Saturday, November 15, 2008

Searching and Seeking

I got a call earlier this term from a colleague in a tangentially related department, and by tangentially I mean during Shakespeare's day, they put rushes on the stage floor, which means I should be really familiar with such things, and by the way, underwater basketweaving uses reeds from a similar plant, so I'm practically a member of the department. The thing is, smaller departments (and most departments at any comprehensive school are smaller than Math and English) sometimes need an outside member for search committees. And so, my colleague asked me to help on a search committee. It's not the first time I've been asked, and certainly underwater basketweaving is closer to my field than accounting!

(The very first search I ever served on was for an accounting position. I was used to the sorts of letters English lit folks send out: intro para, para or three on dissertation, para on pubs if any and on future plans, para on teaching overview, para on dream course or comp, para on how much they'd fit at your school. In contrast, accounting letters basically say, "I'm an accountant and interested in your adertised position.")

Back to our current search. The UB Dept needs a deepwater basketweaving specialist with a lot of experience and interest in SCUBA technologies used for basketweaving. And it would be a real asset if the person can add to diversity in some way or has experience with interdisciplinary work or with reed cultivation. We also asked for evidence that the person could teach underwater basketweaving basics, because everyone needs to here. We wrote up the ad, got it approved by the legal beagles, and waited for the apps to start coming in.

And come they did, many, many apps. You might not think there are that many folks in this discipline looking for jobs, but there are.

And so, I've been reading apps. And I'd like to say, if you're a brackish water specialist who's friend uses SCUBA sometimes, please don't apply! I look in the letter for some mention of the qualifications, and if you don't mention SCUBA, and if your CV doesn't mention SCUBA (either in teaching or research), and if your letters of rec don't mention your work in SCUBA, please don't apply! I know you're probably brilliant at what you do, and a fine person, but we have a ton of apps who actually do deepwater basketweaving with SCUBA technology in a serious way, so you're wasting your money and energy.

The reality is that a lot of people are desperate for a job, and they're casting their net as widely as they can, hoping against hope. Every single person on the search knows that, and I'm guessing every one of us has also been a desperate searcher. We read the underlying despair in many of these letters, but nothing changes the fact that we have one job to offer, and even that is tenuous because the assistants to the headmaster may decide that balancing the budget means we have to freeze hiring this year. So while I vent a bit, please remember that I know the desperation and empathize, and that I'm doing the best I can to find us the strongest candidate who fits our position needs best.

I've been noticing some weird things. The strangest was the person who started wrote,
My dissertation on [Deepwater SCUBA air compression and basketweaving topic] is directed by [Name], whose book [Specialized Monograph title] was published by Pretty Good UP, and whose work on [UB theorists X and Y] is well known.
Seriously, you're writing about your director's work in your diss paragraph? And I've read more than one of those. Really, I don't care who your director is; I care that the work you do sounds interesting and that you explain it so that I can understand it, because if you can explain it to me, then you will probably be the sort of teacher who can explain things to our students.

Another weird choice was to write about being a Mommy/Daddy (you guess which) to X number of adorable children. I don't care if you've bred; it's illegal for me to take it into consideration or ask. I realize it's important to you personally, but it doesn't belong in your job letter so far as I'm concerned.

Some of the more irritating letters come from students at Grand Old Ivy, and talk about their superiority as students at GOI, basically implying that we should feel honored that they've applied. But then their dissertation is on the same basic subject as about twelve other dissertations, any of which echoes what was done in the 80s, when the field was focused on weaving tightness and waterproofing studies.

Others talk about how they were their high school's valedictorian, and then went to GOI, barely mentioning that from GOI they've gone to a grad program at Second Rate State. I'm left wondering what happened there.

Here's a little secret: I don't care where you went to school in my first pass, or who you worked with. I care that you actually study deepwater basketweaving and SCUBA stuff, that your work sounds interesting enough that I wouldn't tear my hair out at your job talk, that you can communicate well even with non-specialists, that you've got good experience teaching what we need taught. I care if something about you adds to diversity (you're interested in the comparative techniques of South Asian and African SCUBA use, and have done some study in the field, taken a couple seminars, something), or that you've done interdisciplinary work (with an art historian or a plant geneticist, whatever). I only look at where you've gone to school if I've got you in my "hey, this person sounds great" list, and by then you're already on the list. I only care about who's writing your letters when the letters sound enthusiastic about your work (though I'm at least a little sensitive to where letters originate, to the extent I know that, and how different cultures frame letters of reference).

Then I take my "sounds great list" and talk to the other people about their lists, and we hash out who we want to talk to further. Now maybe other folks care more about where you went, but it doesn't much come up around here, not when we're busy talking about how someone would be a great complement to our air compression training, or someone has great experience doing this or that cool teaching thing.


  1. I found that a really helpful post - thanks!

    Especially the line:

    I care that the work you do sounds interesting and that you explain it so that I can understand it, because if you can explain it to me, then you will probably be the sort of teacher who can explain things to our students.

    I had never made that connection between being able to explain things in a cover letter, and being able to teach, but now you mention it it's obvious that this is something people might look for. Nice!

  2. Okay, I applied for a couple of "Hail Mary" jobs, and I feel a little foolish now. Two, in particular, were jobs in Theater departments, but my degree is in literature -- dramatic literature, specializing in Shakespeare, but I did my broader course work in world drama. The ads said that having someone with a literary background would be a plus, but not necessary. I do have acting experience (9 plays), and my undergrad degree is in music performance, during which I performed constantly, so I know my way around a stage. But I'm not sure, now, if I should have applied and wasted my printer cartridge. Working in a Theater department would be a fantastic interdisciplinary opportunity for me, and I would really love being a part of theater again. But I'm wondering what search committees might think...

  3. I agree -- and recall the pain of reading the desperate letters. At BNCC we hire pretty late in the cycle -- I think our last full-time search had a close date of early March with interviews starting in late March/early April. By then we'd get a couple hundred or so applications, at least half of which didn't meet the basic qualifications -- or, we couldn't see that from their CV.

    I look to the letter for clarification and extension on the CV... so, if their CV lists "courses taught" -- but not how often or how long they've been teaching in general, I expect that in the CV. Also, diversity experience often can't be communicated in the CV, so I'm looking at the letter for that as well. I do think it is pretty weird to waste space with your Adviser's bio-- who cares?

    As a 100% teaching school, I'm much less interested in the dissertation topic than whether or not it is finished. A list of publications, especially stuff that looks like the same basic paper over and over again looks pretty fishy to me as well -- what I'm interested in is how you've prepared yourself for OUR job.

    Finally -- when they get an interview, the kiss of death is somehow talking down to us. If you talk down to your interview committee, how will you treat our students?

  4. Exactly. It seems like there's a level of common sense that some people totally lack. I guess it goes back to that whole cliche about common sense not being all that common....

  5. Makes sense. I'm so weirdly interdisciplinary, that some things I apply for might be stretches in some regards (or perceived as stretches) but if I think I can make my case I'll try.

    fwiw, if someone from an ivy tries to claim expertise in my area of specialization, they are really really stretching. My area doesn't exist at any of the ivies. Unless they got their experience and scholarly background elsewhere, they are either lying or they don't know what they don't know.

  6. I don't know much about the hiring practices in academia, but seriously, someone -- more than one -- wrote in the CV or cover about being a parent? Seriously? What planet are these people from? Why on earth would I care? I recently interviewed someone for a management position and was surprised that he mentioned he wanted a job near where he lived rather than commute 70 miles because of his 10 yr old daughter and 8 yr old son. We quickly moved on to other topics, but I can't believe that he didn't say something more like 'I don't want to continue the drive with the high price of gas' or 'I want to be closer to home' without the specifics of his homelife. Why do people think that this is important? I don't care about their hobbies or their home; I care about whether they can do the job. Period.

  7. I think the reason someone would mention his/her children or home life would be to test the waters to see if the place where they are interviewing is family-friendly. For some people that is a deal breaker. Of course, in the academic world, just getting a job is such a big deal that it's not as if you can be choosy about such things...