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.


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.

How To Pack and Dress For Your Campus Visit (Inc. Cold-Weather Tips)

In response to pleas from clients with campus visit invitations, I am devoting the post today to a quick discussion of how to dress for campus visits , particularly in the cold weather. This post is for women (who present as women), since everyone who has written in a panic has been in that category.

The typical campus visit often involves a pick up at the airport by a faculty member, and an immediate drive to a meal with that faculty member, and possibly others. Because of that, you will need to be appropriately dressed on the airplane, in dress pants and a blouse or sweater, with a cardigan or jacket. A matching suit is unnecessary at this stage. (I will discuss shoes and outerwear below). Make sure that the clothes you are wearing are not linen or silk or any fabric that wrinkles badly on the plane. It is important that you can make the flight–>dinner transition looking as cool and collected as possible. Be sure and take a quick trip to the restroom on the flight, before arrival, to brush your hair, check your makeup and jewelry (make sure no earrings fell out), and possibly brush your teeth.

Pack your clothes for the visit in a small carry-on and do not check. Checking bags leads to awkward delays that nobody wants to deal with, and can potentially throw off dinner reservations. Carry your materials in a shoulder bag briefcase, and let that be all that you carry with you on the trip.

In terms of dealing with this first meal, be aware that in this meal and all others that follow, you likely will not be able to eat well or easily because of your nerves and the level of questioning. Therefore, be sure and eat well before boarding the flight, or on the flight. In addition, pack a number of protein/meal replacement bars, and make sure that you have at least one of those available at all times. If you have brief breaks in your schedule, or even bathroom breaks, you can grab a bite and keep your blood sugar level.

Do not order wine at dinner unless it is clear that “everyone” is ordering wine. Then follow suit, if you drink alcohol. If you don’t, politely decline, without explanation (or just saying that you are tired from the flight). Be sure and drink only one glass.

Don’t order dessert unless others initiate it.  People may be exhausted and anxious to get home.

When ordering a meal, be sure and order the easiest and neatest item on the menu. Risotto is an example. A piece of meat or fish that can be easily cut into pieces is another. Do not order pasta or soup or anything that drips. Beware of flaky rolls and croissants that scatter crumbs all down your front.

The next day is likely your big day on campus, going from 8 AM to at least 8 PM, with the job talk. This is the day you wear your actual interview suit. As I’ve mentioned before, the suit can be skirt or pants, it usually doesn’t matter, unless you are interviewing at an exceptionally conservative institution (check on that ahead of time as best you can). In which case you need to wear a skirt. You should wear a sober, low-maintenance blouse or top or sweater underneath the jacket, and jewelry that is not showy or loud.

If you wear heels (and you certainly can choose not to), have them be between 1 and 3 inches in height. Any higher and you’re tottering. I strongly advise against any stillettos or skinny heels.  Glamorous shoes with stiletto heels and pointed toe shoes stick out in university settings and often invite ambivalent comment from both women and men (I speak from experience). More importantly, they are treacherous to walk in, because they stick in sidewalk cracks and grates (I speak from experience). Find a shoe that has stacked heel, and preferably a rounded or squared toe, for comfort and ease of walking.   Don’t wear clogs, please.  Be sure your shoes are comfortable, and do not wear brand new shoes unless they have been thoroughly tested for comfort. At the same time, the shoes should be fresh and not worn down in the heel, the sole, or the overall appearance of the leather. Your shoes should be black or brown, matching your suit, and one color (no interesting patterns!) Shoes matter. People notice.

Tights are better than stockings because they stay up better, and don’t snag.

I recommend suits that are not black, because black is severe. I prefer greys, browns, tweeds, etc. Black is not out of the question, however; just make sure that you break it up with the top underneath and the tights.

Make sure your underwear is comfortable and fits! If you’re going to wear a Spanx (and I don’t recommend this, but want to mention it just in case), make sure that it is a style that doesn’t ride up and need tugging at!! Make sure bra straps are completely hidden. Make sure your slip doesn’t show beneath your skirt.  Test out your outfit ahead of time; actually move around, walk, and sit in it.

If you wear a skirt, make sure that it stays put and doesn’t twist around. I was once at a campus visit at Stanford and halfway through the day realized my skirt had worked its way around 180 degrees, and the zipper and kick pleat (and butt sag area) was in front….for who knows how long. (Is that why I didn’t get the job?)

Make sure your blouse does not gap, and ruthlessly reject any blouse that does (to the Goodwill it must go). Buy blouses that actually fit. If it is a tiny gap deriving from button placement only vis a vis the girls in a blouse that otherwise fits perfectly (and not an issue of incorrect size – be vigilant for that! The pounds add on when you’re writing that diss!  Buy the new blouse if you need it!)  try sewing up the placket inside, turning the blouse into a de-facto pullover. Oftentimes that will take care of the problem completely.  You can also use wardrobe tape.  (Here’s one that I use; 2016 update: buy from Target, not Amazon!) Make sure the blouse stays inside your waistband if that is where it belongs. In general, silky, slippery blouses are treacherous because it slides around, and you discover that it’s been hanging out from under your jacket. Avoid that by buying blouses in rougher fabric, or better yet, wearing knit tops. Thoroughly subject all ensembles to testing prior to the campus visit, not in your house, but rather in a full day of work/school.

Make sure that ALL your clothes are spotless and pristine (and as commenter below points out, freshly dry-cleaned and pressed). Do not wear stained or ripped or patched clothes to your campus visit, or any interview setting.

Returning to an earlier point, make sure ALL your clothes fit you at your current weight. No exceptions. If you’ve put on some pounds, buy new clothes. Nothing, I repeat, nothing makes you look worse or less professional than too-tight clothes. You may not be able to trust yourself on this question (denial and wishful thinking abound), and have a trusted harsh critic review the fit of everything, including the arm-raising test, the bending over test, and the reaching test.

You may, if you know that you’re a bit of a slob, pack an extra top/shell in your briefcase against the terrible possibility of spilling pizza sauce down your front at lunch. I needed this.

If you have a break after the job talk, and before dinner, possibly back at your hotel, you are lucky and have the option of changing if you wish. You may change, but downgrade in formality only slightly. You don’t know the conventions of campus and/or the type of restaurant to which you’re being taken, and it’s better to err, for dinner, on the side of dressy.

Pack all of your regular toiletries, hair products, etc.  Do NOT depend on whatever random products you find in small travel sizes at the drug store, or, god forbid, the hotel they put you up at.  They will not perform the same!  You don’t want to end up with weird, flyaway hair or moisturizer that you find out, too late, you’re allergic to, when you’re in the high stakes environment of a campus visit.  Go to the trouble of getting travel bottles and filling them with your products.

With regard to makeup:  No need to wear if you don’t normally.  But if you do… Now is not the time to experiment with new and unfamiliar makeup.  Severely test all your makeup for smearing. I am referring particularly to mascara here.  Expensive department store products are no guarantee!  Buy products that are labeled “long-wear” or “all day,” but even then, don’t just trust the packaging–test it out on yourself.  Mascaras vary quite a bit in their “heaviness” level, and you want a type for this setting that is relatively light and natural looking, and not clumpy or “high drama.”  I have always had good luck with Revlon Colorstay products.  Lipstick is the other major problem area.  It can smear onto your teeth, so beware that.  “All day” lipsticks, unfortunately, can go on as a stain, and wear off in unusual and distracting ways. If you’re not accustomed to wearing lipstick, just skip it.  Neutral, “nude” shades of all makeup, and certainly lipstick, are probably best for relative beginners. Also thoroughly test all makeup for allergies.  As I’ve grown older I’ve developed allergies to many products I could previously wear, and my eyes tear up and my mascara runs down my cheeks. Not a good look.

OK, moving on… the next day is likely a short day, but a day still filled with meetings. Sometimes this is the day you meet the Dean (on the campuses where this still happens). You may downgrade formality slightly, but only slightly, by wearing your dress pants/skirt from the previous day with a sweater, or a different top and jacket or very dressy cardigan.

Cold Weather Adaptations:

If the weather is genuinely cold, you can switch to heavy tights, if you still plan to wear a skirt. You can certainly switch to pants, and that is my recommendation. You can wear tights under the pants to stay warm in really cold situations.

Invest in a quality, stylish quilted jacket or cold-weather dress coat, if you have a number of visits in northern climes. With advances in technology, cold weather dress coats can now be quite stylish and non-bulky (look for Thinsulate). Check out Michael by Michael Kors. While the traditional winter wool dress coat is always appropriate, you can also search “quilted parka” at Zappos, etc. and you’ll see some great options in stylish urban quilted coats that are appropriate. I suggest getting one nicely fitted at the waist, or with a belt, so that you don’t look like the Michelin Man. Coats of this type can often be found second-hand, and if you can’t afford a significant outlay for what might be only one northern campus visit, it would be worth checking at quality second hand boutiques for this piece.  Conservative East Coast campuses still apparently expect the classic woolen dress coat.

A chic scarf and nice “grown-up” leather gloves make everyone look good. Hats are trickier, because they can leave you looking disheveled. Find a style that is not a knit cap or beret, but rather a formed hat that easily pulls on and off with minimal hair disruption.

In terms of the ice and snow shoe-boot question: my advice is: buy La Canadienne boots. They are insulated and made for cold northern climes, but somehow, I don’t know how, look incredibly chic. They come in a range of heeled and flat styles, are generally in suede, which is a great subdued look for academic settings (but be sure and treat to protect the suede), and several basic colors to match any outfit. They come in ankle height, mid-calf, and full length. They have rubber soles that grip the ice, but you would never know by looking at them. They have arch support in many styles, and are exceedingly well made. I wore mine through the depths of Illinois winters for years, and my feet were always warm and I never slipped! I got endless compliments on them, and still do, because I still wear them in balmy Oregon, just because they’re some of the cutest boots I own.

Readers: Other advice? Please share below. Anything I forgot to address? Feel free to ask!

What UK/Commonwealth-Trained Candidates Are Doing Wrong on the U.S. Job Market (And some c.v. advice for everyone)

[sorry for the inconsistent fonts in this post.  I am trying to correct.  It’s really hard in the theme that I use, and involves html.]

One of the unexpected pleasures of being The Professor is the opportunity it’s given me to work closely with young scholars from all over the world. This has been illuminating, as I have gained tremendous insight into institutional and cultural practices of the academy in the UK, Canada, Australia, India, Israel, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Trinidad, and a number of the other countries of Europe, South America, and East Asia. It has also been humbling, as I have learned just how much I don’t know about “how things work” internationally, and how much I have taken for granted, and universalized, the American academic norm.

Now, I make no apology that The Professor Is In is dedicated to success in the American job market and U.S. academic settings. It is the only job market and academic setting I know intimately, from personal experience, and the only one that I am qualified to assist with.

I am always very grateful when clients and readers weigh in, however, to augment posts and advice with the “view from abroad.” I hope, as time goes by, to solicit guest posts on the contrasts and potential pitfalls of different academic job markets and work settings overseas.

For today, however, I want to share what I’ve noticed in recent weeks from working with a number of UK-trained clients. As I find myself identifying the same problems over, and over, and over, with these clients, I have come to recognize that these issues are not individual, but cultural. We’re dealing with a pattern here. And it’s a pattern that is full of danger for unsuspecting UK job candidates on the U.S. Job market.

So, for the benefit of all of you who have done your Ph.D.s in England, Ireland, Wales, and to some extent Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, or who have spent a number of years in these places and are seeking a return to the United States, the following are my observations of what you’re doing wrong, and how you need to fix it.


The main issue is, and I’m sorry to say it, but…’re boring. Seriously, you’re killing us over here. Why are you so boring? Is that how you have to be in England, to be an academic?

I mean, let me clarify. You’re not boring, personally. Most of you have been an absolute delight to work with—funny, witty, mordant, devastatingly smart. But your writing? OMG—It is so boring! As I finally burst out to my latest UK-trained client (an American by birth, fyi), in the incident that prompted this blog post:

“Your British training is really, really evident. You need to meditate deeply on being American and banish the dries, the dulls, the passives, the wordy, the telling, and above all, the tendentiousness*.“

Now, let me hasten to add that it’s not unknown for an American, or any nationality, to be dry, dull, wordy, and tendentious*. Heck that universal tendency among academics of all stripes is my bread and butter as Dr. Karen, Coach to the (Academic) Stars! But it’s nowhere so consistent and so PATTERNED as it is among my dear Brits.

And let me also hasten to add that any norm of writing is not bad in and of itself. Certainly not. But to the extent that you are seeking a particular outcome of the writing—ie, success on the U.S. job market—then the writing becomes problematic in its instrumentalizing effects. Fundamentally, the writing that seems to be the default and norm for people coming out of the UK Ph.D. system is at odds with the needs and values of the U.S. academic market. So, it is to that mismatch, and nothing else, that I address myself today.

What follows is a list, in no particular order, of the primary ways that my UK- and Commonwealth-trained clients have consistently gone wrong in their job documents for the U.S. academic market.

1.  You overuse, dreadfully, painfully, the passive voice.

If there is one issue that I urge you to correct, immediately, it is your tendency to over-use, indeed to completely rely upon, the passive voice.

Passive voice is the enemy of all job and professional documents in the United States.

It sucks the energy and dynamism out of your writing, obscures your individual writing voice and intellectual impact, and saps the enthusiasm of the reader. Furthermore, it is un-American, and it bugs us. In the United States, for better or worse, we are all about speaking up, and saying your piece, and expressing yourself, and standing up for what you believe in, and anything else that Oprah has enjoined on us recently. None of that is achievable through the passive voice. There may have been a day in American academia decades ago when we too relied on the passive voice as the sign of intellectual seriousness and scholarly sobriety. But that day is long gone, and now the passive voice signals tediousness, tendentiousness, graduate student immaturity, excessive seriousness (and likely lack of a sense of humor), and a profound misunderstanding of what constitutes effective job market communication.

Job documents in the United States must be written (almost) entirely in the active voice, with an occasional passive voice sentence thrown in merely for rhythm and variety. Active voice communicates that you are a self-starter, resourceful, and confident, all qualities that are necessary to get a tenure track job in the United States. It suggests you will be an effective and engaging teacher. And it communicates that you are interested in dialogue and collegial exchange, rather than being in a self-absorbed monologue.

You probably don’t even recognize all the passive voice sentences you use, so please have a trusted advisor or colleague read for you and point them out.

(Note: Replacing the passive voice does not mean you turn to an endless stream of “I statements”: “Last year I taught xxxx….and in that class I assigned xxxx….and I had the students work on xxxx….and I was careful to encourage xxxxx…..and I got excellent evaluations.” The I statement narrative is equally deadly, as I describe here. and here.  But it is quite possible to write in the active voice without falling prey to an unimaginative I narrative).

2.  You are boring.

This follows on point #1. Your sharp wit and killer sense of comedic timing is not making it on to the page. You consistently bury your leads in quantities and quantities of verbiage. The sheer number of words you use to articulate simple ideas is mind-boggling. You sidle in to your main point in a barrage of caveats and subordinate and dependent clauses that addle and defeat your readers. You undersell, and you KNOW that’s never going to work in the States. You have an aversion to specificity and examples, and stay stubbornly at the level of generalization and abstraction, which operates as a giant snooze-fest in a job document.

Job documents in the United States work best when they move quickly and in linear fashion through ideas in relatively short and (my favorite word) punchy sentences with clear and specific examples. This is not because American academics have short attention spans, but because we like, and respond positively to, energy and dynamism. You want to give the sense that you are resourceful, dynamic, responsive, alert, energetic, and poised for the next big thing. While no search committee member would ever articulate those as qualities that they are consciously prioritizing, nevertheless, those ARE the qualities that characterize the most successful job candidates. In a drastically shrinking economy, even more so. You have to show you can do more with less, not by telling them so, but by demonstrating it in the economy and vibrancy of your prose.

3.  You are, sometimes, tendentious*.

While it is true that we all need to sound smart in our job documents, there is a good way and a bad way to sound smart. The bad way is to sound tendentious. What I mean by that is verbiage that has a hectoring tone, or, more commonly, verbiage that proudly states scholarly sentiments and observations that are hackneyed, dated, or obvious, as if they were brilliantly original contributions.

I have no idea why this would be more common among British Ph.D.s, but it is. I suspect that it derives from the massive neglect by advisors that I have come to understand is the modus operandi of the Ph.D. system in England. While I rail against the systemic neglect and indifference of American Ph.D. advisors vis-a-vis their advisees in the United States, frankly they could all win humanitarian awards compared to what apparently goes on in the U.K.. I have it on excellent authority that the norm is: no professional, or job related, advising whatsoever and a general abandonment in terms of anything beyond the narrowest possible dissertation work. This includes, I understand, advising related to encouraging conference participation or publishing or networking. Consequently, it is likely, it seems, for Ph.D. students there to complete their Ph.D.s with no or few opportunities for the kind of intense and hard-hitting intellectual and scholarly challenges that come from being pushed and pressured by colleagues and peers and intimidating senior people. I speculate that this may be a reason behind the tendentiousness that I’ve seen.

Whatever the reason, it needs to stop.  It’s very difficult to identify tendentiousness in your own writing, because it tends to crop up in the scholarly claims and arguments that you fondly believe are the most brilliant and original.  So identifying tendentiousness in writing often requires identifying flabby and lazy argumentation in your work itself, and that’s painful.   This is where you have to “kill your darlings” and really listen when a sharp critical reader tells you that your dearly beloved scholarly claim is dull, circular, ineffective, or, frankly, obvious.  The trick is finding the sharp critical reader who will tell you that.  But find that reader you must.

Beyond these three writing problems is another problem related to the c.v. This is one that truly mystifies me. U.K.-trained people routinely submit dreadfully cramped and squashed and over-crowded c.v.s. Is this related to frugality and a desire to not waste paper? If so, that is admirable, and I respect it. Nevertheless, for the U.S. job market, it has to stop. There are conventions for U.S. c.v.s, which your c.v.s (unintentionally) ignore. Your c.v.s make us want to cry. Be aware that there is almost never a length limit for c.v.s on the U.S. job market. For postdocs, yes, sometimes they will specify a maximum length for the version to be submitted. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO GAME THIS LIMIT by manipulating margins and fonts! The margins must remain wide, and the font legible.

U.K.-trained people, please listen to me carefully. Your c.v. must:

Have full one inch/2.5 cm margins on all sides!!!!!

Be in 12 point font throughout, without exception

Have your name in larger font, possibly all caps, at the top, centered

Have the words “curriculum vitae” underneath your name, centered, in 12 pt font, with one space between name and these words

Have your personal and institutional addresses underneath, on parallel lines, right and left justified

Make use of abundant white space between Headings

Have a space between each Heading title and the first entry under that Heading

List your publications first, after Education and Professional Appointments

Not include narrative verbiage under Research or Teaching or Professional Experience or Grants

Not include the monetary amount for grants received, unless they were institutional grants above $75,000//£50,000

Finally, in terms of interviewing: Brits, please do whatever you have to to cultivate what will undoubtedly feel like an overweening sense of your own importance and excessive and unwarranted self-confidence. By doing this, you will over-correct for your training in excessive and unwarranted humility and self-abnegation, and probably land just where you need to for the U.S. job market, where confidence sells.  Also, please, get to the point.  We don’t have all day.

Good luck.

*2020 update: a commenter just today pointed out that “tendentious” doesn’t mean what i thought it meant! I thought it meant, droning on and on obsessively about a minor point. It actually means, arguing from a biased or partisan viewpoint. So please note my use of the word is incorrect.