by John Raeubrn, American Studies 2000

Where to look for notices of open positions

The standard sources are the Chronicle of Higher Education (weekly); the job lists issued four or so times a year by professional organizations (MLA, AHA -- these can be consulted in the appropriate departmental offices), the ASA Newsletter (also four or five times a year, sent automatically to members; also available on-line through the ASA Crossroads site, <>).  The program also receives announcements of positions, and these are put in a binder that Laura Kastens oversees.

There are internet sources as well.  Rich has a page of American Studies job-hunting links at: <>

If you know of others, perhaps you could send an e-mail to all of us with the addresses.

How to Apply

Read the advertisement carefully to see if your qualifications fit those being looked for.  There’s little point in applying for a position utterly outside your competencies, but if you qualify, if only barely, go ahead an apply—it only costs some sweat and 33 cents—with the knowledge that it’s a very long shot that you’ll go very far in the competition if your qualifications are not central to the job description.  Focus most of your energies on those jobs that you are well-qualified for.

Don’t, however, become despairing if you are eliminated in the first round for a position you feel especially well-qualified for.  In virtually all positions the departments advertising them have some hidden agenda that you can’t know of—it might be we don’t want another specialist in Toni Morrison for a job in contemporary American lit, or someone who has written about the Cold War in a job advertised as post-war American history; or it might be we most want a specialist in such-and-such to replace dear old Professor X who has just retired and who had that specialty.  It also might mean there is an “inside” candidate.

The Application Letter

Compose a letter of application and put together a CV.  Both of these must be impeccable in spelling, usage, etc.  Nothing will eliminate your application faster than slapdash documents.  You might also want to write a 2-3 page abstract of your dissertation.

Here’s what to put in your letter:

1)  Start with a paragraph that says why you’re applying for this position and explains why you’re qualified to do so (your field, when you expect to receive your degree, your intellectual interests).  Say as well where you saw the ad.  If this is a disciplinary position you may want to add an additional paragraph about your interdisciplinary perspective and imply that this is one of your particular strengths, which you would bring to the job along with a strong competence in the traditional area being advertised for. 
2)  Provide a brief (one or two paragraphs) description of your dissertation, giving its title and the name of your director. 
3)  Provide a brief summary of your other work, such as any publications, conference papers, and work in progress. 
4)  Give a history of your relevant teaching experience.  You can and should emphasize that you have not been an “assistant” but fully in charge of the courses you’ve taught—responsible for syllabus, conduct of classes, evaluating student writing and exams. 
5) Conclude with an allusion to any enclosures, offer to send additional materials (writing sample, evaluations of teaching, syllabi, etc.), and invite the employer to contact the Educational Placement Office for your dossier (include the address and phone number) or to ask you to have it sent.  You should indicate, too, if your application comes before a professional meeting (AHA, MLA, ASA, usually), whether or not you plan to attend (you may not know, but if you think you would go if you had an interview, then you should say you’re attending).

You may want to fiddle with the order in which you put this information, and even with its emphases, depending on your judgment of the kind of institution you’re applying to.  But do not scant either your research or your teaching interests—virtually all institutions will be interested in both.  Make your letter express you—avoid sounding pompous and/or arrogant, don’t indulge in jargon, don’t be defensive or a boot-licker, choose the details you include carefully so that they crisply support a point you’re wanting to make about yourself and don’t descend into minutiae.  When you describe your research, remember that your audience will not necessarily be specialists in your immediate field—make what you say about it comprehensible and interesting to an educated and curious readership.  Indicate how it is a contribution to your field, and how you imagine it leading to further scholarly work.

You may want to customize each letter you send out, interpolating into various parts of it specific allusions to the job you’re writing for and your desire to apply for it.  Don’t overdo this—that is, don’t give the impression that you’re fawning on those who will read your materials.  To avoid this, remember, if you’ve had boot-licking students who have done this, how offensive they are.

The real trick with these letters, as with all effective writing, is to adopt the appropriate tone.  Write to the prospective employer—and more to the point, to the committee that will be vetting these applications—as if you were a colleague, not a supplicating student, that is, as equals to whom you’re putting forward the reasons why you would enhance their institutional work and enliven their community.  This shouldn’t make you bluster, but you should write with assurance.  Do mention any awards you may have received (not undergraduate ones, though), but don’t go on about them.  Put yourself forward confidently but not aggressively.  Your letter ought to be 1 ½ -2 pages in length.

Putting together the vita

This is a summary of your intellectual qualifications and experiences.  It should be able to be read quickly and easily, using boldface headings to separate parts of it (excluding your name and address at the top).  Distinguish in it between important and less-important information, by the use of headings, internal organization, blank space, and/or whatever, to highlight those features of your work that are most important.

Include in it the following information: your name, home and office addresses and the phone numbers of each, your e-mail address; your education (degrees, majors, institutions, and dates of degrees, with your PhD at the top of this); the title of your dissertation, your director’s name, and a one or two sentence description of it; your publications and conference presentations; any honors you have received (not local undergraduate ones, although you might want to include Phi Beta Kappa or similar honors); teaching experience (dates, program, courses taught); committee or administrative work; possibly your memberships in professional organizations, especially if you’re applying for a disciplinary position; a list of your reference writers’ names; and where your dossier is available.

With both the letter of application and the CV you should ask a member of the faculty—or more than one—to look them over and offer suggestions.  The same is true of the abstract, if you decide to include one with your application letter.

The abstract should describe what you are doing in the dissertation, lay out your argument, discuss your method, and explain the project’s contribution to the larger field, which might include briefly locating it within an order of scholarship.  You might want to organize this with a paragraph or so preamble followed by a central example and the most important conclusion of each chapter.  But avoid a point-by-point summary.  Your job is to interest your readers in your project, to give them a lively sense of it, so you will also want to make sure your writing is vigorous and concrete.

The Placement File

The Educational Placement Center will maintain your placement file, which will contain your letters of reference.  There is a fee for this service, but it’s a modest one, and your initial fee pays for 10 dossiers to be sent out.  You should have at least three letters in your file, and you may have more, say, four or five; with more than that you run the threat of having the most important letter(s) lost in the shuffle.  Your dissertation director will write one of these, of course, and the others will likely be from your readers, whom you will also probably have studied with.  Make certain to have at least one, and probably, two letter(s) from faculty in the specific discipline that you will be applying to, from English professors for jobs in that field, historians for jobs in history, and so on.  It is a good idea to have a letter from someone who has observed your teaching as well.  It makes sense to ask a teaching referee to observe your class a month or two before you’re going to need the letter; give him or her a choice of dates to choose among.

Obviously you should ask people to write in your behalf who know your work well.  Ask them well in advance of when you will need the letters—if updates are needed, these can be done when they are appropriate.  Provide your referees with a copy of your application letter and CV and abstract, if you’re using the last.  With people whom you’ve not worked with for a while it’s a good idea to provide a copy of a paper you’ve written for him or her.  Don’t be embarrassed at asking a professor to write a letter—doing this is part of their job.  On the other hand, you can ask if the potential referee feels that he or she can write a strong letter for you, and if he or she temporizes (perhaps on the basis of having had little contact with you, or because your work for this professor was not particularly strong), then find someone else.

You will be asked by the Placement Office if you wish to sign a waiver to see the letters.  My own moral position is that you should not waive this right, but others feel that the letters have a more positive effect on a search committee if it knows they are confidential.  I’ve never paid any attention to this when I’ve been on a search committee, but possibly others do.

The Writing Sample

You should have ready to go a writing sample if it is requested—usually a chapter from your dissertation, or if chapters are long a piece of one (20-25 pages is ideal, and it shouldn’t be too much longer because search committees have a lot of reading to do and you don’t want to irritate its members).  (Some institutions ask for this, and the dossier, with the initial application, but more commonly if they are requested it means your application has survived the first round of vetting.)   A chapter that foregrounds the scope of your project and its methodological assumptions is better than one that is mostly exegesis or narrative, but most important you should choose the section that you believe is your strongest, most engaging, and most polished.  Add a headnote that contextualizes the piece you’re sending, how it relates to the dissertation as a whole, and also write a brief letter thanking the committee for its interest and indicating why you’ve chosen this piece, which might include its representativeness of the dissertation as a whole, its relevance to subsequent research and writing you plan to do, or the fact that it’s been accepted for publication or for presentation at a conference.

Teaching Packet

Offer to send such a packet in your initial application, but don’t send it then—or later, unless it’s requested.  It should include a couple of syllabi and perhaps other handouts you’ve given to a class, a couple of exams, and copies of student evaluations of your teaching.  If you’re sending several sets of evaluations do your own summary of these, with apposite quotations from them.  You should have this ready to go just after you’ve sent your application letters; don’t wait until it’s requested to put it together.

The Interview

If you’ve passed the first cut, then gotten through the semi-finals, you will likely be asked to interview with representative(s) of the institution to which you’ve applied.  The group of finalists may be as small as two or three and may be as large as 15 or so.  If the interview is at a scholarly meeting, the larger number is more likely, while if you’re asked to a campus the smaller one is probable.  These interviewing venues are so different that I’ll take them up seriatim, although in fact a successful convention interview is almost always followed by a campus one.

You should remember that in applying for a job and permitting an interview you are as much doing the favor to the advertising institution as the other way around.  In other words, the institution is in need of a capable woman or man to fill a need and you have undertaken a good deal of labor and inconvenience to let it know of your availability and appropriateness.  The institution to be sure has something you want—a job—but you also have something it needs, and by asking you to interview it has signified that it believes you have something valuable to offer.  If you keep this in mind then you will meet interviewers in a more appropriate psychological frame of mind, as an equal who has come together with them to discover if their institution’s needs and yours match.

The Convention Interview

If you’re applying in the hope of a convention interview around the holidays, it’s a good idea to put in your application letter the phone number you may be reached at if you plan to be away from Iowa City, and/or to indicate that you will be in constant e-mail touch with your server.  Interviews are often scheduled fairly close to the meeting, and you don’t want to miss one because you can’t be contacted.

These convention interviews vary enormously.  Some will be by a single person (often the department chair), usually there are 2 or 3 or 4 faculty members interviewing, and sometimes there can be as many as 10 or so.  Lengths vary, too.  Some will be 15 or 20 minutes, some as long as 45 or 50 minutes.  When you are invited you should ask how long it will be—if only to imply that you’re so booked that you need to schedule carefully, and how many interviewers you can expect to meet.  Some interviewers are genial and warm; others are abrasive and combative (these are rare, but not unknown).  You should be unfailing polite and try not to allow yourself to be ruffled. 

Men should wear a jacket and necktie (Rich would no doubt not give this advice) and not white socks and sneakers.  Women should wear something tailored, with sensible shoes.  Be prompt—check out beforehand where the interview will be held (usually in a hotel room or suite), so that you’re not wandering around when you’re expected to be holding forth. 

Prepare a brief ( two or three minute, tops) précis of your dissertation, explaining what you’re working on, how you’re going about it, and why it’s significant.  Try it out on friends.  Get it so that you can present it confidently and without lots of hemming and hawing.  Make it interesting.  It’s likely the interviewers will have read the materials you’ve already sent, but they’re usually seeing a number of interviewees and this is a way to prompt them and reinvigorate their interest in you and your work.

Prepare an account of your plans for future research.  Interviewers will often ask what you plan to accomplish in the next five years.  Don’t say just to revise your dissertation, although surely that will be in your plans; indicate just what you plan to do to revise (additional research, a “broadening” chapter, further work on a patch that’s vexed you and you’ve not entirely fixed, whatever).  Then think about how you are planning to build a scholarly career, of which your dissertation is the first step; what avenues has it opened, what prospects might it lead to.  Have some specific projects in mind that you hope to undertake, perhaps a couple of articles you’d like to get at and a book you’d like to begin.

Do some research in the department you’re hoping to join.  (The web is a marvelous resource for this, but also university catalogues.)  What courses on its books might you be expected to, and/or want to, teach?  Draft course descriptions for 3 or 4 or 5 of these, and think of some texts that you’d like to include, or other materials/approaches that you’d like students to engage with.  Each description should be no more than three or four sentences, and ought to include specific texts or projects.  Be as crisp in bringing these forward as you can be, and as organized.  Bear in mind, if you’re interviewing with a “traditional” department that you should honor its disciplinary orientation, but your American studies background ought to suggest to you some novel ways of approaching the subject as well, and you shouldn’t be timid in braiding these with more traditional approaches.  In fact, you want modestly to foreground your interdisciplinary training and the richness this can bring to intellectual work.

Check out what members of the department have written, and read in some of it by those closest to your own field.  This may not come up at the interview—and again you shouldn’t fawn—but if you can unostentatiously slip in your knowledge of Professor X’s work he or she won’t be offended.

You may be asked about a course—or something else—you’ve not anticipated.  Don’t be afraid of silence, of collecting your thoughts before you speak; thoughtfulness is more prized than glibness.  But also listen carefully, too, so that you are certain of the question being asked.  Make eye-contact, repeat your understanding of questions you’re uncertain of, allow interviewers to finish speaking before you begin, signal your understanding of a point with affirmative nods and umms.  Be enthusiastic but avoid seeming hyper.  Address people by their title, not their first name, unless you’re invited to “tous-tous” them. 

Come up with some questions to ask interviewers about their institution and its locale.  You’ll inevitably be asked if you have any, and if you do you'll be ahead of most interviewees.  What are Siwash State’s students like?  How many majors do you have?  What’s it like to live in Siwash?  What are the public schools like?  Does the department sponsor colloquia by faculty members, or are there reading groups among faculty?  Does Siwash have a center for teaching?  If so, what’s it do?  How does the department see itself (a service department, a teaching department, a research department)?  You can’t cover all of these, of course, but you should ask those questions that you are most genuinely interested in.  Don’t ask at this occasion about the tenure process, or salary, or moving expenses, or any of this sort of specific question about the job.  Those can come at the campus interview.  Do ask about the schedule for the rest of the process and when you might expect to hear from them.

You should not be asked questions about your personal life—such as whether you are single or married or have children or plan to.  If you are, though, you have the right to say you don’t believe this is an appropriate question, although doing so is obviously going to be uncomfortable.  Or you can be flip, responding with something like, “Could I write a dissertation if I were (single, married, have children, want to have children)” and let the interviewer puzzle out what this might mean.  You might also decide that you don’t want to join a group that permits such questions that have nothing to do with your professional qualifications.  Sometimes these questions will come up obliquely and more-or-less innocently, as, for example, if you’re asked if you feel you could adjust satisfactorily to the small town in deepest upstate New York or to New York City, for that matter, where the college is located.  In such a case there’s nothing wrong with your saying, for example, that this location sounds like a fine place for a family or that it suits your spouse’s ambitions, but of course you don’t need to say anything more than, yes, I feel confident I could.  In other words, you may allude to your personal situation, if you wish to and the context of a question permits it, but interviewers should not ask you about it.

The Campus Interview

All of the same principles outlined above are relevant to the campus interview, too, except there is more opportunity for you to display your attainments and your bearing, and of course for the hosts to get to know you more intimately.  The schedule for a campus interview will vary from place to place.  On some visits you will spend time with each member of the faculty; in others you will meet primarily with the search committee members and the chair.  Sometimes you will visit with administrators (deans or sub-deans, in very small places the president), in other places you will not.  Sometimes students will have a session with you, other places not.

You will likely be asked to make a scholarly presentation or to teach a class, or sometimes both.  Be sure, when the invitation comes, to be very clear about what the expectations are for your visit.  If a presentation is what is wanted, should it be a formal paper, or an informal talk on your work, or something else?  How much time will you have to present (usually around 30-40 minutes)?  Ordinarily this will be material from your dissertation, but don’t present the same material that you sent as a writing sample.  Even if the hosts say the presentation will be an informal occasion, have something fairly finished worked up—don’t try to wing it.  The question-and-answer period following the talk is as important as the talk itself, because here’s where department members will be making an assessment of your teaching ability and your purchase on your field.  Don’t be afraid to ask a questioner to restate a question you don’t quite grasp, and then to restate it yourself; likewise, don’t be afraid to say that a question has raised an interesting point that may help you to rethink an idea or be the inspiration for further work. 

If you’re asked to teach a class, be sure to be clear about the level of students you will be addressing, whether you will be expected to lecture or lead a discussion, and how many students there will be.  Will they be mostly majors or not?  If you’re asked to name the text for the class (probably not likely), then feel free to say you’d like to think about it overnight and will get back with a choice.  If the text or subject is defined for you, ask about other things the students have already read and talked out—and about those that will follow your leadership of the class, so that you can integrate your performance with its other features.

You can expect to have your travel and housing expenses paid for by the host institution.  If you’re uncertain whether that’s on offer, be sure to ask.  Academics generally have a difficult time talking about money (except to their administrators about their own salaries!), and it may be nothing more than this timidity that makes whoever is inviting you not raise the question.  It’s not unknown, though, for an institution to ask an interviewee to pay some or all of his or her expenses.  This is cheesy and puts you in a difficult position, and you ought to ask how many other candidates there are before you decide whether or not you wish to accept the interview.

During the campus visit do ask questions about salary, benefits, course loads, computers, released time for research; usually these questions are addressed to the department chair, with whom you will likely have an in-camera interview.  But you can certainly ask other faculty members too—sometimes this can provide a reality check; ditto with tenure matters.  Ask about tenure procedures and how the department supports its junior faculty in this process.  How in the recent past have junior faculty members from the department fared in this respect?   And do ask about the community—you’ll want to know, since you may be living in it, and people usually enjoy talking about it.  If you’re concerned about work for your companion/spouse, it’s probably better to leave raising this until you receive an offer.

You should ask, too, about the schedule for completion of the search process.  When is a decision likely to be made and when might you expect to hear of the result?  Take whatever you’re told with a grain of salt—these matters often take longer than anyone anticipates, and so if the appointed day comes and passes without word it doesn’t necessarily mean the job is being offered to someone else (although it may mean that, of course).  You can certainly ask the chair if after the date he or she says you haven’t heard  you might call or e-mail for a clarification.