If I Could Do It Over ....

October 27, 2010

The market was unkind last year, to the point where small colleges were getting hundreds of applicants for one-year positions offered in April and May. I was one of the semi-fortunate ones, getting a one-year position in late April; of course, this means that I'll be back on the market this year. The good news is that now, I’m armed with all of the information I learned from all of the mistakes I made, as well as all of the mistakes that my friends made. In this article, I’ve listed some of the bigger ones.

We’ll start with the ones I made:

--Know the info on the college to which you are applying, but don’t go nuts. If you get an interview with a college, it is a good idea to look at the institution’s website and figure out its philosophies (liberal arts? religious? engineering?), faculty interests, etc. Be careful of trying to memorize specific facts and figures, though; if you transpose a digit or mix up two figures, you’re going to look and feel pretty stupid. It’s more important to understand how you would fit into the department than it is to know that the department graduated 17 math majors last year, and if it comes up in an interview, you’re far less likely to misspeak on the former than on the latter.

An illustrative story: I was interviewing for a job last year, and the logical first question they asked was, "What do you know about our school?" Eager to impress, I said, "Well, it’s a school of 1,200 students…" I was off by a factor of four; I suppose that if I had quickly added, "per class," I might have recovered. Anyway, they might as well have ended the interview right there. One of the interviewers actually spent the entire rest of the interview overtly staring at the clock (note to potential interviewers: please don’t do this – it’s just cruel.) Even if interviewers don’t see this as a death knell, it’s a terrible first impression.

--Don’t be too timid to apply. I crossed a couple of colleges off of my list last year because I thought I had so little chance that it wasn't worth my time in sending an application. I thought nothing of it until I was talking to a colleague at one such school and explained my reasoning, and he said, "I wish you hadn’t done that. We could have interviewed you, but it’s probably too late now."

If colleges think that you're not worthy of their position, they’ll be more than happy to put your résumé in the recycling bin, but it’s not like they're going to laugh at your application and blacklist you from ever applying again unless you wrote your cover letter in crayon and littered your teaching statement with expletives. If they don't accept you, they don't accept you, but if you would like to work at an institution, there's no sense in throwing away a lottery ticket just because it probably won't win, and sending out an application doesn't take very long at all.

This is actually a sub-point of the more general point:

--Humility has no place in a job search. There's no reason that you should be anything but flatteringly complimentary to yourself, because if you don't sell yourself, no one will do it for you. This seems obvious, and that’s because it is. What's not obvious, however, is that this applies at all times and in all places. You would never say, "My research stinks," in a research statement or interview, but making a dismissive comment about your research in a talk (I’ve seen it happen), saying something particularly self-deprecating to colleagues at a conference, or putting an unflattering comment about yourself on your website can be just as bad. If you are on the market, you are a salesman for yourself at all times.

I can be somewhat self-deprecating in my sense of humor. I'm sure it’s charming socially, but it's a terrible idea on a job hunt. If you're like me, it’s time to break the habit – at least for now.

I also asked a friend about his mistakes, and he came up with the following:

--Proofread everything. Are there typos in your cover letter? If so, you can save the shipping costs and just throw your application directly into the trash. Did you spell the college's name wrong, or forget to change the school’s name in one of the places where you were supposed to copy and paste? You won’t be working there any time soon. Does your research statement state your key theorems incorrectly? You will likely serve to confuse the hiring committee, and a confused hiring committee is an unreceptive hiring committee. The bottom line is this: your application is your way of introducing yourself, and if your documents give off an "I rushed this and don’t care about quality" feel, you've given them a good reason to feel that they don't want you as a colleague.

This is another one of those things that sounds easy, but if you’re sending out 99 applications (which is the number I sent last year), submitting typo-free documents requires a good bit of concentration, so you have to be extremely careful.

--Personalize your letters. In cover letters, give colleges the sense that you want their job, not just any job. In particular, it's good to make sure that it looks like you read what the department is looking for in the job advertisement. My friend had one cover letter for much of last year, emphasizing what a great researcher he was. Nevertheless, he sent this letter to numerous teaching colleges. He never heard from any of them.

This list by no means exhaustive; regardless, if you avoid these mistakes, you'll be in a better position than most, and certainly a better position than I was when I started looking for jobs.


Thomas Wright is a visiting assistant professor of mathematics at Lawrence University. This essay is adapted with permission from a piece he wrote for the graduate student blog of the American Mathematical Society.

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