How to Complete an MA/PhD in 4 Years Part 4: The Job Search

It has been a few weeks since my last post in this series so I wanted to start with a brief reminder of the topics covered. In my first post I discussed the importance of choosing a combined Master’s/Doctoral program. The second entry explored the significance of choosing the right advisor and how to go about doing so. And in my third post I discussed some of the work habits that helped me finish both degrees in four years.

Today I would like to examine what proved for me to be one of the most significant aspects of finishing my doctorate in four years, namely finding a tenure-track job. This was so important for me because had I not found a job, my committee would have expected me to take my fifth-year fellowship to work more on the dissertation. But since I had a job, it simply made the most sense for me to get the dissertation written and defended before I began.

Now, of the four topics covered in this mini-series, this is admittedly the one that is most out of your control. While it is getting better, for history at least, the job market for many fields has been dismal to say the least. Plus, it is difficult to tell what exactly search committees and departments are looking for until you are on the other side of the process. Nevertheless, there are some things you can do to best prepare yourself for the job market.

First, start thinking very early, during your first or second year, what type of school you would like to work at. Do you really enjoy teaching and feel you could do without having to publish monographs? Then a small liberal arts college, public or private, might be best for you. If the opposite is true and you very much enjoy research, see yourself being a prolific scholar, and would like to teach as few classes as possible, then a large research university will be best. Or maybe you are somewhere in the middle, equally committed to research and teaching. Then you might consider schools with 3-3 or 3-2 teaching loads. What is important is that you conduct an honest evaluation of your interests and abilities and determine what type of institution you would thrive at.

Once you have made this determination you should do some research. Check out the type of school you would like to work at. What qualifications and experiences do their newest hires possess? Have they presented at a lot of conferences? Or have they kept the presentations to a minimum, but given a few papers at major conferences. Have they won prestigious outside research fellowships? Have they already published articles or book reviews? Have they taught a lot of classes, or do they just have experience as a teaching or research assistant? Exploring these questions will give you an idea of the type of qualifications that help you succeed on the job market.

Once you get started with your application process, take advantage of all your available resources. Ask your colleagues and professors to read your job letters. Look at the advice on sites such as to gauge how to craft effective cover letters and CVs. Try to conduct mock interviews with faculty members in your department. These will all be extremely beneficial in your process.

You also want to try and be as strategic as possible. When I was researching the department at which I eventually secured a position, I noticed that the chair of the search committee was a Civil War historian. In the summer after my first year, I had done an independent study with a prominent Civil War historian in my department. I figured they must know each other, since the schools were 100 miles apart in the same state. So I asked the professor in my department for a letter of recommendation and he agreed. I had three other people who were my “regular” letter writers, but in this instance I figured going to someone else will get my application noticed by the search committee. I was right in this assumption, ended up getting an interview and eventually got the job.

Now, do I think I got the job simply because I had the right letter writer? Of course not. But it certainly didn’t hurt. The most important part of the search process is getting that initial interview, and from there you will have the chance to show the committee, and eventually the department, why you are the right choice.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.