12 Job Market Mistakes

What are the things academic job seekers definitely should not do? Melissa Dennihy provides a list.

January 29, 2016

Candidates on the job market can find an endless array of advice available to them: how to write an effective cover letter, handle an interview, give a successful job talk, etc. But what are the mistakes job candidates can make that are perhaps less often discussed?

Here are a few of my don’ts for academic job seekers, developed from my own experience applying and interviewing for jobs as well as serving on search committees:

Don’t limit yourself only to your ideal institutions or positions. Apply to jobs that may be less appealing, whether because of the workload or location, and try to exhibit the same enthusiasm for them as you would for your dream job. You may want a position at a prestigious R1 institution in a major city, but there are only so many of those jobs to go around. Being open to other possibilities, such as jobs at community colleges and small liberal arts colleges, will increase your chances of landing a job, period.

Don’t cloister yourself off as a candidate for only one type of position. Instead, think about the interdisciplinarity of your work and what kinds of jobs that might make you qualified for. In my own discipline of English, for example, someone who specializes in African-American literature would apply primarily for jobs in English departments but might also apply for jobs in American studies or race and ethnic studies departments. Consider the different fields your work might fit into and whether you can or should search for jobs in departments or disciplines outside of your own. That said, don’t apply for positions for which it is fairly obvious that you are not the right fit. It’s a waste of your time and the time of the hiring committee.

Don’t underestimate the importance of carefully reading and analyzing the job ad for each position you apply for. Understand exactly what the hiring committee is looking for as well as what might be unstated in the ad but nevertheless of importance to how you prepare your application. For example, in an ad for a position that seeks someone with a proven record of teaching excellence but makes no reference to a successful publication record, the unstated implication may be that this is a teaching-oriented position with little or no research expectations (a type of position that is becoming increasingly common in today’s job market). For such a position, it would not necessarily be appropriate to discuss your dissertation or research at length in your cover letter, unless this is done in a way that directly connects to your teaching.

Don’t wait until the last minute to ask for letters of recommendation, and don’t stop at three recommenders. As you peruse job ads, you may find that different positions want different sorts of references -- about your research, your teaching or even your service. Think about who else might write for you aside from your dissertation committee members: professors you have served as a TA for, faculty members who have observed your teaching as an instructor of record or colleagues with whom you’ve served on a committee.

Don’t make the surprisingly common mistake of failing to tailor your cover letter to the different institutions where you are sending it. Pay attention to details such as the courses, majors and concentrations that departments offer. Similarly, don’t let the stress and exhaustion of hunting and applying for jobs allow you to make careless errors such as sending an application to X institution that was intended for Y institution, or forgetting to change the name of the chairperson you address the letter to as you modify your cover letter for different positions.

Don’t bluff or exaggerate about your experience and qualifications. When writing a cover letter, you may be tempted to say what you think the hiring committee wants to hear, whether or not it is entirely true. For example, if a preferred qualification for a position is “interest and experience in online instruction,” you may find yourself writing that you have a “great deal of experience in and commitment to teaching online” when, in fact, you’ve only taught one online course that was not particularly successful. The truth is likely to come out in an interview (or, worse, after you’ve taken the position). So for your own sake and the sake of the hiring committee, be honest with yourself about the job’s requirements and your own qualifications, and pursue those positions you are most suited for.

Don’t fail to carefully and meticulously proofread your application materials. In my experiences serving on search committees, I have been shocked by the number of applications that appear to have not been proofread even once. I’ve read cover letters intended for a different position at a different institution, CVs in which applicants forgot to turn off track changes, even a letter in which the writer repeatedly used the word “pubic” instead of “public.” Your long list of top-notch publications looks a lot less impressive if your cover letter and CV contain glaring careless errors. Proofread your application materials multiple times and in multiple ways: read them aloud, change the font size or style and read them again, print them out and read them on paper, etc.

Don’t forget to convert your application materials into PDF files. Unless otherwise specified, PDF is the most convenient format in which to send electronic materials. Search committee members do not want to struggle to open your .doc, .txt or .odt files.

Don’t come to interviews unprepared. Do your research about the department and institution, and come with your own questions for the committee. You should also develop a dossier and/or teaching portfolio. You can leave these materials with the committee at the interview’s close, and they can choose whether or not to look through them. If they were interested enough to interview you, odds are they may take a look.

Don’t be late to your interview. As obvious as this may seem, it is a mistake job seekers make, and it leaves a horrible impression. Instead, make it a goal to be at least an hour or two early. You can use the time to walk around campus, chat with faculty members or students, and familiarize yourself with some of what is currently happening at the school -- all of which might help you during the interview, while also providing you with the assurance that you won’t run into last-minute hiccups that will make you late.

Don’t give the impression that you plan to be a temporary hire -- even when applying for a temporary position. Depending upon the circumstances, non-tenure-track and visiting professorships can occasionally become permanent or tenure-track lines, so don’t give any impression in either a cover letter or interview that you plan to treat this as a temporary role. Don’t act as if the job is just a holdover for you until the market improves or you land your dream job. Instead, try to give the impression that each potential position is your dream job. (You can negotiate on some of the drearier aspects of a position after you’ve received an offer.)

Don’t underestimate the importance of down time during a campus visit. Casual conversations during car rides, tours of the campus or city, or lunch at a restaurant with search committee members are all parts of the interview process, no matter how informal or sociable faculty may act at these times. Avoid making cavalier or offhand comments that might be taken the wrong way, and don’t let your guard down during the in-between moments that will make up a good part of the day.

My last suggestion may be controversial, but it is one that I firmly believe in: Don’t rule out going on the market before you defend your dissertation. It is not the right choice for everyone, but depending on timing and circumstances, it can be an excellent decision for some ABD candidates. Though many positions require applicants to have a degree in hand, many others do not, and ABD candidates nearing degree completion have a legitimate shot at landing a job in the latter category. If you will be defending within a year or less, give some consideration to going on the job market. Even if you don’t land a single interview, you will have the advantage on next year’s market of having significant experience with reading and decoding job ads and crafting cover letters, research statements, teaching philosophies and other application materials.

Being on the job market is a stressful, demanding experience. As you struggle to keep track of and keep up with the deadlines for various positions, don’t lose sight of the simpler things that you can do to hurt or help your candidacy. Develop your own list of don’ts like the one I’ve offered here, and keep that checklist close by as you submit applications and prepare for interviews.


Melissa Dennihy is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College.


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