Monday, September 28, 2009

Customizing Cover Letters: They Inspire Me, I Inspire Them

The advice for cover letters in academia is the same as for cover letters everywhere: Always address them to a specific person, convince the reader that you're perfect for the job in question, and do it concisely. The greatest challenge for non-academic jobs is probably being concise; at least in academia we get two pages instead of a few paragraphs. The greatest challenge for academic jobs, at least for me, is customizing the letter for different jobs.

Sometimes that little extra is easy. With the right college, or at least an informative website, those little tweaks to put at the end or beginning of a sentence are easy: I am particularly intrigued by this program you offer, which demonstrates your commitment to undergraduate research. I believe my philosophy of teaching matches your department's statement endorsing a liberal arts education. Whether it's a special summer research program, unique courses offered in a special January term, or just some quirk about the college's history, there's something worth writing about.

Other times, however, that little extra effort turns into a lot of extra effort. The advertisement was cut-and-dried in its expectations. The college had no standout philosophy or curriculum. The department pages don't even supply much unique character, just the bare bones of research topics and course descriptions. I can search and search, and find nothing that inspires a single extra sentence about my qualifications and why I match their culture.

On the bright side, this customization works both ways. The hiring committee uses it to judge whether I'm really interested in their job; I also used it to judge whether I'm really interested in their job. The little statements I add are genuine, and make me feel excited about the prospect of being hired or even getting an interview with this particular college. That unique character will make me eager to get a position, even if it's asking me to specialize in my less-favored subfield. The fact that I couldn't find anything worth writing about says as much about whether I would want a job at that college as whether they would want to hire me.

I do not feel guilt or worry about my boilerplate applications. The cookie-cutter advertisement and website convinced me that there's enough possibility of a match to send my cookie-cutter application. Perhaps I'll get an interview anyway, and discover the wonders of a college that doesn't represent itself online as well as it should. Or perhaps I'll simply save my time and effort for colleges that do move me, and find the best match possible.

Or perhaps, if I'm still writing cover letters in the Spring, I'll become desperate enough to learn how to fake those custom sentences. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

First Day of Class

Today I am a professor. Or I should be. Let's run through the becoming-a-professor checklist and see how I'm doing.

*Get hired. Well, the unofficial hiring process has been completed - I was offered the job, I gave some poor admin assistant a bit of a headache trying to arrange my class time, and the department chair confirmed as of yesterday that I am teaching the class (specifically, that the students are excited, but I'm taking that with a grain of salt). The official hiring process, on the other hand, has barely begun, thanks to a months-long delay in gathering my information for a background check (the fact that my eventual login had the wrong domain suggests the underlying cause).

*Familiarize myself with the department. Not so much, no. To date, my only trip to this department was my hiring interview, in which I learned the location of the building, water fountain, and chair's office. I think I know where the main office is, because there are only a few reasons for secretary's window in a campus building lobby. I do not know where my classroom is, I don't know where my office is, I don't even know how many floors the building has. I know adjunct professors are academic temps and don't qualify for benefits, but I was kind of hoping for some form of orientation. Hopefully the main office admin people will be forthcoming with information like how to get my syllabus photocopied.

*Review my class roster. Nope. Due to the above hiring delay, I do not have a login for any of the campus websites that might let me access my roster; but that's okay, because due to the above disorientation, I don't even know what the websites are. As of a few weeks ago, when a student asked for permission to enroll, I had six students enrolled, with another two possibles. Once again, I'm relying on the main office to help me out.

*Get campus ID. Nope. Again, this can be blamed on the slow hiring process. Fortunately, I'll blend right in to a college campus, with my trusty red-and-black swiss army backpack advertising my student status, so I'm not too worried about being stopped by campus security and asked for proof I belong.

*Prepare my class syllabus. At last, something I can check off. My syllabus is 7 pages long, with one page of course information and six pages of readings. I read or skimmed every reading, about 850 pages of scholarly work, and several dozen additional articles that were discarded as not fitting my grand plan for each class. I know when papers will be due, and even have a list of potential topics. Only one day, our final discussion, may need a little something extra, if I judge that additional readings are needed to get my students discussing for the entire two hours.

*Prepare lesson plan for the first day of class. Check. There is of course the obvious: Introducing myself to the class, having the students introduce themselves to me and each other, and reviewing the syllabus, These are all necessary, but I don't like limiting the first day of class to such administrative tasks. The first day of class sets the tone. In undergraduate courses, this means they need to break out their notebooks and preferably their minds at some point. In a graduate seminar, this means discussion of some sort. My advisor, experienced in the ways of graduate seminars, provided the topic: A discussion of discussions. Everyone knows what makes a good discussion and what makes a bad discussion, but it's helpful to spell it out that first day and come up with class tactics for halting bad discussions.

*Dress like a professor. Or perhaps not like a professor. Most professors are distinguishable from students only by age - it was in a seminar much like the one I'm teaching that I first realized that my professor and I wore the same sneakers. I am not distinguishable from my students by age, and will have to rely on wardrobe. A suit or even dress pants seems overkill, as these are typically reserved for job interviews, but jeans are certainly out. I rely on the button-down shirt and black slacks to convey the right impression.

And then it's just a matter of killing time until class starts. Preferably by, say, getting hired, finding my office, and all those minor details.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

One Last Vacation Before the Storm

Next week the teaching begins, and my schedule will lose a great deal of its flexibility. The day-to-day "wake when I want, work at whatever time of day seems best" flexibility will remain, but the broader flexibility of escaping for long weekends as needed will be gone. I'll be teaching a Tuesday/Thursday class, and suddenly a short weekend is the best I can do. Cancelling class is acceptable for the conference I will be attending, but not, say, to visit family or just get away from grad school.

So Labor Day weekend became my last escape, five days to relax and recharge before the semester begins in earnest. It was a truly American vacation, consisting of sleeping until noon, staying up late watching movies with my sister and brother-in-law, and fitting in some quality bonding time with my two-month-old nephew (whose idea of bonding is finding new and interesting places to spit up on me, then smiling as evolutionary survival mechanisms kick in).

Now, of course, the post-vacation stress begins to kick in as I attempt to finalize 8 weeks of readings in just seven days, on top of all my usual dissertation and mentoring work. The replenished energy stores should last just long enough - and then I'll actually be teaching. If only they weren't graduate students, and I could convince them to call me "Prof" on a regular basis.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Customizing Cover Letters

Every piece of advice I have read about applying to faculty positions emphasizes the importance of the cover letter. It should be brief, it should introduce all the critical pieces of your application, and it should be customized. If at all possible, mention any special requirements from the notice, or say something nice about the college or department; don't let them think this is just a form letter you're sending everywhere.

In theory, this is great advice. In practice, I could find nothing to say. I slaved over the cover letter template for over a week, from the time I learned one of my letter writers had gotten ahead of me until I couldn't stand it anymore. I struggled with the opening paragraph, which should summarize my qualifications and convince the reader that I will graduate in May. I sweated over the second paragraph, which was devoted to convincing faculty at liberal arts colleges that I knew what I was applying for. I condensed my teaching philosophy and teaching biography into one paragraph each, trying to convince committees to hire me without sounding fake or overdone. Then the same thing for my research philosophy (mentoring undergrads) and research statement. It was all the writing I did for a week.

I exhausted myself with the main points; I couldn't bring myself to customize. There wasn't anything less that didn't sound incredibly fake. What could I say about my ability to contribute to a college's "strategic plan"? The truth was that I'll do what I can if I'm hired, and I have nothing more to offer than that. Is it necessary to justify myself as a teacher of an unfamiliar subfield when they are so very tentative about what the course requirements may be? I'll teach what I'm asked to teach, and I'll do a good job of it, even if I'm learning what I'll be teaching only a few days ahead of the students.

In the end, I wound up with three template cover letters. One for a teaching fellowship, which will be adapted for any visiting professor positions I might apply for. Two are for the assistant professor positions, each with a slightly different focus on my research to cover the two main subfields I might apply for. Perhaps in the upcoming weeks, when the stress of drafting the first cover letter begins to fade, I will be able to come up with promising statements about how I am the best possible candidate for the job. At the moment, what they get is all I can do: This is why I am applying for this type of job, and why I think I'm qualified, and that will have to be enough.