Gearing Up for the Academic Job Market: Getting Your Packet Together

28 August 2015, 1553 EDT

It’s the last weekend in August, which means at least 1 of 2 things are happening:

  1. APSA drinking
  2. ABDs hurriedly working on their job market materials.

Since (a) is still a week away, I thought I’d take a second to offer some unsolicited advice on (b): job market materials. By job market materials, I’m referring to the CV, cover letter, writing sample, teaching portfolio, research statement, transcripts, and letters of recommendation that will make up the totality of what any academic hiring committee will know about you and your work.  It’s basically your academic life, condensed into something that can be sent easily in the mail or (increasily) uploaded to an HR website or sent over email.  It’s worth taking a lot of time to prepare these materials and to think about these materials as strategically important signals in the job seeking process.

Before dishing out my advice, let me highlight that Michael Flynn at Kansas State has much, much better advice than I do on this topic.  Read his post first.

My advice for preparing job market materials is very simple: write like someone is going to be reading your job packet while getting a cavity filled.  An academic hiring committee is typically composed of three to four overworked and underpaid academics that have been asked to serve on their department’s committee (or even a cross-disciplinary committee) as part of their service requirements for their university.  They are going to have other things to do and are going to try to make short-cuts whenever possible when assessing your file and the files of the 150+ other applications that they are trying to read browse in their spare time at their kids’ soccer matches, late at night, and when they’ve set aside their own researching and teaching obligations.  As such, it is key that this info be as perfect as you can make it.  Typos, grammatical mistakes, odd CVs, etc can cost you the job.  I have seen multiple files where the person put the wrong school’s name on the cover letter.  In every instance, the typo was taken as a signal of larger problems with the applicant.  You don’t want this to happen to you!  Take your time, have your committee, your friends, and your significant-other look over your placement materials.  Most universities have a Career Services center.  They would be happy to look over your materials as well.

Your CV is the most important aspect your file.  It may be the only thing a hiring committee member reads.  Read Steve’s awesome advice specifically on CVs here. It should clearly convey your contact information, your education (PhD and when it’s expected and everything before), your research (include where you have R&Rs, if you have any), your teaching, and your related experiences.  You should look up the CVs of your academic mentors, academics you admire, and individuals at other universities before you make your own.  You want to mimic the style of other CVs.  Crafting a CV is not the time to do something creative. Grads that want to go to teaching jobs may want to make two CVs – one for research schools where the research components are listed first and one for teaching schools where the teaching experiences are listed first.

Next to the CV, the cover letter may be the only thing that the committee reads.  It should outline your general research interests and field of study, your dissertation, your teaching experiences and expertise, and why this job is perfect for you. You can work on a general cover letter (or two general cover letters – one for teaching schools and one for research schools) prior to the start of the job season.  However, in an ideal world, every cover letter would be tailored to the specific job you are applying to and address the particulars of the job advertisement directly (ie what you can teach and how it matches the job ad and what your research focus is and how it matches/compliments the interests of the university).

A writing sample (or 2 or 3) will also be required for many jobs.  Ideally, this would be the page proofs of your best solo-authored publication that is based on your dissertation.  Unfortunately, not everyone has a solo-authored publication based on your dissertation yet (I didn’t, that’s for sure). Instead, be sure to send the most polished piece from your dissertation and/or another example of your work that is published.  Unfortunately, at most schools, I think the likelihood of a committee member reading your writing sample in its entirety is less than 50%.   That’s why I say send the page proofs if you have them and clearly state on the first page if the writing sample is accepted somewhere.  I would even state on the first page if it is R&R’d somewhere.  Again, this is all being read by someone with other things to do.

Your teaching portfolio’s weight in the job application process will be different depending on the type of job you are applying to.  If it is a school that emphasizes great instructors, it might be the main focus of the committee.  It should include a teaching philosophy statement, usually about two pages long.  Look up some teaching philosophy statements from other disciplines and at other universities.  Ask your advisors and friends to send you their teaching statements.  Read all of this information but make your statement reflect you and your ideas.  This is a time to really be creative and spend some time reflecting on how you view higher education and your role as an instructor.  You might also want to include syllabi (either from courses you have taught or courses you plan to teach) and, if available, teacher evaluations (both a summary statement and copies of the actual evaluations).

Your research statement will probably be read but most members of the committee if it is a research-oriented school. It should also be around two pages long.  This statement should be more than just your CV in paragraph form.  This is the time to really take a stand about how your research adds to the broader discipline and fits together.  It should state why your research is important for both academia and society in general.  It should offer some concrete plans for what you intend to do with your dissertation and what you’ll be working on once that is done.

Finally, there are two possible bits to your job packet that may not come directly from you.  First, transcripts are increasingly being required, especially for state schools.  It might be worth it to purchase a couple of certified transcripts prior to the start of the job market.  Second, letters of recommendation are the part of your job file that you will not see.  Most job ads ask for three letters of recommendation to be sent directly (or uploaded directly) from the letter providers.  In most circumstances, letters should come from your committee members.  A good letter of recommendation is a few pages long – it will take your committee members time to compose the letter and you need to be sure to ask well in advance.  You can also ask your letter writers to highlight your teaching abilities if you are applying for a teaching job.

Increasingly, the application process is online and you will be asked to submit and upload your materials yourself.  The process will also ask you for the email addresses of your letter writers, who will then be sent an automated email from the college you are applying to.  It is very easy for your professors to miss an email!  Your diligence will help this process.

One final note:  if your CV changes (that solo-authored dissertation chapter gets published or R&R’d at a major journal), I think it is fine to send an email with an updated CV to the contact listed in the job advertisement.  Don’t expect a reply to this email, however.

That’s all the advice I can think of at the moment.  If you take some time this weekend and in the coming few weeks to craft thoughtful statements and proofread your CV, it will eliminate some of the leg-work in the coming months.  And, it will make it that much easier to throw your name in the ring for additional job advertisements as they (hopefully) continue to pop up.  Good luck!