasonably and calmly)

Questions for them:

-prepare questions (whose answers are NOT in the calendar) about: the location (rent or housing prices? etc.), the university (library holdings), the department (sociable?), kinds of students (ask to meet some?–have questions prepared), size of classes, research support, pedagogical style, teaching loads; don’t ask about salaries (that’s for later)

The interview day itself:

-remember: on paper all candidates at this stage are more or less equal–they now want to see which human being they want to work with and put in front of their classes; they are already interested in you or they wouldn’t be talking to you at all; they’ve read the texts (your letter, CV, etc.), now they want to see the person whose self-interpretation has been constructed in those texts

-interviewers say the ideal is the combination of intelligence, congeniality, awareness, adaptability and commitment to both teaching and research (!)

-an interview is like an ordinary professional conversation in which you can ask for clarification (instead of allowing yourself to panic), clarify if someone looks puzzled, etc.; when in doubt, just act as you would in any (professional) situation

-let the committee set the pace and tone: if they use “Professor” or “Ms” in introducing themselves, do likewise in addressing them

-answer the questions you’ve been asked

-don’t ramble (=”bad teacher”); interruption by committee could signal long-windedness, so be alert

-don’t feel the need to fill silence vacuums; sit quietly

-make eye-contact with all the committee, not only the chair

-the usual (human) awkwardnesses, prejudices, etc. will prevail, so be resilient and flexible

-don’t get paranoid, but you will be observed at all times

-don’t gossip–even at social events

-be forthcoming–don’t make them drag information out of you

-be enthusiastic about your work and yourself

-show you are actively engaged as a teacher and researcher

-coolness is often read as indifference

-everyone expects you to be nervous: sometimes admitting it will relax you and them (say it is because you are so interested in the job!)

-don’t be either apologetic or arrogant

-don’t smoke without permission

-don’t offer negative information about yourself or others

-don’t deprecate other institutions or colleagues–even if provoked or encouraged

-don’t ask obvious questions that earlier preparation could have answered; do ask questions that show your serious interest

-don’t get into long arguments with interviewers

-always be courteous, respectful–and on time

-shake hands with all you meet; remember their names and say good-bye personally when you leave

-listen attentively–more difficult when nervous

-speak clearly and keep eye contact

-be prepared for aggressive questions; answer with calm

-don’t let yourself get intimidated or “thrown”

-be specific in answers and questions

-be prepared to talk about your strong points and special features of your training or interests

-answer questions honestly, openly, directly

-watch body language–and nervous tics

-if any situation gets awkward, uncomfortable or out of control  (rare, but…), try to remain calm and exit with dignity; if asked an awkward question or an inappropriate one (e.g., are you planning to have children?), answer it to the extent you feel comfortable; be honest and admit your discomfort graciously: try “I hadn’t thought I’d be faced with that question, so I’m not really prepared to answer it, if you don’t mind”–remember that the other committee members will be on YOUR side and likely will be feeling equally awkward

-be prepared for a mixed reception, generally: some like to bait candidates, others like to pamper them and make them feel special

-be ready to repeat yourself without sounding bored: you may get asked the same questions by different people in different settings

-learn to market your “lived experience” if you are older than the average candidate: for departments that train teachers, experience teaching at other levels is a plus; many of their students may also be “mature” students

-ask when the decision might be made

-be careful but be yourself

At the social events (lunches, dinners, etc.):

-though these may seem more informal, all the above advice applies: you are still being observed and evaluated; never confide or say anything you may regret

-ask in advance what the timetable and plan of events are and be game; show an interest in seeing the town, campus, etc.

-don’t talk about yourself all the time, but be forthcoming when asked; don’t talk “shop” all the time, unless everyone else does

-if you have no objection to doing so, drink if others do–but never very much; use “drug reaction”, etc. or other excuses or take a glass and drink only a little

-if you are out-going, you are lucky; if shy, try your best to be an active member of the group


-write to your contact person (usually the chair or the head of the hiring committee) and thank her or him for efforts on your behalf; ask her/him to convey your thanks to others.  Reiterate your interest in the position.

-keep a record of those you met: keep in touch with those with whom you have shared interests, but don’t be a bother


-(see above for procedure if offer is made, or not)

Don’t ever panic if you “blow” something!  You are only human–and so too is your interviewing committee.  No one expects you to be perfect; indeed, they might well be suspicious of someone who appears too polished.

Good Luck!

Linda Hutcheon