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.


So, I hate when candidates (or any speaker) give a bad talk, but for some reason, my colleagues feel the need to begin their question by saying “thank you for that great talk.” (And yes, sometimes I know my friend thinks it wasn’t a good talk.)

I think the fact that I came to the talk, stayed, and asked a question, is an implicit thanks and compliment, and that there is no need to go out of my way to actively lie to people about their talk being good. There are also plenty of ways to begin a question with something that sounds complimentary—“I was really struck by….” “I really loved that quotation…..” “I really wanted to know more about….” etc etc—without telling people a bad talk was good.

Do your colleagues do this?

Have I been being rude for the last six years?

What do you think?

And I decided I shouldn’t post this post, at least until I can time-shift it a bit more drastically. So, poof!

“Fit” is not a new idea, but I rather like this new-to-me analogy for it:

In a fancy restaurant, the difference between any old waitress and the best may be worth a thousand dollars a night in happy customers who’ll not only tip well, but recommend the place, and return often.

On the other hand, the kind of perceptive human who can do all those things consistently, who happens to work at a 7-11 — well, there’s a limit to how much value such a food server can add there. If you’re very attentive and customer-service oriented in that setting, how many extra slurpees can you really sell? I’m thinking it would be tough to realize the same kind of value, owing to the setting.

If you are feeling like me, full of doubts, and unable to write, and scared of the book, and hiding from it, and saying “I’ll work on it in 10 minutes, in an hour, tomorrow”—and if you are in the fourth or earlier year of a tenure-track job, or even fifth—then, please, hire a writing coach.

I am planning to opt-out of the tenure system at the start of my fifth year, about 10 months before my dossier would go out to external reviewers. Theoretically, it might still be possible to throw a book together, to have a weak but presentable tenure case, but my book is not just unfinished, but a complicated, godawful mess produced by writing in circles for three years. Nevertheless, in January, I still wanted to write the book. Now, in July, I want to escape from the book.

And the truth is, even had I sent the book to publishers in January as was the original plan (or March, the second plan, or June, the third plan), my tenure case was going to consist of:

—look, a book! a book! probably not yet in hardcovers, but hopefully proofs, and basically nothing else
—a conference paper three years ago as “evidence of significant progress on next project”
—massive spin around some teaching issues, with evidence of striving to improve and successful teaching in certain arenas
—a read-between-the-lines promise that I would go into administration and contribute to the university that way, so give me tenure, pretty please with a cherry on top?

So, I was looking at doing this sort of re-calibrating and finding my wheelhouse, regardless of the tenure issue. I’m not all torn up with regrets that I didn’t take my own advice, partially because I suspect the above tenure case would have left me with a deep-seated and permanent case of impostor syndrome. And I am excited about looking to new changes and adventures and finding the place where I am best suited to be. But, strategically, if I were able to do this sort of re-thinking from the security of tenure, rather than in the middle of the worst recession in decades? Yeah, that might be nice.

I have been to a couple of workshops with writing coaches and they have excellent strategies and good success stories. Give them a try.

I know that the way the British give a talk, and a jobtalk, is very different from how Americans do. Does anyone know where Canadians fit in?

I am trying to ensure that I do not overpenalize a candidate with a Canadian PhD for a difference in style. History is the field in question, but I don’t know if it matters.


if you are able to hire the best candidate you’ve seen in years, go for it. but if you are just looking at hiring someone of the usual good caliber, let the search fail and the position go unfilled.

Next Page »