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Academic Positions: The Application and Interview

By L. W. Hurtado, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh

In what follows I have attempted to give some basic information and advice intended for the person who has recently finished graduate work and is seeking a junior-level academic position in a Humanities discipline (I can claim no experience with other academic subject areas). These remarks are based on experience as applicant and as a member of the evaluation/hiring committee at academic institutions in North American and UK settings. I do not pretend that following the advice given here will give the applicant an “edge”, much less an “inside track” for positions. My intentions rather are to assist applicants to understand a little better what all is involved in evaluating applicants for a position, and perhaps to help applicants prepare themselves better to participate in the application and interview processes. This is only an introduction. Applicants are encouraged to compare notes with sympathetic holders of academic positions in order to gain a certain breadth of perspective and advice.1

General Remarks

l. Understand that the people evaluating and interviewing applicants will be fellow academics (usually a committee from the department in question), whose primary training and interests are in the academic field. They are not trained in “personnel” matters, and must take time from their preferred pursuits to engage in the hiring process. You have the primary responsibility to present yourself well, so try to make their work as easy as you can by supplying needed information before being asked for it and by being forthcoming and cordial at all stages of the application process.

  1. Recognize that nowadays institutions will receive many more applications than a committee will want to handle, and that the committee will look for any reason to cull out applications so that an initial “short list” can be prepared for more thorough examination. At the first stage, therefore, you must try to avoid getting culled out, so insure that your application and all supporting documents arrive promptly and in good condition. (See also The Academic Résumé: Some Recommendations.)

  2. If there is a first-stage culling, the committee will re-read even more critically each application still under consideration and all supporting documents. Committee members may at this stage examine some publications of applicants, if available. (I recommend sending samples of your recent publications (only one or maybe two), if you have some, along with your résumé to save the committee members looking them up. If you have no publications yet, you may consider sending a sample of unpublished research, e.g., a conference paper or thesis chapter, but only if it is very strong and likely to help.) After considering applicants on this initial short list, a revised short list may be drawn up, containing perhaps three to six names.

  3. In the UK,at this point letters of reference will be invited for the short-listed applicants. In both North America and the UK committee may contact references personally or by phone to get fuller information and insight on the more impressive applicants. The committee is usually looking for several strengths: (a) a scholarly and research ability; (b) aptitude for teaching (often with emphasis on undergraduate teaching, especially in the case of junior positions), involving good communicative abilities, social skills, ability to organize and explain technical material, and ability to evaluate student work; (c) “collegiality” (they will have to live with the person hired after all, perhaps for a long time in the case of a “tenure-stream” appointment!). Because budgets often allow the department to bring to the campus only a few applicants (often only two or three in North America, perhaps three to five in the UK), and because it is sometimes difficult to tell much about the personal qualities of applicants on the basis of their dossiers alone, understand that either being known (favorably!) to members of the committee or having a strongly favorable reference from one or more persons known and respected by committee members can be of great advantage.

  4. I recommend, therefore, that, certainly by the later stages of your Ph.D. program, you “circulate” at academic society meetings, perhaps presenting papers and participating in discussions. This will give another view of academics at work and an opportunity for you to get known for your own research interests and abilities. And during your graduate work you should consider opportunities to publish some of your work.2 In addition to doing as well as you can academically and trying to get your research published as soon as possible, you should also consider accepting opportunities to do some instruction or teaching assistance, both to gain some experience and to establish some basis for references to estimate accurately your promise in this area. (Obviously, finishing the graduate research comes first in priorities, so use good judgement, but if limited teaching experience can be included in your graduate “career” without unduly prolonging completion of your degree I recommend it.)

  5. Further, quite frankly, give attention to developing “social skills”, for I have known some very bright and promising researchers who have failed to obtain or keep positions because they did not have the promise of getting on well with students or perhaps with colleagues. Beware! Secluding yourself in a library and working exclusively with ideas, written arguments and theoretical concepts will not necessarily prepare you for the very human world of academic life.

The Interview

In the present North American scene, applicants may be interviewed in two basic settings. (1) Some institutions will ask applicants to appear for preliminary interviews at annual meetings of relevant academic societies (esp. in the U.S.), to allow the employer to see a number of applicants without having to bring them to the campus. (2) There is also the more familiar interview which is a part of an invited visit to the campus. The latter type of interview will normally be much more extensive than the former type, involving the whole committee and perhaps other members of the department as well, and often involving two or more sessions. The person interviewed may also be invited to present a lecture and/or paper during the visit, so that the department can get some direct sense of the applicant’s communicative ability and of how the applicant handles a formal presentation. (If you are invited to a formal interview, and are not asked to give a lecture or paper, I recommend that you offer to give one or both. The offer communicates a proper confidence in yourself, and, if your offer is accepted and you perform well, may give you a significant “edge”.) Normally, only one to three applicants will be invited to the campus for a formal interview (and normally one at a time in the North American setting), so the invitation means that you are on the final list and stand a good chance of being offered a job. In the UK the short-list will all be invited for presentations and interviews on the same day(s). The interview can be crucial, either turning undecided committee members toward you or the opposite. There are some things you can do to prepare yourself to handle the interview well.

  1. Find out as much as you can about the school, department, programs, and the department members. This way you can ask more intelligent questions and show that you are serious about the job and capable of preparing properly for an interview. Also, it is frankly a little complimentary to the department to find that you are informed about their programs and people, and that can’t hurt!

  2. In keeping with the above, if you are unfamiliar with the work of the department members (for example, if they are outside your own area), do a crash reading of some of the publications of the senior department members. Again, you may be asked what you know of the work of the department members, and it will make a better impression if you have at least a limited acquaintance with their research interests.

  3. There is no way to predict exactly the format of the interview. You may be interviewed solely by the committee as a whole, and/or in the North American setting you may be interviewed by committee/department members individually. The whole process can be quite demanding physically and mentally, so come rested and alert!

  4. You may be asked about lots of things in addition to your own professional and personal background, e.g., your ideas about student evaluation, or about a good introductory course in your field, or what you might do with a seminar, or your own longer term research/publication plans, or your view of where your area is headed over the next decade or so. In short, as you look ahead to applying for positions, give some thought to the “larger picture”, if you have time, so that you are prepared for such questions. (The questions you are asked will tell as much about the department/college as your answers will about you! Listen carefully.)

  5. The committee may very well be interested in how you would fit into their institutional context. Thus, a department in a public university or other non-confessional school may want to know how you see your role in such a setting as a teacher in Religion, and how comfortable you think you would be in such a setting and why. Or, a seminary/theological college committee may want to know how you relate yourself to the preparation of ordinands for church ministry. A confessional college/university may want to know how comfortable you feel with their particular emphasis and whether you understand it properly. Again, research on the institution before the interview will be very helpful.

  6. At some point you will probably be asked what questions you have for the committee. It may well be that you will have had discussions with the Search Committee Chair, Department Head/Chair, or Dean prior to the committee interview, and will have had the chance to ask any questions then. If not, however, and you are asked for your questions at the beginning of the interview, suggest that you defer them until the committee has dealt with its concerns first. Then, when the committee is relatively finished with its questions, present yours. If you are not invited to ask questions, before the interview is concluded you should ask to present your questions. But be sensitive to the situation. In the UK setting all short-listed applicants are interviewed usually on the same day, so the committee has to move along. In the North American setting normally applicants will come to the campus one at a time, so there will be more time given to each applicant and you can take more time for your questions.

The first things to ask about are matters about the department, its programs, curriculum, aims, plans, etc., where these matters have not already been covered by any orientation given you by the committee or its chair. Ask about the emphasis in the department on such things as teaching or research, and what interest and support there is for junior faculty members getting ahead with their research and publishing aims. If the position is “tenure-stream” (North America), ask about the time frame and basic procedures for tenure consideration and promotion, e.g., criteria and weighting of criteria. Ask about the department members and their specializations (although it will look good to know about at least some department members already). Ask about relevant supporting programs and departments, e.g., classics, history, or social science departments, depending on your own interests. In a well conducted campus visit, either the committee or the department head will explain such things as salary, benefits, moving allowance, etc. Wait, for this information may not be given early in the visit. But, before you leave the campus be sure to get this sort of information, probably best sought from the department head privately if the information is not volunteered. In the UK, the salary range will usually be indicated in the advertisement. Intelligent questions make a good impression, so be prepared to offer a few, but no more than necessary. With individual faculty members you can ask their impressions of the department as well as questions about recent publications, etc. In short, be prepared to make the visit a two-way conversation, with you playing an active and intelligent role.

  1. In North America, you will probably not be told of the department’s disposition toward you until after you have left the campus and all applicants have been interviewed (which can take a few weeks). In the UK the committee will usually try to decide immediately after concluding interviews, which can be on the same day. So in the UK the successful applicant may well be offered the job shortly after the interviews. If you’re offered the job you should be prepared to indicate your response within a few days at the most. You can negotiate any points that were not clear or were not fully satisfactory, such as salary. All the terms of the job should be put into writing, either in the letter of offer or in a memorandum of understanding (salary, basic description of duties, course load, moving allowance, etc.). You can at this point also ask for a copy of the faculty handbook, contract, or whatever document governs the relationship of the faculty member to the institution. Be business-like but don’t antagonize.
1  For a survey of hiring practices at many U.S. universities, in another field but with probable relevance for many other disciplines also, see R. Carson and P. Navarro, “A Seller’s (& Buyer’s) Guide to the Job Market for Beginning Academic Economists,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 2/2(1988), 137-48. For a more extensive introduction to seeking an academic position, especially in North America, see now Mary Morris Heiberger, Julia Miller Vick, The Academic Job Search Handbook (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).
2  Students in the Humanities often do not consider attempting to publish until after the Ph.D. (and sometimes have been advised not to try to publish anything until completion of the Ph.D.). This is a mistake as a general policy. If you develop something that is a contribution to the discussion in a subject, ask your advisor’s help in revising it for publication. And, depending on the extent of the advisor’s contribution, you should acknowledge this help in a reference note, or perhaps invite the advisor to be listed as second author. For a good introduction to writing and publishing, see Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors (rev.ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Larry Hurtado is a scholar of early Christianity and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at The University of Edinburgh. He was Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins until his retirement in August 2010. http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/
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The Academic Résumé: Some Recommendations

By L. W. Hurtado, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh

The following remarks are intended to give some assistance to the candidate who is perhaps applying for the first academic appointment. They are based on the writer’s experiences as applicant and (as a result of successful applications!) as a participant in the selection and hiring process at academic institutions (on both sides of the Atlantic). I do not claim that these remarks are comprehensive, but I do hope that they may be of help. I should also mention that these observations have to do particularly with the application and hiring processes in a North American setting.1 The procedures are somewhat different in the UK. E.g., British universities tend not to ask for references at application stage, but only for those applicants whom they short-list. Also, whereas you will likely apply directly to the academic department or to the search committee in North America, in the UK you may be asked to send the application through the university’s personnel office.

General Remarks

Before turning to specific suggestions about the résumé itself, it may be helpful to mention a few general remarks about the application and hiring processes. First, applicants should realize that in today’s situation most institutions advertising a position will receive many more applications than those charged with evaluation of them want to handle. So, the person(s) going through the applications will initially look for reasons to set aside as many applications as possible, so that a smaller, manageable lot is left for more detailed consideration. Thus, you must try to see that the application gets past this first culling out procedure, trying to avoid giving the prospective employer a reason for culling out the application on first examination. This means that the résumé should contain all the information the employer will want to see at the initial stage of consideration. It also means that the résumé set out the information in organized fashion, with clear headings, a pleasant and intuitive format, a clean and neat appearance, and the information should be accurate and free of “typos”. The typing should be professional quality and only laser-printed originals or first-quality photo-copies of the résumé should be sent.

Second, technically, there is a difference between a résumé and the c.v. The latter may be a statement of the major data from the life of a person, perhaps under topical headings and in chronological order. The former is a presentation of information to a prospective employer for the purpose of applying for a job. Thus, the résumé should be designed to present the applicant (a) in the best light; (b) with a view toward the position being sought; (c) and with a view toward making the examination of the résumé as easy as possible. With these things in mind, I offer the following suggestions.

l. Some information is simply not very relevant, e.g., high school record and activities, hobbies, occasional employment record (except for academic-related positions of course), and should be omitted. Likewise, today, marital status, age, and some other such personal information may not be relevant, or, in some jurisdictions, appropriate to give.

  1. The information given should be arranged roughly according to the order of its importance for the particular position, and according to the probable order in which the employer will want to read it. A rough outline of material for most academic positions would be as follows (see below for more detailed advice):
  • basic personal information–name, home and (if applicable) professional address and phone number(s), citizenship (and residence visas, if held), date of birth, and (optionally) marital status & children;
  • higher education;
  • area(s) of expertise: list both teaching competence (usually described in terms of fields, e.g., Biblical Studies or Modern History, and sub-areas, e.g., Hebrew Bible or Christian Origins), and more specialized and research areas (in which you also might offer graduate instruction);
  • academic positions held (giving dates, ranks, institutions, and including temporary positions);
  • publications;
  • papers given at professional meetings (with titles, identification of meeting & dates);
  • research project(s) in progress and/or planned (with indication of likely publication format, and approximation of time of completion);
  • research grant(s), if any (other than scholarships and graduate fellowships);
  • courses taught (with institution name and the level–e.g., undergraduate, etc.) and (if applicable) experience in dissertation/thesis supervision;
  • academic-related awards and honors (including scholarships, fellowships, prizes, other recognitions);
  • memberships (and any offices held) in professional societies (e.g., AAR, SBL);
  • other academic-related activities (e.g., service on academic committees, assistance in research projects for teachers or in development of curricular materials, organizing/conducting conferences);
  • a list of references (about three to five, with full titles and institutional addresses).
  1. If you apply for more than one position, it may be wise to draw up more than one résumé. For example, if you apply to a college/seminary with a specific religious orientation, you may wish to state either in the résumé or in a covering letter your own religious affiliation and activities. But such information would be irrelevant on a résumé sent to a religiously pluralist institution such as a public university.

  2. I recommend listing the information in reverse chronological order under each heading, so that your most recent, and highest, attainments catch the reader’s attention first.

  3. Use headings under which to arrange the information and try for a pleasant and readable effect. Do not crowd the page, but leave generous margins and proper spacing.

Specific Suggestions

With these general remarks in mind, I should like to give a few, more specific suggestions about particular parts of the résumé.

Education–Give the degrees earned, the dates of award, the institutions, the major(s) and minor(s) and mention distinctions (e.g., cum laude) if relevant. For graduate degrees include thesis title(s), name of supervisor(s), and areas of study in which you worked and were examined (i.e., candidacy exam areas).

Publications–List only items that have either appeared or have been accepted for publication. If you have items circulating for evaluation for publication, list them under a separate heading (e.g., “Work submitted for publication”) after listing all publications. Obviously, the most relevant items are books, articles in recognized journals and in books, and signed reviews in recognized journals. Publications on irrelevant subjects or in popular periodicals (such as denominational magazines, etc.) may be omitted or else listed under a separate subheading. For each item listed, give full information (e.g., for journal articles give article title, journal title, vol., date, & page numbers). For work(s) accepted and forthcoming, give the publisher of journal name, probable date, and size of manuscript(s).

To make the greatest effect, you should also consider sending one or two samples of your published work (e.g., off-prints of journal articles) along with your résumé (at least to those institutions whose advertised positions you find especially attractive!). If you have no publications yet, send a sample of your research, e.g., a conference paper or thesis chapter.

References–In the North American scene good references are crucial in getting onto the short list. In the UK, however, letters of reference from referees you list on your résumé will often be invited by the employer after short-listing applicants for the interviews. Choose those whom you use as referees carefully, selecting people who (a) know your academic work (teaching and/or research), preferably at graduate level and beyond; (b) sincerely have your interests at heart and will write as favorably as they can; (c) can and will describe your specific abilities and attributes, and will not simply write brief, general comments; and (d) have some recognition and standing in their field (at the early stages of your career, before you have had the chance to make your own mark, the standing of those who recommend you will be especially important). They should probably all be in academic positions themselves. As mentioned earlier, you may want to prepare more than one version of your résumé for different types of institutions, and you may want to vary the references (if you can!) to choose people whose recommendation would have the most effect at this or that type of school.

You should ask each person if he or she is happy to serve as a reference for you, putting on no pressure and using only those who appear to be genuinely interested in furthering your chances. (Of course, your Ph.D. supervisor is expected to be on the list.) Provide referees with a copy of the position-description/advertisement so that they can address particulars, and always see that they have a current résumé such as you are submitting for the post.

The letters of reference should be confidential, i.e., not open to you. If you are applying for positions in North America, ask your references if they would mind sending their letters directly to the parties to whom applications are to be sent. (If you anticipate applying for more than one position, alert your referees in advance, and suggest that they draw up a basic letter, keeping it in a computer file and adapting it as needed, so that they don’t have to compose a fresh one each time.)

The Application Letter–with your résumé (and items attached, such as off-prints), always enclose a carefully-composed covering letter addressed specifically to the party mentioned in the advertisement. In your letter you should (a) highlight briefly the features from your résumé that are especially significant for the position as advertised; (b) indicate why you are particularly interested in the position and institution; (c) mention that confidential letters from X, Y, Z are coming directly (in North America) or can be requested (in the UK); and (d) in general, try to make a professional but cordial impression. Each application should have its own specially written covering letter, and try to keep the letter no more than two pages. This will take time, of course, but the letter will be the first (and perhaps only!) thing read, so it’s worth making the effort to produce a good first impression.

1  For further discussion of this and related matters, see Mary Morris Heiberger, Julia Miller Vick, The Academic Job Search Handbook (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

Larry Hurtado is a scholar of early Christianity and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at The University of Edinburgh. He was Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins until his retirement in August 2010. http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/