On an especially hot and muggy day last month, nearly 250 graduate students and postdocs peeled themselves away from the bench, left the library, set aside their dissertations, and trekked over to the Illini Union for the Graduate College’s seventh annual Faculty Job Search Retreat.
The retreat featured sessions on application documents of all kinds (cover letters! teaching philosophies! research statements!), helping attendees get ready to write excellent materials. But as it is every year, the highlight of the day was a panel of faculty members who offered a window into everyday life and hiring practices at their very different institutions. This year’s guests were: James Matthews, Associate Professor of French at Illinois Wesleyan University; Angela Glaros, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at Eastern Illinois University; and Jeremy Guest, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois.
Since not all of you could attend this year, we thought we would share some highlights in the form of 3 tips from our panelists:
Be a Storyteller
All three panelists enthusiastically agreed that one of the most important things you can do to improve your candidacy for faculty jobs is be a good storyteller. Guest repeatedly counseled against trying to “shock with brilliance” instead of communicating effectively to varied audiences. “Your research is a story,” Matthews explained, and Guest concurred that “telling convincing stories” about your research and trajectory was key.
Stories help you make sense of your experience, and they help you excite people both in and outside of your field about your research. In order to make it past the first round, your application materials have to “make them prick up their ears,” says Glaros. And from Matthews: “Something in your materials has got to grab me and make me want to know more.” And once you’re on campus, your goal should be to communicate with people in a range of fields and subfields: “Can you excite ten other professors in other departments?” Matthews asks. “Can you tell a story that captivates them? “
Your ability to tell compelling stories is also an important way that your teaching abilities are assessed. If you can’t explain a complex concept to other faculty, Guest notes, how will you fare with a lecture hall full of undergraduates? And at Eastern and Illinois Wesleyan, where teaching demonstrations are a key part of the campus visit, telling a story that can interest a room full of distracted 19-year-olds can really set you up for success.
X + ΔX
When asked to divulge his most valuable gem of advice, Guest didn’t hesitate: “X + ΔX.” At first it seemed like a sort of engineering inside joke, with many of the humanists in the room scratching their head.
But then he explained: The X in the equation is the institution you are applying to – the mission, the department and faculty, the existing research projects and programs, the current course offerings and curriculum – basically everything they have right now. The ΔX—the change that X will undergo—is you and everything you have to offer: your experiences, your skills, your ideas, your research program, your teaching style and course offerings, your sparkling personality.
For her part, Glaros suggested asking “What does the institution need?” then pitching directly your ability to offer that thing they need. Basically, in your application materials and interviews, if you can explain how X + ΔX = amazing, you’re golden. The equation is a simple way to think about and explain what value you will add to the institution, which is an absolutely crucial part of the equation.
Ça depend (it depends)!
Despite all the enthusiastic agreement among our panelists on the tips above, the panel also highlighted a fundamental feature of the faculty job landscape: it depends! (Matthews, the French professor, explained that a common answer to student questions in his classroom—“Ça depend,” or “it depends”—applies to many of the questions he heard during the retreat.)
However much we might want to talk about “faculty careers” as a single thing, our panelists illustrated that the life of a faculty member has a lot to do with where they work. Matthews said he spends 40 percent of his time on teaching, with a significant amount of that happening in office hours. Glaros teaches 4 courses one semester and 3 the other, with advising undergrad majors being another big part of her job. Guest teaches one course a semester in the classroom, but fully half his week is spent meeting with and advising graduate students on his research team. Different departments and institutions have different priorities, and those play out in the lives of their faculty and their hiring decisions.
Because ça depend, your application strategies, preparation, and materials should look different for different institutions. The biggest mistake candidates make, according to Glaros, is “not doing the most rudimentary research” about the institution. You need to show that you are interested and engaged with the special opportunities and challenges that faculty at a particular school face.
Join Us Next Year
If you weren’t able to attend the Faculty Job Search Retreat this year, consider joining us next summer for the eighth annual retreat. And in the meantime, throughout the upcoming academic year, we will be offering workshops on topics like writing effective CVs, preparing for faculty interviews, and whether a postdoc is the right fit for your career goals. Watch GradLinks and this page for details.
Derek Attig is Assistant Director for Student Outreach at the Graduate College Career Development Office. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.