Skip navigation
CAREER ADVICE

What not to do when applying for an academic job

Reflections from a search committee member.

By BARBARA J. FALK | SEP 18 2018

This spring I had the opportunity to chair and manage an academic hiring process. From the moment the advertisement went online through to the job talks and interviews, I was surprised by the lack of preparedness or, worse still, inappropriate comments or missteps made by applicants. Given that at Canadian universities it’s effectively a buyer’s market, I was amazed that otherwise incredibly-promising and already high-achieving scholars were not better prepared. I suspect that we in the professoriate are not making sure postdoctoral students are acquiring these necessary skills. Full disclosure: before academic life I had a career in human resources and labour relations, so I’m tough to impress, but my ruthless rigor is matched with a devotion to fairness and transparency in hiring practices.

Start off on the right foot

Making an impression begins with email correspondence – avoid inane questions that are variants of “what are you really looking for?” when a careful reading of the detailed job advertisement provides the answer. “Professor” is more appropriate than Mr. or Ms. in correspondence with the chair of the search committee. Asking questions is not unreasonable but do so more than 12 to 24 hours before the deadline. Do not ask for syllabi or course outlines that could be easily found via a google search. And most importantly, do not ask your friends or contacts who might know the person whose name is on the job ad to put in a good word for you – this “old boys” network approach used in many contemporary workplaces over privileges the known over the unknown. The appropriate place to utilize your contact is with a reference letter – and if you are asked to provide three, then do not provide four or five. As for writing samples – think about not only what is your best work, but what is concise and easily digested by someone who is not an enthusiastic expert on your topic.

The most successful cover letters I read demonstrate not only how the applicant “fits” the job criteria, but equally importantly how they best “fit” our department and institution. Excellent reference letters illustrated the referees’ knowledge of the position and our institution and bring this information to bear on the usual superlatives about the candidate.

The day of the interview/job talk

When asked to present your research agenda, make sure you distill your findings to a non-specialist audience. Job talks provide an opportunity to demonstrate your intellectual firepower but be equally attentive to how that translates into effective teaching – think of demonstrating your methodology and originality in how you present. A slide deck with a combination of images and text, while necessary, does not qualify as innovative. If this feels too risky, then present in a manner in which you are most comfortable. When using PowerPoint, ensure text can be read at the back of a lecture hall, assume literacy on the part of your audience and do not read what is on your slides. In a comprehensive university or interdisciplinary program, reflect on how you can show breadth as well as depth –  two essentials to successful teaching. In a top tier research school, focus more on your innovative research program, funding sources, and potential for building collaborative partnerships with other universities.

Graduate students are encouraged, quite rightly, to present at conferences, network widely, and publish in prestigious journals and with established university presses. But at a job talk and interview, it’s not only about the candidate, but how the person would contribute in a collegial manner to the life and work of a department. Read the job ad very carefully and research the institution fully. We ask a very telling question about what service responsibilities the applicants would see themselves doing in the future, because in our environment academic life is not only about teaching and research, but also administration. Working on committees or in teams to develop academic policies, curriculum, or admissions criteria is important and valued.

After the interview

Job interviews are often followed by a social component – a lunch or dinner with department members. These are not opportunities to let down your guard (although it’s very revealing when you do), but to demonstrate your sense of judgement, professionalism, and ability to navigate socially in a stressful situation. Have some thoughtful questions prepared about the institution or your prospective colleagues, be willing to adapt to a turn in the conversation, and do not pretend to be an expert on a topic you are clearly not – you never know when someone lunching with you does in fact know a great deal more about the subject than you.

A last note on wardrobe

There is a powerfully performative aspect to this career, and like any seasoned theatre actor, you need to research your role and don the costume appropriate to the part. Leave the sneakers and skinny jeans out of your job interview wardrobe. While on stage – from the moment you enter the campus until you depart – you must establish an authoritative and convincing presence yet simultaneously demonstrate naturalness and ease. Preparation and rehearsal are an absolute must.

Barbara J. Falk is an associate professor in the department of defence studies at Canadian Forces College/Royal Military College of Canada.

COMMENTS
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. katie / September 20, 2018 at 11:21

    I too have served on multiple search committees and could offer a lot of advice to those on the market.
    But I’m also on the market myself, so let’s turn this on its head and offer advice to those on search committees too.

    Do not ask for multiple letters of reference up-front. Wait until at least the short-list stage. Particularly if you are going to ask for “Excellent reference letters illustrated the referees’ knowledge of the position and our institution and bring this information to bear on the usual superlatives about the candidate.”
    Most candidates are applying for tens of jobs: don’t burden referees with writing multiple focused letters for jobs the candidates aren’t even in the running for.

    Keep in touch with candidates to let them know your schedule: If you are planning to start interviews in November, say that, either in your ad or in your receipt of their application. Let them know you received their application, and let them know if they’re not in the running anymore.

    Don’t ask candidates to be “on” for two full days without breaks. Give them time to decompress and explore the town a little on their own.

    Don’t make a big fuss about how important “diversity” is to you and then hire your straight white male buddy from grad school.

  2. jtg575 / September 20, 2018 at 12:27

    I wholeheartedly agree with Dr Falk’s insistence that committees are (and should be) very interested in candidates’ administrative capacities and ideas, and that young candidates frequently are ignorant of this, focusing myopically on their research and teaching abilities. This is a bit of a catch-22, though. I came out of grad school with a good knowledge of what research entails and at least a beginners’ knowledge of what teaching involves; I had no clue about what sort of administrative service is required of tenure-track faculty, let alone how important that component of the job is, or how I might best contribute. I got my first glimpse of this during my first job as a visiting assistant professor. Yet in subsequent interviews, this minimal experience actually made me more reticent to speak about about prospective administrative responsibilities because I didn’t want to appear to be talking about things I didn’t understand or proposing tasks that were unnecessary or irrelevant to a particular department.

    Having now sat on several search committees, I now try to infer administrative capacities in novice candidates from their more general demeanour: are they eager to understand the program’s structure and strengths? are they eager and knowledgeable about how their discipline fits alongside other disciplines within the faculty or college? Even their interest in student involvement is telling here, as it conveys a sense that the candidates know that the job will involve more than merely their own pet classes and research projects.

    In short, administration is a crucial part of permanent faculty members work, and hiring someone who excels at it can be a game-changer for any department. I would recommend to all young candidates that they sit down with their supervisors and have a conversation about all the varieties of work that constitute administrative service, so that they can convey at least rudimentary awareness of this in an interview. Yet administration is also the part of the job that is most dependent on prior experience, and committees need to be aware of that.

  3. junior prof / September 20, 2018 at 20:02

    This article embodies everything that is wrong with hiring processes in the academic job market, which revolve primarily about finding the right “cultural fit.”

    Instead of saying: “There is a powerfully performative aspect to this career, and like any seasoned theatre actor, you need to research your role and don the costume appropriate to the part…”, why not state: we need to disrupt institutionalized white/upper-class notions of what a professor should look like or behave? You should not be selecting a candidate based on how they dress, or their ability to make you feel at ease during dinner. You are not selecting a “buddy”, but rather, an academic. Evaluate them accordingly. This should go without saying…

    “Read the job ad very carefully and research the institution fully.” Beyond the department’s academic strengths and how you would contribute to it, do I need to be an expert in your university’s history and internal politics? I’ll do that when search committees start reading every application package carefully.

    “Making an impression begins with email correspondence – avoid inane questions that are variants of “what are you really looking for?” when a careful reading of the detailed job advertisement provides the answer.” – Job advertisements are political documents, which do not always reflect what a department is really looking for. Or, include criteria that are only ceremonial (e.g. equity statements). Are you surprised that candidates want further details?

    “Given that at Canadian universities it’s effectively a buyer’s market, I was amazed that otherwise incredibly-promising and already high-achieving scholars were not better prepared.” – Maybe your expectations don’t match the reality of the job market. Perhaps the person you shortlisted is not the typical graduate/post-doc with three weeks of uninterrupted time to prep for this one interview. Maybe they have a FT non-academic job with limited flexibility, a family, and are only just giving their first talk.

  4. E Paulettes / September 22, 2018 at 17:51

    “junior prof”, I think all you need to know about the specific context of this advice is found in this snippet: “in the department of defence studies at Canadian Forces College/Royal Military College of Canada.”

  5. precarious prof / September 25, 2018 at 08:33

    Praise junior prof for saying things the way they are! And E Paulettes, don’t be so quick to dismiss what junior prof wrote under the pretense that the article was written by a prof at a military institution. I have worked in civilian universities and military institutions and I can tell you from experience that civilian universities treat they potential faculty and non-permanent faculty in ways that are waaaaaaay worse than military institutions.

« »