Charm School, from Application to Interview to Campus Visit
As leaves begin to turn their autumn hues, aspiring professors and their mentors turn their thoughts to the academic job market. How can you best represent your research and potential curricular contributions to a group of strangers who may (or may not) further your professional ambitions? To help prepare my students as they venture into the academic job market, I have developed a professionalization seminar tailored to each individual, jokingly called Interview Charm School. Many of these tips of the trade are applicable to other sectors, not just the professoriate. They reflect my experiences as a hopeful applicant, graduate adviser, search committee member, and collector of folklore on job interviews gone awry. A strategy for success includes homework, anticipation, and conversation.
(1) Remove all inappropriate social media posts, including cute cat videos. One burning question to guide you: what would my grandmother think about this photo or post? Strike a professional pose for the photo on your LinkedIn or Facebook profile. Goofy smirks endear you to no one.
(2) Send a cover letter that specifically matches your qualifications with the job description. Only apply for jobs that are in your wheelhouse. Just because you took one graduate course in a particular area does not make you a competitive candidate. Make sure your letter speaks with the appropriate tone. Avoid salutations that have all the panache of an overseas e-mail scam (“Hi guys” or “Dearest Future Colleagues”). Also, be careful about inflating the contributions of your dissertation. (“My research changes the face of medieval English history.”) Be specific about where your research fits within your field. Focusing on your research for three pages and then adding a throwaway nod to teaching will not get you very far in any search, particularly at a small liberal arts college.
(3) Get your adviser’s input on your template letter, CV, teaching portfolio, and potential campus presentations. Well in advance, provide her or him a list of all the institutions, with job descriptions, contact information, and deadlines. Of course, job announcements appear on a rolling basis, so just send your adviser the additional information as soon as you decide to apply. It is never a good idea to ask for letters at the last minute, as some overscheduled, inconvenienced advisers might just recycle an earlier letter rather than draft fresh prose that addresses your fit for the position. If you are eventually fortunate enough to be named a finalist, go over the hiring committee’s instructions about research and/or teaching presentations with your adviser. Some departments do not want to hear you read a paper but rather will want you to talk them through your research. Or they might want a combination of research and teaching, or just a preset teaching demonstration. Once you know, practice, practice, practice.
(4) Assemble a teaching portfolio with sample syllabi and student evaluations of courses you have taught on your own, as well as teaching assistant evaluations. Carefully craft a one-page, single-spaced teaching philosophy; no platitudes, please.
(5) Finally, wear professional attire at all interviews. The outfit does not have to be expensive, but it must fit, and it must be immaculate. (You do not want to be remembered as the person with the big manchaor sweat stain.) As Nancy Scott Hanway explains: “Your clothing needs to accomplish one simple task: to keep your interviewers from thinking about your clothing.”1
(1) Prepare and practice for the preliminary interview. Have on command the five-minute dissertation summary, the three-minute elevator talk, and the 30-second sound bite. Be sure to address the “So what?” question.
(2) Once you receive an interview invitation, familiarize yourself with the department’s curriculum. Tweak your teaching portfolio so that during the short time allotted in the initial interview, you can expand upon your potential curricular contributions.
(3) OK, I will admit I have a fondness for the face-to-face interview, but financial considerations across the board have enhanced the popularity of Skype.2 For an at-home interview, stage the surroundings and guard against disruptions. And most importantly, make sure you have a good connection, not once but several times. Better yet, use your university’s technology center, a controlled environment with knowledgeable staff. If given a choice, I would choose the in-person interview for the collegial interaction, as well as for the conference’s exhibits, graduate programming, and scholarly sessions.
(4) Demonstrate informed enthusiasm for the position. Speak to the questions and listen actively. Engage potential colleagues in a conversation they will want to continue—on campus.
(5) Do research about your potential colleagues. Note the following cautionary tale: a newly minted PhD gives a job talk that underscores how his or her research counters an interpretation put forth by an established scholar, unaware that the historian in question is in the audience, a distinguished new hire for the department. (It has happened.)
(1) From the time of airport pickup to drop-off, remember that you are on stage.
(2) No matter how brilliant your presentation, no one wants to hear you talk for 90 minutes. Keep to the length specified by the search committee, including at least 15 to 20 minutes for questions. Allow time before the talk to assemble the technology you require. Formal presentations are where you can showcase your passion for the subject and convince others to care about it too. They are also one way for the committee to evaluate your teaching skills. In a terrific article, Rob Jenkins identifies great teachers as having personality, presence, preparation, and passion, attributes applicable across most interview or symposium settings.3 And at many liberal arts colleges, state institutions, and certainly community colleges, the teaching demonstration assumes paramount importance.
(3) Don’t drink, and eat neatly. The academy is replete with not-so-apocryphal tales of jobs lost by inebriated candidates. If you must have that beer or glass of wine, just one and done. Also choose your entrées carefully—avoid messy sauces or dishes that require special implements. In a role reversal, one earnest candidate ate his broiled fish fillet while the search committee dined on delicious cioppino. In the middle of a fascinating conversation on environmental history, he began to chuckle, explaining, “I am sorry, but it is hard to have this discussion with all of you in lobster bibs.” (Yes, he got the job.)
(4) Speak no evil, and less is more. A litany of complaints or gossip equals self-sabotage. If you have an offer from another institution, inform the department chair, but do not brag about your job prospects. Also, until you are selected never ask about salary—only matters surrounding professional development opportunities, tenure expectations, and campus research grants. Engage the graduate students. Ask them questions about their work, the program, courses they would like you to offer. Any whiff of condescension lingers longer than bad cologne.
(5) Remember, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Taking that perspective helps ameliorate your nervousness and gives you a sense of control. Can you see yourself in that department or on that campus over the long term? Throughout the interview, ask thoughtful questions; the department also evaluates a candidate as a colleague, someone its members hope will receive tenure. No matter the tenor of the interview, send a handwritten thank-you note (or e-mail, if you must) to the department chair and the chair of the search committee.
Beyond an awareness of academic etiquette and intense preparation, what else can an aspiring professor do? At the risk of sounding self-serving, I strongly advise you to join the American Historical Association, which provides an array of resources related to research grants, career diversity initiatives, graduate guides, interview strategies, and networking opportunities (to name a few). For a sense of our commitment to and investment in graduate students, who represent 15 percent of our membership, visit our website, historians.org. The site has a wealth of information for students, such as a page of resources for graduate students, including our new Guide to Grad School (historians.org/gecc-resources), and information about our Career Diversity initiative (historians.org/careerdiversity). Given the topic of this column, I refer readers to two helpful guides: Dana Polanicka’s AHA pamphlet Getting an Academic Job in History and Katherine Hijar’s “Job Market Etiquette” (Perspectives, December 2010). Another benefit to AHA members: a free one-year subscription to Interfolio, the digital portfolio service. In addition, the annual meeting features many sessions and activities for graduate students, including the Job Workshop for Historians and the Career Fair, where attendees can converse one-on-one with colleagues across employment sectors.
Far from the AHA annual meeting’s past reputation as the place you go to get a job or, worse, as the interview “meat market,” the conference and the Association itself have become ever more attuned to the concerns of graduate and early career colleagues. Rather than depending solely on an adviser’s guidance about interview etiquette, job seekers can turn to AHA resources and programs for strategies that play to their strengths and maximize their opportunities.
Vicki L. Ruiz is president of the American Historical Association.
1. Nancy Scott Hanway, “A Foot in the Door at a Small Liberal-Arts College,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 15, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/A-Foot-in-the-Door-at-a-Small/150803/.
2. For further reference, see David F. Perlmutter, “Don’t Kill the Conference Interview,” Vitae,January 20, 2015, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/871-don-t-kill-the-conference-interview.
3. Rob Jenkins, “The Four Properties of Powerful Teachers,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 16, 2015, http://chronicle.com/article/The-4-Properties-of-Powerful/228483/.
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