Academic Job Applications: A Spiraling, Endlessly Recursive Process?
December 31, 2010 12:29 PM   Subscribe

How to streamline working on academic job applications?

I'm a recent graduate applying to various faculty openings in the United States. I have about 10 applications I'd like to finish in the next month or so. I know this isn't much in the grand scheme of things, but I'm still somewhat overwhelmed by the prospect. Have you, dearest hivemind, found any ways to streamline the process of working on applications and cut down on the seemingly inevitable, endless timesuck?

I have a general cover letter, teaching philosophy statement, CV and other materials from applications I sent out in November and December, but each individual application of course requires a significant amount of tweaking. That last round took up a lot of time and mental energy, more than I anticipated, and I feel like I'm not working on it in the most efficient way. It also took a lot of time away from other projects I desperately need to work on (and actually enjoy working on), so I'm hoping to shift that balance a bit.

I admit there's a psychological aspect to it, in that I find this kind of work emotionally exhausting. While I'm a decent writer, trying to advertise for myself in this context doesn't come naturally to me, and it tends to make me tense and anxious. Another tricky bit is that the applications I'm most invested in -- i.e. the universities or positions that are most interesting to me -- are the ones that take the most time to work on, so I end up sending them later and closer to the deadline, which I know is counterproductive. I'd like to short-circuit that pattern if possible.

My dream would be some sort of program that would allow me to tag different parts of my cover letter and CV, and then spit out customized cover letters and CVs depending on what tags I prioritize. But this probably wouldn't generate good materials anyway.

More realistically, if you've been through this process I'm interested in any methods, systems, tricks etc. that you've tried that have helped you along the way. I'd love to hear little secrets, grand schemes or anything in between. To be clear, I'm interested mostly in things specific to this situation, and not as interested in general productivity schemes like GTD or Pomodoro (though I do find Pomodoro-ing helpful).

Thanks in advance!
posted by speicus to Work & Money (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
When I was doing the job search in history, fourteen years ago, I scheduled a block of time every Monday for that week's job search work, got through what I needed to do, and went to the post office at the end of the day (or on Tuesday). The rest of the week, I set it aside and worked on other things (mostly my dissertation).

The only real trick I found was to make sure that my paragraphs stood on their own as much as possible, so I could shuffle them around: teaching interests and experience first in an application to a teaching-intensive position, research interests and accomplishments first in an application to a research university. That saves you from needing to edit transitions too much.

Unless you're applying to 50+ positions, I would think it's easier to generate your materials individually than to come up with a system of tagging and auto-generation. But things may be different in your field--which is?

Good luck!
posted by brianogilvie at 1:53 PM on December 31, 2010

Believe me when I say I feel your pain; this process is much more gruelingly labor-intensive than it ought to be, and the utterly tanked current academic employment situation doesn't make it easier. But I'm sorry to say that I think the process is just unavoidably time-consuming, especially when sending out more than a dozen or two applications in a given season. Starting with a standard template cover letter helps a bit — and even though the letter is definitely what needs the most modification from position to position, you can build a repository of different versions and changes that you can then re-use, saving more time. For instance, if you're applying to jobs in a few different fields along with your core specialty, you can save and paste in the Field X-modified versions of your first paragraph and your more detailed research paragraphs once you've written them once (for a given job season; these all need to be looked over again every year you're on the market). You can do similar things when emphasizing your ability to teach in each opening's desired fields over others you've taught, or if you have a paragraph tailored for liberal-arts college teaching vs. big university lecturing, and so on. (But with a well-tailored teaching section, I don't actually find that the reordering brianogilvie describes is necessary in most cases, though others definitely disagree.)

There are some small tricks that you probably already know, but no magic bullets. It helps to make a new folder (on your hard drive) for each opening, where you'll save the listing and the customized version of the letter and whatever other materials you change specifically for that job. Keep track of everything you send each place; if you have (e.g.) several writing/research samples, it sucks to have forgotten which one you sent by the time you're interviewing. Consider making your template letter un-editable so you avoid accidentally modifying it and having to reconstruct the original. To be really well-organized, you can also keep a separate file full of all your modified sentences and paragraphs, sorted by field or type of institution, for convenient cut-and-pasting.

There's no way to avoid investing some effort in hand-modifying your letter (and, to a much smaller extent, your other materials) for each new opening: the schools and departments and specific positions you'll be targeting are necessarily unique, varying in too many ways for a pure template-based approach to work without a bit of customizing being needed each time. However, there's still another way to think about this that may help: vary the amount of time you spend customizing the materials according to how much you want the individual job (and/or how likely you think the effort is to pay off). It's more worth investing an hour or two rewriting the letter to an opening in your specialty at your dream school than to a 4/4 load long-shot outside your specialty in a location where you don't even want to live. Assuming it was well written the first time, you can send the basic template letter, nearly unchanged, to the poor fits and the crap institutions; it will still represent you well enough that they can tell if they're interested, and you won't have wasted time you could spend elsewhere. The process is radically unpredictable; your call-back rate may well end up the same for stock letters and the heavily customized ones. It may be better to send applications to more openings up front, and invest more effort later, getting to know the specific departments that show an interest in you.
posted by RogerB at 4:11 PM on December 31, 2010

Also, briefly: I think it's absolutely fine to work harder on materials for the positions you're most interested in even if it means sending them later. As long as they arrive by the deadline I think there's often little advantage in getting them there much earlier — perhaps sometimes they'll be read with fresher eyes earlier in the season, at best.

Here's single the best tip for going faster and worrying less that I've found: work in batches, rather than sending a single application and then moving on to another task. It costs far less time and psychological effort to send 3-5 packets out in a session of a few hours than it does to send each one singly in the middle of grading or teaching prep.
posted by RogerB at 4:16 PM on December 31, 2010

but each individual application of course requires a significant amount of tweaking.

When I did my job searches (in mathematics), I had two cover letters, one for liberal arts colleges and one for larger institutions.

Everyone got the whole packet---teaching philosophy, research statement, transcripts, etc. (it's possible in my second round on the market, I expanded the research statement for the research-focussed institution, but ok, that's still just two sets of documents. )

I don't think the tweaking you're talking about is worth it. You should mostly---unless there's a job you're totally jazzed about---just be printing things out and stuffing them in envelopes.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:42 PM on December 31, 2010

I do think that individual tweaking of the cover letters is necessary, but less so for the rest of the application. Most job ads mention what kinds of courses would be taught by the new hire, or what they would be expected to do. When I look at an application, I'm looking to see that they addressed their ability to do these things in the cover letter, instead of my having to guess as to whether they feel okay with that. This is even more important if your particular area of expertise is different than the main area of the ad (e.g., the add calls for cognitive psych, but you're social psych, although with cognitive interests). So I'd recommend printing out the original job ad and putting it on the front of the folder, or whatever you use to organize your materials, so you can make sure you address what it calls for.

Re: research vs. liberal arts jobs -- I would actually tweak the research statement a bit from one to the other. Liberal arts colleges need to know how you would involve students in your research and how feasible that research is on a smaller scale. The CV, though, I would probably not tweak so much. Even a school that isn't highly research focused is impressed by presented/published findings, and things like "classes taught" can be placed in a teaching portfolio instead of the vita.
posted by bizzyb at 11:20 AM on January 1, 2011

A word of encouragement, to go with all the sensible advice that's already been given: it will get less time-consuming, if you let it. That's to say, with practice you'll start to see more quickly what needs to be changed and how to do it--as well as understanding what can stay the same. Once you've said which job you're applying for, expressed your enthusiasm for getting it, and demonstrated that you can actually write in English, the main function of your covering letter is to be an efficient set of signposts to your CV and other application materials. It doesn't have to be a stand-alone summary of your career and personality, each facet cut and polished to jewel-like intensity.

Oh, and one bit of advice--something which a lot of applicants, perhaps most, don't properly grasp:

The most important thing about a job application is the job, not the candidate.

Even at this relatively early stage in my own career, I've seen far too many applications which told the search committee plenty, even too much, about the candidate and the candidate's doctoral dissertation, but said nothing to explain why the candidate wanted this job and deserved to get it.

This might seem to be more general than the advice you're searching for, but I think it's still relevant: first, because it's nice to know that you don't have to labour over getting a condensed-yet-not-simplistic summary of your five-year doctoral project into one paragraph of your covering letter (something that I always used to spend too much time on); second, because if you bear this in mind you will develop a clear sense of which bases you actually need to cover instead of expending valuable time, and even more valuable mental and emotional energy, trying desperately to cover every base you can think of in a single letter while worrying needlessly about things you might have missed.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 11:40 AM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thank you, everybody, for your thoughtful answers. You have basically confirmed my suspicion that there is no secret lynchpin (darn), but the advice is helpful and much appreciated.

brianogilvie, I like the idea of setting aside a time once a week for the job search, but even when I do that, the work tends to seep into other days of the week one way or another. Any advice on how to keep it, uh, quarantined?

RogerB, your answer corresponds most closely to my experience... there are a few interrelated specialties in my field (music) that require some hand-tailoring from application to application. The trickiest part is when I have activities that fit in multiple specialties, so that rearranging inevitably creates redundancies that I then have to carefully weed out...

This is also why I can't just create 2 versions of my letter (liberal arts/research) -- the distinction doesn't really apply in my field, or at least, not in the same way.

lapsang, thanks for the encouragement. The chestnut about job applications being about the job is one I've heard many times in many forms, and something I grasp intellectually, but I'm sometimes at a loss about how to apply it. I feel that this is what I'm doing when I tweak my cover letter -- I'm tailoring it based on what I know about the job and the university. Is there more to it than that? If I talk too much about their institution, I start to feel like I'm being obsequious and insincere. Is there a particular balance I should strike between fawning praise and droning on about my accomplishments? (kidding, mostly)
posted by speicus at 6:17 PM on January 3, 2011

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