Building on past series of blog posts which explored the job market for historians in the early career stages, this series invited contributors to reflect on what it meant to apply for jobs at a mid-career stage. There is no textbook approach to applying for jobs at mid-career level, of course; but sharing experiences can help give a sense of the different questions, considerations, and applications which academics are faced with at this stage of their career.
WHAT, IF ANYTHING, IS DIFFERENT ABOUT APPLYING FOR A JOB AT MID-CAREER LEVEL? Five contributors reflect.
There are two things that are quite different with mid-career jobs, the question of job security, and getting support.
Support is worth tackling first.
When you’re an ECR, there’s an expectation that you will build a support network among your peers and among more senior academics who can help you with your career. You can talk publicly about applying and being rejected for jobs (although many, of course, choose not to). But if you are in a stable mid-career job already (more on this below), suddenly applying for other jobs becomes more fraught. You might not want all your colleagues to think that you are desperately trying to flee your current job. You might not want them to feel that you think another place would be better. If you are a good colleague, it might not be in their interests to help you leave your job. But for almost any job, you will need the support of senior colleagues where you are working, to provide references. And without wanting to spread it around that you are looking at other jobs, you will also probably want advice from peers who can help you strengthen your application.
Job security in these situations is perhaps not as simple as it first appears. For some people, applying for mid-career positions can be a lot less pressure, because they already have stable employment. The chances are, they will know many (if not all!) of the other people who are up for the job, even quite well. And everyone can recognise that maintaining good relationships with the people you’ve known a long time and will continue to work with is more important than any one job opportunity. On the ECR job market, everyone has the feeling that this might be their last shot, because it might. Some of that pressure is off for mid-career jobs, for some people. Then the job application process becomes more like applying for research funding: you know the odds are not great, you know the competition is great, but hey you won’t get it if you don’t apply.
Not everyone is in such a position, of course. A lot of ‘mid-career’ positions can be ambiguously framed to cover both ECR and mid-career, putting mid-career candidates in a position of competing against people who won’t have a job if they don’t get this. That’s not a great dynamic for anyone involved.
And the other reality to face is that a growing number of mid-career researchers have no job stability. We might have two books, an international profile, amazing teaching experience… and still be on a fixed term contract. Or we might be working in a department that is being cut already, or very likely to be cut in the near future. We might be working somewhere literally unbearable.
The consequences of all this are messy: for some people, mid-career job applications might be their last chance to hold on, while for others there is a lot less riding on it. The same advice that often does the rounds for ECR job applications holds in this situation, and it should be easy advice for most people to follow: recognise that other people are under very different pressures, and that while the situation might literally be a competition, after the dust has settled, you will still want to have good relationships with other people in your field. In other words: don’t be a dick.
I found applying for a mid-career position quite different to previous early-career experiences. After 5 years of precarity, then 5 years of working in a permanent job, the idea of moving on can be a mentally challenging prospect. The focus of that first period was getting the job (and attaining any type of security), and thereafter I found myself struggling to transition out of a sort of hyper-activity bred from a sense of insecurity (and to try and avoid burnout as a result).
I found the prospect of applying for another job quite emotionally difficult. I felt a strong sense of gratitude and loyalty towards the institution which gave me my first job, and so it felt like something of a betrayal to apply elsewhere. I had been rewarded in my post and my contribution was actively being recognised, yet, by the same token, there were moments where it was clear that my ‘hyper-activity’ was a crutch for the department. It was important to remember that job moves are normal, mobility is often a positive (intellectually as well as organisationally), and this would create new opportunities in my wake (when the institution replaces me, for example). I often get caught up in worrying about making ‘unforced errors’ and had to be clear with myself why I was applying for new jobs and what that might mean, and I wrote out pros and cons on paper, as well as discussing with friends before putting in an application.
Between early- and mid-career most of the fundamentals were similar in terms of the application process, though this was less about demonstrating ‘potential’ and more about showing how you’ve started to realise that potential (I thought of it as track-record plus trajectory). I found myself using descriptions of past publications/grants/ service & admin roles/etc as ways of demonstrating how I was going to achieve new things in the role for which I was applying. Doing some of that mental preparation in advance (writing out pros and cons) gave me a clearer vision of what I wanted to achieve in a new role, and that then helped me connect past record to that vision. In that sense, the act of deciding to start looking elsewhere meant that I had both mentally and materially prepared myself for thinking through the application process.
I think career stage is less important than the reason for applying. If you’re a mid-career scholar and you desperately need a job – for personal or professional reasons – it’s not that different to the mad scramble and over-investment that characterises early-career job applications. On the other hand, if you’re applying because you want a change of scenery, there’s much less pressure and it feels quite different.
‘Once I have that permanent job,’ I used to think, ‘I will never apply for another job.’ But there are many reasons for applying for a job at mid-career level: you’ve been invited to apply (always very tempting); inspired by a bigger salary; getting itchy feet; looking for an institution which fits better with your personal and/or intellectual life; scared (or in process) of losing your job because humanities departments are being shut down; exhausted by the endless (and expensive) commute to another city. Your experience of the process will depend on this starting point, of course. But the likelihood is that this application is less of a ‘life-or-death’ situation (or what you felt was a life-or-death situation) than when you were a post-doc.
Applying for a job as a mid-career historian has its good sides. You have, of course, the job security, and this is a major difference. The gut-wrenching anxiety is, for most, less intense. You’re also more familiar with the process, having been on both sides of the table by this point. By now, the CV and cover letter go faster; you’ve got your main research pieces selected for sending in; thinking up new, engaging modules is second-nature since you’ve done it so many times now. Again, preparing for interview has also not changed so much, aside that you do it more efficiently (like most of your work, in fact); you do your research on the institution & department; you work on your ‘job talk’; you double check the time & date. A bigger difference is that this time you’re bringing in more of your personality. At all career stages, you need to be someone who they want to work with; but at this stage, there’s no re-inventing who you are or what you do.
For me, the thing which has changed the most, perhaps, is my resilience. Unsurprisingly, this is largely because I already have a permanent job which brings me joy as well as a salary. But it is also because I am a bit wiser, which is always nice to realise. Even when I haven’t got invited for interview, I no longer see this as wasted time. Writing a cover letter takes less long, now, as does updating my CV, and both are a good way of taking stock of your career so far, of framing or re-framing your accomplishments and your future trajectory. Applying for jobs is also a good way for people (on the committee, but also your referees) to learn about what you’re up to. Finally, I take it less personally: institutions have specific posts that they want to fill, specific needs they want to meet. I see it as the job of the committee & institution in selecting a person for the job, rather than the job of the interviewee in convincing the committee.
Yes and no. No, because applying for an academic job will always have some common factors – e.g. make sure you read up on the institution and think about your ‘fit’ in terms of teaching and research. Yes, because hopefully (albeit not necessarily) you will be coming at a mid-career post application from a stronger employment position than when you were a precariously-employed ECR. At the very least, you have the benefit of experience – so you’ll have a stronger idea of what you are prepared to say ‘yes’ to in terms of teaching and research, and a well-honed radar of institutional ‘red flags’ to look out for in terms of burdensome administration, intrusive micro-management and empty corporate-speak.