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.