Friday, August 12, 2011

Attention doctoral candidates in communication programs: A few things I've learned about applying for a faculty position in higher education

I spent considerable time over the past three days talking to men and women who are interested in joining the School of Communication faculty at Point Park University.

And as we talked, I thought about previous job searches in which I've been involved, either as the job candidate or as a person representing my department/school. Later, I ran into a young woman who is currently a Ph.D. student at Indiana University and who was an undergraduate at Ohio University when I was there getting my Ph.D. degree.

As I pointed out one or two things I wanted her to think about when she went on the job hunt, she mentioned that I ought to put together a list of ideas that might appeal to graduate students.

Please recognize that the list below is not comprehensive (and that means that anyone who sees a bit of information that I should have plugged in ought to contact me!!!).

Here it goes:
1. Read the job announcement and understand what it means for you. If you are a researchaholic, then a university that values teaching over research is not going to satisfy you. (The same is true in reverse -- if you are a teacher at heart, then a research-intensive institution is not for you.) The announcement will, in fact, let you know what is expected -- watch the order in which teaching, research and service appear; the more important it is, the earlier it will appear. (And, yes, some job searches list research before teaching.)

2. Research the school. You want to know about the teaching load, the research demands, possible routes to tenure, how many faculty in recent years did/did not receive tenure, what curriculum changes are possible (and how you can be part of that), if you will have to advise students, if you will be involved in supervising student media, the community in which the university is located, what the culture of the university is like and any other issue that is important to you.

3. Get to know the city that you are considering calling home. Personal contacts, government data, the local newspaper and word of mouth are just some of the sources you can use. If you have children who are in school, then you had better find out about school districts. If you have a family member with a chronic health situation (i.e. asthma), then you had better find out if that person will have problems living there.

4. Ask questions. A lot of questions. The contact person could be the chair, the head of the search committee, someone whom you know who works at the university and/or someone on the faculty whom you met in the past at an academic event. As you complete points 1, 2 and 3, pick the brains of the people already at that university.

5. Make sure you get complete answers. I did not say the answers you want to hear. I said complete answers, which is something you have to define. It is much better for you to be disappointed now rather than getting to campus and suddenly realizing you have made a mistake. Allow me to give you a personal example: When I was interviewing for my first academic position, a southern university was interested in talking to me (and I was really interested in talking to them). My office mate's wife and my wife were -- and still are -- great friends; she told her that my wife's asthma would be a definite problem because of the pollution from nearby power plants. I never applied for that job, but I did send a note to the dean to explain why.

6. Create a file folder (and not the electronic kind) for each school. In it, you want to know the following (if they apply to you): housing prices, rental prices, local taxes, cost-of-living, school district information, educational opportunities, doctors/medical information, cultural opportunities and more. Then, when you get ready to sit down to evaluate your options, you have a ready-to-go comparison and contrast opportunity, and you will know whether any future salary discussions will allow you to live the kind of life you want. For example, if you are offered $55,000 to teach in Pittsburgh and $55,000 to teach in Los Angeles, then take a guess where your money is going to be kinder to you!

7. Make sure you provide what the search committee is seeking. You'd be surprised how many applicants send materials that are not wanted and don't send items that are. A well-written job description will make abundantly clear what a complete application includes and to whom it is to be sent. If it doesn't, then determine who the contact person is and ask him or her what should be sent.

8. Personalize the cover letter. A letter that suggests "I am excited to join your institution because of its great reputation" is read by a search committee as "I really don't know much about you and I really don't care to know." You should make clear how you learned about the position, why it appeals to you, why you are a credible candidate, how your skills match the needs of the university, what you have learned about the university and other relevant items. And do all this in one page.

9. Let your references know to where you have applied. It is awkward for them and for any member of a search committee to begin a conversation and immediately realize that the reference had no idea you were interested in a certain university.

10. Be patient. Search committees want to wrap up their job quickly, but they rarely will rush. You might apply for the job on Oct. 1, but the search committee might not begin looking at applications until Nov. 1. And once it begins its work, it must sort through multiple applications, reduce the applicant pool to a manageable number of first cuts and then move forward with either phone interviews or reference checks. It also could face unexpected issues -- I was part of a search committee that was told halfway through our work that the university had decided not to fund that position, thus canceling all we had done.

11. Do your homework. You should know (at minimum) the full list of courses in the department/school, a point or two about each member of the faculty and what is taking place within that academic unit. It also would serve you well to read the local newspaper so that you know what is taking place in that community. Contacting people whom you know who used to work at the institution would be a good idea, too.

12. Know what is expected of you. While on campus, will you do a teaching session? A research session? If so, how long will those be? Which administrators will meet you? Are students going to get to talk to you? A search committee head who is doing his/her job well will provide this kind of information to you, but you should have a checklist of your own prepared.

13. Dress appropriately. A pair of jeans is sure to be a turn off, no matter how low-key an institution might appear to be. And no matter how sexy you might think you are, don't show it off.

14. Your personal life is your business. You can volunteer any information you want about your personal life -- marital status, parental status, sexual orientation, etc. -- but no one can ask you to address these issues.

15. Carve out some time for yourself. A good search committee doesn't want to leave you alone; it feels compelled to make sure you are meeting and greeting, and also sightseeing. In fact, if a search committee dumps you for hours on end, you should be worried. Nevertheless, you want time for you -- and don't be embarrassed to ask for it. Use it to walk around campus or the city, or for whatever purpose you want. But put it to good use.

16. Be sure to send a thank-you note. Let the search committee chair know that you appreciated all that he/she and the entire committee did to make your visit as successful as it was. (And it was a successful visit no matter if you get the job.)

17. Wait. Patiently. The desire to send an email to the search committee head and ask for an update will reach an uncontrollable state at some point. Don't do it! Remember, you might have been the first of five people to visit campus. Most schools will tell you the schedule under which they are operating, so give them a chance to do their work. If you are the person the faculty wants, you will get that call.

Good luck as you begin this exciting -- and, yes, at times stressful -- process. And call on me anytime.

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