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When You Make a Mistake on the Academic Job Market

May 8, 2017

 

When it comes to the academic job market,  I have a lot of stories to tell.

 

I've been on the job market twice. My first time on the market was at the end of my PhD program, which unfortunately occurred when the recession was at its worst. Many universities were imposing hiring freezes after jobs were posted, so available tenure track lines were at their most competitive. It took me two years and 120 applications to find my first tenure track job and I was fortunate that it was a really great job that resulted in tenure. More recently, I went on the job market for personal reasons. This time was much different. I was searching for a position as an associate professor and was only interested in positions within a specific region, which narrowed down available jobs considerably. Again, I was fortunate to secure the exact position that I wanted. 

 

I have also been on the other side of the table. I have chaired a faculty search committee that was tasked with filling three positions. I have also served on several other search committees, both within my discipline and for other disciplines as well. 

 

There are two things that I can say about the academic job market:

  1. Things often do not go exactly as planned; and 

  2. People make mistakes.

Yes, people make many mistakes during job market searches, both candidates and those involved with faculty searches. Often, job search mistakes are minor, such as a simple typo on our cover letter or we forgot to add our last conference presentation to the CV we just sent out. Sometimes mistakes are larger and may even be fatal flaws. Often, they aren't, but regardless how small a mistake is during a job search, in their elevated state of job-searching nervousness, job candidates can become obsessive over them. Especially when not getting a job may mean waiting another year for the job market season to return.

 

The best way to avoid and atone for mistakes on the job market is to be prepared. Here is some advice that may help:

Stay organized to avoid common application errors. 

If you view yourself as more of a "big picture" person who doesn't get bogged down with details, you may be at risk for a number of small problems. For instance, typos on your CV or cover letter can be small and unnoticeable, but they can also be significant. Consider my own experience:

 

During my first academic job search I was delighted to get a call from a university with a campus interview invitation. To prepare, I pulled my cover letter and other materials that I sent them to review...only to realize that I put the wrong university name on the cover letter I sent to them. I had made a template for my cover letters that I could personalize for each position, but somehow forgot to change the university name on this particular one. I was mortified. Thankfully, my other application materials were strong enough to overcome this mistake. 

 

Staying organized will also help make sure you send all of the appropriate materials to the appropriate positions on time. I created a Microsoft Excel sheet where I could keep track of the materials required for each position and check them off as they were sent. I also addressed and stamped all of the envelopes for my references and distributed them to my references so that there would not be mistakes in them being mailed. 

 

Find an organizational method that works for you and be consistent with it. 

 

Remember that every minute of your campus visit is part of the interview. 

Campus interviews are very nerve-wracking, where candidates complete a marathon of events in a 2-3 day period. However, there may be times during the campus visit that appear less formal than others, such as light discussions over pre-dinner drinks, short car rides between events, or pizza lunches with graduate students. It is encouraged that you be authentic during the campus visit. You are being evaluated as a potential colleague. However, do not let your guard down enough that you lose sight of professionalism. Take these examples from actual searches:

 

Years ago while in my doctoral program I was one of three students who were asked to transport and have lunch with a male faculty candidate. We picked up the candidate at an office where he was talking with an undergraduate student worker. After we left the office to go to lunch, he expressed how attractive he thought the student worker was and asked us about her relationship status. Needless to say, we later discussed his lack of professionalism with the search committee members. We never saw him again. 

 

Another example was when a candidate made a mistake during the job talk presentation. The mistake was not as uncomfortable for the audience as the F-word that was expressed after the mistake was made. 

 

The take away: try to put your nerves aside and be yourself. It's okay to use appropriate humor or laugh at jokes with others during your interview. If others are doing so, it's okay to have a drink before or with dinner, but don't have three. Even when others are relaxed and put you at ease, keep in mind what is and is not appropriate. 

 

View phone, Skype, and conference interviews as being as important as the campus visit. 

Once when chairing a faculty search committee, I had a candidate ask if we could Skype so that I can answer questions about the position and the type of faculty member we were looking for. I agreed, but was surprised when the Skype session started and saw that the person appeared as if they had just left the gym. The person was wearing a sweat shirt, had uncombed hair, and drank coffee during the entire session. I, on the other hand, was wearing business attire. It made me feel that the Skype session was more important to me than it was to the candidate. 

 

We may view telephone or conference interviews as being less important than a campus visit, but we need to be outstanding in these screening interviews for the search committee deem us worthy of the effort and cost of a campus visit. So, some tips:

  • Find out who you will be meeting with and learn more about them before the interview.

  • Don't assume that this is the time to ask basic questions about the department or university (e.g. How many students do you have? Who is on your faculty?). You were supposed to do your research about the job ahead of time. Ask thoughtful questions that cannot be answered from a website.

  • Take some time to think before you answer questions. Resist the urge to blurt out a response that you later realize wasn't the best answer.  

  • For phone and Skype interviews. Write out the questions (or jot a few key words down) asked by the interviewers so that during lengthy responses, you don't stray from the topic and leave them unanswered. 

The take away? Prepare as if it is a campus interview. 

 

Get advice about academic socializing before hand so that you feel more comfortable when interacting with interviewers.

For doctoral students or those who recently finished their doctoral program, it can be difficult transitioning from the role of subordinate to peer among other academics. However, when you are on the job market, you are being viewed by search committee members and other faculty and administrators during job interviews as potential peers.

 

For instance, in my many experiences on search committees, I will have some candidates call me Dr. Ruggiano, even after I let them know that they can call me Nicole. Although polite, it also can give the impression that one is not prepared as other candidates to become independent researchers and tenure track faculty. 

 

Another example is a doctoral student I once knew who was going on the job market and asked me to review her CV. I noticed that she included the title and journal title for every article she served as a peer-reviewer for. I suggested that she remove the article titles and just list the journals she has reviewed for, so that she could maintain blindness in peer review. I also pointed out that an author of a paper (or colleague of an author) may be on the faculty of the department she interviews with, which could potentially cause an issue for her.

 

One area where I see candidates struggle is discussing their research, skills and abilities. They have difficulty balancing pride and humility about their work, either giving too much credit to others or coming across as arrogant. For some, they do not know enough about what faculty life is like or the duties that faculty often are tasked with (outside of research or teaching) to understand how they should represent their skill set and knowledge. I remember one candidate ask me during an interview, I noticed that Dr. X and Dr. Y on your faculty haven't published a lot. Is that normal? After giving a professional response about expectations for tenure, I informed the candidate that he might not want to criticize specific faculty members while on an interview. 

 

Foreign national students should make sure that they understand cultural differences in business socializing and professionalism. They should make sure that they give appropriate eye contact and other types of mannerisms. I recall a meeting with a candidate and an administrator that took place over lunch. The candidate belched loudly after the meal. Based on the candidate's background, I considered that it may have been a common practice in their culture. However, it was alarming for the rest of the diners at the table and made for an uncomfortable moment. 

 

The best way to understand how to interact with faculty as peers is to seek out advice from mentors who can clue you in. Learn from your mentors what expectations are for tenure track faculty outside of research and teaching. Ask them about skills you have that should be emphasized or left unmentioned. If you aren't sure about the appropriateness of a question or situation, ask what to do. For instance, How do I convey the importance of my research without looking arrogant? or I don't drink alcohol - How do I handle a situation where everyone is drinking at dinner but me?

 

If you make a blunder, forgive yourself, learn from it, and move on. 

Mistakes and mishaps occur during the job search. In addition to the cover letter blunder mentioned above, I recall other unfortunate incidents of my own doing:

  • At one conference interview, I had the room number for one of my interviews, but did not realize that it was at a different hotel from the conference down the street. When I realized my mistake I ran to the correct interview location, arriving there two minutes late, out of breath, and moderately perspiring. 

  • On a cross-country flight for a campus visit that would start at my pick-up from the airport, I asked the flight attendant for a blanket, because I was cold. The blanket was maroon and my suit was navy, so it was unfortunate that it left small fuzzy pieces all over me. It took some time in the airport restroom to remove them all before starting my interview. 

  • During my first campus visit, I never prepared to be asked inappropriate or illegal questions and gave a babbling awkward response to a faculty member's wife during a dinner if I was Catholic (she assumed so from my Italian surname). Illegal questions are asked from time to time, often innocently. In this case, the woman asking the question wanted me to know that there was a large Catholic community in the area, in case that was important to me. But I never prepared for such questions. 

  • After one campus visit, two weeks went by and I found the hand-written thank-you notes that I planned to mail to the dean and search committee members. They were addressed and stamped, but I forgot to mail them. 

Despite these, and other mishaps, I still got a job. The trick is to not focus on the mistakes we make and become obsessive about them. It can distract us from performing better later. Also, drawing attention to them with awkward apologies or resubmitted materials may draw more attention to the error and be more harmful. In stead, accept the mistake, learn how to do better in the future, and move on (unless an apology really is required of the situation! In that case, do it). I will tell you that the job market gets easier over time as we learn from trial and error. 

The academic job market is stressful, but it doesn't always have to be. Need help or advice on your own academic job search? Contact Nicole today and see how she can help prepare you to be a better candidate. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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