Standing Out From the Herd

Eliza Woolf offers advice on making your application more enticing to a search committee.
October 13, 2010

Congratulations! Whether you’re a Ph.D., or A.B.D., in the humanities, social sciences, or a STEM field, the launch of another academic job market cycle is officially upon us. Now what? Let’s say you’ve scanned the job advertisements and found a handful of 2010-11 tenure-track job openings for which you feel qualified to submit an application. In the current climate of limited tenure-stream openings, large and talented applicant pools, and both rising and employed academic “stars” now setting their sights on mid-tier and teaching-intensive colleges and universities, how can you, a strong but perhaps not stellar job candidate, stand out from the herd? Do you have what it takes to compete this season?

I’d like to offer my fellow tenure-track job seekers a quick brush-up on the academic job application process in the form of a top 10 list – arranged in order of importance. Keeping in mind that application deadlines are looming, my advice is to get started on these tips ASAP.

  1. Carefully read the posted advertisements and follow instructions. While this first step is fairly straightforward, you might be surprised to learn how many job seekers fail to adhere to basic instructions. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard search committee members complain about candidates who, in blatant disregard for the application directions, submitted 60-page (rather than 20-page) writing samples or unofficial instead of official transcripts; included far too many detailed sample syllabuses; failed to submit a full teaching portfolio, including teaching evaluations; and ignored the note about submitting materials online or only to a specific faculty member. By following the stated instructions, you’re already starting out on the right foot as far as the search committee is concerned. Conversely, failure to tow the line could lead to the premature elimination of your application.
  2. Update, polish, and proofread your C.V. If the most recent version of your C.V. is from winter 2009, it might be time for an update. Have you changed jobs or domiciles, taught additional undergraduate courses, presented at a conference, joined a new professional society, won a fellowship, placed an essay in a peer-reviewed journal or edited collection, received a book contract, or performed any service-related activities? Answering “yes” to any or all of the above means it’s time to pull out the C.V., make a few changes, and carefully proofread the new version. Additionally, you may want to consider reformatting an older C.V. (For great advice on C.V. writing, check out Teresa Mangum’s column.)
  3. Contact your recommenders at least a month before the first deadline. In the life of a tenured faculty member, receiving seasonal requests for letters of recommendation from current and former Ph.D. students and junior colleagues is par for the course. However, just because your advisor, committee members, or other professional contacts expect to write a slew of letters of reference this season doesn’t mean you should wait until the last minute to ask for their assistance. Faculty members are extraordinarily busy, especially at this time of year, and proper etiquette requires job-hunters to request reference letters far in advance of deadlines. Some academics prefer receiving individual requests as they come; others favor a list detailing upcoming deadlines and job descriptions. If you’re in doubt, ask your recommenders how they would like to proceed.
  4. Painstakingly prepare several versions of your cover letter in advance. I’m sure you’ve heard this before but it still bears repeating: a well-crafted, succinct cover letter is the key to a successful tenure-track job application! Time permitting, you should ideally tailor cover letters to fit each job advertisement, or, at minimum, to appeal to the needs of specific types of universities (research universities, liberal arts colleges, regional public universities, community colleges, etc.). If, for instance, you apply for a job at a small liberal arts college with a 4/4 teaching load and limited administrative support for faculty research, highlight your teaching experience and philosophy, and commitment to university service, more so than your niche research specialty. Of course, it’s unwise to assume that teaching-intensive schools don’t care about research. They do care. But all universities have their priorities, and it’s your job to figure out what those concerns are and then make a strong case for yourself. Write in clear prose and try not to meander; effective cover letters fit on two double-spaced pages.
  5. Prepare your teaching philosophy and tailor it to the job in question. Writing a decent teaching philosophy takes time and effort, and many teaching-intensive universities now request these in addition to a cover letter. (NB: The last thing you want to do is repeat verbatim what you’ve already said in the cover letter.) Approach the teaching philosophy as an opportunity to explain why you decided to become a professor in the first place as well as how you go about formulating pedagogy and meeting course goals in the classroom. Have experience managing a diverse classroom, working with first-generation college students, mentoring commuters, or teaching effective online courses? If so, use specific real-life examples to bring your philosophy to life. If you’ve never taught your own undergraduate course but have served as a teaching assistant, don’t be afraid to trumpet this experience. Focus on what you have to offer not what you’re lacking. For more advice on composing a teaching philosophy, see Mangum.
  6. Ready writing samples and follow the stated application instructions. If a job advertisement asks for an article, essay, or dissertation/book chapter of no more than 30 pages, make sure to keep within the limit. Provide a brief abstract of the chapter if you need to cut sections out due to length. Choose your most polished work while also paying attention to the advertisement. For example, if they’re looking for a U.S. gender historian, send the strongest and most appropriate writing sample you have to offer relevant to the specific job in question, even if it’s an unpublished chapter or essay.
  7. Have teaching evaluations and relevant sample syllabuses on hand. For me, the most difficult part of the application process is rounding up all of my old teaching evaluations. (Even now I’d have to dig to find them.) If you’re anything like me, you may want to hunt for these puppies sooner rather than later. Also, because it’s time consuming to generate sample syllabuses from scratch, start preparing a portfolio of courses you’ve either taught or are prepared to teach. Doing this now will save you a huge headache later on.
  8. Don’t forget to order copies of your academic transcript(s) prior to the application deadline. I for one hate having to pay $14.00 a pop to send official transcripts during round one of the job application process, but if the search committee asks for one upfront, it’s best to send it in on time. Ignore the official transcript request at your own peril!
  9. Cajole a mentor, committee member, colleague, or friend to read over your application materials before sending them out. You don’t have to do this for every application packet but it will certainly help to have someone else look over your materials at least once in the job-hunting process. When it comes to typos, we are always are own worst enemy; hence a fresh, experienced set of eyes can’t hurt.
  10. Finally, apply only for jobs for which you feel reasonably qualified AND would seriously consider accepting. Again, this might sound like a no-brainer but with the post-2008 death spiral of the academic job market, many of us began applying for jobs willy-nilly, without stopping to consider whether we really were a good fit or would actually accept the position if an offer materialized. Save yourself — and the search committee members — time, money, and energy by applying for the jobs you’re both seriously interested in and qualified for. Prudent applications are also more likely to preserve the tenure-track lines departments are so covetous to protect in these uncertain economic times.


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