Sunday, July 03, 2011

Do you really want this job?

Advice you shouldn't need

I have one of the best jobs in the universe. I'm a college faculty member with seniority and tenure, so my job comes with a high degree of security and a sense of doing something worthwhile. I am fortunate indeed, so I understand that other people might be eager to apply to be my colleague. What I do not understand is why so many of these people do such a bad job of applying. Perhaps it would be better not to describe their mistakes. Folks who do not figure it out on their own are probably not good choices for future colleagues.

On the other hand, teachers can't help teaching and we should not discourage people from learning. Here, therefore, is a brief list of suggestions. You may be struck by how obvious they are. Or should be.

Fill out the application

No, really. Fill it out. Don't leave parts of it blank unless they're really supposed to be blank (like the section where you list the misdemeanors on your rap sheet). Sometimes this mistake is made by adjunct faculty members who are applying for a tenure-track position at the school where they already teach. “Oh, they already know me. I'll just hit the highlights.” Sorry. Get a clue. There will be people on the hiring panel who don't know you—like those from outside the department. It's also likely that the screening rubric will explicitly require the application screeners to evaluate the applications strictly on actual content. (“Do not base your rating of an application on personal knowledge.”) Blank spaces earn no points from the screening committee in deciding who gets an interview.

Don't hide information

This is something of an ancillary to the previous point. Hiring committees typically screen dozens of applications. If you put information where it's not expected, it may not be seen. One recent unsuccessful candidate neglected to indicate that he was bilingual on his application—something that would have fit well in the item related to personal experience with academic and cultural diversity. He buried his knowledge of Spanish in a block of miscellaneous skills in a résumé attached to his application. I found it, but I know others did not. That was probably worth a point that most other screeners didn't give him.

Know your references

I have seen half a dozen candidates in recent years shot down by their letters of recommendation. Don't ask for a letter of recommendation from someone who will damn you with faint praise or—even worse—explain why you aren't ready for a teaching career. Don't ask for recommendations from people who don't have a positive opinion of you. Also, don't submit letters of recommendation from your students. You have too much authority over your students to make their comments entirely credible. If you do have fan letters from students, pass them along to the dean or department chair from whom you will ask for a letter of recommendation.

Rehearse your presentation

So far as I know, every college asks its applicants to give some kind of teaching demonstration. At a university you might conduct a seminar. At a community college you can expect to give a mini-lecture. At my school, interviews typically include a 10- to 15-minute teaching demo. We send out a topic (or short list of topics) for the candidates to prepare. Some ill-advised applicants attempt to squeeze a one-hour lecture into their allotted time, tearing through the material four or five times as fast as they would in class. That's missing the point entirely. We want a representative sample of each candidate's style and skill. The smart candidate will rehearse the presentation a few times to ensure that it flows well and fits the time permitted. I have seen candidates attempt to address their assigned topic off the cuff, with no evident preparation. The results are predictably poor and haphazard. At least two candidates seemed not to remember the exact assignment and needed to be prompted; neither of those candidates advanced to the next round.

It really is all about you

Yes, I know that most of us in the teaching profession are self-sacrificing martyrs who put the interests of others before their own. We're all candidates for sainthood. In an interview for a faculty position, however, you're supposed to persuade us how wonderful you are. During your interview, the focus is indeed on you and on no one else. And here I will make my point: Don't talk about other people. Stay focused on giving the committee a complete picture of your splendid qualifications for the job. Do not try to build yourself up by tearing others down. I have seen more than one instance where a candidate felt it necessary to poor-mouth rival applicants. In one particular case, a part-time faculty member thought that his principal rival for the full-time position was another adjunct instructor. He proceeded to say bad things about his part-time colleagues, building himself up by denigrating their talents. (If only he had known that he was the only part-timer among the finalists.) He didn't get the job.

Don't burn bridges

You might not get hired the first time you apply. I didn't. Neither did most of my colleagues. The rule is try, try again. It is therefore a bad idea to send nastygrams to members of the hiring committee and the college administration when you finish out of the money. It is my understanding that the dean of instruction has a long enough memory to remember that you sent her a letter (“I was clearly the best candidate among the applicants and the person you chose is not worthy to buff my briefcase”) and is likely to bring it up if she ever sees your name on a list of candidates again. Not kidding. This really occurred.

Good luck, future faculty members.


Kathie said...

You seem to have omitted "Don't inflate your resumé."

Candidates who obtain jobs beyond their abilities through such deviousness can wreak havoc on colleagues, especially if they continue to inflate their resumés in order to obtain tenure, then advance their careers in order to become their colleagues' superior. I know people who were thus victimized, and it took a decade to ease out the inflater (via the old "pass the trash" ploy) -- but not until several capable and decent other faculty members' careers were left in tatters.

Zeno said...

That's one thing I have never encountered in over two decades of hiring experience. We've never run into any inflated applications. Or, to be more precise, no inflated applications have been successful. The reference-checking on our top finalists has always panned out and verified their claims. I'm sure luck is an element, but due diligence is a factor, too.

plam said...

I'm not sure that inflated CVs tend to be that much of a problem for teaching positions. For some reason, I'd tend to worry more about people with credentials but no actual skills. Like, for instance, the incompetent calculus TAs I hear about. This is a first year class, you're supposed to be a graduate student, and you can't do the problems at all? (Yes, it's harder to do them "live", but presumably you should be able to do them at least when you're marking them.)

Sili said...

"I have seen candidates attempt to address their assigned topic off the cuff, with no evident preparation. The results are predictably poor and haphazard."

Ah. That sounds familiar.

Hence why I lost my job.

Good thing that there's so much need for maths teachers that I got in at the next school over.

Anonymous said...

Hi Zeno,

Any advice for people too shy to know anyone besides our thesis advisors who will write good letters of recommendation?

Scott said...


Have you been a TA? If so, could you ask a professor or two whom you worked under as a TA? They could be better resources than you advisors if you are applying for a teaching position.

Kathie said...

"I'm not sure that inflated CVs tend to be that much of a problem for teaching positions."

plam, it sure is at a research university if the faculty candidate is trying to fob off a bunch of research manuscript titles -- which may be nothing more than at most a rough draft or maybe even just a title for a proposed paper -- as manuscripts submitted or even accepted for publication by peer-review journals -- and then after getting the job the person subsequently keeps changing the titles' status and adding lots of new ones on CVs, annual job reviews and Federal grant proposals, sometimes even noting downward (!) trajectory because the person can't keep all the lies straight, or the manuscripts were finally submitted (and listed as "provisionally accepted," whatever the heck that is!) but then rejected, or... or... and yet only a handful of those titles ever saw printer's ink.

N.B.: Nowadays it's more common not to allow the listing of a title of any unpublished manuscript that has not yet been fully accepted for publication, with a copy of the letter of acceptance required as evidence.

Zeno said...

That hadn't occurred to me, Anonymous. By the time you're ready to receive your degree, you really do need more than one person to vouch for you. Didn't you have a committee (which probably included your thesis advisor) which passed judgment on your thesis? Members of that committee might be good sources of letters of recommendation. Scott's suggestion is good, too. We like letters from supervising professors who speak to a candidate's teaching skills or potential (especially since community colleges are teaching institutions rather than research centers).

Clearly shy grad students need to give some thought to building academic relationships while going through their programs.

Curmudgeon said...

Permit me to add one more suggestion: Proofread everything you submit, including the cover letter if you write one. Then proofread it again. Then give it to at least two other people who are better at proofreading than you are to proofread. And when all that's done... proof it all one more time.

Yes, it matters.