There's nothing that strikes fear in a grad student's heart quite like going on the job market. There are very good reasons for this -- economic recession, exploitative labor structures, etc -- and it can feel stifling to try to figure out how to keep yourself together when everything else is on fire. While I really do not have good answers to most job market things, I do still get asked questions about professionalization and job searching. In lieu of advice, here are some reflections on how I was thinking about the job market during years 5 and 6 of my PhD.
If you have any questions, email me and I'll try to answer the question as best I can and post it here for others, too.
But to be up front:
My academic job search advice is to simply get extremely lucky.— ⌜ktb⌟ (@kevinbaker) January 9, 2020
- General approach
- Non-academic jobs
- Academic job search
Going on the job market -- academic or not -- is a great deal easier when you have an inordinate amount of institutional privilege. I also don’t have any debt or dependents, my parents are financially secure and healthy, I have US citizenship, and my non-American partner finished his PhD and then left academia to become a software engineer, so I did not feel immediate financial pressure while being on the job market during 2022. The answers I give here reflect my own experience that does not involve a great deal of hardship, and while I try to be empathetic, I know that I cannot fully understand the trauma that is job searching for the vast majority of people. Please keep that in mind as you read my answers, but I nonetheless hope that they are useful to you in some capacity.
I want to be honest about the role that referrals and prestige networks play in getting these jobs, as I know I wouldn’t have gotten these jobs without them. I do not personally know what happened behind closed doors and I never interacted with anyone on the search committees before I was hired. That being said, it would be dishonest for me to ignore the fact that (1) I got a TT job at a place that is known for hiring their own, (2) my referral at Mozilla came from the person who was leaving the position I was applying for, and (3) the internship I had during grad school was offered by an MIT alum for MIT students. This document primarily describes the hiring process for the three major jobs I've gotten in the last three years: the assistant professorship at MIT, the senior fellowship at Mozilla, and a visiting scientist position at the European Commission.
What considerations did you have before going on the job market?
By year 4, I had been to enough job market panels (and had enough brilliant friends get rejected by every job under the sun) that it seemed to me that explicitly paving a way outside of academia as Plan A was the way to go. My partner has also been tremendously supportive -- he moved to Boston to be with me and has only applied to remote jobs to make sure that he can as mobile as an academic partner can be -- so we decided together that I would only go on the job market 1.5 times. This is to say one soft launch and one all-in application bonanza: I’d give it a good try and then pack it in after. Someone once told me that a PhD is like a new car, where it declines in value right when you drive off the lot, so going on the job market repeatedly actually has diminishing returns. Frankly, I do not think that I have the guts to get rejected multiple years in a row, which was another reason to limit my time on the market.
In terms of things I was looking for, I had a few partner constraints: the position needed to be in a major metropolitan city and not in Texas (or frankly in a state where you can’t get an abortion, otherwise Austin or Atlanta would have made the cut -- a bit tragic, honestly, because he otherwise loves living in Georgia). Also, while I adore teaching, most PUIs and SLACs were out because of geography, but places like the Claremont Colleges were top on the list (if they had openings!) because they were pretty close to where I grew up in LA. (This made anything in the UC or Cal State system very appealing.) I also had to think long-term since my partner wanted to move back to Europe at some point, so I would also make a decent try at European academic jobs. Postdocs were okay as long as I only did one since he wanted to really feel settled rather than move around again and again.
As for money, I knew that I had at least one salary floor: the cost of one year at Stanford, where I went to college. It's kind of an arbitrary number (now $87,833/year?!?!) suggested by a friend's parent around the time I was graduating, but I do think it was useful as a first barometer. This obviously does not take into account a lot of stuff, like structural inequality around salary particularly in academia, but this was one important step for me when it came to not thinking of academia as the end-all, be-all. I knew at the time that exiting academia would mean that I would easily make more than this; while I didn't need academic salaries to match my earning potential (particularly in tech), this was one way for me to be clear to myself about how much my time and experience was worth.
What was the process like applying for the European Commission internship, and how much did you get paid?
For the position at the European Commission, the internship was posted to an MIT Alumni job board since the leader of the team was an MIT alumnus who was interested in hosting MIT student interns. I tried really hard to negotiate payment but it was inordinately difficult because I am not an EU national (though to be honest they did not seem interested in paying me at all). After the resume drop — there was no in-person networking — I did a screening interview with my boss and I got the offer shortly thereafter (turnaround time ~2 weeks). Since the European Commission wasn’t paying me, I did get money from MIT to fly and stay in Italy for much of the winter. I did some contract work for them after the project wrapped. During the internship, I wrote a report and a huge deck with some UX design work and I did a follow-up mini-report for about $2,000.
What was the process like applying for your job at Mozilla, and how much did you get paid?
To be up front, I found out about the job from the previous person who had my job since she posted it to an internal Harvard mailing list. She was my referral for the position (though I know that she recused herself from the process). Otherwise, it was an open application pool with no cover letter but a couple of short answer questions. After submitting the application, I got an email a couple days later for a 30 minute initial interview with the program officer — who would be my main collaborator — and she gave me the questions beforehand (included below). About 2 weeks later, I heard back to schedule a 45 minute panel interview with a VP and two other colleagues who are roughly in my position or a little more senior. (I didn’t get questions beforehand for this.) The interview was in mid-December 2021; I got the verbal offer right before the holidays but signed in early January.
The position was part-time (75%) for a year and came with full benefits and health insurance. Initially, they sent me an offer letter that had $90,000 as the salary which was dramatically lower than the range that my colleague had mentioned (I don’t remember exactly, but it was something like $100-115k). I made an appointment with the main HR person to inquire about this and to clarify the other benefits. I mentioned that “I was surprised by the salary as it was below my expectations” and did not justify this to the HR person since I assumed I would have to roll out my talking points with my hiring manager (either a director or a VP). This never happened; they sent me an offer letter for $120,000 a couple days later. I’m still shocked that a short 15 min conversation was worth a year’s work as a graduate student.
Since I did not need health insurance (I was still on an MIT plan), I did negotiate for a separate healthcare subsidy so I could reimburse copays and other things that weren’t covered by MIT (around $1,500). Other than that, I got all of the standard benefits: $1k office setup, org-issued laptop, professional development and wellness fund (~$3,500), reimbursed internet, etc. Later, I did end up being the hiring committees for two positions at Mozilla (one as hiring manager, and one as committee member). This is a story for another time — it was fascinating actually hiring people after going to so many “here’s how to find a job outside academia” panels. Some main takeaways which are cliches at this point (but actually matter): it takes a lot for people to think that you’re bullshitting / being too bombastic about the work that you do (so brag away, really!) and a follow-up thank you email goes a long way to being memorable. (YMMV on this though -- I know that some people find this really annoying / cloying, whereas I didn't really love or hate it either way but I would be lying if I said it didn't help jog my memory when we were discussing candidates. I think one thing that helped was if they mentioned something specific in the interview, like an answer they didn't quite nail but had a more well-developed response that they emailed afterwards.) We did ask for short answer questions and explicitly didn’t ask for a cover letter, so while a lot of people sent those in, we didn’t read any of them (and frankly, we didn’t have the capacity to do it even if we wanted to). A lot of it also comes down to specific fit. Both of the people who were hired into the program I worked on uncannily fit the profile we were looking for, but it’s hard to be able to find jobs that hit a specific niche. For what it’s worth, none of the people we ended up hiring had referrals.
Where else were you looking for jobs?
The emphasis on non-academic jobs as Plan A was the primary motivation behind pursuing the jobs at the European Commission and Mozilla, even though I knew some faculty weren’t pleased about this. My advisors were very supportive, but expressed (rightful) concern that I wouldn’t have time to really write my dissertation. To try and realize non-academic jobs as Plan A, I tried to cultivate an abundance mindset by keeping cool job ads of stuff I liked even if I wasn’t applying for them at the moment so I could keep track of what I was interested in (and hopefully be able to draw on those bullet points for resume and short answer writing). Some jobs on this list include being the research director for a tech nonprofit, being an advisor at the FTC, or being a legislative aide to a Congressperson handling tech issues.
To put jobs on the “jobs that exist” list, I really liked these resources: Impactful, Ethical Tech job board spreadsheet, Interested?? Jobs, All Tech is Human job board, and these resources from Ben Green. In terms of using the “consulting groups that hire qualitative researchers” label as something that could be helpful in terms of writing about my skills, I followed stuff from ReD Associates and Gemic, both of which describe themselves in some combination of the terms “global growth strategy group” and “boutique consulting.” I also liked the job lists from AoIR, Design for Social Good, Responsible Tech, and STS Grad. And, until recently, I would always save jobs from Twitter I thought were cool (even if I wasn’t qualified for them) in the job doc I mentioned above.
As far as networking goes, I tried really hard to meet a lot of people at Harvard (I had a fellowship at the Berkman Klein Center, and I made it my full time job to talk to anyone who would be willing to give me some time to tell me about their jobs). This ended up being useful for a couple reasons: (1) I met a lot of cool people who made Cambridge feel a lot less lonely, (2) I got to hear about a lot of different jobs and why people liked them, and (3) I practiced talking about my work (or, as some MBAs I met would say, “my story” or “my journey”) to see what stuck. Throughout this process, I also thought a lot about spinning off my own thing — either consulting or just freelance writing — and I listened to The Writer’s Co-op podcast which is a fantastic guide for the business of writing. (It made me realize that I do not have the courage or the fortitude for freelance writing.)
The freelance consulting I did during graduate school was really helpful, though, for creating a portfolio of materials — I got most of these opportunities through people cold emailing me, and they usually consisted of them picking my brain for an hour about stuff like misinformation and ethical tech. I got paid around ~$300/hr for this (mostly because I wouldn’t accept anything below this, and this only happened once in a blue moon) and once I was paid a whopping $1k for 30 min, but that also required a lot of follow-up to actually get the money (it was a huge consulting firm that reached out to me). For invoicing, I used a free invoice generator unless they had a specific form they wanted me to fill out.
Academic job search
What was the timeline for your tenure-track job application process?
I submitted a cover letter, CV, research, and teaching statement in November. The notification for letter writers came in January, and the invitation to interview came in late February (I did the job talk about 2 weeks later). The search committee said that it would take about a month, and they told me I got the job in mid-April.
How did you approach negotiating your job offer?
I have a longer thread on negotiation more broadly based on a class that I took at MIT Sloan — you can read it here. I think the most useful concepts are the BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement), which is a fancy way of saying “what you’re going to do if this doesn’t work out.” One of the most effective ways of strengthening your position in a negotiation is improving your BATNA such that you’re happy either way.
I did all of my negotiating in a face to face conversation, not an email (people gave me conflicting advice on this — I figured I’d start with a conversation and then see what I needed to provide in writing afterwards). One thing that was really helpful for the negotiation was my Mozilla salary letter, which is probably the only thing I sent in writing about all this — MIT couldn’t match it (they went from $105k to $110k), but from talking to other faculty members, I have doubts that they would have budged at all on base if I didn’t have that document. It’s easy to compare apples to apples here since academic compensation is for 9 months/year and my Mozilla position was part time at 75%.
Total compensation at MIT was still dramatically lower, though, because Mozilla covers health insurance 100% and there are a number of other benefits (like professional development and wellness) that tally up to quite a bit. Health insurance itself is at least $3700 (partner would be included and covered 100% at Mozilla), and the other reimbursable stuff adds up to an additional $3-4k at least. Conservatively, that adds $6k to total comp at Mozilla ($126k vs $110k at MIT).
I pushed pretty hard on salary and on startup funds (they offered $10k/year for three years), and I was able to get them up to a fourth year. However, my main priority in the negotiation was to try and get a postdoc year, and to try and whittle down the teaching for the first year (they offered 1:1, I countered 2:0, and their final offer was 0:1). I like to think it was a good faith negotiation, since they were willing to budge more on some issues than I had asked for if they were more inflexible on other stuff.
How much have you gotten paid for other academic work?
I am enormously lucky to have received honoraria for academic talks, some of which I negotiated and others I just accepted as is. For participating in workshops (e.g., to put together a set of white papers, acting as a judge for a grant competition, etc.), I received around ~$500, and for seminar talks, it would be anything from $200 to $500. Some of them of course didn’t provide honoraria at all, though it’s telling that it was always the wealthiest schools who refused to pay anything. I have complicated feelings about honoraria in that I do think people should get paid for their time, but I also recognize that there are limited funds (especially in the humanities!) and a lot of that money and social capital is usually funneled to people who least need it, particularly if giving these types of talks is an important part of their job description. I think Nate Matias has a great approach to honoraria, particularly for tech corporate events, and I remember hearing that he usually repurposes the honoraria for his graduate students (e.g., for a laptop fund) since their work is really crucial to him getting the opportunity in the first place. I’m still thinking about how I want to approach that since I won’t have graduate students for the short-term future. I’ve negotiated honoraria a few times (and once someone doubled the honoraria!), but I don’t know how much I would do that these days unless it’s a corporate event, in which case I’ll have a whole speaker rider, too.
Should I have a website?
Yes. Absolutely. 1000%. There are mitigating circumstances -- and in some ways, being chronically offline is aspirational -- but in a vast majority of cases, I would say that having a personal website is non-negotiable. The internet will find all sorts of ways to represent you in ways that you don't agree with or want -- create a corner for yourself that is precisely within your control. People will undoubtedly Google you at some point; craft your own narrative re: what you want people to know about you.
When I say that you should have a website, I mean something as simple as a free webpage that just has your name and a paragraph about you. Your department page listing you as a grad student does not suffice. Maybe a few links to work you really like, and one nice photo of you. It doesn't have to be complicated, expensive, or time consuming -- GitHub pages, Squarespace, Cargo Collective, Wix, Wordpress, etc are all great options.
If you want to be an overachiever and have the funds to do it, buy your personal domain name before a horrifying troll does it to harass you. (I bought mine for $12/year.)
Is academic Twitter worth it?
It's harder to answer this question post-Elon, but before that happened, I would have said a qualified yes -- it is worth it, but only if you think you find some genuine joy in it. It's easy for me to say in retrospect that it was worth it -- I know that a great deal of my scholarly visibility is because of my Twitter account -- and there's nothing like a Nobel Prize winner dunking on you (and the algorithm then picking it up) to get people to actually read and engage with your work. But that was impossible to plan for, frankly, and not at all why I was on Twitter in the first place. The main reason why I really enjoyed Twitter, actually, was that I felt like a learned a lot all the time and I got to engage with people I only ever dreamed of meeting. I think part of it was the grad student glee that came with watching two famous scholars talk very casually about new, exciting ideas far before they would ever be Published Properly, but a lot of it was also just learning how people outside of my grad program talked and thought about things. It's easy to get used to one way of doing things when that's the water you swim in all the time; it's exciting to hear from others talk about what they read and how they approach their work.
The water cooler conversations were awesome, and beyond that, I made a lot of really good friends and found a community of people who shared my interests. We even went on to organize panels, write articles, and edit special issues together -- that to me was invaluable, and not something I would have been able to access without it. It was worth being on Twitter because of those friendships and communities, but I know that it's not always something that's available to you particularly when trolls and other malicious actors are afoot. Using Block Party is a must. (Here is a referral link -- I think this might be one of those "you each get one month free with referral" sort of things, but it honestly doesn't matter to me either way.) A friend of mine also swears by Secateur, which essentially makes you invisible to entire networks of internet harassers.
How did you keep track of things when you were doing informational interviews?
I used (and continue to use) Obsidian to keep searchable notes for the things we talked about during the chats, but I kept key personal details (their kids’ names, allergies, etc) on their contact card. To help with scheduling, I adore Reclaim.ai, which helped me sync my calendars (since Mozilla people book directly on my Google Calendar) and protected my time. I’m currently using Tempo as an email client, which lets you receive emails in batches so that you can’t really check your email until the time you’ve set.