Today’s post is a Special Request post for Amy, who wishes to know how the standard “dissertation” paragraph of the job letter should be adapted when the writer is well beyond dissertation stage.
This is a good question! Applying for jobs mid-career is remarkably tricky. It’s hard to know how to frame your research when it has moved on from the single, discrete dissertation project.
The key here is to stay specific, and show a scholarly trajectory from the dissertation to the present.
You want to have a “current project” that you will be able to describe with the same level of care and specificity that you once used for the dissertation. Begin with this current research. The project should be described in terms of the topic, the methods you’re using to address it, its significance, and the field-changing interventions that you are making through it. You will then follow this paragraph with a discussion of the publications that have derived or will derive from it.
The temptation for people beyond the dissertation is to mention two or three or four new avenues that they are pursuing….but this is a mistake. The candidate being hired as an advanced assistant professor still needs a coherent “second book project” (or series of articles) to get tenure. The candidate being hired with tenure will still be scrutinized for promotability to Full. These promotions hinge on the same kind of single-minded focus and productivity as the first project, under far more challenging conditions. A discrete and specific project, with a clear publishing trajectory, communicates this productivity.
The second (or third) project should be shown to arise organically from the original dissertation project and/or other major project that preceded it. These projects will be listed after the current research, and before the still-necessary “next project” paragraph.
It is not necessary to devote extensive verbiage in the letter itself to describing the old diss project, but it is important to reference it, in sentences like this:
“All of my work to date has been dedicated to using anthropological methods to study the impact on uranium mining on Native American populations in the U.S. southwest. From my dissertation, which focused on cancer narratives among Navajo miners in Arizona, to my current work, in which I turn to Havasupai activism against mining in the Grand Canyon, I have used oral histories and collaborative ethnography to construct a “bottom-up” analysis of the U.S. nuclear industry.”
This trajectory shows the kind of scholarly focus and consistency that search committees want to see in mid-career hires. This doesn’t mean you have to keep doing the same thing over and over. But you do need to be able to show that your general scholarly profile is going to remain somewhat consistent. In my own case I had a first project on Japanese women pursuing internationalized careers and life trajectories. My planned second project (which I never actually brought to fruition) was on Japanese alternative, back to the land communities and their connections to a global eco-movement. These projects are pretty different, but they are also: 1) both on Japan; 2) both on globalization; and 3) both on people who stray from the mainstream. That is the level of consistency I’m talking about.
Think about it from the department’s point of view. They want to know that the person they are hiring to fill a specific pedagogical and scholarly role is the scholar who will continue to do so for years into the future. They don’t want a dilettante, or someone easily distracted, or who is going to leave a bunch of graduate students who came to work on U.S. nuclear issues in the lurch when he suddenly switches over to a major project on Pacific Islander taro farming techniques.
Trajectory shows maturity and consistency and predictability. Again, this doesn’t mean you harp in a backward-looking way on a long-past dissertation. And it also doesn’t mean that you can’t pursue interesting new areas of research. Rather, you quickly and gracefully demonstrate the deep convictions and scholarly preoccupations that have continued to inspire you over many years.