How to Get a(n academic) Job: Applications

This is a post for graduate students and early career academics in the process of applying for jobs. What I want to do here is pass on useful things people have told me along the way, focussing particularly on areas of potential cultural misunderstanding when making early career applications to unfamiliar institutions or countries, and link to some good recent advice I’ve seen elsewhere. 

I’m writing in the first instance for my own students and friends, for the most part people with or close to doctorates in classics and/or archaeology, but much of what follows is fairly generic with regard to jobs in the humanities in Anglophone countries. These suggestions are of course my own very personal opinions, and I welcome comments, additions, amendments, and especially more links, in the comments here or on twitter: I’ll try to incorporate as many of them as possible in an updated version.

Cover Letter

Whether or not the application instructions mention this – and for reasons that have always been beyond me they often don’t – you should always include a cover letter. For many search committee members, this will be the most important part of your application, the thing they read first and most seriously. It should also be the least generic part of the application: this is your main chance to convince those committee members that you are the right person for this job. And it must be concise: 2 pages is normal in my experience, unless you have been asked to provide separate statements about teaching and/or research, in which case it can be considerably shorter. There’s excellent general advice on writing cover letters at all career stages from the Guardian here; what I’ve got to offer here is one possible strategy for early career academics.

1. After an appropriate salutation (e.g. ‘Dear Committee Members’ if you haven’t got more specific information), your introductory paragraph should briefly summarise who you are and why your abilities and experience match the job description. Be confident about this rather than arrogant. By all means discuss here or elsewhere why you would like the job – enthusiasm is attractive – but remember that your readers’ principal task is to decide whether they would like you for it.

2. Write two or three paragraphs each on your teaching and research – much less, of course, if you have been asked to provide separate statements.

For teaching you’ll want to tell the committee what subjects you’ve taught and in what format(s); what you’d like to teach at their institution (including a couple of examples of specific courses they offer that you’d like to teach and – if postholders are expected to design their own courses – a couple of examples of new topics you’d propose); and something about the way you personally approach teaching: what pedagogical training have you had? how much of it did you volunteer for and why? how will your teaching style and experience suit this job and their institution? Demonstrate that you have researched their syllabus and teaching system.

For research, talk about what you’ve done, what you are going to do next, and, crucially, why it is all both interesting and important. Keep the ‘so what?’ question absolutely central: why does your research matter? How is it going to change the way that other people think about, research and teach Italian agriculture? the Roman economy? the ancient world? Don’t focus solely on your doctorate if you have (almost) finished it: that was your last project, what’s next? On the other hand, don’t risk looking like a dilettante: there should be some visible coherence between your various projects past and present, whether of topic, period, discipline or approach. Ask yourself ‘what do I do?’ and then tell them. And have you applied for or been given any research grants? Which ones might you apply for? What opportunities do you see for collaborative work both within and beyond their institution? If you are applying for tenure-track jobs in the US or elsewhere, what are you planning to publish in order to get tenure? A monograph of your dissertation, usually, but will that be enough at this institution? If you don’t know, find out. And if you are applying for jobs in the UK involving research where you would in theory still be in post in 2020 it’s not too early to think about the next REF (Research Excellent Framework) cycle: were you entered in REF 2014? What do you think your REF 2020 submission might look like? (Not an easy thing to discuss, given that no one will know the REF 2020 rules for several years, but worth a try!)

Arrange these sections in an order and ratio that fits the job specs: if it is primarily a teaching position or at an institution with a strong undergraduate teaching focus such as a US liberal arts college you’ll probably want to put the teaching section first, and make it the more substantial; if it is a post-doctoral research position or at a research-focussed institution, then lead off with a longer discussion of your own work. But most research positions at least allow you to teach, and most ‘career development’ teaching positions at least in theory carry an expectation that the postholder will develop their research while in post, so it’s almost always a good idea to present yourself as someone enthusiastic about and accomplished in both areas.

3. For many jobs it is also worth mentioning your relevant ‘administrative’ experience (including outreach activities), even if it hasn’t been extensive, and what you’d particularly like to contribute in this area: the point here is to show that you are aware that this will be a part, perhaps even a major part, of the job, and that you will approach it cheerfully and professionally. Don’t go overboard on this kind of thing: I don’t need to know what kinds of recycling you organised in your minor student union post. If there are discipline-specific expectations, make sure you tackle them too: in an application for an archaeology post I’d expect to hear about the excavation or survey project that the candidate would bring to the department. If there are multiple institutions involved (a museum and a university, a university and a college), discuss the separate contributions you could make to each. But unless you know the institution and department very well, don’t at this stage make specific suggestions for wide-ranging change (“I would instigate an overhaul of the entire syllabus…”).

Three additional points to bear in mind.

Firstly, while I’ve emphasised the importance of addressing the job description in each case, what if you don’t really fit it? Some of the job specs may be flexible, and you might be able to get some direct or indirect intelligence on that, but the crucial thing is not to present yourself as someone you are not. Not only will it be obvious to the committee members, but it could do you real damage when they later find themselves on a committee for a job that really does suit your research field or teaching experience or career stage. If you aren’t perfect for the job advertised, demonstrate that you could do it competently while benefitting the institution in other ways as well. If you can’t easily do that, you probably shouldn’t be applying for this one.

Secondly, think about possible weaknesses in your application and address them. I always point out to my graduate students at Oxford, for instance, that our famous ‘tutorial system’ can actually put them at a disadvantage when applying for jobs elsewhere: reasonably enough, other institutions are more interested in experience of the kind of teaching that they do than the kind that we do. Rather than brushing the issue under the carpet, I advise them to demonstrate that they appreciate and have thought about it: even an applicant whose sole teaching experience is of very small tutorial groups can point to the ‘transferable skills’ involved in tutorial teaching (from syllabus design to discussion leading to ‘formative’ grading), as well as to the new skills that they know they would have to learn – indeed, would enjoy investigating and practising. Search committees don’t expect candidates at this stage to be fully formed and seasoned faculty members, but you do need to reassure them that you know how to get there.

Thirdly, be aware that search committees in UK institutions usually depend heavily on the job criteria specified in the further particulars, especially at the shortlisting stage: indeed, shortlisting forms often simply list the criteria against candidate names in a tickbox format. Make it easy for people to tick those boxes in your case as they read through your letter; don’t make them hunt around in your CV to find out whether you do in fact have MySQL experience if that’s been specifically listed as ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’.


More great advice from the Guardian; I’ll only add that it isn’t usually a good idea to go over 4 pages at most at this career stage, to include details of non-academic jobs or hobbies, or to supply a photograph.


You may also be asked to supply separate statements about your research and/or teaching; think about how to split these topics between the cover letter and the statement. For instance, you could talk (briefly) in your cover letter about how your research relates to this particular job, leaving your research statement more generic. Unless otherwise specified, aim for a 2 page research statement and assume a non-specialist audience. (And possibly even a sceptical one: note for instance that Classics committees for jobs in literature will often contain a historian or archaeologist who may not be as convinced of the value of narratological analysis of minor Hellenistic poetry as yourself – and vice versa with regard to your osteobotanical survey of the medium-sized farmsteads of North Western Boeotia.)

US jobs in particular may ask for a ‘teaching portfolio’ and/or ‘statement of teaching philosophy’. Don’t be scared: here’s some sensible advice from my own alma mater. You may be asked for a sample of your teaching evaluations, standard academic currency in the US, but less common elsewhere: if you need to produce some of these and your own institution doesn’t compile them or won’t supply them, you could generate your own for your students to fill in via (e.g.) Survey Monkey. (Other ideas for how to handle this one are particularly welcome.)

Writing Sample

Published articles are good, submitted articles are good (you might even get some useful feedback), polished dissertation extracts are okay. Avoid sending work on especially theoretical approaches or potentially controversial topics unless it represents your central research focus: you don’t know who will be reading it, and with what unreasonable prejudices. Make certain that it’s accurate, including all translations from ancient and modern languages, even if it’s already been through peer review. The writing should be in the language you’d be expected to work and teach in, and most importantly, don’t be tempted to send too much.


Easy enough for those with dissertation committees to get to the magic number (usually 3); trickier for students who have only ever interacted with one eccentric supervisor. You should however always include your supervisor among your referees, unless you have good reason to believe they are writing unsupportive letters. Other obvious bets are your internal and external examiners, and faculty members who have taught you or you have taught for. If you can get at least one letter from someone at another institution who really knows (and likes) your current work, great. If there is any teaching involved in the job, make sure at least one of your referees will talk about your teaching at length. If it is primarily a research post, make sure that your referees are specialists in your research area, at least broadly speaking. Bear in mind that it is much easier to revise reference letters than it is to write them from scratch, so all else being equal ask people who have written for you before before asking people to write for the first time.

One issue for US (or similar) candidates for UK (or similar) jobs to bear in mind: British search committees expect at least superficially individualised reference letters. And if they don’t happen to be aware that US practice is to write a generic one for each student for all possible jobs they may well see such letters as evidence that the referee doesn’t rate the candidate – or the job. The online application systems for most academic jobs now send referees an individual letter asking them to upload a reference; if you can persuade your referees to spend another couple of minutes relating that reference to this job, or at least this institution, it will enormously increase their letter’s impact.

Finally, ask for feedback on your applications, from friends, colleagues, friendly faculty members and of course from search committees who don’t give you jobs. Not just “for feedback”, which invites rather generic and conservative responses, but try a couple of specific questions along the lines of “Was there anything that particularly stood out in my cover letter, for good or bad?”; “Was my CV pretty typical for this stage, or were there things you were surprised not to see?”; “Were you convinced by my research statement?”; and, if you know your interlocutor well, and they’ve seen your letters, “If I had to change one referee, which one should it be?”

6 Replies to “How to Get a(n academic) Job: Applications”

  1. This should prove very useful! Your suggestion of posing specific questions for feedback is worth Its weight in gold – evidence that the candidate is genuinely committed to raising his/her game, and has thought carefully about where she/he could improve, could easily make the difference that spurs a time-pressed senior colleague to take the time to give substantial feedback, instead of a well-intentioned but superficial reaction. In my experience, a well-managed rejection can be the beginning of a productive relationship.

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