This is the first in a three-part series that gathers perspectives on key steps in the job search process—job ads, first-round interviews, and campus visits—both from people with experience seeking faculty jobs and from members of search committees. If you would like to share your insights for part 2, fill out this anonymous form by September 22. And check out the Women’s Classical Caucus’ job market resource page for more helpful insights and advice!
The faculty job season is upon us. Jobs are posting, application deadlines are growing closer on the horizon, the SCS’s placement report for last year is available, and the hellscape of job-market stress probably hasn’t yet fully descended on most of us who will be experiencing it this year from one side or another.
Job ads are one of academia’s many precious, peculiar, and poorly normed writing genres. In many cases, a job ad is less of a clarion call for a specific kind of applicant and more of a Frankenstein’s monster of unfocused search-committee compromises. Yet, in many cases, a job ad is all we have to go on when trying to puzzle through a potential career-maker of a position.
So I’ve gathered here my own thoughts — and those of respondents on Twitter and on an anonymous Google Form that I set up — on how to read a job ad and, for search committees looking to do better this time than last, how to write one. An important disclaimer: this post is focused on faculty positions rather than the wondrous and wide variety of other jobs that students of Classics might seek and might find themselves in, partly because of how arcane the faculty search process is, and partly because, welp, ’tis the season.
How to read an ad
Most ads are going to start with the name of the department, the rank of the hire, the field or subfield, and the start date. Subsequent paragraphs will usually describe a little more about the position: the research or teaching coverage they’re looking for, the particulars of teaching load and junior leave (if they’ve got one), and so forth. They then have a couple of sentences telling you what they want you to submit and the deadline for submission — or, alternatively, the date they’ll begin officially reviewing applications. Ads sometimes end with statements about valuing inclusivity and diversity; about the desirability for candidates who can make interdepartmental connections; about the profile of the institution and its locale, about whom to contact with questions; and about where to send your application materials, either by email or on an HR website.
You’ll want to pay closest attention to the deadline, the requested materials, and the description of what kind of scholar they’re looking to hire. I second the opinion of one respondent to my survey, who said, “if you fit many but not all of the listed criteria, or if your work is adjacent to the proposed area of the position, you should apply. Even if you don’t get an interview, hiring committees remember good applications. Somebody on the committee may become a valuable benefactor down the line.”
- Interpret in the light of what kind of department has placed the ad.
- Often the real meat comes in the essential and desirable criteria, rather than in the opening paragraph. That is where you can see if you fit, and what you need to fit yourself with rhetorically.
Two words to the wise from our respondents. The first is about doing some intentional perspective-taking when you’re considering applying for a part-time position: if it’s a half-time job, “judge whether you would be able to complete the requirements in 2.5 working days. If not, don’t apply. A first step on a shaking ladder is not worth living below the poverty line.” The second is about reaching out to your contacts and networks for any local insight you can gain about the search: “Sometimes there are broader university politics involved. If you have friends in the university in question (even if not that specific department), talk to them!”
Tailoring your letter of application
Not everyone agrees with tailoring. Undoubtedly, it can increase your job market workload massively, all the more so when adjusted for the chances you’ll get to the next round in any given job. Nonetheless, tailoring your letter of application, and especially making it responsive to the job ad, will bring those chances up. (Check out the Women’s Classical Caucus resource page on cover letters for more on this topic, including more from yours truly.)
Answer the ad directly. Describe how your specialty matches that of the ad. Talk about how you have taught or will teach courses mentioned in the ad — or, if the ad doesn’t mention any courses, then relevant courses that the department has on the books, whether listed on their website or in the institution’s larger course catalog. If the ad mentions equity or diversity, write about your involvement with it, personally or professionally or pedagogically. You can (should?) even use specific phrases from the ad in your own letter—not to excess, but enough to show how attentively you’ve read the ad and considered the perspectives and wants of the search committee.
One respondent gives clues for reading between the lines of an ad:
Read the description of the field and the teaching expectations closely. “Literature” is broader than “poetry” or “prose”; “culture” suggests that the department is open to considering specialists in literature, history, or material culture. If you don’t obviously fit the parameters, your cover letter should explain how you can do what the ad is asking for, and how your specialty and experience are in fact relevant. If the ad mentions a specific course or type of course that the candidate will teach, you will be asked about that in the interview, and should address it in your cover letter.
Another has a clutch tip to set yourself apart:
Look for any indication in a job ad that the new faculty member will be expected to teach courses in the core program. For such positions, demonstrated ability and enthusiasm for teaching in that institution’s particular core program can easily be the factor that distinguishes two otherwise fairly equal candidates. And let’s face it, there is an over-abundance of well-qualified candidates looking for ways to distinguish themselves.
Let’s reverse directions now and share advice from current and past job seekers for search committees looking to improve their own work when it comes to job ads.
What makes for a good job ad?
When drafting a job ad myself, the best resource of the many I perused was the University of Michigan’s STRIDE initiative.
My own perspectives chimed with those of my respondents when it came to some desiderata in a good job ad. Foremost among them: a clear statement of what you’re looking for, which is possibly the hardest thing to ask of a search committee, especially one given free rein by the dean’s office and struggling to find consensus. It’s worth scheduling at least one committee meeting to talk about this item and this item alone. As one respondent wrote, “You want to be as clear as possible about what will make you stop reading an application without sounding rude — you may often prefer a candidate who isn’t exactly what you ask for, but some things aren’t negotiable. You should know what those are before you write the ad.” At the same time, your parameters shouldn’t read as if they’re tailored to a specific candidate, or end up constraining your committee to broaden the scope after seeing the full slate of applicants.
Clarity extends to the details of the job and the search process. Respondents pointed out that your ad should indicate teaching loads; what you mean by “evidence of effective teaching”; what you want out of an equity or diversity statement; and your expected timeline, at least on a general level.
Accessibility is also an important consideration. This applies both to the actual job ad itself — don’t put any extra information in a PDF that isn’t also available in a text-based webpage, for example — and to common courtesies for your potential applicants, such as whether your institution is willing to sponsor a visa. (It’s worth noting that you won’t be allowed to post your ad to the SCS Placement website without answering that latter question.) I suggest you think of these items as springboards for making your department and university stand out of the crowd: you can show that your department will be a welcoming, supportive, and attractive place to spend a career!
How the sausage gets made
The process of making an ad is at least as complex as constructing and enchanting a golem. The search committee may have more perspectives than members, and they may face external pressures from other members of the department, the department chair, and colleagues in other departments and programs. The committee’s hands may be tied on some or many components of the ad by the dean’s office, legal, or HR, and the Ass. Dean of Faculty Recruitment will likely insist on revisions to whatever the committee brings forward as a draft.
Sometimes the process, too, is strictly regulated from above the committee or department level. This sorcerous bureaucromancy is what makes two of the most common applicant druthers — standardized document requests and transparency about salary — particularly touchy. On the former, one respondent points out:
Sometimes documents are mandated by a university but are not of interest to a department. Sometimes a university HR office won’t allow letters or other documents to be requested in a second round and so you need to ask for them all at once; or there would not be time enough to have a round requesting more information/documents based on how quickly or slowly HR or other administrative approval offices higher up the chain work at each stage.
It’s also worth noting that, in small departments, the hire they make might be their last hire for ten or twenty years. So the faculty is naturally (and, in my view, totally reasonably) going to want tailoring in the materials they receive from applicants, and is going to favor applicants who are highly qualified, who match the area the hire was approved for, and who don’t send a boilerplate letter, but have put time into customizing their application for the job, despite all the extra time that demands.
On salaries, transparency is an equity issue, says one respondent: “Job ads should list salary range, or at least a minimum salary, to promote pay equity. Universities know that, in closed door negotiations, they can more easily pressure minoritized candidates to accept less/negotiate less for themselves.” I agree entirely. Yes, and: it’s going to be almost impossible to make work at almost every institution.
Departments will almost never be in charge of the salary window — that’s authorized by the dean. Departments rarely have much power to change it. Depending on the institution, departments may not even get to be involved in salary negotiations once they’ve made an offer. And the administrators who do get to be in charge, who do have the power to change salaries, who do oversee negotiations? They’re going to be embarrassed if they make public just how little they’re willing to pay a humanities prof.
Remember to share your insights for part 2, first-round interviews, by filling out this anonymous form by September 22!
Header image: Illustration from Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, 1831. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.