Saturday, October 20, 2012

Reading Applications

I'm reading applications.  There are a lot of them, so I need to get started.  And, of course, I've read applications before.  So this post isn't just about this search.

Say we have 100 applictions for a position in Underwater Basketweaving, and we've put in the job description that someone needs a terminal degree in Underwater Basketweaving or a related field, and that the job is in deep water basketweaving, with a subspecialty in weaving theory.

We're bound to get some applications from people in Reed Cultivation, who've taken a couple of courses in Basketweaving, and they can do a great job teaching deep water basketweaving.

At least those apps recognize what we've advertised for.  They're stretching, but they're trying.

But the application letters that don't even seem to try to convince us that they could do the job we're advertising for?  Just weird.

This is the first year I've read an application from someone whose terminal degree is from an on-line program.  I'm working on being open minded about this.  But this person doesn't seem to have any idea about the genre of the job application, none at all.  Zie has sent a resume, listing a variety of jobs and qualifications, including one for judging 4-H rabbits.  I get a feeling that hir advisor or advising program, or hir cohort, doesn't communicate about what the academic job search is like, or what the genre of the application looks like.

So I was thinking about the genre of the job application letter, and my expectations.  And I wanted to ask you folks to talk about job application letter expectations, about the genre in, say, English studies (rather than accounting).

Here's what I expect:

Letter type: research

A short intro paragraph telling us that you're applying to our specific job, and addressed to the person listed or the search committee.

A paragraph or two describing your thesis or dissertation project and why it's exciting and vital.  If you can make a connection to our job description, to.

A paragraph or two describing your teaching experience, especially relating to our position (including intro courses or whatever)

A paragraph or two addressing secondary concerns.  In the basketweaving example, one might talk about having coursework in theory and being excited to teach it.  Or one might talk about something we wouldn't know, but that's important.  If you have experience in a learning community, a few sentences about that.  If you've worked with non-traditional students in meaningful ways, taught on-line, have done assessment, this is the place to write a sentence or two about how those skills will help you contribute.  If you're applying to a liberal arts school, look at the AAC&U, and see if you can say something meaningful about your experience with liberal arts.

A concluding paragraph thanking us for our time, telling us if you'll be at MLA or whatever, and done.


Letter type: teaching

A short intro paragraph telling us that you're applying to our specific job, and addressed to the person listed or the search committee.

A paragraph or two describing your teaching experience, especially relating to our position (including intro courses or whatever).  Looking at our catalog is a good idea, but be aware that we might be working on changing our curriculum, so don't be too wedded to it.

A short paragraph describing your thesis or dissertation project.  Make sure to connect it to teaching.  (Also, recognize that many schools with a firm teaching orientation will expect you to also do scholarly or creative work, so don't underplay this too much.)


A paragraph or two addressing secondary concerns. In the basketweaving example, one might talk about having coursework in theory and being excited to teach it. Or one might talk about something we wouldn't know, but that's important. If you have experience in a learning community, a few sentences about that. If you've worked with non-traditional students in meaningful ways, taught on-line, have done assessment, this is the place to write a sentence or two about how those skills will help you contribute.


A concluding paragraph thanking us for our time, telling us if you'll be at MLA or whatever, and done.


For a community college, I'd make the thesis or dissertation project description really serve the teaching.  Let people know you've done something, and that you've thought about teaching.  Focus the teaching on introductory level courses.  Think about how you can teach the population of the specific community college and talk about how you've prepared to teach that population.


What say you?  What are your expectations, and how are they different?  (or not?)

10 comments:

  1. This is an incredibly helpful post. I think this is more or less how I've formatted my letters--teaching or research depending--but it's really helpful to see it laid out here like this. Not that I'm doing an academic job search because I'm not. Just saying, though.

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  2. Patty8:06 AM

    I'd say the CC letter needs to be more similar to the "teaching" letter -- with an emphasis on the kinds of diversity you actually see at a CC, in terms of age, culture and level of preparation.

    I'd also say that any direct connection with a CC helps a lot -- if you took a few courses at a CC to start or contribute to your BA/BS, all the better.

    I was on an English search committee and I was amazed at the variety of sub-disciplines and MA options (as compared to philosophy, where you can just get an MA or Ph.D.... ). An explanation of anything other than MA or Ph.D. on your CV would be very helpful, as most CC committees are comprised of administrators, English faculty and other faculty members. I need to know how your MFA in poetry is going to translate into the CC classroom -- otherwise I need to guess from the class titles, and I'm not all that good at guessing.

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  3. In my experience, no one teaches grad students (or new PhDs) how to write job application letters; or how to put together a CV either. I've been on search committees where almost every application we get is not just wrong for the job, but bizarrely wrong for the job, and where the CVs are equally bizarre.

    I do get that most candidates aren't being taught these skills; OTOH, samples are available online. CHE did a series of posts on this a few years ago, also.

    My point: the data is out there if you look. That the applicants haven't looked always makes me dubious about what sort of teachers/professors they will make.

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  4. delagar - that last paragraph is exactly it. I get that some programs don't teach their grad students this, but it's such an important skill, one would want to put some effort into figuring it out. And I've seen enough blog posts that make the same complaints; it just can't be that hard to figure out how to do it right.

    But my main point is that these letters make perfect sense to me, and match my expectations; the only thing I'd add (and this might be just me, but it's something I always look for) is a paragraph or at least a sentence that says something specific about the school or department to which one is applying. It can be a reference to the curriculum, or to a particular program, or even to say that you have family in the region, but I want to know that you know something about us.

    I'm looking at an applicant for a position here right now, and he looks good, but he's in his fourth year at a very similar school. That makes me want to know why he wants to move, but he says nothing at all about our school. That makes me speculate that he doesn't think he's likely to get tenure where he's at. That obviously doesn't work in his favor, but I'd be less concerned about that if he spent a little time saying why he wanted to come TO us instead of just away from his current place.

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  5. Agreed! And especially in English, where they're likely to be asked to teach a lot of composition. How can you teach composition if you can't compose a strong job letter.

    That still leaves about 50% of our applicants with strong letters and walk on water qualifications.

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  6. This is useful, for sure. But what about those SLACs that are 3/3 loads and selective, but not famous schools? I feel like the research and teaching needs to be addressed pretty equally, doesn't if? Also for people who are in their second year on the TT, but are keeping their eyes open for other jobs (like ... Me, for instance), how do we say that we'd rather be at a better school without coming off as a negative nancy about our current jobs?

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  7. Our university's ad asks for people to address something pretty specific in their cover letters, and I've been very surprised at the low number of candidates who are actually doing that. (It's a request to address how they would address one particularly significant part of the university's mission, essentially.) So the other thing I'd add here is that if an ad specifies that you address something in your cover letter, address that.

    I don't know that I expect research/teaching letters to be organized differently--fine by me if a teaching-focused letter opens with one paragraph about the dissertation or research agenda. I expect that the letter, on balance, will address the sort of institution we are. My current uni is very research focused; my previous one, a comprehensive university where research AND teaching were important. Letters need to convince me that the applicant is both interested in, and qualified for, the sort of university we are.

    Re: how to communicate why one is looking for another job: indicate happiness in current position, but seeking additional challenges in the area of X (e.g., chance to work with grad students, chance to work in a larger dept,) or personal considerations (interested in moving closer to some other part of the country).

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  8. I'd say that what you've laid out is what I expect in history. The *best* job letters, it seems to me, say something about how the person sees their contribution to the program that is hiring. "I believe my work on two color baskets offers an excellent addition to the work on single color baskets undertaken by Professors Jones and Smith in your program".
    But if you can't do that (and it probably is not always easy) something that tells me you have taken the two minutes it takes to look at our website is useful. It can be a reference to the university's mission, or the student profile, or something. (I.e. "As a first generation college student, I'm eager to work with a student body as diverse as yours.") I'm always intrigued by ones that tell me about family in the area -- that answers the "will they come" question, but I actually find myself turned off by it.

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  9. Anonymous2:04 AM

    Here's a blog that deals with precisely these kind of issues - extremely informative for me when I was looking for a job:
    http://theprofessorisin.com/pearlsofwisdom/

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  10. To Fie's question:

    I think research and teaching should *always* be given equal weight; the question is how those paragraphs are oriented (e.g., for a teaching school, it's even more important to tie your research interests to your teaching, while for a fancy top-tier program, your teaching paragraphs should make clear your ability to teach doctoral students).

    But most institutions like to believe that their faculty are indeed doing research and have active research commitments. When in doubt, I'd put the research paragraphs first.

    I say this as someone who teaches at a regional state school with a 3/3 load, but in a department with faculty who routinely publish in the best journals and the top presses in their fields. We expect candidates who are experienced, committed, and thoughtful teachers, and we definitely want to hear about that--but we're rather offended when candidates peg us as "a teaching school" in the reductive way that term is often used. Soft-pedaling your research agenda can look patronizing or, worse, like you don't have one.

    But the department webpage and the faculty profiles will tell you a lot about a given department and how it sees itself.

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