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.)

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.

 

The Mysterious Teaching Statement, Part 1

This is the first of a two part series on teaching statements. In this entry, I focus on my own expectations as a reader of teaching statements; in a future installment, I’ll present similar expectations from colleagues at other institutions.

My general sense of teaching statements as part of the job application process is that they’re principally used to separate the wheat from the chaff — that is, they’re used to disqualify job seekers on the basis of having little or no actual teaching experience, which can often be seen in teaching statements that include phrases like: ‘I embrace the Socratic method’ or ‘I believe that research papers are important in every class.’ Those are clear red flags that the author of the statement has spent little or no time in a university classroom, and might not be the best person for the job.

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That all being said, I do think there are some key things to cover in a teaching statement, and they are (in no particular order): 1) how you would approach teaching a ‘service’ course, 2) the curriculum that you bring with you (including courses on the books that you’re prepared to teach), 3) examples of your actual classroom practice, and 4) your approach to research or mentoring experiences. I don’t think they necessarily need to appear in that order — it should be organic in its presentation — but as a reader, that’s the stuff I would want to see.

So, to explicate a bit:

Service classes are things like Intro to Your Discipline, Methods, Theory, and maybe Intro to Your Area or Subfield. Every department offers these classes, and they’re often the staples of the curriculum. Seeing that a job applicant has taken the time to think about their approach to one of these classes shows that the applicant has thought about one of the likely courses they’ll be facing in the short term; it also serves as a good way to see what makes a job applicant characteristic in their thought. For example (and please forgive the italics):

I’m committed to teaching Anthropological Theory, which, as I teach it, focuses on the relationship of imperial centers of thought and the colonies; as much as I find it necessary to include canonical figures and topics, I also include a number of thinkers from the postcolonies — anthropologists and not — in an effort to make evident to students how anthropological theory arises in dialogue with local forms of thought and expertise. Rather than organize the course historically, with theory progressing from Boas to the present, I instead structure the class around current ethnographies to make evident how anthropologists both produce and engage with anthropological — and cultural — theory. For example, I’ve recently begun teaching Elizabeth Povinelli’s Empire of Love as a way to approach ideas about globalization, postcoloniality, and indigenous rights. Alongside Povinelli’s work, we read pieces from Walter Mignolo, Achille Mbembe, Franz Fanon, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Spivak, and anthropologists George Marcus, Aiwha Ong, and Anna Tsing. Students are asked to stage debates between anthropologists and their interlocutors, and, to do so, are tasked with uncovering and explaining the theoretical underpinnings to their arguments.

A paragraph like that lets your reader know that you’re willing to tackle a service class, and that you’re able to bend it to your own strengths. Moreover, it also gives your reader a sense of your perspectives as a teacher, which may vary significantly from your presentation of yourself as a researcher. For instance, I don’t think my commitment to global knowledge production is necessarily apparent in my description of my own work (which is largely U.S.-based, and pretty Continental in its theoretical influences). That being said, being honest about my approach might not make me friends among faculty who think that Anthropological Theory begins with Boas and ends with Sahlins…

On the subject of your perspective as a teacher, it’s worth thinking about what 3-4 classes you could offer a department on a two year cycle. Most departments will expect faculty to teach 1-2 service classes each year (or more), but also give you some flexibility about upper level courses, particularly tied to your training and interests. For example, although I’m tasked with teaching Intro to Medical Anthropology every other year (as well as another service class) at UCSC, I also offer at least two classes that are directly keyed to my research. So, I often teach a course entitled The Biology of Everyday Life as well as a class on Medicine and Colonialism. It’s worth including a sentence or two about each of the classes.

In addition to teaching Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Ethnographic Methods, and Anthropological Theory, I am also interested in regularly offering classes related to medical anthropology and science studies. My Intro to Medical Anthropology is structured around four ethnographies, one each on Western biomedicine, Indian Ayurveda, African ‘folk’ medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. My interest in exposing students to these four traditions is to unsettle their ideas about the lack of history of Western medicine and the naturalness of non-Western practices. I find that students often naively assume that non-Western practices are more authentic, and also, paradoxically, acultural. Situating these four traditions alongside one another exposes how each is historical, cultural and influenced by contemporary politics and concerns. I follow some of the concerns presented in this Introduction in Medicine and Colonialism, in which I focus the class on the use of colonies as a space for experimenting with medicine, subjectivity and governance. My Biology of Everyday Life class allows me to teach content related to my research on sleep, but put into a broader theoretical context regarding how basic biological functions — reproduction, eating, defecation, breathing — become the basis for subjection and politics across societies and history. Additionally, I regularly offer topically focused seminars in medical anthropology and science studies; over the last five years, they have focused on ‘risk and insurance,’ ‘chronic illness,’ and ‘the brain.’

If it hasn’t already been covered, it’s also useful to explain how your classrooms are organized and what kinds of expectations you have of students:

My classes are highly regimented, and through a combination of reading questions (that ask students to identify key concepts in the readings and provide examples from other class readings) and reading guides (a set of questions designed to help students identify an author’s thesis, evidence, and theoretical commitments) I help students work through difficult empirical and theoretical texts. Because the courses I teach are often very theoretically focused, I regularly quiz students and rely on extensive exams to assess their knowledge of the course material. Students who take multiple classes with me and excel in them are offered the opportunity to write a research paper instead of taking quizzes and tests, and I ask them to write ethnological papers, relying in part on HRAF. Across my classes, I work to include documentaries, podcasts, and other multimedia learning experiences; between these media exercises and the format of my classes, I am able to engage students from diverse backgrounds and with varied learning styles.

Reading that paragraph makes it apparent that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the classroom and that I know what my teaching style is. Near the beginning of your teaching career, it’s difficult to be so succinct and honest; instead, it might be best to take a look at syllabuses from faculty you’ve worked with. See what kinds of assignments they use, and, if you can, see how their assignments and classroom policies have changed over time. Often, by the time someone has taught for a decade, their teaching becomes fairly stable — so try and find an early associate or late assistant professor and take a look at their syllabuses for a few years of classes. And, if you can, look at some of their exams and other assignments to get a sense of what they actually ask students to do.

Finally, you should have a paragraph about your research opportunities for students, as well as your mentoring style. For primarily undergraduate institutions, the former is more important; for institutions where you’re be interacting with graduate students, the latter is more important (to the degree that you might cut any discussion of undergrads).

Much of my mentoring at UCSC has been designed around the problems that many students experience, and my own recent memory of being a graduate student. Broadly, I provide students with ongoing, direct intellectual support, as well as professional development opportunities, with the intent being that by the time they have earned their Ph.D. they will have published one or more articles, and they will have begun to work on a variety of individual and collaborative projects. In the category of intellectual support, I offer a monthly reading seminar for my graduate students, wherein we read an article or excerpts from a book of mutual interest, and use this as a centerpiece for our conversation; we then segue into conversations about individual work, and the status of writing projects. Along similar lines, I offer a professionalization seminar that runs fortnightly over the course of the school year, offering from 15 meetings. We cover topics such as writing job letters and preparing curriculum vitae to dealing with problem students and syllabus development, to writing articles and planning publishing trajectories. It’s a demanding seminar, but the students who participate find their anxieties about the transition from student to professional to be much less stressful through my demystification efforts.

Taken together, the document should be 1-2 single spaced pages. If the institution asks for ‘evidence of teaching effectiveness’ or has some other way to ask about teaching evaluations, it’s better to summarize what you have in a page or two (included representative comments from students) than it is to include copies of evaluations (which can vary significantly from institution to institution). Ultimately, it shouldn’t be too long, and, like a job letter, should not overstay its welcome.

Questions, comments, experiences? Post them in the comment section.

Conceptualizing the Second Project

One of the challenges that academic job seekers confront is conceptualizing a second project to engage in after the completion of their dissertations. Some brief description of a second project is always part of job letters, but it’s even more important in conversation with potential colleagues during interviews. Broadly, it seems like they can be reduced to pragmatic and ideal projects. But, in either case, they need to convince your potential colleagues of your intellectual (and work) trajectory.

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Pragmatic projects directly stem from dissertation projects, and consist of work that develops a dissertation project into a marketable book project. Basically, this kind of project is described in terms that convince readers that you have a sense of what it will take for you to get tenure at their institution; it might mean returning to your original fieldsite, some comparative fieldsite (either locally or abroad), or some other kind of research (archival, textual, etc.). I don’t think it’s an admission of inadequacy to suggest that your dissertation project needs more work to be publishable as a book — everyone’s dissertation needs work to be a book. Instead, it makes it apparent to your reader that you know that there’s still work to be done, and that you know what needs to be attended to.

Ideal projects, on the other hand, are the sequels to dissertation projects. Whatever you feel about your dissertation, your ideal second project should build upon it in some fashion and convince your reader that you have some kind of intellectual commitment. At the time I was sending out my first job applications, I was pretty convinced that my second project was going to be about the idea of ‘public health’ as it touched down in postcolonial India and China, especially around ideas about breathing. Because my dissertation was so rooted in the U.S., I really felt the need to work internationally; I also wanted to work on the transmission of particular ideas about the body outside of the U.S. And, most importantly, I wanted to continue working on everyday biology. I abandoned this project as a second project (traipsing to India and China, and developing research partnerships in both places, was too much to ask of myself pre-tenure), but I’ll get around to it eventually… But what it indexed to my readers was my interest in everyday biology and how it gets caught up in medical and scientific thought and practice — it showed my readers that I had a ‘research agenda.’ And that seems to be key in thinking through a second project: what are you planning on working on — in your research, in your teaching — for the next decade, if not your entire career? If you can index it by pairing your current and future projects, it will give your readers and interviewers a clear sense that you have a plan and know what you’re about. Even if there are some bumps in the road.

There are a couple other things to consider as you think about second projects. None of this needs to be covered in a job letter or during an interview, but it is worth keeping in mind as your career develops.

It’s not a contract between you and your potential employer. That is, if you’re hired by an academic institution, you don’t have to produce the second project you said you would. Things come up, both in life and through writing and teaching, and what seemed like a good second project when you were finishing your dissertation may not be quite so compelling a few years later. And, realistically, if you spend time applying for funding for your second project, and no one is coming through with funding, it might be worth abandoning for something more fundable.

Be realistic. Starting a new academic job (tenure track or not) comes with a lot of work commitments — faculty meetings, meetings with students, service, publishing, new course preps, etc. — and having the time to develop and carry out a robust second project can be slight. This can be seen with a lot of more senior academics, who often develop local or historical projects. It can be worth looking around a potential employer to see what, if any, resources or sites might exist that could provide fertile ground for developing a new project.

Other thoughts, experiences or questions? Post them in the comments.