For anyone applying for an academic job, a major challenge is how to differentiate your application and qualifications from those of the scores, perhaps hundreds, of other qualified people applying for the same position. The best way to increase your chances is zealous research about the department you’re applying to, suggests an essay at by William Helmreich at City College of the City University of New York, who is a veteran member of many hiring committees. “You can never know what little detail or nuance will give you the edge over other applicants,” he writes.
The most powerful recommendations, for example, come from “those whom people on the committee know personally and respect,” Helmreich states. It therefore pays to find out whether any of the faculty members who could recommend you happen to have close ties with a member of your target department.
You also should pay very close attention to the areas of interest advertised by the department and how well you can make your own expertise fit into them. “Departments often look to fill niches, subjects that must be taught. If we feel you can’t teach them, you won’t even be considered, so be careful what you say. Don’t lie, but if you can plausibly stretch the truth, do so,” Helmreich recommends. Do any stretching, however, with great care. Your “explanation [of how your expertise fits into the department’s stated needs] must make sense and be very clear. If you are seen as having ‘invented’ a connection, you will seriously annoy the committee for having wasted its time and money.” Also, make sure to list the requested areas first even if it means leaving your own favorites last, he advises.
Another essential is to make sure you are familiar with the work that the members of your target department are doing. That’s because you should “be careful not to articulate an intellectual position that directly opposes what they strongly believe,” Helmreich warns. (Of course, if you do find that you hold an intellectual position totally contrary to the beliefs of department members, maybe you ought to reconsider whether to apply in the first place.)
But for those departments you’re sure you want to apply to, Helmreich offers these and other clear-eyed suggestions about which parts of your application are important and which aren’t. Oh, and take time to check out the comments section that follows his piece, where several faculty members from other institutions offer advice of their own, some of which varies considerably from Helmreich’s advice.
But they all agree on one thing: The more you know about the institution you’re applying to, the better an application you can submit. You can find Helmreich’s essay here.