Posted by: Kelli Towers Jasper | November 16, 2010

Advice: How to Ace the Job Search

Advice on the Job Market from Experts at RMMLA

So, I promised in my past post that I’d deliver something practical—and here it is!  At the Rocky Mountain MLA conference in Albuquerque last month, I attended an incredibly useful panel on advice for students entering the job market.  It proceeded in Q&A format, but I’ve rearranged and edited the information to consolidate major themes.  No matter what level you’re at, this is really good stuff!  If after you’ve read it you’re hungry for more, check out the recommendations on the MLA website!  Lots of good, detailed advice there too.

But back to the RMMLA.  Our panel of experts included four distinguished folks:

Ingrid Ranum – Gonzaga University

Catherine Perry – Notre Dame

Anthony Cardenas-Rotunno.– University of New Mexico

David Laurence – director of research and ADE for MLA

I’m sorry I haven’t kept track of exactly who gave what advice…but their messages were fairly unified.  I just hope they won’t object to being mooshed all together!  Anyway, without further ado, on to the good stuff!  

Finding the right job to apply for:

Remember: when a department writes up a job description, they make it very specific!  SO…make sure you really ARE a good fit for the job description!  If you don’t meet the minimum requirements, your application will not be successful.

It can be tempting to try to “bend” yourself or your research to fit the job description.  Nobody can trim themselves to fit the market exactly, since certain bandwagons go in and out of style, and we aren’t always on the current ones!  However, it IS good practice to be aware of what topics are on the radar, and how you define your relationship to them—that is, why you’re doing what you do, when the crowd is going the other way.  You want to be both in the field, and creating what it isn’t yet.  Maintain a sense of openness and curiosity, of general knowledgeability, but also of your own self in the midst of possibilities.

Tips on the Cover Letter

According to David Laurence, your cover letter is the most important piece of writing you will EVER do.  You must both meet the conventional expectations, and also stand out. There are many things that put you in the “no” pile.  There are only a few that get you into the “yes” pile.  So here are a few things to keep in mind for success:


One challenge of writing the letter stems from the problem of trying on different personae:  You’re at the stage where you don’t yet know what kind of institution you’ll fit with, and in your letters, you must try on aspects of your different potential selves and project them into the future.  You’re after VOICE, more than details.  You must find the thing that makes you you, and nobody else.

Think about different registers of vocabulary and diction.  You should be writing something that should speak widely across specialties.  Show that you’ll be able to speak to both undergraduates, other professors, and to all kinds of people who aren’t just like you.


When you’re applying for positions, it is vital that you tailor your cover letter to the university.  Show that you know something about that university—what they do, what they emphasize, etc.  Read their mission statements from their websites.  Recognize that there is a difference between small, liberal-arts, or teaching-intense colleges, versus Research-1 institutions.

Do some research into the current teaching specialties of faculty, and recognize (and mention) what gaps you might fill.  Also look at the smaller related organizations within the university or department (such as a Center for British and Irish Studies) where your expertise could be useful.  Show that you will be a team player, helping move forward the business and endeavors of the department.


No matter the university, everybody hires for teaching!!  At least in the beginning of your career, you will be hired for your intellectual liveliness and ability to teach effectively. Universities might give tenure for research, but you’re hired for teaching.

Obviously, then, you should highlight your teaching in your letter and CV.  Show that you have designed courses, developed interesting assignments, and written syllabi.


In discussing your research, emphasize not only your current interests and accomplishments, but also your long-term potential.  Universities want to see evidence that you’ll be able to make it through the rigors of the tenure process—because if you fail at the tenure process, it’s a blow for the university and everyone involved.  They want to make a long-term investment in you, so show them they can do so in good faith.


Remember – your letter is the ONLY piece of YOU that a hiring committee sees! Your letter must be PERFECT.  Thus, please use spell-check. 🙂   Remove EVERY flaw.

Before you send something to a committee, send it to yourself!  Avoid that awful moment of finding flaws after you’ve sent it.

Tips on building and presenting your CV

According to these experts, The CV is not a list; it’s a narrative.  The things you choose to include and the order in which you place them provide hooks for the reader to understand the story you’re telling about yourself, your work, and your trajectory. What you privilege in your CV will send messages about you.  Consider what’s important to the institution, but also what’s important to you.  There should be a sense of how different pieces relate to each other, and perhaps a central inquiry that comes through the titles of your papers and publications.

Never “pad” your CV.  It will be spotted a mile away.  DO, however, show that you’ve at least sent things out for publication, even if they haven’t been accepted yet.  Remember, they want to see that you might be able to get tenure someday.

Be judicious about including things that aren’t directly related.  Perhaps summarize your somewhat-related accomplishments.  Consider carefully what you list under “scholarly activity” and keep it fairly official.  (*note: In this Q&A, someone asked about whether professional blogs and eJournals are considered valid forms of scholarly activity. The response was that older faculty members might have a hard time seeing the merit of these.  Blogs are a sort of “drafting in public.” they’re not necessarily polished, or finished.  Faculty want to know what parts of your work are finished to the point that you really stand behind them.)

Letters of Recommendation:

It is vital that your letters of recommendation give you good reviews, and there are a few things you can do (in addition to doing well in classes, teaching, presenting at conferences, and publishing) to ensure that this happens.

The main one is to get to know your professors, so that they can get to know you!  Volunteer for committees where you can serve with them or under their direction.  Invite them to come watch you teach so that they can give an informed review of your teaching skills.

Seek letters of recommendation from those professors who know you most recently.  If you’re in a PhD program, don’t seek letters from professors you worked with only as an MA  or BA.  Letters from earlier advisors beg the question about why you don’t have more recent recommendations., and therefore can cast doubt on your current abilities.

Other documents you might be asked for:

Occasionally you might be asked for random additional documents, such as undergrad transcripts, teaching portfolios, teaching statements, etc.   Usually these are the result of some strange past occurrence where the university got “burned” by past applicants.  Provide the requested materials, and do your best on them.  Consider them just one more opportunity to put your best foot forward (or, if those undergrad transcripts were dismal, an opportunity to share how you triumphed against the odds).  It’s nice to keep a teaching portfolio and teaching statement on hand anyway; chances are you’ll be asked about teaching philosophies in an interview anyway.  These can be your “accordion” documents. You might want to have various lengths prepared (one paragraph to a page, probably).

Acing the interviews:

Be aware that a phone/video interview is VERY different than a face-to-face interview, and you need to prepare yourself appropriately for both.


These are definitely more awkward and painful than in-person interviews. 🙂 Most departments are still figuring out how to conduct phone/video interviews, so you might need to help them!

Try to find a way to get/give cues, when you don’t have visual cues.

For example, keep all your answers under three minutes; preferably WAY under.  Use a lot of phrases like “does that answer your question, or would you like me to expand on that?”  Give them the opportunity to give you cues.

In video interviews, think about how you set up the backdrop.  In these situations, everything is a message.


By the time you make it to campus, they already think you’re qualified…so a lot of what happens at this phase is finding out how you teach (so be prepared with a great teaching presentation), and if you’re the kind of person they might want hanging with them in the office for the next 20 years, and someone they can trust to help carry their load.  A LOT of committee work has to get done by a small number of people, so they want to know that you’re willing to put in your share of the work.  Show your enthusiasm about ALL parts of the job you’re going to be asked to do. Be your best self.  Be personable and warm.

From the moment you first arrive at a campus, to the moment you leave, and with every person you talk to, you are ON.  Every move you make will be observed and analyzed.  There is no moment when you can let down your hair.  Never criticize your host.  Be watchful, aware, and alert.

There is an aspect of this where you’re interviewing them.  The one piece of into you should try to get: what contribution is this department looking for from the candidate they’re trying to hire?  What are they really trying to accomplish through this hire?  Figure it out, and then communicate how you can help them do it!

Ask questions!  Show that you’re paying attention, and that you’re interested.  Ask different members of the department the same questions, and compare their answers.  If they argue in front of you, pay attention to how they argue.  Is this a cohesive faculty?  Also, be aware that different people will ask YOU the same questions, and compare your answers!  Be prepared to be consistent.

If a candidate has several job offers, how should they choose?

Of course we all hope this happens, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever have several offers that seem equally good.  If, however, you’re having a tough time choosing, consider how each job might prepare you for some future job search, should you need it.

Just how tough is it to get a job in this field?  Are universities even hiring?

It’s simply a truth of the field that there are at least two times the amount of applicants as jobs.  You will have stiff competition!  But don’t see your rejection as a failure; check the MLA website for other job openings.

Also, keep things in perspective: Adjuncting is better than starving.  Teaching at a private school is better than starving.  Continue going to conferences and publishing, though!   Make the rounds, meet the people. and don’t give up.

What are some alternate jobs we might consider, and where can we find them?

You might feel that your options have gotten narrower when you graduate.  This is not true! Remember that you have a highly-trained mind as a result of your education – and that you have more education than the vast majority of people in this country.  You likely have the skills for a wide variety of jobs.

It’s plain and simple good advice to keep a real sense of your plans B, C, D, etc.  Keep lines of communication open with all kinds of people outside the academic world, so that the possibility of those livelihoods stays real to you!  The non-academic job search works very differently than the academic one, so keep that in mind as well, and learn the skills of navigating it.

A few professional areas to think about:

Public governmental policy positions.

State humanities councils.

Jobs connected to academia that aren’t professorial.

Jobs that interface academia and the public.

What is the one thing that grad students should start working on right now?

Since this advice was given at a  conference, the panelists simply advised everyone to go out and make friends!  Go out to dinner together, and have a good time!  Learn to be extroverted.  Keep in touch with your undergrad and MA professors.  Keep going to conferences, make yourself talk to people, find common interests, even those who have interests that are in different.  Build good relationships with everyone you encounter.

And one last piece of advice from the experts:

Think about the 5 things that “stuck” from this discussion.  Write them down, stick them in a drawer for a week, then take them out again and see what you take away then.

Trust that something good will happen – and if it doesn’t, don’t despair.  🙂  Expect the best!


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