Avoid Obvious Mistakes

December 12, 2011

This year, I am on a regular faculty search committee for the first time in about six years. So far, we have received over 125 applications for the one position (in economics) we have. And so far the overwhelming majority of applicants have made at least one elementary and obvious mistake (and often more than one) in their application materials.  (My favorites are the applicants who are writing dissertations in the economics of job search who are making these mistakes. And I’ve seen a number of those applications.) Everything I am about to suggest will make your job search somewhat more difficult (and time-consuming), but it will have the advantage, I think, of not irritating members of search committees and helping you land an offer.

1. Read the position announcement carefully.  What is the program to which you might apply looking for? Does the announcement suggest that you can, or cannot, easily disregard any specifications as to special qualifications mentioned in the announcement? For example, if an announcement of a position in economics (my field) specifies that labor economics — not one of your fields — is a need of the department, should you ignore that and apply anyway? If so, what makes you think so, and how should you shape your application to deal with this?

2. Do a little homework. Find out about the program and about the institution. This is so much easier today than it was when last I had to look for a job (in the late 1980s). Visit the program's website, and see what its faculty members do. Do not, for example, write a cover letter in which you make clear your interest in teaching in a master’s or doctoral program, unless the program to which you are applying actually has such a program. (Yes, that is a real-life example from our search this year.) Find out how many faculty members the program has in your field. This may make it easier to understand the specifications in the position announcement. For example, a large program (e.g., 25+ faculty in a field) may have more flexibility in hiring, because it may already have substantial coverage in most of the subfields (note that this may not always be true). A small program, on the other hand, may have less initial flexibility in the fields for which it is hiring. If it's looking for someone to teach statistics, it may be because stats is a required class, and the existing faculty may not be particularly adept at teaching it. On the other hand, a small program is likely to value long-run flexibility. As an example, a colleague of mine who was trained as an American historian recognized a need in developing a course in (and had an interest) in Middle Eastern and Islamic history. In a larger department, my colleague’s offer might have offended an expert in the field, rather than being seen as the mark of a team player. If you have wide-ranging interests and are willing to make those adjustments, knowing that a program is small gives you a selling point. Use it.

3. Write your cover letter carefully. Do not prepare a standard cover letter and use it for all of your applications. Believe me, we can tell. If your qualifications don’t match up with the qualifications in the announcement, explain why you are a desirable candidate anyway. Demonstrate that you do know something about the program and the institution, and provide reasons for your interest in the position that are important to the people who will be deciding whether they want to talk to you.  Saying that you really want to live in or near Chicago, for example, will not impress us. At least, not very much.  If you are applying to an institution/program that has primarily a teaching mission, respond to that. (Trust me, this is important. Our institutional mission is primarily teaching, although we do care about research. But a cover letter that is entirely about your research will make you less, not more, interesting to us.) Explain your teaching interests and say something about how you have developed as a teacher. Don’t ignore your research, but don’t write only about it, either. Similarly, if you are applying to a major research institution, you obviously want to highlight your research agenda. But don’t forget that teaching will also be a part of the package. Remember that, even more than your CV, your cover letter is your opportunity to sell yourself — why should we want you to become a part of our faculty? This may be your only opportunity to make your case. And your case has to respond to our needs.

4. Make your CV clear.  Don’t make us read through long descriptions of unpublished papers.  Do, however, tell us enough about your dissertation so that we have some clue what it’s really about.  “Three Essays in Applied Microeconomics” is not a sufficient description.  (And, yes, that’s another actual example).  Make your teaching qualifications and interests clear; this does not necessarily entail listing every course you have ever taught, however.  If you have relevant work experience, make it easy for us to see that.  Most people don’t have to be told to make their publications or papers under review easy to find, but, apparently, some people do.  (A list of works-in-progress isn’t quite so valuable, however.)  If there’s a significant gap in your CV, explain it in your cover letter. For example, if you received your undergraduate degree in 1994 and began your doctoral program in 2008, you might want to make some reference to what you were doing during that 14 years. We might find it useful to know that you were acquiring work experience that’s relevant to your subsequent academic interests. But we will notice the gap. (Incidentally, this is, if anything, an even more important consideration for people who are not just completing graduate school. Assistant Professor at East Central State University, 1992-1994, and nothing after that, will raise issues. Oddly enough, this is also an issue in some of the applications we have received.)

5. Only apply for positions for which you conclude that you have some reasonable expectation of being taken seriously as a candidate. I know it’s cheap and easy to apply for everything, especially if you are asked to submit your credentials electronically. But don’t apply indiscriminately. It will irritate us. And we are likely to remember who you are. Incidentally, indiscriminate applications can hurt every candidate from a graduate program. If we receive applications from three or four people from the same program, none of whom have the background that our announcement indicates we want, we may ignore the fifth candidate who does potentially meet our needs. And we may discount future applications from students from that program.

Candidates for administrative positions typically do not have to be told all of these things; responding to the specific needs of the position is a much clearer need when applying for an administrative position. Generally, mid-career candidates also get this right. But first-time candidates often make mistakes that even undergraduate job-searchers avoid.

Look, we know it’s no fun to apply for a job, especially for the first time, and even more especially in a difficult job market. Most of us do remember what we went through when we were just starting out, and most of us know that the search process is harder now than it was then. That really means, though, that you have even more reason to get it right, even more reason to avoid sending us applications that are easy to ignore. In the end, you actually make it easier for yourself when you make it easier for us.


Donald A. Coffin is associate professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest.

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