Every year thousands of graduate students apply for jobs as assistant professors. The majority do not get the jobs they want and many are not hired altogether. Those in the latter group often defer and try again, and, or, accept positions outside academe.
Recently, I gave an informal talk to the graduate students in my department about how to succeed in the job hunt. It is based on 35 years of experience as a professor at different types of universities --- namely Georgia State University, Yale University, and City College of New York/CUNY Graduate Center. I focus on what really happens behind closed doors.
In the last seven years our department hired six young people as assistant professors, and as deputy chair I was actively involved in those decisions. What follows is an inside look at how they are made.
My field is sociology, but, based, on contacts with academics in other fields, the process and criteria are similar. Historians are likely to stress ability to understand and employ primary sources; anthropologists will focus on field-work skills; and philosophers on whether one is a continental or analytic scholar. Those in the physical sciences will concentrate on other talents, including lab work. But all will evaluate teaching, research, and administrative capabilities and will be concerned with an applicant’s social intelligence, work habits, and the like.
About 100 résumés were received for each position advertised. Our search committee ranked them and interviewed five to seven people. It’s important to understand that, when five busy professors read the applications, they’re looking for reasons to knock people out. The first ones eliminated are those who, it appears, will not have the Ph.D. by the time they join the department. No one wants to have A.B.D. hires because there’s no guarantee when, or even if, they will finish once they have to assume a full teaching load. The second group to go are those applications, and they are numerous, whose stated areas of expertise are inappropriate to those that appeared in the job advertisement.
Getting the Interview:
What follows are the dos and don’ts of making it to the interview level:
1. Personal letter. Simply put, not important. When you’re looking at so many applications, you just skim the letter. Invariably, it’s simply a prose presentation of the résumé. Nevertheless, you must include it.
2. Recommendations. The best ones are from those whom people on the committee know personally and respect. Upon reading them, the committee member will usually assert: "I know her/him and if they say he/she is good, then they are. If that person carries weight on the committee, it significantly improves the candidate’s chances. And if the recommender is willing to make a call, that’s gold. In second place are letters from people who are well-known in the field. As to the letter itself, one that discusses the candidate in general terms is unhelpful, for it demonstrates that the writer really doesn’t know the individual very well or, worse yet, doesn’t care about them. And the letter must be very enthusiastic. There are only two types of letters that committees receive: claims that the candidate is great and that the candidate is good. I can recall receiving only one letter over the years saying that a candidate was a poor one. Great ones mean that, at the least, you’re good. Good ones mean that you’re probably not good.
3. Publications. These days they are essential. If you don’t have at least one or two, you’re probably not going anywhere. The best are refereed articles and the better the journal, the better. If you’re only one of six authors that will be noticed and taken into account. If it’s to your advantage, list the percentage of your contribution. After that, chapters in an edited volume count, but not as much, because the vetting process is more uncertain. After all, you could have a personal relationship with the editor and he/she is often the only one making the decision. And, by the way, most committee members do not read the publications you’ve sent. At best they skim or read the abstract. The exception to that rule is if what you wrote is especially interesting to them or lies in their area of expertise.
4. Relevance of area. Extremely important and here, listing more areas is better. Departments often look to fill niches, subjects that must be taught. If we feel you can’t teach them, you won’t even be considered, so be careful what you say. Don’t lie, but if you can plausibly stretch the truth, do so. For example, if one of your areas is the sociology of fashion and the department is looking for an expert in class analysis, then say class analysis and be prepared to explain in the interview how fashion applies to the subject. Your explanation, however, must make sense and be very clear. If you are seen as having "invented" a connection, you will seriously annoy the committee for having wasted its time and money. Regardless of your intentions, always list the requested areas first and your own favorites last.
5. Place of degree. It always matters. Departments love to say they have someone from an Ivy League university, or Berkeley, or Chicago. But there’s nothing you can do at this stage to change it, so don’t worry about it.
6. Minority applicants. From my experience, departments are rarely pressured to hire minority members simply because they are minorities. The first and, by far, most important consideration, is the applicant’s qualifications. I know of no department (though there may be some) that hires people based, purely, or even primarily, on color or ethnicity. However, most colleges today require departments to disclose how many minority applicants were considered in the hiring process, so being a member of a minority can be helpful in the initial stages of the process. Departments look for diversity, and those with a large number of minority students often take into account that a minority professor can be a good role model or mentor for students. But you can’t always predict.
7. Teaching experience. The importance of this varies greatly. Generally, no one wants a person who’s never taught because they then have no idea of how the individual will do in this critical area. Let’s not forget that, except for education, few fields offer courses or seminars on teaching. As a result, young professors must learn on the job and the sooner they start doing so, the better. More than anything, the weight given to teaching depends on whether you are applying for a position at a research institution or at, either a two, or four year college. If you’ve received positive teaching evaluations, it doesn’t hurt to include the results/ratings in the application at a research university. But there’s a dark side here too. Don’t make a big deal about it. Teaching is expected to be good, but "great" may sometimes threaten faculty sensitive to their own low ratings. They will usually say it’s because they’re rigorous, or tough, graders. The point is, you don’t want to be a rate-buster in this area. The main criterion is your research. At teaching institutions, however, your colleagues stress teaching as the most desirable skill. They have heavier course loads and the school explicitly rewards and values them for their pedagogical skills. Tenure decisions are based primarily on how one instructs. Colleagues are unlikely to feel insecure about this because they too, are likely to be talented teachers and mentors. Good research is welcomed, but not a priority.
8. Research. In most universities this is still the most important factor. Focusing on mainstream areas within the field is important because that’s what the departments need most and it is how they will be judged in the profession. If you do research in an esoteric area, you need to link to the main areas. It’s a case study that teaches us general principles that have broad applicability. Keep in mind that departments often choose one of two directions in this matter. If they are well-endowed, they try to be good or excellent in all of the major areas. If they’re not that well funded, they elect to be strong in three or four key areas. By examining the list of faculty you can see in which direction they’ve gone and prepare yourself accordingly.
9. Doing your homework. Thoroughly research the department you’re most serious about contacting before you apply. You need to know what faculty members are doing. If possible, read some of what they’ve written. But don’t tell them, in your application letter, "I’ve read some of your work." It’s too much. Be careful not to articulate an intellectual position that directly opposes what they strongly believe. If there are any faculty members in your department who’ve taught at the place you’re going for, talk to them, even if you don’t know them well. Similarly, find out if any of your fellow alumni are teaching there, or have done so in the past. The key thing is to network as much as possible. You can never know what little detail or nuance will give you the edge over other applicants.
10. Going after a job you probably won’t want. It’s still worth it if only because it’s good practice. You can also leverage it against the place that you’re really interested in.
11. Types of colleagues. People often prefer places where there are other younger people just starting out. Granted it’s more fun and you have more in common with them. But check out the tenure situation. If they do not routinely give out tenure, you may find yourself competing against, say, five colleagues, for two tenured lines. A place with a predominantly older faculty may give you a better shot at landing a permanent position. I did that and it worked out.
12. The curriculum vitae. It’s very important to have a well prepared and clearly written résumé. Rather than give you all the technical details, I suggest you peruse one of the hundreds of books on the subject. You’ll most likely pick up the skill easily and quickly.
13. Contacting the search committee. Not advisable if you can control yourself! You don’t want to appear too anxious. The temptation is there, but it will rarely matter. Search committees have timelines and procedures. You should only contact them if you’re being considered elsewhere and still care just as much or more about the college you haven‘t heard from.
14. "Friends" in the department. If someone’s pushing for you, that can be very helpful, but it’s an extremely delicate issue. First, it depends on how the friend is regarded by his or her colleagues. Second, it depends on how skilled the friend is at presenting you as a candidate. Colleagues resent being pushed too hard in this situation. After all, they’re not your friends. On the other hand, if they respect your friend, they may well appreciate their evaluation of you. In any case, there’s nothing you can do except sit back and hope the person can successfully navigate the political shoals of the department. Keep in mind that in today’s highly competitive market, you must be seen first as objectively qualified. If that’s the case, a person known to a committee member might have an edge.
In a subsequent piece, I’ll discuss the interview.
William Helmreich is professor of sociology at City College of the City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center, and and deputy chairman at City College. He is the author, or editor of 14 books, including What Was I Thinking?: The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them  (Rowman & Littlefield/Taylor Trade). Helmreich’s latest book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,  will be released this fall by Princeton University Press.