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Tips for Going on the (Social Work) Academic Job Market as a Community-Engaged Scholar

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By Danielle Littman, PhD, AM

Article  •
woman standing in front of building

Caption: Me in front of my soon-to-be employer, the University of Utah 

I have been a member of the inaugural CCESL Graduate Community of Practice this year, amidst an intense (understatement) year of finishing my dissertation and being on the academic job market for tenure-track positions in the field of social work. Through this, I have learned quite a bit about being on the academic job market as an early-career scholar who is committed to continuing participatory and community-engaged work. I hope these tips are helpful for others who aim to go into academic positions and want to center community-engaged principles in their work.  

Before I share some of these tips/learnings, it is helpful to offer context. My experiences are situated in the context of multiple intersecting privileged identities: Whiteness, cisgender privilege, neurotypical privilege, economic privilege, a dual-employed household, the support of incredible mentors who understand community engaged work, to name a few.  

Social work, in comparison to many other disciplines, tends to have quite a few positions available every year. While still an incredibly competitive market, it is not unheard of to secure a tenure-track position or postdoctoral appointment for post-graduation from a social work PhD program. Also helpful to share are my job search bounds: I sought a tenure track social work (or related discipline) position in the Western United States due to family needs. I applied for primarily tenure-track positions which ranged from teaching institutions to R1s (a little over a dozen positions overall). I completed several first-round interviews (mostly 30-minute interviews on Zoom) and a few second-round interviews (campus visits lasting about 2 days that include several interviews, a talk, and often a teaching demonstration). I ultimately had a couple of offers for positions to decide between, which I am incredibly privileged and grateful to be able to say.  

Now, for some tips, which I have organized by academic job market phase.  

Getting your materials together 

  • Connect your work to the program’s aims. When writing your cover letter/research statement/teaching statement, try to connect your community-engaged scholarship to the work going on at the institution (e.g., important initiatives, institutes on campus) and within the call for applications (oftentimes hiring committees are looking for certain areas of scholarship, and it’s great if you can connect your work to those areas!).  

  • Discuss process AND product. I found it helpful to briefly discuss both the process of my work as a community-engaged scholar (showing time and care I have put into these relationships) and the products from this work (e.g., publications, presentations, funding). This helped show both reflexivity around this work, and that it is tied to conventional metrics of scholarly ‘success.’  

Preparing for first-round interviews 

  • Have a few ‘back pocket’ stories about your community-engaged scholarship. Many first-round interview questions will focus on the successes and challenges you have experienced in your research. I found it helpful to think of a few key stories from my community-engaged research that showed my values as a community engaged scholar. It was helpful to practice sharing these stories to answer different kinds of questions, and to keep answers brief (often you’ll have to answer 6-8 questions in 20-30 minutes).  

  • Connect current work to future goals. Committees will likely ask about future plans for research/scholarship - it is helpful to think about how you may deepen or expand your community-engaged scholarship in the next 3-5 years and be able to talk about this in brief but grounded terms.  

Preparing for second-round interviews 

  • Ask faculty/staff about doing community-engaged work at the institution. You will likely get a chance to meet with different faculty and staff inside of (and maybe outside of) the department you are interviewing for (both formal interviews and informal meals). Ask about what it’s like to do community-engaged work at the school, as well as about any local organizations that your work may connect with. 

  • Connect to broader institutional initiatives. Look at the broader school initiatives to see if / be able to speak to how community-engaged work is elevated on campus (or perhaps is part of strategic plans for the future of the institution, which you could contribute to!) 

  • Meet with potential community partners during your interview. Consider asking to meet with community organizations/campus community engagement offices during your interview, too. This will show that you are serious about doing community-engaged work, and will be great inspiration for future projects that you can talk about during your interviews.  

Making a decision  

  • Is there sufficient infrastructure for this work? Consider what kind of infrastructure there is for community engaged scholarship (e.g., internal grants, institutes or centers on campus, current collaborations to plug into). And, if there isn’t a lot of infrastructure already, consider whether there is at least openness to this kind of work. It’s not impossible to do if it hasn’t been done, but it’ll be a lot harder if it hasn’t been done AND is not a desire for the school to elevate. 

  • Could you see yourself living here? This will be your home for the foreseeable future! Consider if the school is located in a geographic location that you are excited to get involved in as a community member. Recognizing the presently terrifying social and political landscape, it is also important to consider whether you will be able to access the care you need (e.g., gender affirming/reproductive healthcare) in this area.  

Taking care of yourself, and being cared for, throughout the process 

  • Prepare for the long-game. The process is LONG. From submitting the first application to accepting a job was almost 6 months, and I don’t even think that’s even that long. I was ‘bracing myself’ a lot through the process, which is nearly impossible to do in one’s body for that long. Find release. Somehow.  

  • Build supports. Whatever kind of human and scholar you are, the job market is grueling. Speaking frankly, the six or so months I was on the academic job market were the most difficult months for my mental health I can remember (ever). I started additional therapy. I got on anxiety medication. I had a lot of crying calls with friends and family. I often felt like everyone was having more ‘success’ on the job market than me, which was especially intense when at academic conferences for my field. I think it would have been helpful to set up some more of these supports before I began the process – though I also recognize that each journey is different, and sometimes we don’t know what we need until we are on it.  

  • Reach out! We don’t need to go through this alone. Feel free to reach out to me on my personal email,, if you’d like to chat more about going on the tenure-track job market as a community-engaged scholar.