Academic Life


At one point in early August, I’d had two finalist interviews, one phone interview, and surgery to remove a lump from my breast, and I was just waiting to hear. On everything.

Luckily, that only lasted two days. Labwork came back totally benign, and just last week I accepted a position as a full-time academic advisor at a bigger, richer university, in a bigger (more expensive, but new salary totally workable) city.

It’s pretty much a dream job and a perfect fit—luckily, since I had turned down an offer that would have been a fun job in a very small town with a big pay cut, in order to hope for this one (and the third job hired someone else. I sent out six applications total. So I was optimistic enough to roll the dice. I actually had one more year with my current school, but it’s past time to be moving on, although I would have used it if I had to).

They need me asap, so I’m moving real fast. Scrambled ! find an apartment, cleaned out my office (see recent twitter feed) and now a week to pack my house.

New job, new town, new life!

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So, as you probably know if you are actually still reading this very intermittent blog, I resigned my tenure-track job in history and am looking for jobs in university administration (discussed under the transition category), and while I meant to blog the job search process more than I have, I have lately been thinking about writing job letters, as this summer has really been my first intensive attempt to find another job.

I tweeted that tailoring for non-academic job applications takes more time than tailoring academic cover letters, and Jo Van Every (academic career coach) responded that maybe the academic ones should have taken more time to tailor. But here’s how I see it.

A history professor is a pretty defined job. They want research, teaching, and service. Cover letters follow a standard formula:

  • introduce self
  • dissertation paragraph
  • teaching paragraph
  • what I could do for your school paragraph

That’s the standard format. It may not be the best, but it is what committees expect. My first year on the market I applied to 15 schools (6 conference interviews, if I remember correctly, although that seems very high, maybe I actually sent out more than 15 applications; 1 campus visit), my second year 46 schools (7 conference interviews; 3 campus visits).

I was applying in three fields, so I described my dissertation slightly differently for each one. My teaching paragraph didn’t particularly change, because I only had a certain amount of teaching experience, and all schools pretend to be student-centered even if they really don’t care. I had about 8 different hypothetical courses that I could teach, each described in a different sentence. But once I had established those base elements, it took me about an hour to study the job description (usually about a half-page, pretty entirely focused on specific research/teaching fields), research the website of the history department and make sure I wasn’t offering things they already had, determine which standard pieces needed to be included, copy and paste, and print out the cover letter.

By contrast, tailoring for academic administration jobs requires a lot more tweaking and even writing from scratch. I’ve only sent about six or seven applications, but even jobs that all fall into the same broad category—say, advising—don’t really allow me to re-use base elements.

Academic administration job descriptions are about one and a half pages. They are not interested in three items—teaching, research, service—but in thirteen (or more. I just picked thirteen for the alliteration with three). It’s rarely the same thirteen—some advising jobs also want me to update the website, some want me to supervise other advisors, some even want me to have research experience. Descriptions are often oblique about how they prioritize those thirteen. And researching the positions is trickier—websites often don’t include staff profiles that would give me a sense of the existing personnel.

My skills-based resume lists six areas of expertise:

  • Advising
  • Undergraduate Research
  • Diversity
  • Admissions
  • International Focus
  • Interdisciplinary Focus

and six skill sets:

  • Project Management
  • Instruction & Public Speaking
  • Grant Writing & Evaluation
  • Research & Data Analysis
  • Publicity & Events
  • Current Technologies

It took me a while to get those twelve categories and the supporting bullet points right, but I think they are pretty solid now. But even so, for every application, I reorder my resume to put the things they’ve mentioned toward the top.

For every letter, I reconsider how I’m going to tell the story of the things I’ve done that correlate to what they want. Here’s an example. I worked on my department’s web redesign. Sometimes I discuss that as a story about team leadership and project management, sometimes it’s about ability to communicate with the public, sometimes it’s about being tech-savvy. And I might need to do equivalent transformations for any of those twelve categories above.

Depends on what the job description says. And it’s really different every time.

Per usual, I have a multitude of drafts brewing in my mind, and have not intended to abandon this blog. But for those of you not on twitter, a quick update—-

This week offers me two extended final-round interviews for jobs (one of 4 candidates, and one of 2 or 3 candidates after passing phone interviews of 6 candidates, so that feels good even if I don’t get anything, and I’ve got to prepare some presentations that will be a whole new world), and a consultation with a surgeon to probably remove a lump in my breast that has substantially changed from last year (yeah, that doesn’t feel so good, but the internets say it’s a very high probability of being benign). Busy week!

Looking forward to Saturday.

When I was at my SLAC, essays were generally due to the professor’s department mailbox at 4pm or 5pm on a Friday. So Fridays were always full of people frantically rushing from computer lab to the faculty office building, worried that turning it in at 4:02 would carry a penalty, or, if it was due at 4:30, that the office would close. (Small college: I think most of the social sciences and humanities were all in one or two buildings.)

Later, I realized that was a trick. The SLAC only had a thirteen-week semester. Professors couldn’t afford to give up a day to a class full of brain-dead students who had their essays to turn in but brought nothing else to class. My graduate university, with a fifteen-week semester, never did this.

So, now when I teach twice-a-week classes, I borrow this technique. But I do “upload to Blackboard by 5pm”, which is a bit easier, and doesn’t assume a residential college where everyone lives within three blocks.

Students seem to appreciate it, even.

I actually did my taxes five days early, on Wednesday. I haven’t done my taxes that early for years. Once I took them with me to a conference.

And then, last night, chatting with a friend about how she’d actually gotten paid for translation, and how I’d gotten a check for reviewing a textbook proposal—I realized, I had forgotten to report $250 of income I got for reviewing some grant applications.

Here’s the sad part. On Wednesday night, before doing my taxes, at dinner with a friend, I spent a good five minutes talking about how external academic income such as honorariums can be balanced against unreimbursed expenses.

My only hope was that I had received the check in January. Even though the grant application was due at Thanksgiving, I’d been slow about my paperwork.

Checked my bank history.

deposited 12/21.

ARGH.

I’m finally done with applications. The last step: I was locked in a room all week with a few other people to read the review sheets and make final decisions. But here’s a last few random thoughts from reading, to keep my blog from seeming completely dead.

LOVE the teacher who wrote “she does not need you, or any university, to succeed.”

To the Schools

  • Putting a nature picture in the school profile that goes out with the transcript DOES NOT make your student look any better. To me, reading online, it’s just some smudgey black and white crap.
  • Seriously, you’re using Comic Sans on the transcript?
  • I don’t know why there are 4 copies of the transcript, but I’m only gonna look at one.
  • Also, private schools that send like six recommendations? Quit it. I’m only reading the required two. And those counselor letters? Not gonna win me over.
  • Who knew there were AP classes in Lit of the Grotesque and Renaissance Lit?
  • Um, are you creating additional Student Body elected positions (Entertainment Chair?) so that your students look better on college applications?

I have never been good at writing essay questions. My handouts for assigned essays when I started teaching basically consisted of “well, we’ve talked a lot about cross-cultural interactions, trade, hierarchy, governance, and some other themes. Come up with something interesting to say about one of those topics.”

Students found this discomfiting.

And I would look at other professors’ essay questions, full of extended hypotheticals such as “Imagine that you are an advisor to Montezuma. Write a defense of the Aztec religion and its tenets against the proselytzing Catholics. Be sure to do X, Y, and Z. Consider A, B, and C…..” and think, “well, that’s much richer and deeper than mine, but it also practically does all the work of outlining the essay for them, and outlining is the hard part that I need to get them to do, so….”

Comments I return on essays go like this:

–[extended discussion of the structure of the essay, intermingled with discussion of the analysis they are making]
–“your sentences are fine, grammatical, good vocabulary.”

I’m actually a pretty decent line-editor, and do a fair bit of scribbling, but it’s just not the priority I think students usually need to focus on. But, you know, I still felt inadequate, so I’ve been writing actual questions lately, and this year I decided to try to extend them and do a bit more set up like I see other professors doing. E.g., if it was a question on how governments deal with problems and people, I tossed in some jazz about the early modern period being the age of the formation of the nation-state.

Result: I confused the students. They were so accustomed to needing to respond to every element of a question, that they thought they needed to say something about nation-states, though it wasn’t part of anything with an actual question mark.

I said in class “the question is a springboard. Your essay is judged against the thesis you develop.” I mean, I was consistently the type of student who spent the introduction rewriting the question into a question I wanted to answer. But it apparently didn’t take.

Anyhow. Any tips? Any links that might be useful? How do you write essay prompts?

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