These Things I Know: Applying for Tenure-Track Jobs

October 3, 2007, 3:27 pm

I was on the job market surprisingly few years, given how many jobs there were (not) in the early 1980s: I participated in the academic version of American Idol for three years, to be exact, during all of which I was fully employed — except for the first year when I was on unemployment, which was like being employed but without the job. And although I did not get a “real job” right away, I had surprisingly good luck getting interviewed. At the time, I thought it was because I wrote great letters of application, but now I think I got interviewed because I had a dissertation that folks were intrigued by, and the only way they could get to see the whole thing was by interviewing me. It wasn’t the best dissertation circulating in those years, but it was one of the most unusual. Since I had very eclectic training as a scholar — my graduate education closely resembled being raised by clever wolves who found me naked under a fern — what I substituted for elegant structure and classic research methods was pizzazz. Other people had well-crafted chapters: I had a dissertation with vicious gun battles, an Assistant Attorney General who was probably a lesbian, gun molls, “Ma” Barker and an FBI Director who was one of the most famous closet cases in American History. How could you not interview me? Really.

Anyway, the first year I applied for three jobs and was a finalist for one; the second year I applied for four jobs, was a finalist for two, and got a terrific visiting gig; and the third year I applied for four jobs, was a finalist for three, and accepted the job at Zenith while the two other schools were still waiting to find out if their #1 (the same person in each case, and who had also been in the mix at Zenith) would say yes. The person, in the end, said yes to another school entirely. So it goes. And here I am at Zenith 16 years later.

So what I know about applying for jobs really draws, not on my own success (which I still regard as inexplicable), but on my experience reading applications. For all of you sending out those precious packages, here are eight things I know for sure about the job letter:

Don’t waste your time applying for jobs where your field is ruled out from the get-go. I know it feels like it should improve your chances of getting a job to get more applications out, but if your work does not suit the ad, don’t have fantasies that the search committee will change its mind on a whim about the field they want to hire in. Furthermore, if the ad says “historian of women,” you don’t necessarily qualify because there is a woman or two in your dissertation. It isn’t a lottery; it only seems like one. The Shirley Jackson kind.

Put the proper salutation on each letter, and change the text to reflect what school you are actually applying to. I have gotten letters at Zenith that assure me that the candidate wants nothing more in life than to teach at Swarthmore; I have been addressed as “Dear Professor Fillintheblank;” once I was the administrator on a search at Eugene Lang College in New York where more than one applicant addressed the letter to “Dear Dean Lang” and another to “Dear Professor Lang.” You are not necessarily out of the running if you slip up on this, but it does make you the object of loud mockery for a brief time.

If the ad says the committee will be interviewing at a convention, say whether or not you will be at the convention. If you can’t be at the convention, or are not sure, reassure them that you would be happy to be available for a phone interview or — if you live nearby — that you could meet with the committee on its own turf.

Be as clear as possible when you describe your dissertation, using as little jargon as you can.Words like imbrication may still be new to you, but they aren’t new to us, and they may even alienate that pissy member of the committee who has a bone to pick with post-structural thought. Don’t exaggerate the uniqueness of your work. Finally, resist telling us that your work emphasizes the ways that race, class and gender intersect. We’re glad to hear it, of course, but find a way to make that point in a narrative that actually shows how your work demonstrates the methodological relevance of this thought.

Do your homework about the department. Is there something you do that they need? For example, although your dissertation is not in the field of Western history, did you TA for a western historian, and could you offer a seminar in that field? Imagine that you could, and write about it. Conversely, if you have choices about how to sell yourself (for example, if the ad is broadly written as “Twentieth Century United States”) and your research implicates several fields, don’t, for God’s sake, sell yourself as a women’s historian if there are already three in the department. Instead, sell yourself as a political/cultural/intellectual historian, so that you don’t get ruled out because “we have too many of those.” Furthermore, if it is clear you really can do women’s history, you become a “stealth hire”: i.e., someone who can be sold to a broad audience of colleagues whose preferences are — shall we say — conventional; but who the women’s historians will want to interview in the hopes that you are “one of us.”

You don’t need to sell yourself as a teacher in the letter. This is what the interview is for. I know, I know — the latest thing is the “teaching portfolio,” and you may indeed have to do this time-consuming task, but the point of the job letter is to sell yourself as a scholar. The only thing most of us want to know is that you are smart. And we want to know how smart, not how interactive your classroom is, or how well you use Power Point. A single paragraph describing the courses you have taught and will teach is sufficient. Do avoid overly sincere phrases like: “I believe in the Socratic method;” “I am student-centered;” and “My pedagogical epistemology centers class discussion.”

Do make it clear in the opening paragraph of the letter what job you are applying for. Do not imagine that this is the only search going on in the department, even if it is the only search for you. A committee chair, or worse, the very busy department or program chair, or even worse, the departmental secretary, should not have to guess which search your application should be filed under. Even though you may think it is obvious, it isn’t always, particularly if you are applying to an interdisciplinary program or a large department with several subfields.

Oh yes — and for god’s sake, use letterhead. Your department letterhead, the letterhead from the school where you are teaching a course for $2300 — whatever letterhead you can get your mitts on. A job application on blank paper, in a blank envelope, can’t help but remind its recipient of a chain letter or some other degraded piece of mail. And do not send anything by email unless invited to do so: this is incredibly lazy and annoying, and invites someone to screw up your file by not printing things out properly. While first impressions are by no means decisive, you do not want to convey that you are a confidence man from Nigeria, or that you are desperate.

Even if you are. Desperate, I mean.

Good luck.

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