April through June, a full year before you hope to graduate
Consult with your adviser and confirm that you’re making sufficient progress on the dissertation to go on the market in the upcoming academic year and defend and/or file your dissertation in the course of it. Be sure that each member of your committee—ideally, the entire department—knows about your plans, so that they may prepare to write letters and to spread your name around informally as they learn of new academic job openings over the summer and early fall.
At this stage, if it hasn’t come up in casual conversation already, consider asking your adviser whether it is appropriate to invite a faculty member from another university to sit on your committee. Their answer may be no, and that’s fine, but it’s worth asking. Getting a perspective from outside your home department can be useful, and search committees are generally impressed by job candidates who have support (i.e., letters of recommendation) from outside faculty. That said, though, it’s worth emphasizing that your home faculty are your first and best source of support.
Thanks to the efforts of many people in the SCS, extensive and very helpful advice on the job application process is available on the SCS website. Read their notes now.
Now is the time to begin to turn your thinking about jobs and careers outside the academy into some important decisions. Choose letter writers for these jobs and narrow down the kinds of job for which you will apply. Translating your CV into a resume takes at least a full weekend, and you should run it by an appropriate career adviser on campus or a trusted friend or resource off campus.
Now is the time to familiarize yourself with fellowship opportunities and the sometimes complex and lengthy applications they require. This means researching external grants and fellowships, especially post-doctoral fellowships—the latter being a great way to gain time to write before the tenure clock starts ticking. Deadlines fall as early as September/October and continue through the year, so move fast. Post-doctoral fellowships can be difficult to track down, but it’s well worth the effort, especially on those days when you’re making slow progress on your dissertation. Consult your graduate director, fellow students, and your graduate dean’s office for information about internal and external sources of funding. Remember to look beyond your university’s typical “dissertation fellowship fund” (if one exists) for competitive grants open to applicants from all over the university.
Sources for dissertation funding and post-doctoral fellowships are available in some predictable places: my own organization, ACLS (note the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Carnegie Foundation, the National Research Council, the Fulbright Program, the American Association of University Women. They pop up in less predictable places too: check publications like the Chronicle of Higher Ed for advertisements and do a few thorough searches on the internet. Keep a sharp eye out for fellowships offered at Humanities Centers and various specialized institutes. Mellon post-docs relevant to most classicists, historians, and archaeologists are offered through various universities and humanities centers, sometimes chosen according to a theme (“globalism,” “race,” “borders,” and so forth) which changes yearly or every two years. For now, you will have to hunt these down university by university. ACLS also sponsors the Leading Edge program, which places PhDs in non-academic positions in non-profits such as cultural institutions, presses, and the like.
Sign up for any and all services offered by your university notifying students of these opportunities. One useful resource is the IRIS database. Ask faculty where they and recent graduates have applied for post-doctoral support. Google “society of fellows” to learn more about opportunities at Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, and elsewhere. Read the grants and fellowships notices in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, the SCS newsletter, the New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, LA Review of Books, and any relevant newsletter in other disciplines.
Be adventurous! A couple of days spent web-surfing and talking to the graduate dean’s office will uncover a wider range of opportunities than you might expect. The Spencer Foundation funds scholars of education; some political think tanks (oriented toward conservative, liberal, feminist, cultural, and religious issues) will fund classical scholarship; women’s organizations fund research into women’s history and feminist theory; arts organizations, while underfunded themselves, might add a welcome top-up to your funding.
July and August
Create a dossier in your department or Career or Placement office. Be sure you are familiar with their internal procedures and deadlines.
Solicit recommendation letters from faculty; remind them that your dossier must be complete no later than the first week of October. It may seem early to make the request, but they’ll appreciate being asked sooner rather than later. (Further information on recommendation letters appears below.)
Register yourself as a job candidate with the SCS (cheaper if you register by early in the fall). You may register on the Web at the address printed at the end of this booklet. To register for the Placement Service, you must be a member in good standing of the SCS, so be sure that your dues are paid in full. See their guidelines and advice.
Finish your application file. This normally includes a curriculum vitae; a cover letter; at least 3 letters of recommendation; and writing sample(s). On occasion, you will be asked to provide a separate description of your research and/or teaching interests, and many institutions now request teaching dossiers. Not every department will require a transcript, but be prepared to send out an official copy from both graduate and undergraduate institutions.
Politely remind your letter-writers that you are indeed going on the market this year. Forewarn them that no later than the end of August, you will provide them with your CV, cover letter, and relevant writing samples or dissertation material. Ask them if they need anything else to write their letters (transcript, seminar paper, teaching evaluations).
The Application File
The SCS Placement Service is used by all job candidates and hiring committees. You are best advised to consult their website for up-to-date information.
Most applications require the following pieces:
Be sure that it is accurate, up to date, clear and easy to read, without a single error of grammar, spelling, or formatting. The APA website lists the data that must be included. The SCS version cannot be longer than 2 pages; you may wish to prepare two versions, one long and one short. There are plenty of online resources for CV-writing.
Special note on Teaching/Research Interests. This datum consists of a list of anywhere from three to six categories, normally appearing on the first page of the CV prior to the listings of your talks, publications if you have any, teaching experience and so on. Be aware that departmental committees receive scores of CVs, and that your statement of research/teaching interests is likely to classify you more narrowly than you might wish. With this in mind, frame your interests with care, implying breadth and focus simultaneously. You can do this, even though it sounds oxymoronic. Identify your special areas (diss topic, PhD exams, etc.) and then broadly contextualize them in terms of a chronological period, genre and/or your theoretical interests.
The importance of putting some thought into this is demonstrated by the following example. Department X wishes to hire in Greek literature, but the committee is aware that senior scholar M, a Homerist, loves to teach Sophocles. To avoid stepping on M’s toes, the committee decides to focus the search on junior scholars who do not specialize in Sophocles. Candidate Z has written a dissertation on Sophocles and the polis, but is very eager to teach outside their dissertation area, and in fact is planning a major article on Aeschylus. They are fully prepared to explain this in their interview. Unfortunately, they list their research interests as “Sophocles, ancient education, Seneca, performance theory”; the committee scans the list, looks at their dissertation title and abstract, and decides to put the file on hold. Needless to say, this is an extreme example, and of course there are bound to be committees here and there who desire narrow specialization above all. In general, however, describing yourself in generalized terms places you at lower risk for the kind of pigeon-holing that could adversely affect the fate of your application. Candidate Z would have been better off with a simple change: “Greek and Roman tragedy, ancient education, performance theory” (she might add up to two additional topics).
Other aspects of the job hunt are either beyond your control (such as letters of recommendation) or a done deal (your transcript and CV). By contrast, the cover letter offers you the sole opportunity to describe yourself in the manner you think best. Use it wisely. While, as Plutarch says, one should not exalt oneself as a young deity of academe, don’t be afraid to sing your own praises in a matter-of-fact way, describing your research interests and their significance in the field, publications if you have them, teaching successes, public lectures (including invited appearances at in-house courses and graduate student colloquia), and so on. You don’t have time to write a different letter for each job application. This is worth repeating: you don’t have time to write a different letter for each job application. You have a dissertation to finish! Instead write two different templates, one for research institutions and one for smaller colleges, and touch them up with a bit of personalization later on.
Nowadays, many departments maintain informative websites, and committees expect to see evidence in the cover letter and interview that applicants have visited their website and gained some familiarity with faculty, the student body, and departmental degree programs. If you are applying to more than 8 or 10 jobs, you will not have time to research all of them in detail; but try to work one or two small pieces of institution- or department-specific information into your letter. (At the stage of the on-campus interview, of course, you must familiarize yourself with the publication areas of your potential colleagues and the special strengths of the department before arriving on campus.) Be sure your information is current. Above all, do your best to express your enthusiasm for your dissertation topic and the field in general. Engage your readers! While they have dozens of files to read, they will take note of eloquent letters that communicate intellectual depth and personal verve.
Of course, you can take your stand in the cover letter using a much plainer structure and style than the one described below. Plenty of successful job applicants simply cover the basics and let the rest of the file speak for itself. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea that the letter is a textual extension of yourself, this is the route for you. Just be sure the letter is professional, polite, and well-edited, so that its brevity isn’t misinterpreted as lack of interest.
What to include: where you saw the ad; topic of dissertation and adviser; research and teaching interests, including plans for immediate future; assorted relevant information (in brief); formal request for interview. One full page can do it; stop before going over 1 1/2 pages.
Detailed advice on structure:
1) Opening Paragraph: keep it straightforward. Specify the job and where you saw the ad. Set the tone: for a research university, “I would like to apply for the tenure-track position in Greek history that was advertised on the APA website...” whereas for a small college you might try, “I was excited to see the advertisement for your teaching position in Latin.” Describe your main research and teaching interests in one dynamic sentence.
2) Paragraph on your Research Interests, featuring your dissertation as the star example. Cut this down to 2-4 sentences describing the high points: the texts you work with, the main argument/topic in 1 sentence, and your theoretical orientation if you want. If you’re concerned that you’re selling your dissertation short, and you simply must tell them more, then refer your reader to a 1 page abstract (please, no longer) that you can enclose with the rest of the application. In this paragraph, convey a sense of why your work needs doing. Don’t say “this study has never been done” but rather why it’s important to do now: if you think it should interest people who work on literary theory, ancient philosophy, science, now’s the time to say so. In the eyes of the committee, breadth and excitement about your research bode well for your teaching persona and collegial potential.
3) A Short “show-off” Paragraph, highlighting 1-2 things you’re proud of (special lecture for someone else’s class, conference presentation, an article). If you can spin this into a short gesture toward future research, all the better: e.g., “In my APA presentation on this topic I argued that... This talk, along with my dissertation chapter on Varro, is pointing the way to future work on...” If showing off makes you uncomfortable, then describe your next project. This is important: the committee will interpret this not only as a sign that you’re ready to hit the ground running in your research and near- future publication record, but as a hint about what you’re prepared to teach.
4) Paragraph on your Teaching Interests. As always, try to make a smooth transition from topic to topic. Show range, but think carefully before you let them see every eccentric angle of the real you (e.g. “I never teach Homer without getting students to fight mock battles in Bronze Age armor they make themselves”). Points like that make your letter stand out, but you may want to aim instead for a more conventional combination of solid and adventurous: “I’ve found that Hollywood westerns enrich my courses on mythology and epic.” Or: “In my Latin language classes I like to discuss Latin’s influence in the western tradition, usually by asking students to compare several adaptations of Ovid by Christopher Marlowe and Ted Hughes.” Incorporation of creative projects, web research, cross-disciplinary work, or an innovative approach to teaching grammar — say, by including a brief crash course on the Indo-European language family — will put your interests and skills center stage.
5) Extra Information. Your next project, if you haven’t already mentioned it; special reasons why you’re perfect for this job. For the latter, write 2 versions, one for small college, one for big university. If it's a job you especially want, you might mention the English department’s famous scholar of the classical tradition, or the school’s reputation if you can make it sound sincere; e.g. the core at Chicago or the intense small college atmosphere at the University of Puget Sound. Family connections to the area, including spousal/partner’s employment there, or a special desire to teach at the school (for a specific and plausible reason!) are fine, but don’t lay on the sentiment with a trowel. Don’t say that you’d like to have professor X as a colleague; it’s tacky and sounds like a graduate student application.
6) Closing. Interview contact information over the holidays.
This is the template for the big research university. You can certainly mix up the order of these paragraphs according to your taste, especially 3 and 4. For small colleges, you can make the “show-off” paragraph teaching-related, and stress how your teaching interests segue into your scholarship.
Letters of Recommendation
For SCS jobs, 3-5 letters is standard for applicants still in a graduate program. If you’re teaching in a temporary slot or doing a post-doc, solicit 1-2 additional letters from your chair and/or other supportive colleague at your current institution. For MLA jobs, 5 or more letters are the norm. For jobs in other fields, check with members of the relevant departments and the organizations’ official websites (some available at the end of this booklet). Your letter-writers should aim to cover both teaching and research. Most recommenders will welcome discussion with you on the direction their letters should take, in order to avoid duplicating their colleagues’ comments. Tell your recommenders who else is writing on your behalf. A letter from the chair is standard for European jobs, common but not required for positions in the US.
The brave new world of internet job applications is neither organized nor consistent. It can be a nightmare for faculty writing for a dozen students who may be applying to twenty or more posts. Depending on the institution, faculty may be asked to submit letters by direct email to the job-search chair, or (horrors) via a password-protected Human Resources website crammed with vacuous mini-questionnaires. Some students use the Interfolio service, which is convenient except when the faculty member wants to personalize a letter. And Interfolio is not free. How best to deal with this mess? Until a central secure database is established (don’t hold your breath), it is most helpful for faculty when you send each recommender a list that looks like this. Try to limit yourself to one list per month, and try to convey as much information as possible in long emails: don’t send a dozen short emails that scatter information up and down the faculty member’s inbox.
Round #1: September 22, 2017
Letters submitted by email:
University of X Email address Deadline
Letters submitted on the internet: you will receive an email with a link *
University of X Deadline
* Keep in mind that the email requesting a letter of reference will not be sent until you activate your application, and in some cases, go through a specific reference-request process. This means: activate your application as soon as possible.
As jobs are posted, your list will change. Keep your lists of rounds separate, and number them, so that faculty can easily track which places they’ve already sent letters to.
Round #2: October 14, 2012
[same format as above, but do not duplicate institutions] Round #3: November 1, 2012
And so on…
Some schools will ask for a writing sample up front in mid-autumn. Others will request it at the time they decide on their initial interview list. Ideally, you should have at least two chapters of your dissertation approved by your committee, proofread, polished, and ready to go out as writing samples by mid-October. If not, all is not lost. First send the completed chapter(s); when that source is exhausted, send a copy of your best seminar paper, with the dates and course information removed. If you like, you may write a brief note explaining that the paper represents your research interests beyond the dissertation. Some departments ask for two or more writing samples: simply send more seminar papers (and rush to get the next chapter finished!). Do NOT include an unfinished chapter in your initial application: on this first sweep, they are interested only in polished work. If and when a department asks to see the entire dissertation as it stands (which may happen in late December or January), that is the time to confer with your director, deciding along with him or her which chunks of writing to send and how best to contextualize them.
This having been said, you should be aware that search committees will infer from your choice to send seminar papers as writing samples that your dissertation is not finished. Meet this problem head on. Write the paragraph of your cover letter that describes your dissertation in a highly authoritative and organized fashion; send an abstract of the dissertation, with clear chapter divisions, with the rest of your materials; and if you get to the interview stage, be ready to answer the skeptical question, “So how close to completion is your dissertation?” with aplomb. Of course, you may indeed have only one or two chapters finished at the time of the interview: in this case, be honest, but be sure to express confidently (and in detail) the degree to which you have researched and planned the remaining chapters.
Increasingly, institutions demand personalized responses to questions. Follow their directions. But you are well served by preparing a basic “teaching dossier” in summer or early fall that will provide the backbone for individual applications. This should include:
1) A two to three page statement incorporating the following:
- a brief, 1 to 2 sentence survey of your teaching experience, keeping in mind that readers can always consult the CV for specifics.
- Your “teaching philosophy” (a declaration along these lines is sometimes explicitly requested in the job advertisement). Try to avoid sounding too cheerleaderish or vague. You might try to convey some substance to your statement by answering the question: “I believe an education in Classics/the liberal arts should aim to...” or “the single thing most important in teaching to me is...” NB: You may be tempted to highlight your personal experience (“I was originally drawn to Classics by an inspiring high school Latin teacher, whom I’ve tried to emulate by...”). Beware: this approach can come off as amateurish and cheesy. I recommend against it, but you know your own style best.
- A few specifics on how you encourage student participation, creativity, etc. By the way, this is good prep for variants of the interview question “what exactly about your teaching style best helps students learn?”
- A short (1 paragraph) description of your methods of evaluation, both evaluation of the students (do you prefer papers to exams? do you incorporate oral exams or presentations into classes?) and self- evaluation. If you’ve used informal assessments in your past teaching, note that and include them in the folder.
- Another short account (1-2 paragraphs) of what excites you most about your teaching, past and future: think of this as a summary of your accomplishments and what you hope to achieve. Alternatively, explain what distinguishes you from other teachers (use of music or the web, cross-disciplinary projects, and so on).
Along with the statement, you should include:
- 1-2 syllabuses you’ve used in the past or syllabuses for courses you’ve planned but not yet taught.
- Summaries of student evaluations and a half page of representative comments from students. If your university does not make summaries available, you don’t want to load the committee with dozens of xeroxed pages of evaluations, so type out a page of representative comments from students. If you have no evidence of your teaching at all, consult with your adviser: you may wish to solicit a few letters from students.
- Typical final exams you have written (don’t send exams written by faculty with whom you have worked as a TA) or assignments or handouts that worked particularly well (no more than 3-4 of these).
More and more frequently required in recent years, and gaining greater significance in academic life after the Black Lives Matter actions of 2020, these statements are effective when they are authentic. Draw on your personal experience. If you are a person of color, you should not feel pressure to perform your trauma, as my ACLS colleague Dr. Jovonne Bickerstaff says; you have the agency to tell the story you want to tell. If you are white, consider describing your experience teaching students of color, reading a text that advanced your understanding of race and racism in academia, or your involvement in your home department’s or school’s antiracism initiatives. Reflect on the school that is interviewing you: is it in the South? The West Coast? Has it been in the news for progressive or regressive action related to race? Showing that you grasp the nuances of geographical location and level of student or faculty or staff activism is good evidence of your active engagement and interest in the challenge of making the academy more diverse, equitable, and just. This is work for us all.
A Word to the Wise
Oversight. Show each item in your file to at least one faculty member (normally the chair of your dissertation committee or the graduate adviser), who may catch unseen errors and generally give you good advice. In most departments, this person (or the DGS) will also willingly vet letters of recommendation, to check for full and fair coverage of your career and accomplishments.
October and early November
Register to attend the SCS Annual Meeting and make necessary travel plans, including reservations at the official hotel. Staying nearby with friends or family might seem like a good option at first, but once the APA gets going you will probably appreciate having your own place on the spot to relax between talks, interviews, and parties. In any case, try to stay within walking or very short cab distance from the hotel.
Arrange a mock interview at your home campus. Ideally, you will do both an in-person and a Skype/Zoom mock interview. The latter is becoming more common as universities balk at sending teams of faculty to interview at the annual meeting. If by some accident you can’t pull enough faculty together to do this for you, request help from market-experienced friends.
Late November and December
Now is the ideal time to settle on the topic of your job talk and to begin a draft. Opinions differ on the competing merits of presenting a dissertation chapter or something entirely unrelated. Your deep knowledge of your dissertation area can be of genuine assistance in the stressful atmosphere of a job talk, boding well for your performance in the Q&A. On the other hand, if you want to show your range and you have a well-developed piece on hand (e.g. a successful seminar paper), think carefully about that option. Be aware that moving far beyond the committee’s job description (e.g., by giving a paper on Alcman when the slot is Roman Prose) is rarely advisable.
At this early stage it’s important to remind yourself -- hopefully not for the first time -- that the job market is tight, and even very good candidates can end up empty-handed the first or second or third time around. If you’ve followed the steps here, you already have another set of jobs in your sights. You may wish to keep looking into opportunities for teaching inside and outside your home department. Many universities need TAs for courses in General Education, “Great Books,” “western civilization,” or composition. Chairs and graduate advisers, especially if they are new to the post and/or worried about keeping up your morale, won’t always bring up these opportunities of their own accord, and sometimes they delay until the last minute, when it’s too late. This kind of extra-departmental interdisciplinary teaching, while challenging, can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your early career. So ask around, look through the undergraduate course guide, or contact your graduate dean for information. If you’re not sure whether this kind of teaching is right for you, seek out fellow students who have done it. Once you decide, make certain that your adviser and graduate chair know that you’re interested.
Look outside your home university too: ask faculty for advice about local departments and part-time opportunities that have been available in the past.
Teaching high school is an immensely rewarding and financially stabilizing option. It is also immersive. Discuss this path with someone who has pursued it.
The final deadlines for the majority of first-round job applications have come and gone by December 1, and interviews by internet and (less frequently these days) at the Annual Meeting (also called “the SCS” or “the convention”) loom ahead. Commonly asked questions appear below.
Committees will email you with the welcome news of an interview. Read up on the pitfalls of Zoom/Skype interviewing and use your common sense. Ensure as clear a connection as you can in a quiet room where you won’t be interrupted. Use headphones. If you must use your bedroom, clean the space and place your head and shoulders in the center of the screen – whatever you can do to avoid distracting your interviewers with your belongings. I won’t soon forget the bright blue pajamas hanging on the hook on the back of one candidate’s bedroom door, which he had obviously failed to notice were visible in his screen until it was too late.
If the interview is to occur at the Annual Meeting, it’s up to the SCS Placement Service to arrange your available slots.If you’re giving a paper, remember to avoid scheduling interviews during the panel session. Be patient with the Placement Service, but if you know you have interviews and you haven’t received information toward the end of December, contact the SCS directly and ask for help.
The Annual Meeting usually falls during the first Thursday-Sunday in January. Whether you must console loving family members who hate to see you leave post-New Year celebrations, or soothe students disgruntled at your departure from campus at the beginning of term, it makes no difference. You should attend the meeting from the evening it begins to the late afternoon it ends. Thumb-twiddling at the hotel or airport on the final day is better than missing the opportunity to meet people because you tried to make an early escape from the scene.
Some funding for attending the Meeting is made available to graduate students by the SCS: be sure to apply for it. Your own university may also have resources for which you may apply.
If you’re planning to visit family or friends over the holidays, include in your application (at the end of your cover letter or on a separate page, if your plans are complicated) your temporary contact information, with dates of travel and phone numbers clearly marked. Make sure your voicemail message states your name clearly.
“Smile, everyone, smile!”... in person or on Zoom
You may face anywhere from two to ten or more people in person, but three to five is average; from shaking everyone’s hand in greeting or going around the Zoom room saying hello to final farewells, approximately 30 to 55 minutes will pass. The best interviews tend to follow the structure of “real” conversation, each answer opening up brief discussion among the group at large. Don’t grow nervous if your interviewers enjoy a minute or two of conversation among themselves, though you may wish to lean forward and make a polite interjection if you feel that time’s a-wastin’.
Gauge your audience carefully. You are free to ask the chair who contacts you with the news of an interview who is likely to be present on Zoom or in person. Tweak your answers accordingly. Historian Evan Jewell reminds me that the search committee may contain classicists, ancient historians, modern historians, archaeologists, medievalists, art historians, near Eastern studies specialists, philosophers, or scholars of religion. It’s best to know this going into the interview, so that you can prepare sharp and vivid anwers appropriate to a generalist audience.
In the unlikely case you encounter a truly hostile interviewer, bear in mind the following advice. Don’t let yourself get angry or defensive. Try to elicit a clear statement of the nature of his/her problem with you: is it your dissertation topic? methodology? interests? If this leads nowhere, keep in mind that anything from a bad hangover to social ineptitude may lie behind an interviewer’s rudeness. Happily, these people make up a definite minority, and their colleagues will usually be too embarrassed at their discourtesy to think the worse of you or your interview performance. Keep calm, and answer his or her questions as best you can — but avoid going on for too long, and as soon as you finish talking, look around the room in order to invite questions from a different quarter. Most likely, the other members of the group will want to play good cop to the hostile person’s bad cop, so they’ll be quick to jump in with another topic.
The urge to apologize (for the unfinished state of your dissertation, your inability to answer a question) can be overwhelming: resist it! Try to turn any unanswerable questions to your advantage by using them as a springboard to a different issue. The following example of interview mythology, while not intended to stand as an ideal model, offers a useful lesson. One candidate was asked out of the blue to comment on the career and works of Demosthenes. He responded, “Ah, Demosthenes...a great orator...interesting rivalry with Aeschines.” His knowledge of Demosthenes exhausted for the moment, he went on to say, calmly and coolly, “His accomplishments are brought into sharp focus by comparison with an exact contemporary — born and died the same years, 384-322 — Aristotle! Now about Aristotle...”
The understandable desire to build fellow feeling with the interview group can lead down some dangerous paths. Don’t belittle your home institution’s undergraduates or your graduate colleagues (“I can’t wait to be in a place where my students understand me!” “I really wish I had peers who cared more about the field,” etc.). Don’t name-drop. Do not permit your anxiety about your dissertation to take the form of complaints about your adviser (“I meant to finish earlier, but my adviser didn’t give me comments on chapter 3 until the fall”). Beware, in general, of strongly criticizing your home department, even if one of your interviewers makes noises along these lines (“Everyone knows X department has had problems...I hated it when I was there”; “Professor Z still giving pretty students trouble?”). You certainly shouldn’t whitewash your graduate experience if you or others have suffered mistreatment. Remember, though, you’re not on a departmental evaluation committee: you’re being interviewed for a job, and you don’t know the internal dynamics or the collegial connections of the group you’re talking to. Although interviewers will tend to greet lamentation with a sympathetic smile, inside, they’re wondering why you’re wasting time complaining. So, unless for professional reasons you must mention departmental dirty laundry, leave it alone. If someone raises the issue, be honest. Acknowledge the problem, if it exists; or suggest that it’s all ancient history, if that’s true: but deal with it quickly and move on.
The same goes for jeers about others’ scholarship. Differences of opinion over an important trend in your field may well arise, with one or two scholars singled out as examples: this is fine, and can lead to productive exchanges in the interview. But if one of your interviewers expresses criticism in an unprofessional manner, don’t join in. One of his/her colleagues may be silently seething at the spectacle. This advice applies to presenting a paper as well.
Even normally stolid or serene people can be surprised to find how high emotions can run at the Meeting. What seemed like an interesting new challenge back home may now feel, in the elevator jam-packed with pallid fellow sufferers, more like a capital trial with a hostile jury. By the same token, very tense candidates often discover that the hellish tortures they anticipated amount in fact to exciting interactions with people who are genuinely interested in their work. Because of this emotion-telescoping effect, the biggest challenge of interviewing well – and delivering papers effectively – depends on you. If you’re nervous, don’t shrink into silence or overcompensate by talking loudly a mile a minute. If you’re confident, don’t self-inflate into an obnoxious version of the real you.
Common Interview Questions
Readers are encouraged to consult Evan Jewell’s terrific blog post on this topic, from the perspective of an ancient historian.
“Tell us about your dissertation.”
Almost every interview kicks off with this one. Craft 3 different answers to the question according to the manner in which it is asked: a) 3-4 sentences, naming title, topic, author(s), period(s), and main thrust of argument; b) 3-5 minutes, the above plus some elaboration of your argument and the contribution it makes to the field; c) 8-10 minutes, the full-on version. Trot out the last answer only when the interviewer sits back, looks extremely comfortable, and says, “So, why don’t you take ten minutes to tell us all about your dissertation?” Otherwise, stick to the shorter versions, with special attention to version (b). Getting this answer down ahead of time is crucial. You must explain your topic clearly and succinctly without sounding condescending (do not advise your listeners of the dates of canonical authors) and you must explain why they and the field at large should care about it. This doesn’t require arrogance and a huge ego — just well- founded confidence that your work makes a difference, whether to the typologies of Bronze Age archaeology or the study of imagery in Roman epic.
Note that you may well be asked the dissertation question in a social situation (e.g., over cocktails in the hotel bar). Have your briefest answer ready to go at all times: not only is it good practice, but one never knows where such impromptu encounters may lead.
Occasionally, whether from interview exhaustion or unwillingness to put the candidate on the spot, interviewers will express interest in your topic, but refrain from asking specific questions. This is an opportunity for you to show off a little, touching on the scholarship that influences your approach and methodology, or presenting a “snapshot” exegesis of a key passage or a knotty and interesting problem that you successfully solved. Don’t lose sight of the clock, and watch out for restlessness in your audience: the committee will be annoyed if you talk so much that they can’t ask you the remaining questions on their list. Still, especially when you are dealing with a department that might be suspicious of your interests, try to show that you are able to engage dynamically and collegially in discussion about your research.
Usually, though, this question usually gives rise to the most interesting back-and-forth of the interview. It can feel like an oral exam—knowing that this is your specialty, interviewers will feel that they can lob just about anything at you—but that’s fine; you know this stuff; have a good time sparring. Keep an ear attuned (and perhaps a pen ready) for important questions that you will want to think more about later: I still remember a great question posed at my very first interview, which helped me frame a book chapter six years later.
Be confident in your ability to explain the impact of your work on the field and the humanities in general. Small colleges are particularly interested in candidates who show ability and interest in connecting their work to other fields in the academy.
“What would you most like to teach?”
Another important — and almost inevitable — question. Start by imagining several courses you would be capable of teaching. It helps to review your Ph.D. notes and exams: they constitute your special fields of expertise, and you can easily draw on them to craft classes of all levels and types (large lecture, seminar, etc.). It’s not a bad idea to bring them to the conference; when you’re at your most nervous, they’ll remind you that you are prepared for this next step in your career. Avoid reverting repeatedly to your dissertation topic or closely related areas of specialization. There’s nothing worse than realizing, as the interview is coming to an end, that because of nerves or lack of preparation you’ve answered nearly every question with an appeal to your dissertation area. This narrow field of reference will be the first thing the dismayed committee will remark upon the moment you leave the room.
You may be asked to discuss any of the following classes on the spot.
1. Latin or Greek language. For 1st year courses, have a textbook in mind. Don’t be dogmatic about it, and be prepared to defend it diplomatically: your choice may tread on some toes of holy departmental mos maiorum. For 2nd or 3rd year courses, be prepared to name 2-3 specific authors and texts. Show mastery of (and willingness to teach) the classical canon, but don’t be afraid to include an author outside it. Knowledge of secondary literature is key to answering this question thoroughly. You will be expected to name at least two articles or books that you would include on your syllabus, especially for an advanced class. Don’t go overboard, but trot out a few specifics: e.g. whether you’d like your advanced students to write a paper, do some prose comp, perform memorized passages, or take translation tests. The way you answer this gives the committee insight into what you think is important about teaching classical languages and literature. Your description of your upper-level language course on Cicero should aim for more than an emphasis on developing students’ grammar; for your first-year Greek syllabus, skip the Bhabha and Bourdieu.
2. [Graduate degree-granting departments only] Graduate seminar, your choice of topic. For many research departments, this is a make- or-break question, so answer carefully. Include several concrete examples of primary texts (not “Seneca” but “Seneca’s moral epistles”) and half a dozen readings in secondary literature (try to show off your knowledge of scholarship from the nineteenth century to the present day). Include examples of readings in both primary and secondary literature. Try to avoid areas covered by famous people in the department. Think beforehand about the obvious questions/objections your interviewers might have: e.g., how do you define the generic limits of pastoral/Greek novel/elegy? Will your focus on comparative anthropology/structuralist criticism/textual criticism/New Historicism include critiques of those approaches (i.e., describe those critiques, so we know you know what you’re talking about)? Are you prepared to deal with philosophical or social issues related to your course on poetry? How will you make your seminar in ancient science relevant to our literature students? What role might classical reception play? How will your seminars prepare students to enter the job market? Would you welcome graduate students from other departments into your seminar? Questions like these are designed to probe your approach to the field, your theoretical orientation, and yes, your knowledge and preparedness. If you are in your 20s or early 30s, be aware that you are also being evaluated here as a potential teacher of students in your age range. So hold your ground with your most mature, professional persona.
3. A genre course, sometimes phrased as “your dream course.” The point for the committee here is to test several things: what really fires up your engine as a teacher and a thinker, where you can comfortably range within and beyond classical literature and its traditional themes, and how creatively you approach the job of teaching in general. Hot themes for classicists and ancient historians in the bleak market years of the 20-teens: “race and class in the ancient Mediterranean,” “Rome/Athens in the global imagination,” ancient science (with links to the emerging field of medical humanities), courses in the digital humanities, courses on literature or history that include the study of material culture, courses in classical reception.
4. “Classical Civilization.” When preparing for this question, focus on putting an innovative spin on canonical topics. You may want to ask a few questions of the committee before launching into your answer; otherwise you risk wasting time describing a straightforward ancient history course when they’re really interested in hearing your thoughts on how to integrate canonical authors, art, and major philosophers.
5. Greek and Roman Mythology. Does the department currently treat the course as an introduction to ancient literature? or ancient culture? or theories of myth? Make it clear that you are willing to respond to their current needs, but are happy to innovate as well.
6. A course that involves the reception of classical thought or the impact of classical literature/culture on later periods.
7. Ancient history — even if you focus on literature; or a literature survey—even if you’re a historian. This question isn’t necessarily intended to humiliate you by revealing possible areas of ignorance. Many departments face severe budget cuts, making professors who are willing to do double-duty across disciplines highly desirable commodities.
8. A course especially conductive to teaching remotely.
According to general report, questions 1-3 are asked in most interviews. Your answer should include the texts you plan to use, the major themes you will cover, and (in brief) any innovative thoughts you might have on the subject. Use your common sense: what do you really want students to learn from your classes? and you’ve got these questions down.
If you have syllabuses from the past, or if making up a syllabus is your favorite thing to do late at night, proofread them carefully, print out a bunch and hand out them at this stage in the interview. But don’t waste valuable dissertation time on imaginary classes.
“What would you prefer NOT to teach?”
A mean, tricky question but one worth preparing for. Consider looking the asker in the eye and saying, “At this stage in my career, I can’t imagine: every text seems exciting!” Or if the Doris Day act doesn’t come easily, try the tortured intellectual: “What can I say? I love Pindar so much, but the beauty of his Greek is so difficult to convey...”
“What are your research plans beyond the dissertation?” sometimes framed as “What would you like to have accomplished in the next five years?”
A crucial question. Do not simply tell them that you plan to revise your dissertation into a book. Be prepared to go beyond the thesis, describing at least one new and respectably-sized project in detail. It doesn’t have to be a plan for the second book, though that makes for a good answer: material for a solid article or two will suffice. In the absence of specific plans, the easiest and quickest way to deal with this is to choose a couple of seminar papers you’ve already written and in which you’re still interested, familiarize yourself with recent scholarship, and plan your answer accordingly. The point here is to continue to sound perfectly sure of yourself even after the conversation has moved away from your dissertation.
“How did you first become interested in Classics? Where do you think Classics / the humanities / the study of literature stands today / is going in the future? How would you help increase our majors/enrollments? Do you see the field in transition, and if so, transition to what?”
Be enthusiastic, but avoid naivete. Many classicists are preoccupied with these questions, especially those who have dealt with years of budgetary constraint. Give yourself a refresher course on current issues in American education by reading recent issues of the NY Review of Books or the Chronicle. The historical role of the field of Classics in sustaining class, gender, and racial prejudice is by now well known. Interviewers may be eager to hear your thoughts on how you hope to attract a diverse population of college students into your classes.
“What is your teaching philosophy?”
The question about teaching philosophy has grown more common in the last ten years — unfortunately, in my view, since it is so vague: it tends to elicit vapid responses even from excellent candidates. It’s impossible to answer this poser on the spot, so prepare a decent reply now. Consider that answering this question the same way to committees from a top-notch research university and from a small college is probably a bad idea. Two productive responses I’ve encountered are:
1) seize the opportunity to leave the committee with a vivid image of you as a well-prepared and inspiring teacher, preferably via an example from your graduate TA experience: your use of oral exercises in the Latin 1 classroom, your views on peer review, your commitment to student involvement in creative writing projects.
2) Transform the question into a question about the core methodology or values of your field. One young historian I know answered this question exceptionally well by tying a few well-put sentences about the importance of analyzing primary evidence together with a very short anecdote about students who don’t understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. It perfectly spotlighted his sophistication as a historian, his sensitivity to undergraduate perspectives, and his commitment to rigorous teaching.
“How would you connect with our student population, which is highly racially and socioeconomically diverse?”
Unlike the soggy “teaching philosophy” question, this one is very much to the point today, and it deserves a crisp, well-prepared answer. If you are in residence in a department or a university with a low percentage of Pell-eligible students or of BIPOC students, my best advice is to talk to someone who teaches groups of students who are more reflective of the American population as a whole. Consult your university’s office of diversity, equity, and inclusion for advice. Track down PhDs from your program or acquaintances from SCS or regional meetings who teach in schools with diverse populations, and ask them about their experiences teaching and mentoring – what they wish they’d known when they started, what works in their schools. Read personal experiences of faculty in the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed. Consider the kind of academy you want to work in, and describe how you want to use your skills in teaching, advising, service, and research to bring that academy into being.
“Name one or two scholars who have most influenced your work, or whose work you admire.”
This is definitely worth thinking over beforehand. If you can avoid mentioning scholars engaged in long-running feuds with your interviewers, so much the better. Also try to avoid mentioning the names of your committee or the people sitting around the table (a consequence of temporary brain-freeze that I recall from bitter experience!).
“What kinds of administrative roles might you be willing to take up?”
Often there is complicated departmental history here that you don’t know about (or if you do, you should probably keep it to yourself). Maybe they’re looking for a near-future chair, or someone to run the undergraduate curriculum; maybe they’re just testing out how you’ll react to the prospect of a bit of extra work. Answer truthfully. Don’t recoil with horror or laugh with power-hungry glee.
“We have a small department at the moment, but we have plans to grow. How do you think you might contribute to that effort?”
Almost every classicist I know hopes to diversify the undergraduate population interested in and studying Classics. How you might contribute to this effort is well worth thinking over in advance. Read up on the topic and answer according to context. Small college? Talk about teaching great undergraduate courses with public appeal and attracting more majors, thereby justifying more hires to the dean. Research university? Talk about the above, but add graduate mentoring. Or put your own swing on things. Be aware that this question (like the one just above) may be designed to test your readiness to get involved in departmental issues, and/or your grasp of the challenges facing many Classics departments today—the latter especially if you come from a top program and are interviewing at a conspicuously less prestigious place.
“Why would you like to teach at our elite research university / small college in the middle of nowhere / enormous state university?”
Familiarize yourself with the place where you are interviewing: but if memory or inspiration fails, lob the question back to them after a brief but enthusiastic encomium on the virtues of the place, i.e., “Ah, the American southwest, I’ve always wanted to live there, such a culturally diverse place...actually, this gives me an opportunity to ask you...” Which leads to the next issue:
“Do you have any questions for us?”
Don’t ask if their library is any good or how talented the students are; ask them about their cultural life on campus, what thoughts they have about increasing their majors, how to integrate students into one’s own research, and so on. In any case, think beforehand of something to ask — otherwise you run the risk of appearing bored or uninterested in their job.
“What are your hobbies?”
Wow them. Like to belly-dance, coach, cook, or do community service? Tell them why. A question like this means that they are interested in you as a person, as a colleague, as someone they hope to enjoy having in their department and, to a certain extent, in their social life. Be honest, but also be aware that you must perform yourself, playing up the best of your character, your interests, and your sociability.
I’ve served on job committees for most of my twenty plus years as a faculty member, and I have personally witnessed each of the following actions, most of them more than once. These are what make interviewers say “Can you believe s/he said/did that?” after you walk out of the room.
It’s worth noting that most of these rules apply just as well to interviewers as to candidates.
- bad-mouth your adviser or committee or department.
- name-drop famous scholars you know.
- refer more than once to your friendships with one or two interviewers or their partners, friends, or graduate students.
- lecture or “mansplain” the interviewers in a condescending tone.
- interrupt. (Social psychologists warn us that both men and women interrupt women more readily than men, so control this socialized tendency.)
- yawn or otherwise appear bored.
- complain without irony or humor in a 9 AM interview that you’re not a morning person.
- look constantly down at your feet, out the window, or up at the ceiling.
- look at members of one gender only.
- totally ignore younger or older interviewers.
- focus exclusively on the most well-known scholar in the room.
- ask about salary or how quickly and often you can go on leave.
- dismiss the value of undergraduate teaching by contrast to research.
- assume that everyone shares your political views.
- dismiss the significance of the contribution an interviewer has made to your field of study (“oh, but that article came out twenty years ago, didn’t it?”).
- complain that American college students are lazy and stupid and in need of strict discipline.
- note that not many people really “get” your work.
- remark that your committee was too bored by your dissertation to finish reading it.
- joke that you don’t know anything about any topic outside of Classics.
- joke about suffering from a hangover.
- go into a lot of detail about illness, surgery, or hospitalization: if it’s relevant to your candidacy or progress in your program, mention it and move on.
- volunteer information about your family, especially partner/spouse/kids. It's illegal for interviewers to ask about these things and any references will make the interviewers uncomfortable. Put wrong, it can also sound manipulative.
- talk for ten minutes straight, disregarding all efforts to interrupt you.
- inquire suspiciously why a colleague of the interviewers recently left the department.
THE ANNUAL MEETING
With more and more interviews shifting to Zoom, the Annual Meeting has become more about meeting people and less about interviews. Still, check your email and texts regularly. You may be asked to come for an on-the-spot interview or meet the committee for a second interview (this should not be interpreted in dramatically positive or negative terms).
The Placement Service has run smoothly in recent years, thanks to great effort at the SCS, but stay on top of their communications and do what you can to ensure that you won’t be lost in any unforeseen bureaucratic shuffle.
Walk with confidence. Speak with assurance. Don’t twiddle with pens and pencils. Get a good night’s sleep before your interview — this is what they invented Tylenol PM for — and keep up your blood sugar and accustomed caffeine level through the day. If you had a terrible mock interview, remember that it is almost always the worst, toughest, most embarrassing interview of all; the real thing involves people who want you to do well so that they can see you at your best.
A few words on style. Dress professionally but in a style that feels comfortable to you. That blue suit you haven’t worn since your sister’s wedding or an unfamiliar set of high heels may have strange effects on your posture and mannerisms. Men or male-identifying people may choose to wear coat and tie, but this is growing less common: a professional look minus the tie work well. Women and female-identifying people should avoid anything approximating evening wear in interviews: however flattering, little black dresses, very high heels and the like are not appropriate professional attire. Because interviews are often conducted in hotel rooms or suites, you may find yourself seated in a low chair or sofa, where a short skirt can be embarrassing and distracting.
The Annual Meeting is a chance to meet new colleagues and make new friends, and classicists are known for enjoying their social time. Especially if you've been fueled by nervous energy throughout the day, be careful not to drink too much alcohol. Though it’s refreshing to change outfits for the evening parties, and academics are typically comfortable interacting with people who are dressed informally, have tattoos and a variety of hair styles and so forth, be aware that older people in particular may be flustered by encountering you in club-appropriate attire. Many academics hold more conservative ideas than they like to admit about class- and gender-appropriate behavior, and sorry to say, it is still the case that men’s outfits are usually ignored, but women in tiny t-shirts and tight jeans or low-cut dresses or lots of make-up risk being downgraded on intellect and competence. Though many of us (including me) find these retrograde attitudes irritating and constraining, they exist and they’re powerful, and they can harm your career prospects and possibly your ability to make friends among your peers. Keep it vanilla for these evenings.