Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Advice to new PhDs: how to avoid those unwanted interviews

We all know that a PhD from a highly ranked program guarantees that the world will beat a path to your door for the mere opportunity to speak with you.  How can  you persuade departments that are hiring not to interview you?

Because my department is currently conducting a search, I have recently surveyed essentially the entire pool of job applicants in Classics, and have a good sense for how the best trained candidates manage to avoid getting interviews.  For those PhDs who have not yet mastered such a basic skill, I am summarizing here the strategies I have observed.

Let me stress that these comments are aimed only at a very small fraction of candidates.  When I tried to compile a short list of roughly 5% of our applicants for interviews, I was unable to do so. Rephrasing that in positive terms, more than 95% of the candidates successfully avoided an interview based solely on my first fairly cursory reading of their dossier.   When you consider the kind of dedicated and talented students who go on to graduate study in Classics, that figure is a remarkable testimony to the powerful effects of graduate school.

First let me suggest three fairly general guidelines:

  1. Do not read the job description.
  2. Find out nothing about your potential home institution and colleagues.
  3. Focus relentlessly on your personal career advancement, to the exclusion of any suggestion that your professional work might affect another human being positively.

These may seem obvious, but after reading many applications, I have a better appreciation for how some candidates apply them most effectively.  Remember, even in a field like Classics, you cannot count on letters of recommendation to disparage you adequately:  you need to use the parts of your dossier that you can directly  control — your CV, any specific essays or statements that an advertisement requires, and, especially, your cover letter — to ensure that you do not get an interview.

Almost all candidates will start with the easiest tactic:  send in the same generic cover letter that you use in response to completely different job advertisements.  Many candidates will let a bland, off-topic letter speak for itself, but one rhetorical refinement I came to appreciate is the addition of a single sentence or two mentioning the hiring institution, but clearly appended to an otherwise unmodified cover letter.  If the appended sentence can raise some subject that is central to the job description, but otherwise unmentioned in the cover letter, it will be especially clear that this is an afterthought, and that you have no real interest in the subject.  Even better is the appended sentence that implicitly contradicts the emphasis of the rest of the cover letter.  Of course, if you are not confident that your reviewers will appreciate this subtlety, you can always resort to brute force:  leave the name of a different institution in your appended sentence.  Although I saw this only rarely, it demonstrates to even the most insensitive reader that the cover letter is completely impersonal.

What should you do if your generic cover letter actually responds to some part of the job advertisement?  Unlikely as that may seem, it can happen, and candidates will then have to take extra precautions to stay off the interviewers' short list.  Use your CV and additional statements to obfuscate or directly contradict any apparently relevant sections of your cover letter.  If you allude to a potentially interesting digital project in your cover letter, do not include it on your CV, or else present it on your CV as trivial (e.g., list it under some category like "Other service", beneath a more highly valued contribution such as "ordered pizza for grad student lecture series").  If your cover letter could be misread as referring to collaborative research among students and faculty, expand on that in a separate statement about your research that never mentions students.  As I saw repeatedly this fall, it can be especially effective to dwell at length on your contract for a forthcoming book if you emphasize that it will be published by a press charging more per monograph than your library ever pays, and if your topic leaves potential colleagues paralyzed at the prospect of having to read your book when you come up for review.

While many applicants use the protracted and obsessive  "forthcoming book" discussion to put off potential interviewers, the possibilities it offers for avoiding an interview are almost limitless.  If done properly, you can demonstrate with it that years of advanced study have taught you only a narrow range of technical skills without fostering any kind of development as a thoughtful member of an academic community.  Prose style is highly individual, but you can heighten the effectiveness of this trope if you strive for a tone of entitlement.  Make it clear not only that the proper role for students and colleagues is to advance your career, but that they should be grateful for the chance.

Perhaps the handful of applicants to whom I am offering these suggestions cannot benefit at this point in their careers:  if you have not completely internalized these fundamental habits of thought by the time you receive a PhD, it is highly unikely that you will ever pick them up, and we should recognize that some people may simply be incapable of learning such ideas.  But given the nature of the job market in academia today, I feel ethically compelled to share these suggestions.  If even one applicant thinks differently about applying for a job because of this post, that will be more than enough of a reward for my efforts.


Unknown said...

Thank you for your Public Service Announcement, I’m sure that many job seekers will do their best to take your advice. But can we take a minute to talk about tone? It is one thing to offer direct advice out of a genuine concern for your fellow classicists and future colleagues. It is quite another to frame your advice in such a snarky way with people who are just trying to get started in a career for which they have worked so hard.

I get it, you’re busy. You’re teaching like a madman. You’re frustrated with subpar applications. But just take one second to think outside yourself, to think what these applicants may be going through. So let’s review, shall we?

Likely respondents may have been on the job market for three or four or five years. And if they have been lucky enough to find a job, it’s probably a one-year that carries with it a 4-4 load, not to mention any independent studies or senior theses they may be directing. Add to that, they must furiously add yet another publication to their CV to claw onto one more short lists. Then they must research, as best they can, each individual school to which they are applying to write an opening sentence that does some of what you have suggested here and pay, to the tune of $6-10, for what will likely amount to a rejection, saving as many pennies as possible to press that suit or tweed skirt before jamming it into the bin that sits overhead a $769 airplane seat to Seattle. I hope they don’t have a family because the cost of the APA, when all is added up—plane ticket, hotel, registration fee, new clothes, babysitters, taxi cab rides, overpriced food—could be 1 or 2 per cent of their incomes because one year jobs often don’t come with TRAVEL FUNDS.

Show a little compassion, man, and have a little empathy. After all, isn’t that what education is all about? Are we not trying to create a learning and teaching community of mutual respect? There’s no excuse for this sort of thing.

I will agree with you on one point though. We really should avoid “demonstrating to even the most insensitive reader that the cover letter is completely impersonal.” I got your rejection letter today. by an online service. You didn’t address me by name. I get that too. You had to send out a hundred letters. I know how you feel, believe me, but I suggest you take some of your own advice because, in the end, it turns out you’re really no better than the rest of us. After all, you had the time to craft this gem.

Neel Smith said...

I have nothing but compassion for the job candidates. And if there's one thing I'm *not* too busy to spend time on, it's finding a candidate I hope will succeed and become a colleague of mine until I retire.

What I can't comprehend is how our PhD programs are sending candidates out in numbers vastly exceeding jobs, and, to judge from the dossiers, not providing any guidance on how to apply for a job.

I sincerely wish the best of luck to all candidates on the market.

Neel Smith

Majid Ali said...

Please feel free to contact me if you would like any additional materials. I am available at your convenience for an interview. Thank you very much for your consideration.

mike said...

I suppose the original post was supposed to be at least slightly funny, but it just comes off as pompous and ego-driven. Of course, if Smith really cared about this issue, he would do more than just post it on his blog.

Unknown said...

We all tend to explain, comment on, or even assess a topic of study in an oral or mostly written form at all the colleges we study in to gain an occupation. We may write the best research paper just like that that would be a reasonable issue for the next couple of decades, i'm sure of it.