Monday, February 28, 2011

Academic Job Search I - Tips for the pre-interview stage

For other posts in this series:
Networking   First Interview       On Campus Interview      Contract       Rejections
I have been wanting to discuss job search tips (applicable to everyone but with some special considerations for moms on the job market) for a while now.  When I wrote the post, though, it turned into an extremely long post no one would want to read.  So, here for your reading enjoyment are shorter versions of that blog post (which people may ALSO not want to read, but at least I'll have tried ;-))

Usually, people come to me seeking tips on the academic job search in early fall.  I don't mind offering tips any time of year, but I hate to say it: early fall is just a tad too late when doing a job search.  So I'm posting this now in the hopes of helping people out a little sooner.

The academic job search is in a category all its own.  Imagine, first of all, that every.single.job offered involves a nationwide search (in many cases, international search), and then imagine that this job search only happens once a year (that's right: one time per 12 months or you have to wait a year), and then finally imagine that each spot will most likely have over 50 applicants, but more probably over 100 applicants for the spot.  With all that in your head, you're beginning to get a sense of the academic job search.

[You're thinking: there must be a caveat.  Well, there is, somewhat: the above is for full-time, well-paid, generally tenure track positions.  If you're just looking for a part-time temporary position, or adjuncting work (pay at $2500 or less per class per semester), those are usually offered (again, nationwide) between March and July - after people have said they're leaving to take new jobs elsewhere and institutions find themselves at loose ends trying to find someone to cover their fall classes.]

I've been on the job market three times and had countless first round interviews and eight second round interviews, and been on a few hiring committees myself, so I'm basing my tips on those experiences.  (My mistakes, mostly.... ;-)) This post is about the pre-interview stage, where you have to write the cover letters, CVs, teaching philosophies, research statements, and whatever else the school might be looking for, in the hopes of getting an interview. 

In a word: it's YOU, Academic (Cue those Dr. Oz books...).  It's all about you at this stage.  You're trying to showcase your best self (cue Oprah music).  So what does that mean, practically?

1. Take a close look at the job ad.  Is it focusing on research, teaching, or a little of both?  If you can't tell, presume a focus on teaching as that's where most of the jobs are.  If their focus is teaching, when writing your cover letter, you'll want to focus, therefore, on teaching as the second paragraph.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen cover letters focus on the dissertation.  Not a good strategy.

2. Take a close look at YOU in relation to the job ad.  I know the job market is tight.  I know that you're willing to take almost any job because it's a job.  But watch my words here: it REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, won't help to apply for a job that you know is way out of your field.  REALLY.

I cringe to think that I applied for a church history job in my first job-seeking round.  I really am a theological ethicist but I wrote my dissertation using Augustine to comment on the contemporary theological scene.  I milked that Augustine angle for all it was worth, but I'm just not a church historian.  I never got a reply back from that school, wasted postage and time writing a dazzling (but apologetic) letter explaining why even though I had a PhD that said "theological ethics" I could teach church history.

Don't waste your time and money on that kind of thing.  If it's a general position (includes the words "general" or "broad" or "multi-") then that might be worth your time, but if they're looking for someone that specific and you know it isn't you, don't do it.

3. Take a second look at the job ad in relation to YOU.  On the other hand, there will be job ads you might pass over automatically because you think it isn't "you."  Take a second look at those.  There will be some jobs that don't at first look like good fits, or maybe the job ads are just too vague.  In those cases, ask advisors and friends what they think about that position.  It might be worth a look.  My first real academic job was not one I initially thought I could apply for, but I am sure glad I did!

4. The mysteries of the "cover letter" revealed....  Fill in the blanks, amend as necessary for your particular skills...
Dear ____________

I am writing to apply for your job position that appeared in ________________.  I am ABD/PhD candidate at _____________ studying ______________  with (name of professor).  I believe I have the background and skills you are looking for.

Paragraph A.  Teaching paragraph (unless this is a research position, in which case switch with Paragraph B)  I notice that you are looking for someone with ______________ qualities and I see that your university/college has an emphasis on ____________.  I believe I have qualities you seek because I have already taught ____________ classes.  My students think I am awesome, based on my teaching evalutions.  In fact, one student suggests in a course evaluation, "_______________." My particular strengths in teaching include, but are not limited to, entertaining lectures, fast, fun-filled debates, amazing discussions that include acting out parts of the readings, and tests that my students enjoy taking.  I teach writing in the following way: _____________. I always ______________ when I teach because my students love it so much.  I have certificates in teaching with technology, teaching gender, teaching diversity, teaching practical reasoning, teaching students to read, and I won the "Best Teaching Assistant Award" last year. 

Paragraph B - the research paragraph:  I notice that you are looking for someone who has __________ interests; I share many of those interests.  My dissertation focuses on _____________. (Go on about your dissertation for no more than 2 sentences).  I am also interested in ____________, ___________ and ________ and hope to ____________, which fits with your university mission in ___________ way.  I have published articles in ______________ journals and won a research award last year so you won't be sorry you've hired someone who hasn't studied _______________.

I am enclosing my dossier and I look forward to discussing my application with you further.  I will be at the _________ conference but you may also reach me at _____________.


NB: I, of course, had very few of the "extra" qualifications suggested in this letter, but I did tailor each letter to the school and explain why I thought I'd be a good fit.  That's really the most important thing: tell the school about you and why you think you're the one they need.

5.  The mysteries of the "teaching philosophy" revealed....   Some schools ask for these and lots of applicants find them mysterious.  Well, they are a bit mysterious, so here's a help:

Explore   Lecture      Write    Create       Guide     Think    Exasperate    Listen     Tell   Funnyquote  Discuss   Weirdquestion    Wastetime   Analyze     Mentor     Empathize    Sympathize     Regurgitate    Drinkcoffee

Circle the words that most appeal to you and then consider how your teaching fits (or not) with those words.  Then write a 500-750 word essay that discusses your teaching using the words you circled.

* Seriously, the purpose of the teaching philosophy is let the committee get some sense of why you want to teach and what style of teaching you have.  My own teaching philosophy started with "Funnyquote" and developed that theme, with a bit of "write" and "mentor" thrown in.

6. Research Statement -  First of all, DO NOT wax poetic about your dissertation.  Your research statement should give a sense of broad areas of research, and your next potential project in some detail.  Of all the things you write for the job search, this one is the most fun because a) it's neat to dream and b) it's fun to look back on this later and discover that none of the things you mentioned actually resemble your future research.

And while we're here, let me reiterate that you SHOULD discuss your dissertation in your cover letter, but keep it brief (like two to three sentences - you can do it!) and then demonstrate how awesome you are because you have research interests beyond your dissertation.  (You do, don't you?)

7. Don't lie on your CV.  All joking aside, if your paper isn't published yet, but you've sent it for review, just say it's being reviewed.  If you were a teaching assistant and not the main professor, say you were a TA.  Don't falsely bulk up your CV just because you're worried you won't stand out.  Those of us on the hiring committee well remember being graduate students trying to fit in to academia - and we're sympathetic to those beginning years.  You just simply won't have the publications, teaching experience and service that older colleagues will and that's okay.  Will it cost you an interview?  Perhaps - some schools do like to have people with some teaching experience so someone who's taught their own class may well win out over someone who's "just" TA'd.  Others may give an edge to someone with research experience.  But not always, and not necessarily even usually.  Sometimes the people who get the jobs are people who have no real time experience in either teaching or research, leaving you to scratch your head and wonder, "Why NOT me? I had this and this and this...."

8.  Which leads me to the following statement (and this will not be the first time I say this...):  Academic job searches are NOT rational, not ultimately.  It will make sense why a committee will reject some candidates (only has a master's degree in music when we're looking for an ABD or PhD in history) but it will not make sense why the committee doesn't call YOU for an interview.  Sometimes, you'll be surprised that they DID call.

To quote someone who once interviewed me: chalk it up to "academic voodoo." This is why, after you send off your application it is no longer really about YOU though you'll continue to need to put your best foot forward.  There are all kinds of reasons why someone might or might not call for an interview, including lack of funding, departmental personalities, institutional personalities, inside candidates, lack of funding, sudden change of heart, institutional donors, how large a department is, what someone had for lunch that day, and lack of funding. 

Special considerations for the women/moms out there: None at this stage, except to remind you that in this, as in all job searches, at the beginning stages you must pretend you have no family. In some fields, it helps that you're a woman (if your field is mostly male); in others, gender is a neutral thing.


  1. Thanks, Jana. Having been rejected numerous times already, it's nice to know it wasn't necessarily because someone else was "rationally speaking" better than me. However, it's quite dehumanizing to spend so much time on applications to only be rejected time after time (and for arational reasons nonetheless).

    Tim F.

  2. Tim - yes, it is. And it's all the worse because many schools never, ever, ever respond to applicants just to say, "No, it's not you, sorry." That's dehumanizing too, and you can spend a lot of time thinking and hoping, "Maybe it's that one."

    I hate to say it, but I think this is why Philosophy PhD Husband is getting out of academia. After 8 years, it's worn him down and out.

    Academia's dark side: the dehumanizing aspects of the job hunt and the problem of adjunct professors...

  3. Good tips...I'll have to come back to this if I ever actually think I'm going to start applying for jobs.

    Any tips on explaining a CV gap (say, during time as a SAHM) if you're pretending you have no family?

  4. CV gap - that's a good question. I would say, "Hold on to grad student status" for as long as possible while being a SAHM or living through other kinds of crises that might present a CV gap. As another professor's blog puts it: being an ABD waitress is different than being a PhD waitress. (

    Unfortunately true. One of the strange vagaries of academia is that the longer one is post-grad school AND does not have a full time tenure track job, the less likely it is that one can get a job. Actually, in the current economic situation in which we find ourselves, this has appeared to be true of the generally unemployed. Strangely, those who have been unemployed the longest, even through no fault of their own, have been the ones companies are less willing to hire. Hmmm....

  5. I think another option (for me at least) might be to start another program, like a licentiate...

    And keep publishing - would that help?

  6. Yes to both - an extra legit degree is another way to stall somewhat...

    Publishing, always.

  7. Applying for teaching jobs sounds all too similar to applying for PhD programs!

  8. Doesn't it though? Makes sense now why the Impostor Syndrome just stays with you throughout academic life, eh?

  9. The academic job interview is the marathon of job interviews. While some interviews, such as those at a conference, may last only an hour, campus interviews can take an entire day. Most academic job interviews include a series of panel interviews, and one of these panels will consist of HR personnel. Thanks.
    Academic Job Openings

  10. Nice tips, Thanks for sharing this here because I really need to have a stable job. I was searching for an Australian employment and I hope that I can have a stable job there.