Academic Job Searching for Dummies (or, 10 Easy Ways to Avoid Unemployment)

March 16, 2001

Even the most talented Ph.D.'s can make a fatal mistake on the job market. Faculty members who have served on search committees say they have seen plenty of qualified candidates crash and burn in spectacular ways. But they've also seen young scholars make some critical, yet seemingly obvious, mistakes -- like being late for an interview -- that could have been easily averted. Don't be like the candidate who turned up an hour late for her interview with her pet bird in tow.

This site often gives job candidates a chance to vent about the market. This time we talked to professors who have served on search committees to learn their pet peeves about the process and assemble some practical advice for job seekers. Here's a list of ways to steer clear of blunders that could cost you your academic dream job:

Read the ad. The secret formula for landing a job is often in the job description, says Elizabeth Zoltan, dean of the business and social-science division at Foothill College. "If the search committee has done its job well, it's written a clear job description that says, This is the type of person we really need on our campus." Take time to review the ad carefully, then think about ways to clearly articulate how you are the person who can perform each of the elements outlined in the ad.

Theresa Sandifer, an associate professor of mathematics at Southern Connecticut State University, says that when she recently advertised for a coordinator of remedial mathematics courses, she was inundated by applications from people who clearly hadn't read the ad carefully. "I don't know what remedial means to you," she says, "but it doesn't mean anything high-level to me. We had people apply who told us all about how they could do advanced operator theory and how they'd taught 17 years of graduate school. They were just blanketly applying. They'd see the word 'mathematics' and apply for the job, but that was really frustrating from our point of view, because we had to wade through all the applications."

Make sure you're qualified. The most common complaint from those doing the hiring is that they spend an inordinate amount of time screening out people who are unqualified for the position.

Jose A. Madrigal, a professor and chairman of the department of foreign language and literature at Auburn University, says he remembers one candidate who came to an interview for a faculty position in Spanish and asked the search committee to conduct the interview in English. He actually said, "Let's have the interview in English, because my Spanish is rusty," recalls Mr. Madrigal, who was on the committee. "It was just plain embarrassing."

If the job calls for "native or near-native fluency in Spanish," and you don't have it, then you shouldn't waste your time or the search committee's by applying; you won't get the job.

Don't use gimmicks. Resist the temptation to use fancy fonts, cute typefaces or logos, and flashy paper to make your application stand out.

Gimmicks don't work, says Gene C. Fant Jr., chairman of the English department at Mississippi College. He once got a phone call from a professor at another institution, he says, because a job candidate he knew had submitted a "cute" cover letter and C.V. to the search committee. "A professor on the search committee called to ask me if she was a nut because she'd printed her C.V. and cover letter on holiday paper with smiley faces drawn on it. It was very unprofessional. She did it to get attention, but she did not get the position."

Don't use form letters. If there's one thing search-committee members say they hate, it's form letters. If you must use them, check each one carefully to make sure you get important details right, warns Ms. Sandifer of Southern Connecticut State. Time and again, she receives cover letters with the wrong institution name or with other glaring but easily avoidable mistakes, like candidates' mentioning how much they're looking forward to living in the Northwest when the school they're applying to is in Connecticut. Gaffes like those will knock you right out of the running.

Another sure-fire way to remain unemployed: Submit a letter that says, "I'm interested in applying for your mathematics/computer science/biology/physics job."

"We understand that job seekers are under a tremendous amount of pressure to get their applications out," Ms. Sandifer says, "but if they want to put their best foot forward, that is not a good way to do it."

Make sure you know what your references are going to say about you. Ms. Sandifer says someone once sent her a reference letter that said, "To the best of my knowledge, [so-and-so] does not smoke, drink, or beat his wife." Some letters strike all the right chords, but she regularly receives two types of job letters. "There's the 'I don't have anything good to say, so I'm just going to be non-committal' type of letter and then there's the 'I don't have anything at all to say about this candidate' type of letter. We get them all the time, and I just think if candidates knew what was coming across they just would never have asked these people to write letters."

This may sound obvious, but if you're going to ask someone to write you a recommendation, make sure that person is going to say something nice about you. You don't want to end up with a letter like the following, which a faculty member insisted really happened: "Bob seems to have kicked that nasty heroin addiction that's plagued him so during his doctoral program." That won't get you an interview.

Be patient. It's best not to annoy members of the search committee. "There's no real appreciation for what search committees have to go through," says Ms. Sandifer. "I don't know about other departments, but we get upwards of 100 applications per job, and sometimes, depending on the market or the particular field, we can have more than 200 or 300, and so if somebody's expecting me to read a C.V. and get back to them in less than 24 hours, they're kidding themselves."

She says she remembers one prospective applicant whose C.V. arrived via e-mail, along with a note asking for advice on whether to apply for an applied-mathematics position. "They sent the e-mail to me at 7 o'clock at night; I read it at 7 o'clock the next morning. By 10 o'clock that morning they had e-mailed me in capital letters -- the equivalent of screaming -- about how I didn't even dignify them with a reply and about how were they possibly to know whether they would be wasting their time applying for the job if I didn't answer them. All this in the span of less than 24 hours. I e-mailed them back and suggested that perhaps they shouldn't apply for the job now."

Do your homework. There's no sure thing when it comes to conducting a job search, but those on the hiring end say that what sets the best candidates apart from the rest is their knowledge of the institution and the department.

"It always works when a candidate displays some detailed knowledge of who you are and what kind of work is going on at your institution," says Stanley Fish, dean of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Conversely, it's an "absolute turnoff" when a candidate shows up at the interview without having done the homework, he says. If you have a Ph.D., you should know how to do research, so there's no excuse for not taking the trouble to find information that's readily available in the university catalog or on the university Web site. Besides, if you don't take the time and trouble to learn about the institution and department, how will you know if they're right for you?

Don't monopolize the conversation. When you're in an interview, be careful not to dominate the conversation, Mr. Fish warns. "Presumably you've been invited so that your prospective colleagues can assess your abilities -- and are thus, in a way, the center of attention -- but it would be wise of you to yield the floor as much as possible to those who are questioning you or drawing you into conversation," he says. "Especially by making flattering references to their own written work." Many academics have big egos, he says, which bruise easily.

If you talk too much about yourself, you may come out of the interview thinking you did great, when in fact you came off as arrogant, says Mr. Fish. "It's like Al Gore's problem in the first debate with George W. Bush. Al Gore may have won the debate on points, but people decided that they didn't want to live with him because he kept interrupting and hogging the time. He displayed the knowledge, the mastery, and the requisite collection of facts, but he didn't do the kind of job that made people want to invite him into the office." An academic job interview is the same kind of tricky situation, he says. You've got to display your competence, but you've also got to take the focus off of yourself, even though the spotlight is on you.

Don't disparage your former institution or colleagues. One thing that candidates absolutely should not do in an interview, but nearly all of them do, is badmouth their former university, says Mr. Fish. "You can see why almost everyone does it, because you think you're giving the interviewing committee one of your reasons for being interested in their position -- 'I'm not happy at university X because of A, B, and C' -- but all that does is tell them that you are a problematic person or are given to complaint." It leads the search committee members to think, If he's badmouthing his previous or present employer, then sooner or later he'll do the same thing to us.

Resist the urge to gossip during interviews with members of the search committee, adds Mr. Fish. Academe is a small world in the sense that people in the department you're interviewing with are likely to know something about the department you're coming from. "There's almost always someone who will say something like, I've heard that so-and-so is a bad teacher or is drunk before 9 in the morning or harasses students or whatever, and you have to find a way to indicate that you believe that to be an inappropriate area of conversation." It's a trap many candidates fall into, Mr. Fish says, because people like to gossip and they're often eager to show that they have the inside track, but it's a mistake every time.

Don't get desperate. Mr. Fant says he's been surprised by some candidates' displays of desperation at on-campus interviews. One time, "I had a guy cry in the airport," he recalls. Mr. Fant had driven a candidate to the terminal after an on-campus interview, when suddenly, the man began weeping. "He said, 'I have to have this job. I have a wife and children and I'm not a finalist anywhere else, and the year's almost over.'"

The candidate's sobs and pleas didn't cost him the job (he was already out of the running, says Mr. Fant), but they didn't win him any points either. Desperate displays often do more harm than good, Mr. Fant says, because they undermine the search committee's confidence that you're a good fit for the job. Search committees want to hire someone who will be well-adjusted and happy at their institution, not someone who will take any offer that comes their way and may later regret having taken the job.

"It sounds weird to talk about being selective on the job hunt when people are worried about getting jobs, period," Mr. Fant says. "But waiting a year and getting a better job is a whole lot better than jumping straight into a job you don't like, that you don't want to keep, and that's going to make you miserable."


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