The Presentation of Self in Job Applications: Lessons Learned

Reflections April 3, 2014 12:52 pm

Recently I gave my first job talk. I didn’t get the job. However, I did get some valuable insight into professionalization, aspects that I had not encountered before as a grad student. Many excellent academic professionalization blogs offer helpful advice on the dos and don’ts of the campus visit and the job talk. But, rarely as novices in the academe, do we get tips on how to present our scholarship to a hiring committee that is as interested in our work as testing the rigor of our thinking. I want to share some lessons I learned that might be helpful to colleagues in similar situations.

As a recent grad student, the aforementioned campus visit was my first experience with an evaluation committee who engaged with my work at length beyond my dissertation committee. Although I had had experiences with grant committees, postdoctoral fellowships and with journal reviewers, these forms of evaluation were limited to punctual engagements. The campus visit, on the other hand, entailed extensive interviewing, shared meals, meeting professors, administrators and students, and giving an hour-long job talk. Moreover, at this stage in the hiring process, the hiring committee was familiar with the writing samples I had submitted, and could place a face, a voice, and a set of personal impressions to my application package.

My mistake was to treat the hiring committee as a dissertation committee. Unlike the dissertation committee which follows the evolution of one’s work, and who has been actively involved in mentoring one’s thinking, the hiring committee is only exposed to fragmented pieces of one’s scholarship. I naively overlooked this fundamental and obvious difference.  I learned that understanding the hiring committee (who is the audience of one’s work) is a central element in composing the various pieces of the application.

The different application materials –the writing samples, cover letter, CV, job talk, course syllabi and the talking points for the interviews—have to best represent the breadth and depth of the candidate’s intellectual project. A hiring committee is interested in the intellectual trajectory of a candidate, but they also want to find evidence of the candidate’s ability to grow intellectuality. In other words, a hiring committee has to feel confident that the candidate will eventually make tenure.

For this reason, the different materials have to reflect the candidate’s contribution to a central conversation in their field of study. Although after writing the dissertation many of us feel lost in a plethora of intellectual interests, the job application is the opportunity to identify the central themes of one’s work and the relation among these themes.  After going through this experience,  I have begun to articulate a contribution by finding how the central themes of my work speak to conversations in my field of study. Furthermore, I have begun to translate this contribution into a “sellable” soundbite that appeals to a hiring committee not entirely familiar with my field of study.

The trick, though, is to also capitalize on the subthemes related to one’s intellectual contribution, meaning translating these interests into course syllabi. A hiring committee is looking for a candidate who will be able to advance the department’s pedagogical project, and contribute a fresh perspective. In this respect, framing one’s work becomes very important. The candidate has to simultaneously show coherent application materials while also showing knowledge of the department and its needs. After all, applying to a position entails selling one’s skills to an employer seeking to fulfill a specific need.



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