The comedy of errors

Inside Higher Ed linked to my post about making mistakes in a job search, but the link might have been a little misleading to the academic types who I assume read IHE because the job that was/is being searched for by a lot of mistake-makers is the one of program assistant in our department at NLNRU. I made reference to my own mistakes in job searches, but I didn’t really say what any of them were. So, since clearly inquiring minds want to know (inquiring, powerful, sleek academic minds), I would like to share with you my top three mistakes in academic job hunting, as illuminated by the administrative search we are doing now:

1. Centering the cover letter on myself and my qualifications, rather than on the needs of the job.  This is a tricky one, because of course you have to toot your own horn, highlight your own accomplishments, etc., when you apply for a job.  But there’s a significant, if subtle, difference between a) a letter that is centered on the major attributes of the applicant, and how her qualifications meet the needs of a job, and b) a letter that is centered on the challenges of the job, and how the training, skills, and experience of the applicant are just the right ones for meeting these challenges.  I had the opportunity to notice this recently when I vetted a former student’s cover letter for a cc job and had him tone down the “I earned a shiny new degree and completed a shiny new manuscript” that he had been leading with and spend more of his first paragraph signaling that he understands what it is to teach a 4/4 load of developmental English and comp. 

Of course, it’s hard to convey your understanding of the needs of the job when you haven’t yet done the job, or a job like it.  That’s why the first job is the hardest one to get.  Still, you can have someone who has done the job read your letter and tell you whether you sound like Dorothy–whoa, where am I, and who are all these little people? –or like the Mayor of Munchkinland, or at least a member of the Lollipop Guild.

2.  Not accurately understanding what the job involves.  And now it gets more unfair.  We all know that the job posting doesn’t always (maybe not even usually) reflect the job correctly.  Yes, we advertised for an early Americanist, but what we really want is someone who can teach all literature before 1800.  Or yes, we said we wanted someone who is a comp/rhet specialist who can rebuild our freshman writing course, except that nobody really wants that to happen. 

In the case of our administrative position, let’s say we advertised for someone with graphic design experience, because when we wrote the position description, we thought it would be great to be able to do that stuff in-house.  So it got listed as “Program Assistant/Graphic Designer,” and of course we got a skajillion resumes from out-of-work graphic designers with some administrative experience, but it turns out that there are about six completely nonnegotiable skills that we want more than we want graphic design.  You might even have some of these, but you didn’t know to highlight them in your cover letter and resume, because you couldn’t read our minds.  You went on and on about something that we were already coming to feel was incidental to the job, and you showed us that you didn’t really get what the job was about.  Even though you had no way of knowing what we thought was crucial and what wasn’t.

But wait for #3, because it gets even more unfair:

3. Not knowing anyone who already worked in the organization.  I’ve said it before, and so have other people, but a personal contact of some kind, even a fairly distant one, will get you a look.  Two-thirds of our interviewees for this modest program assistant position have come to our attention through the efforts of colleagues at NLNRU.  A couple of them have jobs that are ending (an expiring grant, an office that’s being absorbed into another program) and their supervisors are trying to help them find another job; one of them (the one I think we would really like to hire, pending checking references and whatnot) is a former student, at another institution, of one of our faculty.  To have a colleague call or email you and say “Have a look at X, s/he is terrific” is so wonderful, especially after ploughing through a dozen cover letters that sound as though they were written by robots.  The skill set isn’t always a fit, but you give that person’s materials a very close look.

And you know, a lot of people can do a job like this.  Not just a job like this–it goes for teaching too.  A lot of people can basically handle a lot of jobs.  But not everyone is someone you want to see every day in the office.  Not everyone is someone you can tell the truth to, have a laugh with, take turns covering one another’s rears.  You don’t have to hire your new best friend, but it helps when someone you know to be reasonable tells you that this person is reasonable too; then you meet and you hope to feel that this person is someone you can work with. 

So I guess there’s a #4: Be the right person.  And a lot of the time you just aren’t.  I’ve applied for jobs for which I was overqualified and jobs for which I was underqualified.  I talked too much in interviews and I talked too little.  I left interviews I thought had gone brilliantly and interviews I thought were a disaster.  A lot of the time I was the wrong person, or the job was the wrong job.  Until I, or it, wasn’t.

If you’re reading this, and you’re hoping to be the right person for the right job, all I can say is that you may have to kiss a lot of frogs, but I hope you find your prince of a job soon.


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