Now only two full years into my tenure-track position, I remember my job market year well enough -- a year best described as fraught, perhaps downright scary and, for some people, even a little inhumane. As if writing a dissertation is not anxiety inducing enough, the job market year is full of situations, systems and personalities (yes, personalities) that are completely out of our control.
To make your life a little bit easier during this time, here are five key details that are within your control to hone, fine-tune, practice and remember.
Define (and redefine) your cover letter. I personally find the cover letter to be a frustrating genre. We have much to say about the important work that we do, and yet we must make difficult decisions about even these details, lest we submit a cover letter the length of a novella. (Pro tip: a search committee does not want to receive a cover letter the length of a novella.) I format my cover letter as follows, after the obligatory salutation and stated interest in the position:
- a statement and brief explanation of research;
- motivations for said research (this piece can, very conversationally, get at why your research matters);
- teaching experience;
- service; and
- a closing statement about my qualifications.
I have found the cover letter to be good and necessary practice for thinking about how to talk about my research. That might prove to be difficult, particularly if you are in the early stages of dissertation writing. You will want to talk about your dissertation research, but we also know that it often changes over the course of researching (especially if you are in the qualitative camp, like I am!). This is where specificity has the potential to work against you.
If you are in those ambiguous early stages, my advice is to do your best to strike a balance between the specific and the general. Mention your (working) dissertation title, the field(s) within which your research is situated, one or two of your main research questions and a note or two about preliminary findings, if you’ve reached that point. Looking back, I wish I would have followed my own advice. I absolutely balk at the condition of my first cover letter, a document replete with broad claims, grandiose statements and other kinds of nonsense. (On that topic, a dose of humility is likely to go a long way.)
If at all possible -- and this is harder than you might think, given how free time is more the exception than the rule for most academics -- ask a trusted colleague with experience in these matters to review your letter. Perhaps more important, be open to their feedback. The academics who have lived on the other side of the search committee tend to have an eye for how these documents look and an ear for how they communicate. That is, if, in your cover letter, you claim to have a solution or a method for a vocabulary curriculum that “works with all students,” you will want an experienced set of eyeballs to review those claims -- pronto.
Solicit mock interview questions. Soliciting mock interview questions should be fairly easy. I received a few lists from which to work, and they really came in handy. They cast a wide net over interview question possibilities, and I received enough questions to feel abundantly prepared. It also pays to rehearse a couple of them, perhaps with friends who are also on the market. Mock interviewing has, in my world, proved itself to be invaluable.
Research your site. And yet there’s a caveat: receiving lists of mock interview questions can only get you so far. You must research the institution that has expressed an interest in speaking with you, even if only at the initial stage of the phone interview. You might begin with the department or institution’s mission, and investigate department/program faculty members from there. Remember, this is not necessarily about impressing the committee (although that is important). This is also about getting a real feel for the people who might one day become your colleagues. You owe it to yourself to be as up on the department as possible -- this is potentially your future home.
For example, my work is situated in whiteness studies. After receiving an invitation to speak with a search committee, I researched the department and noticed that a white privilege curriculum played a significant role in their campuswide diversity initiatives. It gave my interviewer and me something to talk about and provided a built-in opportunity for me to talk about how my research aligned with that initiative.
Have respect for your letter writers. Your committee loves you, of this I am sure. That said, its members do not want to write 35 letters for you. You are not their only student. Choose your target positions carefully, and proceed from there. Casting a wide net might seem appealing, even necessary, but it is not necessarily a good use of your -- or your committee’s -- time. You are not likely to receive an invitation unless your qualifications closely match what they are looking for. Make sure that the position fits before hounding your committee members for letters.
Don’t take it personally. Radio silence is one of the hardest realities to face during this fraught year. You should expect it, and perhaps even embrace it, if you can. And yet, even after we’ve constructed and reconstructed and re-re-reconstructed our materials, there might be silence. Or you might learn that a committee has failed to understand your research, no matter the lengths you went (and the articles you sent) to explain it to them.
Frankly, you’ve done your best. Consider it a learning opportunity or perhaps even a bullet dodged. (The last of your worries, once you’re hired, should be colleagues who need to be convinced of the utility of your work.) Reconstruct. Begin again. Something will come through.