Monday, November 13, 2006

Some unveiling of the rules

At the conference last week, I ran into a fellow who looked just too familiar. I asked if he had been a graduate student at the university I completed my undergraduate studies. Sure enough, only he hadn't been the TA I thought he was. But he was there during my time there. He's a large man with a very large presence; the kind of person who walks into a room, and everyone notices. He exudes a welcoming and approachable air. We'll call him Big Presence Guy.

So, I approached him, and we talked. He must have asked something about my current status, which led to a discussion of the job search. He's now a tenured Associate Prof at a mid-sized school in the West. He seemed eager to play the role of mentor; and I was just as content to be the patient. He offered to look over my CV and cover letters and such, and give me his feedback. I welcomed the offer. He sent me an email last week, to be sure I had his contact info. I replied with a copy of my CV, a recent cover letter, and an invitation for him to visit my PRW (Personal Research Website).

Here is the bulk of his reply:

I've had a bit of time now to look over the material, and it is all very impressive. Really, I don't have too many "critiques", per se--you seem to have things covered very well. Just a couple of observations, which may reflect my own personal preferences quite as much as any objective perspective.

(1) The cover letter is very impressive, but I think that the detailed material describing your research interests, research activities, and areas of expertise might better be included in a "Summary of Research Interests" or something similar, as a single-sheet add-in to your CV. I typically will include a "Bio" page, separate from the collated CV; this "Summary" could be the same.

My rule of thumb is always to say (1) "in what situations and for what purposes by what persons will this application and its constituent parts be reviewed?" and (2) "what do those persons want to see clearly, immediately, readily, and conveniently?"

For me, this typically translates in the following dicta:

(a) Make sure each constituent element is clearly labeled in common parlance: if it's a cover letter, make it a single-page cover letter that begins "Dear [Selection Committee][Chair][Professor X]." If it's a "Summary of Research Interests," include a separate sheet, so labeled. Don't confuse the committee by making them wade through six dense paragraphs about your research when the primary function of the cover letter is simply to say "this is who I am and that is the post I am interested in." If you feel it is important to include detail about your research interests (and I would not say that was mistaken), include it in a separate constituent which can be put aside while they read other materials.

(b) Make sure each constituent element is handy, portable, and convenient. Visualize the situation in which the material will be reviewed: once (if you're lucky) by each individual committee member, sitting at her/his desk, skimming quickly through each constituent and mentally checking a list to make sure all portions are present; and a second time (if you're lucky) by the committee, seated together around a conference table, passing materials from hand-to-hand. You want to emphasize a physical format for your materials that facilitates and streamlines both these processes.

Typically, that means that items which are free-standing should be grouped together (obviously), and that, if possible, you should have more separate single-sheet items than large agglomerated items. Obviously, the CV will be multi-page (and stapled or clipped), but the cover letter, the "Brief Bio," and the "Summary of Research Interests" should, all, ideally, be brief, to the point, clearly labeled, separate, and single-sheet (or, if multi-sheet, stapled/clipped).

(2) The detail, scope, and rigor of your research is very impressive--but it is not (in most cases) the reason an institution will hire you. Typically, schools hire *senior* professors (already-tenured, associate or full rank) for their research profiles, and "junior" professors (adjunct, visiting, assistant) for (a) their ability to carry the requisite teaching load for the post and (b) their *promise* for future research. The typical committee will be much more interested in "can this person cover the load of the person departing, and perhaps bring some new/additional skills to the table?" rather than "does this person have the most impressive bibliography of work in her/his specialization?"

So I might suggest re-tailoring both your cover letter and the physical format of your CV to address what is, from an outside perspective, a comparatively small ratio of "meat & potatoes" [Field 1/subfield 1] courses to courses in your specialization [Field 2 & Interdisciplinary Field]. The committee wants to feel confident that you are (a) experienced and (b) skillful at teaching the core classes; that is what pays their credit hours and your salary.

If it happens that you don't have extensive experience at such meat & potatoes courses, do two things:

(a) address this directly in your cover letter, articulating that while you "realize that the CV shows relatively little work in mainstream course-teaching, [I] am very interested in teaching such topics and very ready to develop interesting, effective, and challenging syllabi on them", and

(b) get some experience doing it: community college, prep school, etc. 90% of the institutions in the world are not hiring research specialists: they are hiring team players who can handle mainstream courses while *also* pursuing interesting and marketable research (I know, it's not fair, but that in my observation is how it works).

(3) [PRW] is very impressive: clean, challenging, evidence of initiative and ongoing original research. I would consider two modifications in how you present the site in your application:

(a) Make more of an emphasis upon it in the physical application package. Put this, and a description of its significance, in your cover letter, in place of the lengthy research narrative. Point to it in your email .sig file, and encourage committee members (in the letter or in your email exchanges) to visit the site.

(b) You might consider building a separate html page on the site, specifically a "Welcome to Senior Faculty" or something similar, which provides a summary, statement of purpose, and explication of the significance both of your research and of the site's applicability. Point the committee to this summary page, rather than simply to the home page. Just visiting the site at its root home page does not really convey to a mainstream academic answers to what [Distinguished Professor in Field 1] calls the "so what?" and "who cares?" questions. I'm sure you have very articulate ways of answering those questions: put thoses responses in a special page and point committee members there first.

Please understand that I offer the above not because of major problems in the package--I don't see any such. But these observations may possibly help you step "outside" the materials a bit and consider the above small re-conceptualizations.

good luck.



Greg said...

Very cool that he provided comments that detailed, and as someone who has served on hiring committees, I think it's good advice.

Terminaldegree said...

What great comments.

Breena Ronan said...

I wish I could get that detailed of comments about my dissertation proposal.

Lilian said...

AD, this post is heaven sent. I'll study it carefully as I draft my letter tonight. Thank you so much for sharing these comments.

I am about to apply to an area (Brazilian lit/ studies which is one of my specializations), but my PhD was in another, more interdisciplinary area, so I don't have any experience teaching Portuguese, although I clearly have the ability to do so (being Brazilian, having a B.A. in Portuguese and writing my diss on Brazilian lit). So this will help.