global politics, relationally

The Job Search Letter: An Administrator’s View

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My colleague Brandon Valeriano wrote an excellent post yesterday responding to a much-circulated blog at the University of Washington purporting to give grad students advice on the “dozen sentences” needed in their job search cover letters. There is much to criticize in that original post, and Brandon has done a very good job. Let me add a few points, both from my own career and from my position as an academic administrator.

Let me first underscore a point Brandon made: “not every school is looking for the best researcher”. I have taught in my career at a wide range of schools, from small private liberal arts colleges to large flagship state universities with a number of stops in between. I have been involved in searches (on both sides of the desk) at nearly every one of those institutions. Rare indeed is the institution that is looking, first and foremost, for the best researcher. This might be 20% of the job market, but that’s probably an exaggeration.

This is one of the greatest disservices we do for our graduate students. We steep them in a culture, both in our PhD training programs and at professional conferences, which teaches them to value the symbols and trappings of the research hierarchy above all else. Which journals you publish in, how many pubs you have, and how prestigious your degree (and your hiring institution) are – all these are the metrics by which we teach our students to judge themselves and each other. Years ago somebody published – only half tongue-in-cheek – a set of rules of “Rotisserie Political Science” in PS: Political Science and Politics. Because really, we do reduce each other to a few numbers.

But outside a few select R1 institutions, this is not how the world works. In a great many jobs, even in departments that do care about research productivity (and many do not) the number one characteristics chairs are looking for are fit and teaching ability. If you’re a bad fit, you can poison the whole place and waste years of productivity. And if you can’t teach worth a darn, you will turn away majors – the metric by which most departments are judged. Research in much of academia is a desirable bonus, sort of like a hot tub or a three car garage – nice to have, but that’s not the driving reason why you buy a house.

This gets to a broader point that I came to realize when I moved into administration. The things that political scientists most care about amongst themselves – the ranking of journals, the hierarchy of jobs, the Guild-like status symbols that provide so much fodder on poliscirumors – mostly don’t matter to anybody else.

The results of our research can be made to matter – if we communicate them to the public at large and explain why it’s important. But there isn’t a lot of built-in prestige to what we do. We live in the era of STEM. Most of the educated public knows that if a chemist or biologist publishes something in Nature, that’s probably worth paying attention to – especially if the conclusions seem to have some impact on our lives. But APSR? The most common response, even among the educated elite of any given community, is “never heard of it”.

The Salaita case reminds us that administrators beyond the department are often involved in hiring decisions. When you go for an interview you will meet with a Dean, and possibly with colleagues within the same college but from other departments (History, Sociology, Economics, even English or Music or Biology). If you want a successful career, you need to learn how to talk to and work with these people. And in the case of the administrators, you need to convince them that you have something to contribute to the institution – not just to your CV and your next professional conference.

This goes beyond the cover letter, since most administrators won’t read your letter (although some will!) But it does get to the larger point about how you present yourself in the job search process. You’re not just auditioning at the APSA. You’re looking to join a university made up of disparate faculty and administrators from a wide range of fields. Yes, most will want you to be productive. But if all you do is sit in your office and write books, most of the time you’re just not that valuable. Political science research, to put it bluntly, doesn’t pay the bills. If you want to get hired, both you and your letter need to move beyond the confines of the discipline and how spiffy your dissertation is. Make yourself useful and people will want to hire you – and that, after all, is the whole point of the exercise.