Dr. Cecilia Orphan’s Tips for the Academic Job Seeker
The University of Denver Office of Graduate Studies recently featured the advice of Morgridge College of Education (MCE) faculty member Dr. Cecilia Orphan. A recent hire in MCE’s Department of Higher Education, Dr. Orphan knows how competitive the academic job market can be. Below, Dr. Orphan offers CV/cover letter advice and interview strategies for the academic job seeker.
Given the vanishing nature of tenure track jobs, a job as a professor is becoming more and more of an elusive brass ring. With careful preparation and practice, you can become a competitive applicant. What follows are a list of tips for your job search including advice about preparing your CV and cover letter and nailing the job interviews.
Curriculum Vitae is Latin for the “course of my life.” Remembering the etymology for this part of the application is important. A CV is much longer than a resume because it shows the academic journey you have taken since undergrad. There are a plethora of resources online that describe CVs, so I won’t be redundant and repeat the good advice of scholars much further along in their careers than me. That said, I have three pieces of advice:
- Imitate: Ask to see the CVs of faculty members you work with and students who are further ahead in your program or who have recently landed jobs. When you do this you’ll notice that there are a variety of different ways to construct a CV. If you see a format you like, ask the person if you can borrow their style. Also ask to trade CVs with 3-4 of your friends and say that you’ll edits theirs and give advice about it if they’ll do the same for you. The more eyes you can get on this document, the better.
- Proofread: There is absolutely no excuse for typos, spelling or grammatical errors in a CV. Your materials are going to be in a pile of hundreds of applicants and reviewers are looking for any reason to thin that stack. A typo or inconsistent formatting (ex: periods at the end of some but not all items on a bulleted list, italics in some places and bolding in others, etc.) can move your materials from the “look into further” pile into the “reject” pile. A piece of advice I received was to read my CV backwards, from the bottom to the top, so I could look strictly for typos and formatting inconsistencies.
- Tailor the Format: Depending on the emphasis of the job application, change the order of items in your CV. If you are applying for a job that emphasizes research, put your publications and research experience first. If you are applying for a teaching gig, put your teaching experience first. This re-ordering will signal to reviewers that you are serious about and understand the goals of the program and position.
Cover Letter Tip
Again, there is a bevy of advice out there on how to write a cover letter but I’ll chime in with the following advice: similar to the CV, your cover letter should tell a story about you as a scholar. The best way to do this is in a narrative format. How has your work, academic and personal experience culminated in your wanting to be a professor? How have your experiences influenced the research you do and the way you teach? How do all these pieces of your life fit together? Constructing a narrative is particularly important if you followed a nontraditional trajectory in your academic career.
Being able to tell your story in a narrative format also humanizes you to the reviewers and makes for a memorable and compelling application. Echoing the advice I gave regarding the CV, depending on the emphasis of the application, you’ll want to highlight either research or teaching within the text of the cover letter. This means that in a 2-page cover letter for a posting for a Research 1 institution, you’ll spend 3-4 paragraphs talking about your research and the second-to-last paragraph briefly talking about your approach to teaching. In your last paragraph, you need to write convincingly about how XYZ State University is the absolute perfect place for you to continue your academic journey.
Once you get an interview (or interviews), celebrate! This is a huge accomplishment followed by what will have likely been dozens of applications you submitted and heard nothing about. After you celebrate, it’s time to get to work. Nowadays search committees conduct a Skype (or phone) interview with candidates first before deciding to bring the top three candidates to campus for a day and half long marathon interview. What follows is my advice about both steps in the interview process.
The Skype or Phone Interview
- Find the Perfect Spot: If it’s a Skype interview, find a quiet place that has the semblance of an office. This will take some creativity because as grad students, you don’t have access to scholarly-looking-rooms you can take over and use for an interview. I conducted mine in my bedroom in front of a bookcase and I told my roommate that she had to be absolutely silent for 30 minutes.
- Dress the Part: You should be in interview clothes whether or not the search committee can see you. Stepping into interview clothes (preferably a suit – it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed in these situations) helps you get into the mindset of an interview.
- Prepare for Questioning: Come up with a list of 8-10 questions that you think they’ll ask you and practice answering these with a friend. Write down points that you want to cover and put them on sticky notes attached to your monitor. This way you can discretely glance at them during the interview if you get stuck.
- Create Some Queries: There will typically be 20 minutes of questions that they ask you and 10 minutes of questions that you ask them. Your questions for them are probably the most important part of the Skype/phone interview. Your questions should not be about salary or benefits but instead about the work of the department, the strategic direction of the department, and how the department fits into the larger institutional context. Asking questions like this shows that you have a keen interest in the department and more importantly, that you have done your homework.
On-campus Job Interview
The on-campus job interview is in a word: intense. You will be meeting with people who are far more powerful than you (senior administrators) as well as people who are more senior than you in terms of rank. These people are trying to figure out if you would be a good colleague for them. Every aspect of this process is a job interview – everything from walking in the halls between “meetings” (mini interviews) to dinner the night before to breakfast the morning of. You will be watched closely during the entire time you are on campus and need to be on your game 100%. The hardest part for me was shifting my perspective and self-view from that of a grad student to that of a professor. Here are some tips to help you do that.
- Practice, Practice, Practice Your Job Talk: I wrote a script of my talk and rehearsed it probably 30 times. This is a huge time investment because your talk should be about 40-45 minutes, but it is so important. Also, see if you can convene a group of folks (with strong faculty representation) to watch you run through your job talk. Get their feedback, implement it and … keep practicing.
- Create a Narrative: Surprise, surprise, your job talk should be a narrative of sorts. I included an “impetus” slide in my job talks that described the impetus for my research. This helped my audience get to know me and also helped them see the trajectory of my work.
- Select the Right Person: When it’s time for questions, call on the oldest person in the room. Also, pay attention to the person other people seem to defer to and really listen to. This person is likely someone with a ton of informal power who will make or break your interview. Make sure you establish a connection with this person.
- Get to Know Everyone: Remember that you’re interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. Try to think of it as an opportunity to get to know new colleagues you will see at conferences for the rest of your life, and not as a do-or-die interview.
- Approach Student Interviewing Earnestly: If the search committee has students interview you, take this very seriously. Students will report back to their faculty colleagues about how serious you took the interview.
- Make Meaningful Connections: Read the last 3-5 articles written by every person in the department and think through ways your work compliments but is also distinct from theirs. Then be able to speak to these points of connection and areas in which you would add something new but related to their department.
- Implement Mnemonic Devices: Print pictures of people and memorize them on the plane. Keep a cheat sheet in your brief case during the day. Calling folks by their names is extremely important. Do this in group interviews, “That’s a very interesting question, Cecilia … blah blah blah.” People like to hear their names. Calling folks by their name also shows that you have an interest in them as individuals.
- Nix the Caffeine: Don’t drink too much coffee (unless you are exhausted). Your nerves are already going to be in overdrive. Coffee can exacerbate this. And for god’s sake, do not get drunk at dinner! I suggest ordering a glass of wine or a beer and sipping it throughout dinner.
- Personalize the Follow-Up Email: Take notes about each person and send personalized thank you notes. If there is a question that you don’t know the answer to, say, “That’s an interesting and important question. I don’t know the answer to it now but I’ll think about it and get back to you.” Then follow up with that person through email and answer the question. Doing this shows that you are thoughtful and interested in ongoing scholarly engagement. If you wish that you had answered a question differently, after the interview email the person who asked and tell them how your thinking has changed or evolved since interview day.
- Conduct Background Research: Take time to familiarize yourself with the mission and history of the university and come prepared with questions about how that larger mission informs the department.
- Scrap Salary Talk: Don’t ask any questions about salary and benefits during the interview. This will happen in your negotiations with the dean if you get an offer.
- Be Ready to Discuss Your Scholarship: Be prepared to talk through 2-3 concrete research ideas you will tackle in your first few years as a professor. A search committee is going to want to know that you’ll be able to stand on your own two feet after you leave the nest of your advisor’s mentorship. Having research ideas in mind will help with this.
My final piece of advice is to be yourself. Be exactly who you are. Authenticity is important for obvious human reasons but also important because a search committee is going to meet other interviewees who are trying to be who they think the department wants. That doesn’t land a job. Being yourself does.
For more information, check out the Academic Job Search Handbook. This is an amazing resource that will walk you through each step of the process.