What Inside Candidates Persist in Doing Wrong

Today’s post looks directly at the question of the inside candidate.

It goes without saying that most people on the job market fiercely resent the inside candidate, assuming that he or she has endless advantages over external applicants.

I am here to say that in my experience, this is not true. Indeed, I have more often seen the opposite. I see insider candidates NOT getting the job more often than not, and then being subjected to particularly dreadful, awkward, painful interactions with the department for months or years as they continue on in a temporary or adjunct contract while the tenure track search and hire proceeds in front of them.

The reason that insider candidates tend to do poorly, in my observation, is that they misunderstand the difference between an adjunct and a tenure track search.

Adjunct hiring is often decided based on personal relationships, but tenure track hiring almost never is. Tenure track hiring is absolutely cutthroat, and is dominated by an ethos of “desire for the unattainable.” This means that the unknown, who promises seemingly limitless possibility for achievement and contribution, will almost always prevail over the known.

The only way that the known can compete with the unknown is to present themselves IDENTICALLY to the unknown candidates. That is, by submitting materials that make little or no reference to pre-existing relationships in the department,and articulate a scholarly profile completely independent of the department.

I have had three insider candidates come through the doors of The Professor Is In this fall, and all three made the identical mistake—they wrote letter drafts that were entirely relationship-based. The letters were hyper-emotional, mind-bogglingly pandering, and depended on a completely unprofessional second person pronoun (you). The word that I found myself thinking, as I read them, was “smarmy.”

It goes without saying, smarmy does not get tenure track jobs.

Here are some examples of this kind of writing (these are made-up examples inspired by actual letters, but with details changed)

“It has been an enormous pleasure and privilege to teach at your department and I would be honored to continue on in a permanent capacity.”

“I have been deeply impressed by your commitment to student mentoring and have striven to improve my own mentoring skills during my past year here.”  

“As you know, my course on Whitman was very popular! I of course benefited from the Whitman resources that we are fortunate to have at our library.”

“I was honored to be given the duty of directing our Undergraduate Major Association and in that capacity I organized pizza and movie nights, which our students told me were the highlight of the semester.”

I’ll be blunt. It is hard for me overstate my distaste for verbiage such as this. Really, people. Have some dignity. Some self-respect.

It is not coincidental that all of these clients were women.

Women are particularly prone to this kind of relationship-talk, and to assuming that their “niceness,” teaching, and service efforts will win friends and influence people.

What niceness, teaching and service do, for an adjunct, is ensure that you are a perpetual adjunct.

The tenure-track candidate, by contrast, sells herself on her profile as a scholar. Even at a teaching-oriented school, the tenure-track hire is a scholarly hire—that scholar will simply spend relatively more time teaching.

And scholarship is not warm and fuzzy. Scholarship is rigorous. It is done at a high level of expertise, and it is, by its very nature, not easily accessible to people outside the field. The proper ethos of a scholar applying for a tenure track job will always rest on an aura of expertise that is NOT “nice” but maintains a certain professional distance and dignity. That does not mean behaving like an entitled asshole. It does mean remembering that they want you for what they DON’T see, but respect nevertheless, which is your expertise and authority in the field, or your particular niche in the field.

In short, the tenure track search is about making THEM want YOU. If you pander to them, cater to them, overtly appeal to them, and try to play off of pre-existing personal relationships and your ethos of “giving” to the department, you are defining yourself as, fundamentally, NOT TENURE TRACK MATERIAL.

I won’t say men never do this, but if there was ever a pitfall that women are particularly prone to, this is it.

So, insider candidates: everything that I write in my posts about how to write a cover letter, and a teaching statement, and tailor a letter, and articulate a second project (this one in particular!!!), and how to handle an interview, and not act like a grad student, etc., you must do in spades. Your professional identity must be infallible.

In short, boiled down to its core, the message to the inside candidate for the tenure track job search is: play hard to get.

 

 

Job Market Horror Stories, Part I: The Rescinded Offer

This is another guest post by a reader who shall remain anonymous.  This reader kindly wrote in response to my request for stories about “rescinded offers.”  The stories here are alarming, although in this reader’s case, they have a happy ending.

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This past year, when I was on the job market, academic colleagues would often ask me how the search was going. When with friends, I often replied that I was having a terrible time on the market. But when they pressed me for details, and I admitted that I had had several on campus visits that led to offers, they often withdrew, their faces expressing disbelief and irritation. How could that possibly constitute a ‘terrible’ time on the market?

For me, it wasn’t the applications or the interviews, or even the grinding anxiety and looming sense of despair I felt about the possibility of not securing an academic position—any academic position. Instead, ironically, for me the worst part of the overall experience was what happened after I received offers for positions.

While I did ultimately receive—and happily accept—an offer from an institution that could not have been more honest, open, generous, or gracious in its dealings with me, I also experienced an astounding degree of dishonesty in my post-offer interactions with others. My hope is that I emerged the wiser—and much more cautious—and that my experiences can serve as cautionary tales and lessons for others who are on the market or advising current job seekers.

My first on-campus interview was at a major research university where I was in the midst of a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in an affiliated program. There had been open anticipation in the department and program for several months that a line for a TT position in my field would open up that year (and that I might be hired for it) and so I had a substantial amount of time to ponder what I thought of as my dream job.

I was fortunate enough to receive a request for an on-campus interview and did so along with several other candidates. Several weeks later, to my great delight, I was offered the position in person by the department Chair. I was assured at the time that the offer had the support of the Dean of the College—and that an offer in writing would follow within a certain (very short) number of business days. In the same meeting, I was encouraged to immediately generate and submit my requests for a start up package, salary, and even a spousal hire, but explicitly told to not tell anyone about the offer.

In hindsight, I realize that this should have been my first hint that this much desired offer might not be as firm as I thought. Indeed, a few days later, when I returned as scheduled to receive the offer in writing and engage in formal negotiations, I was told by the teary-eyed Chair, without any preface, that the Dean had reconsidered, re-evaluated the other applicants, and in light of my comparatively lower qualifications (I had received my doctorate very recently and several of the other candidates were tenure track faculty at other institutions), decided to rescind the offer. In fact, an offer had already been made to one of the other candidates, while I was still ecstatically pricing supplies for my start up.

For me the trial wasn’t quite over yet, though. As a so-called “inside candidate”, my feelings of humiliation and disbelief weren’t allowed to recede in the anonymity of a far off department. Instead, I got to hear, second hand, about how negotiations with the second candidate were proceeding. None of the faculty ever mentioned the subject again, but as I was currently teaching in the department, every day of the next few months brought strained, vague but sympathy-filled interactions or averted eyes and outright avoidance, and conversations that ended abruptly when I walked in the door.

In the end, months after the offer had presumably been negotiated with the second candidate, I received an impersonal form letter informing me that the position had been successfully offered to another; someone had used a pen to correct the letter to reflect that I had been on the short list.

A request for an on-campus interview at another, smaller university quickly followed my cataclysmic meeting with the Chair and provided a much needed distraction. I had a very successful, warmth-filled on-campus interview, and spent almost two months hoping for an offer.

After sending a feeler e-mail to the Chair, I was delighted to hear, by e-mail, that an offer was in the works. But when the Chair called with the specifics a few days later, I was deeply underwhelmed by the offer, which included a salary and start-up that were profoundly below disciplinary, regional, and even university-level averages.

The written version, which followed quickly afterwards, was even more inauspicious; it failed to state that the position was tenure track (as advertised), offered only a one year contract, supplied vague statements about the teaching load, and indicated that the offer was “tentative.” My request for a slightly increased salary and start up were met with a statement from the Dean, communicated through the Chair, that they refused to negotiate unless I could supply a print copy of a competing offer from another university. Only a day before I was required to respond to the offer, I received an e-mail from the Chair offering minor adjustments, but providing dramatic clarifications on the teaching load: that only a nine month contract was being offered but teaching summer sessions was mandatory (and thus unpaid), that the course load for the academic year was much higher than previously stated…and that I now needed to respond to the offer hours before the previously specified deadline.

In an instance of incredible luck, I received an offer from my present employer just hours before the new deadline and was able to politely refuse this second offer.

Since then, from a position of safety, I’ve learned through limited conversations with colleagues and months of fervent late night browsing of posts on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, the Academic Jobs Wiki, and numerous other academic blogs run by professors and graduate students alike that my experiences are not exactly the norm but certainly not solitary anomalies. Academic job seekers increasingly find themselves in a ‘buyer’s market’ for academic positions. University administrators and department chairs are under intensifying pressure to justify every new addition to the faculty and to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ in research output and grant acquisitions from these hires.

In these environs, my experiences—and those I have learned of from others—have taught me a few lessons that I hope may be of use to others.

First, don’t believe anything until you have it in writing. By this, I mean a formal offer letter, such as from the Dean, not an e-mail. This may seem like a tired trope, but when you’ve been dragging it out on the job market for months—or years—a hint of an offer over the phone or by e-mail from the Chair can seem like a tremendous relief. Keep in mind though, that only when you have an offer in writing, for example, do you have a legally defensible position should anything go awry in the proceedings. Promised benefits, teaching loads, and other aspects of the position can and may change between the conversations you had with the Chair and the Dean during your interview, and the specifics of the offer when it actually arrives.

(Note of advice: keep written notes on your conversations during your interview (and let them see you doing it), and save every single e-mail. A paper trail can be critical for navigating the potentially tortuous route of negotiations).

Chairs and search committees select their preferred candidate and recommend them to the Dean. At this point, I have learned that many optimistic (or potentially imprudent) Chairs may alert the candidate that an offer is in the works. But that this is merely a recommendation is the key point.

The great majority of Deans do accept the choice of the department, trusting that their faculty know best how to evaluate their peers. But some Deans do not, perhaps because of internal politics, conflicts, or feuds that exist between the Dean, the Provost, the Chair, or even the department itself. These pressures can exert an influence on the acceptance of a candidate, the leeway given to negotiate, and other aspects of the process, that you have no way of anticipating (even if you are an “inside candidate”).

Some universities have developed a reputation for recalcitrant Deans, but the experience is obviously not uniform, even there. A thorough searching of chat rooms, blogs, and advice columns for academic job seekers will reveal the occasional traumatized soul who, like myself, had what seemed like a such a sure thing over the phone or by e-mail ripped out from under them. Stay on your guard; only when a formal, signed offer letter has arrived should you breathe anything resembling a sigh of relief.

Second, don’t believe it necessarily even when you have it in writing. As a job candidate, you may be fortunate enough to be selected by a school that is honest, gracious, transparent, and highly communicative, as I was with the institution where I now work. However, many of us are not, or have experiences with less than professional entities along their career trajectory. As I learned with my second offer, not all offer letters are alike. While the second university’s offer letter looked ambiguous to me, I certainly didn’t have the experience to know just how many loopholes and gaps it actually presented. Be cautious and considerate as to whom you show the letter to—you don’t necessarily know whom the other candidates for the job might be—but make sure to show the offer letter to your adviser, other seasoned faculty members, and your current Chair if you can (who is likely to be very well versed in the language of hiring and negotiations).

Negotiations are extremely intimidating (especially for women, as many studies have shown), and yet they really are the sole opportunity you have to clarify every aspect of the position you are about to legally commit to (I’ve heard stories from senior faculty of candidates who, eager to play the odds or fighting for time while waiting for another offer, will sign and return an offer letter only to refuse the position when a better offer arrives, but remember, once it’s in writing (and signed), both sides are technically legally bound to the agreement).

In addition to the excitement of negotiating for start up funds or course release, make sure that you understand and agree with all of the technicalities of the position (teaching load can be especially slippery as multiple sections of a given course can hide behind that simple semester to semester ratio, and summer teaching responsibilities can slip in unnoticed sometimes). Make sure all ambiguities are resolved and that everything is specified to the letter because there won’t really be opportunities to alter the contract later (unless you land an external offer). This is it, and you have to make sure that you will be able to live on the salary, manage the teaching load, and afford the time and costs necessary for research. Give yourself time to do this as well.

Translating between the Dean, the Provost, the Chair, and you can take days, let alone when you need to truly negotiate and a counter-offer has to be produced. Also, while I didn’t have this particular experience, keep in mind that the vaults of the internet occasionally yield a truly awful tale of a print, in hand offer letter being rescinded by the Dean in the midst of negotiations. This is your time to secure the details of your future position, but make sure to not let confidence override your sense of caution. The administration and the department have their own objectives and needs, and deafly or blindly pushing too hard might not just yield a hostile resentment from your colleagues when you arrive for you start date, it might also, in our buyer’s market, yield a rescinded offer. Be cautious and do not fall into overconfidence.

Lastly (and this may be the hardest to swallow for the most recession-weary and embittered job seekers) inside candidates don’t necessarily receive copious advantages, nor are they the certain recipient of the position. Conversations preserved on the Academic Jobs Wiki show the flurry of anger and pessimism that often arise when it is revealed that there is an inside candidate at the school offering an advertised job position. The advantages of being ‘on the inside’ have been discussed at length elsewhere and I won’t repeat them. The disadvantages are often brought up to the counter them—namely that you don’t have the appealing glimmer of novelty and your history with the department and the search committee may not be uniformly positive and collegial.

The disadvantage not often discussed is that as an inside candidate, especially in the gossip-filled, incestuous little world of academic departments, you will be witness to every single step of the hiring process. You will see—or at least hear of—the other candidates when they come to interview, and the angst of this will likely be heightened by the fact that if your field is small, you are likely to know them as colleagues, if not as friends. In most situations, especially as the inside candidate is unlikely to have a nepotistic relationship with the Dean or Provost, all of the candidates have a roughly equal chance at the position before the interviews occur—it’s why you made it onto the short list, after all.

Be optimistic, but overall be cautious. The toughness and unpredictability of the job market doesn’t grind to a halt when the offer arrives.

 

How To Describe a Course (In an Interview)

Today I am going to devote the post to a brief but vital explanation of how to describe, in an interview, a course you propose to teach. I am doing this as a result of Interview Bootcamps lately, in which one candidate after another falls down while attempting to describe the courses they hope to teach.

It doesn’t matter the course—the Intro course, the graduate methods seminar, or one of the candidate’s own proposed specialty courses—In every case, people just say the wrong thing. Sometimes it’s too much information, sometimes it’s too little. It’s almost always incomplete.

So, here, Dear Readers, is the basic rule of describing a course:

1. title and main takeaway point

2. textbook/s (if low undergrad) or readings (if high undergrad/grad) with brief explanation/justification

3.  Broad organization of the course, with about 3 “landmarks”

4. examples of innovative assignments

5. Conclusion

 

Let me describe each point in more detail.

Title: The title should be engaging, and have appeal to students. The course should be carefully calculated to appeal to the department and the job. Just today I was speaking with a Renaissance specialist applying to a Renaissance job, whose first proposed course,, a fascinating course indeed, included readings by Don Delillo. Now, she may well, after being hired, get to teach such a course. But at the interview stage? No. The course she proposes, in the brief 20 minutes that she has in the conference interview, must relate directly to the Renaissance.

After the title, one to two sentences will describe the topic of the course in the context of the discipline, IF it is a new course, and not one already on the books.  If the course is one on the books, then no explanation of it is necessary.

Example: I would like to teach a course called “Japan Imagined.” It will explore representations of Japan in Western accounts from the 17th century to the present, focusing on shifts that accompany Japan’s changing political and economic status vis-a-vis the West.

Takeaway Point: One sentence will describe the point that you want students to take away from the course.

Example: The point I want students to take away is that “Japan,” and by extension any country, is not a fixed and unchanging entity, but rather a set of representations that are constantly shifting and adapting to reflect economic and political conditions and anxieties.

Textbook/Readings: This is the part that almost everyone forgets. Why, I don’t know. Isn’t it obvious that you need to include the readings as a major element of a course? Anyway, briefly sketch the major readings in one to two sentences.

Example: We’ll read  John Dower’s War Without Mercy, and Anne Allison’s Millenial Monsters, to get a sense of the scholarship on the politics of representation in a context in which Japan actively produces its own global self-representations, and I’ll have students read primary documents such as Portuguese explorer accounts, Commodore Perry’s journal, and WWII propaganda.

Broad Organization of the Course with “Landmarks”:  You will quickly, in one-two sentences, sketch the organization of the course, beginning–>middle–>end.  This is NOT an exhaustive week by week, topic by topic description of the entire course, which will bore your listeners to tears.

Example:  We will start with Portuguese explorers and move through Commodore Perry and the American “opening” of Japan, WWII and the Occupation, and Japan’s rise in the 1980s, ending with the current global dominance of Japanese anime, manga, and video gaming systems.

Assignment: One sentence on a memorable assignment—NOT small groups, or research papers, or class discussion, but something really MEMORABLE.

Example: I have the students play video games such as Tekken or Pokemon and do an in-class demonstration of the Japanese cultural and linguistic elements in each game, and report on the ways that these elements are discussed in the internet discussion boards devoted to the games.

Conclusion:  One sentence that links the course to the wider course catalog, curriculum, or departmental agenda. This proves that you think like a colleague who understands that anything you teach must work within a larger curricular logic.

Example:  In this way students gain a foundation in contemporary Japanese history and Japan’s image vis-a-vis the West that they can carry forward with them into subsequent courses in the major.

In sum, in seven brief sentences you will summarize the course in a dynamic, memorable way, anticipating major questions and leaving no gaps:

“I would like to teach a course called “Japan Imagined.” It will explore representations of Japan in Western accounts from the 17th century to the present, focusing on the shifts that accompany Japan’s changing political and economic status vis-a-vis the West. The point I want students to take away is that “Japan,” and by extension any country, is not a fixed and unchanging entity, but rather a set of representations that are constantly shifting and adapting to reflect economic and political conditions and anxieties. We’ll read  John Dower’s War Without Mercy, and Anne Allison’s Millenial Monsters, to get a sense of the scholarship on the politics of representation in a context in which Japan actively produces its own global self-representations, and I’ll have students read primary documents such as Portuguese explorer accounts, Commodore Perry’s journal, and WWII propaganda.  The course will start with Portuguese explorers and move through Commodore Perry and the American “opening” of Japan, WWII and the Occupation, and Japan’s rise in the 1980s, and end with the current global dominance of Japanese anime, manga, and video gaming systems. In the class, I have the students play video games such as Tekken or Pokemon, do an in-class demonstration of the Japanese cultural and linguistic elements in each game, and report on the ways that these elements are discussed in the internet discussion boards devoted to the games.In this way students gain a foundation in contemporary Japanese history and Japan’s image vis-a-vis the West that they can carry forward with them into subsequent courses in the major.”

 

The Unknown and Unknowable of the Job Market

Today’s post is a guest post from a reader who shall remain anonymous.  She shares her experiences with what she calls the “Unknown and Unknowable” aspects of the job search.  Her message is invaluable:  stay loose, flexible, and open to sudden reversals of fortune.  There are things you can control, and then there are things you can’t–and sometimes those turn out to be the most important.

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After two years on the job market, I accepted my dream job:  a tenure-track position in an interdisciplinary college at a big research university.  I was recruited for a search committee not long after stepping on campus and, hardly recovered from what I’d been calling “Job Market PTSD” [KK:  I happen to have a post by this very name!], I was re-immersed in the process—albeit from the other side.  Turning a critical eye over the past few months to my—and now others’—tactics, approaches, and experiences on the job market, I’ve realized that—and rightly so—much of the information and advice that we job-seekers receive focuses on how tilt the market’s myriad factors in our favor.  For example, we work from the first year in graduate school to stack a stellar CV; we spend time cultivating the most flattering recommenders; we slave to craft the perfect job letter; we rehearse our job talks and interview answers with anyone willing to listen, until they are memorized but appear unrehearsed; we polish writing samples down to the footnote; we scour the aisles at Nordstrom Rack for the perfect Tahari suit, marked down to fit our pauper budgets; and we strive to master the fine art of professional-yet-personal hair and make-up.

Of course, with the stakes this high, it’s only natural to try to control what we perceive to be controllable.  What’s missing from this, I think (and, as if we needed one more thing to worry about), is an awareness of and preparation for what my CrossFit coaches would call “the UNKNOWN and the UNKNOWABLE”.  In this “sport of fitness”, an athlete has to be ready for whatever (those seemingly sadistic) judges dream up—scaling walls, carrying sandbags, throwing down burpees, running, lunging, and jumping rope—just as you have to be ready for any question, talk scenario, or interview setting the committees throw at you while on the market.

Let me give you two examples of the unknown and unknowable from my own job hunt last year.

First:  after what I thought was a mediocre-at-best phone interview, I was cut from the pool for what I’d imagined would be a dream job.  Already experiencing moderate success during the second year on the job market, I was disappointed but put the rejection behind me, moving on to prep for the other interviews that were beginning to dot the calendar.  Just after the holidays, however, I received an email from the search chair apologizing for “the confusion” and inviting me to campus.  I hardly stopped to question the reversal, and seized the opportunity.  A few weeks later I went to campus, where I was charmed by the job, the university, and my potential colleagues.  I went home with my fingers crossed and two weeks later I accepted their offer.

I haven’t spent much time since wondering about the reversal of fortune, and accepted at face value what has been explained to me as an “error”.  What was strange about this experience, however, is that it happened to me twice during the last application cycle:  the day after accepting my current position, I received another campus invite in a search from which I had previously been cut following a conference interview.

I raise these examples not to suggest that the “thanks but no thanks; wait, but yes, please” phenomena is something to keep fingers crossed for, but as an example of the ways in which we need to be open and flexible on the job market—ready for the unknown and the unknowable.  Given the insecurity of the market, it would be easy to get bitter following rejections, or to take a rejection personally, rather than as a symptom of much larger forces at play.  While at the time I did allow myself to wonder—as any insecure academic is prone to do—whether the invitation was a mistake, I am glad I didn’t dwell too much on it.  As a result of some unknown and unknowable factors, I am now firmly invested in my dream job, and I feel confident that we are all happy things worked out the way they did.

Here’s another example of the role of the “unknown and the unknowable”, and of the virtues of being open to change and chance on the job market:  In between the campus visit described above and receiving my offer, I visited three other campuses.  One was a small school in the south with which I had had what I can only describe as an awesome conference interview:  Things had gone so well, in fact, that the search chair gave me a fist bump!  Subsequent conversations with the department chair had been encouraging, and I was excited about the unique aspects of the job at this particular university.

By the time the bread arrived at the first night’s dinner, however, it seemed that everything that could go wrong, was:  a faculty member knocked my graduate school and training; I wasn’t getting the sarcasm and inside jokes of the faculty members; the newest junior faculty confessed that he routinely fainted from over-work and exhaustion; and, just when I was considering breaking my no-wine-at-dinner rule to take the quickly-building edge off, I learned it was a dry town.  Ready for a fresh start the next morning, I approached the morning meetings with optimism, spirits rising after conversations with fantastic potential colleagues.  While on the town tour I was determined not to let rumors of local homophobia get me down, but I deflated a bit upon our return when a junior faculty divulged that there was a homicidal student loose on campus.   Then, just as I was preparing to give my job talk, I learned that my increasingly-anticipated evening flight out was cancelled indefinitely, due to a blizzard that had begun to blanket the Midwest.  By dinner, I’d learned that the earliest I’d be leaving was three days later.  With another candidate slated to come in, and work that they needed to accomplish in the interim, it wasn’t an ideal situation for the university’s faculty either.

After discussions with the department chair, we determined I had two choices:  retreat to the guest house to watch Netflix and order in for the next three days (a tempting proposition, given how little I’d relaxed in the last few months), which would allow me to stay out of the hair of the search committee and avoid risking unfairly prejudicing myself with the committee (either positively or negatively).  Or, I would cowgirl up and embrace department- and university-life as much as possible during my extended stay.

 Ultimately, it wasn’t really a choice:  I decided to take the department up on their hospitality.  I had breakfast at a local greasy spoon with a lovely faculty member I hadn’t met in the previous two days; I poked around the campus and library; the Chair took me for a tasty lunch and to a big box bookstore to buy a few novels for my evenings at the guest house; I attended two classes, and got a really good sense of the students I’d be teaching; a faculty member invited me to dinner at his home, where I met his lovely wife and sweet children; I got a tour of the nearby city, learned a lot about its history, saw some important landmarks, and had some great ethnic food; had a fantastic dinner with two potential colleagues, both of whom I learned share many of my hobbies; and I still had plenty of time to watch Netflix and do some leisure reading.

By the time my flight took off three days later, I had begun to look at the job, town, and faculty in a whole new light.  The three extra days, though unexpected, offered me a lens on the opportunity that I never would have had if I had left after the scheduled 24 hours.  And, though we’ll never know for sure (I withdrew from the search before an offer was extended to accept my current position), I have several reasons to believe I would have received an offer.

What I hope these two examples show is that there is so much out there beyond our control—so many unimaginable scenarios and unanticipated factors—that it helps to remain open and ready for the unknown:  for the chances, changes, and opportunities, the happy coincidences and serendipities, that are inherent to any process like this.  We should do what we can—by following the advice of our mentors and prepping the best way we know how—to put ourselves in a position in which we are ready, when it does occur, for the unknown and the unknowable.

Why You Need a Second Project. An Urgent #Facepalm Fail Addendum

In the middle of an Interview Bootcamp with a client yesterday, I suddenly realized with a jolt, and to my horror, that I had inexplicably and senselessly forgotten one of the major #Facepalm Fails of the academic interview in my earlier post on that subject.

The Fail is: “Tell us about your next project.”

Do you know how many candidates have no answer prepared for this? My figures are never scientific, but I’d guess, among my clients, the percentage is around 85%.

Those of you who have worked with me on your job letter, or read my post Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks, know that all good job letters have a short paragraph on the second/next project.

That element certainly elicits the most aggrieved grumbling among clients, no doubt about it. “Why should I have a second project already??? I’m not even done with the first one!!! How can I be expected to have a second project when I haven’t even defended my dissertation yet????” etc. etc. etc.

Complaints like these reveal, once again, your profound misunderstanding of the nature of the tenure track position and the tenure track search.

Tenure track searches are expensive, draining, and ridiculously time consuming. When a search is done and a hire is made, outside of a tiny group of Ivy League schools that do not tenure their assistant professors, the understanding is that the person hired is tenurable.

Anyone who does not appear tenurable will not be offered the tenure track job to begin with. Nobody wants to go through the sturm und drang of a tenure track search for nothing.

I pause to point out that I’ve recently come to understand, through work with a specific subset of clients, that this issue of “tenurability” is one of the leading distinctions between VAP, Adjunct, and Instructor applications, and effective tenure-track applications. Many individuals who are either mis-informed about tenure track applications, or who have spent many years in the VAP and adjunct track, are unaware of the ways that they signal a LACK of tenurability in their job cover letters, interviews, and self-presentation in general. Although they are seeking tenure track work, the applications they send out scream “I AM A PERENNIAL ADJUNCT!”

One of the primary ways that they do that, is by not specifying a plausible major second/next project.

Let me explain.

As a Department Head for five years at an R1 institution, I put five junior faculty through their (successful) tenure cases. In all cases, the tenure case hinged primarily on the candidate’s research profile. Teaching and service played a role, but research reigned supreme. The research profile, in order to be successful, had to show what we usually called an “arc” of scholarly productivity, and sometimes called a scholarly trajectory.

This arc or trajectory articulated strong forward momentum from the dissertation through the refereed publications deriving from the dissertation, through a “major next project” that emerged organically and coherently from a set of consistent scholarly or thematic preoccupations, with funding, conference papers, and publications based on this second project anticipated or achieved. The arc demonstrated, more than anything else, that the candidate would not become deadwood after tenure, but would continue to produce high profile scholarly work during the sabbatical year post tenure, and into the foreseeable future.

We have all heard about how at certain elite institutions two books are now required for tenure. That is still the exception (although be prepared for that if you are applying/interviewing at one of those schools). At my two R1 institutions (in book fields), two books were not required, but a first book and a second book-length project clearly articulated and anticipated through funding, conference papers, and some preliminary publications absolutely was. You could not get tenure without the second project.

The second project demonstrates that you are not a one hit wonder, a flash in the pan, a dilettante, a space cadet, a graduate student, etc. etc., but rather, the real deal, a scholar of the first rank, with a sustained program of research that continues out into the future, motivated by enduring scholarly convictions and a commitment to a scholarly community and its members.

A dialogue recently popped up on the Professor Is In’s Facebook page, that this second/next project might IN REALITY be something totally random that you pull out of your ass for the sake of the job market, and then only retrospectively narrate as part of a consistent and sustained scholarly project. That’s fine. It really doesn’t matter. Pull away. The point is, you need a second/next project, because it demonstrates that you think like a tenure-track—ie, TENURABLE—faculty member, and not like an adjunct who is marking out their career semester by semester, or year by year.

So, candidates, get a second/next project, STAT. It should derive, as I said, organically from a consistent set of preoccupations and concerns to the previous project, so that you don’t look like a dilettante or manic, but it should differ sufficiently to be a genuinely new and original realm of inquiry. You should be able to speak of it intelligently in terms of the methodologies you’ll use, the funding you’ll seek, and the scope of publications you anticipate. And you will articulate it as another major intervention into your field or fields.

Negotiating the Spousal Hire

[This post is based on parts of last week’s post “How To Negotiate Your Tenure Track Offer.” Since some readers focused on the spousal issue may have missed that post, I am publishing this under this new title here.  I welcome comments on any aspect of spousal hiring from both the institutional and candidate perspectives, both happy endings and horror stories.  Comment away!]

The dreaded spousal issue…this is the hardest negotiation of all.  In general, wait until you have a firm offer before you bring up the spouse. Any mention earlier than that could well work against you in the minds of the faculty, consciously or unconsciously. Once the offer is in hand, mention your spouse to the Department Head. Be aware that this is the one and only chance that you will have to negotiate for a spousal hire, so DO NOT WASTE IT! Push as firmly as you can for the actual tenure-track offer, and don’t be put off with the range of one-year, two-year, three- year, instructor, adjunct, and visiting positions that they will try to pawn off on you.

They may say something like “oh we can revisit your husband’s tenure case later, when this contract is up,” but DON’T BELIEVE IT. It is never, ever revisited after you lose the leverage of the initial offer (that is, until you gain the leverage of an external offer, and that’s a pain and time-consuming to manage).

Accept nothing in negotiations, but absolutely nothing in the case of spousal negotiations, that is not in writing. Any “informal” agreements or understandings that you may have with the current Head or Dean are meaningless if not in writing, because Heads and Deans change, and with no written agreement, all arrangements are void.

Make sure that your spouse is debut-ready. His or her cv should be spit-shined, the dissertation finished, and a polished research and teaching statement prepared.   The spouse should have refereed journal articles published or in press, and overall,  a record as strong and competitive as anyone on the market.

The spouse needs to be personable and agreeable, and should take every opportunity to appear a potential asset to the institution.  I speak from personal experience here with my ex-husband, but a crabby, negative spouse who resents being characterized as “trailing” will likely derail the process entirely.

Be clear about the full range of departments the spouse would be eligible for an appointment in, and the full range of positions for which he/she is qualified.  Be flexible about any offered position that is tenure-track. There are many painful and difficult negotiations that have to take place to line up a spousal hire, and some departments and department heads will play ball more than others. Some Heads are incompetent while others are savvy. To some extent you are at the various Heads’ mercy.

Be aware of how spousal hires are paid for. Generally, the original department will pay one third of the spousal hire’s salary, the Dean’s office will pay one third, and then the spouse-receiving department will pay one third. This obviously can have a great deal of appeal for the receiving department, especially if they are cash-poor, as they are getting one full line for 1/3 cost. However, they may resent being forced to accept a faculty member whom they did not go out and recruit on their own, and they may fear that the spouse hire will derail the prior hiring goals they had in place (ie, the Dean says, “since you got this full line this year, we can postpone your original search requests”).

Thus the initial department may have to knock on several doors to find a department willing to take this “free gift,” and may well find it impossible, in the end, to accomplish.

The important thing, once again, is to hold firm and politely repeat, “My biggest priority is a position for my spouse,” without any escalation or emotionalism or drama, day after day, to person after person, until you either get the spousal offer, or get a flat-out NO that you read as unmistakable. As long as they are still talking to you about it, don’t waver.  Realize that this goal will very likely, unless you are some kind of super-star, take many other negotiable elements of your offer off the table, such as substantially higher salary, research funds, etc.  The spousal hire is the big-ticket item, and when you count its value to your family in terms of added income, retirement benefits, and domestic peace, it takes precedence over all other perks.

This Christmas, Don’t Be Cheap

Regular readers of The Professor Is In know that I espouse as the cardinal rule of job document writing the rule of Show, Don’t Tell.

Job documents should not make claims about your feelings or your wants or your beliefs (“I am passionate about teaching,” “I want to do a project on declining whale populations,” “I believe in the importance of hands-on learning”) because statements such as these are unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable.

In other words, anyone can make them.  And as such, they are empty verbiage and wasted space in your letter.  If you are, in fact, passionate about teaching, then let your substantive descriptions of your courses and teaching methods illustrate that.  In short, show.  Do not tell.

As I said, regular readers already know this.  However, what some may not realize is that adjectives play a major role in this matter.

Adjectives describing outcomes, in a job document, are almost always worthless verbiage.  I am not referring here to adjectives that describe, in a substantive way, the research subject itself (ie, “this study identifies a population of professionally-ambitious, urban Japanese women who pursue study abroad”), but rather adjectives that are meant to pump up the intensity level of candidate claims.

Here is a list of the kinds of adjectives (and their related adverbs) to which I refer:

Incredible (incredibly)

Amazing (amazingly)

Striking (strikingly)

Serious (seriously)

Intense (intensely)

Remarkable (remarkably)

Considerable (considerably)

Some of you may doubt that such adjectives would ever show up in a job letter, but alas, your doubts would be misplaced.  They turn up frequently.  I remove adjectives such as these from probably a third of the job documents on which I work.  They are most likely to show up in the teaching paragraph or teaching statement, which are always susceptible to hyper-emotionalism anyway, as I describe in the post The Dreaded Teaching Statement: Eight Pitfalls.  The typical culprit sentence is:  “This assignment produces some incredible student work!”

The fact is, adjectives like these are cheap.  They are a lazy effort to exaggerate the import or impact of the work.  And they are weak, because they always imply a comparator (the outcome that is not incredible or amazing or remarkable) that is left unstated or assumed.

As such, their use betrays a profound misunderstanding of the search process.  As I describe in this post, search committee members never simply take a candidate’s word that their work is “superior” and their candidacy “ideal” for the position.  Search committee members draw their own conclusions based on the evidence presented.  Indeed, search committee members may well take umbrage at  any writing they perceive as seeking to achieve an artificial boost in emotional impact.

It goes without saying that this applies in spades to the exclamation point, which I remove from a smaller, but still significant, portion of job documents.  The example above, “this assignment produces some incredible student work!” is again typical.  Other examples include: “My results were unexpected!” and “my students sometimes referred to me as their boot camp instructor!”  Or this one:

In teaching mathematics, flipping the class means flipping the textbook! Twisting the concept-problem approach to a problem-concept approach!”

To sum up, don’t be cheap.  Stick to the facts, and let your achievements speak for themselves.  Do the work to describe your research and teaching substantively, with evidence.  And save the adjectives, and exclamations, for Christmas morning.

How To Write a Course Proposal for a Job/Postdoc App

Today’s post is a Special Request post for a reader who wishes to know how to construct a course proposal for a job application.

This is an element of the job application that, I expect, will tolerate a lot of variability. So I offer the following thoughts as suggestions rather than dicta.

It is my view that a course proposal is best one page in length. As with all subsidiary documents to a job application, it will be very, very quickly skimmed, and you want to do everything in your power to make your materials as easily digestible for harrassed search committees as possible.

In that one page, single spaced, I suggest that you include the following:

Title of course

Your name

Approximate level of course

Envisioned approximate size or enrollment of course

A two-paragraph description of the course. Paragraph one will introduce an important phenomenon or theme or topic “in the world” that the course will address. The second paragraph will describe the broad subtopic breakdown introduced by the course, and the recent bodies of literature/trends in the field on which the course will be based, and will address one or two innovative assignments.

A brief third paragraph showing how the course fits into and advances existent initiatives and foci of the department.

A “mini-syllabus”: a 10- or 16-line week-by-week breakdown of the course topics with a reading or film.

The issues to be aware of in this course description are the following:

It should be fascinating, not boring. The course will be read with an eye to its appeal to the students. Particularly if it’s an undergraduate course, its appeal to undergraduates should be instantly apparent.

The writing should “sell.” Don’t be pedantic here. Consider starting with an intriguing question: “What do shows like CSI and Bones tell us about forensic science in America?” “Is the world running out of fresh water?” “What do Mark Twain and Danielle Steele have in common?” “150 years after the close of the Civil War, what is the status of race in America?”

The course should be innovative, and reflect new trends in your field/s. They already have old faculty doing old stuff. Your job is to do the new.

It should capitalize on new technology and social media. These are transforming university pedagogy, and your job is to “handle” that for the other faculty who are too old and behind the times to figure it out.

It should be feasible. You may be tempted to use this to show your mastery of a scholarly field. Don’t do it. It’s a course and must look like a course. They are examining it to see if you really get what are “reasonable” expectations for their classroom.

It should be tailored to their department and campus. If it’s a regional teaching college, be aware that intensive reading loads will not be appropriate. If it’s an Ivy League, be aware that intensive reading loads are required. If one of their departmental foci is transnational literature, then make sure that the course incorporates literature that crosses borders.

It should be tailored to the job. If the job is for contemporary East Asia, don’t submit your fabulous “gender studies seminar,” unless it is primarily East Asia based. If it is a gender studies job, don’t submit your East Asia seminar unless it is primarily about gender.

It should not duplicate what is already there. They are hiring you to expand their coverage, not duplicate it.

A final note on course proposals for postdoc apps. It is critical that this course proposal speak directly and specifically to the mission of the postdoc, and how the course advances it. This cannot be simply left implicit—ie, “the postdoc is about food, and my course is about food, so…duh, OBVIOUSLY….” No, it must include verbiage like, “By focusing on contemporary discourses of food purity and food threat, this course introduces students to new and emergent literature in the fields of food studies and related social science disciplines. Bridging scientific and media material, and capitalizing fully on the vibrant internet world of food blogs, this course will advance the mission of the XXXX postdoc by inquiring critically into the ways that science and popular culture collide in our contemporary understandings of food.”

 

 

The #Facepalm Fails of the Academic Interview

It’s crazy, crazy times around here at The Professor Is In just now. I (oh so foolishly) thought we were through the crush as of Nov. 15, only to find that Dec. 1 looms even larger….. I’m racing like a busy little hamster to get final comments and edits back to everyone in time…. but I never want to miss a blog post, so here, today, I offer to you a quick and dirty list of “Facepalm Fails” of the academic interview. These are the questions that are SO EASY and SO OBVIOUS that nobody ever remembers to prepare for them.

And then, encountering them, you fall flat on your face, in a particularly humiliating way (because they’re so obvious), and get shunted out the door.

I have bombed more interviews than I care to remember because of these things.

And now as The Professor, I can effortlessly trip up one Interview Bootcamp client after another with the same set of questions.

The awful thing about the Facepalm Fails is that they are generally among the very first questions that are asked in an interview, and so their failure derails the entire thing, and sometimes your entire candidacy.

So, without further ado, here they are, The Facepalm Fails.

Tell us about your dissertation.

Yeah, I’m serious. I am constantly amazed at how many of you do not know how to simply and clearly and concisely describe your dissertation in a way that makes us understand why we should care about it, and how it intervenes and advances your field, in 3 minutes or less. Figure it out.

How would you teach our Intro class?

People. When you get a t-t job, you aren’t suddenly elevated into a magical sphere in which you spend all day stroking your beard and thinking profound thoughts about arcane subjects! You become a harrassed and overworked junior faculty member. One of the duties that may well fall to you is to teach the Intro class, enrollment ten thousand! Get a plan for that, stat! With textbook, please. Do NOT, whatever you do, start waxing nostalgic about your own halcyon days as an undergraduate in such a class. Nothing screams “Not Ready for Prime Time” more than that. They’re not hiring an undergraduate. They’re hiring the Prof.

How would you teach our Methods course?

Even at the graduate level, you are NOT going to be able to spend your time pontificating endlessly on the minutiae of your project. You will have to serve the needs of all (or many) of the students in the program. Many/most of them will not be working on your area of specialization, but you will still have to show that you can add value for them through the work of several core seminars. One of these is the Methods seminar. Have a plan!

How would you teach our Core Theory Seminar?

Ditto from above. This one is ROUGH! Be prepared. If they’re mean, they’ll quiz you! I lost a very good job on this question once. Know your shit. In Anthro, for example, this means speaking knowledgably about Marx, Weber and Durkheim and then moving up through people such as Freud, Adorno, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault, while also giving honor to Anthro standbys such as Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe- Brown, Boas, Marvin Harris, and the other old white dudes. Sure, you can complicate things by bringing in race and gender and sexuality but NEVER, EVER think that you can fudge a P.C.-lite answer to this without knowing your ancient foundations.

Name two courses you would develop for our department.

Have one undergrad and one graduate course always in your pocket. If the job is a SLAC, then have two undergrad, one lower level and one upper level.  It goes without saying that these should be tailored according to the campus, department and job at hand.

You’re young. How would you mentor graduate students?

This one’s tough when you’re just a newbie. Don’t default to the “I’m so young; I don’t have experience!” excuse making mode. The best approach: “I received excellent mentorship from a variety of formal and informal advisors. They taught me xxx and yyy and zzz. I feel well prepared to pass on this knowledge to the next generation, and I’m eager to do so.”

You come from an xxxx kind of school. How would you adapt to a campus like ours?

Be prepared to speak of fit. When you visit an urban school, have some thoughts prepared on how much you love working with urban/returning students. When you visit a rural comprehensive, speak to the appeal of the size and scope of campus. When you visit a SLAC, be prepared to have a shpiel on the classic liberal arts education and wanting small classes and to mentor undergraduates. When you visit a lower ranking school, speak to the gratification of working with less-privileged students. Etc. Etc. Remember that most campuses feel insecure about something. They are always testing to make sure you really like what they are.

Do you have any questions for us?

You must have at least one good question to ask.  The question you’re currently planning to ask is most likely NOT good.  The vast majority of the questions clients share with me  are inappropriate and potentially harmful to their candidacy.  Why?  Because they put the search committee on the spot, and potentially make them lose face.  You must never ask a question that causes an interviewer to lose face.  This includes anything that has a simple yes/no answer, anything that is political, anything that hinges on resources, and anything that implies judgment.  Thus, “Is there a lot of collaboration in the department?” is bad, because it’s a yes/no question, and if the truthful answer is no, your interviewers will feel embarassed.  “What is the plan for the department in the next five years?” is bad, because it is political and probably quite contested, and also implies judgment about what the right answer should be.  “Is there automatic junior sabbatical after the third year review?” is bad because it reflects the resource base/financial status of the institution, and the answer could well be no, making the interviewers feel awkward.   “You seem to be lacking classes in xxxx; are you looking to increase that coverage area?” is bad, because it is all judgment.

What are good questions?  Questions that communicate, once again, that you’re a great fit for the department, and a great potential colleague.  Ie, “Tell me about the undergraduates.  What do the majors do after graduation?.”  Or “What kind of research are the graduate students working on?”  Or “I noticed the XXX initiative on the website.  Can you tell me more about that?”  Get it?  Enthusiastic and eager to be involved.

Tell us about your second project.

This one is critical to the tenure track interview!!  Read a full blog post on it here. ]

There are undoubtedly more Facepalm Fails, but these are the ones that got me at different moments, and that get the majority of my clients. If you have others, please list them (and the best way to answer!) below.

 

 

 

 

 

You’re From Penn State. Now What? (A Special Request Post)

Today’s post is a Special Request post for a grad student (ABD) from Penn State who wrote on email to say:   “I went to a small conference last weekend and as soon as people found out I was from Penn State the conversation was redirected to the scandal….It’s a minefield as it relates to views on administration, the role of athletics at the university, and often overshadows the tragedy of the victims of the abuse. The last thing I want to do this weekend, as I head to our big national conference, is keep talking about this—-especially to potential employers/future tenure letter writers—but I know it will come up.”

He goes on: “I would love to think that people are more professional than to bring scandalous details up, but conference chat is an informal venue. Do you think you could do a blog post on how conference goers/job candidates can effectively deal with these situations?  is there a correct way to acknowledge the tragedy/scandal while distancing yourself from your school’s recently tarnished (understatement) reputation?”

I cannot imagine the impact that the sex abuse scandal is going to have on graduate students affiliated with Penn State. Obviously, it goes without saying, such problems are small compared to the suffering of victims and the crisis of the campus as a whole. Nevertheless, as this scandal impacts the lives of graduate students seeking to find their way in professional venues and on the job market, it is a worthy topic for consideration. How do you deal with being from a campus whose infamy has overshadowed its scholarly reputation, and tarnished everything associated with it?

There are undoubtedly many ways to approach this question, and I welcome reader comments below. My thoughts are rather confused at present, and I am far from the (delusional?) level of conviction I normally bring to these posts.

And, I want to be clear: what I offer here is not meant to be any kind of higher moral reckoning vis-a-vis the abuse. It is, rather, in the standard vein of TPII, offered as highly instrumentalizing, pragmatic advice for dealing with tricky conference/interview situations.

In that vein, here are my thoughts. I think that anyone from Penn State should respond to questions and commentary on the scandal, in academic venues where people should be focusing on their academic reputation and projects, with something along the lines of, “This is all the evidence that we should need that college sports/college football/the NCAA is a corrupt system whose influence on university life has been allowed to far exceed its value to mission of the university. It is time to (depending on your point of view) abolish/strictly control/reduce it. My graduate program had little connection to that side of campus, so I am not well-informed on the details. I’d like to focus on the academic work I’ve been engaged in in my department, which was and still is a dedicated/serious/vibrant scholarly community.”

There are other tacks to take as well. The grad student himself offered his own response to comments about the riots on the Penn State campus, which was to remark something along the lines of: “indeed, Penn State students are passionate, and while those students were misguided in their actions, it is the same passion that drives Penn State students to run the largest student-run philanthropy in the country, which raised $9.6 million for pediatric cancer research last year. In the past week, Penn State students and alumni have raised $421,000 for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. I am proud of these students.”

While this is also an excellent response, I would suggest that the former one will be more effective. There are two reasons. The first is that by and large, and certainly with some exceptions, academics dislike and resent the power that college sports have over the mission and resources of the university. Shifting attention away from the horror of Penn State, and the personalities and individuals involved, and toward the larger issue of athletics as a venue for corporate control of the university is going to be a productive and persuasive way to acknowledge the topic, while staying at a higher level of engagement more conducive to moving quickly back to academic subjects.

The second reason is that academics by and large, and certainly with some exceptions, maintain an ironic (if not hostile) distance from the boosterism and shameless pandering to student and alumni emotions that characterize so many college campuses. Linking yourself to campus “pride” (“Still Proud To Be a Penn Stater,” as the t-shirt says) even for things like student-run philanthropies, runs the risk of appearing to associate you with the same lack of critical insight into the real power structure of the university that led to mass cover-up of the abuse to begin with. I’m not saying that you do lack critical insight. You just want to avoid the appearance of lacking it. And for many of us (and I do include myself here), it is past time to stop feeling so damned “proud” to be affiliated with ANY of the institutions of this country that have sold us a bill of goods.

Keep in mind that Penn State itself, in a truly gross move, distributed a memo to students on how to properly deflect questions about the scandal in their job interviews, which basically said, “Focus on all the good work accomplished at Penn State [and never, ever criticize us]”.

In short, it is possible, as many sharp commentators have done, to interpret Penn State in the same light as the ethically bankrupt big banks and feckless corporations that have sacrificed the powerless in the interests of the few at the top. Another institution too big to fail. It is of a piece with the power structures that have come under attack by the Occupy movement, and that allow us to see it as a sign of the corporate control of campuses, and neoliberalism writ large. These are productive themes for academic discussion, that are far larger than one campus’s crisis. It is in that direction that I suggest you turn the talk.