Sunday, September 07, 2008

The art of the job letter redux , part 1

The MLA Job Information List goes live in about a week, and ABDs, new Ph.D.s, adjuncts, instructors, and tenure-track people looking to "trade up" will all take a look. (So will those of us on search committees, since we'll hope that our carefully crafted, word-by-argued-about-word ad will bring in good applicants.)

Some other things will happen, too. The forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education will overflow with questions ("What does this school REALLY mean if it asks for underwater saltwater basketweaving instead of just underwater basketweaving?") and furious screeds about slights in the hiring process, some of which verge from rude to heinous and others of which can't be helped ("It's been two weeks and I haven't heard yet. What is WRONG with these people?").

One of the good things that will happen is that the Chronicle, and Inside Higher Ed, and the forums will all offer some good advice. Mentors will offer good advice. Departments will offer good advice.

Bloggers will offer good advice, too: Tenured Radical, for example, has promised a series on the search process. If you've read all these job-related blog posts for the past several years, the ones posted by Bardiac, Tenured Radical, Dr. Crazy, Sisyphus, Dean Dad, Narratives, and CitizenSE, among others (you can see a list here, in a post I wrote last year about the job search), you'll see that we're all saying variations on the same things. Every year we're all saying variations on the same things.

And that's a good thing. What this consistency says is that there are conventions, but there is no magic bullet, no secret formula that will guarantee a job. It's not news that there are a lot more people looking for jobs in MLA fields than there are jobs. Ultimately, and I know everyone has heard this before, it's not about the job seeker; it's about what the department needs, or thinks it needs. The only thing you can really do is to present yourself in a way that makes the department believe that you can answer those needs, and this is the art of the job letter.


Bardiac said...

Great post.

The art is complicated by the fact that a lot of committees aren't quite sure what they really want. Or they're split.

There's no way to make the job market sane, is there?

Anonymous said...

Bardiac - no, because the budgets aren't sane, because the economy isn't sane. And committees not only aren't sure, or are split, or are trying to hedge bets, or are confuse what the field is with what they imagine would fit into the department.

Hedging bets: we want an X, but our second choice is a Y, and the bottom line is we want someone good we can all agree on, so if that person is a Y, even though in theory we want an X, we will be happy with the Y, even though we justified the position by defending the value of X to the upper administration, etc., etc.

Actual nature of field vs. fitting "needs": people saying things like, I want a person in this field with a second field of that. Why do so few candidates have the combination I imagine, and why is this other combination so prevalent? Why are the candidates with the combination I do not like so much stronger generally?

What shocks me about it all is that despite all the applications one gets, it is almost as hard to hire as it is to get a job. "I hope one of these candidates accepts our offer" is a theme I have heard everywhere including at desirable places. That both candidate and institution have to angst on getting a position and getting one filled indicates that the whole thing really is not rationally organized.

After all this time hiring and being hired I have figured out one thing, though: the right 'fit' is someone who is familiar with your type of school, either because they went to one such as an undergraduate or as a graduate student, or they have worked at another one. That way they recognize what they are signing up for, and know how to function in such an institution, see where they'll fit in, etc., and be happiest.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I have taught English composition, which is horrifying since the syntax in my comment above is so bad.

The worst piece is:

"...or are trying to hedge bets, or are confuse what the field is with what they imagine would fit into the department."

I mean:

"...they are also trying to hedge bets, or they confuse what the field is actually like with what configuration of specialties they imagine would fit into the department."

undine said...

There is no way, bardiac, unless there are more jobs. And as profacero says, it is somehow hard to hire AND hard to get a job. That makes no sense.