Home > Academic Job Market > The Media Studies Job Market, 3: Think Like a Search Committee

The Media Studies Job Market, 3: Think Like a Search Committee

August 28th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

And I’ll tell you why I can’t put up with you people: because you’re bastard people! That’s what you are! You’re just bastard people! And I’m goin’ home and I’m gonna… I’m gonna bite my pillow, is what I’m gonna do!

– Corky St. Clair, Waiting for Guffman


(continuing our tour …)

Try to think about how it all works from the committee’s perspective. In saying this, I’m not asking you to pity the committee; I’m encouraging you to know the system so that you can be smart about your interactions with it.

Let’s begin with this. It’s common to receive 60 or 70 applications at the low end, 500 (yes, 500) at the high end for an opening. Imagine you’re on the committee, with an average number of about 150 applications. How long would you spend with each? You’re teaching classes yourself. You need to be publishing things, and if you’re untenured, your tenure committee won’t really care about your work on this search, and they certainly won’t forgive a lack of publications because of the time you spent on it. Indeed, you’ve got a paper that you really need to find some time to work on right now. You may have family who require your time. And hey, maybe, just maybe, you have a life too. So how long will you spend on each application?

More after the fold:

If you think through this question in earnest, you’ll realize that a committee simply cannot and will not give each application a great deal of time. From your (necessarily selfish) position, you may conceive of the search committee as pulled out of their regular duties, locked in a room with shrimp cocktails and a fine sherry, and given endless time to look at files and do that alone, but in truth, a committee is a group of already-overworked people who just got given more work to do. Some are excited to be on the committee, and some will take the task very seriously (though some won’t), but they have a lot of other things to do too.

I’m sure most of us would like to think that a committee spends at least 15 mins reading our materials, for instance, but with 150 applicants, that’s 2250 mins, or about a single work week. So instead a committee must work out short cuts. Some will simply cut all ABDs. They may’ve originally been open to ABDs, hence no stipulation to that effect in the posting, but once looking at the depth of applicants, they may realize they don’t “need” to entertain ABDs anymore, and they may appreciate cutting the stack in half. They may not (read: very likely won’t) read all materials from all candidates. They may go straight to your publications and see where you’ve published. They may weed out anyone who has silly typos. They’ll almost definitely weed out anyone who doesn’t fit the bill of what’s been asked for (indeed, all three committees that I’ve been on have attracted a high number of completely unqualified candidates, yet in today’s market, fishing expeditions are mostly pointless).

Beyond simply weeding out, though, the committee is looking for reasons to weed in. Publications in good places means a lot (and not just lots of publications. Publishing a lot isn’t the point: placing work in good places is. Publishing in “bad” places may work against you, especially at bigger name institutions, who don’t want their faculty “wasting time” with “lesser” publications [how do you know what they consider good or bad? First, know the bigger name journals. Second, check out the CVs of those on the dept and see where they publish, since you can bet they respect their own venues]). A cover letter that makes you sound interesting means a lot. Having rec letters from respected, big names means a lot. And if any of those big names know people on the committee or in the department, and are willing to write an email to them too, that can mean a whole heck of a lot (don’t be one of those doofuses who wants to “get the job myself.” Play all cards that you have).

Knowing something about the university, department, and program also means a lot. This one provokes ire from some applicants, who from their perspective don’t want to learn the intricacies of 40 different departments and write a separate letter to each. Tough shit. If there’s an especially ugly attribute to have on the market it’s a sense of entitlement. Don’t be that way. Yes, you spent these many years of your life studying. Yes, you probably thought the market would be better than it is and now wish someone told you the cold hard truth earlier on. And yes, it sucks that you need to learn about all these departments, many of whom will never even bother to let you know they didn’t consider you. Many committees behave badly and make all this work seem pointless. But if you conduct your search with the attitude that the system needs to be nice to you before you’re nice back to it, you’ll be miserable, angry, and unemployed. Besides, you’re not applying to the system, as far as the committee is concerned: you’re applying for one singular job. Everywhere likes to feel special, and candidates who communicate that they’re not just applying for a job, but that they really want this job and this university can leapfrog over others. Remember, too, that if you’re an ABD, you’re likely not just applying against other ABDs – there are likely a bunch of people who don’t like their jobs and are trying to “upgrade”; these folk don’t need to apply to everything, since they have a job, and so they can afford to get to know a dept and make that show. Those folk already have natural advantages (Ph.D. in hand, teaching experience, likely more time to have published more), so don’t just roll over and let them take your job.

You’ll need to personalize applications. Think about what are the buzzwords that any given department wants to hear. If the job posting says they want P, Q, and/or R, you should not only be able to tell them that you do P, Q, and/or R (which means you should do them, not that you should stupidly lie and say you do them when you don’t), but you should be able to use those words. If it’s a humanities-ish department, that’ll require a different vocabulary from a social sciences-ish department (for instance, when applying to more Comms departments, I didn’t use the word “textuality” much, but I’d happily use it when talking to humanities-friendly departments). Liberal arts colleges will want to know how your work matters in the classroom; R1s will want to know that your research is good enough to get you tenure down the road, and that you’re ready and able to teach grad students; if you did your degrees at R1s and you’re applying to a rural, smaller name university, they may want assurance that you want to be there (and don’t patronize them while doing so – if it’s clear you’re deigning to apply, you’re dead on contact); and so on.

But as you personalize, beware. Perhaps the greatest mistake you can make is to assume that the committee or department think as one. Here’s the honest truth: a lot of departments are populated by people who don’t get along and/or who have profound professional disagreements. There are often factions fighting for power. Undoubtedly, therefore, several people in the department didn’t want this search to be prioritized in the first place, and wish they could hire someone else in a different area. Some individuals may have a long-term desire to hire a particular person, or to attach their own stipulations to the hire, while others may have competing requirements. So, know the department in full, not just the one or two folk you like. You may know the department as the home of Scholar H, and be proud of the fact that you’re pitching yourself as the ideal colleague for H, but maybe everyone else hates H, and will read your application and say, “Oh dear God, not another H!” Don’t just make your pitch to a single person.

Another note: especially in these economic times, departments often need to hire people who don’t do what they do, at least not completely. So while in applying for a Ph.D., you would have been wise to focus on places where faculty do what you wanted to do, now that you’re applying for a job, if you’re too close to another department member, there may be no reason to hire you. (Of course, some places’ narcissism may win out, so this isn’t a hard and fast rule). Most programs will usually want someone to cover a research area or to teach a class that others in the dept don’t (usually they can only get a hire from a Dean or dept vote in the first place if they make this case). Your chances of getting the job are low if you’re a clone of a current faculty member, or if you seem like a clone. So, for instance, when you look through courses that are taught, by all means point out a few in their books that you feel you could teach, but beware that those courses may already be spoken for, and be able to offer new courses you might add. And, taking into account the above paragraph in particular, don’t overplay how much of a BFF you’d be with any dept member in particular.

And while we’re at, a final point. Say the due date for an application is, oh I don’t know, December 25 and you’re on the search committee. Do you wait till Dec 25 to start looking at the applications, especially if you expect a couple of hundred to come in? Of course not. These aren’t Christmas presents, and your dept isn’t going to wrap them up and put them under a tree. Instead, as they come in, they’re usually made available. So let’s say you’ve looked at 100 applications by Dec 25, and have a shortlist from that group. Since this is before the crunch when a mountain of apps all come in on Dec 25, you may have extra time to look at them. You may even, if you’re a keen search committee member, have time to ask around about the candidates whose files appeal to you. You might have discussions with others on the committee, noting excitement about someone’s candidacy. So now let’s shift the “you” here back to being the applicant. I hope you see why getting your application in early is smart. It probably guarantees your file will be looked at with more time. And most importantly, it allows you the chance to get pole position, with subsequent applicants needing to displace you. If the committee’s already found 10 or 15 candidates who look great by the time that last batch come in, yes, they’re meant to look at all files, and yes, they probably will, but you might imagine how easy it would be to do so half-assedly if they’re already happy with their group of 10 or 15. And in today’s market, they’ll definitely be able to find that 10 or 15 without you. Moral of the paragraph? Apply early. Not crazily early, and not at the expense of putting thought into how to personalize your application, but still, don’t wait till the deadline, or you’re playing in a much harder bracket than if you turn up early.

Okay, next time I’ll discuss the materials you send to the committee. Meanwhile, for those who have been on committees, what other nuggets of wisdom can you share?

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  1. Katie
    August 28th, 2010 at 16:53 | #1

    I have to say that as a near-completion PhD candidate myself, this guide is immensely eye-opening and helpful. I really appreciate you taking the time to write this all out!

  2. August 28th, 2010 at 17:16 | #2

    More great & frank advice. One useful way to personalize a letter for a job that you feel would be an ideal fit would be to peruse the department’s course catalog and highlight both what classes on the books you could offer, and what new courses you could add to broaden their curriculum. But keep in mind that you should be realistic in identifying your abilities, as you don’t want to promise something that you can’t (or really wouldn’t want to) deliver.

    And let me second that you shouldn’t send your app to arrive at the last minute (or even worse, try to qualify via postmarking). Not only will you be sure to encounter tired eyes, but it sends a message that you’re the type of person who will be getting things done at the last minute or looking for loopholes, which may not leave the best impression for you as a potential colleague. Plus the hidden advantage of sending your app in early – there’s more of a chance for you to email in an update for a recent accomplishment.

  3. Josh
    August 28th, 2010 at 21:25 | #3

    Very helpful information and a lot to chew on, Jonathan. Thanks for taking the time to detail the intricacies of this process.

  4. August 29th, 2010 at 13:19 | #4

    There’s a lot to chew on here, but let me echo how one of the items I have been told in at least three applications by committee members is, “We have X and s/he does what you do”. In each case that isn’t true, but it was true enough for the committee. Also, in my time at one particular job I was on hiring committees every year, so much so I didn’t even list it as service given that the entire department was and continues to hire all the time. In one case we didn’t hire someone because s/he was a jerk to our staff. In another we almost didn’t hire a leading scholar in the field because there was an inside candidate. All of which goes to show you that a) hiring committees are staffed with humans and b) hiring committees have human reasons to accept and reject you.

  5. August 30th, 2010 at 10:40 | #5

    To build off the idea that depts typically don’t hire someone who does what someone else already does: there’s a lot of truth to this, and it makes perfect sense from the standpoint of ideology as well practical dept needs. At the same time, I’ve seen my fair share of search chairs who want, and sometimes do, hire their own figurative clones–either those with identical interests, or even someone they already knew going into the search (a variation on the ‘inside hire,’ I suppose).

  6. August 30th, 2010 at 11:14 | #6

    Definitely true. But you’re gambling if you make your pitch to one person, gambling on that person’s desire to have another version of them, and gambling on the dept laying over and letting it happen. That gamble may pay off, but it’s very risky. So, I’d say that it happens, but it should never be an applicant’s strategy to get hired that way.

    As for hiring someone you know, I don’t think there’s a problem with that in and of itself. On one hand, if you’re up on your area and know it well, it follows that you may well know a wide variety of people, even the newer folk out there. Ruling out people you know could be an odd form of punishment to programs with well-connected faculty. And on the other hand, a dept puts a lot of resources into new t-t hires — perhaps startup funds, lots of mentoring hours, and a hire/line that they may not get again for several years. So there’s no reason why they should have to shoot blind. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like stitch-ups, and I think a dept should always be legitimately open to other applicants, espec. at the junior level (“targeted” hires are common at the senior level, however), but there’s a certain appeal to the known quantity when one faces a mountain of anonymous apps, some of which may be from absolute lemons. “Knowing” someone may simply be a sign that they’ve wowed you in another context.

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