The Big Picture Faculty Job Search

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Soaring eagle

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email asking for some resources on “how to write an intellectual biography of the sort that many job applications ask you to write.”

Another person was copied on this query about research statements, who responded by echoing the first writer’s uncertainty, along with a grain of frustration. “[M]any of us, he wrote, “are concerned about these types of exercises in job applications….[T]he elements are in the eye of the beholder (not just the search committee, but each individual member of the search committee).” Moreover, he found the entire genre rather bizarre: “somewhere between Isaiah Berlin and John Dewey, with the style of Philip Roth.”

These two grad students sound pretty stressed out, don’t they? Only they weren’t grad students. One (who started the email thread) is a full professor at Duke. The other is a scholar and executive director of a major humanities learned society.

And here they were, exchanging emails with me about that curious job application document commonly known as the research statement. Both had advisees and mentees who needed to know, and they were seeking as much information as they could. As luck had it, I’d covered this topic with my summer academic job search group (twelve doctoral students) the previous day, so I sent them my talking points and some of the same resources I’d used earlier. Both thanked me, and said they’d be passing the information along within their networks.

This exchange confirmed something I’d long suspected: at least some faculty members (dedicated mentors and seasoned academics, no less) share with doctoral students some degree of confusion about certain academic job search conventions.

What should we take away from this exchange? Aren’t there Rules of the Job Search? (Karen Kelsky says so!) Doesn’t every faculty member, on every hiring committee, at every institution of higher education have a mind-meld, when it comes to understanding how academic job candidates are supposed to present themselves? Or what constitutes a good set of application materials? Isn’t this knowledge automatically conferred, as soon as one signs the first tenure-track faculty contract?

Well, no. For starters, consider that research statements are requested more frequently by search committees now (typically at R1 schools) than they were ten or twenty years ago. And two decades ago, diversity statements were practically unheard of. Many of the people now sitting on hiring committees never had to write these pithy reflections.  And while cover letters and CVs have been around for a good long while, how do we know good ones when we see them?

It’s complicated, because context means a lot. The perfect letter for the R1 hiring committee can be completely wrong for other types of schools, in ways that sometimes only those inside the organization can know or understand. For ultimately, it’s not about a stellar set of job applications, but whether there’s a happy fit among candidate, committee, and institution.

Those fits emerge from the right mix of many different ingredients. So when I work with prospective job applicants, I review the conventions (as I understand them) for different application documents, with the enormous caveat that It All Depends. And to help manage the risks of many unknowns, I urge students to circulate their materials among a trusted network of faculty, mentors, and peers.

Many of us are averse to risk and uncertainty, especially in high-stakes situations like a job search. I’ve had students tell me, on occasion, that they’d prefer more directives and concrete advice on such matters. I can see how rules might ease the considerable discomfort of Not Knowing, and help students feel some control over the process. But handing out a hard and fast set of job search rules—universally applicable in all situations—does students a terrible disservice. Upholding an absolute set of “rules” is problematic because they rarely apply in all situations, and they give students a false sense of a market that runs on logic, predictability, and (imagine!) even fairness.

And something worse can happen. By clinging to a real or imagined set of rules, students might fail to develop the most important competencies and skills for landing jobs, both now and later. Well-crafted job applications carefully address the priorities signaled in job advertisements. They showcase an applicant’s strengths in ways that suggest a good fit with both the hiring institution and the specific department or program. They make tired reviewers perk up, suggest that the applicant might give an equally engaging interview, and conjure images of a great colleague.

There’s more art than science in this “big picture” approach to applying for jobs. It’s an intellectual exercise that under other circumstances might actually feel fun. Writing application materials probably won’t be fun, but I do tell students to work on them when they are feeling their best, so that letters convey a sincere enthusiasm and intellectual energy. And those qualities, along with evidence of institutional fit, are what hiring committees seek.

The big picture job application is less about writing to rules or processes (which we can control) and more about writing towards a desired outcome. While we can try to influence an outcome, we can never predict or control it. Given the depth of talent seeking faculty positions, the academic job search very much remains a realm of uncertainty. It’s also the place from which applicants, unfettered by rules and fear, can express themselves most authentically.  The job search documents are your space, and yours alone,  to articulate your emerging identity as a scholar, teacher, and future colleague in jargon-free prose.

So, returning to my email correspondence on research statements, should we be worried that even professors are willing to admit to something less than consensus or mastery regarding various job search practices? If you are attached to the notion of a orderly, rule-bound job market (which rewards the rule-followers), you should, perhaps, be worried. Otherwise, it’s time to draw on every skill you’ve honed in your doctoral training—including critical reading, framing compelling, accessible arguments, marshalling evidence, and knowing your audience—and get to work. And don’t forget collaboration and teamwork, because there are lots of people in your network—including faculty, staff, and peers—who may fall short of omniscience, but will do everything in their power to help you find your way.


Public domain photo from PDpics