How to get a(n academic) job: Applications

Advice for Early Career Academics on applying for jobs in the humanities.


  1. Here's my original blogpost on this topic, with useful feedback from Kate Cooper in the comments section:
  2. And here are some of the suggestions my excellent friends, colleagues and social correspondents have contributed so far - further comments very welcome indeed; I'll continute to keep this page updated.
  3. Cover Letter
    First up:
  4. Elisabeth Dutton tells a useful story about a very high-flying student of hers who was having a suprising amount of trouble getting shortlisted for jobs: "I bumped into him as he was preparing an application, and he asked me to proof read his cover letter. It was awful. It was all about proving how clever he was: not only all his grades, but also who had invited him to contribute what, all his prizes and funding... it just made him sound arrogant. And it was totally unnecessary because his CV already listed all these things: it is perfectly clear that he is clever. What it *didn't* show was what motivated him academically -- what were the big ideas that turn him on -- nor why he would be interested for a moment in working in this particular post, at this particular university. We re-wrote it: as I said to him, the CV clearly demonstrates his intellect, but what was exciting to him academically? and in particular what academic interests did he share with other members of his prospective department (several, once he started thinking about it)? and what projects might they develop together? He got the job. Most panels are capable of realizing that the unique intellectual genius is a silly student myth, and that many of the applicants are clever enough to do the job: what is more important is their capacity to organize themselves to actually publish stuff, or apply for funding, or understand their students' needs."
  5. On the content of the letter, traditionally divided in large part into Teaching and Research, Lisa Kallet adds: "remember in the research paragraph/s to keep the Big Picture in mind; give enough detail to convey method and show depth and make it exciting, but keep in mind that you're just trying to get an interview!"

    Michaele Ferguson points out that you should also address the important question “What have you published?”. You may not have published much at this stage, but it is well worth emphasising your achievements on this score. She adds "I would not recommend sending a shorter letter when teaching and research statements have also been requested; it might read incorrectly as a lack of interest or seriousness. Just be sure not to use the same sentences in the cover letter and the statements. I always assume readers will not look at all of the materials that have been requested" - an anthropological observation well worth bearing in mind: however diligent they are, committee members are likely to focus on one part of the application (the cover letter in many cases, or sometimes the CV) as their 'way in' to each candidate.

    Michaele also notes that references to administrative experience (in US terms 'service') should only be included in the cover letter as well as the CV if they are both substantial and relevant to the job posting, and she suggests a very useful amendment to my advice on letter structure: "I would not put the teaching section of the letter first for liberal arts colleges. I would only do that for lower-tier liberal arts colleges and/or institutions that are clearly teaching-heavy (i.e. 6+ classes a year). For top liberal arts colleges, they want to know about your research. Plus, explaining your research well is a sign of someone who will be able to teach difficult material well."
  6. Lisa Mignone agrees that I got it wrong about putting teaching before research in applications to certain kinds of institutions: "It's standard to put research first, then teaching. In the USA the hiring divide between R1s and SLACs seems to be not so defined -- both are looking for top-notch researchers and teachers. That is to say, it's important to go "all in" on the research section in a cover letter to either type of institution."
  7. Portrait painting of a girl with writing-tablet and stylus (sometimes called Sappho after the poetess), Pompeii, Italy. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
    Portrait painting of a girl with writing-tablet and stylus (sometimes called Sappho after the poetess), Pompeii, Italy. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
  8. Several people wrote to point out that students can assume too much on the basis of their own experience at one university (or at a few very similar ones), and rely too much on their experience there in their letters: there's not much point in talking endlessly what a great tutorial teacher you are, for instance, if you aren't applying for a job at Oxford or Cambridge. Conversely, your amazing skills teaching large classes might not matter much to the search committee if you are. The trick is to show how your experience speaks - even indirectly and with a bit of rethinking - to this job. (And in general it's probably a good idea if you are from Oxford or Cambridge not to bang on continually about how things work there, since they don't work that way anywhere else.)
  9. Boris Chrubasik has some useful reflections on how to negotiate the difference between teaching experience and expectations, both in class and during the application process:
  10. "The crux is obvious - a perceived inability to lecture due to tutorials as the only teaching experience. Now on the one hand this is of course not just perceived - yes, standing in front of a room of 50, or 250 students is very different than sitting in a tutorial. Yet the difference seems to be more of genre, and does not need to be systemic. The strengths of the tutorial system are firstly, that material can be individually tailored to students' needs while at the same time meeting set standards, and secondly, a close exposure to primary (and secondary) material. Of course people will think a candidate is crazy if they claim to tailor material to 60+ students, but the difference between goal and achievement might change the perspective: even in tutorials one at times is confronted with students with very differing needs and abilities, and keeping in mind when writing lectures that this lecture should give something to everyone in the classroom makes it perhaps a little harder to write, but more rewarding for everyone involved.

    One excellent way of achieving 'individual' tailoring in big classes is with primary documents (and here we come to the second tutorial strength): we all know that students get empowered by primary material ('you know as much as any one else'), but sometimes we seem to forget it in lectures. giving material (even if it's short) to students beforehand and giving them an opportunity to discuss it with their neighbour before discussing material during a lecture does reduce lecture time (and this is often perceived as precious), but not only does it raise the general attention level, after a few weeks one can ask targeted questions, from the descriptive, light analysis to heavy analysis and keep certain groups of students in mind. In my experience this creates an invaluable connection with the students where they feel they contribute meaningfully to the lecture, and finely tuned tutorial experience can enable the instructor to raise different levels of questions and identify certain groups of students quickly and gallantly.

    My students love it, and rave about the document analyses in their evaluations. I do it in all my courses, not just on the 300+ level. Of course if this whole complex idea of how one wanted to teach a class, one would then have to think carefully how heavily one would want to promote it during an interview process - again only the finely tuned ability to analyse people (in addition to texts) can help here."

    Finally, Becky Martin advises: "Have your advisers read your letter carefully. It's not uncommon to see referees describe their students' work better than the applicant - something to avoid."
  11. CV
    We start with a plea from Arietta Papaconstaninou: "can someone tell people to start their CV with their current position so one can immediately get a sense of who/what they are?"

    Boris Chrubasik adds: "honest but detailed knowledge of languages is always welcome, and if referees are mentioned (which I would encourage), they should indeed be those who also will send the letters."

    Becky Martin has sensible advice: "Use precise language and subheadings so that you don't look like you're trying to pad the publications. I find the guidelines from the College Art Association (the standard in mine field) very useful.

    Views differ on whether publications should be listed in forward or reverse chronological order, though the consensus is that the latter is becoming ever more the norm, and is perhaps the safest best. Views on the ideal length of CVs also differ, and depend in part on whether, for instance, one includes the date, time, title and location of every paper ever given...some of us find this sort of thing a bit otiose, not to mention an invitation to count how many talks have been converted into publications, but on the other hand plenty of universities like their staff to keep such records. The truth is that the length is less important than the formatting: a CV should be easy to read and above all avoid irrelevant references to hobbies, children, sporting achievements - and photographs. And remember that potential employers do not usually need to know your date of birth and should never want to know your marital status.
  12. Statements on Research and Teaching
    Andrew Wilson: "Research statements should always highlight the research questions that are to be addressed; frame these as questions, in such a way that the reader actually wants to know what the answer might be. Don't say that you are going to draw together the evidence for X, and leave it at that."

    Michaele Ferguson: "I recommend having a professor observe you when you teach, so that person can write about your teaching in their letter."
  13. Boris Chrubasik suggests that "with a lack of teaching evaluations in many UK institutions, I think it's still important to include an evaluation paragraph in the teaching dossier which states why there are no evaluations and what students thought of one's courses, adding that one of the referees (ideally the teaching reference) will make further comments on performance and student satisfaction."

    The ideal length for these statements is again debated - but (pace specific guidance in the further particulars) the norm seems to be somewhere between single page, single spaced, and double page, 1.5 spaced.
  14. Writing Sample: remember to number the pages!
  15. References
    Llewelyn Morgan emphasises the importance of sharing and discussing your work with scholars other than your supervisor, which will be good for the work, and may well increase the number of people you can call on as referees:
  16. Lisa Mignone points out that it is useful to have one reference letter address teaching: "I've advised my students to have someone other than their adviser come observe their classes, read their teaching evaluations, and comment on their teaching ability. "Other than their adviser" because then the adviser's letter can focus on research. Of course it is always worthwhile to have the letter-writer indicate how the applicant brings his/her research into the classroom. Also on the subject of letters -- if a prof has written a letter for you in the past, ask him/her what he/she needs to update that letter. You application should be as up to date as possible, and a letter your adviser wrote you two years ago when you were applying for dissertation fellowships isn't going to get you the job now that your dissertation is done."
  17. Deborah Cameron adds: "unfortunately I do think it's sound advice, especially for the US, to try to get someone to write for you whose name does carry some weight in the field concerned."

    Bruce Hitchner notes that it is useful to have at least one reference from outside your 'home' institution, and brings up the interesting issue of additional letters of recommendation, which can be useful for US applications, but might backfire with British ones: "If the application calls for only two or three letters, one might indicate in the cover letter that additional letters could be provided upon request, perhaps even including the names of recommenders. I have personally found it useful to have more than two or three letters as additional letters often provide different perspectives on the applicant than one might miss in a mentor or faculty under whom s/he has worked."

    If you have additional references available, but aren't sure whether sending them is a good idea, you could seek advice from the person advertised as the contact for the job as to whether such extra letters would be welcome.
  18. An important reminder from Elisabeth Dutton: "Different universities take very different approaches to reference letters. Some universities still give them considerable prominence early in decision processes, for instance, but other universities don't, not even take them up until after short-listing, as they are a sort of 'security check' rather than the basis of a decision. This means that candidates applying for the former kind of jobs but using referees from elsewhere may need to explain to their referees what is required -- that they will need to write a lengthy letter, not just a 'yes, it would be ok to appoint this person' sort of note. Similarly, candidates applying for jobs in the latter category [which is increasingly the norm, even at Oxford - ed.] cannot rely on referees to communicate things -- letters may not even be taken up until after a provisional decision is made." She also suggests that it may be possible when making an application to ask how references will be used, if this is not clear from the job ad.
  19. For an idea of the direction of travel here, Antonia Bance tells me that "in my field (NGOs) there is not really any point asking for written refs as no-one will give any longer (HR depts give statements confirming the length of employment, no more, for fear of lawsuits). It's likely to transfer at some point, so worth warning people that if they receive a one line reference then they shouldn't assume anything about the applicant..."
  20. In general...
    Andrew Wilson: Make sure the application letter, CV, and supporting materials are free of spelling and grammatical mistakes. So obvious it shouldn't need saying - but it does!

    Watch out for bad formatting too, notes Boris Chrubasik - apart from anything else, it can be a real distraction.

    And finally, look for help: if you aren't too embarrassed to send your application to a job search committee you shouldn't be too embarrassed to show it to your friends and advisers.
  21. For more resources and support, see these excellent sites: The Theoretical Mentor and The Professor is In (this last via Kara Cooney). Both are US-based: suggestions for other resources very welcome. There's also a great post on this topic by Sophie Columbeau: