by Karen Cardozo
In my last post I noted that it is increasingly likely that you may have to foray onto both Ac and Alt/Post markets simultaneously, and hence you will need to get comfortable with different application contexts.
For example: The Professor makes crystal clear in her highly useful Academic Cover Letter and CV webinar that the academic job application does NOT benefit from undue narrative gloss or streaks of personality. The harried and overworked academic search committee wants to “locate” you as quickly as possible with regard to stage of your career, scholarly areas of expertise, evidence of productivity and hence, tenureability, etc. They don’t want to hear your autobiography or the origin story of your dissertation (“I was commuting to campus, flipping between the Business and Lifestyle sections, when it hit me that I should write the history of the wedding planning industry!” There’ll be no Working Girl shining moment for you here*).
* Although, to take a lesson from Working Girl, the biggest risks reap the greatest rewards (such as having Harrison Ford pack your lunch on the first day of your wonderful new job). In the unlikely event that a search committee responds positively to your heartfelt and offbeat cover letter (which means you’ve ignored everything TPII advises), you will have found the Holy Grail: kindred spirits in academe!
In contrast, storytelling may actually be effective in an Alt/Post cover letter. For example, I know a lawyer who transitioned from a soul-crushing position in a large corporate firm to a satisfying small-town practice. In his cover letter, he summarized the impressive expertise he had gained at the big firm but explained that he had grown up in a rural area where a close family friend was an attorney much admired by the townsfolk. Being a community-based lawyer, wrote this applicant, was his dream job; he had only entered corporate practice to pay off his student loans. Can you imagine talking about dreams and loans in an academic cover letter?! Gawd help you if you do. Serious scholars don’t have dreams (or ‘fess up to historic levels of debt). They have second books or “future projects!”
Think of it from the hiring side in this nonacademic instance. In a small law firm, personality and character matter greatly to the collective, which is also co-dependent financially. The knee-jerk reaction of a small law firm would typically be: “we can’t match his corporate salary; he’s not going to be happy in this small practice, etc.” (This is similar to the dynamic of non-elite, small or rural colleges being skeptical of hiring folks from Ivy League or urban institutions, but academic search is still more likely to privilege the applicant’s pedigree over fit). This guy’s sincere story provided the rationale for his “downwardly mobile” move to small-time law and charmed his future partners. The emphasis here is on sincere, however. Such rhetoric rarely works as a mere strategy.
In another example of Ac vs. Alt difference, Dr. Karen is also very clear that your CV won’t benefit from superfluous information that detracts from your academic identity (e.g. sections on “Interests” or “Community Service” – unless the faculty position is framed around community engagement, and sometimes not even then). Academic search committees don’t WANT a whole person: they only want the half (or preferably 9/10ths) of you that is single-mindedly focused on getting tenure and helping the department and institution rise in the rankings. If they like or admire you personally, that’s a bonus, but mostly beside the point. Whether you are “interesting” is also beside the point.
But in organizations where people work in close proximity, in teams, or are otherwise together most of the time, the hiring side may care a good deal about likeability and fit. Here it is often the “Other” items on your resume (still appropriately listed at the bottom in a section like “Additional Skills/Interests”) that may capture the imagination of Alt/Post-Ac employers—especially if there is any sense that these “extras” could be vehicles for new business generation or improved community relations.
For example, let’s say the organization to which you’ve applied has a long-running competition with another organization in the city’s summer softball league. You just happen to have been an award-winning pitcher. In a saturated market where many applicants meet the requisite skills and experience requirements, THIS might be the nugget on a resume that distinguishes you! It may not be fair; it may not be right, but it is human – people are affinity-seeking organisms.
Providing a broader profile may appeal in other ways, too. Let’s say the resume notes that you are a musician. An employer may think that’ll make for more fun at the annual office holiday party. Or maybe the org promotes the creative arts and thus, although your job is not performance-related, your music background suggests that you will understand and support their mission. Or, let’s say your “Additional Activities” section mentions that you are actively involved in Relay for Life and it happens that the hiring manager has lost friends and family to the Big C. You’ve just won big points with her.
Allow me to state the obvious for a moment: getting a life is a huge asset in the Alt/Post-Ac search. While broadening your horizons runs counter to the single-minded focus of disciplinary culture and graduate school, it’s not only healthy but strategic to gain personal and professional experiences beyond the strictly academic (just don’t put them on your CV)! Especially if you haven’t yet gotten to the proverbial crossroads, see if you can begin to take a few steps down the “Alt/Post-Ac” path by adding some new contacts, activities, or alternative paid work to your bag of tricks.
An important caveat about all this: “additional skills and interests” are never THE reason you land the Alt/Post interview or job. Everything I’m saying is predicated on the assumption that you are already a convincing applicant: these other aspects just attract additional attention to you, in a positive way.
However. The more you reveal about your person or politics, the more you increase the chances that someone on the hiring side is going to misinterpret or not like something you’ve disclosed. Some people purposely use these “other” aspects on a resume as a litmus test of organizational values [e.g. listing queer activism or your affiliation with a particular political party].
A less risky choice might be to leave controversial stuff off the resume in hopes of landing the interview, and then take the face to face opportunity to put out feelers about your fit with organizational culture. Keep in mind that if you reveal nothing about the “real” you before accepting a job offer, a troublesome fit may ensue.
In any event, let’s say you’ve grasped the different norms of Ac vs. Alt presentation and are willing to attempt being one body on two paths. In my next post I’ll talk a bit more about how to handle the logistics and mindset.