How to Apply for Academic Jobs in Linguistics
Department of Linguistics
|Contents||7. Some Things You Must Absolutely Do in a Job Search|
|1. Schedule||8. Dealing with your Recommenders|
|2. Who Decides||9. A List of Ordinary Interview Questions|
|3. Applications||10. A Common Trick Question|
|4. Application Letters and Self-Praise||11. Job Talk Design|
|5. Opportunities for Personal Presentation||12. The Race Is Not Always To The Swift|
|6. Job Talks||13. Morale|
Tenure-track jobs are usually announced during the first half of the academic year. You find out about them by consulting the Linguistics Department job list, by looking at the Linguist List job postings, and by whatever other means become available to you serendipitously. Due dates for applications start around November 1 and go up through about January 15.
One-year jobs tend to be advertised later, and opening sometimes appear as late as June or July.
2. Who Decides
Deans decide if departments are awarded faculty positions to advertise. They can also take away positions, even in mid-search.
Departments appoint search committees to read and screen applications. But final decisions are usually made by vote of the whole department faculty. This, incidentally, is a dubious, if universal, system. It means that people who are linguists, but have no specialist knowledge of the target field, often get to cast decisive votes, based on superficial impressions gathered at job talks. See "The Race Is Not Always To The Swift", below.
Job announcements tell you what to include. Often, these materials are: cover letter, curriculum vitae, description of dissertation project, research papers, letters of recommendation, teaching evaluations. Once in a blue moon they ask for transcripts. BUT if you want to include more than they ask for, you don't (in my experience) get punished, and often you benefit. Thus, if a department tells you not to send recommendation letters, but you send some anyway, nothing will stop individual members of the Search Committee from reading them.
Don't include stuff that's not your best, just to make a bulkier file.
Teaching credentials, such as evaluation forms, often are included. There is an eternal debate about whether you should include all of your evaluations, or just the best ones. Without making a recommendation on this point, I could add the obvious point that if you include all, you should say you have done so. A nice way around the problem is to give copies of all of your evaluation forms to your recommenders, who can then read them and quote from students' comments appropriately.
Here are two links to help you prepare your application: UCLA's own Career Center, Career center at University of Illinois.
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4. Application Letters and Self-Praise
The thought of preparing a document in praise of yourself is rather disgusting to many people. And indeed, on the relatively rare occasions when I see a job letter filled with blustering self-praise, I tend to feel a bit disgusted at the applicant.
One way around the problem is this: your letter can express delight at how well things are turning out for you. For example, your dissertation project turned out to have all sort of fascinating angles you hadn't anticipated (specify); your undergraduate students surprise and delight you with their (specify), and so on.
Often, separating out the discussion of your thesis work into a separate document can help, because you can use the prose style normally used in research papers rather than letter style.
5. Opportunities for Personal Presentation
Many job applicants go to the Linguistic Society of America meeting in the January of their job application year. In general, it's felt that going to the LSA is pretty important. The abstract deadline, which you should watch, is usually in early September.
If your LSA abstract doesn't get accepted, don't give in to depair. People have gotten jobs who didn't give a talk at the LSA, or who didn't even go to the LSA.
Ideally, job seekers giving LSA talks select a topic that suitably presents them as job candidates. Thus, this talk should be on a topic that comes from the dissertation research, not some peripheral topic that happens to fit the time slot.
The LSA always include a large room with tables, at which representatives of departments that have jobs do their interviewing. Some interview all comers for a short period; others pre-screen by asking everyone to put their vita in a box on the first day of the meeting (so bring vitas); others interview only people they have contacted in advance.
6. Job Talks
A department selects a "short list", which is the list of people invited to come out and give job talks. During the job talk visit, you give the talk, give further interviews, and socialize so they can decide if they they wouldn't mind having you around as a colleague.
Job visits vary in terms of whether the applicant has fun. If the people in the department are nice, and they take good care of you (sometimes your ticket requires a Saturday night stayover), the visit can be surprisingly pleasant.
Once all the job talks have taken place, the department usually has a meeting to make the final decision. The winner is notified immediately, but the losers not necessarily immediately.
7. Some Things You Absolutely Must Do In A Job Search
a. Have your dissertation adviser carefully look over all your application materials, providing detailed advice, before you submit them anywhere. Ponder your adviser's words and revise before submitting.
b. If you are going to the LSA or to give a job talk, have your dissertation adviser and/or other committee members conduct a mock interview.
If your adviser is unwilling to do items (a) and (b), you might ask him why; also ponder whether you have the right adviser. But this is a strictly hypothetical case; I have never heard of an adviser outright refusing to do these things (though some desparately busy ones have been known to stall...).
c. If you are giving a job talk, rehearse the talk in the department seminar for your field. Polish the talk (say, by giving it to a wall several times), until it gleams.
8. Dealing with your Recommenders
Pick as letter-writers the people who are in the best position to make a good case for you.
a. Most important: be sure the dissertation advising process is fully up to speed when letter-writing time comes. Ideally, the letter writers have read drafts of several chapters, in their most recent versions. In this way, they will have a vivid mental impression of how wonderful your work is and will be able to write better letters for you.
b. Ask your letter-writers exactly how they want to proceed: do you give them pre-addressed envelopes, a printed set of addresses, a text file of addresses, or what?
c. Give the letter writers complete and full information about the target jobs, including the text of the published job advertisement. Give them copies of the materials you yourself are submitting.
d. Keep the letter writers very well informed about deadlines. If you make a printed list of the jobs you are applying for, sort it by deadline and print the deadline dates in large type.
e. This may seem pushy, but it probably helps: from time to time send your letter writers a progress report on themselves: "my records show that you've sent off letters to X, Y, and Z, with forthcoming deadlines of Dec. 1 for W, Dec. 8 for V, and ... Could you let me know if I've got it right?"
This sounds perhaps a bit rude, but I think it's probably justified. Your letter writers are probably extremely busy people and might occasionally slip up on a deadline unless you monitor them. If you're worried about whether this is tactful, maybe show a copy of this document to your letter-writer and ask in advance if monitoring would be ok.
9. A List of Ordinary Interview Questions
a. "Tell me about your dissertation work."
b. "What sort of stuff do you see doing in your research as you move beyond your dissertation project?"
c. "What sort of things do you think are important in (graduate/undergraduate) teaching?"
d. "What textbook do you like to use for course X, and why?"
e. "On what topics would you like to teach an advanced-topics proseminar course?"
f. "Could you teach X for us?"
g. (laboratory fields): "What does it take to equip a lab?"
Think up good answers to all of these questions. Speak the answers to your dissertation adviser; then after modifying on the basis of her advice, speak them to a blank wall repeatedly until they are fluent.
Question (b) is answered badly by the majority of job applicants. The incorrect answer that is given is: "I'm going to do repeat exactly what I did in my dissertation, only for (different languages/slightly different phenomena)". With a little thought, you can do better than this. At the very least, you can explain why it's important to do those other languages.
Notice that if hired you will not be held to your answer; the question is asked simply to see if you can think about the big picture.
The correct answer to question (f) is often held to be invariantly "yes". This is mostly true, but be a bit circumspect--followup questions might indicate you are faking.
For question (g), the uninspired answer is a recital of the equipment in your own lab. Better answers give a range of options, based on goals and budget.
10. A Common Trick Question
"What would you like to know about us?"
is also one you should prepare for. This question might be considered a trick question: the interviewers ask it because they want to be nice (i.e., to engage in reciprocity in a social interaction). But of course, they are the ones who have a job to offer and you are unemployed, so practically speaking the need to impress and persuade falls entirely on your side. Thus it would make sense not to use the question as an opportunity to probe into potential shortcomings of the interviewers' department.
I think the correct answer is one that turns the question around so that it tells them something positive (i.e. positive, and true) about you. Here are some possibilities:
"I'm interested in starting up a lab in Field X. I've got some ideas for a grant that could fund equipment. Do you think there's a possibility that your dean can come up with lab space?"
"I'm really interested in developing collaborations with people in Field X. I already know Person P and Person Q in your Department of X. Are there other people in that department that you guys work with?"
"When I've TA'd I've been working with this pedagogical software for doing [specify type] exercises. Do you guys have some kind of central classroom facility with lots of computers in it where I could train the undergraduates how to use this software?"
11. Job Talk Design
There are two strategies for job talks.
a. Give a narrow, extremely technical, intimidating presentation that only fellow specialists in your field will understand. The majority of your audience will be dissatified with your talk, but when the time comes to explain just why the department should not hire you, they will have little to go on other than this general dissatisfaction.
b. Situate your research in its broad context, emphasizing why anyone would have gotten interested in your specific question in the first place. Go lightly on the endless details of the dissertation project, emphasizing the lively examples that illuminate your general point. Be sure to provide enough background that people who are linguists, but not in your specialization, will find the talk intelligible.
I personally prefer talks of type (b). But I have seen people get jobs giving talks of type (a). Which one works best depends partly on you and partly on the department you are visiting.
A compromise suggested by Carson Schutze, is 10 minutes of difficult stuff in the middle, to establish your credentials, with the rest addressed to a general linguistic audience.
In any event, it is helpful to ask around and find out what the department is like. It is particularly good to know how much background knowledge your audience is likely to command, so you can pitch the talk appropriately.
With regard to how long you should talk, there are different theories. One is that the mean academic attention span is about 50 minutes, and you shouldn't exceed it. On the other hand, job talks tend to be taken very seriously, and I have seen audiences attend to job talks of 80 minutes or more--when the content is sufficiently intense. Obviously, it's rude and foollish to talk so long that you wipe out the question period. In any event, it is crucial to inquire in advance just how long your talk slot will be.
12. The Race Is Not Always To The Swift
Academic jobs are sometimes awarded to people who, all knowledgeable individuals agree, are grossly inferior to other applicants in the same year. Part of the problem is that often the department looking for someone in field X doesn't have an X, so they're not in a good position to judge. See also the remark made under Who Decides?, above.
Beyond extreme cases where the incompetent get hired, there is of course a vast range of latitude for personal taste in hiring, leading to widespread disagreement on whether the outcome of a search was just or wise.
I say this because you should bear it in mind when you are turned down for jobs, as you certainly will be (nobody ever gets all the jobs they apply for!). If you do get a job, however, then go ahead and feel that it was entirely merit and that luck had nothing to do with it!
The linguistics job market, from year to year, ranges from "not too bad" to (in times of economic recession) pretty awful. You knew this, of course, when you applied to graduate school in linguistics.
As far as keeping your head held high, in what has some chance of becoming a demorizing experience, I can offer the following bits of advice.
a. A number of people get jobs only after several years of searching and temporary appointments.
b. Rather few people get tenure track jobs right out of graduate school.
c. Often, one-year jobs (which keep you in play, give you teaching experience, and give you time to develop your publication record) are advertised quite a bit after the tenure-track jobs.
d. For many people, the thought of actually sitting down and writing application letters is pretty revolting. The important point is to hold your breath, overcome the revulsion, and write the letters anyway, so you won't miss the deadline.
May your sufferings be brief, and your dream job fall into your lap.
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Last modified November 17, 2006