Unsolicited Academic Job Search Advice

A couple friends and colleagues on the academic job market have asked me for advice in the past year. After sitting on both sides of the table for five years now, here are some universal tidbits that I think will be helpful in helping you find your way.

  1. Read the post carefully and write your cover letter to the post.

I know this seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people read a post for say a Professor in International Film and just see the word “Film” and throw their American Film specialized application into the pile. Do not do this. Most committees are tied to a fairly strict matrix based on the requirements and preferred qualifications on the post. In other words, if you’re not addressing how YOU fit those qualifications in your letter?
You’re probably wasting your time and that of the committee members.

  1. Be specific about how you meet the qualifications specified in the post.

Too many folks – myself included once upon a time – just change a couple sentences in their letter (the title of the position, the location, etc.) and write a letter predominantly about themselves. This is the wrong approach. You must write a letter telling the committee what you are bringing to this specific post. If the post is primarily a teaching one, tell some vivid stories about your time in the classroom. Be specific about how much you’ve taught the classes asked for and in what format. If it’s a teaching heavy post and your letter is primarily focused on your research? If the post asks for an advanced ABD or a Ph.D. and you’re neither? You’re probably wasting your time and that of the committee members. (This is going to become a chorus of sorts…)

  1. Tell the school WHY you want to be there.

Do some research on the degree plan, the department, and your fellow faculty. Talk about how you can carry the water when it comes to core classes. Believe it or not, most schools do not redesign their degree plans every time they make a new appointment, so don’t assume that if you get the job you get to add a bunch of classes in your area of specialty to the degree requirements. That process – in my experience – is defined more by slow compromises and polite disagreements. If you don’t do this – which is a fairly easy fix (put a sentence or two at the end of your conclusion) – you’re probably fine. Not a lot of applicants I’ve seen make the effort, but committees do appreciate it (make sure you do it if you get an interview though!).

  1. Tell a story.

I’ll be personal here for a bit – once in a while, I apply for other jobs. I don’t do it often and my colleagues and dean have come to expect it. I’ve basically set my self a couple of parameters (located in LA county, not an R1). But, without personal knowledge of my long distance marriage situation, that story may not make a lot of sense. For instance, if I were to apply at community college, they’d read my application as someone willing to take a severe demotion in status for a pay raise and a lot more time in the classroom (Some here are a 6/6 with a 75 student cap). So I have to tell a little bit about myself to make that story make sense to an outsider. Basically, use elements of narrative to fill in gaps in your work history and other career changes that don’t look traditional or logical from the outside. It can also go a long way in making your letter come across as being simply a version of your CV arranged in paragraph form (don’t simply duplicate your CV – contextualize it, analyze it, and give it some life!).

  1. Do not half-ass a cover letter.

I hope this is a given at this point, but I’ll add a couple Thou Shall Not… Commandments that especially apply if you’re applying to a Communication or English Department. Thou shall not make a list of your accomplishments. (We’re not stupid.) Thou shall not make a bullet point list of your accomplishments. (We’re not stupid and your application isn’t a PowerPoint slide.) Thou shall not write a two sentence cover letter that says “I’m interested in the position at your institution. Please review the attached documents.” (Are you interested in the position? Because I feel like your level of enthusiasm is matched only by my wife’s when I ask her if she wants to spend the entire weekend hiking up a mountain.)

Someone once told me that academic job searches are like speed dating and that’s true to a point. You have to craft a profile that showcases how you’re a match for a school/department/position. You also, in the process, want to think about how that gig will define you. I know this sounds easier said than done, especially when you’re looking for a first job and you’ll take just about anything that comes your way with great thanks.
That was certainly true of me, but I also have great colleagues who helped me see why this gig in East Texas would be so rewarding to me (intimate classes, the opportunity to build a department and a culture). So I think it’s important advice. If you don’t want to be at an R1 and you see yourself more as a teacher? Own that identity. If you can do production but love teaching American Film History and Media Studies classes? Think twice before applying for the gig that is predominantly Film Production. There’s no shame in realizing what you want to do – and what your strengths and weaknesses are – in this game. Personally? I love teaching too much to be at an R1 and I love research too much to be at a CC. That’s a weird niche to find, but I appreciate the freedom it gives me and I think it has provided me with some amazing opportunities that an R1 gig wouldn’t have (especially on the videographic criticism/[in]Transition front!). So my last piece of advice?

  1. Apply for the jobs you want, not for the jobs your advisors/program want you to.

You’re gonna break your surrogate intellectual parents’s hearts at some point when you leave the nest; don’t let them make you feel self-conscious about you doing you. Find mentors who will support you as you make this new transition.

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