Unlocking the Cover Letter

Cover letters are the most important item that you send when applying for a job in higher education.  In your cover letter you make the case for why the search committee should favor you for their position.

Here is what you should do:

Restate the position you are applying for and make your opening statement for why you are especially qualified for this job. Do your homework and tailor the letter to the job. Add your basic fields and specializations.  If you do not have the Ph.D. in hand, say when you expect to complete your degree.

Also include a summary of current research (put first for research institutions).  Work hard on this and pitch your unique research precisely and as ambitiously as your achievement will allow.  Add a summary of future research and your teaching experience and interests (put first for teaching institutions).  Be specific about what you have taught, how you approach teaching, what you can teach for them.

Remember to mention other credentials and make the case for what you can do for the program.  Explain why you are attracted to this position.  Ask for the interview and indicate if you’ll be attending conventions.  Mention what you are enclosing and what else you can send if they desire more info.  If you have a website to showcase your credentials, pass along the url.

Quick advice: Proofread, proofread, proofread.  Have 10 people proofread everything you send.  It must be perfect. Your letter must stand out.  Work on the writing.  Eliminate jargon.  Explain how you possess the credentials they advertise for. Don’t brag or ladle on the self-importance. Use proper business letter form and address to the person listed in the job ad and/or to the search committee.  Be specific and use concrete examples.  Avoid vapid statements like “I use a variety of approaches in my research.”

Keep working on and improving your letter!


Getting to Know Your CV

First of all, a CV has nothing to do with CVS or other retail pharmacies.  CV stands for curriculum vitae  and it is a written description of your work experience, educational background and skills.  A curriculum vitae is used by someone seeking an academic job in the US, for example in a college or university.  You will need to have a strong CV to secure your academic posting.

Here are the things that must go it (in order of importance)

  • Institutions granting degrees
  • Research and teaching fields
  • Publications (do not mix articles and book reviews; do not mix articles and conference papers)
  • Teaching experience
  • Academic awards, fellowships, or grants (evidence you can bring in $)
  • Recommendations

Additional Items (if available)

  • Evidence of additional talents
  • Evidence of connectedness
  • Conference papers
  • Book reviews
  • Other experience
  • Service

What Not to Include

  • Business experience unless it relates directly to academe or to the job–as a special skill, or administrative experience, whatever.
  • Personal information

Note:  Don’t worry about length.  Length is the point.

Sharing Good/Bad News

The American Studies Association  (ASA) Annual Meeting starts today  in Washington, D.C.; it has been my primary professional society meeting since graduate school.  It’s the meeting where I get to have reunions with my grad school cohort.  When we were still grad students, we would start checking in with each other on Thursday afternoon and night of ASA and we’d gather in one of our hotel rooms to catch up and assemble before going out to eat.  It was so great to be back together.

ASA is not a huge interviewing convention, but there are always some interviews going on.  The third year I was on the job market, I actually started getting convention interviews and so did my grad school buddies.  As we gathered on Thursday afternoon and started catching up—finding out who’d been doing what, who was with whom, where we were teaching or what we were working on—we also started learning who had which interviews.  And…through this exchange of information, we realized which jobs had already eliminated us from consideration, since our friends were interviewing with them at ASA and we were not.

I was shocked the first year this happened.  I had not been prepared for the bad news and while I loved my friends, it was hard to be happy that they’d landed interviews I’d wanted and failed to get.  What were those search committees thinking?  That job had my name on it!  We were all in the same boat. It hadn’t occurred to us that this is how we’d learn where we stood.  It put a damper over the whole convention that year and took some joy out of getting to see each other and reconnect.

The next year, we came prepared.  We gathered on Thursday afternoon, as we always did, and we exchanged information.  But this time, we allowed ourselves a brief moment of disappointment as we learned where we’d been eliminated and then we started to share what information we had about certain schools and jobs, pooling our resources to support each other in whatever interviews we’d managed to land.  This felt much better and more constructive than the previous year’s abrupt reality check and feeling out of sorts all four days.

If, like my cohort, you have moved on from your grad school campus, you’re on the market, and you’re all reconnecting at ASA or another annual meeting, you might want to prepare yourself for the good news/bad news share session.  I think my cohort got it right after that initial exposure to the syndrome.  These days, regular monitoring of the Academic Jobs Wiki may also spare you the pain of learning your status as your friends share their news.  http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/Academic_Jobs_Wiki

Academic Job Interview Advice

Attached is the text of a talk that I gave at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, as part of the ASA Students Committee-sponsored session on Job Interviewing, Sunday, Nov. 3, 1996. You are welcome to link to or to reproduce this page so long as you include the credit line above and do not alter the content. Please let me know how useful you find the advice. I will try to adjust and maintain the content according to your feedback.

I was on the job market between 1984-87. During those years I applied for about 140 jobs. I participated in a couple dozen convention interviews and about six campus interviews. The advice that is attached is based on those experiences as well as my experiences more recently on the other side of the fence, interviewing job candidates.

Job Interview Workshop Talk

Mary Corbin Sies, Department of American Studies, University of Maryland, College Park, sies@wam.umd.edu

Academic Job Interview Questions – A Primer

During the period I was on the job market as a graduate student, from roughly 1985 to 1988, I compiled a list of every job interview question I got asked.  I applied to jobs in American Studies (my Ph.D. field) and History as well as Architectural History and Urban History—about 140 jobs in all.  Because I was so ill prepared for the job market—when I began I didn’t have a single publication and had never given a conference paper—my efforts did not initially generate offers and I had to figure out some way to keep my spirits up.  I collected these questions as a kind of meditative exercise.  It was my attempt to counteract the stress, discouragement, and bruising I experienced on the market by generating a resource that might prove helpful to other graduate students and assistant professors who found themselves in a similar predicament to mine—having to learn what constituted a competitive set of credentials and an effective interview technique on my own.

I hope you will find my Academic Job Interview Questions helpful.  I have served on several search committees as a faculty member and these questions seem to hold up quite well.  There are a few new ones I’ve encountered, however, such as the first question one of my committees asked of every candidate interviewed:  “Tell us a little about yourself” (turned out to be a “give ‘em enough rope that they can hang themselves kind of question”) and the more robust “How does your research inform your teaching?”  In future posts I’ll supplement these questions, but I believe them to be a sound guide for interdisciplinary humanities positions, as is.   I invite you to add to the list through the comments function.  And good luck getting interviews this year!

Dr. Mary Corbin Sies

Higher Ed Speed Dating – Convention Interviewing

To get to campus interviews, most job applicants have to survive interviewing at a convention:  tough because you must present yourself so strongly in such a short time.

Basic information:
An interview at a convention usually takes between 30 -45 minutes. It may take a little longer if they really like you. Usually conversations are divided into two topics: research experience and teaching experience.

These may very well predominate and will often take the form of specific questions like “what books would you use to teach …”.   They’ll tell you about the school and the job and let you ask questions.

Quick Survival Advice:
1. Be prepared.  Have researched the school so that you have ascertained their needs and can direct your remarks to what they appear to need.  This includes knowing who’s on the staff, who teaches what and how territorial the place is.  You don’t want to outline a course that someone else is already very invested in teaching.

I prepare a cram sheet for each interview that records my research for the job, my analysis of their needs, and the anticipated questions I’ll need to address. It also includes the questions I want to ask them.

Strike fast.  Try to establish your candidacy in the first 5 minutes of the interview. Look people in the eye.  Answer questions succinctly.  Have ready good snappy short and medium length answers to the standard questions.  DO NOT drone on for 15 minutes about the minutiae of your dissertation. Relax, be yourself and don’t try to hide who you are.  Believe in your skills and give it your best shot.

Note: Dress distinctively.  After 2-3 days trapped in a hotel room interviewing, search committee members are completely fried or bored or both.

Demystifying the “T” Word – Tenure

I don’t have to tell you what a depressing subject this is–the nature of the market makes the competition ridiculous.  And it’s worth remembering that it’s ridiculous because you need to develop coping mechanisms for dealing with what seem like and are impossibly high standards, especially for entry level jobs.

Requirements for a tenure-track entry level position at a graduate degree granting university include, as a general rule: 

1. Ph.D. in hand (3/4s of dissertation to show by December-Jan.)
2. Book or Book contract (this is not fair)
3. Other publications–placing publications in refereed journals is especially important (one article in a well-thought of academic journal makes a real difference)
4. Teaching experience–something in addition to teaching assistantships.

  • do you have lectures written?
  • can you teach service courses?
  • preference for post-Ph.D. teaching experience
  • can you manage graduate students?
  • can you handle a full load of teaching (2/2 to 4/4)

5. Recognition of your work–honors, awards, grants, fellowships (in these times of tightening budgets for higher education everywhere, a streak of entrepreneurship–the ability to bring in money to support your research or some other academic enterprise–may seem very attractive.)
6. Recognition of your work by scholars in your field outside of your home university (letters of recommendation from outsiders is important)
7. Evidence of connectedness (have you been asked to do the sorts of things that come by networking–write book reviews, serve as commentator on panels, serve as officer in local chapter of your professional organization, organize panels, etc.)
8. Administrative ability (service on program committees, organization of conferences, etc., academic advising, etc. )
9. Collegiality (Questions to ask yourself)

  • What is the evidence that you work well as part of a team?
  • How will you navigate the lunch test? 

10. Firm plans for future research–being able to go to an interview and give a first rate paper on a subject other than your dissertation is especially impressive.  (This is important for a department’s assessment of whether you’re likely to achieve tenure at their institution.)

Note: A good 5-20 people per job may have all or most of these credentials (at least in quantity if not in quality)–that’s what you’re up against.

Understanding the Academy

Did you realize academic institutions fall into four general categories?

  • Ph.D-degree granting institutions which are divided into subclasses of prestige, first- and second-raters.
  • State University or college branch campuses (non-flagship U’s), many of which can be excellent places to be but which will often carry heavier teaching loads.
  • Small universities or colleges offering a liberal arts curriculum
  •  And community colleges, most of which have very local constituencies and a large percentage of fully mature students.

Note: Each institution will be interested in different qualities in its job candidates; this will become evident in types of questions you’re asked at interviews.