• August 29, 2015

Overdoing It in the Hiring Process

It's natural after a job interview to want to feel like you aced it. But one of the contrarian truths of applying for any position, whether it be lumberjack, Baptist preacher, or assistant professor, is that you can overdo it.

You can exaggerate your qualifications, offer too much material, be too intricate in your answers, overreach in describing your research and teaching goals, and come off too strong in persona. The dimensions of the "overdo" are best studied—and guarded against—by looking at each component of the application process.

Cover letters. The head of a social-sciences department told me about one job candidate's letter that ran to nearly a dozen pages. The purpose of a cover letter is to formally notify the search committee that you are applying and to describe how you fit the post. Once you go beyond a page or two of self-description for an assistant-professor position, you are bordering on lexical obesity.

You want key items to stand out in your letter like skyscrapers on a plain. If, for example, you won a teaching award as a doctoral student, say so, and even add some context (the award only goes to one person a year and is voted on by both faculty members and undergraduates). Don't embellish by adding that "everybody praised me for winning the award." The search committee will hear such praise from the proper source, your references.

Teaching philosophy. No single item on the job-application checklist causes as much confusion and anxiety as the statement of teaching philosophy. I recall as painful and stilted my own first attempt to craft one. What could I say that was high-minded enough to qualify as a "philosophy"?

Once again, the best approach is to weigh the goals of the document. Show the hiring committee that you have thought about teaching, and would apply tactics to fit the pedagogical reality and aspirations of the target institution.

Principles and practice should not conflict in your statement. It is fine to write, "I believe every student deserves my personal attention," but someone on the search committee might reasonably ask, "In large lecture classes as well?"

I once read an excellent teaching statement written by a humanities applicant. She affirmed succinctly how she wanted to give each student the "best possible" classroom experience, but she placed the desire in the context of feasibility. She then explained how she prepared for new classes, how she organized the lesson plan, how she graded. She was communicating to the committee that (a) she understood that for its institution, a research university, teaching was one component of the expectations for her professional success and (b) she did not feel she was a perfect teacher but treated her "philosophy" as flexible. She cited some examples of failed assignments and described how she rectified them when she used them again. She came off as someone who took teaching seriously but not arrogantly or obsessively, which matched the culture of the department.

The CV. The format may vary by field and even by institution. Check out the online CV's of members of the search committee; their vitas are a good baseline to follow.

The actual content is guided by two rules of restraint. First, CV's are not a collection of Twitter tweets by a movie star. You do not need to document every event in your life. I have seen CV's stuffed with the topic of each class lecture, hobbies, (nonacademic) travels, even political philosophies. Interesting? Perhaps. Irrelevant? Absolutely. The search committee wants to know about your teaching history, conference presentations, publications, and so on. Don't bury such details in a forest of other material.

Second, the CV is a list of facts, not a propaganda tract. If you, as a doctoral student, designed a new course—an unusual achievement—just list it under a header of "New Courses Designed." Don't include endless description about it there. You can mention such details in passing in your cover letter and have your references talk about the course. Likewise, no need to say that you are well published; listing your publications is sufficient, as the search committee can, and will, count them.

Research presentation. I was a doctoral student when I first realized how a job candidate can overdo a research presentation. I watched an applicant who was poised and polished—indeed, overwhelmingly so, but not in a good way. His PowerPoint showed slide after slide of dense verbiage about a study that he described in Gatling-gun narration. He packed a six-hour lecture into 60 minutes, leaving about 30 seconds for questions. I felt vertigo from all the charts and bullet points flitting by. He was so eager to showcase his work that he forgot that a research presentation is not only about the research but also about your presentation of it—proving you have the ability to speak to groups of peers about your work clearly, concisely, and within time constraints. More is not necessarily better.

An overdone presentation will undermine your candidacy in another way if you are A.B.D. Search committees, professors, and the chair will wonder: Will she finish her dissertation in time to start the job? Be overlong, overcomplex, too wide-ranging, or overambitious in your talk and the impression will be, "Interesting, perhaps impressive, but no way will she finish by August!" Even if you are already an assistant professor, and on the market for a new position, you can undercut your chances with an overblown presentation. Blast the room with a massive research plan of stratosphere-reaching effort and the reaction might be, "I don't think he can pull it off and get tenure."

Teaching presentation. Approach this, too, by understanding its goals and audience. Your objective: to communicate that you are in command of the material, that you can establish and maintain a good rapport with students, and that you are an organized and competent instructor. Your audience will most likely include both students and faculty members.

Here too, you can overdo it. A friend told me about a job candidate who had a series of handouts for his teaching presentation that amounted to several hundred pages per student. Not surprisingly, his PowerPoint clocked in at a hefty 100 slides or more. In another case, I witnessed an assistant professor applying for a tenure-track job who was so eager to show off his brilliance that his high leaps of theory and dense statistical analysis flummoxed the undergraduates to whom he was speaking. He convinced the committee that he was indeed a smart fellow but a poor teacher.

Interviews. Your interview will include a lot of conversations. It is damaging to be overrehearsed—to answer every question like a politician at a debate who has memorized a stock answer and can't depart from his talking points. Reciting is not talking, and interviews are about showing you can listen as much as proving you can speak.

And don't talk too much. If you have a 15-minute conference interview, taking 14 minutes to answer the question "What is your dissertation about?" will not leave anyone awed—only dulled into daydreaming.

Overdoing it in your application materials or during an interview smacks of either arrogance or insecurity. Self-discipline and taking into account the wants and needs of the audience are traits everyone seeks in a prospective new colleague.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa.


1. snwiedmann - January 21, 2010 at 07:16 am

This essay should be handed to every new Ph.D. and A.B.D. before they start their job searches. Having served on a number of search committees, I can only confirm whole-heartedly every point made by Prof. Perlmutter. Thank you, Prof. Perlmutter! Now let us hope it is taken to heart.

2. davi2665 - January 21, 2010 at 07:45 am

Excellent observations about "death by powerpoint." There is seldom any reason for a 1 hr presentation to use more than 10-12 slides, not the usual 100 slides that newly minted researchers like to use in an attempt to wow the audience. Unfortunately, more established professors often commit the same excesses. For teaching, I enjoyed the good ol' days, when a professor developed a diagram or explanation on a chalkboard, allowing the students to keep up, ask questions, and have a discussion as the diagram was developed. Now, instruction often consists of dozens to hundreds of data-packed, incomprehensible powerpoint slides, later put up on some website without any discussion, explanation, or integrative insights about what is intended. Unfortunately, in many classrooms, one cannot even find a chalkboard or whiteboard. No wonder so many students become disengaged.

3. dperlmutter - January 21, 2010 at 07:58 am

Thanks! Davi2665, I love your point about chalk vs. ppt.. See articles about "teaching naked" in CHE. Some profs are doing it. You might call it organic learning. The students can follow you as you lead them. I even think calling a student up to the blackboard (the thing, not the software) to help solve a problem worked great. Still, it would be quite a gamble for a job candidate to go naked for his/ her teaching presentation. You either would get the job on the spot or would go down in flames. But they would certainly remember your audacity.

--David Perlmutter

4. acctteach - January 21, 2010 at 08:33 am

For those classrooms that do not have a chalkboard or whiteboard, you can get a digital whiteboard that works with the projector, since ALL classrooms have projectors for those horrible power points. This way, it still works like a whiteboard, but cleanup is much quicker!

5. recent_grad - January 21, 2010 at 01:55 pm

Amen to that! As an engineering student, I encountered a lot of the "let's teach from a powerpoint" mentality. When slides are pre-printed (which, let's face it, is the only way to keep up in this style of class) students are practically invited to daydream in class. Though the slides are shown on the board, I've noticed that most of my teachers had trouble indicating exactly what they were teaching. Even laser pointers force vague circles around the intended area of focus. The teachers that write on the chalkboard and build upon their ideas as the lesson progresses are the ones that are easiest to follow and (generally) most likely to keep students' attention.

6. davi2665 - January 21, 2010 at 01:58 pm

David- One of the most productive and rewarding forms of teaching, especially with medical students, veterinary students, or nursing students, is to develop challenging case-based problem solving sessions for small groups, and then fully engage all of the students in the classroom to help think their way through the problem. The students develop lists of possibilities, come up with predictions about what they might find accompanying each of their chosen possibilities, and then have a discussion about how they might go about using this approach. It also affords a great opportunity to discuss health care disparities, ethical issues, cost effectiveness, evidence based practice, community health issues, and a host of integrative issues. It is SO much better than the monotonous droning of a disinterested professor slamming powerpoint slide after slide in front of the students to show how knowledgeable he/she is in research. The most enjoyable basis for success with this type of teaching is getting to know the students personally, helping them develop their skills and fill in for possible weaknesses, and getting them enthusiastically engaged in creating real and practical value for the information they are learning.

7. johntoradze - January 21, 2010 at 02:10 pm

Personally, I think everyone should be interviewed without the walker of powerpoint slides. I think 99% of teaching should be without overhead foils. This separates those who can think and who understand their field from those who don't.

I quote a Senior VP of marketing directly, "Our people are out there jetlagged and hungover, which makes them brainless monkeys when they get up to talk. A powerpoint presentation can be delivered by a brainless monkey." I wrote that down. We met because she wanted to know how I got the highest rating at their industry conferences for my talks. I told her how to do it by socratic method, working with the audience to bring them through the process of understanding. I told her, "Throw out your powerpoints. Require your people to use a one page handout and a whiteboard. Talk to the audience and ask them questions to gauge their understanding." The above was part of her response.

"The powerpoint slide is the lowest bandwidth communication method ever invented by man." - Edward Tufte

8. roboprof - January 21, 2010 at 02:29 pm

The points about written materials are great.

However, I'm left feeling after the interview section that the column writer is a little out of touch with the job "market."

The truth is, you can work all you like on your interviewing skills, but there is a randomness to getting selected for campus visits that depends on factors not strictly in the applicant's control (for example, personality).

I've gone into interviews underprepared and not gotten campus visits.

I've gone into interviews overprepared and not gotten campus visits.

I've gotten along well personality-wise with committees, and no campus visit.

My best interviews? All of them resulted in no campus visit.

Mediocre interviews? Some of those resulted in campus visits.

At my first interview ever, I was scared into near silence and forgot what my research even was. I got a campus visit for that one but I wouldn't exactly advise stuttering and forgetting whether the university is public or private.

What I've been trying to do this year is be myself, and for heaven's sakes, not forget who I am and what I do in the process of trying to make myself into the perfect candidtate for a specific school. My satisfaction with my own interview performance has increased tremendously. I'm not an idiot. I am actually doing better than the first time I talked to people about my research and teaching.

However, the competition is changing. Even in just 3 years on the job market, I've seen things change dramatically.

My first year on the market I had several interviews, all of which were some degree of awful, and 3 campus visits. I was literally scared silent the whole time on each visit. I ended up with a job offer, despite my lack of confidence. However, I'm pretty sure that I would not advise anyone else to have the personality of a pet rock on a campus visit. I got lucky.

Right now, there's a backlog of wonderful candidates out there. All of them have great research and teaching experience. So now it's not just about being qualified. It's coming down to the right "fit," and darnit, I'm an academic. I live in my head, and I spend most of my time pursuing solitary activities (for example, research, or reading, or grading tests). I've been a misfit my whole life and I'm not suddenly going to figure out how to be universally popular. I suppose I could get a personality coach to help me figure out how to express the "right" amount of confidence and preparation. Then again, how would I find one who would know what no one knows?

There is no magic formula for getting a job, at least in the humanities. You have to be a good candidate, sure, but there are hundreds of good candidates for every job. Most importantly, you have to be lucky. Every candidate who gets to the first round interview is great.

Bottom line: the interview advice should be to be prepared, and to be oneself, inasmuch as candidates can remember who they are and what's important to them in such an intense situation. Beyond that? There's not a lot we can do.

9. dperlmutter - January 21, 2010 at 07:33 pm

Roboprof: Oh, yes, Ecclesiastes is right more than ever: "Chance and circumstance" matter.

I have joked with my grad students that before they go on a job interview they should stand on a rock and recite Lucan's Caesar....


But I don't think that means you should not carevabout the quality of your applications. Luck is always a factor but it's not all random. Commitees don't just roll dice. Also, I have noticed that often non insiders don't know what really swayed a SC. So it might seem luck to an outsider but some nonrandom factor was at work. The candidates I described above probably went home thinking they dazzled. I'm not saying that was true for you...but Sometimes you just don't know.

Others: You are suggesting an important point. Teaching naked may indeed reclaim the classroom from the programmed Saragasso...

10. roboprof - January 22, 2010 at 08:03 am

Actually, I wasn't suggesting that people be cavalier about their interviews. I always prepare very thoroughly for an interview and I expect that others do the same.

I thought, based on the article title, that you were suggesting that candidates learn a sort of sprezzatura--a sort of carefully crafted nonchalance--that would be the magic formula for job-getting. You seem to be suggesting that less, not more, work go into the preparation process, without specifying what exactly that means. No reading the school mission statement on the website? No scouring the course catalog for things a candidate might teach?

I think that candidates should not try to "do less" for an interview in the hopes of being a better fit. I think that each candidate should research the school and more or less memorize the job description (and remember it, when they are inevitably asked why they'd be a good fit). I also subscribe to the traditional line that they should have something coherent to say about their research, in long and short versions.

Maybe I lose out in interviews because it's too easy for me to describe my work? After a few interviews, it does get simpler to answer the same questions. Perhaps that comes off as glibness, when it's actually just the result of practice.

However, I'm not going to endorse any advice that urges candidates to hide their skills and competency.

If you've got any tips on being fully prepared for an interview without coming across as over-enthusiastic, I'm listening. The attitude that you describe is a very fine thing for, say, a courtier to ascribe to, but you know, you're talking to academics, and we need a little bit more concrete help with social nuance. If I knew how to be enthusiastic, but not overly so, and competent, but not overly so, I have a feeling I'd be running for local office somewhere, not looking for a tenure track.

11. texasguy - January 22, 2010 at 10:43 am

A good research presentation should show at the same time that you are doing interesting work and that you present it to various audiences, including specialists and non-specialists.

I believe that a good talk should include "a little bit of everything." By this I mean an introduction and some developments that can interest everyone, more advanced topics that can still be understood and appreciated by most of your potential future colleagues and a few minutes dedicated to the most arcane parts of your work.

Your future colleagues should leave the room thinking that your research topic is interesting, that they could follow most of your work even though some parts of it were quite sophisiticated.

I have been through a few recruiting talks that did not make any sense to non-specialists and at least one talk that was so elementary that it was almost insulting. I could not stand it and left at the first opportunity, something I hope never to have to do again.

12. honore - January 22, 2010 at 10:57 am

question...is "overenthused" even a word?
sort of like "to party" as a verb?

13. kimpausetucker - January 22, 2010 at 04:31 pm

When I was a student, I liked having powerpoint slides available to me to study from... scrambling to write down everything a professor says during a class period is incredibly daunting and scary. What if you write something down incorrectly? What if you spell something wrong and you can't ever find it again?

That being said, I have also had professors who threw way too much into their powerpoints and made it so difficult to comprehend (and pay attention) that it was also overwhelming.

This is my first semester teaching my own class, and I am trying to learn different techniques to keep the students engaged. For my subject, I don't see how I could possibly draw out each of the complex figures that I have on the powerpoint slides (I started drawing out a small pedigree chart on Thursday and it was taking way too long). I think Powerpoint is somewhat of a necessary evil for those of us in the sciences, and (if used properly) it allows us to provide the students with a base from which to take additional notes and pay attention in class.

Also, Powerpoint is completely equivalent to those profs who used overhead projectors back when I was in high school and early college. They would toss an overhead up, talk about it for mere seconds, and then whip it off before you could scribble everything down. Yet I've never heard the term "death by overhead projector." Maybe I just haven't been paying attention long enough. :)

14. cognow - January 23, 2010 at 05:16 pm

The problem is not PowerPoint, it's the user. A PP presentation needs to be very carefully composed and edited, then delivered well. During my postdoc, a famous professor told me that my slides were great and asked for them. He then pasted his text onto my slide design and layout. He mistakenly thought that the layout was responsible for my easily followed talk. Not so. I outlined, organized, shuffled and edited information until I had a coherent story. Then I practiced the talking points and transitions for each slide, making sure that it flowed logically and I could add simple explanatory points and anecdotes to bring each point home. A slide presentation does not preclude asking questions of your audience to engage them in discussion. You can actually get a great response to a question by putting it on a slide and leaving it up during the discussion. No one forgets what the question is! PowerPoint is just a tool--not a substitute for good speaking or teaching skills. No one blames the word processing program for a crappy manuscript, why blame PP for a boring, incoherent talk?

15. chron7 - January 23, 2010 at 07:47 pm

This article, like many, reveals that the majority of CoHE readers are in the humanities. I'm a scientist. I could have given my interview without Powerpoint, but then I couldn't have shown my research results. I don't write long treatises. I write concise publications that fit a rather narrow format for publication. Yes, there are still skills required to give a good presentation. But if you are telling me the only way to do well is to limit myself to chalk and blackboard, my only response is that you are behind the times.

And case-based discussions in the classroom are a great idea. When I'm teaching, that is. Not interviewing.

16. ots1927 - January 26, 2010 at 10:59 am

Nice article. I certainly can't argue with any of the advice it offers, but I will say that I wouldn't want to hire for my department any candidiate not smart enough to figure all of this out for himself/herself.

17. honore - February 01, 2010 at 08:18 pm

News Flash...

We do not need to look any further for the overuse,abuse and misuse of PP presentations that our professional conferences to "get it".

Currently, there are legions of conference fleas (aka "experts", "consultants" and "mentors") who make lots of money morphing last week's PP conference presentation into this week's "new and fresh" conference presentation on....hmmmmmmmm????? "leadership and fashion" or something just as significant.

Usually the slide backgrounds are changed from atomic explosions or dripping cytoplasms to bouncing penguins, neon thunderbolts and disappearing confetti text.

You can always spot these scamsters BEFORE their presentations by their life-size Glamour Shot cardboard cut-out of themselves in the lobby of conference center. I always put mustaches on them...it doesn't hurt so much then when I sit through their cutting edge and visionary "presentations".

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