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The Job Market: Picking Apart Your Application

Written by: Manya Whitaker
Published on: Oct 10, 2017

It’s October, which means — for academics on the faculty job market — it’s time to stop searching for jobs and actually start applying for them.

The first application deadlines come as early as October 15th. I hope you’ve already begun the knotty process of updating your CV, writing cover letters, soliciting letters of recommendation, and deciphering what potential employers really want in a “diversity statement.”

I’m not a career counselor but as an assistant professor I’ve served on search committees and read hundreds of academic job applications. So allow me to shed some light on how search committees comb through the dozens of pages in each application. Understanding that process may help you assemble a package that showcases your talents in the documents that matter most to the hiring committee.

The CV. The first thing many search-committee members skim over in your application file is your curriculum vitae. It relays the most basic information about you as a candidate. In my experience, committees remove approximately 10 to 15 percent of applicants from consideration at this early stage because they have the wrong degree or lack the required experience. If 100 people have applied for the opening, we are already down to 85 candidates.

The cover letter.After confirming that you have the basic qualifications for the position, the next item we review is your cover letter. I view it as the single-most-important document in an application package. In fact, most candidates crash and burn because of weaknesses or mistakes in this letter. Here is where a committee gets a sense of your professional qualifications, an overview of your research agenda and accomplishments, a peek into your teaching repertoire, and, most of all, a perception of which of those you prioritize.

For the most part, applicants do a decent job of including the correct content in their cover letters. But for the roughly 15 percent who don’t, here are some tips:

  • Early in the letter, identify the position you are seeking, your degree level and field, and your area(s) of expertise (those three things are not necessarily the same).
  • Make sure your letter responds to all of the components of the job posting.
  • Order the letter’s content based on the needs of the position and the mission statement of the institution (that is, put teaching up top for a teaching-oriented institution).
  • Add details to substantiate large claims.
  • Identify existing and additional courses you can teach for the department.
  • If you’ve published in a peer-reviewed journal, mention its name.

Including the relevant information will ensure that your application is not immediately eliminated. However, the most comprehensive content can’t overcome a poorly written or badly formatted letter. Some general advice on this front:

  • Tailor your letter specifically to the institution, the department, and the position.
  • Address it to the chair of the search committee or, if you don’t have that person’s name, to the search committee itself.
  • Date your letter (that helps show it’s a tailored letter).
  • In your signature block, include your name and contact information.
  • Sign it either manually (and scan it in) or electronically.
  • Font sizes below 10 and over 12 are unacceptable — as are “fun” fonts (e.g., comic sans).
  • A one-inch margin is standard.
  • Use professional (not personal) letterhead.
  • Avoid online templates.
  • Write in first person.
  • The absolute maximum length should be two pages, single-spaced.
  • Triple check your grammar (punctuation, syntax, diction, active voice).

I would estimate that 50 percent of applicants are removed from the pool because of incomplete, poorly written, and/or badly formatted cover letters. That leaves our hypothetical search committee with a pool of 43 candidates.

The writing samples. This is where candidates distinguish themselves. Almost every academic job requires some form of writing sample as part of the application. In the humanities, and sometimes in the social sciences, this is likely to be an actual sample of your academic writing.

Typically, search-committee members view your writing sample alongside your research statement with one primary goal: to ascertain the quality of your research. Because we are usually in your discipline, or at least peripherally situated, we read your writing sample in the same way we would review a peer-reviewed article. Meaning: We really want to see what your contribution to the field will be.

Following that metric, here are some things to consider when choosing a writing sample to include in your application:

  • Pick something recent that reflects where your research is headed.
  • Be certain that your sample reflects your knowledge of notable authors and texts in the field.
  • Follow writing conventions in your discipline, while also ensuring readability for committee members who may not be in that field.
  • Make sure the sample can stand alone. Even if it’s an excerpt from a larger manuscript, comprehension shouldn’t be dependent upon absent text.

If the job posting doesn’t require a writing sample, consider submitting a sample as supplemental material. A high-quality writing sample can leverage one candidate above another.

Even if you are not required to include a sample of your scholarly writing, you will probably be asked to submit some other kind of writing — in the form of a research statement, a teaching statement, and/or a diversity statement. The first should be easy to compose so I won’t spend time on that here.

The teaching statement, however, can be a hurdle, especially for Ph.D.s with little or no teaching experience. My best advice is to craft a statement that articulates the type of professor you wish you’d had. Include the following in your one-page teaching statement:

  • An overarching learning theory that guides your philosophical approach.
  • Your pedagogical goals. Are you more interested in content acquisition or cognitive-skill development? Do you attend to students’ learning behaviors? Are you invested in their socioemotional well-being?
  • The types of learning materials you (will) assign students. Hint: the more diverse, the better.
  • The types of assessments you (will) give. Be sure that your assessments are aligned with the type of content you will be teaching.

Where possible, provide specific examples. The search committee should be able to envision you in the classroom after reading your teaching statement.

As for the diversity statement, your best bet is to craft one that doesn’t pay empty homage to “valuing diversity.” Instead, write something personal — about an experience you’ve had, what you learned from it, and how it shaped your professional identity/aspirations. The search committee wants to see how you conceptualize diversity and how you plan to deal with intersectional diversity through your research and teaching. Interpret that as you will.

High-quality writing samples — academic or otherwise — can help us separate weak candidates from the strong ones. When a search committee reads those documents, we are reading your words. We therefore interpret everything you write as a reflection of your personal and professional values and commitments. Usually by the end of this stage, we’ve found that 20 percent of the remaining applicants are a poor fit for our institution. Another 10 percent are removed from the pool because their writing just isn’t up to snuff. About 30 candidates remain.

The letters of recommendation. They are the final piece of the puzzle before we decide who we will approach for a phone or Skype interview. In reading the letters we’ve received about you, we are looking for: (a) confirmation of details found in the CV, cover letter, and writing samples; (b) assessment of the quality of your current scholarship and the value of your future research; (c) insight into who you are as a colleague.

Follow these tips when assembling your recommendation letters:

  • If you are a new Ph.D., your dissertation chair/adviser must write a letter on your behalf. The absence of that letter is a massive red flag.
  • If you are a not-so-new Ph.D., your current department chair or supervisor should write a letter.
  • Give each writer a specific topic so that, collectively, your letters speak to the priorities of the position but, individually, they don’t all cover the same ground.
  • Do not write your own letters and have someone sign them. By this point, we’ve spent hours reading your writing. We are familiar with your writing style and tone.
  • Encourage your writers to tailor each letter to the specific position. A writer who takes the time to craft individual letters communicates a deep belief in your potential.

Letters of recommendation become the make-or-break aspect of an application. With 30 candidates left in the pool and only 10 phone-interview slots, search-committee members read every word of every recommendation letter. The most contentious conversations on the search committee tend to happen after reading those letters. We must cut 20 people, so we begin eliminating applicants who don’t have the required number of letters or whose letters are too short (i.e., a paragraph), too formulaic, or too lacking in valuable information.

From there, we go back to the CV. We may consult academic transcripts. At this point we are looking for reasons not to interview you. Small grammatical mistakes, missing coursework, or unclear articulation of professional goals can be enough to eliminate candidates from consideration. It’s not necessarily a “fair” process, I admit, but it is the process.

So make sure that each application accurately represents the professional you intend to be once hired. Then, when you are one of the remaining 10, prepare for what I think is the most difficult part of the hiring process and the topic of my next column: the campus visit.

Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College who writes regularly for The Chronicle about early-career issues in academe. Read her previous columns here.