Question: As a faculty member who has served on several search committees, I have seen many candidates who presented themselves quite effectively and many who did not. Could you discuss some mistakes job hunters commonly make and explain in a general way how the process works so we'll have fewer people shooting themselves in the foot?
Mary: We're always delighted to help people avoid disaster. We'll talk about some of the biggest mistakes that applicants make, and in a few months, to be fair, we'll address some of the biggest bloopers made by hiring committees.
Julie: The first opportunity for mistakes to be made comes when a job is announced and candidates are asked to submit written materials. There are many things about the search that you and other candidates may never know and have no control over, such as why a job ad calls for a particular area of expertise. However, you do have complete control over how you conduct yourself when applying, interviewing, and negotiating an offer. When a department announces an opening and asks candidates to submit materials by a certain date, get off to a good start by applying in a timely, thorough, and professional manner. Lots of mistakes occur at this very early stage. Some candidates miss deadlines, or fail to ensure that their letters of recommendation arrive on time. Others don't properly proofread their submissions, or they send far more material than was requested.
Mary: At a more substantive level, many candidates write letters that make it clear they haven't considered the nature of the college, the position, or the potential match between their background and the job. It's important that you understand the nature of an institution, and the qualifications it values, before you start to write your cover letter.The plethora of information that colleges now post about themselves on the Web makes this easy. Does the institution want faculty members who are devoted to teaching undergraduates with weak academic preparation? Does it want people who will be able to attract major research grants and publish in top journals? Does it have strong religious values? It's essential that your letter of application show that you understand the institution.
Julie: Along those lines, be sure you don't confuse one college for another. I've heard faculty members tell of receiving letters of application that gush about a college that bears no resemblance to the one to which the person is applying. In fact some letters give the name of a completely different institution. That's an excellent way to guarantee that your application won't be read. Search committees would like candidates to reread their materials before sending.
Mary: And if you're thinking to yourself, that sounds so dumb, you can't imagine anyone doing it, think again. The stress of a job search can cause people to part company with common sense.
Julie: Even for a careful candidate, things can go wrong. One such candidate, in applying for an assistant professor position she really wanted, sent a writing sample without its bibliography. She stewed for a while about having citations without back-up until she decided to resend the writing sample with the bibliography and include a note stating that this was the complete package and to please substitute it for the one she had sent earlier.
Mary: How sane. There's a good chance the hiring committee didn't even learn of the mistake, since the switch may well have been made by an office staff member. Making mistakes, while not recommended during a job search, is only human. If you realize you've goofed, rather than throwing in the towel, by all means try to set things straight.
Julie: If things go well for you at the paper-screening stage of the interview, there is often a brief screening interview, by phone or at a conference. A subtle but undermining mistake that first-time candidates often make at this stage is failing to stop thinking of themselves as a graduate student (or new Ph.D.) being questioned by professors. A more appropriate and useful way to view oneself in an interview is as a scholar talking to potential colleagues. In the student mode, it's tempting to say what you hope will meet with a committee's approval and to wait until you are asked to talk about issues you consider important to the job. As a peer and a scholar, you share your ideas in as persuasive a fashion as you can and assume the responsibility for trying to make the time an interviewer spends talking to you interesting, productive, and enjoyable.
Mary: If the conversation goes well, you'll be invited to campus and asked to give a presentation on your research. Make sure you don't waste time preparing the wrong sort of talk. You need to know exactly who will be in the audience and you need to know whether you will have access to audio-visual aids. It's always a huge mistake to give your job talk for the first time during the actual interview. Do at least one trial run with a live audience beforehand, even if you have to bribe your friends to listen.
Julie: Some of the worst presentation mistakes come from having failed to anticipate and prepare for the obvious. If your talk is disorganized and you give no context for your research, it won't get better from fretting about it. Tackle it. If your research design has a particular weakness, expect that you will be asked questions that zero in on the weakness and be ready to answer them. Faculty members tell us again and again that the job talk, and how a candidate handles questions during it, is what makes or breaks most interviews.
Mary: The faculty members interviewing you want to see that your research is wonderful and that you know how to make it accessible. How do you handle questions and how do you act on your feet? A good talk alone is not enough. A professor told us of a situation where a candidate appeared to be a perfect match and gave a great talk but didn't show much interest in the institution and its people. After the interview, that candidate was no longer the top choice. Members of the search committee want to see that you are interested in them and their research and that you can interact with students and administrators.
Julie: We can't tell you exactly how to answer some of the questions that you'll be asked, but we do have a few ideas on what you absolutely should not say. A big mistake that is easily avoidable is to answer, "I haven't had time to think about that yet," when asked, "What are your research goals over the next five years?" Members of departments want to know that you have given thought to research beyond your dissertation and that you have original ideas that will enhance the scholarly reputation of the department. Well before your interview, it is crucial to think specifically about your next research plans. You are the expert on your dissertation topic, so you should be able to determine the next logical direction. If you have a good relationship with your adviser or another faculty member, you might want to describe your research plans to that person, just to give yourself a chance to practice.
Mary: However good your answers, having no questions to ask is a big mistake. Even if you've been on campus for three days, always have more questions. Not having questions comes close to implying that you have nothing else to discuss with the people who may be your potential colleagues. Your questions should be thoughtful and interesting and should not imply insult to the committee. Avoid the questions that have already been answered in conversation [asking them shows that you don't listen], those that could be answered with a quick search of the Web site [shows that you don't prepare well], or those that imply that members of the committee have undesirable jobs [shows that you have the social skills of a bulldozer].
Julie: End the search by finding a good balance between appearing interested and overeager. Do send a thank-you letter to the key people who managed your on-campus interview. Don't write to everyone you spoke with briefly during the day. If you've been told they'll make a decision in two weeks and you get a competing offer after one, by all means call and share this information, but don't call daily to see how the search is going. In this, as in everything else leading up to the final stages, ask yourself how you'd feel if you were on the hiring committee, and any mistakes you make will probably be small and easily forgotten, rather than memorable.