Record breaking heat; a certain haziness in the air; humidity and thunderstorms. Yes, it is the height of summer, but also the time of the year when the first positions for the coming academic job market are posted. For those of us searching for that elusive prey, the tenure-track job, now is also the quiet time to prepare for entering the fray. The job market is a nerve-racking experience, particularly for those entering it for the first time. There is a great deal of advice and suggestions out there, in the Chronicles of Higher Education, Perspectives, and other publications geared towards academia. Sometimes, however, one just needs some basics questions answered from the start. Here is my two-cents:
1) The recommendation letter. Most positions ask for three letters. If this is your first time on the market, now is the time to ask for recommendations, well before the deadlines. One of my professors requires students who ask for recommendations to include his/her updated CV and dissertation abstract. This is a great idea, because you can remind the professor of your various academic and teaching accomplishments and other information you might want the professor to include in your recommendation letter. If one letter specifically addresses your teaching, then you could include four letters, but in general, there is no need to go overboard with the letters. Be honest about the state of your dissertation. You could swear up and down in you cover letter that you are at the brink of finishing, but unless you have a defense date, most people will assume otherwise. Your professors will be much more believable about your potential finish date if they can be specific about the number of chapters they have actually read and approved. If someone expresses hesitancy about writing a letter, find another recommender. The lukewarm letter could harm you far more than the absence of one extra letter.
2) The cover letter. Tailor these for the position. Move your teaching credentials to the front of application letters for liberal arts colleges, whereas teaching universities will want to learn more about your research. There are more and more position listings with very broad guidelines. If the listing mentions world history courses, then you might want to mention in your letter that you have both thought about and are open to teaching world history. Sound excited. The cover letter is the one place you could actually convey a little bit of your personality beyond what is in your CV.
3) The CV. Most graduate school career centers will have sample CVs you could use as guides. For most young academics at the start of their career, there is no need to go over two pages.
4) Writing sample. Don’t use the introductory chapter, and keep it under 50 pages. If the listing includes a page limit, then stick to that. I am in a field where many graduate students are not native English speakers. Even if one is a native English speaker, however, it is always helpful to find someone to closely proof read the writing sample, CV, and cover letter. I have often had the feeling of sending applications into the ether, but when I actually made it to the interview stage, it was an unnerving experience to see on the other side interviewers with marked up copies of my application. One person even asked about a specific reference I used in my writing sample. The caveat, then, is to make sure that you won’t be embarrassed by what you are sending out.
Finally, take a deep breath and realize that you are not as powerless as you might believe in the throes of the job market. None of us need any reminders that things are grim out there in the real world. But at this stage, you are all talented, intelligent, and highly educated, with other options, and that’s really the bottom line.