Wednesday, December 01, 2010

 

Hints for Job Seekers

It’s been a while since I’ve done a “how to get the job” piece. Judging by a recent flurry of emails on the subject, it looks like the time is right for a new one.

If you’re applying for a full-time faculty job, you can assume that the folks who read your cover letter will be academics. For all their quirks, academics tend to be pretty good readers. That means that your cover letter will actually get read closely, probably several times. Craft counts.

Please don’t open with “My name is...” We’ll figure it out when we get to the signature line.

Extended explanations of your personal life are out of place. Employers don’t hire to solve people’s personal problems. They hire to solve their own problems. Explain how you will solve the employer’s problems. If you can’t even get through a cover letter without invoking major personal drama, I have a pretty good indication of what I’d have to handle. No, thanks.

For fresh-out-of-grad-school faculty applicants: letters that focus lovingly on your dissertation are red flags. Community colleges hire people to teach. I don’t want a frustrated researcher; I want a terrific teacher who is conversant in her field. If you also happen to do research, that’s great, but it’s not the job. If that sounds hellish to you, don’t apply here.

For corporate-refugee applicants to administrative positions: Tread lightly on the “real world” stuff. It’s condescending, and it suggests that you don’t have the foggiest idea how higher education works. If you’re coming in from the outside, you’re much better off focusing on your listening and adapting skills than on your take-charge personality. Otherwise, I can anticipate that you’ll be the bull in the china shop for the one year that you manage to survive here. And whatever you do, don’t give the impression that you see a move to academia as semi-retirement. That’s instant death.

If you make it to the interview, congratulations! Keep in mind that the point of an interview is not necessarily to get the job; it’s to find the right match. A few tips, based on what I’ve seen personally:

If you’re at a distance and are offered the opportunity for a phone or Skype interview, understand that no matter how much the committee may protest otherwise, you will be at a disadvantage relative to candidates who can actually show up. If it’s at all possible, get there. In my dozen years on searches, I can’t remember a single time that an applicant won a job without showing up in person. Remember: you’re competing with people they’ve actually met.

Never, under any circumstances, refer to yourself as “phenomenal” or any synonym thereof. It screams “Ego Monster,” and honestly, I stop listening at that point.

Do not suggest that you are far superior to the people we currently have in the department. See “Ego Monster,” above.

Assume that you’ll be asked why you want to work here. A good answer is one that suggests that you’ll roll up your sleeves and get to work on problems that matter to the college. “It’s near (desired location)” is not a good answer.

Assume that you’ll be asked if you have any questions for us. Have some. And don’t go immediately to course releases and sabbaticals. Asking about college priorities is a safe fallback if you don’t have anything else.

This one may be me, but I’ve never been offended by candidates who work with a single page of notes. Don’t read anything at length, and never go rifling for anything, but a few keywords to help you remember major topics are fine. This comes in handy at the “do you have any questions for us” stage. Better that than the deer-in-headlights moment as you go blank trying to remember what you wanted to ask. If nothing else, it suggests preparation.

Know how to read “salary ranges.” In a collective bargaining environment, salary ranges are based on the lowest-to-highest earners at a given title. The highest earner at a given title may have thirty years’ experience here. Don’t assume that you’ll be coming in anywhere near the top of the range, no matter how objectively wonderful you are. And no, fifteen years of experience elsewhere doesn’t count as much on the salary scale as fifteen years of experience here. Whether that makes sense or not, it’s the way it is. For a new hire, the lower-middle portion of the salary range is realistic. Harvard can play by whatever rules it wants; for us, these are the rules.

This one may sound cruel, but it’s based on direct observation. If you live with your parents, give us a cell phone number that applies only to you. Trust me on this one. Somewhat less urgently, if your email address ends in “aol.com,” get a new email address. And please let your references know that they’re your references. I once called a candidate’s reference to say that I was calling about so-and-so; the person said “who?” Not impressive.

Finally, and I know this is hard, know that it’s really not about you. Expect some rejections along the way. If nothing else, try to learn something through each interview you have. From my own experience, I can attest that interviewing is a skill like any other, and that you get better with practice. An interview that doesn’t result in an offer at least gives you more practice. I wouldn’t have landed my current job if I hadn’t gone through several unsuccessful interviews elsewhere first. It’s part of the process.

From this side of the desk, hiring is something like casting. The college is trying to fill a particular role. Depending on the needs of the college at any given time, the role will change. Those changes have nothing to do with you, and are no reflection on you. If you accept that reality going in, you can let go of the fantasy of perfection, and instead focus on presenting the best accurate version of yourself. If you get a position based on an accurate presentation of yourself, you’ll have a great chance of being successful in it.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any tips to share?

Comments:
Also --

Be aware of your time allocation in your teaching demo and interview answers. I take that as an indication of your ability to manage time in the classroom.

"diversity" in a CC classroom also includes age and college readiness --tell us how you'll handle those challenges, not just how you can teach people of different skin colors...

NEVER let us see that you think our CC is a step down for you... it's been the kiss of death for many a promising applicant.

Also, I completely agree with the answer, "your CC is near my _____" as a crappy answer to why do you want to work HERE... look at the college website and find something you like, use that and stick with the answer.
 
Do you any advice specific to applying to community colleges, things you should do/think about differently than if you're applying to teach at another type of school?
 
I think the best questions for job applicants to ask us are "tell me about your students" type questions. That says to me that they're interested in our students, and they'll learn things that may help them if they get a campus interview and to make a decision if we offer them the job
 
For heaven's sake, cater your letter to the institution. Show that you have at least visited our institution's home page and the departmental page. I know some recent grads are told "it takes too much time" to write individual letters. My response: committee members invest a great deal of time in selecting a new hire and we want to ensure the best possible fit from both sides of the equation (yours and ours). You will also ultimately save time as you do your research and discover there are some institutions where you wouldn't be happy even if you were offered a position there.

Ditto to what Dean Dad stated on the dissertation focus in your letters - that goes back to "fitting" the institution as well as a self-focus most often attributed to graduate students and not to faculty colleagues.

And something we had recently - don't ask an institution to wait to hire you if you are offered the job. If you are waiting to hear back from the "better school", that's your call, not ours. You can let THEM know you have another offer but, honestly, that rarely makes a difference except with the big league stars at the big league schools. Just asking that question turns off some committee members and, more importantly, potential future colleagues. That is primarily because it indicates you would rather be somewhere else and/or that you will leave as soon as the market improves.

The bottom line is to remember it is a process and you are competing with many other qualified people. Furthermore, sometimes the faculty interviewing you at one school may know faculty at another school so don't burn any bridges during the process. Here the academic world is very much like the rest of the world - smaller than we often realize.
 
DD - would you mind doing a follow-up or pt II post that addresses applying at institutions where one already adjuncts? eg How to walk the line between "I already have experience with this college" and "I'm smugly anticipating getting this job as I already know the entire department."
 
For crying out loud, read the job posting before applying. If we're advertising for part-time, don't tell us you're looking for full time. If we specify a graduate degree in the field, we mean in the field, not just a graduate degree.
 
Harriet, the best advice is right there in the 5th paragraph. Research last (if at all) with teaching first, the reverse of the approach to an R1 job.

However, FYI, I wrote a blog article on this topic a few years ago, plus some followup articles (all with the "jobs" tag) about teaching intensive jobs. Although my comments were targeted at physics, the difference between hiring physics and english at a CC is negligible compared to the difference at an R1.

One link toward the bottom of my main article is to a July 7, 2008 article by Dean Dad. There is also one to a (cough) chronicle (cough) article about CC jobs and other good resources (like the Two Year Track at IHE).
 
Make sure you've saved versions of the cover letter and cv that do NOT show the track changes. And turn them into PDFs. They look far more professional that way.
 
Agree with all that's been said. Especially the "don't act like a CC is a step down and we're lucky to have you consider us" part. And please don't ask about salary or reassigned time in the the interview--ask questions that give the interviewers a chance to say something about their school. (We think this is a great place to work, and we love to share our enthusiasm. If you aren't getting that vibe from the committee, it's a red flag!) In my own experience, there are some good reasons to mention why the area (in addition to the college) is appealing. For example, if a candidate says at the end that IN ADDITION to all the reasons for wanting to teach at my school, she also grew up nearby and would like to be closer to family, I see that as a (very small) plus--someone with roots in the area may be more likely to stick around.
 
I have a question about CVs. I removed the publications, dissertation blurb, and conference presentations categories entirely. Is that a good idea? I wanted to highlight my teaching experience and service.
 
My experience is entirely in 4-year/some master's institutions, so this is a somewhat different market sector. Still, however, many of these institutions have a primary focus on teaching. Even if they sometimes act like R1-wannabes. As a result, I'll be saying more about the research part of it.

1. Don't over-emphasize your research. But don't short-change it, either.

2. Find out what the other people in the program have done/are doing (the presence of so many more on-line sites for working papers is a real gift for job-seekers; if you're in the social sciences, check into SSRN). Give them some idea how your research complements what people are already doing AND how it adds to the breadth of the program.

3. In your presentation (if it focuses on your research), make sure you spend a little time on how you see your research relating to your teaching. If the presentation is a teaching presentation, relate it to your research, at least a little. If there are students present at a research presentation, try very hard to include them in the discussion.

4. Everything everyone has said about researching the institution--take it really seriously.

5. In the interview, in addition to the teaching/research parts of things, try to make clear why you would be a good colleague. This involves, at most places, a fair amount of service. So it'd be nice to know what you've done.

6. Do enough research to ask intelligent questions. (My favorite question from an interview--in this case for an academic dean position--was, essentially, why haven't you had a permanent chief academic officer for a decade? Phrased more elegantly, but, still, everyone who was paying attention had to wonder about that.)

7. Behavior? Professional, posied, confident. Be prepared to make your case for yourself, even if it means not (completely) agreeing with something someone onthe committee (or the rest of the faculty) says. Obsequious is not the way to go.

8. Form letters? No. In fact, I'd suggest not even having a form CV. Modify it to fit the position you're applying for. For more research-oriented places, highlight the research. For more teaching-oriented places, highlight the teaching.
 
If you have spent a decade in post-doc adjunct limbo, it would not hurt to include a sentence or two (at the end) that says you have N refereed publications and have given M invited talks or seminars. It is nice to know what you have been doing, and we are academics and we do know that some of that translates over to teaching -- but our scoring rubric gives ZERO credit for it because we will find out how you teach when you run a sample class.

One we should also emphasize is that it is not enough to strip research from your CV, you also need to strip it from your letters of reference. Please talk to your references and make sure they understand what they need to emphasize, because odds are they DON'T know what to emphasize for a teaching intensive job. If all they know is your research background, but they know you do a great job making clear presentations of complex material, be sure they put that up front.
 
Usual caveats apply, namely, this may just be me, but: professional references are great, but I think the best support in my corner was my thick stack of positive student evaluations. In the whole of my interview, I don't think anything went over so well as a chorus of students singing my praises...made any self-aggrandizement rather unnecessary.
 
For adjuncts: even if you feel you have enough classes and get called for an interview at another school where you know you wouldn't take the job that term if offered, go to the interview anyway! It's good practice at worst, and it often leads to jobs down the road (or maybe a better offer than what you've got in hand -- not fun for administrators, but hell, you're an adjunct!)
 
I dunno. I'm going to disagree, just a smidge, with the advice that candidates should "strip away" all mentions of their research. Certainly research and dissertation should not be the focal point of a letter or CV directed to a CC search committee.

However, when I serve on those committess (in English, specifically rhet/comp), I'm happy to see a sentence or two that shows some enthusiasm (a beating heart) for a particular question/problem the candidate has spent time researching--especially so if she is able to connect that research to what she does in the classroom with real, live students. CCs encourage lifelong learning. I'm glad to see a prospective colleague who can share some of her excitement for learning with her students. Not to mention that folks in my department engage in a lot of productive hallway and listserv talk, and we learn important stuff from each other. In some fields (e.g., rhet/comp), there is respect for the scholarship of teaching. If you can connect your research interests to teaching, give us a small (just small) taste of it. You might tantalize us; we may ask a bit more about it during the interview, always in terms of how it connects with what you do in the classroom.
 
Usual caveats apply, namely, this may just be me, but: professional references are great, but I think the best support in my corner was my thick stack of positive student evaluations. In the whole of my interview, I don't think anything went over so well as a chorus of students singing my praises...made any self-aggrandizement rather unnecessary
 
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