Friday, October 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on Job Applications from One Reading Them

In just a few short days, the postmark deadline for the search on which I am serving will have passed, and all of the applications will be in. I have been reading them as they come in so as not to collapse under the weight of the whole stack or to suffer from total application fatigue trying to do them all in one or two sittings. I think this has been wise on my part, as we already have close to 100. I'm guessing that we'll end somewhere in the 160-180 range.

Others before me have done tons of great posts giving advice to job seekers from the other side of the table, and people give the "other side of the table" advice all the time over in the job seeking forum at the Chronicle, so I don't aim here to do an advice-giving sort of post. Rather, I just want to make some general observations, which may or may not be useful to others.

  • I'm astonished by how strong a good 75 to 80 percent of the applications are. I mean, they are phenomenal. So good that there are a lot of people who we could easily interview but we won't because they don't match quite as perfectly to our wish list of preferences. Heck, there are a good number of people who probably will get cut even though they've got ALL the preferred things. That's how great of a pool we have from which to choose. For what is not a "dream job" by any stretch. (I mean, I like it here and all, but come on. We're just not that great.)
  • While it is true that we all must stretch a bit to fit into a job advertisement, if a department is advertising for, oh, a Shakespeare scholar, say, and your dissertation is on Kathy Acker, chances are very good that you have wasted your time in sending us your stuff, even if you did teach a Shakespeare class once.
  • The most compelling letters I'm reading actually speak directly to the ad that we wrote. And that is making the difference in my rankings between people with similar CVs. I'm not talking about massive amounts of research and tailoring, here. Just people making a point of highlighting their accomplishments that match what we're looking for in the ad. So, say the ad asks for a person who has teaching or research competency in baklava and you've developed and taught a course in baklava, as well as giving a conference presentation on baklava. It's worth mentioning that.
  • Teaching experience is an interesting and tricky thing to evaluate. I'm finding that I'm less impressed by the sheer volume of courses taught than I am by range within the areas you would teach were you hired here. For whatever that's worth.
  • I find I don't care whether people lead with teaching or with research in their letter. What I care about is the balance of the two sections. Two pages on research with only a brief paragraph on teaching, for this place with a 4/4 load, well, just isn't that compelling, even if your research sets the world on fire. Makes no difference whether you put the teaching up front or at the end, in that case.
  • While we are not a research-heavy institution, I (and my colleagues) really care about hiring somebody who will have a research agenda and who will be able to maintain it with this teaching load. One way to show that's possible is to prove that you've successfully balanced teaching and research already. The applications I find least impressive fall into two camps: the people who've had cushy fellowships and very little teaching throughout grad school and who yet have only like one lame publication, and the people who apply for our gig because they don't have time for research in their current one, and so haven't published or presented at conferences for like 10 years. To both of these groups, I'd like to say, did you not notice the blurb about teaching load and public outreach in our ad? Where exactly do you think you're applying? The fact is, you're going to have to find a way to produce some kind of publication(s) to get tenure here, and it's not going to be easy. If you haven't shown that you can do it in your current circumstances, why would I think you can do it in this job?
  • I'm really glad I'm serving on this search. I love that I get to help in selecting a colleague who will thrive here.
  • But wow I'm tired. If doing a job search is like its own job, so, too, is serving on a search committee.


undine said...

Great post. There's a lot of good advice here.

PhysioProf said...

Interesting how many of the apps were excellent. In my experience over the years on at least one dozen search committees, fewer than 10 percent of the applications for tenure-track biosciences faculty positions are even credible.

Sisyphus said...

Hmm --- I hope that your points about tailoring and listing all your courses in the letter doesn't hold true for all search committees because I didn't bother to do that this year. Ah well.

Physioprof, I hear that history gets weird applications from retired lawyers and civil war buffs who have never taught or taken a history class, but no one at my school has said anything like that for our English searches.

Dr. Crazy said...

Sis, I seriously wouldn't worry about it. It's only made a difference to me when it's not immediately clear from a person's research that they have competency in one of our preferred areas. Example: somebody did their dissertation on James Joyce. But we're not hiring a Joyce scholar - we're hiring a modernism scholar. If you don't talk about that survey of modernism course you taught, I might not see it if it's buried in a list of courses a mile long on your cv.

I do NOT recommend doing actual research on the courses in a school's catalog and trying to explain how you'd teach them at this early stage. Knowing that we call the survey English 238 is not going to get a person an interview.

Historiann said...

Thanks, Dr. C.--your experience tracks with mine from the early 2000s, when I was on three hiring committees in a row. (Back when we were hiring, that is...) But it sounds like people are making more of an effort to tailor their applications to your institution and department, which is all to the good.

Sisyphus, I've never seen an application from a buff for a history faculty job, but I have seen a lot of what Crazy describes as just plain wrong for the job kind of people: wrong training, wrong field, wrong wrong wrong. And definitely a waste of time and energy.

I appreciated your thoughts, Dr. C., about the ordering of teaching versus research. I always talk about research first, and think it's odd when people don't, but so long as they address both teaching and research that's fine with me. (I will say that there's only so much to be said about teaching in an application letter, and IMHO that section should be scrubbed of as much jargon and as many teaching bromides as possible.)

I see the discussion of research in application letters as a place where we can see the teaching in action: if someone can effectively explain the scope and significance of their work to non-experts, and get us excited about it, that's some damn fine teaching right there.

hylonome said...

I was on a search last year, for which there were hundreds (literally) of applicants. While our pool wasn't as strong as yours, we ended up with 80 excellent candidates from which to choose. 80. So we winnowed and narrowed according to what the department had identified as needs, while trying to identify candidates who would also bring something new to our students in terms of focus. I found this process exhausting and, at times, devastating.

From my perspective, there's one other tidbit of advice I'd offer job seekers. Don't spend the money (really) to overnight an application. When making your list of jobs, move all the deadlines forward by a week. This not only saves you money, but also makes sure your application is in the middle of the pile; I found that fewer candidates in the first and last batches of files moved forward, an effect, I believe, of the psychology of file reading.

(not) just another girl said...

you note that people need to find the time for research, but please help me figure out how the hell to do that while teaching 5-6 courses at 2 or 3 different schools a semester, and still having to pick up some kind of temp work to make ends meet. or am I, as I suspect, completely screwed and I might as well give up now, even though I've only had my degree a year.

A full time, decently paid 4/4 load with health insurance seems like the freakin' holy grail right now.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the PhysioProf. After 6 hiring committees in English in 12 years (don't ask), I'd put 10% as the absolute maximum number of applications that we get that I'd term "on target."