Unsolicited advice for job searching in the academy

So I am the head of appointments this year, and as a result, I am going through oceans of resumes, as well as chance networking meetings. There is a lot of advice out there for graduate students, and these are just impressions–YMMV.

1. Don’t assume that you can be rude or preemptory with anybody, no matter what they look like, when you meet them on a campus visit or at a conference.

I call the worst offenders here “badge gazers.” They go to conferences, they check your badge to see if you are at an “important” university, of if you are an “important” person, and if yes, they try to oil you, if not, they ditch you. They think they are smooth. They are, in fact, assholes. You don’t want to do this kind of thing because you never know who is going to be hiring next and who will remember that you treated them like crap. Even if you have tenure at the exact school you want to have tenure in (which I generally do), don’t you want people to hire your students?

Also, make sure when you visit another university that you are putting your best forward, whether they are officially hiring or not. Yesterday was one of my previous few ‘off’ teaching days, and on our first meeting, a young visitor clearly assumed that I was a student or some random old person who shows up to campus events because I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans.

It didn’t help that one of our more boisterous and insubordinate graduate students* wound me up before I even met her, I engaged with that discussion, and in that mess, the visitor rudely interrupted me and acted like I don’t know what I am talking about…and in my own research area, which people were, apparently, treating like it was a fluffy topic before I arrived.**

Graduate students often don’t realize what they are doing to job candidates because students themselves have never been one, but the whole thing was an unfortunate way for me to encounter the job hopeful–who at the time I didn’t realize was interested in perhaps coming here, either. I just figured after that interaction was she yet another smug, boring, a-theoretical quantoid like the boatload of others that clutter up the social sciences, and I nearly skipped the talk to go do my own work.


There’s not much you can do to work out of that situation once it has started. I then got to watch how her attitude changed when it became apparent to her that I was faculty. More Oops. So she’s nice to me now that she knows I’ve got standing? How is she going to treat students, then? Urk. The dominoes continue to fall, and not really in a way you can fully recover from. It will take more time to change that first impression, and with job seeking, you often just don’t get that chance to get to know anybody better.

Unbeknownst to her (and most people in that room), I am also the chair of appointments. In fairness, she may have been distracted, our first interaction may have been as off-putting to her as it was to me, and I’m not the sort of person who judges people on just one thing.

But if I were–and there’s precious little in an oversupplied job market to prevent tenured faculty from behaving this way–she’d be out of consideration. And plenty of otherwise reasonable people do make snap judgments about candidates on their first impressions because with searches that often have over 100 applicants in the pool, you are looking for reasons to kick people out–something, anything–just to get closer to the end of what is often a really difficult decision.

In an oversupplied labor market, you sometimes have to kick great people out of the candidate pool simply because there are so many great people in that pool. It sucks.

Your job as a candidate is to avoid giving anybody any reason, no matter how unjust, to write you off. You want them to regret not hiring you if they do choose somebody else.

And, BTW, be nice to wait staff and university staff. People like me watch that, and then use it to toss you. I don’t need another self-centered self-important, rude, spoiled brat who believes that they are more important and more worthy of basic respect than the people who wait on them.

2. LaTex is a awesome, but don’t use it to format your cv unless you really know how to use LaTex jump and shine. I’m not sure how many cvs I encountered when I was sorting through yesterday with messed up margins, wrong-facing quotation marks, etc. LaTex can look great, or it can look like hell. Really.

3. Paragraphs in cover letters should be shorter than most people make them. It’s hard to talk about yourself, your interests, and your dissertation and be brief. You really need to be, as it will help people actually see what you want them to see about you. Most very very long paragraphs have too much clutter. And that clutter prevents people from seeing the pith.

Your first paragraph is often awkward. You’ve heard a million times not to start with “I” (which I think is silly, but you don’t want to flout wisdom just in case this is somebody’s pet peeve.) Anyway, I think it’s good to be rather than long in how you describe what you are doing. It’s nice to get your big pitch out of the way: Dear Dr. Searcher, Please find enclosed materials in application for the assistant professor position open with X University. I am a PhD candidate at Y University, studying with Professor Q, and I will be finished in May 2013. My dissertation, entitled Brilliantly Brilliant Things I Have Studied Brilliantly, will be defended in March. My scholarly contributes to date include two papers in peer-reviewed journals, and I funded my dissertation research through the National Science Foundation’s Dissertation Fellowship program.

*BTW, I genuinely like insubordinate students, don’t get me wrong.

**This is stupid academic sport. Don’t do it. Think it all you want. Just don’t say it to people unless you want them to get mad. You never really know if their area is a) really fluffy or b) you don’t know its depth, and if it’s (b), then you come off looking bad.