Reapplying for an academic job I didn't get, what to change?
September 5, 2013 5:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm on the academic job market and last year applied for a faculty position at a liberal arts school. It was basically my dream job, and I honestly thought I was a great fit for the position, so I was disappointed when I didn't get an interview. This year they're advertising the same job again, and I'm planning to apply again. How do I know what to change in my application? Should I mention the fact that I applied last year and was rejected, and if so how?

I didn't get any detailed feedback on why they didn't like my application last year, only a short letter saying something like "We have considered your application with much attention, but concluded that we do not see a clear match for us at this time". I'm going to re-write the cover letter from scratch and send a different writing sample. Should I choose different references? (I didn't see my references' letters of recommendation.) Should I try to contact the hiring committee to ask what their specific reservations were about my application (assuming they still remember)? What, if anything, should I say in my letter about the fact that I'm re-applying for the same position? I feel like I'm shooting in the dark here since I don't know what the weak points of my application last year were.
posted by zeri to Education (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Frankly, in a lot of academic fields, jobs are so sparse that you can do everything totally right and still not be guaranteed an interview. Think of it like buying a lottery ticket. If you cover all the bases — good recommendations, a good writing sample, no embarrassing errors anywhere else — then you've bought yourself a one-in-whatever chance of hearing back from them. But basically nobody is guaranteed an interview anywhere.

FWIW, the rejection letter you got, with no feedback, is totally standard. I have never heard of hiring committees giving any sort of detailed feedback.

With all that said, where's your advisor in all this? It would be really useful to have a faculty member on your side, someone who has sat on a couple hiring committees, knows how this stuff works, and is able to give you specific feedback on your application. If your advisor won't do it, find some other faculty mentor who will.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 5:57 PM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

They might have just lost the funding, or the search committee couldn't come to an agreement. May have had nothing to do with your application, since they're running the search over again.

But really, your question doesn't have nearly enough detail, and we can't answer this. Did your advisor think you were in the running? How many publications do you have? How much teaching experience? Why do you think you're such a good fit?

I'd start reading everything at the Professor Is In and see if you can tighten up your materials. You might want to schedule a session or two with her to work on specific materials.

Having said all of that...dream job? In this market? It probably wasn't your job alone, and for many jobs, there is a miniscule chance that you'll even get to the short list.

Most jobs won't give you detailed feedback on your application. The fact that you even got a letter saying you didn't make it to the next stage is huge.

Try to have a more in depth conversation with your advisor about your chances, and mine the PII website linked above.
posted by barnone at 5:58 PM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you got a standard PFO letter (please fuck off). It means nothing, except that out of the 100+ applications they got, for some random reason or another they had to remove you from the list. Assuming the hiring committee is the same hiring committee this time as it was last time, they may or may not even remember your application.

Rewriting the cover letter is a good idea. The writing sample? Well, only if you think you have one that is a better fit for the position.

What you really want is to find someone who knows someone at the college in question. Do you have any current or former colleagues or advisers who might know someone there, and can call up said someone and ask them what it is they're really looking for? Often with academic job postings, the posting is general enough, but they really have something quite specific in mind. Try and find out, and then make yourself into this specific person. Truth be told, even if you aren't that person, once you've been hired and do well there, it won't matter so much.

But it might also be the case that they really only hire people from certain departments or only hire people whose dissertation directors they used to get drunk with in grad school, etc. Getting hired in the Academy, or at least in the Humanities portion, is all about who you know, and never, I repeat, never, about how good your work is.

It would be easier if I knew what field you were in, in particular. The situation for Philosophy is different than English, is different from Chemistry, and so on.
posted by dis_integration at 6:01 PM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you don't have an inside contact at the institution, it's impossible to guess what the issue was -- it can range from things you can't possibly change to things you could change to things that have nothing to do with you at all. And if you can't figure it out, then no one here can figure it out.

I think a useful sanity check when applying for academic jobs is to try to live up to your own standards and not worry too much about the idiosyncratic interests of various hiring committees.
posted by leopard at 6:04 PM on September 5, 2013

I work in an academic department, and I do a lot of support for recruitment. I am not faculty.

No one has ever batted an eye at someone applying year after year we have offered a position. Sometimes reapplicants get hired.

Absolutely apply for it. Update your over letter. Doesn't matter if you mention you applied last year. I'll recognize names year to year and make a note of the reapplication so the applications can be compared if the search committee wants to, but they almost never do.

They want to hire on the basis of where that person is now. And departmental needs change,too, so whie the job description is the same, it might be something a litte if different they are looking for this time than last time.

Go for it.
posted by zizzle at 6:05 PM on September 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Don't mention your previous application. No need to drag the past along. The search committee may have new members who don't need to know what happened last time; those who were on it before don't need to be reminded.
posted by wdenton at 6:05 PM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to threadsit, but since this was asked: it's a small liberal arts school with a Great Books-centered curriculum. They have no departments and don't hire for specific fields -- the job description for all faculty is basically the same. They value teaching very highly and research/publication almost not at all, from what I gather. This may be a weak point for me since I'm at a large research university, though I personally want to teach, not do research. The school is kind of off the academic beaten track (e.g. they don't interview at conferences), so I have no contacts there and neither does anyone in my department. My advisor and committee all thought my application looked excellent and that my chances were good, as far as they could tell.
posted by zeri at 6:08 PM on September 5, 2013

Academic jobs are often about who you know. Get to know these people.
posted by k8t at 6:28 PM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Everything said above about the brutality of the academic search process is true. You're lucky when you even get a rejection letter.

If the school is St. John's or Shimer, I may be able to give you more specific advice, since I went to St. John's and (years later) withdrew fairly late in the Shimer interview process (when I was offered a job elsewhere). They both advertise basically every year but don't necessarily hire every year. They both want you to have experience with or at least an understanding of the kind of teaching they do there, which is very different from classes you are likely to have taught or TAed at a large research school. Shimer uses the job title "facilitator" while SJC uses "tutor", and both of those reflect the idea that you will not be professing anything.

If any of this sounds helpful or useful, drop me a MeMail. I'd be glad to take a look at your application package and offer advice if I can. Even if it's not one of those schools, it sounds like you're not getting much advice at your current location from people with relevant experience. I applied to lots of jobs at liberal arts schools of various sorts and at long last got one, and I am currently on a search committee (for biology, so no conflict of interest), so I at least may be able to give you a helpful perspective.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:29 PM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was typing an answer when I saw your follow-up. Not sure whether you mean St. John's, Shimer, or somewhere else. I've been on a few search committees in my department; we routinely get 50-200 applications for fairly focused jobs in history. My guess is that with plenty of grad students, postdocs, and unemployed Ph.D.s looking for full-time work, such a broad call for applications would generate several hundred or even a thousand applications. In that case, they're probably using any criterion they can to winnow out applications. They might have just ruled out all ABDs, especially if they've had bad experiences with ABDs who didn't finish their dissertations before starting or in the first couple of years of teaching. They might have ruled out applicants from some schools because they've interviewed people from them before and found them too narrowly trained. They might have been looking for a secondary field that they wanted represented. In short, the reasons you didn't make the interview short list are potentially very many, and they may have little or nothing to do with your cover letter and writing sample.

I don't think it can hurt to reapply. Don't mention the previous application. Do you know whether they hired someone last year? If they had a failed search, they might revise their criteria. If they hired, they might be looking for someone whose knowledge and skills complement that person, and that could be you. If you think your cover letter discussed your research too much, and teaching too little, revise it. If you suspect that your references emphasized your research potential and said nothing about teaching, talk to them about it. I usually recommend that students applying for jobs at teaching-focused institutions get a letter from someone who has observed them teaching or supervised them as a teaching assistant, as well as letters attesting to their research chops.

I would caution that many institutions that pride themselves on teaching are also increasingly looking for productive researchers. It's a consequence of the job market being as it is. I know several cases in which faculty at liberal arts colleges were denied tenure for not publishing enough, even though they had published more than the senior faculty who voted not to tenure them. That may not be the case at this institution, but you might want to look at the scholarly production of faculty they've hired in the last 5-10 years--long ago enough to have published, but not full professors (if they have ranks)--not just that of the faculty as a whole.

Finally, keep in mind what Timothy Burke wrote a couple years ago: "Academia is an extreme example of a tournament economy where only a few people can hold the desirable jobs, and where getting to hold those jobs involves very significant amounts of luck. Anyone considering an academic career has to think soberly about this point." Getting a t-t job in the current market is like becoming a successful actor or writer: there are stars, there are those who make a decent living plying their craft, and there are those who have bit parts or do piecework and make enough to barely get by, but without job security or a retirement plan.

On preview: take up hydropsyche's offer! Even if it's not Shimer or St. John's, she can doubtless provide much more useful advice than those of us at different institutions.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:31 PM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

And how much teaching experience have you had? But take hydropsyche up on her very kind offer. These kinds of jobs are less about specific qualifications and more about that elusive 'fit.'
posted by barnone at 6:42 PM on September 5, 2013

Caveat: I know nothing about academia.

However: I did get a job in my extremely competitive field last year by personally showing up, calling up, and pestering dozens of managers of the positions I was seeking. I talked to so many people, and about 50% gave zero response or wouldn't even see me, and maybe 10% showed any interest at all but said they had nothing to offer a new grad. Still, I asked for their cards. When a position opened up, I had a contact, and I used that contact to get an interview, by pestering the HR guy with my supposed personal connection.

I know that academia is a weird and special land where the rules are different, but surely there is some equivalent way to be a pest here? Is there someone, anyone, at this university who you could talk to, who might be an excuse for you to contact someone on a hiring committee, just so they will actually read your resume?

Good luck!
posted by latkes at 6:57 PM on September 5, 2013

Latkes, there isn't. Do that and you'll be blacklisted for it. In this case blacklisted means it gets around you did this and how unprofessional and obnoxious it was, and you will be known as the unprofessional,obnoxious person who embarrassed his advisor by being unprofessional and obnoxious.

Now if you know someone at the institution, that someone can place bugs in the right ears, but it's typically only safe for that person to do so if he or she is tenured or midway up the chain of command in a non-faculty position.

I highly recommend the OP avoid doing this.
posted by zizzle at 7:06 PM on September 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

Huh. Bummer.
posted by latkes at 7:09 PM on September 5, 2013

I currently work at St. John's on the administrative staff (and am a graduate of the MA program) and have several friends who have applied for faculty positions in recent years. Feel free to message me privately if you think I can help in any respect.
posted by singinginmychains at 7:23 PM on September 5, 2013

Absolutely do not contact the search committee (which may not be officially formed yet, and will likely be different than last year's, and totally won't remember your app from the piles they waded through, etc etc etc). In the spirit of AFTDJ (see the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education): apply again!

Encouraging anecdote: I reapplied for a tt job where I'd been rejected in the first round the year before... and got it the second time. Don't mention the previous year. Just polish your materials and have at it!
posted by TwoStride at 10:09 PM on September 5, 2013

seconding: don't mention previous year.

There is a great chance some members of the search committee (perhaps all) will be different.
posted by Murray M at 4:51 AM on September 6, 2013

Yeah, it's most likely a whole new search committee. Regardless, don't mention previous application. Good luck.
posted by mareli at 5:42 AM on September 6, 2013

Those with experience of academia have pooh poohed my approach. That is to always talk to the most important decision maker I can before I apply. This allows me to fimd out what they are looking for and to put my name in the frame.
posted by BenPens at 7:49 AM on September 6, 2013

Yeah, BenPens, that approach really doesn't work in academia. It's common (and usually a good idea) in the business world. But it won't fly here.

Basically, there's a big taboo in academia and especially in the liberal arts against acting too "businesslike." In some ways, it's like the tech startup world in the 90s — where acting too much like A Guy In A Suit was treated as a sign that you were some kind of out-of-touch corporate asshole.

College faculty pride themselves on the idea that academic culture is special and unique. They tend to be people who could have had a career in management or a professional career, but who have gone out of their way to avoid that sort of work — and that's often because they have intensely negative stereotypes about what "corporations" and "desk jobs" are like.

Faculty also pride themselves on intellectual freedom, which means they get very, very prickly about proving that they don't take orders from anyone. In the business world, if the CEO hands you a resume and says "I like this guy, you should consider him" — well, you consider him. Duh. But in a liberal arts school, if the president of the university (or even the chair of the department) hands a hiring committee an application and says "I like this guy, you should consider him," they're just as likely to throw it away immediately just to make the point that they can't be controlled or influenced.

So if you pull that sort of straight-to-the-top move, the best possible response is "Okay, you seem like a nice guy, and you might even be good for the job, but clearly you don't understand how we do things." (Not good.) And another likely response, if the professors on the hiring committee get wind of it, is "What a smarmy corporate asshole! He definitely won't fit in here." (Very not good.)
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:12 AM on September 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

I didn't suggest a random higher up which I would consider assholish iin any environment.
posted by BenPens at 9:29 AM on September 7, 2013

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