Decoding Job Ads

What the notices say is only part of what they mean, writes Cheryl E. Ball.

October 7, 2013

In a previous column, I wrote about finding your academic fit when you go on the job market by figuring out what kind of college or department with which your sensibilities and abilities might best align. That advice focused on being introspective -- asking yourself some philosophical questions -- and on seeking the advice of your adviser or mentor. You can also teach yourself about what institutions pride themselves from reading their job ads. You’ll start to notice trends in the language and structure of ads, so that you can start to group similarly worded ads together and easily spot the ads that break those patterns, or start their own, set of conventions. Your adviser has likely had years, if not decades, of experience analyzing job ads and placing them within your field’s discourse and values. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you get started in recognizing on what schools place high (or low) priorities, based on how their ads are written.

When They Say: "The department/program/School of So-and-So," as well as "in the College of Blahdy-Blah,” take notice.

What They Mean: The name and location of the organizational unit in which this faculty line is assigned tells you who you’ll be reporting to. For alt-ac, staff, or administrative jobs this might be more important than for typical faculty lines, but in all cases it will signal where your tenure home and/or budget line comes from, as well as what the disciplinary and university expectations are. For instance, if the job is situated in a program or division, it might be affiliated with one or more departments, perhaps in an interdisciplinary way, but it is often curricularly (and possibly administratively) separate from that department, as is often the case with degree programs that are only possible by taking cross-listed coursework. You should research the context for whatever unit you’re applying to and tailor your job application letter to fit the unique mission for every unit.

When They Say: "This institution is a Carnegie Research University."

What They Mean: We may have recently been a two-year college, are a branch campus, or are a fast-growing state school, and the research expectations for our faculty are rising quickly. There could be a lot of reasons outside the control of the hiring department or program for including this information in the job ad, and sometimes it’s a prestige thing (“Look at us! We do research!”), often in the name of promoting a new Carnegie designation. Behind the scenes, this newness of Carnegie ranking may create awkward repercussions on campus, such as senior faculty not having the same kinds of research agendas and publications that more recent hires will have, which can create animosity when it comes to merit raises (if such structures exist) and tenure and promotion reviews. This is not an atypical situation for many institutions, however, so it shouldn’t mean a job-seeker throws out such an institution. The good thing is that they probably value some level of research, even if the position description (as opposed to the institutional description) doesn’t necessarily state that.

For instance, one recent ad I saw had this great line: "the assistant professor of X-discipline requires teaching, service, and research responsibilities as well as a terminal degree." The order of responsibilities says volumes about a faculty member’s tenure expectations in this department: teaching comes first. If you’re not a good teacher, don’t apply. Service comes second, and is highly valued in this department. Everyone has to pitch in and carry their service weight. If you’re not a team player, do not apply. Research comes third. Further, the ad says, "Teaching and research tracks are available at the faculty’s discretion." It’s rare to see this description in an ad, and it’s very cool that they’ve included it. What it means is that a new faculty member can decide (probably in consultation with the department chair) whether he or she wants to get tenure based on teaching performance or on research performance. This probably won’t discount the higher number of classes you’ll have to teach, but having the option --- particularly if you’re a master teacher but want to do some research (maybe even scholarship on your teaching) --- means that your expertise will be valued. This institution also mentioned Carnegie ranking, which balances the fact that it does expect some research, but it’s no R1. This university has Ph.D. programs, but not in this department, which is another reason why teaching, particularly of undergraduates, is so highly valued.

When They Say:  "Assistant professor in broad disciplinary area with specialization in subfield, related subfield, slightly related subfield, adjacent subfield, and/or totally random other subfield is preferred."

What They Mean: We’re hiring in a broad area in the department that has seen significant growth recently, is popular with students, or (and the OR is important here, because it’s more often the case) because someone left or retired and we need to fill their spot. These listings of subspecialties seem to hang graduate students up the most, but they’re not that difficult to interpret. See if you can learn (by asking your adviser or someone you might know at the hiring institution) which of these hiring options -- a new/shifted line into a new area or specialization for the department, or an already existing/traditional line -- the institution is after, so you can craft your cover letter accordingly. If it’s a new or shifted line, the department may be more open to differences in the subfields that are listed. But, in nearly all cases, the subfields are not meant to be compiled. That is, when a job ad lists six subspecialties, a candidate DOES NOT need to be an expert in all six of those subfields; one or two usually suffice. The "or" here is also very important. Often, the ones that appear earlier in that list are more hoped for, but that doesn’t discount later-listed subspecialties from being contenders, particularly with a candidate who can convince a search committee why the later-listed specialties might be of better use in their department. Secondly, if a candidate can do more than one of these specialties, that person will almost always take preference to someone who can only demonstrate excellence (or rising excellence) in one. Third, subspecialties are often listed in relation to specific classes that need to be covered. Review the course descriptions online and write your cover letter attending specifically to those courses.

When They Say:  "The department is also an active participant in the online program in ABC and is working toward an online graduate certificate in XYZ."

What They Mean: The first half means that you will have to do some online teaching while you’re here, so you’d better demonstrate in your cover letter and C.V. that you’re interested and/or have experience in teaching online. A course syllabus in Blackboard doesn’t count, but can be used as a foot in the door, showcasing that you already know how to use a content management system for online learning. The second half of that statement means that the program has been jumping through the intellectual and administrative hoops to start a new program/certificate/etc., potentially for years. This can mean two things to a job-seeker: (1) It shows possibilities and program growth, which are exciting and usually means that the program is already valued at the institution. (2) You may have to step in, either immediately or in the near future, to administer this program. Slyly, or openly, suggest your experiences in doing so in your cover letter, or avoid the job is you don’t want the administrative headache of starting a new program, which is full of all sorts of time-sucks and, unless the department specifically outlines the tenure credit you’ll get for this service work, will be that much more time away from your teaching or research, which will get you tenure.

When They Say: "This residential college campus setting lies amidst two major cities in the lovely forest/parks/savannahs/palouse/etc.” and has "all the benefits of a major university with a small-college feel."

What They Mean: It’s true that this school is in the middle of nowhere, and we are telling you this up front because we want you to want to live in this small town. Universities not located in major cities can’t hide that fact, and while some job-seekers crave city life, many job seekers overlook the benefits of small-town life: forming close bonds with your colleagues (a pro or con, depending on your personality and working habits), living an "easy" life (e.g., not having to stress about your commute or parking situation, or paying hugely high rent or mortgages, etc.), and having limited distractions toward your productivity toward tenure. Often this information is included as "boilerplate" language that the human resources division automatically appends to the department’s ad, so don’t assume the institution is trying too hard.

Don’t do what one job-seeker did recently: Get to a small-town school, put the best face on for the interview, then get home and blab on social media how they’d never work at such a small place. If I recall correctly, the search committee saw the comment after the person was offered the job, and it was the only job offer that person got that year, so s/he had to take it. Welcome to your new colleagues! lol. This description also relates to an issue I hear from graduate students all the time: "I won’t even consider a job in the South." When I say “Well, bless your heart” what I mean is “Good luck finding ANY job.” Geographic location is definitely fodder for another column, but let me quickly say that if you’ve never been to the South, and you think you know enough about it from watching "Deliverance," you’re a bad critical thinker.

Keep in mind that ads are almost always written by committee, if not "collaboratively" (sometimes with much consternation and human-resources-imposed constraint) by an entire department. The department or the search committee may not even agree on (or know themselves) what they’re looking for in terms of the kind of scholar they seek, the materials they request, etc. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for an ad to specifically request one kind of subdiscipline, only for the search committee to end up looking at the pool of candidates, seeing a fantastic candidate in another subdiscipline, and changing directions to hire that person. You, as a candidate, can’t anticipate any of this, and you should not punish yourself for not being someone else. (FWIW, this kind of ad-to-hire switcheroo is more prevalent at research-intensive universities, in my experience.

Teaching-intensive universities often want someone who can purposefully cover more than one subdiscipline, which is why it behooves job candidates who actually want academic jobs to hone their teaching skills both in and outside of their sub-specialties whenever possible.)

Also keep in mind that in some disciplines, such as the humanities, job ads are written twice: the long ad goes on the university website and online venues while the short ad is used for print venues that have more limited space. Job ads are advertising and are usually charged by the word or the line (or by how much space they take up), particularly in print venues. For some online venues, it’s a set fee (such as it is with Inside Higher Ed’s job listings). However, ads are not cheap, so departments sometimes (ha, always?!) have to be more succinct than they’d like. That’s not their choice, as budget-squeezing has been an ongoing issue in higher education for decades. So, while, yes, an institution with a huge, four-color display ad, or a featured ad in the sidebar of a website does show off its budget, which can be an indication of the level of resources a new faculty member might have at their disposal, job-seekers should remember to give all ads equal weight at first so as to evaluate ads in relation to their own academic identity and interests. The non-flashy, simply worded ad might have the institution with the best colleagues to work with.


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