Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Between Expectations and Reality – What (Not) to Worry About When Entering the International Law Academic Job Market

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Between Expectations and Reality – What (Not) to Worry About When Entering the International Law Academic Job Market

[Ntina Tzouvala is an Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law.]

In the past few months, I have started observing a trend: colleagues somewhat more junior than me appear to have a view of the academic job market in law that differs significantly from mine. In particular, a non-negligible number of people seem to assume that there are fewer jobs than there are and that they need to demonstrate skills and achievements that few hiring committees would be looking for when it comes to entry-level jobs. To be clear: I am not arguing that law schools have enough jobs for everyone who wants one. This is because doctoral programs have expanded (a good thing, on balance) but budget cuts and increased workloads mean that academic jobs have not mapped this trend perfectly. What I am arguing though is that for the time being law schools in many jurisdictions (more on this below) continue to hire regularly. 

Oftentimes this divergence of perceptions in regards to the job market is simply because more senior people have failed to take note of the deterioration of the job market. I am hoping that this is not the case: I finished my PhD a little bit over 5 years ago, and I got my first permanent academic job less than 2 years ago. In practice, this meant that I applied for jobs in the UK and in Australia in the middle of the 2020 lockdown when things were relatively tough (two jobs that I had applied for got cancelled. I had been shortlisted at least for one of the two). I believe, then, that I am not out of touch (even though I do acknowledge that nobody thinks that about themselves).

If I am right, then this disjuncture between expectation and reality is interesting, but it is certainly problematic both on the micro and on the macro levels. On the micro level, inaccurately high expectations can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy, lead to over-work or, even worse, over-work toward the wrong things. On the macro level, thinking that the job market is worse than it actually is increases the power of employers and managers. People who operate under a (false) impression of extreme scarcity are less likely to demand better working conditions and higher pay. Therefore, having a realistic sense of what is needed in order to get an academic job as a junior public international lawyer can be helpful for both individuals and collectives.

Before I proceed, one note of clarification is needed: I will comment on what I have learnt from personal experience and observed about law jobs in particular, and not all academic jobs in general. It is undeniable that the situation in other fields, especially the humanities, is abysmal, and my advice will probably not carry over very well. Secondly, I am familiar with two job markets: the UK and Australia. I suspect that some of my observations apply more widely across English-speaking institutions, but I purport to know nothing beyond that. 

Of course, being successful often hinges on things one cannot control, including the specific teaching and research gaps that a department might have. Since this is beyond anyone’s control, I will try instead to concentrate on things we can exert some degree of control over. Therefore, my advice for those currently contemplating an academic career in international law is as follows:

1. Gain some teaching experience, preferably beyond international law. International law courses are generally not compulsory and therefore demonstrated ability to teach them is valuable, but not as valuable as being able to teach core courses. That said, any teaching experience is better than none, so take advantage of whatever opportunities your university has to offer. If shortlisted for an interview, express willingness to teach specific core courses and have a story on why they intersect with your existing research and teaching experience. If you are an international criminal lawyer, you should be prepared to teach domestic criminal law. If your research focuses on international law and land grabbing, property law would be the obvious domestic law candidate. I could go on, but you get my point. Importantly, many jurisdictions have introductory law courses that are essential in order to obtain a qualifying law degree (Legal Skills/Foundations of English/Australian/x law). These are hidden gems: they are relatively ‘light’ in content, but universities always need people to teach them. Being experienced in them or at least expressing willingness to teach them can make a difference. Above all, there is no need to promise a panel that you will teach any core course, but it is also essential not to give them the sense that you consider some courses to be ‘beneath’ you. This is not only smart, but also true: no course is beneath any of us.

2. Try to have a piece published/accepted by the time you apply for your first academic job. Real talk: peer-reviewed articles count much more than book chapters. This is a tricky balance for junior academics who might feel flattered if they receive an invitation to write for an edited volume, especially one edited by someone established in their field. The truth is that if you have to choose between the two, you should prioritise peer-reviewed articles, because this is what academic employers do too. One very obvious candidate for such a publication is the stuff that did not make it into the final draft of their thesis. Most people I know have thousands of words, even full chapters, that they had to cull, which are often publishable subject to minimal additional research. This is where going to conferences can be very useful. Preparing an abstract and presenting it to a new audience can force you to transform these unused chunks of your thesis into an independent piece of work that makes sense outside the context of the PhD. The choice of journal will depend on how much time you have before applying for jobs. Very highly ranked journals are extremely impressive in your CV, but they can sometimes take a very long time to review work and the chances of acceptance are lower. If the editors take 9 months and then they reject your work, do you have enough time to have it re-submitted? Often, the answer will be yes, but you always need to run this calculation. Also do keep in mind, the acceptance can be good enough, so there is no reason to panic if your work is not publicly available yet.

3. Read job applications and CVs and have others read yours. Job applications and CVs are their own genre. I would know, because I am not particularly good at them. As with all other genres of writing, the only way to learn is to read those who are good at it and try to mimic them without losing your own voice. I find that people are generally willing to share their previous applications, so feel free to ask. Try to get someone to read it, especially people with some links to the institutions that you are applying for. If possible, give yourself enough time for comments and re-drafting.  It is especially difficult to accept feedback on job applications: this is because they concern ourselves in the most direct way and having our self-image challenged is always confronting. It is OK to have one basic application and tweak it for different positions. That said, it is essential that your application does not read ‘generic’. You need to show that you put in the time to learn things about the institution you are applying for and that you are not just excellent in general, but excellent for the advertised position in particular. When it comes to CVs, getting hold of as many examples as you can may be crucial. In my experience, good CVs tend to be tight and communicate the candidate’s core achievements within the first 2-3 pages. Finally, one day I will become the person who updates her CV as soon as she does something, instead of trying to recall one’s activities months later. The fact though that I have failed on that front does not mean that you should too. 

4. Don’t be annoying. This is a crucial piece of advice and perhaps the most difficult to implement. My (anecdotal) experience has been the following: in academic job interviews there will almost invariably be one candidate who manages to enrage the room. This is more often than not candidates from the most prestigious universities who (consciously or not) think that they are doing the institution they are interviewing for a favour and very clearly envisage this job as a temporary position before they can return to their alma mater. Of course, one need not say this out loud, there are many subtle ways of communicating such an outlook. These are typically candidates who enter the interview being ranked first (‘good on paper’) and exit the interview being ranked last. Somewhat unsurprisingly, people do not enjoy working with those who look down on them. Communicating to people that you will be a good colleague tends to help.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. However, I have tried to communicate a fundamental truth: entry-level jobs in law typically do not require an extensive list of publications, evidence of having designed courses from scratch, impact, track-record of external funding, engagement with the media etc. Doing the basics (research-teaching), showing willingness to learn and grow, exhibiting humility and common sense can get one a very long way. And, of course, nobody ever got hired for a job they did not apply for, so putting yourself out there is always, invariably, the first step.

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