Tips for academic job applications

Obviously, I cannot talk about our current hiring process, but I can say that academic hiring is always a difficult process–all the more difficult because it tends to be fraught with administrative restrictions in a way most hiring in the private sector is not. This is the fifth academic search committee I’ve been on, I think (plus chairing one more committee for hiring an administrative university position), and so, I have some bits of advice to pass along. All of this comes from real applications, without going into specifics.

Read the job description. I understand that you are probably applying for any job even close to what you do. I never did that, but I know many who have. Can you teach eighteenth century hydraulic engineering practices in South Asia? Sure, why not? I, umm, have heard of the eighteenth century. If a department wants something general, the ad will suggest that. For one of our hires, we were pretty open: we wanted someone with an interesting research agenda in communication, particularly internet-related. We cast a wide net. But when it says, for example, the terminal degree is required, generally that’s really what it means. You may be impressed enough by your vita that you think we will overlook the core requirements, but at least drop an email to see whether the university has any interest in you before wasting their time and yours with a full application.

Know where you are applying. Your cover letter should reflect some knowledge of where you are applying and why you think you would fit in. It’s really obvious when you get an “Ad Libs” application letter “I have always wanted to work at X because it is one of the top universities in field Y.” Well, duh. We know we are awesome. We just aren’t sure you are :). If you really want to work here, you’ll have made an effort to understand what our school is about.

On electronic applications, remember the text of the email really does matter. Too often, we get a cover letter as an email attachment that is great, but the email says simply “see attached,” or worse, is an extremely casual or badly thought out message. Also, it’s always appreciated when you put your last name in the file name of your attachments: “smith-cv.pdf” is far preferable to “my-latest-vita.doc.”

Teach. Even for Research I universities, the committee usually wants some indication that you are not a total disaster in the classroom. If you are a graduate student, do whatever you can to get your own class. At universities where this is impossible–or if you are mid-career–get a class at a local college. You won’t earn much money, but you will demonstrate that you are capable of leading a course. Naturally, if you are applying to a liberal arts college or another institution that emphasizes teaching, this becomes much more important, but no one wants to hire a full-time faculty member for a position where they will be having their first substantial teaching experience. This represents too great a risk.

Indicate a research agenda. And, on the other hand, don’t assume that non-research universities don’t care about your research agenda. There are certainly some schools, particularly among the for-profit and corporate universities, where scholarship is not particularly important. But for full-time positions in most colleges and universities, a demonstrated engagement in an ongoing research program–or at least the promise of such engagement–remains important. This is particularly true as undergraduate programs at many universities are embracing research and original scholarship as a vital part of education at every level.

Spell-check! Seriously. Have someone go over your cover letter and vita. We all make mistakes in grammar and spelling, but you are trying to put your best foot forward here, and although I–like everyone–will claim to look past such small errors, they really give a poor first impression. Be especially careful with things like the name of the university (easier with “Yale” than “Quinnipiac,” to be fair), and the name of the chair. Luckily, my name is not listed as the chair for this hiring round, so that has been less of a problem, but in at least two previous hires, the letter was addressed incorrectly. A corollary here: if you send your document in Word, be sure that it is “clean,” and doesn’t include tracked changes. If you want to be safer, just turn it in as a PDF.

Send enough stuff. Our ad did not ask for enough documentation. Even if the ad doesn’t ask for it, consider including examples of your writing, a teaching philosophy, and other materials. Or at least make them available on the web as supplementary material. If we have to ask you for more, we may never get that far. Oh, and send it as a package, not piecemeal.

If you are a grad student, list your work under review. It’s always a question, and I have been on a hiring committee where we have seen a lot of promises for work that was under review, but very little track record. That doesn’t do much for your case. If, however, you have presented a number of papers, and maybe even have things already published, you should indicate work that is currently in the pike. This is obviously the case for articles that have been accepted, but not yet printed, but you may also indicate material that is currently under review. We understand the publication cycle may mean that what you currently have published doesn’t reflect what your vita will look like next year.

If you are switching to (or back to) academia, get some coaching. A killer resume in the context of your industry may not translate neatly to an academic hiring committee, even if your professional experience is desirable. At my current university, we strongly value that professional experience, but it is important that it is laid out in a way that makes it fit in a scholarly setting. Even better if you have shown that you have kept a hand in the teaching and research side, to demonstrate that you have potential to shine there. Practitioners sometimes see teaching as the fall back (“well, I could always retire… or teach!”), and frankly, those are often the professionals who are least suited to an academic career.

Watch your web image. We’re hiring for an interactive communication position, and for something so closely related to the internet, you should expect that we are going to Google you. What do we find? Well, in some cases, we find a set of well-crafted websites by the applicant, as well as their appearance on other sites that are related, which gives us more to go on. In some cases, we only find references to their publications and presentations, which is fine; a solid second-place. Then there are applicants whose web designs leave something substantial to be desired. If you are applying for a job in interactive media, you shouldn’t have web pages that look like they were done by our least able undergraduates. They shouldn’t work only in Internet Explorer. They shouldn’t–if at all possible–be broken. (I realize, I’m throwing stones from a fairly glassy house here, but there it is.)

Who writes your letters matters. It’s annoying, but big names, or at least people who are widely connected, matter as much as the content of a letter. Like for applications to graduate school, letters are often an opportunity to scuttle an applicant rather than boost them. In some cases, applicants are damned by faint praise. It’s a bit of a game, and since we all write letters of recommendation, we can easily grasp when a recommendation is pro forma, or highlights what a great personality someone has, to the exclusion of any other praise. Some people read a lot into the lack of a letter from someone’s doctoral advisor or chair.

Be interesting. Nothing trumps a stellar publication record, awards, accolades, and having already made an obvious stamp on your area of study, but when you are looking at hundreds of applications, someone who has interesting life experience and has leveraged that experience is likely to stand out in the minds of the hiring committee. Again, being interesting alone will do little for you, but given that the short list is littered with really excellent candidates, being able to provide texture that gives some idea of why you would be an interesting colleague to have around is a good idea. Some of that comes in an indication of your non-academic career. That doesn’t mean we need to know that you worked at McDonald’s as a teenager–unless you are applying for a position at Hamburger U, this isn’t something you should leave on your academic resume. For jobs at universities like ours, where professional preparation is held in high esteem, such elements are particularly important, but even in research universities, interesting career experience may help a hiring committee get a feel for your personality and competencies. This doesn’t mean you should include something like “in my spare time, I enjoy the cinema and baking,” but if there is a way to indicate your service to the community or other passions, try to hint at that.

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  1. derek
    Posted 11/28/2007 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Cheers for this. I recall that you used to have some related material up on your wiki — you should put that back up.

  2. Posted 12/2/2007 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    This is really great set of advice. Thanks.

  3. Mike
    Posted 12/21/2007 at 1:36 am | Permalink


    BTW – if you are worried about the tracked changes and you use Outlook, SendShield ( is a neat tool you can use to clean them out. I think you are right – you want to eliminate tracked changes from resumes – regardless of what type of job you are looking for. We’ve got customers that are screen a lot of resumes using SendShield, and they find resumes with tracked changes and laugh. Definitely not a good way to make a first impression!


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  1. […] time ago, I posted some ideas on preparing an application for an academic post. If you are lucky, one or more of the places you applied may ask you to come […]

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