Timely Tips for Job Hunters

Philip Scranton, October 1991

Having served repeatedly on departmental search committees in recent years and having participated in convention interviews, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a few suggestions that might better arm future applicants for the rigors of interviewing for positions. Some of what follows may seem banal, but each item rests on a fair measure of experience. So here goes:

  1. Know the department. When you apply for a position, get the AHA Directory of History Departments and Organizations and photocopy the relevant page(s). Along with the number of majors, this will familiarize you with the fields now covered, the proportion of junior faculty, shared appointments, and such. At Ph.D.-granting institutions, the list of recent dissertations will offer clues to graduate research interests. Any such familiarity among candidates is valued by interviewers. At a minimum, this preliminary work will prevent gaffes, i.e., offering to teach courses from your minor field(s) that clearly are already covered.
  2. Learn about the institution and the history curriculum. When you apply, write also for undergraduate (and, if applicable, graduate) catalogs. Being even minimally knowledgeable about the college you imagine joining is a plus. Informed questions about ways to participate in interdisciplinary teaching or special programs for majors show a level of preparation that can only add to the luster of your formal credentials.
  3. Be prepared to discuss your dissertation as a process. In general, research findings can be briefly summarized, but of equal interest are the means by which topics were framed, sources unearthed, obstacles overcome. As well, if you can "locate" your work amid a constellation of related studies and speak to its implications for a wider or further inquiry, your engagement with the field beyond your project will be demonstrated.
  4. Think critically and carefully about teaching. If you have had the chance to offer your own class(es), be ready to speak to how you fostered the learning process, what topics, sources, supplements, projects, etc. worked well and which were disappointments, why, and how you might alter your strategies the next time. If no opportunity to create your own course has come your way, pull a sample survey or upper-level course for majors together, share it with colleagues or mentors, so that you can speak concretely about your "ideal" course and inquire about how those offered by your interviewers compare, given the specific composition of the student body at your prospective institutional home.
  5. If you are an ABD, make certain that a letter from your principal adviser gives as nearly a firm date for completion as possible. Few things are more frustrating to search committees than studied vagueness on this point.
  6. Avoid asking in a preliminary interview what the starting salary will be. Money will come up when you are invited for an on-site presentation. If you wish to know what junior faculty earn, search out the most recent AAUP compilation, given annually in an issue of its journal, Academe. No specific figures for departments are presented, but the averages by rank will give you a general notion of what to expect.
  7. Do ask about institutional support for research and course development, as well as ongoing seminars, consortia with other schools, museums, archives, etc. An enormous variety of such supports and opportunities exist, not only at the large research centers.

To be sure, this set of suggestions in no way covers the terrain. It might well be supplemented or critiqued by colleagues not positioned in a large university system, as I am, and it is not intended to address the arena of professional practice by those of us doing the interviewing (an utterly related matter). To the above points I would only add a personal plea for candidates to avoid grossly gendered language and to notify committees if they cannot make or will be late for an interview. To each and all, I wish the best of success in the '91 campaign.

Philip Scranton
Professor of History
Rutgers University, Camden