#Dispatches From the Front: What Candidates Are Doing Wrong, Part I of III: “Do Your Homework, Please. PLEASE.”

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

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

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


So today I present to you Part I of III: “Do Your Homework Please! PLEASE.” The reactions were so intense and so detailed that we actually recorded a special episode of the podcast to address them! It comes out tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan 28); find it here.

Part II comes next week: We’re Human: Interpersonal Connections In the Interview and Campus Visit

Part III will follow: Don’t Forget the Basics: The Low-Hanging Fruit of the Job Search

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



This week, a full 21 of the 56 responses focused on job candidates’ failure to tailor their applications and interview performances to the job ad and/or the department. I am sharing all of these here today, and will draw out a few central themes in italicized comments and selected bolding in the responses. Be sure and read all the way to the end! Although the “do your homework” theme is constantly repeated, each respondent adds their own special advice for particular scenarios, and at the end is advice specifically for the job talk as well.


Please, candidates: do your homework, research the department and the job, and tailor your materials and interview responses to who they are and what they want!


I. At the Application Stage

Candidates: READ. Read the actual ad! Follow the posted instructions. And make sure you are actually qualified for the job!


Follow the darned directions in the application process. Half of our candidates don’t attach everything required and don’t streamline the application to our needs.  Ensure that you state clearly what your qualifications are exactly for the position listed. (*Tenured Professor, Arts/Music/Theater; **White, 40, married, lesbian)


Having just read a stack of applications today, I wish candidates would apply for jobs that they are qualified and trained for. Only 10% of applicants today had the training, degree, or experience relevant and defined in the job post. None of them knew how to create a resume and all of them listed their education last. The documents were skiable and there was so much emotional language to wade through with so few concrete examples. Really, topic sentences to start every paragraph of a cover letter would be great. (*Assistant Professor, Humanities; **Early thirties, female-identifying, single woman of color with a partner)


This might be an obvious point, but I was consistently surprised by the number of candidates who failed to meet the basic requirements for the job. For example, if we were looking to hire an Asian historian at my previous institution, I’d say that as many as 1/4 of the applicants had no legitimate claim to being an Asian historian at all. In other words, they were American historians who had once taken a graduate class on East Asia, or they were political scientists who worked on International Relations. You have to be in the general ballpark for the job; otherwise, it’s a wasted application. I think that some candidates approach the market as a sheer numbers game – if I apply to 40 places, I have a better chance at getting a job than applying to only 30 places. Yes and No – if those 10 additional openings don’t fit your qualifications, then you are not increasing your odds in any meaningful way. (*Assistant Professor, Humanities; **Married white woman)


Carrying out a search now. I don’t understand why candidates are not addressing the specifics of the job posting in their cover letter! On some of them, you can tell they wrote the letter with another position in mind. If there’s something that’s absolutely required in the posting, then make it obvious how you meet that requirement. (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences; **30s, married white female, cis-gender)


I wish people would really READ the job ad before applying! We spend a lot of time on it!  Best example:  When we are listing a job for a particular expertise/path, but in a foreign language department:  we get people applying for that who don’t speak the required language!! This in spite of the fact that we state in the ad that “(near) native English and [required language]” are required.  And in the application itself, we ask them point blank in a required yes/no question, whether they have (near) native English and [required language]! Imagine answering that question with “no”????? And when we say the job is “open until filled” but give a date when we will begin examining applications, it’s a total waste of my time to answer emails like “are you still accepting applications”?(*Administrator, Humanities **female 60 years old, department manager)


[Taken from a blog post that the respondent linked to] At the institutions where I have taught, candidates from state universities often are the most competitive for job openings because their excellent research nicely supplements their demonstrated teaching ability across a number of fields. Candidates from elite programs have been generally far too specialized in their research and have too little teaching experience. PhD students in specialized programs should be knocking down the doors of nearby community colleges or teaching-focused universities, asking to teach a wide range of survey classes.

At Manhattan College, the hiring and tenure criteria are generally teaching first, then evidence of scholarship (which almost everyone can demonstrate adequately for our purposes) and then meaningful service to the department and the school. But many applications go on and on about scholarship and ignore what I need to see: syllabi for a broad range of courses, including surveys; a teaching philosophy that contains more than just platitudes; evidence of innovative assignments, engaged students, and clear grading feedback; and memorable teaching evaluations from professors and students. 

We have even contemplated asking candidates to submit a recording of themselves teaching a class, as that is often the most important factor in who gets hired. Are they interactive? How do they get beyond lecturing and PowerPoint? Can they handle a class of 20 students instead of a large lecture hall? How do they gauge student understanding? What broad points are they making, and what close reading of evidence are they bringing? (*Tenured Professor, Humanities **White, male, married, Jewish, 40s).


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



II. At the Interview and Campus Visit

This is where our respondents got really intense. They just really, really, really want you, the candidate, to please study who they are (both as a departmental or campus collective AND as individuals) and …. show that you… CARE. Please care!

They get really, really aggravated when you don’t.

The advice here reinforces everything The Professor Is In has ever said about effective interview and campus visit preparation. Doing your homework goes far beyond the “fit question” per se. It permeates ALL of your responses and all of your interpersonal engagement – ie by demonstrating an informed curiosity about how they do what they do.


We had a truly outstanding (in terms of CV) candidate apply for a VAP at my university. Stellar record, interesting research, good teaching in his area, prestigious fellowships. One Big Problem–which we flagged in his materials and then really saw in the interview–he wanted a different job. How would he teach the survey? No clue, but he had great ideas for seminars! Could he teach umpteen courses that he’s never taught before? Let him tell us about his research! In short–he clearly thought he could talk his way into being a tt candidate for an R1 or SLAC job. Don’t be that guy. (*Assistant Professor, Humanities**37, white woman, femme-presenting)


Do a lot of research on the mission and vision of the place you’re applying. I work at a small HSI state university in an undergrad-only program. Applications from folks who have unrealistic lofty research agendas that don’t involve undergrad RAs doing real research or who include no discussion of how they’ve committed to URM and first-generation students are a bad fit from the start. (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences **35 year-old white married cisgender woman)


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


While qualifications and accomplishments matter and are helpful indicators of whether or not a candidate might get tenured down the line (if the position is TT), candidates often forget that search committees are also looking for someone who will be a good fit in terms of research interests and professional priorities, which varies across universities, and not just by university “type” (i.e., R1 vs SLAC). Being able to prove that you’re a good fit requires a good deal of research on the school and department, and showing that you did that homework is also something search committees perk up to. (*NTT, Humanities **I’m in a non-TT position, and served on search committee as a graduate student for a TT position. I’m also on the job market and am basing my advice on the successful and not-so-successful interviews I’ve had.)


Again and again, I experience candidates coming to campus for interviews without having researched our department or the people who are here. Rather, they come with a laundry list of what makes them special. We want to know how you will fit in with us in addition to what uniquenesses you will offer, so do your homework! Read faculty bios, look at curricula, learn about department projects and programming so that you can make connections and references to how you would enhance and offer support of them.  (*Tenured Professor, Arts/Music/Theater **40, female, white, married, mother)


People who drop down your list on the interview day do not research the place they intend to work. Take some time to research the university and your prospective colleagues. Some people ignore instructions re a presentation topic and talk about their research. Talk about your research when invited- there will most certainly be space to do that. Sometimes interview candidates are given a tour or lunch by prospective colleagues. Talk to them. Show interest in them even if you are nervous / feel uncomfortable. (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences **Woman)


And please remember that not all “fit” preferences are explicitly stated in the job ad! You have to be a good detective. This is where research is essential BUT ALSO keeping your eyes and ears open during the interview itself. It isn’t just a matter of not knowing anything about them, but also sometimes knowing THE WRONG THINGS, based on bias or assumptions.


Understand that there are criteria for selection that are not written in the advertised post. You will  have to deduce these by researching the dept, its faculty and staff make up and its history. You will also have to be alert in the interview to any unspoken cues coming from individuals at the periphery of the interview process. (*Non-Academic PhD, Social Sciences **56 y.o. Black American, female, straight, divorced. **assistant professor at large urban public institution)


We are a religiously affiliated school that has a left leaning, progressive expression of Christianity.  Applicants should look at how schools describe themselves and what kinds of clubs/orgs are available on the campus and not make assumptions! We are a queer friendly school, with queer faculty and students and sometimes applicants are painfully unaware of this when they apply. (*Tenured Professor, Religious and Peace Studies  **African American woman, queer, partnered)


You may not want to hear it, but “fit” also encompasses choices about how you come across, including what you wear. Academics are not particularly fashionable as a rule, and as this respondent points out, there are certainly conventions–which are CERTAINLY UNSPOKEN–of what is considered “generically appropriate” (which is a good bar for the interview/campus visit stage) at each one. Once you have the job, feel free to mix it up.

This is not about you proving your worthiness as a scholar–we know you’re worthy or you wouldn’t be at this interview. It’s about how you fit with the department, because a bad fit makes us all miserable. Do your best to put aside your frenetic worries and obsessiveness and focus on the committee, on the questions. No more dissertation talk. Tell me about your book project–and tell me the version you’d give to your friends, not the one you’d give your Chair. We’re all experts in our own fields, but not yours. That’s why we’re hiring. Pick two things that make you different and focus on those. Don’t give lists of authors you’d use for seminars. Give us examples of what you’d do with them. Most importantly, don’t BS us. You never know which one of us took a seminar on that exact author with an expert and can tell you haven’t read it. We also know if you took more than cursory look at our webpage. Last but not least, it’s petty, yes, but try to dress like the institution you want to join while still being yourself–there are loads of resources on this. If my older colleague asks me if you were wearing pajamas in the interview, you have taken “I’m cool” to a bad place.  (*Assistant Professor, Humanities **Cisgender, lesbian, biracial (although passing for white so it’s easier on me, but does make me aware of others), married.)


Remember too that “fit” is most definitely not just twisting yourself into a pretzel to parrot back to them whatever they are already doing. They want and need a new colleague who will thoughtfully and collaboratively contribute NEW ideas to the department, always with an eye, however, to their stated mission.

At least one of our interview questions (and potentially all of them ) is designed to see what it would be like to work with that person for the next year (or next 25-30 years, for TT position). Both the answer to that question AND the general behavior of the candidate during the interview are taken as an indicator of what it is like to interact with that person in a professional setting. In other words: candidates should avoid taking a defensive or aggressive tone at any point during the interview, and the answer to the “how do you fit as a member of our team” question should not be “I’m happy to defer to whatever decisions are made” but rather a more thoughtful, balanced answer that shows how the candidate will contribute to the team/department. (*Tenured Professor, Humanities **work at a Liberal Arts College)


Here are some very specific responses regarding THE JOB TALK, which is a genre of misery all unto itself.


– My humanities field (Classics) requires people to teach far outside their narrow research interests. Even at the grad level. When we say ‘must be able to teach in both languages at all levels’ and then get candidates who are surprised and can only name their own research for courses…we are alarmed. 

– Candidates not having done bare research on a dept. Our dept made the NYT three times in the past few years for a massive new archaeological discovery. Made by our dept head. And some candidates have never heard of it. 

-We teach a lot of first gen undergrads or people who work full time. They aren’t going to be able to do what Harvard kids do out of the gate and it sucks when candidates haven’t even thought of how to teacher our (really great!) students. 

Job talks that are either too general to be scholarly OR too specialized for anyone but someone in the subfields to follow. I see so many poor job talks that hit either extreme. (*Tenured Professor, Humanities **White woman 40 straight married associate Professor in a top humanities dept within a less top state school system.)


1) don’t have famous people write you letters unless you know them really well – they may not write you a strong one, 2) showing you’d make a good colleague really helps – don’t come across braggy or cite yourself too many times in your powerpoints, 3) better to over-prepare your talk than underprepare… I’ve heard talks that sound rehearsed and they are much better than incoherent ones where the speaker gets lost because they didn’t prepare, 4) send an e-mail thank you note to everyone you met with! We talk about this – it signals your interest, 5) sometimes who gets the offer comes down to a collective shoulder shrug where we all go “uhhhh how about so-and-so?” because you’re all so awesome we can’t decide any other way, 6) if the position specifies an area (say, race) and that’s only tangential to your research, try to emphasize it anyway in your talk – we want to know that you at least try to make a case for how your research fits… and if we like you then we can make that “fit” case to the dean more easily even if we recognize that you really study class, with a side of race. (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **White female, mother, 33, bisexual, petite)


Do your homework before interviews. I’ve seen so many potentially top candidates tank interviews (short-form and long-form alike) because they did not do their homework. Likewise, the top candidates who end up with offers always have done their research and can engage deeply with the people in the department on their interviews. The homework: Read a recent paper by each person you’re interviewing with, and find a connection with your interests. Know the course offerings and program structures for the department. Know who usually teaches what. At least read through all the student websites, and if there are students working directly in your interest areas, make sure you know who they are and bonus points if you’ve read some of their work already. If you’re giving a job talk, think about how you can put pointers or links to relevant work within the department into your talk (e.g., cite people in the department, frame some parts of your talk in a relevant way). You wouldn’t have gone into a test in class without studying, so don’t come into any interview without studying. (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **woman of color at R1 institution)


And there you have it, folks: You wouldn’t have gone into a test in class without studying, so don’t come into any interview without studying. Learn more about how to do this in this week’s special podcast episode.


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

I have a toxic advisor/PI. I feel trapped by circumstance and finances. What have other grad students, postdocs, or new PhDs done to manage or escape?

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

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#Dispatches From the Front: What Candidates Are Doing Wrong, Part I of III: “Do Your Homework, Please. PLEASE.” — 4 Comments

  1. I agree with these so much, but…I find it so cringeworthy that these comments include the marital status and age of the commenters—to the point that I can’t concentrate on the rest of the post. There’s a reason we don’t put this stuff on our CVs anymore.

    • all info of that kind was optional – we asked people to share info they felt was relevant to the advice they wanted to give and that’s what they shared; we did not edit except to assure anonymity. We’ve been pretty amused at what people decided was relevant.

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