In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, Thomas Wright offers some job-search advice based on some of the mistakes he made when applying for a teaching position. Let me summarize his main points and offer some of my own thoughts.
- Get to know the school. This just makes good sense. You can’t even put together a compelling application without getting to know the school, and you’ll look like an idiot in your interview if you don’t have some sense of its mission, purpose, history, student body, denominational ties, etc. You don’t have to spend months on this, but at least familiarize yourself with what’s on their website and in the school’s catalog.
- Don’t be afraid to apply for a position. I’ve made this mistake. You see the description of the position and you don’t think you really have a chance. Now, sometimes you’re right. If the description calls for 10 years of higher ed experience and you’re just getting started, don’t bother. But, sometimes you’re fully qualified for the position, but for some reason you don’t think you’ve got a shot (e.g., the school is too “prestigious.” Don’t sell yourself short. If you’re qualified for the position and you think you’d like to teach there, go for it. The worst that can happen is that you’ll contribute to the growing deforestation problem and global warming.
- Don’t be too humble. I hate this one, but it’s true. When you’re applying and interviewing for a job, this is not the time to reveal your tendency to turn everything in late, mock student questions, or dress as Little Miss Muffet every Halloween. It is the time to highlight everything that you do well. You’ll have to come up with at least a couple of “weaknesses” so you don’t sound too arrogant (e.g., I work too hard, I care about my students too much, etc.), but your main focus is to sell yourself. Usually, no one is going to do it for you.
- Proofread everything. Seriously, if you send in a CV or application with typos, you deserve not to get the job.
- Personalize your letters. This goes along with the first point. Take the time to find out who will be receiving your application and address your cover letter to them. It shows that you’ve done your homework and you’re not just blanketing the academic world with random applications.
There are a couple of things that I would add to this list if you’re applying for a position at an evangelical college/seminary in America, since that’s the context I know best.
- Read the doctrinal statement carefully. This one is probably the most obvious; but it’s important. And, beyond making sure that you could actually sign the doctrinal statement, I would pay particular attention to how the statement is constructed. Are there things in the statement that you don’t think should be there? If so, does that suggest an approach to things that will be narrower and more restrictive than you would prefer? Or, have they excluded things that you think are very important? If so, does that suggest anything about the direction of the school (current or eventual)?
- Find out about theological hotspots early. This can be difficult if they don’t make it explicit in their doctrinal statements (and they often won’t), but the best way is usually just to ask around. If a school has really staked out some territory on a theological issue, people usually know about it. You should also check out the list of faculty and do some internet searches to see if any particular issues pop up. And, don’t just do this in your area. Even if you’re a NT specialist, if there’s a hot-button issue among the faculty, they’ll expect you to know about it and have something intelligent to say.
- Check out the academic/ministry balance. Every evangelical school worth its salt has to deal with the balance it wants to strike between academics and ministry. Some will lean more toward one or the other, but most try to develop what they think is the best synthesis of the two. You want to identify that mix for two reasons. First, you’ll want to know if you resonate with that approach and will be a good fit for the school. Second, you’ll want to make that the way you present yourself is consistent with that perspective. Again, the best way to do this is to ask around. But, you can also get some good hints by reading between the lines on their website and in the catalog. Pay particular attention to what they’re not saying.
And, of course, the single best way to apply for a teaching position is to have the inside track from the very beginning. Name recognition works in academics every bit as well as it does in politics. The more people you know, the better positioned you’ll be when the time comes. Take advantage of every opportunity to meet people and get your name out there.