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Essay on seeking a job in academe

'Show Them Who You Are'
September 11, 2013

My father is a salesman: not of products, but of selves. He spent his career as a headhunter or recruiter in the computer industry in New York, and in retirement he founded a nonprofit that provides free job counseling and interviewing strategies to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. I can say with no small confidence that anyone who has ever talked with Carl J. about interviewing or self-presentation -- and followed his advice -- has secured a job. His interviewing and professional counsel works in academe, too. Here are some lessons I've learned from my dad about how to interview for and land a job, adapted for higher education. My examples come mostly from humanities fields, but should be broadly applicable.

1. Always use positive language. Academics can be self-deprecating and prone to negative constructions. My father's first lesson to me was, "It sounds far worse to say 'I've only closed 10 deals' than to say 'I'm proud to have closed one deal.' " I've read a lot of job letters in years on search committees that have some variation on the line "I have not had the chance to teach upper-division classes yet, but hope to do so." The same information can be conveyed in positive language by writing "I am keen to teach upper-division classes in [specific topics]." In our scholarly writing we often rely on negative constructions to make arguments (i.e., it's not this thing, but instead that other thing), but such language should not make its way into job materials -- negation has no place in landing a position. When doing practice interviews with friends and advisers (more on this below), have them listen closely for negative words; it can be a hard habit to break, and is especially likely to happen in conversation.

2. Applying for jobs is itself a job. The academic job market has its strictures and expectations, its documents and materials. Think of the application process as itself a full-time job, not something you do in between class prep and essay revisions. Work on these more carefully and at more length than any article or dissertation/book chapter you have written. Solicit examples from friends and colleagues, and show your materials to anyone with search or hiring committee experience who will read them. One very successful associate professor I know thought the best way he could prepare for the market in literature was to be intimate with books like Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era. His job market success came after he put aside the critical reading for a month and prioritized his job materials (letter, C.V., project description) as the most important intellectual work at hand.

3. Get out there. The point of networking, even for those who find it unsavory, is to create visibility for yourself and your work, to forge an association between your name and your topic, the aim of which is to be a part of a broader intellectual community. The best members of such communities both draw from and contribute to its conversations. At conferences or lectures, if you're not naturally inclined to be a cocktail conversationalist or a glad-hander, then ask questions, introducing yourself by name. Offer to help in conference planning or promotion. Send e-mails after a symposium to speakers whose work was provocative or influential to you. Organize panels. Put your name and your work out to the public in a form that you find comfortable and productive: create a Twitter feed of news stories or blog posts relevant to your research; curate a Tumblr of images used in your research or teaching; ask questions or crowdsource information on your field's listserv or Facebook page. Establish a website, however simple, that includes your C.V. and examples of your work. The idea is that your name should resonate in some way -- "oh, Hester Blum, she works on sea literature." The best members of social networks promote the work of others as much or more than they do their own.

4. Take shots. By this my father always meant multiply your options or opportunities; apply for as many jobs as possible. Accept rejection as the default of any search. "It doesn't matter if 100 people say no, all you need is for one person to say yes," my dad says -- and he has little idea that this hyperbolic figure might be the norm (optimistically!) in academic job searching in the humanities.

5. Learn the institution. Your interview preparation should include substantial research into the position and where the position fits within various institutional structures. A campus academic center with which I am affiliated was interviewing candidates for our social media/website position not long ago; the first question we asked was, "Have you had a chance to look at our website?" Two of the three candidates had not done so in any detail; the one we hired came ready with positively phrased suggestions for a clearer and more appealing media presence, while also noting what she thought was working well on the current site. Prepare questions about the department you wish to join that demonstrate both your familiarity with the program, and your ability to add to it (this last part is crucial). Here's an example: "Are there opportunities for your undergraduates to do collaborative research? I see that there is a thesis option for your senior majors, and I am imagining [or have been designing] joint research projects that allow students to broaden the scope of their theses while gaining experience in cooperative work experiences." Phrasing your question in this way gives you the chance to tell your interviewers more about your own skills, interests, and ideas, while also signaling to them that you have done the work to learn about their existing program and wish to supplement (not critique) it.

6. Know your audience. If you are applying for an administrative position, your interview focus should be on what you will bring to the institution, center, or office to which you are applying -- not on what the position will do to enhance your own career. If the job is a teaching or research position, your emphasis can be more on your own skills and ideas. Are you applying to a cash-strapped institution, or one with a small library? Then don't ask questions about the availability of research/travel funds or special collections -- such pointed inquiries for which there may be no happy answer should come much later in the process, when you have options or an offer.

7. When in interviews, speak much slower and much louder than you normally do. Everyone's voice will modulate over the course of a conversation; most voices will become faster or softer or both. Concentrate on speaking much more slowly (and at greater volume) than you are accustomed to doing when interviewing; you will naturally speed up (and drop your volume) and will arrive at a reasonable pace.

8. Practice answering questions. Academics are good at thinking reactively and on foot, a skill that gets lots of practice in the classroom. We are natural contextualizers, too, and account for nuances, misperceptions, and contingencies in what we are saying. But in academic job interviews there is rarely time to indulge in the meditative kind of response that might come naturally. You neither want to be long winded, nor get cut off by another question before you have arrived at your real point in an answer. Practicing answers to questions -- aloud, repeatedly, and to anyone who will listen -- is the single most important way to prepare for an interview. Friends and students on whom I've impressed this fact have worried that their answers will then sound canned or corporate, but with practice comes concision and acuteness. Write out any question that you can imagine being asked, and answer them again and again, in one- to two-minute responses.

9. "Tell us about your dissertation." There are two approaches that work particularly well in answering this mainstay of academic job interviews. The first is to start by start by identifying a problem, whether critical, historical, or methodological. You could say something like "My work examines what happens when we think about X critical question [or archive, or theory, or methodology] in terms of Y, which gives us new ways of understanding the field [or the theory, or the practice]," and then launch into the details of your project. This method shows that you're aware of the broader stakes of your project, that you have a grasp of the field and of the profession, and that you're thinking about how to extend the influence of your specific project. A second option is to begin with an illustrative anecdote. Tell an origin story if you have a good one: "the idea for this project came to me in the Oceania room at the natural history museum." Or use the anecdote to demonstrate how your research emerges from your teaching: "When I was teaching X, a student asked me about Y, which arrested me. In thinking of how best to respond to this student's question, I started thinking about how Y in the following ways...." The anecdote is effective because it is intimate and interesting, and it shows the process of your creative ability to generate scholarship.

10. Think like a colleague. You may be a supplicant when interviewing, but do not act like one; model your ability to be a colleague in spirited, genial conversation with equals. When you first greet the interviewing committee, picture yourself saying hello to a dear friend or family member; the warmth and liveliness you feel in the presence of that loved one will come through.

11. Always be closing: campus visit version. Take care of yourself on a callback, physically: carry energy bars, since you may be talking instead of eating at meals. Also bring gum, mints, candy, and water, since you'll be in constant conversation, which is dehydrating. Keep your energy as high as possible, asking for an extra restroom break or two if you need a few minutes to recover. Most of the department will not be familiar with your application materials, and will judge you on your talk, their meals with you, and whatever the search committee conveys about you in meetings. Patience and refreshed enthusiasm are required in describing your project all day long to many, many people who may know little about your work. Think of questions you might ask a dean or provost or higher-level administrator -- one effective strategy is to ask for their vision of where the institution will be in five years. Departments should send you an itinerary of your visit, which will list the people you'll be meeting; look them up in advance. Ask everyone you meet about their own work.

12. Range beyond the podium for your academic job talk. When you're called back to a college, search committee members should give you a sense of what kind of talk they are looking for, whether generalist, dissertation-specific, or teaching-oriented; solicit this information, if necessary, finding out whether they are more interested in an overview of your project, or a detailed example of your research. During the question and answer period, step out from behind the podium and walk toward the questioners with a smile; show them your confidence, flexibility, and teacherly manner. You don't want to remain defensively tethered behind the rostrum. Make reference in your answers to conversations you may have had earlier in the day with department members.

I think often of a throwaway line of Steve Martin's from a Saturday Night Live monologue in 1990, an iteration of the trite and true "be yourself": "I'm me!... I'm the me-est me there ever was!" The goal in a job search is to be the best version of yourself, the you-est you there ever was. You cannot game the academic system; you cannot anticipate what a hiring committee is looking for (as if they know), even if you seem to fit the stated parameters; you cannot be everything to anyone. All you can control is your own work and your own presentation of the best of that work, that self. Or, in the words of Carl J. Blum, as I have heard them for 40 years now: "Show them who you are."

Bio

Hester Blum is associate professor of English at Penn State University. Her research focuses on 19th-century American literature and oceanic studies.

 

 

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