#Dispatches From the Front, What Candidates Are Doing Wrong, Part III of III: “Don’t Forget the Basics”

In our new Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

Last week we put out the question: “Search committee members–what mistakes do you see candidates make? What do you wish they would understand and do better?”

And wow, did that strike a nerve. Previous weeks have gotten 5 to 7 responses. That question got….. 56 replies.

And they were LONG. And DETAILED. And AGGRAVATED. The reactions were so intense and so detailed that we actually recorded a special episode of the podcast to address them! It came out last Tuesday, Jan 28; find it here.

So today I present to you Part III of III: ““Don’t Forget the Basics: The Low-Hanging Fruit of the Job Search” It’s about some elements of the job search that are so basic, we don’t speak of them very often… but they matter!

Be sure and revisit Part I: “Do Your Homework, Please. PLEASE.”

And Part II: “We’re Human!”

In the meantime, we continue weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

And one explanatory note: we ask respondents to provide any personal identifying information in their own words that THEY consider pertinent to contextualize their responses. We don’t edit these except to guarantee anonymity. Some of the identifying language has struck us as odd, but as long as it is not offensive to anyone, we don’t censor it.

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Today’s collection encompasses the initial application documents and the interview stage. But, let’s start with the reminder to Just Apply For the Damned Job (JAFDJ) because… you just never know (what I call the “Principle of Job Market Unpredictability”):

“Apply! Don’t reject a job posting because it’s in a state you think you don’t want to live in. I almost missed what is basically my dream job–research support, collegial department, high quality of life for relatively low cost of living. I disclose that I’m female, Caucasian, and married to a man because moving to what seems like an undesirable location might be more difficult for someone concerned about building community or finding particular kinds of partnership. Even here, though, the university community is diverse in ways that I never would have expected. There are many cities and towns you never realized were not that bad for a t least a few years, or perhaps the place you never thought you’d call home for 7+ years, and now, indefinitely. ” (*Assistant Professor, Humanities **Caucasian, Female, Married to Man)

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Now, two responses replicated from prior posts, because they are pure gold on the Cover Letter and your whole application package. These repeat core TPII dogma: Send only what’s asked for! Stay within page limits and time constraints! Send as PDF!

“1. Research the program/college/univ. you are applying to. We can tell, via your materials, if you don’t do this.

2. Provide only what is asked for, show evidence of your claims, and adhere to page limits.

3. Upload all documents in PDF (NOT WORD OR ANYTHING ELSE… PDF only. end of conversation).

4. Read the call and tell us why you are a good candidate using the call language (this helps us when we are on packet 134 of 278).

5. Pay attention to time when on phone/zoom/skype. “Hi Carlos, we have 30 min and 6 questions to ask you, are you ready? GREAT!” <— do the math and stay on track. Also, have some ?s for the committee.

6. Campus interviews are long and grueling, be prepared to smile and be friendly all day long. Those of us who remember being on the market understand and remember, some have forgotten (How on earth could you ever forget that day).

7. Teaching Demo/Research Talk – be ready for students being awkward, technology to break, the power to go out, or it just not go like you had imagined. Be flexible, be engaging, and show us you can think on your feet. End with us wanting more!

8. Honestly, if you are on campus, we think you are a good fit academically, now we are checking to see if you can be social and be a good/helpful co-worker (There is a lot to do and we need help). We want to come to your office on Thursday afternoon and just shoot the shit for 45 min. We are looking for someone to do that with AS WELL AS do scholarly things with. We are human (well, most of us).

9. Meals are part of the interview process.”

(*Assistant Professor, STEM: Psychology **One of the smaller Cal State Campuses (<10,000 students): 40 year old, gay, white, male. First gen college graduate, partnered with another academic)

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“You’ve heard it before, but we are reading a tremendous number of applications. Make sure your application is organized and that the search committee can easily find the key points that connect your profile to the job ad. 

Make sure you look both tenurable (this issue has come up in search committee discussions at the elite SLAC where I work) and that you look interested in our job. Regarding the first point, if you’re just starting out and you don’t have a lot of publications yet, make it clear in your cover letter what your plan for publications is. Regarding the second, although once you get to the phone interview or campus visit stage you are deciding whether you want this job, don’t make us feel like you’re interviewing us. At this point we are tired (and we might be conducting more than one search at a time) so if you appear not 110% interested in the job, we will take your candidacy less seriously and move on to the next person.” (*Assistant Professor, Humanities **white cis woman in mid-30s)


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Please remember that your Cover Letter is the most important document because a) beyond the CV, it makes it clear what you’ve published and what you PLAN to publish, in a concise organized way, so as to showcase your tenurability — even if you are still ABD! and b) it is where you can outline (briefly!) the all-important issue of FIT.

“Your cover letter must “pop.” Remember that I may have to review 50+ application packages in addition to yours. I am lucky if I get to spend 15 minutes skimming the application you spent hours carefully crafting and polishing, and my first stop is your cover letter. Grab my attention and don’t let go!

How? Tell me why YOU are the best fit for THIS JOB. Go through the job ad line by line, and address every element in it. If the job ad asks you to address diversity, then you damn well better address diversity. Do your homework on the department you’re applying to, and name  names. Sending a generic, [insert-university-name-here] cover letter is the shortest path to the “no, thank you” pile.” (*Assistant Professor, Stem **I am a mixed race female in a STEM discipline.)

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“Do not send form letters or fail to answer specific prompts in the job post-read the whole thing to make sure you’re responding to any particular issues! Be more explicit in general-say how YOU FIT into the posting. If we say “successful candidates will…” you better say those things–we can’t make it any more clear how to succeed in this search! Make sure you describe your scholarship using keywords from the description so committee can easily fit you into the ad! We haven’t gone so far as to have HR staff screeners–yet!–but ask your friends with ‘real world’ jobs how to maximize your matches with the ads so you make it through the rough cuts. There are way too many applicants per job to scrutinize the letter, CV, and supplemental materials trying to contort you into our boxes– you have to use the words and phrases that show you fit. On the other hand, don’t ask non-academic friends/fam to help with cover letter ‘jazzy’ bits–the culture of academia is not such that you want to be like ‘I’m a dynamic go-getter who’s super psyched to join your cast of notables and scholar scholarship in the beautiful setting of your pristine campus’ — that’s very weird. Oh, and get the address right: if you don’t know who you are writing to (committee chair), just put to the faculty search committee, or maybe the department chair.” (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences **Gen Z, Black cis-woman, graduated from a “top” R1 program, now at an urban-serving uni)

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Before leaving the initial application stage, two CV pointers about the need for recent publications, that are organized so as to demonstrate which are published and which are just in progress.

“Under publications on CV or in cover letter, do not confuse already accepted or published papers with those that are merely submitted or being drafted.” (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **Mid 30s, white, female)

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“If applicants don’t have a few *recent* publications as well as university teaching experience, our committee (unfortunately) doesn’t even consider them.” (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **33, white, male, straight, married, at a large R1 state university.)

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Now on to the Interview stage. Respondents start with the obvious: PRACTICE.

“My advice would be to practice, practice, practice interviewing. Practice and get feedback until you’re sick of it. Out of the 30-or-so people I interviewed that year, I remember one man who absolutely nailed the interview questions. He was well-spoken, provided great examples, connected well through genuine interactions that communicated that he clearly cared about the interview, but he was not overly nervous. He used this as an opportunity to get to know us and tell us about him.

For many years I chaired the adjunct hiring committee for my department’s academic English program for international students at an R1 institution. I was responsible for receiving pre-screened applicants from HR, communicating with interviewees to set up a time to interview, interviewing the applicants with another faculty member, filling out an evaluation assessing the candidate, and turning in all of the documentation to my department’s HR person. I was also in charge of delegating other interviews to pairs of other interview committee members. The interviews all took place on Skype. The candidates that stood out to me the most were confident, had non-distracting well-lit backgrounds, asked good questions, and gave answers that were confident, and detailed, but not overly in either respect. The ones who seemed prepared got the highest marks. In my mind, I was looking for well-spoken, qualified people who could interact well in a volatile communicative environment that was my department or at least relate well to the other faculty. I was looking for self-starters who could survive with some or little supervision, but also people who could be educators that students could trust and have a positive learning experience. I was looking for people who had international teaching experience or language learning experience and could relate to the challenges of living and studying in another culture in addition to their teaching and light administration duties.”(*NTT, Humanities **white cis heterosexual married woman)  

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“I rehearsed possible questions and answers beforehand. When I say questions, I mean all possible questions that could be asked in an interview. I prepared bullet points which made it easy to navigate when being asked the questions. I refer to these points and just elaborated on them; I took my time in answering the questions and showed that I know the institution’s or department’s history or background and the that of the state–just like the locals.  I memorized some catchy phrases to use during the interviews where possible but not too aloof from how I conceptualize English– not too flashy idioms. I tried to show confidence that I know what I am talking about even if my sentences may be broken with some grammatical mistakes. Although some of my experiences and upbringing are international, I tried to connect my experiences to the USA, showed how these experiences brought richness to understanding my field and explained how I would utilize this in the potential position. In one instance, I even used a word from my native language and explained it. MAKE SURE TO BE COMFORTABLE WITH WHO YOU ARE. If they are interviewing you, that means that your CV is rich enough, so capitalize on that. And there is nothing wrong with saying that you are still learning so and so if asked a specific question particular to content you are not familiar with. Make sure to rehearse with American friends who could tell you where you may be vague or unclear, and The Professor is In’s help with interviews would ensure that you get to next stages… Good luck!” (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **37, white, female, married, social sciences)

A reminder once again that a good and successful interview is a dialogue! You actually WANT followup questions!

“If we ask you a follow up question it’s because you either did not answer the question or we think you have more to evidence to give to help support your case to be hired. Go with it, don’t get paranoid, panic you said nothing before, panic that you are doing badly, etc. We want to give someone the job and that person could be you.” (*Tenured Professor, Stem  **Female, 37, recently tenured, worked multiple contracts, UK academic )

There are of course gendered elements to all of this. While rambling is a common error, the opposite – an over-humble terseness – is almost worse. Don’t allow Imposter Syndrome to silence you.

“For women in particular, to answer questions fully, rather than briefly. I have been on committees unable to ask follow up questions, and candidates who are too succinct or humble miss the opportunity. I suggest asking how many questions there will be and how much time is allotted overall. Don’t use all the time but more than a sentence, please.”  (*Tenured Professor, Arts/Music/Theater **White, straight woman

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A reminder that things like eye contact and body language matter, and that both your responses and your body language communicate the all-important PEER status. Even if you’re still a graduate student, you are NOT a graduate student for the purposes of the interview.

 “Make eye contact! And, don’t be so deferential (see Karen’s advice on not acting like a grad student)” (*Assistant Professor, Humanities **UK-based 35 yr old cis white woman)

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And a final thought that wraps us back around to the topic of last week’s #Dispatches: Don’t forget that the search committee and everyone you meet is, in fact, human! While you must foreground the scholarly/teaching content, human connection matters too.

My department is interested in the “whole person,” not just research interests and academic training, so find ways to share your values and humanist interests if appropriate and opportunities arise in natural conversation. (*Grad Student, Humanities **Married White Female)

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Thanks to all our respondents! While we will share more responses from this question next week, we also have a new Dispatches Question for you:

Journal Editors: What do academics do wrong in the journal publication process What do you wish academics understood about how to get published in scholarly journals?

Go here to share YOUR advice. We can’t wait to hear from you!


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