Job market advice columns are a mainstay at Inside Higher Ed. Today’s contribution to the genre discusses the ways you can make yourself stand out by responding specifically to the job ad rather than sending out a generic letter to every school. I was actually surprised to learn that a lot of people really do send out generic application packets to every school — though I understand the motivations behind it, it strikes me as unlikely to be a successful technique. For my part, I customized every cover letter I’ve sent out (nearly 100!). The results speak for themselves: over the course of three years, I got a couple preliminary interviews and one job offer. Go and do likewise, young academics!
What I’d like to see is an advice column for shaping job postings. We have more than enough supply-side advice — it’s time to work on the demand side as well.
For instance, it’s well-known that job postings are often misleading. I applied for one job, for instance, where everyone who saw the listing agreed that I was perhaps the best possible fit in the entire world. I didn’t even get an initial interview, but when I learned who did and what their fields were, I realized that the school was looking for something very different from what I and my correspondents had taken from the listing. What’s more, it would have been a simple matter to say what they were looking for more directly!
Another issue is that searches are sometimes merely pro-forma — the school already knows who they want for the position but is legally required to do a full search. It’s possible to score an upset in such situations, but not likely. And then there’s the question of what institutional pressures are being brought to bear on the department that they really can’t list. For instance, I don’t think it’s actually legal for them to say, “Unless we get an application from a world-historical male genius, we’re going to hire a woman” or “the administration is breathing down our necks to hire a minority.” In the case of religious schools, it can also be unclear whether a member of that religious group is preferred. I’ve heard this is particularly a problem with Catholic schools, even outside of theology departments. (These kinds of priorities are completely legitimate and appropriate — my objection is that they lead to a lot of wasted time on the part of people with no realistic shot at the job.)
And then there are the problems inherent with documents produced by a committee. Which of the desired attributes is a real priority backed by someone with actual influence, and which has been put in to placate a minority position that won’t really be taken seriously in the process? From the other side, which additional facts about you will endear you to the committee — or cause a member to veto you? I’m pretty sure that even individual members of the committee can’t reliably answer these questions.
Of course, from the perspective of university administrators, one of the happy byproducts of the current opaque job listings is that they give hope to a much wider range of applicants than an honest and straightforward one would — hence increasing their willingness to keep adjuncting one more year to stay in the game. Thus I can’t see any real pressure being brought to bear in order to clarify things.