Preparing for the Job Market

You may be reading this on your first day of graduate school, but it’s never too early to think about your entry into the job market—whether you plan on taking an academic route or applying to jobs in the non-profit, government, or business sector. By thinking early on about how you’ll look to potential employers, you'll be prepared to differentiate yourself from other candidates. And no matter what type of a job you’re applying for, you’ll want to make the "first cut" (where employers read your CV or résumé and cover letter) and move on to the interview stage.

To stand out, think about what makes you unique. What experience do you have working with others? Do you have experience organizing events as well as researching? Have you held leadership positions? Thomas J. Straka encourages applicants to consider their leadership experience in graduate school because “hiring committees know that such graduate student leaders usually stand out. Don't underestimate yourself; don't think committee members won't know how hard some of those 'minor' accomplishments were. [1]” These experiences will be a part of your application, and you’ll want to show a single narrative formed by all of your materials.

Begin gaining insight into what employers are seeking as early as your second year of graduate school. Pull job lists from places like the Chronicle of Higher Education, H-Net, or your discipline if you’re looking to enter academia. If working in government is your goal, review postings from the Federal Government, check the job website at the International City/County Management Association (ICCMA), and don't forget to review job sites related to specific towns and/or counties you’d like to work in. Non-profit job sites like OpportunityKnocks and Idealist are also excellent resources.

Check on both minimum qualifications and specific preferred skills employers are looking for. If you have a few years until you graduate, think creatively about how you can develop those skills. If you’re going on the market now, consider how your work in graduate school qualifies you for a position. For example, if you’re applying for a job as a policy and planning assistant and the position requires a candidate who can research and analyze data under limited supervision, you might explain how research on your sociology thesis and writing up the data qualifies you for the job.

Ready to apply for a job? You’ll put together a number of documents to include with your application. Most jobs require a cover letter, a curriculum vitae (abbreviated vita or CV) or résumé, a description of future research plans and/or a teaching philosophy (if you’re applying for academic jobs), and a list of references (or actual reference letters).

Write Your Cover Letters

Each job you apply to requires a tailored cover letter. Make sure that your cover letter offers a brief introduction to yourself, and, if you're applying for an academic job, your teaching and research experience. Alternatively, if you’re applying for a job beyond the professoriate, you’ll introduce yourself and include your most salient qualifications. In both instances, comb the job listing and note specific words used in the listing and skills they are looking for. Incorporate these words into your letter, especially if you’re applying to non-academic jobs. Nowadays, Human Resources often uses software to scan cover letters for specific vocabulary. If certain key words are not there, no human eye will ever cast a glance at the rest of your application. Remember, you don’t need to write extensively about every qualification—you simply need to convince the reader that you’re qualified for the job and that you have the potential to be an interesting and supportive colleague.

Update your CV and/or Résumé

Coupled with your cover letter, your curriculum vitae or résumé shows your experience and your qualifications. As you go through graduate school and beyond, keep a master list of all your work experience, publications, and other information that may be relevant for applying to jobs. When it comes time to apply, you won’t struggle to remember specific dates or find a description of a position you’ve held.

A few words on the difference between a CV and a résumé: While both documents provide information about your work history and experience, the CV is a longer document that includes all information about your academic life. As you gain experience, your CV can grow to 10, 20, or even 80 (!) pages. All CVs start with your education, with the most recent degree listed first. A résumé, on the other hand, is a one-page document that provides an overview of all relevant experience. Your education may be listed as the final element, or you may not include your education at all. The most important element on a résumé is work experience. Whether you’re putting together a CV or a résumé, resist the urge to cram too much information on the page. Use white space to effectively guide the eye and make reading easier.

Request Letters of Recommendation

Academic jobs usually require three letters of recommendation with your application, although some academic jobs simply ask for a list of references. Most non-academic jobs will ask for a list of references. Before you list anyone, be sure to talk with them about the jobs you’re applying for. If possible, meet in person and bring a copy of the job listing, the cover letter that you’ve tailored for the position, and your résumé.

When you meet with a potential reference, explain why you would like to list the person and what aspect of your work or experience the reference has specific knowledge of. If you’re asking for a letter, ask well ahead of time. If the reference balks or is hesitant to write you a letter, be sensitive to the situation. “If a recommender declines your request, he or she more than likely has a good reason for it. Just respond with a polite note saying that you understand and that you appreciate their consideration. [2]” To reduce the number of letters a reference must write, open an account with Interfolio another dossier service to keep track of all your documents. If you’re applying for dozens of academic jobs, your letter writer can submit one letter that gets sent with every set of job application materials.

Create a Teaching Portfolio

Create a teaching portfolio even if the position you're interested in doesn't have a teaching component. Here's why: By organizing your portfolio into a coherent and organized presentation of your documents, you'll be better prepared to articulate your teaching style, the strategies and the methods you've used, and your goals for student learning. Documentation included in the teaching portfolio may be syllabi, teaching evaluations, sample assignments, annotated graded assignments, and teaching observations. It should also include a concise teaching statement describing: 1) what you want students to learn; 2) how you help them learn; and 3) how you assess student learning. Begin collecting this documentation early, as it’ll be hard to put together an effective portfolio that shows your development as a teacher in just a few weeks. Like your master list for the résumé, update your teaching portfolio every semester or year. Minimize and organize your portfolio. Add a table of contents so that it’s easy to give an overview of the contents.

When you apply for any job, make sure that the whole application reflects who you’ll be as a colleague and an employee. By starting early and investing time and energy into the materials, you’ll show that you’re an outstanding candidate and worth an interview.


[1] The Déjà Vu of Today's Application Files, by Thomas Straka at

[2] Dos and Don'ts for the Academic Job Search: Letters of Recommendation, by Julie Platt for

Additional Reading

Preparing for the Job Market Maze, by Ashley Wiersma for

PhD Academic, a resource from UC Berkeley Career Center

How to Find Job Postings from UCSD Career Services

How to Create and Maintain Your CV by Natalie Houston for

Developing Your Teaching Portfolio, by George Clark for