Academic Job Search: How to Write a Cover Letter?

I know that this post is not appearing in a very timely manner since people normally go on the job market in the Fall or, at the very latest, in winter. But I think it’s still a good idea to make this information available to those who are preparing to start looking for a job in academia in the near (or not so near) future. The post will be long and since it is hardly of much interest to people who are not on the academic job market, I will put half of it under the fold. (There are funny stories under the fold, though.)

Now that I am “a real professor”, I have started working on search committees that evaluate candidates for academic positions. This has been an eye-opening experience for me. If only I had understood how the academic job search works from the inside (i.e. from the perspective of the employers), my own job search would have been completely different. Of course, I ended up with the job of my dreams, but that was sheer luck. As I’m working on my search committees, I’m realizing how horribly and frequently I screwed up during my time on the market.

In this series of posts, I want to share the insights that I have gleaned into the academic job search process with my readers. To begin with, I will discuss how one should write a cover letter. What you need to remember is that the market is over-saturated and search committees have to sift through hundreds of portfolios (or dozens if the search is extremely specific, say a Chair search.) This is why it is not a good idea to write a 6-page-long description of your intellectual journey. This is what I did and only now have I started to realize what an irredeemable idiot I was. That cover letter would have made an excellent blog post but, in its capacity as a cover letter, it sucked something fierce.

A cover letter should be tailored very specifically to each job announcement you are responding to. I know it’s an incredible drag but that’s the only way. Remember that members of a search committee have a list of requirements for their position, and as they sift through 300 portfolios, they tick off boxes on that list. You win if you make that process as easy as possible for them. This will allow you to make the short list of people who will be interviewed by phone (Skype, at the MLA, etc.)

So how do you tailor your cover letter in practice? Here is a sample job announcement that I have created:

Assistant Professor, tenure-track. A PhD in hand or an ABD near completion. The Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Illinois State University in Alton is looking for a specialist in French Literature with a specialization in the History and Culture of Quebec and a demonstrable capacity to teach courses in Advanced French Grammar and Conversation. An active research agenda is a must. Native or near-native command of French. An experience supervising language instructors is highly desired. Needs to be familiar with ACTFL and NCATE guidelines for proficiency testing.

You need to pick this job announcement apart and make a list of criteria this department is looking for in a candidate. Then, you address each criteria in your cover letter. If you can address them in the order in which they appear in the announcement, that’s even better.

Continue reading “Academic Job Search: How to Write a Cover Letter?”

A Recruiting Riddle

Here is a riddle from a professional recruiter I know. Today, the most in-demand profession is that of a social media specialist. That’s a person who blogs, tweets, Facebooks, etc. and can use their knowledge of social media to promote the company that hires them.

How does a recruiter know, however, if they are interviewing a real media fanatic or somebody who simply wants to ride the wave of this profession’s popularity to get a well-paying position?

The very first selection mechanism is the following: the recruiter asks the candidate to fill out some paperwork and leaves the room. After the recruiter comes back, she knows immediately if her candidate is the real deal without asking them a single question.

Question: how does the recruiter determine if the candidate is a true social media enthusiast before even talking to them?

Supplementary question: is this the coolest job in the world, or what?

How to Provide Emotional Support for an Unemployed Partner, Part II

5. Now, this is very important: unemployment does not mean that your partner gets to check out of any aspect of the relationship. Being supportive does not equal tolerating snappishness, moodiness, aggression and rudeness from your partner. You are not their therapist or their wet nurse. Adults address their psychological issues without using their partner as a punching bag. Never let such behavior slide and if you are tempted to do so, remember, you are not being supportive. You are just being condescending. Taking on a parental role towards your partner is never healthy.

I hope I don’t need to mention that subjecting an unemployed partner to your moodiness, depressive moments and aggression is just as wrong.

6. I do not recommend that household duties be renegotiated because if unemployment. If the division of chores in your relationship is unfair, it definitely needs to be renegotiated. But not during the time when your partner is weakened by unemployment.

If the distribution of duties is fair, then there is no need to change anything during unemployment. I suggest preserving as much as possible from the pre-unemployment lifestyle because that will make it easier to return to it once your partner finds a job.

7. Most importantly, I wanted to mention that once an unhealthy patterns sets in, it’s extremely hard to change it. We all hope that unemployment will not be protracted. It can, however, stretch out for a long period of time. And if you expect that after your partner finds a job things will immediately be restored to their pre-unemployment state, you couldn’t be more mistaken. A relationship doesn’t go to sleep during a jobless period. It grows and develops. And after unemployment is over, you will have to live with the results of this development.

Weird Hiring Practices

Jonathan writes:

A new trend I’ve noticed is that you write a recommendation for a PhD student, and then the school calls you with a list of questions to answer. They go down the list of questions mechanically and you just answer them out loud. Presumably the nice faculty member on the other side of the phone takes notes on what you say, probably including the most significant phrases.

I also have a weird hiring experience to share. When I was interviewing for academic positions, prospective employers would phone people from my department and ask questions as to what my personality is like and whether I’m a nice person.

That was a big department and they called a couple of people I’d had no interactions with. Those kind colleagues did all they could to sell me to the prospective employers pretty much sight unseen.

It was very weird to be approached by strangers who’d say, “I’m sorry, are you Clarissa? I was interviewed about you today. I said you had a great personality. I don’t know you, but I’m guessing your personality is good.”

Then, I’d start trying to prove to the kind stranger that I did, in fact, have a great personality.

So the lesson of the story is: make sure that everybody at your current department is aware of you and can say something positive about your personality.

American Dream in Action

Today, I want to share with you the story of N., the man I love.

When N. was an undergrad in Russia, he learned from his prof about the fascinating field of quantitative finance that immediately attracted him. However, doing graduate studies in this field in Russia makes no sense. If you know anything about how the Russian economy works, you will realize why that is.

N. realized that what he needed to do was to apply to grad schools in the United States, the place where the world’s best quants were trained.

His English was pretty much non-existent at that time, though. Foreign language learning is in bizarrely bad shape in the FSU countries, which is why N. went to the UK to learn English. He is from a very modest family, so to finance his stay in the UK he had to work as:

– a seasonal worker in the fields;

– a busboy;

– cleaning offices at night;

– other low-paid menial jobs.

In the meanwhile, he worked hard on his English and eventually got it to a level that gained him acceptance to a very good PhD program in financial statistics in the US.

After N. successfully defended his doctoral dissertation, he found a great job as a quant in the financial sector. Everything was great for a few months, and then the global financial crisis hit. We all remember how fast companies in finance were closing down in those years. N.’s company was hit very heavily by the crisis, and since he was the last one to be hired, he was also the first one to be made redundant.

You have to remember, too, that N. is not a citizen of the US. In order to be employed, he needs a potential employer to demonstrate to the Department of Homeland Security that no employee with similar qualifications could be found among the US citizens and to sponsor him for a work visa. Many companies simply don’t have the right to hire foreign employees. Other companies don’t want the expense and the hassle, especially during a recession.

Of course, N. could have still found a job in a geographic area where companies that employ quants abound. At this point, however, another factor came into play. I got a tenure-track job in the St. Louis Metro area, and N. wanted to be with me.

As we all know, St. Louis is not a capital of finance. So N. set out to make himself attractive to this area’s employers. It took him two years of being unemployed, sending out resumes, and getting rejected.

In these two years, N. did the following things:

– published his research in a peer-reviewed journal in his field;

– received several certifications in SAS and C++;

– dramatically improved his programming skills;

– wrote a book for people in his field and self-published it. The book is selling and getting very positive reviews in a variety of countries;

– created a huge LinkedIn database of all potential employees in the area;

– created several projects that demonstrate how his quantitative skills can be applied to areas other than finance and placed them online;

– developed his own website, engaged in research projects, and placed them there;

– went over all of the courses he took in grad school to refresh his knowledge and put them on tape for future reference;

– recorded a video advertising his programming skills.

While he was unemployed, he worked more hours per week than I did at my full-time job. He had dozens of interviews and received hundreds of rejections. Whenever a potential employer got interested, N.’s lack of a work visa would come up and that interest would evaporate.

And then, one of the projects that N. had created and placed online attracted the attention of a company in St. Louis. They invited him to give a talk and were so impressed that they immediately offered him a contract with stunningly good terms of employment, a very high salary, and a great package of benefits. They also sponsored him for a work visa.

N. is starting his new job on Monday.

Today, he got news that his visa had been approved and he can start working. And you know what he is doing right now, at 9:30 pm on a Friday night? He is in the study, preparing himself for work. He asked his new employers for a list of readings he could do and is now going over them.

When I told N. I consider his story to be very inspirational and will post it on the blog, his response was, “But what’s so special about it? I just did what I had to do.”

A Weird Job Search

This is a longish story and it didn’t happen to me, but it’s so hilarious that I simply had to share it with my readers. I got the story from here and I received permission from the blog’s owner to repost the story. Just keep reading, for it gets better with every line. So here comes the weirdest, funniest story of a job search I have ever heard:

The phone interview with these guys was very strange. They weren’t interested in talking about anything I had actually done in my career, nor anything I was currently doing. The position was for a systems engineering role, but 100% of the questions they asked me were DBA (data base administration) questions. For instance, they kept asking me to design complex SQL queries. Detailed questions about normalization techniques, etc. I asked if the interview was for a Linux systems role or a DBA role. They said systems, of course, but kept on with the DBA questions. Later, I told the recruiter that I thought they gave me the wrong interview. They told her that they only asked me exactly one database-related question, and that the rest were systems questions. Curious, eh?

Curiouser still… they said they loved me and wanted me in for a face-to-face.

At first I resisted, saying I wasn’t interested, but the recruiter ultimately convinced me to give them a second chance.

So, this past week I went in to see them.

Upon my arrival, they shuffled me into a room with two people waiting. The first person to talk introduced herself as “a database administrator.” I thought it was going to be a repeat of the phone interview.

But she then started asking me some programming questions — python libraries and what not, finally getting to “tell me a really cool one-line hack that you’ve done.”

I responded that my programming style is most influenced by my early work in Ada and embedded systems, which means that I write code in an extremely deliberate (and hence readable) fashion, so I really don’t do one-liner hacks. That got her angry. I mean angry.

Then she started in with the DBA questions. I guess as punishment.

Finally, the other guy in the room spoke up asking me, “so tell me everything you did at your job yesterday.” I said “my day started out with a call to our partners in India, where I am organizing a data center migration. Then, I had another call with some Ugandans, where I am working to set up point-to-point microwave connectivity between two schools and training the local IT staff on virtualization.”

The guy interrupted me after my second sentence with “OK… we’ve heard enough.” With that, both of them got up and walked out of the room.

Weird, I though.

But it got weirder.

Two new people entered the room. These guys started telling me why their company was so wonderful, and why I would be a fool to want to work anywhere else.

I learned that this company was without question, the most wonderful place on Earth. The best place to work in our city. The smartest people in the industry. Best at everything. And, they are all super-best-friends. So much so that a lot of them share apartments together. This sharing, this social awesomeness, is evident in their “face-wall”, they told me.

“What is a ‘face-wall’?” I ask.

That’s when they let me out of the room and showed me.

This “face-wall” is a wall in the office filled with a grid of mug shots of all the employees along with their name and start date.

So imagine your face, with your name printed right below it, with a calendar date below that. It looked like one of those memorial walls you see at the site of some massacre like 9-11 or the Holocaust. Wicked creepy.

What’s worse was that all of the photos were relatively nice, well-behaved shots. No one was doing anything off colour for the camera. No costumes, no loopy expressions. Nothing. Rien. Nada.

I turned to one of the guys and said “so has anyone defaced this?”

“NO!… why would they” he said.

“‘Cause it’d be funny” I responded. “Come on… are you seriously telling me you have never… even once… had the urge to vandalize anything on this wall? Not even adding a little ‘make-up’ here and there?”

“ABSOLUTELY NOT! I wouldn’t even THINK of that.”



“Wow!… Really? Not even a virtual kidnapping spree? Ransom notes?”

“A lot of these people are our friends… why would we do that?” … the guy was clearly getting a little offended, so I dialed it back and said how awesome I thought the wall was.

Then they gave me the tour.

Get this. The company didn’t have any desks. That’s right. No desks.

There were basically four or five very large rooms filled with long picnic tables on wheels. Each room had maybe 50 people in it.
I asked why no desks, to which they responded that they want to encourage people to socialize and get to know each other, so when you come to work, you just find a spot on one of the tables, fire up your laptop, and that’s where you work. That’s why they also have the scary “face-wall”, they said.

Now, when I was taking this tour, it was already 6pm, and the office was packed full of people. So my last question was ” as is the case with many start-ups, I imagine you guys work a lot, so how do you manage a work-life balance here?”

“We do an awesome job with that here” one guy said.

“Give me some examples” I asked.

“Well, just this week, my whole department went out after work together to play billiards. Most groups like going out to lunch and dinner together at least one or two times a week.”

I responded with “well, the ‘life’ part of my ‘work-life’ balance usually doesn’t involve work people. I really like hanging out with my family.”
To which I got a “well, everyone here is cool, you’ll make a lot of friends here.”

“I rarely see my own friends because I still like my family better” I said. To which I got some blank stares.

And there we have it…

The recruiter called me after and asked how it went. I said “they were nice enough, but frankly, I already have a religion that works just fine for me. I don’t need a new one.”

Are Desperate Job Seekers Being Bamboozled?

For a long time now, job seekers who contacted recruitment agencies didn’t have to pay anything to be matched with jobs. Prospective employers were the ones who paid recruiters to interview candidates and provide them with people who would best match the job requirements. Now, however, websites have started to appear that charge candidates membership fees and offer access to prospective employers for free.

Such websites (and I’m not linking to any of them because their practices disgust me) are also completely dishonest. Here is how responsible recruiters at Pronexia explain why such websites should not be used:

Another thing that makes me sceptical is the site’s claim that the average salary of their members is $200,000+. A senior executive at that level should not be posting his or her resume on a job board. At that level, you should have made enough of a name for yourself to (a) have a solid network around you should you be looking for re-appointment and (b) be constantly solicited by headhunters. This makes me question the site’s target market. As a headhunter myself, I would not use the site’s services to look for senior-level candidates (free or not). I would have a very hard time understanding why they are paying for services of a job board.

The answer is simple: the creators of such websites are lying through their teeth to bamboozle desperate job seekers into paying membership fees for a useless service. Remember, if you are a job seeker who is working with a headhunter or a recruiter and you get asked to pay anything, this is probably a scam.

From what I hear, a great resource for non-academic job seekers is LinkedIn. There are some services on it that you pay for but the initial placement of your profile is free. Prospective employers are also a lot more likely to see you there than on some shady website that rips you off and offers nothing of value in return.

A New Disturbing Trend in Job Recruitment

My sister, known on this blog as “The Sister”, owns a job recruitment agency in Montreal. She tells me that there has appeared a new and very disturbing trend in the job recruitment process. On several occasions, she found a candidate who was a perfect fit for the job and who was really liked by the prospective employers. However, the employers added a new step to the job interview process: a personality test.

These personality tests consist of prefabricated sets of multiple-choice or yes or no questions that are extremely silly and pointless. Let me share a couple of examples with you.

“Do you agree with the statement ‘It’s a jungle out there, and everybody is out for themselves’?”

What is this, people? Who asks this idiotic kind of question of professional adults? What is the “right answer” supposed to be?

The following question was part of the “personality test” administered to a person applying for a managing position:

How would you describe your leadership style?

  1. Leading by example
  2. Leading by authority

Any leader worth his or her salt would be hard pressed to answer this question. Good leadership means you know how to adapt to a variety of situations instead of choosing one vaguely defined method and imposing it on every situation.

I have no idea why employers don’t trust their instincts as to whom to hire or don’t rely on the advice of professional recruiters. Instead, they rely on these meaningless questionnaires that, of course, will weed out all the good, self-respecting candidates with an ounce of independence and original thinking.