Oh, That’s What They’re Looking for… Job Letter Edition

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A while back, I set about asking for input from faculty who serve on search committees to weigh in on their experiences and what they’re looking for when reviewing files from applicants. Between some random social media outreach and targeted invitations, I ended up with several responses, which both confirm and challenge some of my assumptions and experiences. In this post, I’m reproducing a handful of answers to my first question — what do you look for in a job letter? — and a few reflections on job letters these days.

So, from a friend at a large, public research university who has served on a few search committees over the past decade:

When reading a job letter I look for the usual things, like descriptions of the candidate’s dissertation, next project, publications, and teaching, but also something more: a quality of self-knowledge and even vision. Does the candidate have a vision for the field — what it is and should be — and clarity about how their own research and writing move it in that way? In part, this requires clarity in explaining the dissertation itself. I like to see one or two sentences that express the central finding or argument of a dissertation, as opposed to merely describing the subject matter, topic, questions, methods, approach, and so on. I also look for a concise discussion of what the work means — its larger implications. Can the candidate describe their dissertation’s core argument in a way that reflects a compelling understanding of how it fits with (or is set against) a larger configuration or trend of scholarship? Does it exemplify certain intellectual or ethical values we should all be considering?

Another thing that should go into a job letter is an abundance of care in reading the job ad. This is not my issue personally, but I have been on enough search committees to know that many colleagues treat this as extremely important, explicitly or tacitly. From the candidate’s point of view, the job in my department may be just one of many on a list to apply to, but from the committee’s perspective, it is the one and only job that we are thinking about and trying to fill. So seriousness about this job is important to demonstrate. Another reason to read the job ad carefully is that nearly every word of a job ad is carefully chosen, and the criteria stated in a job ad are reviewed by many parties and can be binding on the search committee, so they are crucial to recognize and address.

A more junior faculty member at a small, private research university responded to the same question with, “‘Spark.’ Some trace of what they are passionate about. Something that shines through the formulaic phrases that, somehow, have become normative.” Another junior colleague at a large, state research university added, “A sense of what they do and who they are in scholarly life beyond the dissertation.” Who knew that having a life beyond your dissertation was even possible?

A junior faculty member at a large, private research university suggested, “Clear articulation of an argument and contribution to existing literature, clear articulation of research program. Writing that is clear and accessible to scholars outside the immediate area of the applicant’s research.” This is especially important in departments that are mixed — like Anthropology, Sociology and Criminal Justice, or Human Development, or Cultural Studies — where you might be the only representative of your field.

A full professor at a medium sized private research university added, “A cogent account of what their dissertation project was about, what it contributes to the wider field, what their methods were (and why). A sense of where they might head next, project-wise — though perhaps more important is a sense of what they’ll do with their dissertation work (turn into a book [have they been talking with editors?]? journal articles [are any in the pipeline? out?]).”

And, finally, from a mid-career faculty member at a small, private liberal arts university,

First and foremost are qualifications and fit for the position. From there, I look to see how much effort has been made to tailor the letter to the institution and job description. I don’t mean simply that the candidate has incorporated the language of the job ad into their letter, but that, for instance, if it is a small liberal arts college, they have emphasized their commitment to undergraduate teaching, rather than simply spending the entire letter talking about their research. Brief mentions of personal reasons for being interested in the position (i.e., proximity to family and friends) don’t hurt, particularly if the institution or location is not conventionally considered desirable in its own right.

My own thoughts on job letters haven’t really changed much over the years, but these responses definitely add a few things to consider for prospective job seekers:

1) Don’t just be descriptive. When it comes to describing one’s research — especially a dissertation — it can be pretty tempting to get bogged down in the details. But what people really want to know is that there’s more to a dissertation project than the content — and they want to be surprised…or at least intrigued. A lot of dissertation projects can be pretty predictable — topic from Column A, theory from Column B — to the point that a well informed reader can pretty much guess the findings with a brief overview of the data. And when you saturate a job letter with pure data, it doesn’t really leave anything to the imagination. It’s better to hold back on the description of evidence and lists of topics, and instead give a sense of what the debates in your field are and how you’re entering into them with your project — and potentially your whole career. Taking such an approach also gives people a sense that your interests extend beyond whatever your dissertation is about, and that you have contributions to make — what was referred to above as “spark.”

2) Give a sense of your trajectory. I tend to think that your CV tells your past and your job letter tells your future. You don’t need to spend a lot of time recounting your achievements — they’re in the CV — but you should take the time to tell readers what your plans are for the future. This can have to do with your next project, but, also where you are in terms of publishing your research material and what your plans for it are. Faculty want to know that they’ll be able to recommend you for tenure at their institution — in part because they might not get a chance to replace you if you don’t get tenure since the economy is awful — so looking at the profiles of recently tenured faculty and thinking about your trajectory in similar terms might be very helpful. Did they just need a few articles? A book and some articles? A huge NSF grant? If you have a sense of what an institution is looking for in junior faculty, work it into the job letter.

3) Respond to the advertisement and institution. It’s really tempting in an age when there are a lot of demands on one’s time during job season to not customize every letter that you send out, but consider it from the reader’s perspective: when you’re serving on a search committee at an out of the way institution and you receive 200 applications that make no mention of the part of the world you’re in, what the ad is calling for, and the strengths of your institution, the handful of letters that do will really stand out. I used to allot myself a set amount of time for each application to do some research on the institution in relation to the advertisement, to check out the local area (looking at real estate and local newspaper websites can be very helpful) and reading faculty profiles and abstracts of their published work. Generally where this all fits in is in the paragraphs about teaching and your institutional fit, but if you can fit it into your research statement — maybe in the opening sentence as a hook — all the better.

4) Appear to be a human being with thoughts, feelings and something resembling a life outside of academia. Again, in an age when people are reading 200 applications for one position, appearing to be a human being with a life outside of your dissertation research can make a huge difference. Remember, you’re applying for a job that might be for your entire career — and the entire career of your future colleagues. Having a sense that you can talk about more than just your research might go a long way to differentiating you from the pack. And a canny way to do this is to think about what your life would look like where the institution is — are there features of the place that are particularly appealing, like national or state parks? Are there institutions that you might reach out to, both as faculty and a member of the community? Do you have personal ties to the area? All of these things give letter readers a sense of life beyond the research.

There’s a lot to fit into 2 short pages, but I always tell people that job letters are like a Las Vegas show (not that I’ve ever been to one): you need to leave your audience wanting more. If you tell them too much — especially about the dissertation — the conversation is pretty much over. But if you can engage them on their own terms by addressing the advertisement, the institution, the area, and their imaginations as scholars, you can get out of the slush pile.

Other thoughts on what should be in a job letter? Or have great job letter success or fail stories? Share them in the comments. And thanks to the anonymous friends who responded to my questions.

(NSFW alert: In searching for a picture of a wringer, I stumbled across a fetish I never considered. If you need something to disturb you, check out images of ‘the wringer’ on Google Images.)

The Ethics of Peer Review in the Age of Adjunctification

Academics inhabit a world in which the difference between having an article published or not can mean the difference between landing a tenure track job or not. Later in an academic’s career, the difference between one or two articles and a few might mean the difference in earning tenure or not. Peer reviewers are often in the position to make decisions that can change people’s lives. So why does peer review often take so long — months and sometimes years? Committing to timely peer review is a vital ethical resolution that might significantly change the academic landscape.

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Recently, peer review has become the subject of some discussion in the academic blogosphere. Some academics have argued for the ability to track versions of an article after publication, so that corrections could be made to online versions after publication, thereby leading to commenters providing positive rather than negative reviews. Others have suggested that a quid-pro-quo approach might lead to more timely and careful reviews. Regardless of the overall structure of how academic publishing happens — and I do think online, easily amended articles is a great idea and might significantly change citational practices — every peer reviewer could make a change for the better by committing to turning in a peer review within two weeks of being asked to review a manuscript.

Two weeks might seem arbitrary, but here’s my reasoning: if it takes longer than two weeks to get around to doing something, it usually takes a very long time. That is, most of us are pretty good at scheduling in the short term — a week or two — but when it comes to scheduling beyond the next month, things get nebulous. When an article manuscript falls into that nebulous beyond-the-next-month period, it’s probably going to get lost in the shuffle. And when it comes time to read it, it’ll probably be because an editorial assistant is hounding you and not because you scheduled to read it in two months’ time. This means I’m always scheduling a peer review, even if I don’t have a manuscript on hand. If I don’t get asked to do a peer review, then it’s no big deal. But I’m ready if I am asked and don’t feel put out by the work.

Elsewhere, I’ve suggested the qualities that make for a productive peer review — generally, it boils down to helping the author make the most of the manuscript at hand. It might not be suitable for the journal that you’re reviewing for, but that’s usually up to the editor to decide. For the reviewers, the question is: what would it take for this manuscript to be published as an article in this journal? Answering that question might take a couple of hours of work — reading the article and writing up comments — and I would guess most of us spend two hours a day reading the news, checking social media, playing video games, or otherwise distracting ourselves from work. That can all wait; people’s careers can’t. Why not just commit to using that time for one’s peers, and when taking a break from one’s work, working for someone else?

We’ve all had long waits for peer reviews to come in, confusing editorial recommendations, and egregious publishing experiences, which has led me to develop these peer review practices, which might work for you too:

1) I always turn a review around in 2 weeks or less. If I don’t know the journal, I’ll take a few minutes to scan a couple articles to see if there are particular conventions in the journal’s published articles, just so I’m on the right page. I usually read a manuscript one day, taking notes while I do so, and then write the review the next day. If particular concerns nag me over the day, I’ll go back and read specific sections of the article again, just to make sure I read it right. My reviews tend to be 1-2 single-spaced pages, and focus on what it will take to make the article publishable. No snark, no random free association. Even if a manuscript is publishable as is, I still take the time to write up a review of what the author has done right, just so if some other reviewer has a different opinion, the editor and author have a sense that at least some readers are on the author’s side.

2) I never agree to review more than one manuscript at a time. If something comes in that I really want to review, I quickly review the manuscript already in my peer review queue and then agree to review the new manuscript.

3) If I can’t turn a review around in 2 weeks, I just say no to the invitation to review. Similarly, if the manuscript is way outside of my wheelhouse, I’ll also say no. But whenever I say no, I try and send the editorial assistant 3-4 names of other people who might be tapped for a review (no need to thank me, friends!); often, junior faculty aren’t really on the peer review map until they have a few publications under their belt, so it can be a benefit to both the reviewer and reviewee to send a manuscript to an untapped junior scholar (doing peer review makes people better writers… trust me on this).

4) If I’ve agreed to review the manuscript and find that I can’t be a kind peer reviewer for some reason, I get in touch with the editor and ask him or her to find a different reviewer. If this happens in the first two weeks that an article is out for review, it’s no big deal for the editor to turn around and find a new reviewer. But if it’s three months into the review process, it’s very harmful to the author of the manuscript, since now they have to begin the waiting process all over again…

Even if your final assessment is that a total overhaul is necessary, knowing that sooner rather than later will allow the author to get on with the necessary work — which might mean finding another journal. In a work context where people have very little time to focus on their own research and writing, being able to schedule necessary revisions is critical.

You might be the fastest of a set of reviewers, and so things will slow down while the editor waits for another review or two to come in. But if everyone starts reviewing more quickly, the whole machine of peer review should speed up noticeably for everyone. Not only will the academically precarious benefit, but so should scholars throughout the academic life course. If you’ve ever experienced a slow review process, commit to making it better for others by being a timely reader. Or at least refrain from agreeing to read something you don’t have the time for.

What are You Looking for? (When you’re looking at application materials, that is.)

If you’ve served on a search committee for a tenure-track position in the last five years, would you take a minute and answer some of the following questions (either in the comments or you can email them to me):

1. What do you look for when you read a job letter from a junior scholar?

2. What do you look for when you read a CV from a junior scholar?

3. What do you look for when you read a teaching statement or statement of teaching effectiveness?

4. What do you look for when you read a research statement?

5.What do you think is the most important thing a graduate student can do to prepare for the job market?

6. What makes a good job talk?

7. How do you read job materials from someone not in your field (i.e. you’re a cultural anthropologist hiring a biological anthropologist)?

8. How is searching for a tenured position (i.e. already associate or full) different than searching for a junior scholar?

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It seems to me that over the last few years, there’s been a real intensification of genres in job letters and related material — a generic trend I’ve probably promulgated as much as diagnosed. But it also seems like these generic trends might not actually be meeting the expectations of people who serve on job search committees. You can see my posts on most of the above topics by clicking on the hyperlinks above — a direct response to any of the topics would be great.

This is officially Phase Two of the professionalization end of this blog, in which I’m hoping to collect answers to the above questions from academics at a variety of institutions and from assistant to associate and full professors. When I have enough answers to each of the above questions, I’ll compile them into new posts to run parallel to my more proscriptive ones. Hopefully, taken as a set, these will give job seekers a clear sense of what each of these documents do and how they might be changing.

(Incidentally, and there might be a future post on this — the intensification of genre in academic job materials seems a lot like what Norbert Elias describes in relation to etiquette in The Civilizing Process, which might be a good thing to read if you’re on the job market these days…)

Thanks — and stay tuned.

 

N=1 Article Writing Challenge

Are you up for a bit of a challenge? And interested in some professionalization advice testing? Do you want to see how quickly you can churn out a short article manuscript? Then you might be up for my inaugural summer break article writing challenge. Starting July 1st and ending July 14th, I’m asking people to read my series of blog posts on preparing article manuscripts and to provide me with feedback on their experience of following my advice. If you’re interested, send me an email and let me know that you’re on board.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been posting a series of entries about the production of academic articles, largely intended for first-time article writers, but applicable to us all. Over six* steps, I discuss identifying the right journal, analyzing an appropriate model to base your manuscript on, writing introductions, literature reviews, your evidence, and conclusion, and the final steps to prepare the manuscript for submission to a journal (but not in that order).

These posts grew out of an alternative spring break I’ve begun to offer for anthropology graduate students in the University of California system to spend a week talking about and concentrating on writing an article manuscript — a week-long event that has grown out of my ongoing professionalization workshop series (which you can read summaries of here). By inviting everyone everywhere to participate in this writing event, I’m hoping to gather feedback to add to and revise the Six Steps in future blog posts and professionalization events (which may be coming to a conference near you sometime soon).

As a means of thanking people for helping out in testing my advice, I’m collecting names and will facilitate peer review for those people ready for feedback by July 14th.  That is, if you email me and let me know that you’ll be participating, when your manuscript is complete, I’ll email it to another participant so you can get a round of peer review in the revision process. Before you email me, take a few minutes and read about publishing strategies and Step 1 and send me the name of the journal you’re planning on targeting. As we collectively work through the Six Steps, you can either email me your feedback on each step, or respond to the steps in the comment sections of the relevant post.

I’m looking forward to the challenge, and hope you’ll join me for it.

*It’s actually 7 steps, but the first step — on publishing strategies — was published a long time ago.