• December 22, 2014

Your Unofficial Job-Application Checklist

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

A month ago, I wrote about the "official" materials you submit for a tenure-track academic hire, like a statement of your teaching philosophy and a list of references. But in the Internet age, you are more than the sum of those formal documents. The "unofficial" part of your application is what exists about you online.

I call inquisitive Web searching by a hiring committee "oogling." In 2009 I wrote columns about the role of social media, especially Facebook, in undermining or helping your job search. But the times and the portals are a-changin'.

Social media have become ubiquitous, and new platforms and technologies, like Pinterest and Instagram, have emerged. Social media have also permeated the academic profession, especially among younger scholars, and have become a much more positive factor in hiring. In my own field it seems that almost every job ad seeks someone with strengths in "digital" or social media. William Pannapacker reported in these pages from the digital-humanities frontiers, "No DH, No Interview." He was intentionally exaggerating, but the trend is real. When you see a job ad for "Medieval and Early Modern European History and Digital Humanities," you know something new is afoot.

Hiring itself, for almost any profession but certainly in academe, has become, at least in part, online-enabled. Social media in particular are the new background check and for many the new (supplementary) CV. The ethics of oogling are up for debate, and the legal issues are many: Did a hiring committee use a Web search to uncover information about a candidate's religion or marital status that they were not allowed to ask during the interview? Did a committee seek negative online information about one candidate yet leave another candidate unscanned? Just know this: You will be oogled as a job candidate, and the results may affect your future.

In short, it's time for an update and recasting of the role of social media in academic-career advancement. The political consultant Raymond Strother always argues that, "The most important message in any political campaign is the candidate." Indeed. When academic departments make their hires this year, they will not be selecting just CV's, but job candidates and their official and unofficial application materials.

So what should you post, and what should (and can) you delete from your online profile?

Audit and edit your online presence. This far into the social-media era, I am still surprised to find that people—especially graduate students and new faculty members—have not audited their own online profile. Ten years ago Internet-searching your name daily or weekly could be called vanity; now it is a professional necessity. Step one to being ready for the job market is to survey and assess what is out there about you that other people may read, hear, and see.

Enter your name—including variations with your middle name and initials—into search engines like Bing and Google. Look in "images" as well as text. Focus on the all-important first page of hits. But also drill down five pages or so. Look not only for what you or your friends may have posted, but also for what someone else—perhaps a total stranger—has reposted. Are you satisfied with what a search-committee member might read about you? You need to worry about three types of problematic content.

First are the self-inflicted wounds, the embarrassing photos from that "finished my comps" party you posted to Flickr; the unfortunately worded late-night tweet in which you dissed your adviser for failing to read your chapter draft in a timely fashion; the over-the-top political comments on a real-name-only blog. In a more mundane but also damaging vein, there is outright sloppy content you posted: a rambling book review on Amazon, a disjointed exegesis of some topic on a graduate-student discussion blog.

Second are "friend swipes": the picture of you asleep on a couch that your "friends" merrily livened up by dumping 50 beer bottles in the foreground; the tweet by another "friend" of the disparaging remark you made about the intelligence level of the undergraduates in your discussion section.

Last are third-party shots: the comment on RateMyProfessors.com claiming that you play favorites with students; the slash-and-burn online review of one of your recent publications.

The varieties are innumerable, and they will be seen. So find them and catalog them first. Major hint: Results are geo-specific. You will get different hits if you are searching from Chicago than you would if you were in Tampa. So enlist far-flung friends to help you and return the favor.

Decide what is actionable; take action. One of my neighbors is in the financial-services industry. He recently observed that his standards have evolved when it comes to background checks via social media. Finding a compromising picture online used to torpedo a job applicant's chances. Now, as he put it, "If I did that, I wouldn't be able to hire anybody under 25." With more than 4,000 colleges and universities out there, no generalization about how academic employers view such damaging photos is possible. But there may very well be a bit of an easing up on the expectation that young people will have pristine online footprints.

In part, the ubiquity of the smartphone, along with Web access, makes everyone vulnerable to the "friendly" or malicious upload of a stupid picture or inappropriate quote. Most people know that the only difference between generations is that when mine did dumb things, nobody had an iPhone or a Tumblr site to share it with humanity. So, yes, I hope you are more likely to be cut some slack today than back in 2009.

But you should still be prudent in your online sharing. There is no job in academe that a naked beer-bong post will help you score. We hire assistant professors to be mature, responsible professionals as well as researchers and teachers.

What do you do about the really bad stuff? Well, of course, try to remove what you can and beg friends to do the same. (Note: In 2009 Facebook's software and server took as long as three years to fully delete pictures; now, apparently, it is done right away.) As we all know, though, there is no "complete delete" on the Web. Once posted, something can pop up elsewhere. (Other strategies below will help crowd out the bad.)

What if objectionable content is uploaded by an unknown third party? You can take steps toward damage control. RateMyProfessors, for example, will, eventually, remove seriously slanderous content. A simple request—followed by threats of legal action—might help on other sites. Your big advantage, if you are young, new to publishing, or both, is that any bad items about you are not likely to be "robust" hits. Your pal's Pinterest feed with an audience of 30 is going to be relatively easy to clean up.

Just get as much embarrassing stuff off the Web as you can. Then hope for the good humor and sense of proportion of a search committee.

Keep vigilant; respond quickly. "Going viral" is more than a marketing term. On the Web, anything can appear about you at any time, and the longer it's up, the more likely it is to be passed along and commented on, raising its Google score for being noticed. In response, create a "Google alert" for your name or common variations. If something untoward appears, move as fast as you can to get it taken down, cleared up, or contextualized.

Case in point: An acquaintance told me that she'd found out from a student that a comment on RateMyProfessors alleged that she had had sex with undergraduates. The comment had been up for about a month. She contacted the site and it was removed—a week later. Good reason to have a Google alert set up now.

Farm your 'ville in private. About a year ago, I thought I might have to intervene to save the career of a young assistant professor I knew at another university. We were Facebook friends, and I was getting FarmVille (a Facebook-enabled game) updates from him, oh, hourly. Since I scroll through Facebook only every few days, they were striking in their quantity as well as regularity.

While I have nothing against your crop of chickpeas being bounteous, think what impression you are giving to your "friends" (probably including academics all over the country) when you come off as more focused on fun than on scholarship or teaching. (FarmVille is going out of favor, but this advice applies to any Internet game.)

Again, mind-sets are changing. Every academic I know, novice or veteran, who uses Facebook includes personal musings and vacation pictures. Posts that I would have never thought of sharing—"If I have to correct one more spelling error in the students' papers I WILL SCREAM!!!!!"—are now common. But don't confuse loosening up with dropping all standards. Your professional image is still vital. Before you share something, think about whether the world needs to know this and what it says about you.

Fill the shelf space with your best stuff. It's never too early to start preparing for your future on the academic career track. I tell first-year doctoral students that they should begin building a network of contacts at other programs. Likewise, you can make your online presence a boost to your application by starting early to build a positive profile and the Web.

At the most basic level, you can't be hurt by having a smart-looking Web site or blog that features positive information about you, including an annotated, maybe even illustrated, CV. The more positive images on your site—you teaching a class, you in the field doing research, you mingling at a professional meeting—the more you can crowd out anything deleterious to your reputation.

Consider how you can use social media and the Web to enhance your credibility and aura of professionalism. If you are in visual arts, show off your work; if you're in the humanities, provide excerpts from and links to your publications, but also use Wordpress or Storify to provide pithy commentary on your research. Whatever your discipline, including the sciences, you can't be hurt by online showcasing of your achievements and insights.

Then spread the word (and the image) through as many platforms as you have time to use, coordinating the copy and the profiles. For example, if you have a profile picture that you like, upload it to as many places as possible to increase its prominence. Your Google score will rise with the best of what you have to show. The possibilities are endless, and the benefits may give you an edge in getting a job.

Proofread! I have stressed before the importance of good writing, style, and proofing (which didn’t stop me from misusing the word “peruse” in a previous column). Web and social-media content is worth policing for good usage, grammar, spelling, and style, within reason. A CV full of typos will probably sink your chances of a tenure-track job in English composition; a lone tweet that contains a typo will not. But you still need to make all of your visible or discoverable content (even the stuff you think is accessible only to “friends”) as spiffy and correct as possible.

Job applications have always had invisible components—for example, what somebody may have heard about you from colleagues who were not among your official references. But in 2012 and beyond, the unofficial job-application materials will play an ever-evolving role. Better to start building your brand now than let others define you, online and elsewhere.

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

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