Category Archives: Understanding the Academy

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.

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,

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

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.