The Scholarly Life: Applying for Your First Job
By Carson Holloway on Wednesday, Jul 14 2010
During the first week of the 2010 Lehrman Summer Institute, I led a workshop for the fellows and other participants that identified some ways that young academics can prepare themselves for the job market. I am posting a written version of that advice in the hope that it might prove useful to current and past fellows and other members of the LASC community.
Preparation for the job market can be usefully divided into two categories: long-term or distant preparation, on the one hand, and immediate or proximate preparation, on on the other. The former refers to the things that a young academic should be doing throughout graduate school that will make him or her better qualified for any academic post and that will allow him or her to stand out from the crowd of other applicants. The latter refers to good practices that should be observed when you actually apply for a specific job and participate in an interview.
Long-term preparation involves two things especially:
1. Build a record of professional scholarship, by publishing some things if you can, but certainly by presenting papers at professional conferences. One of my mentors said to me once: “If a paper is worth writing for class, it is worth presenting at a conference. And if it is worth presenting, it is worth publishing.” That is good advice. Now, realistically, you will not present every seminar paper you do. But it is possible to build a fairly regular schedule of paper presentations (once a semester, or once a year) that are derived from work you had to do anyway, as part of your coursework or dissertation. (If you are presenting dissertation chapters, you get the added benefit that the conference deadlines will serve as incentives that will help drive the dissertation to completion.) And if you do this throughout your time as a PhD student, you will have a nice record of scholarly accomplishment by the time you go on the job market. When people consider hiring you, they will be concerned about (among other things) whether you can win tenure. If you begin by showing them an already existing record of professional scholarship, which indicates that you have a solid academic work ethic (and that you like to do scholarly work), you will have reassured them on a major point and will have already distinguished yourself from many applicants. It can be hard to get on the program at your national conference (and expensive to attend), and it is certainly hard to get published in the major journals. But, if you are persistent, it is not as hard as you might think to get on the program at some reputable conference and to get published in some decent journal. It is worth the effort.
2. Get teaching experience. If you are in a program that offers you the opportunity to get teaching experience, you should take it. If you have served as a teaching assistant, you will stand out from other applicants who have not. If you have been able to teach your own class as the instructor of record, you will stand out a great deal from non-teachers and even teaching assistants. This experience will also allow some of your recommenders to say something specific about your teaching in a letter of recommendation. If you have been a teaching assistant, it will be easy for him or her to do so. If you get to teach you own course, ask someone you consider to be a mentor and a potential letter-writer to visit your class. It will only cost that person, say, an hour some afternoon, but it will allow him or her to write you a much stronger letter when the time comes. If your program does not offer these opportunities, try to do some adjunct work at a nearby institution that needs it.
These two things are important because the people on a search committee have two major interests, both of which are advanced if you already have a record as a scholar and teacher. First, they want to minimize risk. They don’t want to hire someone who will wash out of the tenure process because of non-publication, and they don’t want to hire a bad teacher. Second, they want to minimize their own effort. Because the work of a search committee can be extremely time consuming for already busy people, they want to find easy ways to winnow a large number of applicants to a more manageable pool. The first and most obvious way to do this is to elevate the applications of people who have already completed their degrees. A second way is to further elevate those who have scholarly and teaching experience.
Proximate Preparation involves attention to the initial application and the interview (should you advance to that final stage)
1. Completing the application package:
- A. Include everything they ask for. Make a checklist to ensure that you have enclosed each piece of information the ad calls requests. This may seem obvious, but those serving on serach committees not infrequently encounter incomplete applications. Such applications are not likely to receive very serious consideration.
- B. Tailor your letter to the specific institution to which you are applying. You should have a kind of template for your application that explains why you are, in general, a strong academic. But you should adapt that general letter to every position to which you apply, so that it explains why you are a good fit for that specific position at that specific university. The job ad will lay out the things that they want, and your letter should address those things explicitly, laying out why you are prepared to do them. You can even quote from the job ad in your letter and address it point by point.
- C. Choose your recommenders with care. It goes without saying that you want people who think highly of you and your work. But, beyond that, you have to consider just how much time and care the recommender is likely to put into the letter. So you have to think about how committed the potential person is to his or her students, and how busy he or she is. A very enthusiastic but somewhat brief and perfunctory letter might not be that impressive to the hiring committee members who read it. More impressive might be a letter that not only praises you but gives concrete examples of your virtues.
- 2. The interview
- A. Be prepared to explain how you fit the specific needs of the department that is considering you, and express an interest in teaching the things that they want you to teach, and, in general, doing the tasks that they think they need done. Some candidates act as if their general merits alone will carry the day, but this can be a mistake. A highly qualified candidate who shows little interest in the specific requirements of the position might be less attractive than a slightly less impressive one who demonstrates real interest them.
- B. Do research on the university or college, and on your colleagues, so that you can converse intelligently about the job. If the department is small enough, you can check out the website and get to know everybody’s teaching and research interests. If it is too big, you can at least do it for those who will be your closest colleagues in your subfield.
- C. Carefully prepare and rehearse the presentations you will have to make as part of the interview. Most institutions will have you give a presentation on your research to the faculty, or they will have you teach a class. Many places will have you do both. If you get to choose the topic of a teaching presentation, use a topic on which you are particularly good. You may, however, just get plugged into some class and assigned a topic that is not your best. In that case, don’t despair! Remember you only have to do it well enough for an undergraduate class, for about 50 minutes. You can get a few text books and prepare something fine. Moreover, your potential colleagues will no doubt appreciate that you have been forced into teaching something that is not one of your natural strengths and for which you have had limited time to prepare. Accordingly, they will probably be more interested in the quality of the presentation as a way of conveying ideas to undergraduates, and not so much in your showing yourself to be a world-class scholar. Finally, nowadays, it might be good to come armed with a power-point presentation and an outline to hand out for the students. For your reserach presentation, remember that most of the people in the room will not share your scholarly specialization. It is therefore important to make sure that everything is crystal-clear for them. Also, make sure you offer some sort of introduction that explains why what you are doing is important to the larger discipline. This will help them to feel interested in your topic and will give them a chance to offer intelligent comments on it. It will also reassure them that you will be a successful publishing scholar, since publication in mainstream journals often requries that you show how your work is of broad interest.
- D. Prepare a list of questions they are likely to ask you, and prepare answers to them. Possibilities include: What is your philosophy of teaching? How would you structure such and such a class? What texts would you use in such and such a class? Beyond the courses you are required to teach, what new courses would you like to develop? Beyond your dissertation (or whatever is your current or most recent big project), what research do you plan to prepare in the future?
- E. Prepare a list of questions you have about the program, the university, the community, and anything else that is relevant. Make sure you have it handy or memorized. It is likely that the people you meet will ask you if you have questions for them, and if you don’t have any you miss out on an opportunity to get valuable information, as well as looking like you are not that interested. And if you interview with numerous people in the department, don’t hesitate to ask them the same questions if necessary. You will be getting different perspectives, and, again, looking to each person like you are interested in the job.
Following the advice above cannot guarantee that you will succeed in winning any particular position, since the process always involves factors beyond your knowledge and control (such as the quality of the other candidates and the inclincations of those doing the hiring). Following it will, however, maximize your chances to find employment; and making such "best practices" habitual will, over time, lead to a more fruitful academic career.