It's that cruelest of seasons again for young scholars: job search season. In an annual fall ritual I've discussed in previous years, the list of jobs for new professors beginning next fall has recently been published, and people who want those jobs are now laboring over complicated job applications. As has been the case for many years, and especially since the Great Recession began, there are far fewer jobs than there are talented and qualified applicants. A job in the humanities typically gets more than a hundred or two hundred applications (sometimes more than three or four hundred), while there are only a few dozen job openings across the country in an individual's field. (If I were starting out looking for my first teaching job today, there would be only 22 jobs I could apply to in the US; by the end of November that number might swell to 30.) What this means is that no one, no matter how gifted and deserving, gets an assistant professorship without a whole lot of good luck. Talent isn't enough. Hard work isn't enough. Merit isn't enough. There are many, many more talented, hard-working and meritorious people than there are jobs. You have to be talented AND hard-working AND lucky. In other words, getting a job in the academy has become like getting a job in the theater, and it needs to be approached in the same way.
The best book of career advice I've ever read, hands down, is Robert Cohen's classic Acting Professionally, which I first read in my teens. I still have a copy, because some of its advice it turns out to be applicable to things outside acting. It's especially relevant to the strange little world of academia, which is like the strange world of the theater in that work is incredibly scarce, rejection is pervasive, and success or failure can feel like a judgment of you as a person. And much of the book is devoted to explaining how terribly hard it is, very much in the manner of today's "don't go to grad school unless you know the facts" talk in a faculty office. (In the edition I read in the 1980s, Cohen cautions aspiring actors that they might literally be one of a hundred people up for a single acting job. Oh, Bob. If only it were that easy.) Somewhere along the line, teaching college turned into an arts job, like acting or sculpting. That's not good, but for now it's the reality, and it has to be dealt with.
Children are rewarded for being good. Adults are rewarded for being useful.
Children are (or should be) rewarded because they deserve rewards. Learn your algebra, get your A. But adults are hired because they are useful to their employers. The question is not what the job-seeker deserves. It is what the employer needs. Abstract merit is less important than how an applicant fits the needs of a particular job. For "children" we could read "students" and "adults" we could read "professionals." What you do as a student is about you. What other people hire you to do is ultimately about them.
If the two best actors who show up at an audition are both competing for the same role, only one of those actors is likely to get hired, because they can't necessarily fit other parts. Say three brilliant twenty-something actresses all try out for the romantic lead, and any one of them would be great. In fact, all three are better actors, in terms of overall talent and skill, than anyone who tries out for any of the other roles. You can't cast the runner-up for the female romantic lead as the seventy-year-old grandfather, even if she's a much "better" actor than all of the older men who've auditioned. The producers will cast the best grandfather-type as the grandfather, and the best ingenue as the ingenue. Likewise, if three brilliant old stage veterans turn up to read for the grandfather, and the best actress reading for the ingenue role is just okay, the just-okay actress will get hired and two of the silver-haired virtuosos won't. The actors who don't get hired deserve jobs. The show just can't use them.
In the same way, there are brilliant character actors who make a living as supporting players in big Hollywood movies. (And there are many other brilliant character actors who don't make a living at all.) You can often see those brilliant actors playing opposite leading actors who are less talented .... sometimes much less talented. The actor playing the villain or the sidekick may be a far better actor, as an actor, than the leading man. But the film would almost certainly be a flop if the character actor were put in the lead. ("Stanley Tucci is ... Batman.") Yes, there are always exception. But they're exceptions. And while I might pay good money to see Nathan Lane as The Mighty Thor, most people wouldn't. Some actors are more useful in supporting roles. Others are playing the lead role or not getting a part at all.
In the same way, academic jobs are about a variety of different needs, and something that helps your chances for one job might hurt your chances for another. This is not because those things are good or bad, but because they make you more or less useful for that specific job. Jobs require different balances of teaching and research. They require different kinds of teaching. Some jobs want to hire someone to cover an entire specialty by her- or himself, and prize breadth. Some are hiring someone to join an existing group of specialists, and may be looking for people who complement the existing faculty members, or for people who would be especially good collaborators with them. (Some departments want the new person to bring something new to the table. Some are trying to build up a critical mass of people doing overlapping work.) And here's the thing: all of these questions can work for or against you no matter what you do. Teaching lots of beginning classes might help you get a job where you'll teach those classes, but not to get a job where you'd only teach advanced courses. Doing research that overlaps a potential colleagues can sink your application ("Do we need another person doing Shakespeare and Renaissance science?") or move it to the top of the pile ("We want to become a center for studying Renaissance literature and science."). This is about their needs, not your merit.
Many small liberal-arts colleges favor applicants who went to small liberal-arts colleges themselves. The thinking is that alumni of small colleges have a feel for the kind of community experience that those schools work to provide, and that it sometimes takes people who were undergrads at big research universities a longer time to grasp what a place like Williams or Carleton is about. They don't think that people who went to small colleges are better or smarter than people who went to big universities. Arguing that Yale is harder to get into than Williams is beside the point. Small-college graduates aren't necessarily better than Ivy League graduates, but they bring something to the table that hiring committees see as useful.
So what to do with this lesson? Two things. The first is only psychological, but it's crucial: do NOT read the academic job market as a reflection of your professional worth. It is not that. It cannot be that. It does not judge your merit, but only your usefulness, and your usefulness to any particular employer is highly circumstantial.
When hiring committees talk about "fit" this is what they mean: your usefulness within the idiosyncratic terms of a given job. Some job seekers have taken a great dislike to the term "fit," which they see as not helpful. But what "fit" means is: it's not about you. Instead of being angry with that, take it as permission not to beat yourself up.
The second application of the rewarded-for-being-useful lesson is to the job market itself. As far as is within your power, you should craft your job materials to appeal to the demands of the particular job. And as far as is within your power, you should direct your professional energies toward the activities that qualify you for the kind of job you want.
There are limits to this. You should never say explicitly, "I think I meet your needs in X and Y way." They know their needs better than you do, and don't need to be told. And, as Flavia points out, the academic job letter is a fairly constrained genre whose limits you should definitely not break. But what you emphasize should generally be things that suit you for THAT job. If you are applying for a job teaching English literature at a place where you won't be expected to teach composition, that one 200-level literature section you once taught is at least as important as the fifteen sections of composition you've taught over the past four years. If you're applying for a job where half your teaching load would be comp, you should give your composition experience more play. If you were an actor going on auditions, you'd bring a prepared monologue that fit your skills, but also fit the part you were auditioning for. If you're auditioning for the funny best friend in a Wendy Wasserstein play, you don't give them your all-time-most-favorite monologue from Miss Julie. You don't give them a Neil Simon monologue if you're auditioning for Iago. Apply to the job they're offering.
In the longer term, if you want to get a certain kind of job, you should work to qualify yourself for those jobs in specific ways. This is easier said than done early in your career, when you don't necessarily get to choose teaching assignments and when you need to keep the wolf from the door. And qualifying for a job that already has a flood of qualified and over-qualified applicants doesn't guarantee you that job. It just allows you to get your application in past the first round of review, so that luck, fit, and other unpredictable forces can come into play. (If you can act but you can't sing or dance, no amount of luck will get you cast in a musical. If you're a great teacher with no publications, no amount of luck will get you a job at a research university.)
If you've taught a lot of intro-level courses, look for a chance to teach a more advanced class. That is a meaningful improvement to your CV. If you want a job in a department with a doctoral program, you should try to publish something in one of the top journals in your subfield; those departments will eventually evaluate you on your scholarly reputation as well as your productivity, so you need to show the hiring committee that you can publish in the influential, highly competitive venues. For those schools two or three things published in less selective journals do not add up to one article published in a flagship. If you'd be happier with a job where research is a smaller part of the mix, and where your scholarship will be counted more quantitatively, then two articles add up to more than one fancy article. The strategy there would be to focus on places where you can have your article accepted more quickly, and journals with higher acceptance rates. None of this guarantees you anything. (It goes both ways; if the stress of submitting to a journal with a tiny acceptance rate and inscrutable requests for revision makes you too crazy, then a research-intensive job will also bring miserable stress.) None of these things are easy to do. And none guarantee you anything. But you are not completely powerless. You have useful skills, and there are ways to increase your odds.