Cranky Insider Tips for the Academic Job Search

I’ve been on four search committees in my academic career, and I’m here to tell you there are some facepalm-worthy mistakes we see people make. And it hurts when people make these dumb mistakes, because they’re losing themselves a job, for something that 99% of the time is easily preventable.

So I thought, instead of my usual — just blarghing up crabby tweets about what to do/not do — I might actually compile them someplace. Like. Well. Here.

Some tips for the application process.

  • PROOFREAD YOUR STUFF. It’s two documents. If you’re hoping for a tenure-track line, it’s worth your time to run your eyeballs over your resume and cover letter. I’ve seen people misspell the name of their previous college, have grammatical atrocities like ‘make jumped’, not changing the header from a previous job search — you name it.
  • Make sure your cover letter answers the job ad — the job ad will list some qualifications — bam, that’s your paragraph structure for your cover letter! Oh, teaching experience is required? Allow me to tell you about my teaching experience. Oh, you want scholarship? Let me tell you about the book I’m working on. It’s not hard. A plain generic form letter will likely not work — take a few minutes to customize the letter to the ad.
Make sure your cover letter answers the job ad
  • FIND A NAME! When you write that cover letter, do not, I repeat, DO NOT write ‘To Whom It May Concern’. If you want to work in our department, you can use the magic of the internet to find out the name of the person who would be your new department chair. If you really feel you can’t do that, at least ‘Dear Search Committee’.
  • Make sure the document system you use is not expired. This past search, we dinged a candidate whose CV had a pop-up, on every page, informing us that the Free Trial of his PDF Maker had expired. This was painful. You can find freeware, or use your local library, which will have software you can use.
  • Submit the right documents: We had someone submit the wrong CV to us. How did we know? It had no — NONE — teaching experience. But guess what? He adjuncts for us. So clearly he HAS teaching experience, he just put in the wrong CV. See, what happens is, we look at these cover letters and CVs with a rubric in mind. Many of us will look at the CV first, for a snapshot to see if you meet basic qualifications. If you don’t, we oftentimes don’t even bother with the cover letter. Which leads us to….
  • Don’t apply if you don’t meet the basic qualifications for the job — you know, those things listed as ‘required’. If the job requires an MA, and you only have a BA, you’re not qualified. If you’ve never taught, like, at all, you’re not qualified for a job that says ‘two years teaching experience required’. It’s pretty simple.
  • DO NOT send us a picture. It’s illegal for us to acquire certain information, such as your age, sex, race, etc. A pic kind of hands us that information. Also, we’re not a modeling agency — we don’t need a head shot! And if it’s a picture of you ‘wackily’ wearing a funny hat and sipping a martini? (Yeah, that’s actually happened). That? We really don’t want to know.

Keep in mind, you’re likely one of 2–300 candidates. So you might think this list is obnoxious, but when the search committee has to narrow down 300 candidates to 10, suddenly even these little nitpicky things really make a difference!

So, let’s say you got into the top ten and now they’re calling you in for an interview — yay!

Some rules:

  • BE NICE TO THE SECRETARY. We ask her how the candidates treat her. If you work in an academic department, you know how important it is to have a good relationship with the secretary — she knows *everything*! (At least ours does!). I’m not saying you have to send her a fruit basket — just be personable on the phone!
  • Wear a suit. Ideally, you want to be the best-dressed person in the room. That might be hard to gauge in advance, but you can at least not be the worst-dressed. For men, this means shirt and tie, but also a jacket or sportcoat. It doesn’t matter if you peel that coat off the minute you sit down — wearing that shows that you were well-dressed. Ladies, don’t wear a sundress. If you look like this interview is basically a stop on your way for your Target run, you’re not dressed right. Look at how the deans at your current job dress — that should be your interview look.
Be able to answer why you think your job field is important to the world at large.
  • Be clean! general hygiene — hey, this is academia. We’re not going to judge you if you don’t wear makeup. But you can at least look (and smell) clean and presentable. Be sparing with the perfume/cologne.
  • Bring a scribble pad and pen to the interview. It’s perfectly ok to jot down notes as you’re getting asked questions, to make sure you cover all the parts of the question you’re being asked. If you’re super extroverted, you can jot down the names of the committee members, too.
  • Be able to answer why you think your job field is important to the world at large. Hey, if I can answer this question as a medievalist, you don’t have much of an excuse. You might not be directly asked this, but knowing why you think what you do is actually important will help shape a coherent picture.
  • Have a teaching demo. This does not have to be flashy spiffy technological awesomeness. I mean, if that’s your drum, bang on, but if it’s not, go with what you know. What the committee tends to be looking for here is basically an assignment that has structure and a pedagogical point. For example, a candidate did a lesson on compare/contrast using Batman and Superman. It was fun, we thought the students would engage with it, and it was pedagogically sound.
  • Also, have a teaching pedagogy — what’s your main approach to the topic? What about your students? What’s your student population like in terms of strengths and weaknesses and how do you address these? I’ve taught in community colleges and near Ivy Leagues — VERY different student populations, which require very different teaching strategies. Know what your population is.
  • Bring a syllabus for a class you’ve taught. If you want extra bonus points, take a look at the college’s catalog and see what class at that school would be close to this one — “By the way, this is very similar to a class you teach here….” The syllabus allows us to see that you can, well, construct a syllabus, that has some intellectual rigor, and has clear objectives and policies. We had a candidate who looked very good, but when we got them in the interview, their syllabus was weird — no due dates, no numbers (how many absences are you allowed? is there a late-work penalty? how much do quizzes contribute to final grade?), and weirdest of all, NO SCHEDULE. When we asked them, they said, “oh I like to be open and airy and just go with the flow.” No. No. We all expect there to be some play in a syllabus, and room to bring in new materials, but there should be a reasonable way and place to plug them into a sequence that makes sense.
Confront issues up front
  • Confront issues up front. We see at least 10 candidates each job search (probably more — I’ve never kept hard numbers on this), who job hop. If we see someone changing jobs every five years or so, we THINK we know what’s up — you didn’t get tenure. Maybe we’re right. Maybe we’re wrong. But it helps to tell us upfront. For example, we once had a candidate who was denied tenure because the year of her tenure review, her mother was slowly dying of cancer, and the candidate’s head just wasn’t on the game. That’s very human. We don’t judge human. However, we do get suspicious if you want to keep it a Mystery. Heck, we even had a candidate who said he didn’t get tenure because he did no committee work, and boy howdy, he said, had HE learned not to do that again!
  • Be able to talk about something you’re working on. Conference paper? Book? Article? You know the deal from your PhD — that two-minute pitch! We will often ask if or how you can bring this project to the classroom, too. Once we had a candidate who had an MFA in creative writing. We asked what they were working on. Now, mind you, MFA, CW. Candidate could have made something up on the fly, like ‘Oh, I’m investigating twitter and storify as a new modality for poetics’, right? Candidate said, “Nothing.” Nothing. And you want to teach this subject that you have no engagement in?
  • Consider how you’d teach the grunt classes. No matter the discipline, there’s always the 101, the basic baby beginner courses in your department, and if you get hired, you’re probably going to be teaching them at least a little bit. So, what could you bring to that school’s basic bread and butter?
  • Consider a special topics course. Imagine the university shoves a pile of cash your way and says ‘teach a class in…whatever you want’. What would that be like? Interviewers love to hear that you want to bring something new to the department. For example a colleague of mine teaches Criminal Justice and recently taught a special course on the history of gangs and gang violence.
  • Deal with the Service Question. You WILL be expected, if you get the job, to serve on committees, etc. You need an answer for what you’d like to work on. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT say “I will serve on whatever committee you put me on.” Why not? Because you’re abdicating the decision to someone else, and showing precisely ZERO passion, drive, or motivation for the job. Yeah, committees can be a drag — but being pre-emptively dead-eyed about them? Not good. Instead, think of what you’d like to change. Maybe, for example, you think disabled students are getting the shaft at your old job. Maybe you’re into veterans issues. Maybe you want to start a center on social justice. This is the chance to let your inner activist out, not just accept the yoke of academic servitude. A colleague of mine was excited by the Accelerated Learning programs at other schools. She mentioned it in her interview. She brought it to our school, and it has become the project that has all but guaranteed her every promotion. That’s an extreme example, but you should have an answer to what service you’d like to do that has some fire behind it!
  • Have a question for the committee. Preferably that doesn’t involve money. We sideeyed a candidate who asked what the salary was — the question is a bit tacky, yeah, but also…you can google that information. So consider a process question — how does promotion work around here? If they haven’t asked about a special topics class, ask NOW if they have a way to do that, and then launch into your Awesome Idea. Maybe ask about online/hybrid courses and qualifications to teach them. One guy asked us what WE thought was great about working here — a ballsy move, for sure — but he got to hear some good information about the place.
  • Write at least one thank-you note after the interview. Dig out those thank you cards in your closet! After the interview, write a quick thank-you note to the chair of the search committee (whose name you should actually know at this point). You can leave it with the secretary before you leave. You can also email a message, but tangible is always good. You can write a note to each search committee member, but honestly, just the chair is fine — the chair will disseminate that you wrote a nice note to the rest of the committee.

Oh my stars, this is a lot of info. I can probably think of more later, but my brain is tired. Hopefully this is helpful to people. If anyone has any questions, poke me and I will give my best advice!