Today’s mailbag: Historiann offers a rope to Millie on the job market

elvgrenmailToday’s mailbag brings us a thoroughly modern problem from Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) and new Ph.D. Millie, who wonders if she should rush to get a book contract:

I’m a VAP, on the job market, and trying to conceptualize the dissertation-to-manuscript process (I graduated this past academic year).

That intellectual labor aside, the thing that’s really making me anxious is the timing of the process itself. On the one hand, lots of people say “write a book proposal, get a contract, write the manuscript” and I see fellow junior faculty doing that on Twitter all the time. On the other hand, other people (including my adviser, who is wonderful but also wrote his first book in the late 60s) tell me to write the manuscript first because a contract doesn’t mean that much at this stage in my career.

Obviously one of those has to be the right path, but I don’t know which one it is! I also feel like everyone else understands this but me. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated.

–Thoroughly Modern Millie

Dear Millie,

Thanks for writing in.  Increasingly over the past decade, I’ve seen more and more junior scholars applying for assistant professor jobs with book manuscripts under contract or even published, so your question is a very important one for many in your cohort of recent grads.  I’ll be interested to hear what my readers have to say about this,   (FYI, Millie’s Ph.D. and current VAP is in a book-intensive humanities discipline.)

Believe me, I understand the lure of snagging a book contract ASAP.  I’ve fallen under that spell myself on occasion, but in the end I think spending some time thinking about the book you want to write and getting some major revisions done is the way to go.  In other words, I think your advisor is right.  (Maybe that means I’m an old fart too, although I see that I was a wee infant the year he published his first book.  Old fartitude sneaks up quickly on you–one day you’re all like “hey, I’m 32, burn the candle at both ends!” and then you’re all like “two beers and I can’t get out of bed the next morning, srsly?”–so watch out.)

Speaking only for myself, I’m impressed more by quality than quantity or book contracts when vetting applications for assistant professors.  Having an article or two circulating or even published is great, but a book contract doesn’t mean a whole lot unless it’s with a tiptop press.  So ask yourself:  what’s the most significant contribution your research might make in your field at this point in your career?  How do I revise my dissertation research to write that book?  And finally, which are the best publishers who might want to publish this book?

At this point, I think it pays to think bigger than your dissertation.  I myself never published my dissertation and instead wrote an entirely new and original book, but I don’t recommend that course.  (Mostly because I never get credit for having done this, but it was the right thing to do.  Different chapters of my first book are anthologized in the two top American women’s history readers now, so I think that speaks to the larger, more important questions my book engaged.  That never would have happened had I published a revised dissertation.)

At the risk of being too Pollyanna, you could look on the bright side of being on a VAP rather than in a tenure-track job.  You’re not yet on the tenure clock, so you’ve got a year or so to think big and write the best book you can now, rather than get a contract with a NON-tiptop press and write a smaller book faster.  I’d wager that writing about this process and your conclusions in your job letter will impress search committees more than that smaller, faster book project will.

One last point:  you wrote, “On the one hand, lots of people say ‘write a book proposal, get a contract, write the manuscript’ and I see fellow junior faculty doing that on Twitter all the time.”  If they’re on Twitter, they’re not writing their books!  Believe me, I’ve wasted a lot of time not writing on Twitter myself, so don’t let the social media distract you from your real work.

cowgirlropeI hope I’ve extended a rope to you here, but as always, I urge you to talk to lots of other people and hear what they have to say.  I’m just one jerk, so I hope loads of my readers will chime in with good advice–yeas, nays, or otherwise.

In the end, it’s your book.  You want to be proud and know that you did your best possible work at this point in your life.  So do it right, and take your time to think about what you really want it to say.

Dear readers, take it away!


28 thoughts on “Today’s mailbag: Historiann offers a rope to Millie on the job market

  1. It’s a great question, and not a simple one. I’m not so sure there’s one answer to that applies to all VAPs.

    My experience was that it was helpful to have the book contract in hand for a second go-round on the job market. After I was hired, my colleagues told me it made a difference. A prominent journal publication, however, might well have accomplished the same end.

    What I recommend is getting to know editors at presses with which one might want to publish. I would do that at conferences. Either set up appointments in advance or just schmooze awkwardly. Consider whether you are ready to hand over a proposal (and possibly a manuscript). At the very least, these conversations might be helpful in any number of ways. And if a top-tier press is interested, it might well be worthwhile to attempt securing a book contract.

    Whether or not you secure a book contract at this stage, however, Historiann’s advice about making the book broader and bigger than the dissertation is superb. Whenever you get the contract, there’s plenty of time to make sure you’re happy with the final product.


  2. A book contract might help get more interviews, as an external proxy for somebody else’s judgment about the underlying quality of the project that search committee members either don’t want to or don’t quite feel ready to make on their own, and that’s not irrelevant. But a contract “doesn’t mean much” in terms of a guarantee that the book will see daylight. If you have a contract to have a pool built in your backyard, you’ll either get a pool or presumably have access to damages. But it’s difficult to imagine enforcing a supposed promise by a press that a book will be published, as opposed to merely considered carefully in light of the press’s earlier assumption that a proposal would become a persuasive and saleable manuscript. (This might vary in the case of a very senior person with a trade press and a powerful agent). So, no easy answer, the most important thing is to carve out the time to develop the project itself, whether under or outside of a contract. But it’s impossible to hit a five run home run, so best not to self-impose outlandish pressures or expectations about the import of the project. Possibly better to invest the time in job performance and relationship-building under the VAP aegis, in hopes of getting better letters for the next round, consideration if it turns into an internal search, and the like.

    NB: you get credit for “having done this,” Historiann, from those who know about it–something very few people would have had the nervous energy and the temperamental discipline to even try, much less accomplish. I know of one other case where someone published a new book on a different but related subject instead of a revised dissertation because perverse institutional considerations where she had a job all but compelled this approach, but that is unusual and probably not an advisable circumstance.


    • I want more credit!!! I want money, fame, and prizes, prizes, prizes!!! That’s the kind of credit I’m talking about.

      Thanks for your advice to Millie. So far the vote is 3 for 3 in terms of writing a quality book, although John (above) believes that having the quality book under contract directly helped him get a job.


  3. Let’s make it 4 for 4 on the quality thing. Still, it’s so hard to go slowly at this point, when everything is ahead of you and so many things are possible. I spent a few years trying to turn my dissertation into a book, which several senior people advised me to do. It didn’t work. I couldn’t see it as a book. Even now, lo, these many, many years later, if I open my dissertation I still can’t see it as a book. So like Historiann, I gave it up and started on something completely different. Which I published. Many years had gone by at that point. But I was (and still am) at a small regional state university, and because the campus is focused on undergraduates, teaching takes precedence over research. A book wasn’t required for tenure, nor was a set number of articles. I write books because that’s what I like to do. (Well, mostly.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is valuable because I am essentially in the same boat as Millie. In fact, I’m currently revising chapters and plan to have a full manuscript and prospectus done in the next couple of months. I agree that there is no hard-and-fast rule about publishing this book for all of us out there that aren’t on the tenure stream. People seem to agree that having the contract or book published would make one a more attractive job candidate, but there are a few potential roadblocks…1) what if the book comes out before you secure the tenure-track job, assuming you’re fortunate enough to even nab that job in this uber competitive job market? Then if you’re at an institution where a book is usually equal to tenure, then they will expect a SECOND BOOK! It’s outrageous for a university to demand that (I guess they want to see if you’re productive at THEIR institution), but I’ve heard that this is what can happen sometimes. 2) Isn’t there the risk of being overqualified? This is probably less true now because the recession and budget cuts made it so that hiring fell off a cliff–there’s still a huge backlog. But I guess what I’m saying is that I know of at least one person who had a tenure-track job, left it due to personal reasons, published a second book, assumed she would get another tenure-track job, but never did. The way she described it, she was now overqualified and hiring committees would prefer the young, recently-minted PhD out of some Ivy League or equivalent R1 institution. In other words–and this is a travesty and one of my biggest fears–you have a small window, maybe 5-10 years I am told after your phd, to get that tenure-track job. If you don’t in that span, you are considered “overqualified” and “old news.” You could be a lecturer, VAP, adjunct, or some type of contingent faculty forever. Tragic isn’t it? I agree with what everyone else said and I am making the decision to publish my book sooner rather than later. This is a personal choice and I don’t think there’s any “right choice,” it just depends on your personal circumstances. I’ve had the same project, gosh, for over ten years now (I’m rare I think in having the same project since my master’s program) and it needs to be concluded. I have plenty of other topics I’m interested in and refuse to be defined or pigeonholed by one topic. Best of luck Millie!


    • Stephen, I think you’re right that publishing a book before getting a TT job is dicey. And there are institutions that will (amazingly enough) hold it against a new hire & will expect a second book or at least several articles! This is true of the University of Northern Colorado down the road from me–they don’t take into account any of the scholarship one has already published before joining the faculty there, which is just nutso, but that’s how they roll.

      My department doesn’t do that–people get to keep all of their records from before their hire dates–but I think departments like mine might also look at someone who has published a book and wonder what else they have in them? It’s not fair, but I think my department would expect an impressive rate of publication in the probationary period. I think Stephen is right in that departments want to see that you’re not just going to put a beer on that coaster. . .

      Stephen makes another good point, which is that all intellectual projects have a logical arc and date at which they’re effectively “done.” Why drag out publication of a book that might make more of an impact if published now rather than held back for half a decade?


  5. Committees will always think there is something magical about academic neonatology. It just runs with the genome, the pitter-patter of little feet in the office suite. “Overqualified” is not really an academic term of art, but who wants to ask someone that you just hired how to put together a conference panel? I was eleven years from degree to track, and before that, many years from first admission to degree. The department chair in my second year called a meeting to tell us to disregard that stuff they gave us on day one about job placement, because there weren’t going to BE any jobs. He was really being kind in this, and his senior (sitting AHA president) and junior colleagues at that meeting disagreed with him, wrongly.

    Let me quote at some length from the placement advice handout he told us to discard. “Presumably, you will want a teaching position, although a Ph.D. degree in History may also qualify you as an archivist, librarian, etc. No later than September 15 of the year in which you are completing your dissertation, you should do the following: Write to the Graduate Chairman (this was still the era of the default/ presumptive “he,” “him,” and “man,” although 1/3rd of my cohort mates were women),.and tell him that you would like help in finding a job for the following year. You will …. be asked to fill out a questionnaire providing him with specific information about yourself on a mimeographed sheet which will be mailed to a large number of history departments.” [Create a dossier with the Placement Office….]. “Have your name placed on file in the AHA’s Professional Register, which prospective employers consult when looking for historians.” Absolutely my favorite part: “No Later than November 30, you might prepare a mimeographed information sheet about yourself and send this, along with a brief covering letter, to department chairmen at a good number of colleges and universities at which you would like to teach…..” [Go to the AHA] meeting “which are often held in New York, Washington, or Chicago…”]. “If your letter reaches a department chairman early in December. and he is interested in you, he may wish to arrange an interview at the AHA meeting.”

    Whatever. Stuff happens. Sometimes it’s funny. I guess I forgot to discard the handout. The history of this crisis will probably never be written, except anecdotally, as herein.


  6. I am not based in the US, so can’t comment on the job market there. But the ‘problem’ of the first book is the same everywhere. And I am another vote for quality. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that increasingly all our new scholars have book contracts and indeed books when applying for jobs, so quality is ultimately what it comes down to. The second is that your career is not just about getting the first TT job. My first book won two book prizes and made my name in the field, and that has done me huge favours ever since. I therefore think everybody should try to write the prize-winning book for their first book because it sets you up for everything else – for jobs, for grants, for fellowships, for keynote invitations. People do read your work and its quality is ultimately what will make your name in the field.

    And now as someone who sits on a book prize committee for first books in the field, we review lots and lots of very rushed projects that after another year or two of thought or development would have been hugely significant. And they don’t get the prize. I want to tell those scholars – take your time – this is the book that will make your name, and, yes, you can perhaps make up for a lesser first book with a second excellent book, but that might take you another decade to write. Write some good articles; until it is written, they act as a great proxy for the book.


  7. Yet another voice for taking your time here. I’ve read a number of weak book manuscripts for presses in the last few years, where it was very clear the author had rushed a very recent dissertation out before it was really ready, in order to get a contract. Projects that have a lot of potential got rejected because they weren’t fully developed and revised. Then, not only did the authors not have contracts, but those publication bridges with good presses are burned for the future.

    On the hiring end, some search committees may care about the lines on the CV, but others will care about the quality of the work above all. A contract will matter less to those readers than evidence of careful, ambitious thinking about where the project will go once the tenure clock starts.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Count me as a sixth or whatever for quality over speed. I know there’s this idea out there that “these days” everyone needs a book contract to be competitive, but in my experience in hiring depts (at mid-tier institutions: either high-publishing teaching or R2) we’re just as happy with high-quality journal pubs; the book contract in hand doesn’t increase a candidate’s attractiveness (and I think fancier institutions REALLY do not expect or even want you to have a contract, for a lot of reasons). And you only have so many tries to get your book proposal right, and don’t want to burn them by going out too early or too half-baked.


    • Also great advice on the not-too-many bites at the apple.

      I’d also add that Millie and other junior scholars should trust their guts. If an editor seems warm and enthusiastic about your project, hear her or him out; if an editor seems cool or like your project would not be a priority, pay attention. I’ve been extremely fortunate in the two editors I’ve had at Penn and Yale now–Bob Lockhart at Penn and Chris Rodgers at Yale (now retired, I believe) were both very up-front and frank with me, which I appreciated. They’ve also been up-front and frank with authors of books they took a pass on, which however disappointing, is a good thing.

      Good or great editors have a devoted coterie of authors who follow them around from press to press. Peter Agree has a number of devoted authors who moved from Cornell to Penn with him.


  9. Write the book you want to write and place it with the press with which you feel most comfortable. Don’t fall into the trap of “tip-top press” nonsense.

    Good books are published with next-level presses, crap books are published with “tip-top” presses, and a cursory look at the actual reviews in the journals will reveal as much. (Shall I cite bad reviews of books from Oxford and Cambridge? Must I cite good reviews of books from Tennessee and Kentucky?) A good review of your book, no matter the press, matters more than a crap review of your book, no matter the press. Or it should in a department that cares about quality more than signifiers of quality.

    Work on the book. Get the contract if you can and if it is with a press you think is tip-top, that’s the best option. But not only is working on both the book and securing a contract not mutually exclusive, it is how virtually every writer ever working functions, scholarly or otherwise.


    • In defense of finding the best press: smart people recognize that different presses have different strengths. While some name-brand presses are seen as good all-rounders, regional and state uni presses have their own specialities.

      So, a tip-top press for Native American history is Oklahoma or Nebraska; a tip-top press for 19th C women’s history is North Carolina or Illinois; a tip-top press for environmental history is Ohio U.; Michigan is great for German history, and so on.

      I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Cambridge or Oxford are the only presses to go for. For some fields, obviously, they’re great; other fields are more weakly represented. I stand by my advice that young scholars should seek to place their books with the best presses in their fields they possibly can.


      • I get that, but at the same time, once the reviews come out, it should all be moot. (I get that the word “should” is having to carry a lot of weight in that sentence.) A good review for a book from the University of Tennessee Press ought to count more than a poorly reviewed book from UNC EVEN in areas where the book topic is in the putative strength of the “tip-top” press.

        But yes, go with the best press that you can *where you also feel comfortable*. That caveat really matters.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Nothing to add to the excellent advice here. I’d encourage you to take this year to figure out what the book is you want to write, *draft* a prospectus, and begin the revision process. The prospectus draft will help you see the whole picture, but it’s a draft, and you can revise it as you go; when you’re ready to send out the book for publication, you’ll have a draft prospectus to work from. At the same time, work on getting at least one article out — just to plant your flag. Ultimately, there is nothing that beats a good book. A contract without a ms. is worth nothing. It will almost certainly have a clause that gives them the right to turn it down if they don’t get good readers reports.


  11. A few things from pretty recent experience getting a contract (with a tip-top press), being on the market, and finishing the (final) manuscript:
    1) Editors, including those at tip-top presses, are going to want to know how the book differs (or will) from the dissertation, and why it’s significant. So figure out your answers to those questions first. Talking to editors at conferences is a good way to see what makes people interested in your topic and can help elucidate significance, so take notes on the questions editors ask you.

    2) Some editors/presses are going to want to see revised chapters and/or an intro before considering that proposal, though there are some, including those at tip-top presses, who won’t. There are also wonderful editors who will take time to read some chapters early and give you feedback. Listen and learn!

    3) Fleshing out significance through the book itself (not just saying what it is, but making it happen through the chapters) and making the book as good as possible is hard, even with positive, constructive reviews. Give yourself time. Some editors will push to get the manuscript out without enough percolating, because reviewers liked it and it’s good enough. Others won’t. Proceed cautiously, don’t overpromise, and do overestimate the time it will take you to complete the initial and final versions.

    4) Be careful with articles that are part of chapters. More and more presses want full copyright, and don’t want to have to get permission/pay for permissions from journals or other presses (edited collections). If you’ve got material that you know won’t be in the book, use it for articles/essays to avoid contract issues later.

    5) Finally, as for the market, so much depends on the specifics, including what subfield. I know a number of early and 19th C Americanists who have gotten jobs w/o book contracts. 20th-C Americanists are hard pressed to find jobs to which to apply and getting one w/o a book out is becoming increasingly rare (thus creating the greater problems of needing a 2nd book…but if you’ve been in various postdocs and VAPs for 2-5 years, well, a book becomes expected currency, even though this ratcheting up of job market expectations is going to create tenure expectation problems that I don’t think are being talked about enough). There are top departments that want to be able to influence the manuscript (or so they say…but they’re still hiring 20th C Americanists with books out, so who really knows), which is something to keep in mind but not really something that should shape your decisions, given that the market is one big question mark for most people. To that end, do what’s best for you and for the book — don’t try to outwit the market, because there are no guarantees. The better question to ask is what book do you want to get out there — to shape conversations, to get your ideas circulated, to get certain evidence or sources in the world, to contribute to the field… whether or not you get an academic job. What will satisfy you and even make you happy with regard to the book even if a TT job never materializes?


  12. I don’t have any publishing advice, I am still working on my first book. (Incidentally it is completely different from my dissertation and is taking a long time to come to fruition.) But I can allay some fears about the importance of publications and book contracts on the job market. My Department has had a lot of retirements and we have hired four new colleagues in the last six years. I’ve served on three of those searches. My experience as a committee member has suggested to me that a contract and book manuscript is only one part of your job search.

    I teach at a regional comprehensive state university where the emphasis is on teaching. Scholarship is important, but we also have a lot of different roles to play in our department, the College of Liberal Arts, the University and our faculty union. Our tenure and promotion is evaluated on five criteria including teaching, scholarship, professional development, student advising and development, and service. When we search for new colleagues in the department, we based our job description, rating forms, and interview questions on these criteria. Two of the criteria are directly related to teaching and interacting with students, only one of the criteria is concerned with research. Our main objective is to hire people who are going to be good teachers and advisers for our students and to help us attract motivated and intelligent history majors.

    We also want new colleagues to pursue their research and scholarship in a way that will give them satisfaction and contribute to their field within history. But it is not the only thing or even the most important one we ask of our colleagues. We have hired people who were working towards a book contract, and others who were mainly focused on writing journal articles and not interested in a book. In the searches I have served on the committee has always focused on applicants with a strong teaching track record (which is why we have tended to hire people with one or two years experience being VAPs at schools with a similar profile to our own). When people write us cover letters that are mainly about their research and book manuscript they rarely make it to the next round.

    My advice to Millie and other VAPs who are on the job market is simple: there are a lot more regional comprehensive universities and liberal arts colleges that are hiring than there are Research Ones. At my school, we want to know how your scholarship informs your teaching and relates to the larger discipline. Whether you have a book in press, or under contract, or are turning the dissertation into articles does not matter to us. We want you to show us your scholarly potential and that you have plans to share your research in a venue and with an audience that you deem appropriate, whether that is an article, a book, conferences, or any other medium you can make a case for.

    I realize than not all schools are like mine. I know that this is not what an R1 department is like. I know that there are lots of regional comprehensive universities who wish they were R1s and demand that their faculty teach a 4/4 or 3/3 but publish like they only teach 2/1. The job descriptions and application requirements can usually tell you what kind of school you are applying to (we have not been asking for book chapters as part of our application materials.)

    I think the book advice that Historiann and the other commenters have given is very sound. They certainly are the ones to listen to in terms of publication strategies. But as someone who has severed on a lot of searches lately, don’t sweat getting a book contract because you think it will sway the committee. Work on your scholarship, show us your potential, and be ready to explain how your work fits not only in your sub-field, but how it relates to the broader discipline of history. We don’t expect junior colleagues to have their research and career all figured out before they even set foot on campus. I hope this helps and wish Millie all the best success!


    • Great advice–thanks, Matt.

      The fact is that the job market is so bad that a lot of people who could and would be successful at R-1s are going to get jobs at schools like yours, but only if they can convince their colleagues that they’re dedicated teachers and advisors.

      I worry about the expectation that you mention–that schools with 3/3 and 4/4 loads may come to expect research productivity like their faculty are on 2/1 loads.


      • I’m at one of these institutions, a regional comprehensive with a 3/3 and full service load from the start, and my department expects 2/1 research productivity (basically 6 articles or a book for tenure in history department, with unclear weighting, i.e. it’s not clear how many articles a book subs for. Plus annual conference attendance. Moreover, given our series of midpoint reviews, if you’re going the book route, you need to be working the article route as well, or you’ll struggle at the pre-tenure reviews since the book takes time to move through various stages. In other words, while you’re writing a full manuscript, it looks like you’re doing nothing if you aren’t also publishing your way to 6 articles). Needless to say, this has caused and continues to cause much rancor between the senior faculty who did nothing of the sort when they were getting tenure and then came up with these new standards and the junior faculty struggling to meet them. Of course the institutional support for said ramping up is minimal (a few hundred bucks a year for research/conference travel, no pre-tenure leave).

        Not to say that Matt’s wrong, but to echo Historiann’s concern. For institutions like mine and Matt’s, a book contract isn’t necessary to get a job (and indeed, having one could be a knock against a candidate, depending on the temperament of the department), but that’s not necessarily a good guide to what’s expected afterward, when you may suddenly have to produce a publishing flurry. Nor does the institution’s stance as outlined in the job ad or dean’s meetings always offer a clear picture, since, as in my case, the department’s standards far exceed those of other departments.

        Finally, and this probably doesn’t apply to liberal arts colleges: regional comprehensives are often medium-sized institutions (10-12,000 or more) with a wide range of student preparedness. Many are in cities. I’m finding at mine that while I can’t bomb in the classroom, nobody seems especially concerned about my teaching. (I imagine things are quite different at an SLAC, hence the caveat.) So given this, while the supposed mission of the institution is around teaching, that’s not evaluated especially rigorously, whereas my research output is. Your mileage may vary.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for chiming in, Frog Princess. I’m sorry your dept. has you junior faculty under the gun like that. I hear you on the pressure you’re getting to write a book, plus. It makes the article route look superficially less stressful, but IMHO I think it’s more difficult to deal with 6 different journals, 6 different review processes, up to 30 different peer reviews for your work than to just write a book.

        In the end, if you want to be competitive for jobs beyond your first job, it’s the presence (or absence) of a book that will determine your future mobility. Departments everywhere else will be looking to hear about your book, not about your 6 articles.


  13. While my situation is totally different than Millie’s, I find it very disheartening that search committees focus so much upon the writing of a book instead of one’s ability to actually teach.

    I realize that this is not quite in the same vein as the topic of the thread.


    • I don’t think this is true. At least in my experience, the departments I’ve worked in have all strived to hire and promote people who are also good, or even great, teachers.


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