In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
It’s been a while since I’ve done a “how to get the job” piece. Judging by a recent flurry of emails on the subject, it looks like the time is right for a new one.
If you’re applying for a full-time faculty job, you can assume that the folks who read your cover letter will be academics. For all their quirks, academics tend to be pretty good readers. That means that your cover letter will actually get read closely, probably several times. Craft counts.
Please don’t open with “My name is...” We’ll figure it out when we get to the signature line.
Extended explanations of your personal life are out of place. Employers don’t hire to solve people’s personal problems. They hire to solve their own problems. Explain how you will solve the employer’s problems. If you can’t even get through a cover letter without invoking major personal drama, I have a pretty good indication of what I’d have to handle. No, thanks.
For fresh-out-of-grad-school faculty applicants: letters that focus lovingly on your dissertation are red flags. Community colleges hire people to teach. I don’t want a frustrated researcher; I want a terrific teacher who is conversant in her field. If you also happen to do research, that’s great, but it’s not the job. If that sounds hellish to you, don’t apply here.
For corporate-refugee applicants to administrative positions: Tread lightly on the “real world” stuff. It’s condescending, and it suggests that you don’t have the foggiest idea how higher education works. If you’re coming in from the outside, you’re much better off focusing on your listening and adapting skills than on your take-charge personality. Otherwise, I can anticipate that you’ll be the bull in the china shop for the one year that you manage to survive here. And whatever you do, don’t give the impression that you see a move to academia as semi-retirement. That’s instant death.
If you make it to the interview, congratulations! Keep in mind that the point of an interview is not necessarily to get the job; it’s to find the right match. A few tips, based on what I’ve seen personally:
If you’re at a distance and are offered the opportunity for a phone or Skype interview, understand that no matter how much the committee may protest otherwise, you will be at a disadvantage relative to candidates who can actually show up. If it’s at all possible, get there. In my dozen years on searches, I can’t remember a single time that an applicant won a job without showing up in person. Remember: you’re competing with people they’ve actually met.
Never, under any circumstances, refer to yourself as “phenomenal” or any synonym thereof. It screams “Ego Monster,” and honestly, I stop listening at that point.
Do not suggest that you are far superior to the people we currently have in the department. See “Ego Monster,” above.
Assume that you’ll be asked why you want to work here. A good answer is one that suggests that you’ll roll up your sleeves and get to work on problems that matter to the college. “It’s near (desired location)” is not a good answer.
Assume that you’ll be asked if you have any questions for us. Have some. And don’t go immediately to course releases and sabbaticals. Asking about college priorities is a safe fallback if you don’t have anything else.
This one may be me, but I’ve never been offended by candidates who work with a single page of notes. Don’t read anything at length, and never go rifling for anything, but a few keywords to help you remember major topics are fine. This comes in handy at the “do you have any questions for us” stage. Better that than the deer-in-headlights moment as you go blank trying to remember what you wanted to ask. If nothing else, it suggests preparation.
Know how to read “salary ranges.” In a collective bargaining environment, salary ranges are based on the lowest-to-highest earners at a given title. The highest earner at a given title may have thirty years’ experience here. Don’t assume that you’ll be coming in anywhere near the top of the range, no matter how objectively wonderful you are. And no, fifteen years of experience elsewhere doesn’t count as much on the salary scale as fifteen years of experience here. Whether that makes sense or not, it’s the way it is. For a new hire, the lower-middle portion of the salary range is realistic. Harvard can play by whatever rules it wants; for us, these are the rules.
This one may sound cruel, but it’s based on direct observation. If you live with your parents, give us a cell phone number that applies only to you. Trust me on this one. Somewhat less urgently, if your email address ends in “aol.com,” get a new email address. And please let your references know that they’re your references. I once called a candidate’s reference to say that I was calling about so-and-so; the person said “who?” Not impressive.
Finally, and I know this is hard, know that it’s really not about you. Expect some rejections along the way. If nothing else, try to learn something through each interview you have. From my own experience, I can attest that interviewing is a skill like any other, and that you get better with practice. An interview that doesn’t result in an offer at least gives you more practice. I wouldn’t have landed my current job if I hadn’t gone through several unsuccessful interviews elsewhere first. It’s part of the process.
From this side of the desk, hiring is something like casting. The college is trying to fill a particular role. Depending on the needs of the college at any given time, the role will change. Those changes have nothing to do with you, and are no reflection on you. If you accept that reality going in, you can let go of the fantasy of perfection, and instead focus on presenting the best accurate version of yourself. If you get a position based on an accurate presentation of yourself, you’ll have a great chance of being successful in it.
Wise and worldly readers, do you have any tips to share?