Job Letter Mistakes

Richard C. Sha reviews some of the ways good candidates for humanities openings hurt their chances of landing an interview.

January 12, 2011

In a previous essay, I discussed ways that dissertation committees can help or hinder their doctoral students’ career prospects in the humanities. Here is some advice for the doctoral students themselves.

1. Don’t try faking expertise in a field that you don’t have. Having taken one class on film does not make a candidate ready to teach film. Claiming an interest that is not corroborated by the dissertation or by numerous paper presentations or by articles just doesn’t fly. Candidates who make such claims are the first to be cut. New book projects on the area of study sought for in the ad usually fail to compel.

2. Don't assume that because something is interesting to you it will be interesting to others. You must be able to engage others in the significance of your research. What problem will you help others think about and why? Committees are suckers for genuinely interesting work: work that makes surprising claims or offers genuinely new perspectives on an issue or authors.

Also, do not assume that you are the only person working on a subject. Often the zeitgeist will rear its banal head: in a recent search we have had, for example, five candidates all were theorizing the meaning of partition to postcolonialism, and all were seemingly unaware of each other’s work. Perhaps another half dozen were writing about haunting in postcolonialism. The committee then had to choose the most compelling version, and sometimes none of them made the final cut. The strongest version had a fresh and detailed approach. Those writing on trauma be warned: it is becoming nigh impossible to say anything interesting about trauma.

Candidates should not feel obligated to summarize every dissertation chapter in the letter. Rather, imagine that you are writing the one-paragraph book-jacket description of your book. How will you convince anyone to plunk down the $65 for your monograph?

3. Foreign applicants should abandon the practice of writing bare bones letters, thinking perhaps that the committee will go on to read all of the materials accompanying the application. For us, if we are not compelled by the job letter, we do not look any further. Again, think about your letter as part of a very large applicant pool.

4. Recognize that the closer you are to completing your dissertation, the more competitive your application is likely to be. We worry that candidates who are A.B.D. won’t finish the dissertation in time. Hence we read letters of recommendation and the candidate’s description of the project to find out how far along the candidate really is: How many actual chapters are written? Is the defense scheduled? Does the candidate write with the authority that comes from being nearly done?

5. Avoid in your job letter mere lists of authors and theories or theorists. Anyone can string a list together. Instead, how are you intervening in a critical conversation? Jargon should be used sparingly, keeping in mind that faculty in different fields are reading your letter. Listing authors to be taught in a course is more acceptable, but you will want to have more than the usual suspects, and it would be good to follow any list with a compelling anecdote about your teaching of any single author.

6. Avoid the expected platitudes about teaching in your teaching paragraphs. If only I had a nickel for every time I have read about the student-centered classroom or about the Socratic method. More disturbing: candidates are wont to talk about these techniques as if they had invented them. Two suggestions to set yourself apart on teaching. When talking about your teaching, think about how your research shapes your teaching. That will have the virtue of individualizing your teaching. We are looking for teachers with significant teaching experience: as a tuition-driven institution, we have to think about the bottom line. Instead of platitudes, talk about a teaching moment that really mattered to you. What happened? Why did you think it was a meaningful experience? Those candidates who bring themselves to life as teachers and thinkers are the ones who are the most compelling. Make your examples varied: we cannot afford to hire a one-trick pony.

7. Pay attention to the accompanying materials. Again with hundreds of applications for jobs, do not assume that committees read your writing samples from start to finish. Sometimes we read the introduction, a page or two in the middle, and the concluding paragraph. Hence make sure that your sample skims well. It is always a good sign when I don’t want to stop reading the sample, and more rarely than I would hope, I actually read the whole thing because I am compelled out of interest.

Be selective when sending materials. Thick applications are a turn-off. They look desperate. Leave your audience wanting more, not less, and often less is more.

On CVs: book reviews and encyclopedia entries do not have the status of refereed articles. I would split these into two categories so it doesn’t look like you are padding your application.

Avoid fussy fonts and fussy paper. These suggest that more attention has been given to the packaging than the content. I always tell my undergraduates that paper grades are often inversely proportional to the prettiness of the paper: the same applies for job applications.


Richard C. Sha is professor of literature at American University.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top