Advice for Academic Job Seekers
It's that time of year again: the October Job List for English and Modern Languages is out and hordes of graduate students, assistant professors unhappy with their current jobs, and exploited adjuncts are getting ready to apply. This is an utterly horrible process and I am so, so glad that I don't have to do it. There is not one redeeming aspect to the way that hiring is done in humanities academia and I want to start by saying that I think the whole thing is unfair, demeaning, dishonest and inefficient (I also don't know how to go about fixing it). But since I've been on both sides of the process I thought that perhaps I'd share a few thoughts and suggestions. I can do this because this year we are (finally!) not hiring anyone so I am not (I hope) providing tendentious advice for the purpose of making my life easier.
I should also note that my advice is geared towards people applying to liberal arts colleges where teaching is a priority. That's what I know. If you're only applying to research-only institutions, don't follow my advice (which, by the way, is worth exactly what you are paying for it)
First, you have to understand the numbers. There were, by my rough count, about 40 tenure-track jobs in medieval lit this year. That's pretty good; there were 20 the year I got my job. But for each of those jobs, the institution will receive at least 150 applications (the numbers, on both sides, are bigger for things like American Lit). At Wheaton, the applications that come in go into a computer paper box, in alphabetical order, with a cover sheet that has a list of every faculty members in the department and the following categories: Definite Yes, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Definite No. Faculty read the cover letter and the vita and put a check-mark in one of those boxes. The department secretary and the chair flip through the applications each day. As soon as someone gets two "definite yes" or "definite no" votes, their status changes, either into the "ask for dossier folder" or into the "no further action" folder. "Maybe" candidates eventually migrate to one or the other files as they get more checkmarks. In addition to checkmarks, faculty write in comments about why they voted as they did.
So what does this mean for the applicant? Very busy faculty are reading lots of letters. You have got to catch someone's eye, or avoid alienating them, in the first couple paragraphs of your cover letter. Obviously you deserve closer consideration, but to be realistic, it isn't always going to happen, so try to squeeze all the filler out of your opening grafs. Second, you're being read by a bunch of faculty in all different disciplines. The only one who won't be reading your application is the retiring medievalist! So you need to explain your work to a wider audience. It's not enough to say that you re-dated the Rule of Chrodegang. You've got to say, right away, why this is important (and give specific reasons). You also need to explain your dissertation research quickly. Your readers are going over 150 applications. Don't invoke theorists unless it's essential. Don't spend 250 words setting up the problem. Cut right to the point.
And this leads me to my two pet peeves as a reader (shared by at least some members of my department): you are not fooling anyone with the tiny margins and micro font. I've done this myself, trying to cram in everything in the world into a letter. Don't do it. When a faculty reader has 150 applications to read and comes across your letter -- which looks black when held at arm's length--he or she is not likely to be favorably disposed. Brevity, brevity, brevity.
Second, for the love of God, do not say "My dissertation is the first to apply the theories of X to the texts of Y." I must have read 100 letters like this in a previous search. Who cares if you were the first to apply the theories of X if those theories are wrong? Who cares if you studied the texts of Y if those texts are crappy? Answer, right away, the dreaded "So What?" question. You need the equivalent of a sound bite that your advocates among the readers can bring up: "oh, he's the guy who studies chickens in Old English" is better than "he's the guy using Foucault to question the traditional authority of authorship..." Within reason, you want to be "chicken guy."
Two other tips: if you're applying to a place like Wheaton, mention teaching in your first paragraph. That's one of our weeding-out tools. Second, if you've got something great on your vita that a non-specialist won't know about (i.e., getting published in Anglia is a huge deal) then mention it in the letter. But otherwise don't bother to just put your vita in narrative form in the letter. Your readers will resent it.
You have to realize that the on-paper part of the process is the biggest crap shoot. Some people reject everyone with a degree from a certain place because there is already someone from there on the faculty. Other people reject anyone who seems "too early" or "too late" or "too general" or "too specialized." It is completely unfair. So hate that and rage at it, but don't let it undermine your confidence in yourself and your work.
Finally, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to do research and tailor each letter to each place. I resisted this approach, and it was a mistake. Get on the web, look at course lists and syllabi, figure out what you could teach, and mention it in your letter. If it looks like you have a sincere interest in an institution, you'll move up in the estimation of the readers. Even if this is a week of work, it is worth it: the difference between getting a tenure-track job and having to piece together a living from adjunct work can be 25 to 30 thousand dollars. Isn't it worth a few hours of research and a number of customized letters to give yourself a better shot at that?
In a few weeks I'll talk about the dossier process and then the interview process. But just thinking about all of this makes me sick to my stomach. For all of you out there who are applying: good luck, and I wish you didn't have to go through this.