Friday, March 17, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Tailoring the Application

A new correspondent writes:


I am writing to ask about the new job search I am initiating. I was a graduate student at a top tier reseach university for five years. I wound up leaving my program (for a variety of reasons - and with no real regrets) without a PhD. I did receive a master's degree so I have something to show for my five years of toil! I was primarily interested in teaching when I came to graduate school and so my goal post-quitting was to teach at a local private high school and see where that led me. But I was super lucky to get offered a position running a program specifically for undergraduates interested in pursuing research careers in (my field). I have had this position for (several) years now and it has been wonderful. I've been able to teach at a university (always my dream job) and I have gotten a taste of administrative type things since I coordinate the use of our teaching space and develop new aspects of the program that might help pre graduate students. I have also been involved in some community outreach type efforts including assisting with a high school teacher continuing education workshop.

There are several things that aren't main parts of my current job, like outreach and more planning/oversight for the program, that I would like to do more of in the future. And there are several parts of my current job (like the assumption that I will do research whenever I'm not teaching even though I was hired as a lecturer and not a scientist) that I'd like to do, well, no more. Because of this I've decided it's best to get out of my current job, so I am applying for new jobs (with the blessing of my current employer, thankfully!). I am applying for positions in Academic Affairs, mainly, since these seem to fit my interests and are similar to the one I have now (like Director of XXX Program for Undergraduates).

I am struggling with how to convert my CV (or should it be a resume?) into an appropriate form for this new type of position. I had always maintained my CV in a fashion similar to the ones I had seen before - which were all for tenured faculty in the hard sciences employed at major research institutions (the kind where teaching is just barely valued). My instincts tell me this is not the type of resume I should submit for these jobs - but then the only other examples I have to go on are for positions in departments totally unrelated to mine (like Recycling). So I am wondering if you have any basic advice on what types of things a CV/resume should look like when applying for these administrative positions: should I include an "objectives section"? Should I even discuss my research experience? Do you think I should describe my current duties in a lot of detail or should I leave that to the cover letter? And speaking of cover letters - is it appropriate to explain that I would like to move to (the new desired region)? Would this help them take my application more seriously? I understand that the main point is to get them to understand what I am doing now and how that will make me the ideal person to do what they are looking for. But I'm just not sure style-wise how best to accomplish this and everyone I know well is a grad student or a post-doc (yikes!).


Congratulations on finding a career path that has made you happy! I have a theory that the happiest people are probably those without any self-awareness, but the next happiest are those with quite a bit. (It’s the ones in the middle who trip over themselves. That’s why adolescence sucks.) Your clearsighted awareness of your likes and dislikes is a real asset.

My rule of thumb for job applications is to think like your prospective employer. Let’s say you’re a manager of a science division at a mid-sized public university, and you need someone to step in and run a subset of your area. What are you looking for?

Beyond certain minima (degree requirements, subject matter fluency), you’re looking first for someone who actually wants that kind of job. You don’t want someone who really wants a faculty position, and is falling back on this, taking an ‘any port in a storm’ attitude. You want someone who has shown the ability to handle ‘administrivia,’ or the constant stream of little nagging details that comprise a distressing percentage of most admin positions. (You’re hosting an open house for high schoolers? Great! Did you put in the work order to get the lab tables moved? Did you move the money from ‘off-campus professional’ to ‘food’ last week so you could cut the purchase requisition in time? Have you cleared school bus parking with Security? Will the money for the handouts come from your budget, or Admissions’?) Big Thinkers often fail at this, since they think details are beneath them and they get impatient and/or sloppy.

A traditional faculty-style c.v. tells me, in the absence of other information, that you’re still in the faculty mold. You’re settling. I don’t want someone who’s settling. (Is it a flawed indicator? You bet! But if I’ve got 25 applicants, 22 of whom I’ve never met, I have to winnow down the pile somehow.)

Don’t tell me about the research prominence of your advisor. I don’t care. Tell me about projects you’ve coordinated, admin duties you’ve performed, details for which you’ve been responsible, and abilities you’ve developed. If you know you have some gaps, sign up for some workshops to address those gaps and list the workshops on the resume. Lead with this, and put the traditional academic stuff at the end of the resume. That way, you will communicate that you have made a career change, and you’re committed to forging ahead on your new path.

(I’ve personally always found “Objectives” statements on resumes insulting. The objective is to get the job. Leave the narrative for the cover letter.)

As far as stating geographic preferences, I’ve seen it done many times, and it always leaves me cold. I’ve never seen a committee swayed positively by it (though I have seen the opposite). At best, it’s neutral, but it could hurt. Like leading with academic credentials, it casts doubt on your motivation. Are you applying because you want this job, or because you want to move here? If it’s the latter, how motivated will you be six months or a year into the job? If I’m going to hire you, I want to believe that you really want to do this job. If you want to mention an affinity for a geographic area, save that for the interview.

This may seem obvious, but coming out of grad school it isn’t: the job application isn’t about you. It’s about the employer. It isn’t about your life story, or putting your best foot forward. It’s about showing the institution how well you fit its needs. Which means it’s about the institution’s needs.
Write for your audience.

(The cover letter that got me my first full-time faculty position included a list of the courses in that school’s catalog that I could teach, using that school’s course names and numbers. The dean who hired me specifically mentioned how impressed she was by that. Since moving into admin, I’ve never seen anyone do that, and for the life of me, I don’t know why. Show the employer that you can solve her problems.)

Good luck! And kudos on having the courage to chart a new path.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.