Part II: Straight Talk on the Job Search

Taking my own advice to score free pizza whenever and where ever possible despite being far away from my home campus and Mike’s Place (alas and alack!), I recently crashed “Straight Talk on the Job Search.” The panelists explained the academic job search from the hiring committee’s perspective.

This was the sequel to a panel back in January about going from a doctoral program to a tenure-track academic position from the perspective of recent hires. (A very appropriate discussion about the job market for May Day, one might argue.)

StrtTalkSm2 (2)The panelists were (in alphabetical order by last name): Aaron James from Philosophy; Rodrigo Lazo from English, who also serves as the Humanities Equity Advisor; and Cecile Whiting from Art History. (Links jump to their bios.)

Those same two awesome graduate students, Kristen Galvin from Visual Studies and Mark Ocegueda from History, introduced the panelists and guided the discussion. I was impressed not only by the quantity of pizza available, but also by the excellent questions and responses of the coordinators, panelists, and audience members. Once again, Mark and Kristen were very organized and the panelists were well spoken.

Once again (again), I took relatively detailed notes, but I won’t necessarily note who said what. (If you’re here because a Google alert told you that I used your name in this post and you’d like credit for your gems of wisdom, please let me know and I’ll happily add in more detailed citations.)

One panelist pointed out that the transformation from “will I have a job next year?” as a recent graduate with a PhD, to “will I have a job next year?” as a professor on the tenure track, to “who should we hire next year?” as a tenured professor can be quite rapid and slightly jarring.

This advice applies mainly to an academic career path, but some of the suggestions (i.e. “be prepared”) are useful in most contexts. Here are some tips from the folks asking “who should we hire next year?” in no particular order:

The Job Application Process(ing)

– The process of applying for an R1 university or a liberal arts college that emphasizes teaching will be substantially different. For example, for schools that prioritize teaching, you should emphasize your love of students and explain your teaching statement in your cover letter. Generally, those letters will be more personal to express a commitment to teaching, an enthusiasm for students, and a long-term goal of remaining at the school. (Don’t be all like “I’m just here until my R1 dream comes true” because that is Not Cool.)

– Make sure your cover letter, CV, and writing sample are free of typos and grammatical errors. When someone is reading 200 applications, typos can be an easy way to cull the herd. Print your materials on university letterhead. (This practice may vary by university.)

Review and revise your materials. Ask for departmental support (and harass your advisor, friends, and family!) when preparing draft application letters. Polish your portfolio, print it out to proofread it, and submit your best possible materials.

– Show that you’ve done your homework. In your cover letter, address some crucial points:

—> Explain your dissertation project and its significance to the field.

—> Discuss your teaching program.

—> Who would you work with in the department?

– In the one-page synopsis of your dissertation, you have people’s undivided attention for at least the first half page (or roughly 30 seconds). Make sure that you catch them there. Win their interest, make them willing to believe in your ideas and writing style. Earn the trust and confidence of your application readers.

– Some of your application readers will disregard your cover letter entirely and go straight to your CV, so make sure that your high quality publications speak for themselves.

– Prioritize publications and national conferences (for example, national conferences in  your field where interviews are held) over multiple talks and conferences that will dilute your ability to work (and publish!).


– In interviews (and application materials), try to frame your work in conversation with other research. Discuss your dissertation as well as your ongoing and upcoming research. Show that you care about teaching — “nobody doesn’t care about teaching” even if some care less.

– If you are a short-listed candidate who scores a Skype interview, make sure that you position your screen so that interviewers aren’t looking up your nose (that one is a direct quote). Have a high speed internet connection, good lighting, and a reasonable background (such as a blank wall or a shelf of books written by everyone on the hiring committee). Dress Right, and treat it like an interview.

Don’t move around a lot or get too close to the camera. Practice, practice, practice with friends or your advisor so you can test your internet connection and anticipate obvious questions. For example, if you are applying to work in a Canadian Studies department, you should have an answer prepared for: “Where do you see the field of Canadian Studies going?” not just a blank stare!

Don’t interview at a Starbucks or other public place where other people will be making noise. It demonstrates an unprofessional, unorganized attitude and refusal to take the job interview seriously by failing to make proper arrangements for the Skype appointment. (True story.)

Despite the difficulties of Skype, including the artificiality of communicating with someone who’s not in the room, don’t forget that you are in an interview and futz with your hair the entire time (true story) or do other distracting things. If possible, talk to the IT department at your current institution about setting up a space for your interview. Be prepared and practice!

At the same time, try to force some interpersonal dynamics into a somewhat disengaging format. Smile a lot, laugh, and ask questions as if you are having a face-to-face conversations.

– Remember that interviewers might not be good at asking questions, and particularly for conference interviews, they might be tired or bored (that is a quote, too). Be sure you have a clear idea of what you want to communicate in the interview and that you share that message. You can leave a good impression with someone who seems not that in to you, which will help you later out. (Plus, people who seem excited about your work might not actually be that keen on hiring you, whereas people who seem disinterested might actually wind up hiring you. Oh, the mysteries of life and interpersonal dynamics!)

– If you just can’t answer a question, try these strategies:

—> “That is a great question.” (Not being sarcastic – show that you do think it’s a thought-provoking, if troubling, question.)

—> Show your thought process: “I’ll think about it. I’d start by looking here…”

—> Be straightforward and show how you might pursue a line of thought. Bring up something related. Show that you can think on your feet and work things out.

Remember, you’re not being hired for having the answers. You’re being hired for having a fruitful, creative, engaging mind. Show the quality of your intelligence by thinking out the question (within reason – and offer to continue the discussion later as needed).

Campus Visits

– On the campus visit, you should have prepared and practiced a short conversation piece (sound byte!) about what is exciting and original about your dissertation. Get people excited about your research ideas and inspired by your enthusiasm.

You are a smart, engaged, curious person. Bring snacks to maintain that high energy throughout the 1- or 2-day process of a campus visit and interview.

People are wondering if you will be a good future colleague, so ask questions, take an interest in others, look up people’s work before campus visits and, if possible, read their work beforehand so you can ask informed follow-up questions (in your oh-so-abundant spare time as a grad student).

– Faculty members will negotiate with their colleagues on behalf of new hires who(m) they feel that you have an original, creative research program, and that you will serve as a mentor for graduate students, provide good teaching (especially with the humanities Under Attack), and behave in a collegial manner. Some schools emphasize collegiality over other, but it is important to Be Cool on the campus visit.

– Be prepared for meetings, delivering a job talk, an interview with the dean, and meeting staff. Prepare questions for each person.

In an interview with the dean, some topics of conversation suggested include:

—> Asking about the tenure process

—> Asking about research funds and support

—> Asking “Where do you see the school going in the next few years?”

The dean might ask about your research, so be sure to have your pitch prepared. The dean might also take off her (or his) shoes during your interview and put his (or her) feet up on the desk (true story). Let the administrator take the lead in setting the tone for the discussion (but don’t take your shoes off!).

Let the departmental chair take the lead on discussions of money. If you ask about money (by which I assume we are talking about compensation), you may demonstrate that you are not cut out for academia. (Told you this was a perfect talk for May Day.)

– Don’t drink at dinner! Dinner is still part of the evaluation process.

– Don’t gossip. You can’t know the departmental relationships and politics, so be careful not to praise one professor over others. You can express admiration for people’s work, but be aware of the potential of complicated dynamics. It would be a mistake, for example, to persist in asking about the tenure process when the faculty members present are clearly uncomfortable with the topic (and you won’t find out until later that the department is having problems with tenure).

– Don’t be arrogant. Suppress the feeling that an institution is beneath you or, on the flip side, don’t act undeserving of an opportunity — you’re worthy! (I’m just the messenger, folks.)

– You’re always on during the campus visit, so maintain high energy with snacks (since people will probably try to talk to you while you are supposedly eating dinner).

– Be prepared.

– Research the school so that you can ask curious, informed, intelligent questions with a basic background. Check their website throughly and note distinctive features so that you demonstrate an interest in the place and can make intelligent conversation.

Job Talks

– If someone tells you they just want a “casual” presentation of your dissertation, don’t believe them! Prepare and practice a formal talk, and Dress Right.

– Everyone will be at your job talk (even if not everyone reads your portfolio very closely), so even though this is over-emphasized in the search, and people are always like “we shouldn’t over-emphasize the job talk!” it remains pretty over-emphasized since you will have a captive audience. It’s useful and convenient in later deliberations to refer back to the job talk to defend one’s favored candidate, so I guess the advice here is to be someone that the hiring committee would go to the mat for.

– In some departmental searches, the faculty vote on the candidates, so make sure that you direct your job talk toward everyone who attends (including students – as they can generate a buzz about you that can help the faculty in their decision-making).

Your job talk is, in a way, supposed to be all things to all people. It is what your interviewers have to go on in terms of evidence for how you will perform in a classroom. It will be unofficially judged as your teaching performance.

For the job talk, present a crystalized, developed topic, such as a chapter from your dissertation (see Part I), and practice, practice practice!

– The job talk should showcase solid, innovative research, show your teaching talent, and bring something new to the table.

– Perhaps to the surprise of no one, people are often only / overly concerned with their own questions, so be sure that you can work in an answer for them that shows thoughtful attention to the question. If they ask you something after your job talk, they might ask you follow up questions at dinner, where you can either help yourself by coming up with a response or potentially hurt yourself by not really answering it.

Behind Closed Doors

– The hiring process can involve a vote by the hiring committee after everyone has had a chance to share their opinion. Don’t worry too much about this part, because it’s basically out of your hands and into interdepartmental politics after you’ve prepared, practiced, and done your best on the written application, the interview, the campus visit, and the job talk. If the idea of five years on the job market doesn’t make you break down crying or flee for greener pastures, then hang in there. (Again, don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger.)

– Only contact the department with Big Changes to your CV, such as a notable publication acceptance in a prominent journal. Don’t contact the department in advance, except with logistical questions. On campus and in interviews, there will be an opportunity to ask questions. Make sure you’ve prepared some questions (but don’t ask about departmental politics or pay!).

Fellowship Applications

– The proposal process for fellowships is very important, and it’s much different from an article or a dissertation.

When writing your grant proposal, it can be useful to think like a journalist: put your main point first and explain its significance. You’re writing for a broad audience of people who are academics and experts, but aren’t necessarily in your field, so your explanation of your project needs to balance being accessible, succinct, and sufficiently detailed.

Don’t rely on your recommendation letter writers to make a case for you.

– Fellowships and postdocs have become incredibly competitive (just like the job search, hooray!).

– Talk to someone who’s been through the process, and ask to read what successful candidates have written before you.

– Here are some fellowships you can Google if you want more information: ACLS Terra Foundation, National Gallery, Huntington, Ford Foundation, Fulbright, National Endowment for the Humanities, Smithsonian.

For the Future

– If you have a fellowship or post-doc on your application, it will be noticed, but it is not over-determining. There will be a presumption of quality if you have highly ranked fellowships, much like if you have a good publication in a quality journal.

– Visiting Assistant Professor positions can be helpful, because you have the opportunity to demonstrate that you have developed a curriculum and you can get letters of reference from  your colleagues.

– Publish and be flexible. The job market is an “arbitrary beast” and job openings are seasonal, cyclical, and erratic. A lot of people don’t get jobs, but you can frame your prior positions in terms of setting you up for success in a position and try to make the most of everything.

– The education industry in general is trying to improve diversity and change the professoriate – with some departments and schools having more success than others.

Having equity advisors is one way that the University of California system is working on the imbalance of representation in their schools. (Not all schools have equity advisors, but some have different types of diversity initiatives in place.) Equity advisors meet with the hiring committee to address issues of diversity in hiring, generally in terms of class, ethnicity, and gender.

The best advice here seemed to be: prepare your materials, practice, present your work in the best possible light, and let the institution work through the diversity hire logistics.

There is a risk that an underrepresented minority faculty member will become responsible for certain issues rather than everyone recognizing that they have a roll in equity on campus (and off), but you can’t worry over-much about this while you’re “on the market.” Just focus on the interview process and do your best.

– If you are unsuccessful in your first year, you can always reapply for a position. For example, one candidate didn’t make the cut on their first try, but got a publication in a prestigious journal before the next round of applications, and so made it to the on-campus interview after re-applying the following year. (There was a prevalent “discourse of hope” in this panel!)

–  Your publication record will make you more competitive, so PUBLISH (or perish the thought!). You are likely to be competing with people who have five years of publications (who didn’t get their Dream Job, or possibly A Job, in the first few rounds of hiring), so to get the job that you want, you need to publish aggressively.

– Regarding publishing, stick to well-respected journals to build your portfolio. This will cut down on the debate for the hiring committee. It is harder to take issue with a publication in a respected journal that is widely known in your field, so that will save the hiring committee time when deciding if your ideas will be valuable.

More publications won’t always look better on your CV. You need to have a balanced ratio of quality to quantity. Solid journal publications demonstrate that your colleagues will be able to trust your decision-making and ideas, whereas scattered publications in lesser-known journals show a lack of judgement. Being seen as trustworthy is key to the hiring process, as open positions are a rarity and involve substantial investment in you and your future research.

(I heard the phrase “millions of dollars” batted around a few times and, depending on your research grants and how many years you have ahead of you in the field, this seems like a reasonable number — if a bit daunting.)

Of course, people have Big Feels about gate-keeping in academia, so take all of this — like most things should be taken — with a grain of salt. However, for the application process, publishing significant articles in signifiant journals is generally preferable to publishing multiple exhibition reviews, book reviews, or mediocre articles in lesser-known journals.

– Don’t give up on yourself. You are awesome, but the job market is not! It’s a competitive crapshoot that’s largely out of your hands. Prepare and publish, but you can’t know what people are thinking, and luck is a relatively big component in a competitive job market. But luck favo(u)rs the prepared… So good luck! (Or, as some prefer, “wishing you the best of success.”)

Hope you’ve enjoyed Job Search Tips & Etiquette 2.0. Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments, or head for the (perhaps more lucrative) hills to make the application process easier for everyone else (although getting 200 applicants per position down to 199 doesn’t seem like that much of a dent).

For the first part in this series, check out Part I: PhD to Tenure Track Panel.

Happy [job] hunting!

* Visiting readers, please note: added smarminess is meant almost exclusively as a joke. *

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One Response to Part II: Straight Talk on the Job Search

  1. Pingback: Part I: PhD to Tenure Track Panel | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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