How to Apply for Academic Jobs

In one sense, applying for academic jobs is a straightforward process, requiring only that you produce a small set of relatively brief documents according to fairly standard conventions:

            1) a cover letter: The cover letter is the single most important part of your application. It is the first document that the hiring committee reads, and it determines whether they will read the rest: it should therefore capture everything that makes you a compelling candidate. Cover letters most often consist of five paragraphs:

            an introduction that highlights the ways in which you're suited for this particular job
            a paragraph summarizing the argument of your dissertation as a whole
            a paragraph describing your other research interests, such as a second project or an article that is not part of your dissertation
            a paragraph describing your teaching, both the courses you have taught and the courses you would like to teach
            a boilerplate conclusion

Some cover letters may depart from the five-paragraph model, but none go over two pages: excessive length is seen as the mark of a madman, and overly small font also seems a bit crazed.

            2) a cv: The cv performs the same function as the cover letter, but in a more abbreviated form. Formats vary, and you may pick the one you prefer. Whichever format you choose, make sure you mention the following:

            your education, including the dates of all your degrees (either received or expected)
            your dissertation, including title, advisors, and a 2- to 3-sentence summary
            your publications, including those that are forthcoming or under review
            your conference talks
            your teaching experience
            your prizes and fellowships

            3) a dissertation abstract: The dissertation abstract expands upon the cover letter, and it tends to do so in the following two ways. First, by elaborating the significance of your argument. In your cover letter, you summarize an argument; in your dissertation abstract, you explain why this argument matters (how does it change our understanding of your topic? how does it change our reading of the works you are focusing on?). And second, by explaining how the various parts of your dissertation connect to one another. In your cover letter, you name the authors or works you’re considering; in your dissertation abstract, you explain the distinctive role that each plays in your argument. The conventions of the dissertation abstract vary a bit, but most devote roughly a page to discussing the dissertation as a whole and roughly a page to summarizing the individual chapters. Some abstracts do depart from this structure, though, and you should think about what organization would make the most sense for your project.

            4) a writing sample: The writing sample demonstrates that you can actually make the argument that you’ve so far been simply asserting. It should therefore be made up of two parts: an extended case study, drawn from one of your dissertation chapters; and a substantial opening section, drawn from your introduction, in which you frame this case study in a discussion of your argument as a whole. The more closely your writing sample resembles a journal article, the more successful it will be: dissertations tend to get bogged down in close reading and distracted by unrelated points, but a writing sample must move confidently through an array of examples in the course of making a sustained argument. You might find it helpful to model your writing sample on articles published in a journal you admire (look, in particular, for articles taken from projects that would later be published as books: these will likely have the right mix of framing and case study). Once you finish writing this article-like writing sample, you should send it to the journal you admire, so that you’ll have a(nother) publication under review for your cv. Different committees will request writing samples of different lengths, and you should draft your sample with that in mind, constructing it out of discrete units that you can include or leave out as the length requirements demand.

            5) a job talk: The job talk does the same thing as the writing sample, but in oral form. It, too, should be made up of two parts: a substantial opening section that lays out your argument, followed by an extended case study (different from the one you offered in your writing sample). Different committees will ask for different things: some will want talks of thirty minutes (absolutely no more than 15 pages); others, talks of forty-five minutes (absolutely no more than 20 pages). Some may ask you to give a standard academic presentation; others, to present your research to undergrads.

But while these documents are fairly straightforward, they often prove to be very difficult to write. Writing them will require that you step back from the specific chapters and courses in which you’re now immersed and think about your scholarship and teaching more generally. You can do so by reflecting on the following topics:

            1) your field: Some of you will find that your dissertation falls straightforwardly into a single hiring field (twentieth-century US, eighteenth-century English, Renaissance); your task, in that case, will be to persuade hiring committees that you have mastery of the entire field—not just that part of it that is covered by your dissertation. You will, of course, claim that you do, but it is best if you back up this claim in your descriptions of courses you might teach and other research interests you might pursue. That is, if your dissertation focuses on the Victorian novel, you should describe a survey course that focuses on poetry, drama, and prose as well, and you should also propose an additional research project that touches on topics and works that you do not cover in your dissertation.

             Others will find that their dissertations fall into more than one field, crossing period or national boundaries. In this case, you will prepare two sets of materials, one for each field, and your task will be to persuade hiring committees that you are committed to whatever field they are hiring in. You should not try to conceal the fact that your dissertation crosses field boundaries; on the contrary, you should make a case for why it is necessary that it do so. But you should emphasize the field the department is hiring in when proposing courses and describing research interests. Still others of you will have written interdisciplinary dissertations, combining history and literature or literature and philosophy or touching on visual culture as well. In this case, your task is to persuade the hiring committee that your primary commitment is to literature. Once again, you should not try to conceal the interdisciplinary nature of your project, but rather make a case for it. But you should also take care to emphasize the literary in the courses and research projects you propose.

            2) your dissertation:

            a) What is the topic of your dissertation? It’s helpful to have a vivid word or phrase that you use consistently when describing your work; it’s also helpful to have a brief example of your topic that will be immediately familiar to others. And be prepared to explain where you set the limits of your topic: what doesn’t count as x, and why?

            b) What is the argument of your dissertation?

           c) How do the parts of your dissertation contribute to the argument of the whole? Some dissertations are organized chronologically (the pre-history of topic x, the height of topic x, the aftermath of topic x); others are organized as a taxonomy.

            d) What is the significance of your argument? More specifically, how does it change our understanding of your topic? and how does your focus on this topic change our reading of the works you are considering?

            e) Why did you delimit your project in this way? How would it be different if you had  focused on another period, another nation, another genre, different authors? Is there any work you’ve left out that you should be able to account for in some way?

            f) What is the most significant change you’ll want to make as you turn this dissertation into a book?

            g) How did you come to write this dissertation? What is the narrative of its development?

            3) your teaching:

            a) You will need to prepare an array of courses you’d like to teach. You might find it useful to sketch out a syllabus for each, but listing the readings you’d assign is less important than providing a rationale for the course as a whole. You should be able to describe, in two or three sentences, what you’d want your students to learn. You’ll tailor your course offerings to specific schools, but for now you should prepare courses in the following categories:

            a multi-genre survey of your field (Renaissance Literature)
a single-genre survey of your field (Twentieth-Century Poetry)
            an introductory survey course: usually either British literature to 1800, British literature after 1800, or US literature
            several undergraduate seminars in your field, organized in different ways (interdisciplinary, single-author, thematic)
            several graduate seminars in your field
            a first-year seminar or other intro to the major course
            a writing-intensive class

            b) You should also gather anecdotes about your teaching: your greatest success; the skill you’ve struggled most to master; your most innovative assignment; your most unusual group of students.

            3) your scholarship:

            a) What other research interests are you pursuing or do you intend to pursue?

            b) What do you think is the most significant recent development in your field? How does your work relate to it?

            c) Who is the critic you most admire? Your most important intellectual influence?

             d) How does your work differ from the work of your advisors?