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Academic professionalization workshop for grad students and more

1 June, 2010

A while back, our colleague Lisa Wynn put up the text for her academic publishing workshop: Academic Publishing Workshop for grad students and more. She graciously shared a lot of great advice for getting things published on the previous post, including some strategies that I’m going to have to put into practice. Anyway, because she raised the bar here at Macquarie, I put together the first version of a ‘professionalization’ workshop for our students to complement the publishing workshop during our recent Research Week.

Below, you’ll find some of the materials for that workshop. I’m trying to put together a more comprehensive version, including some sample job letters, CVs and the like, but in this post I’m just going to share some of the advice that I circulated. Like Lisa’s material, it’s licensed for free non-commercial use and adaptation, so long as you (a) acknowledge your source, and (b) license derivative materials under the same conditions. (c) Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0.

Creative Commons License
Professionalization workshop by Greg Downey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0.

My sources
Many of the ideas in this posting started life as things I heard from my teachers, mentors, and role models while at the University of Chicago. Everything we write and think is, in part, borrowed from other people, but that truth is even more pronounced in the case of passing on wisdom amassed through hard lessons over long careers. I especially need to acknowledge that Profs. John Comaroff and John Kelly provided a substantial about of my ‘professionalization’ mentoring while at Chicago.

How to read a job ad

First, consider how the ad came to be…

When you read a job ad for an academic position, you may wonder what sort of person the search committee actually seeks to find. The ad may describe a person so broad, so versatile, so multi-faceted. Do they have someone specific in mind? Do they really think that they will get a candidate with all these skills? Aren’t some of these qualifications incoherent?!

Or you may find an ad which seems to say very little. What should I write? What are they looking for in a candidate? Will you please just give me a job so I don’t have to live in my parents’ basement?!

Outside academe, we may wonder where the job ads are that are for anthropologists. What sort of jobs am I qualified for? How will they respond to my degree? Should I apply? Do I have a chance?

You need to realize that the processes that produce job ads do not always produce a clear logic in the final paragraphs; instead, the ad can bear the imprint of different stages, carrying evidence of compromise, negotiation, even unresolved conflict. Most academic ads arise from one of two processes: in one, a committee has to decide what to list for the position. Committee members may not agree on what a department needs, or they may have a long list of expertise they would like to hire, and will have to decide later. The less coherent the job ad, the more the committee has punted disputes down field: we agree to list a number of different topics and will see what we get. The committee will have to eventually resolve the issue of what they want, but if you’re really good, you may help an advocate of your speciality make a strong case. In other words, the less coherent the job ad, the more the search itself will influence the outcome.

You can find ads for academic jobs in a number of places:
Australian Anthropological Society jobs page (blank as I write this…)
American Anthropology Association ‘career centre’
Academic 360’s anthropology listings of other sites (this might take a while, so get a cup of coffee)
Higher Ed Jobs (just search with ‘anthropology’ as the keyword)

The other process that produces job ads usually starts in an Human Resources Office, where an HR employee lists expertise and desirable qualities, often buzzwords or key terms from the organisation’s own statements of intent: ‘innovative’, ‘team-oriented’, ‘self-starting’, ‘highly motivated’, ‘synergistic’… These ads can be a thin layer of HR-speak over the top of a decision process which might have little to do with what the HR person wrote. In the case of Australian jobs, a lot of the text seems to be boiler plate, generated by some software program designed not to say much useful to the candidates but to head off imagined, possible lawsuits.

In other words, if a job ad could be you, and you might want the position, go for it and make a pitch. A good candidate can change a search, so don’t be afraid to roll the dice. In addition, if you’re not right for the position, you’ll still learn a lot, get better at applying, and alert potential employers that you’re out there.

In Australia, the search criteria are clearly divided into ‘essential’ or ‘required’ and ‘desirable.’ ‘Essential’ criteria are just that: without some evidence that a person fits the criteria — all of them — the candidate is not appointable. If you do not make at least a thin case for all essential criteria, you’re out of the search; you’ve got to give the search committee some argument on your behalf if they want you. For example, if a department has units on particular subjects that the new hire must teach, these will be included in the ‘essential’ criteria; other essential criteria tend to be either very general (PhD, active research, teaching experience, mentoring doctoral students) or specific administrative capacities (directing a program, for example).

If teaching a particular course is part of the essential job criteria, you need to say that you can teach it; if you can’t say that you fulfill an essential criterium, save yourself the trouble, because you won’t make it through the first cull. If you don’t know, say you can — we all teach things that seemed insurmountable at first glance, especially because graduate school tends to persuade us that we can only talk about a very narrow specialty. Your first teaching job is liable to be a pretty radical re-expansion of a junior scholar’s horizons. You’ll be asked to teach ‘myth, symbol and religion’ when you think of yourself as a specialist in Ghost Dance or ‘African cultures’ when you really think your expertise is on the ethno-history of trans-Saharan trade or, better yet, ‘Introduction to anthropology,’ all of it, when you’ve just spent the better part of a decade doing a critical history of anthropological theory in the 1980s. If you have self-imposed limitations on yourself, get over them. Now. Everyone is completely overwhelmed when they start teaching a full load, but we’ll come back to that a bit later, in another post.

In contrast, ‘desirable’ criteria tend to be more malleable, determined by the aspirations of the search committee members and department members rather than by the pre-existing programing in the curriculum. ‘Essential’ criteria are often the reasons that the department gave to the administration for the necessity of a position: the units that the new hire would teach or the program that needed a director. In contrast, ‘desirable’ are the topics, traits or specialties that the committee, when they were discussing the new position, thought would be good for the future of the department.

In other words, ‘desirable’ qualifications are likely to be an incoherent laundry list of possible competencies, all negotiable; there’s likely no way that you’ll have all of these, nor should you, but someone on the committee put each one on the list, so it’s a good way to get a feel for what the committee thinks would complement their existing strengths or be a good area of expansion. But the committee intentionally did not make them ‘essential’ so that the committee will not have its own hands tied by the criteria.

A job ad is ultimately a layered document; it lets you know what the institution requires of the new hire, the position that the Department negotiated with those who approve hires, the aspirations of those on the search committee, a bit about the institution, and — one hopes — a sense of how to pitch yourself. The Golden Rule of Job Applicants is ‘Never ever ever lie,’ but you need to think seriously about which of your strengths to feature, which story of your long-standing interests to highlight, because we all have options.

In the case of non-academic job ads (and even in parts of academic job ads), applicants often see the job ad as a set of hurdles, all of which they must clear. In fact, non-academic job ads may even be more flexible; the hirer may or may not get everything on the wish list, but someone is going to get hired (well, not always). Make your pitch with the ad as your guide, but don’t feel like you need to tick every box on the list; just be the best candidate you can honestly be, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be the best in the pool.

If you’re looking for non-academic jobs in anthropology in Australia, you should definitely get on the Australian Anthropological Society mailing list, AASNet (instructions for joining AASNet are here), as lots of contract jobs are advertised here.

In addition, consider the following websites:
Australian Anthropological Society jobs page (blank as I write this…)
Ethical Jobs.com
The Australian Development Gateway
Research Jobs Australia
Careers United (an international site, not Australia specific)
Anthrojob.com (I have no idea, but I ran across it — it’s a single firm or placement service…)
There’s also a book available, Great Jobs for Anthropology Majors by Blythe Camenson, that you can read excerpts from through Google Books.

CVs and resumes

A Curriculum Vitae (Latin for ‘Life Story’) is an academic record of one’s major professional accomplishments. A resume is a more business oriented record of previous employment as well as a presentation of one’s skills and qualifications. Understanding the differences between them will help you to prepare an appropriate document.

They share certain common considerations, like presenting honest information as clearly as possible; remember that the person reading your C.V. or resume is likely to be working through a stack, so being clear and easy-to-read is crucial. A reader with a stack to get through will likely react negatively if you make things confusing or murky. Think of the reader with 30 or 80 or 120 dossiers to get through; make their job easier, and you improve your chances of being one of the eight or ten that they put on their list of strong candidates.

In addition, with so many repetitive documents to review, a veteran reader is likely to see quickly through anything that you intentionally try to make murky, such as mixing together categories in order to obscure something you see as a weakness. It’s best to just present what you’ve done; the time to fret about what will be on your C.V. or resume is not the day you’re preparing it for submission.

Understand your audience when you write your C.V. or resume; what works for an academic job may not work well at all for a position as a designer or account representative. For example, academic C.V.s are staid and sober documents – scented paper and fancy graphics are likely to reveal that you do not understand what you are trying to accomplish. In contrast, a C.V. prepared for an academic job won’t get you a look in as a game designer or art director.

The first rule of C.V. or resume writing, as I’ve mentioned, is that you should not over-estimate, exaggerate or distort your experience or competency. Don’t say you’re ‘fluent’ in a language unless you’re ready to deal with an interviewer who turns out to be an immigrant native speaker from the same area and don’t say a publication is ‘forthcoming’ unless you’re comfortable that someone on the editorial board of the journal may be on staff in the department to which you’re applying. If a skill or ability is a desirable quality for your position, it’s likely someone at your potential employer has that skill and will know if you’re not being honest.

Basic differences between the two genres

A resume is a fixed-length document; around two pages. As you get more experience, you have to really think about how you want to present yourself. Often, people will prepare different resumes for the various types of positions that they are seeking, highlighting a different part of their experience and expertise in each version. In contrast, C.V.’s grow in length with a person’s professional experience; a person just out of graduate school is likely to have only two or three pages, but this will grow over time. There’s no need to feel insecure about the length — lots of meaningless things on your C.V. does not improve it, but suggests that you get distracted.

Resumes often include items like ‘Objectives’ and ‘Skills,’ things that might be considered intangible, such as what sort of position you’d like and the sorts of traits that differentiate you from other candidates. For example, on a resume, it’s often a good idea to clearly outline your responsibilities in your previous positions in order to highlight your abilities and the sorts of things that you regularly did in your previous jobs.

On a C.V., you don’t want to put these sorts of intangible things unless you have some otherwise inexplicable bit of past experience to explain. A C.V., more than a resume, is a record of concrete achievements, so leave off things like ‘I am hoping to obtain an academic position…’

How to sell an anthropology degree to an employer

Students often assume that job listings will include terms that match to the title of your degree; but advertisements for employment typically focus on skills, management ability, planning, sales, interpersonal characteristics and social skills. You will seldom read a job that says, ‘Anthropology majors should apply.’ It’s not a problem with the field; you won’t find positions listed for psychology majors or sociology majors either. Some Human Resources people point out that, if you do get a job for which there is specific educational training, it can be difficult to break through into positions with greater responsibility or management, and the fields where there are very clear, essential educational trajectories tend to be outside our Faculty.

So how would we sell an anthropology degree to a person unfamiliar with the field? The basic principles are:

— Focus on the skills you’ve learned: writing, research, communication…
— Share the reasons that you’re excited by the field.
— Recognize that many of the ‘soft skills’ that employers seek (ability to self-manage, adaptability, problem solving) are things you do constantly in anthropology.
— Anthropology is especially relevant in multi-cultural settings, working across cultural boundaries and with diverse populations.

The more you can use specific examples, the more convincing you will be, so practice talking about these areas. For example, if you say, ‘I can work in multi-cultural settings,’ but can’t say anything more about the subject, no one is really going to believe you. But if you can give examples of things you have learned that might be useful to an employer, then you start to make headway. Describing your skills is not a labeling exercise, where all you need to do is produce the label (‘I’m adaptable.’); you’ve got to show what you mean (‘I did fieldwork for two weeks with such-and-such a group and quickly learned that I couldn’t ask questions directly, so I had to change my methods and learned to approach topics by…’).

Too often, students can’t articulate what skills they have learned, even if they’ve been studying for three or four years. You really need to think about the skills you have in order to be able to explain them to a potential employer. It’s time to put aside any tendencies to undersell yourself, to ignore what you can do, to play down your abilities—unfortunately, my experience with Australian students is that they tend to be deeply ambivalent about telling the truth about their positive capacities, as if being honest is the same as being arrogant, self-important, or egocentric. Get over it!

In her book, Great Jobs for Anthropology Majors, Blythe Camenson points out that anthropology majors typically develop a wide range of desirable skills, but they often don’t stop to think of these abilities as marketable, attractive traits that employers seek. She lists a number, and the following list is adapted from hers (on page vii):

— Oral and written communication
— Interviewing
— Observation
— Formulating and testing hypothesis
— Designing research to address a question
— Dealing with ambiguity
— Conducting and explaining scientific research
— Writing descriptive reports and analytical papers
— Critical thinking skills that take a holistic, integrative approach to social and organizational systems
— Analyzing the root causes of social problems
— Cross-cultural, interethnic and international communication
— Working cooperatively with people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds
— Foreign language skills
— Analytical reading
— Managing, accessing and analyzing information, including archives, libraries and online resources
— Record keeping
— Attention to detail
— Working successfully in diverse cultural contexts

What you’ll notice about a lot of these skills is that they’re best developed by getting involved in research. If you try to avoid independent work, research design or other tasks in your education, if you try to get through your degree sitting quietly at the back of a lecture auditorium (or worse, listening to lecture recordings) and doing the bare minimum, don’t be surprised if you develop fewer skills in your education. Students sometimes don’t see the use of an Honours degree or an independent project, but these are crucial for building pre-professional skills. And make sure to take a good research methods course, or a couple. If you want to use elements from this list, you also need to be ready to provide those concrete examples!

If you wait until you graduate to start thinking about the skills you have on your resume, you’re waiting too long. Some of the skill set that you want to develop takes time and needs some development before it’s going to be of interest to an employer, so start thinking like a professional anthropologist while you’re still a student: get some experience, volunteer, do an independent project, learn computer skills, and document what you’ve accomplished as you go.

Anthropologists: who needs them? who hires them?

In fact, a wide range of companies now hire anthropologists in different roles. For a while in the 1980s, it was big news when anthropologists started to work in Western urban areas for marketing firms, software designers and human resources departments, but it’s now common enough that it no longer warrants breathless discussion in the business press.

Just so you know, though, here’s a few of the types of organizations that employ anthropologists:

research consultancies * market researchers * the World Bank * the United Nations * National Geographic * design consultancy firms * user research firms * human rights organizations * public health organizations * cultural resource or heritage management groups * development banks * tourism organizations * parks and recreation departments * native title claims * Australian Bureau of Statistics * Australian Institute of Criminology * Australian Institute of Health and Welfare * Department of Family and Community Services * Department of Health and Aging * Department of Human Services * Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs * Department of the Environment and Heritage * National Museum of Australia * AusAID * television production companies * documentary filmmakers* museums * newspapers * science magazines * folklore archives * recording companies * women’s organizations * international development agencies * ethnic and cultural organizations * refugee and immigrant assistance organizations * community centres & services * government departments (all levels) * historic preservation offices * archives * zoos * foreign service organizations * art galleries * social research laboratories * historical societies * medical researchers * overseas mission organizations * parks and historic sites * antique and collectible shops * physical anthropology laboratories * human resources consultancies and recruiters…

Companies like Sapient * Intel * Kodak * Mackenzie * Whirlpool * AT&T * General Motors * Hallmark * Citicorp * the Hanseatic Group * Hauser Design * Koss * Motorola * Nynex * Hoffman-LaRoche * Xerox * National Semiconductor * Sun Microsystems * Samsung * the Institute for Research on Learning * Matsushita * Media One * Canon * GVO * and IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management have all publicly recognized that they hire anthropologists, especially in design, product & market research.

Reproduced from the website: http://www.anth.mq.edu.au/about/anth_whoneedsem.html

The University of Queensland also has a webpage on anthropology careers that you can see here.

An academic C.V.

Your C.V. is a record of your accomplishments that, taken as a whole, describes your intellectual trajectory. You may need to re-arrange the information on your C.V. depending on the position for which you’re applying or your particular strengths. For instance, list your publications, presentations, grants and awards should be presented first when you’re applying for a research position, or a position at a research institution; present your teaching experience first if you are applying to a teaching institution; include some of the skills- and training-related elements you would normally find on a resume if you are applying for a consultancy. If you’ve got a particularly strong list of academic awards, don’t be afraid to move it forward into a more prominent position.

Look at your C.V. before you mail it. Although it shouldn’t be fancy and cute, with little cartoons in the margins (at least not applying for an anthropology job), it needs to look clean, professional and easy to read. Odds are, someone is going to read it when their eyes are glazing over, the night before the meeting, exhausted and hoping to get to the end of all the C.V.s in the search. If you present crucial information clearly, you stand a good chance of stimulating the synapses that are still functioning.

Your C.V. will probably be from one to three pages at the start of your academic career, unless you have built up a list of accomplishments in other fields. You will be lucky to have a few publications and conference presentations, so don’t feel insecure presenting a small number honestly. We hand out sample C.V.s in our workshop, but you can also find plenty of samples online (for example, at About.com’s job search website, on the University of Kent’s website, and at Vitae, a UK site for researchers).

Outline of the anthropology C.V.

Some people put ‘Curriculum Vitae’ at the top of their C.V. I think it’s unnecessary as the genre is instantly recognizable. We have provided a number of sample C.V.s

Identification:
Include your name, address, area code, telephone number, email and any online address. Try to use a permanent address or phone number if you have a temporary one, but make sure that the person at your permanent address knows how important this correspondence may be. If possible, include a day-time phone number.

If you have a funny or irreverent email address, get a new one. You don’t want your potential employer to have to contact you at msbutthead@hotmail.com or sexxxyrexy@gmail.com. Also, seriously consider purging any online presentation of yourself that shows you in an unprofessional light; don’t worry about hiding baby pictures, but pictures of you and your friends drunk in Bali or streaking across the MCG with security in pursuit should probably disappear. Don’t be surprised if someone at your potential employer Googles you; sometimes they’re just looking for the publications or programs you list.

Education:
List your degrees in reverse order, most recent to earliest. Drop your high school, for certain, when you have an advanced degree unless there’s a damn good reason not to do so (I’m having a hard time thinking of one…). Include the name of the institution, your major and minor fields, and the year of completion. You may also include titles of theses or dissertation and supervisors, or especially relevant course work (not likely). Don’t emphasize the time period over the more important information; that is, some students treat ‘2002-2006’ as the most important information, rather than the degree. You’re not trying to prove your residency; you’re describing your credentials, so the institution and degree are the most important details.

Dissertation:
If it is your only significant publication, consider making it a separate category. You may wish to include, on a separate sheet, an abstract of your dissertation because it will not be an easy publication for the interviewers to access. If you include an abstract, it should be no longer than one page, preferably one paragraph.

Publications:
Include bibliographic citations of articles, pamphlets, research reports, book chapters, book reviews, or any other genre you’ve published. People disagree strongly about strategies to present, but I’m firmly of the opinion that you should not confound publications with presented papers. Some junior scholars seem to fold these together to try to make the list longer, but it just makes it harder to read, and it may irritate the reader. I’ve seen one C.V. where a previous committee member crossed out all the ‘guest lectures’ and ‘presentations’ that had been mixed in with publications out of obvious irritation.

As you gain experience, you will separate your publications categories more finely. In general, showing that you are aware of the different weight of academic achievements suggests that you understand the professional standards of your field. For example, peer reviewed publications are very different from non-reviewed writings, such as articles in newsletters or encyclopedias. I would generally recommend erring on the side of dividing up this category, rather than lumping things together. For example, if you had a lot of publications, divide books, refereed articles, book chapters, unrefereed publication, conference presentations, invited lectures, and other presentations. Most of you will not need to use all of these categories, and never put in a category for which you have no examples.

Refereed publications must be reviewed and approved by peer scholars. Invited lectures usually involve someone paying for you to give a talk; in the United States, where honoraria are awarded, for example, the presence or absence of paid travel or honoraria is usually the cut-off for ‘invitation.’

Don’t exaggerate the state of acceptance of a publication. You can include ‘in preparation’ or ‘works submitted,’ but don’t put too many unfinished things there. While one or two suggests what you’re working on, too many suggests you can’t finish things, or that you’re having trouble staying on task.

Presentations:
List the papers and lectures you’ve delivered, or will deliver, along with the locations, conferences and dates where they occurred. I tend to put all future dates in square brackets just to signal that they’re not yet completed.

Academic Honours:
Include any prizes, awards, academic distinctions or fellowships, in reverse chronological order.

Teaching Experience:
Include full-time and part-time teaching experience in reverse chronological order. For each position, list the title, date, course name, and a brief description of your responsibilities, unless it is obvious from the title. Don’t write too much though; professionals are reading these applications, so they know what teaching is about.

Teaching interests, research interests:
Don’t get carried away, but it is sometimes a good idea to list potential courses or research interests, or both. Make sure to include a range from the general to more specialized, upper-level courses in your teaching interests. List no more than four or five courses or research interests, and you can tailor these to the job listing to which you’re responding.

Related Experience:
Include any research, administration, advising, or other experience that strengthens your C.V. You don’t have to include your jobs as a barista or swimming instructor. Include also any leadership positions, such as in associations, committees, task forces, or relevant fields.

Languages:
Some people include their language training, especially if it is strong or unusual.

Memberships:
Although not necessary, it’s sometimes helpful and can show some professional engagement.

References:
Make sure to ask before including anyone, and to get up-to-date contact information. Some universities will ask you to contact your own references to have them send letters, but some search committees will contact referees without going through the candidate. If there is any sort of sensitivity about references (such as using your supervisor if he or she does not know you’re searching for a position), you should probably put this up front in the cover letter itself.

A good reference is better than a famous reference. Some big-name researchers write quite good letters, but others are callous. Young scholars tend to be more impressed by famous anthropologists than established people, like the ones reading your dossier. You can always ask potential referees if they ‘feel comfortable writing you a strong reference.’ ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are essential. For some academics, these letters are an enormous burden, and can strike with terrible timing, so students need to be conscientious about cultivating their referees.

List references from most to least important, in the sense that the ones that are more central to your career (not by job rank or title). Your thesis supervisor should probably be first at this stage of your career, but this will eventually change to your Head of Department or immediate supervisor.

You can also add a final line like on your C.V., ‘Complete dossier available from’ with your mailing address, at the end. This simply indicates the best place to get copies of publications or supporting documents. It’s not necessary, but some C.V.s have this at the very end. In general, I try to avoid formulaic content, such as stating the obvious, like your mailing address repeated at the end of the C.V.

The job letter or cover letter

A job letter is a crucial counter-point to your C.V. Even more than your C.V., your job letter gives you a space where you are free to really tell a story about who you are, your professional identity, and the directions you envision you work going in the future. It’s not a place for you to tell the selection committee about their job ad, nor do you want to waste their time repeating what’s on your C.V. Too many candidates thing that the cover letter is a meaningless formality when it’s, in fact, probably the most important piece in the application dossier.

In physical appearance, your letter should be clean, clear, and on letterhead (whichever you’re allowed to use). Keep your paragraphs relatively short and tight, and choose a good font – nothing fancy, something that is easy to read in the midst of working through dozens of competitors. The letter should be more than one, but less than two pages, and if you can do a bit better than single spacing, it will be easier to digest. Always keep in mind the situation of the reader, the need to cut through the dross and boring letters that the committee is trying to sort through.

Although you really want to find your own style, there’s a general format that a reader expects. If you don’t have any sense of what’s expected, it’s a sign you haven’t done your homework and may not be ready to be a professional anthropologist. So feel free to break from the model for a good reason, but understand that some forms work better than others.

The general outline of a job letter is:
1. A paragraph mentioning the job you’re applying for, Macquarie University, the degree you’re finishing and date (or expected date).
2. A description of your dissertation research; usually one paragraph.
3. Explain the significance of your research project, the theoretical importance and overall importance (note: doing this before the description can seem self-aggrandizing).
4. A paragraph on future research, the next project or two that you expect to undertake.
5. Teaching profile, tying together your experience (without repeating your C.V.) and your capacities.
6. A closing paragraph that individuates you – a chance to do something iconoclastic or take a risk; best to make it intellectual although it may appear personal (for example, linking your background to your intellectual trajectory).

Before you send the letter in, you have to make sure that the prose is readable. I strongly recommend you read it out loud to yourself as you need to make it very easily read. Something that looks fine on the screen may be nearly impossible to read off the page. Remember, it’s quite likely to be read quickly by a tired committee member who’s already worked through a pile of them, so being clear and having faultless prose is essential; errors, even if they’re typographical, tend to be punished hard because the cuts for highly sought-after positions can be brutal.

Basic details

1. Opening paragraph:
These tend to be pretty formulaic; ‘I wish to be considered for the Associate Lecturer position advertised through the Australian Anthropological Society…’ And then you introduce yourself: ‘I am currently finishing my doctoral thesis, The Transnationalization of the Transylvanian Telecommunications Industry,’ at Macquarie…’ You may want to consider an unusual starting paragraph, one that offers a clear sense of your intellectual identity and suitability for the position. I’ve started to get really turned off by formulaic first paragraphs, but that might be more personal.

2. Dissertation description:

Consider strongly your audience when you write this. Often, you are writing for a more diverse audience in the job letter than you might have originally written the thesis to reach. That is, you may have taken a polemically strong position in your thesis, but your readers are liable to represent the gamut of theoretical stands. The ideal model for writing the dissertation description is as much feature journalism as it is an academic abstract.

We’d suggest focusing on research questions that a wide range of scholars may find engaging (even if they don’t agree with your specific way of answering those questions). Avoid saying that your work is ‘complex’; everyone’s is, and saying so is usually a sign that you’re not good at communicating the heart of the issue. Remember, you’re likely interviewing for a teaching position, and teachers have to be good at making complex issues clearer. You don’t need to provide the counter-arguments for your own position, nor do you need to be defensive or cover yourself by citing all your sources. So take the opportunity to be bold and direct; this will make it much easier for your advocate on the search committee to make the case for you to be short-listed for an interview.

If you can’t stop yourself from writing a very long dissertation précis (I couldn’t), consider including it as a separate single-page abstract, and then write a short one-paragraph version for the job letter. The career search, so often, is a challenge of emotional self-management, so if you must, over-compensate for your exaggerated sense of inadequacy in some easy-to-disregard separate document rather than in the most important component of the dossier.

3. Research significance:
How does your project raise bigger questions? How could you apply your research to other issues? Does your research have pedagogical implications for your teaching? You might think of how your work creates openings for more research, or how your research addresses important questions in the field, perhaps in new ways. If you want to put on the hard sell for the importance of your work (‘My research is going to change the WORLD! Bwahaha…’), it’s best to say this about your next project, not your dissertation. Being too obviously delusional will probably work against you.

4. Next project(s):
This is often one of the hardest things to talk about or write when you’re in the thick of trying to finish your dissertation. Spending some time thinking seriously about what you might want to do next in your career, how you want to build upon what you’ve already accomplished and establish a professional profile, is absolutely essential to getting through the job search process successfully.

You don’t want your new project to seem too close to your original dissertation work (‘I want to turn my dissertation into a book!’ is taken for granted). At most, write about two projects with some connection, both to each other and to your previous work. That is, it’s best to describe a next step or two, not a completely new direction, nor five or six new directions you want to go. Your project doesn’t need to be overly ambitious, but a good question or research opportunity will help reviewers to see how you’re going to continue to be a productive scholar.

5. Teaching:
In order to write this paragraph, more than any other in the letter, you really need to read the job advertisement. You may be more focused on your research as your primary intellectual identity, but as a future colleague in a department, your contribution as a teacher will be just as important to the selection committee. Make sure that you address those areas which are highlighted as ‘essential’ in the job ad; you needn’t address every topical area that is listed as ‘desirable.’ Often, these area and topical qualifications in a job ad are shorthand descriptions of the courses that the selection committee hopes that the candidate will or might offer.

In your teaching paragraph, you don’t need to rehash what’s on your C.V. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. The paragraph may work better if you can do one or more of the following: frame a relationship between your teaching and research; say something about your teaching philosophy; describe a relationship between your specific area of expertise and general teaching; or talk about innovative teaching methods that you might bring to the position.

A bit of research into the department you’re applying to can really help this part of your application. Compare the department’s offerings to the job ad; you should be able to discern what courses they are trying to cover (you may notice, for example, that a unit is listed with the instructor ‘to be announced’). Usually, ‘desirable’ areas of expertise are exploratory, topics in which a department might be hoping to offer new courses. See if they have a new program that might explain the ‘desirable’ qualifications or a course that hasn’t been taught in a while that looks relevant.

Best to say that you can teach a small number of units including some that are general and might be on their catalogs already, and one or two that are more individual, creative, and innovative. When a department member reads your teaching paragraph, the desirable response is for them to think, ‘Thank god, someone to cover these units that we need taught,’ and, from your innovative courses, ‘Our students will love this. I would have taken it as an undergrad.’ Balance creativity and innovation with a recognition that everyone in the boat has to pull on an oar; if you only talk about the quirky, innovative stuff you want to do, you may seem like a risky hire who won’t take an interest in the core teaching and advising responsibilities that the department needs to cover.

Remember, most academics admire good research, but they need colleagues who will help them to make a department function. A brilliant but irresponsible colleague is a constant source of frustration and ends up shifting more of the day-to-responsibilities of the institution onto the responsible members of the department. You don’t want to appear to be a colleague who will be ‘costly’ in the long term, in the sense of aggravating, uncooperative and self-promoting at the expense of your department mates.

6. Final paragraph
Don’t get too carried away; offering bribes or making veiled threats are unlikely to work at this point. But do try to say something at the end to humanize yourself. You can offer to meet up at an upcoming conference, say something about your own desire for the job at the particular institution because of something you know about, or just generally say things that make you sound eager and good natured. So much of the job hunt is persuading people that, not only are you qualified, but you will be good to work with, not create heaps of personality problems, and generally get along well with the other children that it’s better at the end to say something gracious than something impressive.

On the whole, you don’t want the job letter to be exhaustive or exhausting. You don’t have to reveal everything about yourself in one dossier. Better to give them a coherent and memorable sense of who you are (at least in the main) so that your letter leaves at least one of the readers saying, ‘Oh, yeah, that applicant was interesting… I’d like to read the references and see a sample of the work…’ The worst thing that can happen is that, after everyone on the selection committee has read your file, no one can remember who you are because you either said too much (and seem scattered) or never gave them the hook on which to hang your identity.

Final advice

In general, if a job listing has a long lead time, don’t submit your dossier too early. At the same time, it’s not a good idea to be one of the last ones in the pile; it’s likely that at least one eager member of the selection committee will already be flagging promising applications before the deadline closes. Probably best to submit two to three weeks before the deadline.

Even if you feel you may not be suited for a position, let the selection committee decide that; don’t express any doubts about your suitability for a position in your job letter. You can find countless stories of people getting positions for which they thought they were ill-suited, and not getting a look in when the job ad sounded like it had been written for the candidate.

Above all with the job letter, you want readers to get a clear sense of you, your driving passions and your over-arching agenda. Most job letters try to be all things at once, promising too many incompatible things, and leaving the reader with no lasting sense of the person behind the letter. Keep the reader in mind, not just the person who wrote the ad, but the person who has to read all the letters, one after another. If you can get that person to remember your letter (for a good reason), you’ll stand out from the herd.

Writing a job letter and applying for jobs can actually be an exciting time, especially if you have had your nose down, bum up, grinding through the last stages of a dissertation. The application process can be a chance to talk seriously — with people actually listening — about how you want to contribute in the long run, your future plans, and where you see yourself contributing to the field. Approach the search with your strengths clear in your mind; you don’t need to hide who you are or try to be all things to all people. Just having a clear sense of your intellectual and professional identity, a vision for how you will contribute to the field, and an awareness of the needs of the department to which you’re applying will place you in a very select part of the candidate pool, already distinguished from many of the candidates.

That’s all for now…

I’ll go ahead and post this, and be happy to update the post and expand in later ones. I’ve got a lengthy text on campus interviewing, starting out, and early career teaching, but I’ll publish this for the time being rather than wait to do it all as a single post.

I’d love to hear from anyone if they have different experience or insights, and I’ll try to post links to other relevant material, certainly including some of it in the next posts on ‘professionalization.’ Eventually, I’ll bundle everything into a pdf document that anyone can download for circulation. I’m happy for readers to use this material, as long as they respect the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license (which is basically a share-and-share-alike sort of principle).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Olga permalink
    1 June, 2010 4:24 pm

    this is very helpful, thank you!

  2. 1 June, 2010 7:55 pm

    Very nice and unique article. I was looking for something this for a long time…Thanks to the Blog owner for publishing such a nice article.

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