Monday, September 20, 2010

Academic Job Search Tips, Part I

The reader sarcozona, whose great blog can be found here, asked me to share my experiences during an academic job search. I was on the job market for two years. The first time, I got a Visiting Professor position and the second time, a tenure-track job. In the process, I discovered how unprepared we, the ABDs and the newly-minted PhDs, often are for the demans of an academic job search. If I were to go on the job market now, I would do pretty much everything differently. So here are some of my suggestions:

1. Forget about the dissertation. Contrary to what they drill into us at mock job interviews in our grad schools, prospective employers couldn't care less about our dissertations. They care that the dissertation a) will be finished and defended on time and b) that our research will allow us to teach a wide variety of courses. So if your cover letter includes a detailed description of your dissertation topic, throw it out. Instead, say things like, "Three chapters are already finished and approved by the thesis director. I am absolutely positive that I will submit the entire dissertation on March 15 and will defend it in May. My thesis adviser agrees with this timeline." Whenever you are asked to talk about the dissertation topic during interviews, make sure you explain that this research will allow you to teach several different courses on different levels.

2. Make people forgive you for being an Ivy. If you happen to be doing your PhD at an Ivy League school, you have to know that instead of offering you this huge advantage you always hoped it would, it might turn out to be an equally huge liability. People thing that Ivies are stuck up, condescending and superior. You need to be as humble, self-effacing and modest as you can to let people see that is not the case with you. Never say things like,"What we do at Princeton is . . .," "The way this course is taught at Yale is . . .," "We have these great facilities at Harvard that  . . ."

3. Make yourself useful. As much as we want to believe that the purpose of an academic job search is to provide us with employment that will allow us the freedom and the resources to pursue our research, that is not really the case. Employers want people who will serve employers' purposes, not their own. You have to state very clearly that you love teaching lower-level courses and courses outside your area of expertise. There is a high probability that you will not get to teach a course in your area of specialized interest for years. You need to make clear that you understand this and are happy about this.

4. Remember that it's the person who gets hired, not a list of credentials. Between a candidate with fantastic credentials and the one who isn't as well qualified, the one who will get hired every single time is the one who has the nicest personality and who looks like they would fit this particular department the best on a personal level. I'm very proud of my CV, my degrees, my teaching experiences, and my publications. But the reason I was hired as stated by the Chair of my department was that I'm "nice, outgoing, and fun." People who have been reading this blog for a while know that I have autism, so I'm neither of these things. So as they say in sales, "Fake it till you make it."

5. Don't complain. Another useful slogan I borrowed from people in sales is "Less bitching, more pitching." No matter how lousy your grad school experience has been, you can never ever give even a slight hint of that during job interview. Everything is perfect, everybody is great and kind, your colleagues are fantastic, and your thesis director is helpful. Even if you know that the person interviewing you has been involved in a mortal feud with a senior faculty member at your department, you still can't even hint at disliking them. Say you haven't had much contact with that person because your focus is on finishing the dissertation as fast as possible. Which you plan to do by March 15 and defend it in May. And your thesis adviser agrees.

Part II of this post is located here.


Anonymous said...

Please say more about the first part -- why shouldn't I talk about the dissertation in the job letter and, instead, what should I talk about? Future projects??

Clarissa said...

I was going to write about this in the second part of the post but since you are asking, I'll put it here as well.

You know how in many job announcements they require "evidence of active research agenda"? Well, as I have been told on various occasions (and once very rudely), working exclusively on your dissertation doesn't count as evidence of active research agenda. There need to be other, DIFFERENT projects. Conferences you went to or are going to, publications, conference sessions or colloquia you organized, grants you applied for, anything. The more varied, the better.

A discussion of the topic of the dissertation shouldn't go on for pages and pages. A paragraph is more than enough. And it should be very clear when you will finish, what your schedule is. Also, the discussion of the dissertation should be geared towards how it will help you to teach a wide variety of courses.

If they are interested in knowing more about the dissertation, they will be asking about it during interviews. Make sure you can list the most important critical or theoretical sources you use on the spot. Also, make sure the people that are interviewing you don't have any huge ideological differences with your main theoretical sources.