Home > Academic Job Market > The Media Studies Job Market, 4: Application Materials

The Media Studies Job Market, 4: Application Materials

August 30th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

In this post, I’ll go through a few tips for the various materials you’re going to send to the committee. To start with, however, I need to be clear that these are my preferences, and way too many people out there will tell you their preferences as though every search committee member shares them. Rubbish. There’s wide variation. So I share the below with my rationale, but don’t see it as gospel, and most of all have a rationale for your decisions, one that it’s reasonable to think the search committee will share or get intuitively.

More after the fold …

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The CV

I’ll admit that this is where I start with any package. It’s like the executive summary. And I appreciate when candidates treat it that way. Make it attractive, but don’t go crazy. Really spend some time working out what should go in bold or italics, what font sizes and types to use, where white space is needed, and so forth. The point isn’t to create a work of art, but to facilitate the easy and quick reading of the CV. You want the committee to see that you’re qualified, to be interested enough to read the letter, and not to slow them down in the process.

Make sure all the important info is there, too. You’d be surprised how many I’ve seen that don’t mention where the PhD is being conducted, the dissertation title, or other salient points. I’m also a fan of a small section near the front that says what your research interests are. Yes, you’ll repeat those in the letter, ideally with context, but for now it could help. All the more so if your publications don’t really indicate the breadth of who you are as a scholar, because without such a section, many people will simply use your publications for a guide. (With that in mind, be aware of what you publish early on and what it might say of who you are).

Don’t ever bullshit, or even appear to do so. When I read a CV that tries to make a submission to a journal seem like an actual publication, I’m not at all impressed. Most people I talk to agree that it’s good to list submissions, since it tells the committee the kind of things you’re working on, and what communities you’re aiming your work at, but it’s never good to make a submission seem like a bona fide publication. Remember, too, that committee members might be well-connected, so if you’ve gotten a rejection, pull it from your CV straight away – I once read a CV that boasted of a submission to Popular Communication (a journal I co-edit) when we’d rejected it four months prior to the application deadline. In terms of lingo, be clear it’s a submission, or that you have an offer to revise and resubmit, or, if and only if it’s been accepted, that it’s forthcoming.

A CV can in theory be as long as it needs to be, but think about placement of different sections, and think carefully. If you’re waffling on about everything you’ve ever done, you may be pushing important material lower down, where it may not be seen. Think about the university you’re applying to too, so that you don’t, for instance, put teaching really late in an application to a liberal arts college. And while I like and need some white space, don’t go crazy with it just to make the CV look longer, since in such a situation, it looks shorter not longer.

Also, be selective in terms of what you mention from your life pre-PhD program. Remember that you may be applying alongside people with more experience, and the more that you tout your Grade 10 public speaking contest award, Grade 12 honors list, or so forth, the younger and greener you sound. Most departments these days need to fight tooth and nail for a hire, and so they need people ready to jump into the trenches when they finally get that hire – the young person with 12 Brownie badges isn’t likely going to be entrusted with that job. That said, if you did particularly interesting things, include them. When I’m looking through a huge batch, it can be intriguing to see someone who did Peace Corps, who spent a year in Argentina, who wrote a book of short stories, etc.

And the best advice I could give regarding CVs, as with all elements that you send, is to share with peers and profs and ask for their advice. Don’t be silly and vain and too embarrassed to show your friends and advisers your CV – better that they point something out than that you get tossed in the No pile as a result of it.

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The Cover Letter

Personally, I hate cover letters that simply reiterate the CV. A fair degree of this is needed, but what the cover letter should do, above all else, is narrativize your achievements and interests. The CV doesn’t allow you to give context, so you should provide that in the letter. Perhaps your publications seem an eclectic, odd mix, but have a through-line that you can explain? Perhaps you can explain how your year in the Peace Corps impacted your teaching? Etc. Maybe this is just me, but when I look to a cover letter, I want to see the meat that surrounds the bones that the CV gave me.

The cover letter should be either two or three pages. Some love longer ones, some hate them – there is no consensus, though I hear more in the 2 camp than the 3 camp. It should contain a good hearty par. that explains your dissertation, but not just what it does, but also why it does that, and how that speaks to your driving force(s) as a scholar. It should contain a hearty par. about teaching. It should get the department, city, and committee member names correct (seriously: proofread. It’s amazing how many people merely print the same one that they sent to University of X when applying to University of Y). It should explain why you want to work at this university in particular, live in this town, and so forth.

Don’t go overboard with an attempt to be witty, but do put something of your personality into the letter if possible. I want to see a human being when I read these letters.

And, this is very hard, so you’ll likely need friends to proofread for you, but try to strike the right balance between being clear about your achievements without being arrogant. You’re selling yourself, so don’t just sit back and hope the committee notices you. Yes, it feels dirty, but it’s required. At the same time, if you come across as a headstrong prat, you’re unlike to go anywhere.

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The Teaching Philosophy

When I see requests for this, I feel like I’m being asked to write a Hallmark poem. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching, and it is the engine that allows me to function. But it feels wanky writing my “philosophy.” It also feels dirty, since it makes my personal interactions with students seem somehow staged, pre-scripted, and regimented. But some schools and some committee members love their Hallmark poems, I guess. So what to do?

First off, if you’re asked to write one of these, be strategic with division of material between this and the cover letter. The advantage (if you’re a verbose bastard like me) of being asked to write a teaching philosophy is that it gives you carte blanche to say more about yourself, so don’t just cut and paste the par. from your cover letter – go beyond it and say more. Don’t just repeat metrics that you’ve included elsewhere (on CV or in a “dossier”): explain why and how your teaching works.

Second, to the ABDs – beware that this is a document that might make you look painfully student-y if you indulge the urge to write about teaching solely from the student’s perspective. So remember to frame your comments as those of one who teaches and wants to teach, not simply as one who receives instruction.

Third, a word about liberal arts colleges – they can be cult-like in that they really like their own. If you didn’t go to a LAC for your undergrad, they may already be dubious about your ability to “fit in.” This document might really matter to them, therefore, so if you’re applying to a LAC, make sure you do an extra good job of explaining how teaching matters to your work.

As for the rest, well, that’s kind of up to you, but I’d pick two or three central, unifying points and harp on them. These documents are usually a page, maybe a tiny bit more.

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The Teaching “Dossier”

“What is this?” I’ve often been asked. It’s a collection, primarily of your teaching evaluations and possibly syllabi. At least as I read it, though others should correct me if wrong.

Don’t include the entire batch of evals – just give the topsheet and a sample of comments. If your university doesn’t create a topsheet that tabulates your scores, do this yourself (if the form asks a bunch of questions, just tabulate the numbers for the general one, the one that sounds like “Overall, how would you evaluate this professor?”), but be honest and label it as your tabulation. And by “sample,” I mean a sample of the good stuff. I usually sent about 5 to 8.

As for syllabi, opinions diverge here, and so let’s hope you’re in a position to ask the search committee what they’d like (since dossiers are often asked for later on, not straight away). But personally, I want to see syllabi that a person taught as the instructor of record, not as a TA. Some places are interested in how you would teach a course, though, so if you have no syllabi on hand because you’ve never been the instructor of record, you might want to start devising one or two syllabi now that you can share as prospective syllabi. I say now because syllabi are awful when rushed, so you might as well have things in hand now. Trust me, the experience of doing this could help, too, since it’s a common question for interviews – “we really need someone who can teach X. How would you do this?” – and it’s the question I’ve seen flubbed most spectacularly. A little prep in putting together a syllabus in advance could help you own this question.

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The Research Statement

In contrast to the teaching philosophy, I love writing these, partly since they don’t seem calculating when they’re about research rather than people, partly because I find it really hard to sum up what my research is all about in only one paragraph for the cover letter.

This is your chance to explain how everything you do as a scholar fits. Bear in mind that when you go up for tenure, your department will need to explain the same thing, so they need to hire someone who they think they can explain. This is where you do it for them. Explain in terms this department will understand and appreciate. Use the opportunity to elaborate more upon your dissertation, yes (and again, don’t just repeat your cover letter). Explain how any other publications you’ve done fit into this. If you have interesting life experiences that connect with your research, here’s a great spot to mention them and involve them. But importantly, remember to talk about what’s next and how that fits. As an ABD, maybe you’re so deep into your project that you don’t know, but remember that the committee wants evidence that you’re actually going to finish on time, and an ability to discuss the next step is strong evidence here. So make sure you can provide.

Again, these are often a page, though I think two, especially for an R1, is fine. That may just be me.

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Sample of Writing

This may be the only example of your scholarship that a committee reads. If you advance to future levels, it may be circulated to the department. So make sure you think it represents you well, not only in quality, but also in focus.

Here’s where ideally I need to back up and give some advice about publishing. During your Ph.D., try to get at least one article on your topic out to a really solid journal, or placed in another high profile place. This will of course make your CV look better, as will all publications (and ideally it won’t just be one!). But it will be what you can submit. Understandably, you may want to hold onto your diss. material for longer, and hence may be more inclined to send out other papers, perhaps ones that grew out of coursework. It’s okay to send such material out, but remember that if this is all you have published or finished, that may be all you can send to a committee. All of a sudden that eclectic paper you wrote on Buffy and images of blood, when your diss. is actually a history of radio in the sixities, will be your calling card. So be prepared (if it’s not too late to say so!).

As an applicant, I much preferred being able to send something that is typeset and formatted too, not just a Word doc. I felt it looked professional, and was a subtle reminder that, yes, I had been published. And I’m aware that academics read Word docs with red pen in hand, as graders or reviewers, whereas they read typeset material differently; I didn’t want to invite the former type of reading. I’d recommend you do the same.

That said, if your best material, and your most appropriate material, is a Word doc, then that’s what you send. Reformat to 1 or 1.5 spacing, so it seems less classroom-essay-like. Maybe even find a font other than Times to help the cause. And it should be okay – don’t stress too much. But proofread and factcheck. Really closely.

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Bonus Materials

Go easy with submitting things that weren’t requested. Usually a committee will request what it wants when it wants it. If you start including all sorts of other shit, you may come across as too intense or as arrogant. Play by the rules they give you, in other words.

That said, if, for instance, you’re applying for a job in a dept that does production, and you’ve produced something spectacular that can be included easily (i.e, on a CD or DVD), that’s acceptable.

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What You Don’t Send

So there’s this incredible thing called Google. And another thing called Twitter. And another thing called Facebook. And Ratemyprofessor.com. And onward. None of them are all that hard to use. Search committees may use them. When I visited Madison, a committee member let me use his/her computer to check my flight status home, and when I shook the computer out of sleep, in the little Google search bar in the to right of the browser I found my name.

Thus, be very aware of your online presence. What’s available to non-friends on Facebook? (often people’s likes are widely available, for instance, so what will it say about your politics, tastes, causes, temperament, etc.?). What pictures of you are available online? Are you an aggressive Tweeter, and if so, what sort of things do you say? If you’re fond of snark, criticism, argument, etc., you might not want your Twitter account to be public. Or more to the point, just be a good person online in the first place, so you don’t have to hide your badness.

And here’s a biggie: what are you saying about the jobsearch online? I know someone who made the shortlist at a major university (not mine), then got cut because the search committee (one of whom told me about this) saw his/her posting online about the search, and about which universities s/he liked, didn’t like, etc. The committee felt this showed a lack of maturity and professionalism … even though they were one of the favored universities.

Search committee’s ability to use Firefox isn’t all necessarily bad, however. After all, perhaps you have a great online presence. You might have a lovely personal webpage that goes beyond the CV on one hand, while illustrating your tech literacy on another (and remember that most search committee members will be quite tech illiterate by comparison, so you can impress them easily here). If you do new media, you really should have such a site. You may have a blog where you write smart things about your research that allow you to supplement the single article you sent them (blog URLs are often circulated by committees). Perhaps your Tweeting shows you to be a good, supportive, colleagial human being.

Indeed, and to close this post, let’s add an important coda to the Think Like a Search Committee task we engaged in last time. Search committees want nice people. They can’t ask you “please send evidence that I will want to have dinner with you,” and thus the things they ask for are tailored towards showing them other things. But if you get the job, get tenure, and stay, and if they stay, you may be colleagues for 30 or so years. Search committees really want nice people. And they’ll go looking for evidence of what kind of a person you are. So be nice and make sure you look nice online.

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  1. August 30th, 2010 at 14:22 | #1

    More great advice, thank you. I admit I never gave much thought to spending a lot of time on the letter on “why you want to work at this university in particular, live in this town,” etc. I think in the past I’ve worried that such information in a short document might come across as irrelevant to the immediate task at hand (how does one fit the job description) and/or redundant (of course, we know we have a great town, program, etc–what do you bring). Good stuff. I know a lot of ABD and just finished friends who are reading this closely.

  2. August 30th, 2010 at 16:08 | #2

    Jason, my sense is that less of that is needed for bigger name unis, since, as you said, they know why you’re applying. But for anything below that, there can be a lot of second-guessing about where good candidates will want to go. Even when the uni is in a great place: when I was phone interviewed by Fordham, they were very worried that I’d never want to live in New York City, and half the discussion was about how great NYC is. I wouldn’t overdo this talk in the letter, but it can be a nice framing tool.

  3. August 30th, 2010 at 17:23 | #3

    Jonathan, like the other pieces, great advice! As someone living in a place that isn’t necessarily on most academics’ top ten lists, I think the “why this place” is really important. When you see search after search hire their top candidate only to have them leave after a year, it does become a possibly important question. Also, I think it’s important in making the school/department feel wanted/desired and not just backup plan #57 (even if it is!).

    And I’m really glad you address online presence. I know I’m on the extremely neurotic end here, trying for the minimal digital footprint. But I think in part that’s because I do a lot of online stalking looking up of people and it’s kinda scary how an old email address, newsgroup post, uni listing can suddenly connect various names and pseudonyms. I think a lot of people reading your posts are very savvy about their official online presence, but when I read twitter, for example, I do wonder how much detail may indeed be too much…

    If nothing else, I think it’s really useful to vanity google and see what comes up. Because, as you said, there’s a good chance the committee will do that too : )

  4. August 30th, 2010 at 20:21 | #4

    Like Jonathan said up top, everyone has a different ideal packet, so here’s a few additional points from mine:

    - For somebody who needs to make a decision in 5 minutes whether to give your candidacy a 2nd look, your CV is your microcosm. If it’s disorganized, unclear, sloppily presented, incomplete, unprofessional, or looks like it was typed-up in 1973, I will probably assume that those traits apply to the CV’s author as well. If it’s clear, elegantly presented, accurate in details, and answers all of my questions, I’ll hope that might be how you’d be in the classroom and in the office next door.

    - Ditto on the cover letter as the place to narrativize. As writers and teachers, telling compelling stories is one of the required skill sets of a faculty member. If you cannot tell your story in a way that makes me want to learn more about you, that’s a problem – but it’s one under your full control.

    - As a member of the Cult of the SLAC, it’s true that a candidate who went to a SLAC gets the benefit of the doubt on one key question: “do they know what it would be like to be here?” The letter is the chance to address that question, especially if you didn’t go to one. They are significantly distinct from universities that a candidate who makes no effort to convey their understanding & interest in working in one is probably DOA. (Since nearly all viable candidates went to R1s for grad school, I think everyone assumes they know that experience…)

    - Transcripts. JG didn’t mention them, but a friend recently lamented on Twitter that they cost a ton, making the job search unnecessarily expensive. First off, I don’t know why any ad would ask for transcripts, unless it was a university policy established 50 years ago and never changed (maybe a way for registrars to gain extra revenue?). But if asked, I think there’s nothing wrong with sending a photocopied transcript, and if you’re a finalist and they need an official one, then provide it.

    - I’m much more strident about this than JG, but I really think that any candidate out of grad school these days needs a personal web presence as an extension to their dossier. Junior faculty, especially in fields like media studies, will likely be looked to as leaders in digital pedagogy, publishing or other forms of online work. Even if you’re not by nature terribly outgoing & interested in being a blogger, Twitterer, etc., by making a basic site with your core info (and putting that URL on your CV), you’re staking a claim on your own digital presence and showing that you’re not a luddite or ashamed of putting your credentials out there. Search committees will be searching for you online, so give them a one-stop place to control your image, rather than asking them to piece it together through Google. (And especially if you have a common enough name, you really don’t want them to dig through all the Jonathan Gray’s out there…)

  5. August 30th, 2010 at 21:56 | #5

    Thanks so much, Jason. Great to have you riding shotgun with these posts! And I’d agree re: transcripts (as with all the stuff above that).

    As for electronic presence, I agree that doing it well can send a great message about you, and that younger faculty will nearly always be looked to for leadership on all things digital, so it can be great to show you’re up for the task. That said, I’d also warn people against jumping in too fast and quick to the electronic maelstrom. After all, the more you put out there, the more it needs to be smart and cogent: verbal diarrhea isn’t exactly the best quality to showcase to a committee. So just as you’d likely never have impressed a prof in a grad seminar if you spoke just for the sake of speaking, if you do want an online presence, make sure you actually have something to say, rather than a long stream of omg/lol-type drol.

  6. August 31st, 2010 at 13:31 | #6

    Indeed, although I don’t think you need to create a long-form blog or anything; if you’re not already blogging, go ahead and create an online portfolio that showcases your best work – CV, writing samples, syllabi, etc. I’ve seen some portfolios out there that make me want to learn more about the candidate, and that’s ultimately the goal.

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