Several months ago, I responded to a tweet about the academic job market and search process. The original tweet, from author John Warner, suggested that it’s not quite accurate to call the tenure-track faculty job search a lottery. However, he also challenged the idea that merit drives hiring decisions for tenure-track faculty jobs. I agreed with this argument:
This post expands on my response and attempts to unpack the ways in which social capital influences the chances of landing a tenure-track faculty job. I’ll start by briefly explaining the overall gist of my argument, then I’ll focus on some of the specific ways social capital enters into the process. Quickly, I want to recognize that I’m not an academic job market expert. I applied for a few faculty jobs and received one offer, which I took. I’ve participated in about a half dozen searches as a faculty member, all in education-related subfields. So, add a dash of salt as needed.
My general argument is that success on the academic job market is a function of 1) who you are, 2) what you do, 3) when you graduate, and 4) how you are connected in the field. I think your identities, experiences, and choices play a role in how you frame and describe your work, how you relate to others, how you prepare for a faculty job, how you perform during interviews, and what perspective you can bring to your department or college that is different or unique. What you do matters because departments are often looking to fill specific teaching, advising, or content needs. Although sometimes departments or colleges may seek to strategically hire people doing similar work to build upon strengths, others seeking faculty with complementary interests and skills. Number 3 on the list is my effort to account for the fact that there is a certain element of fortuitous timing at play. You may graduate during a year when positions are plentiful, or not. You may graduate during a year when positions are plentiful, but generally in content areas or locations that don’t work for you. Lastly, I think social capital can be a crucial factor, though I didn’t realize how until I had participated in search processes as a faculty member.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the last point. When I use “social capital,” I’m talking about the resources/benefits/advantages that accrue and can be leveraged as a result of your connections. The basic idea is that who you know matters, and how well-connected the people you know are, also matters. If you are embedded in a social network consisting of well-connected people and organizations, you can draw on those connections in various ways to help you. Everyone has social capital, but there are certain types of connections that can be particularly valuable in the tenure-track faculty search process. It was while I was reading cover letters and CVs that these connections became apparent to me.
Connection 1: Your Advisor - One important relationship that can provide social capital comes from your advisor. Your advisor may be a “name” that people on search committees recognize. Your advisor may be someone who has advised a large number of people in the field, including many people in faculty jobs. They may be willing to call former students and colleagues and advocate for you during the search process. Having this person’s name on your CV can confer certain advantages because it may increase the odds that the committee views you as someone who is well-prepared and does quality work. Your advisor may also be someone who is heavily involved in research and has created opportunities for you to publish. They may have invited you into research collaborations that led to other opportunities for you to meet scholars in the field and generally get your name out there. Your advisor may sit one or more editorial boards and can help you navigate difficult publication processes. Simply put, your advisor can be a critical “hub” in your network, and the connections they facilitate for you can influence the faculty job search.
Connection 2: Your Institution - Another connection that can confer certain advantages is your doctoral institution. This connection is less important than your advisor, though the two are obviously related. Your institution may again be one that people recognize and even trust. As with your advisor, having this institution’s name on your CV offers a small boost. Your institution may produce a higher-than-average number of people who enter faculty jobs, creating a network that may provide benefits as you submit applications. It may create opportunities for students to teach and may have resources to help doctoral students to present at conferences. It may be an institution that sponsors high-profile events or receptions at conferences, bringing together alumni and others to develop relationships. It may host seminars, speaker series, or research centers that similarly bring together scholars in the field and create networking opportunities. Institutions, like advisors, can be centrally positioned in the field, and the connections they possess to people and other organizations can be a useful resource for tenure-track faculty job applicants.
Connection 3: Your Peers/Colleagues - A final set of connections that can influence the chances of landing a tenure-track faculty job consists of your peers/colleagues. These are the people you meet and befriend in graduate school, either at your institution or elsewhere. These connections can be particularly advantageous if they are people who are ahead of you by a few years and land tenure-track faculty jobs. When they get ready to search for positions, they already know you and your work. They might be able to provide tips or helpful advice as you start applying. Some of these people might be well-connected themselves and bring you into collaborations. And they may be able to promote your work and bring exposure to you as a scholar. They say it takes a village to finish a doctoral program, and that village may likewise pay off when it comes to being selected for a faculty job.
I think if you were to take many of the people who started in tenure-track faculty jobs recently and mapped their connections and affiliations, you would see they were centrally positioned in a dense network. They were well-connected and likely connected to well-connected people. They would have social networks consisting of recognizable organizations and advisors, and they would have presented and published with recognizable scholars. In short, they would have social capital that could be leveraged to their advantage.
Importantly, I don’t think social capital is the main factor that influences a person’s success on the academic job market. I think who you are and what you do matter much more. Indeed, there are many people who have little social capital and get hired, sometimes because search committees may not include people who know what's recognizable in the field or not. However, I think it can be a factor, and one that doesn’t get explicitly talked about very often. In many ways, I see social capital as being most useful in helping to get on the list of people who are interviewed--it may help your name come into focus in a large number of applications. But I don’t think it would be the top reason someone gets hired.
I’ll end this post by raising the question of what this means and whether it’s a problem. I don’t know that this is necessarily a problem, and some of these same connections are also responsible for creating community, sense of belonging, and opportunity for scholars with marginalized identities. Nevertheless, I think search committees ought to be aware of the ways in which these connections privilege certain applicants over others. There are fantastic scholars and teachers at many different institutions, and I think departments would benefit from not overlooking them simply because they don’t have these connections. Second, though I think social capital is a factor, I don’t think prospective doctoral students should make decisions based solely on what’s going to best position them in a network.