Reporting from the AHA: Success Tips for the Academic Job Market

Several sessions at this year’s meeting of the American Historical Association focused on the job market, and how to successfully land your first job in academia. Here are tips from historians on how to nail your interview and transition to your first job. These are compiled from two AHA sessions: one a roundtable consisting of Anton Rosenthal, Liz Skilton, Walter Stern, Lena Suk, and Robert Elder; the other a panel featuring Philippa Levine, Paul Deslandes, Catherine Epstein, and Ava Purkiss.

General Advice:

  • Take a long view of being on the job market—it sometimes takes a year or two to land your first job. Don’t get discouraged; instead, take incremental steps towards your goal of getting a job. If you don’t land one right away, keep working on scholarship or other assets to continually improve.
  • Embrace experiences outside of academia: not only does this open up new possibilities for employment, universities often need professors who have diverse backgrounds and can fill multiple roles.
  • Take into consideration what you can and cannot control. Sometimes the job market is simply out of your control.
  • Define success: Success does not have to be a tenure track position, and your definition of success can change as you move through this process. If you don’t land that perfect job right away, do not consider yourself a failure.
  • Take care of yourself. The job market can hit your self-confidence very hard. Have ways to relieve stress and restore confidence as you go through the process.
  • Even though the process is stressful, it is an opportunity to network and engage with other historians. Enjoy the process and see the positives in it.

Going on the Market:

  • Before going on the market, reflect on whether you want a purely academic career, and if so whether at a university that stresses teaching or research.
  • Find jobs where you will fit the best. Take the time to think about what type of professor you want to be and what type of department you want to be a part of. Find things that matter to you and look for jobs that match those.
  • If you don’t have personal limitations holding you to one location, look broadly for job opportunities and be prepared to move. Be open to any opportunity that comes your way.
  • Your job documents are crucial and preparation is key. Look at the successful job documents from teachers and colleagues, and circulate your drafts for comments so you can revise. See if the department you are applying for has an evaluation rubric and use language from it in your application. Highlight why your work is important and interesting. Tailor your documents to the specific job and department you are applying for.

The Interview:

  • Really think about your teaching, research, and service background and how you will fit in the department you are interviewing for. Highlight the originality of your research and archival work, and be able to explain your topic to non-specialists. Know how your work fits into the development of the field and highlight plans to publish your work, or work that is already published.
  • Explain your teaching style and how you work to engage students. Talk about your teaching broadly and based on your experiences. Talk about any ability to teach outside your field as well.
  • Consider how you will fit into the department and work on service requirements. Also, be prepared for a diversity/inclusion question—how will you work with a diverse student body?
  • Consider these questions and have answers ready: Why do you see history as valuable? Why is teaching history important?
  • Be respectful, but you can disagree with your interviewer. Defend your research or your teaching perspective.
  • Avoid insulting particular people, dismissing certain fields of study or historical schools, and don’t talk politics. Don’t speak ill of other people in your field.
  • Be prepared to ask questions; have some questions prepared, such as “What support does the department give for research?” or “How does the department fit into the wider university?” However, don’t let questions overshadow the presentation of your qualifications. Make sure you present more about yourself than asking questions of the interviewer.
  • If your interview is through Skype, make sure you test all of your technology before your interview time. Also, make sure your background is appropriate (i.e. there is nothing embarrassing or inappropriate in the frame). A good background would be books or a blank wall.

The College Visit and Job Talk:

  • Just like with your application materials, preparation is key. Your job talk is the most important part of your campus visit. Practice the talk several times and give a mock talk to friends or colleagues so they can give feedback. Make sure you do not go over your time limit.
  • During Q & A time, take student questions first (don’t automatically take faculty questions). Give brief and succinct answers and defend your research.
  • Every part of your day on campus is your interview, even every interaction during the day. Don’t blow students off. Finish conversations with anyone you are talking to before turning to someone else who has come to get your attention or bring you to the next meeting. Be constantly engaged.
  • Be prepared for your busy schedule of meetings: take your schedule and research who will be in each meeting, prepare notes for each person/meeting, and come up with questions you can ask in each meeting.
  • Show that you are interested in other things beside your discipline, but don’t talk about personal life.
  • Don’t ask about salary or spousal hire at this point. That comes when you receive an offer.


  • Use a post-doc to learn how a department works and make mistakes before landing a tenure-track job.
  • Consider post-docs as networking opportunities that might lead to future employment.
  • Take this time to write and revise, especially in turning the dissertation into your first book.

On the Job:

  • Once you get an offer you can negotiate for some things and ask about research funds, leave time, getting a department computer, moving expenses, tenure, etc—but be strategic, don’t ask for too much. If you need a spousal hire, address that issue first because that will be the most difficult. You can also ask if the department will pay for a second trip with your spouse. Always ask for more salary, but do not expect much more than what they offered. Usually you have about two weeks to decide whether to accept an offer.
  • Getting a tenure-track position is just the first step. Tenure is the real goal—you now have a new “expiration date” and new expectations to fill for your department in order to gain tenure.
  • Be psychologically ready to hit the ground running in your new position, while at the same time learning to protect your time.
  • Get to know your department’s administrative assistants and make relationships with other junior faculty members so you can ask questions, learn the department policies, and generally learn how the department functions.
  • Especially in the first year, keep your head down and do your job. Don’t ask too many questions or push back against department policies.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.