Preparing Your Application

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Your first introduction to a prospective employer will be your letter of application; the second is the curriculum vitae (CV).  First impressions are important, so take the time to polish the impression you’ll offer in the letter and CV.

First lesson about the job search: not all jobs are the same; not all departments are alike.  You’ll want different versions of your application letter for different positions and institutions; and you’ll want to make additional slight adjustments to suit the letter to the particular details of the job you’re applying for.  Generally, Duke Literature graduates will have two basic application letters for literature-oriented positions: one for research institutions and one for liberal arts institutions.

The key difference in these letters typically concerns the order of information, with dissertation coming first for research institutions and teaching being foregrounded for those specializing in the liberal arts experience.  

Many students will also have a third letter geared toward interdisciplinary positions, whether in identity studies (Latino Studies, Women’s Studies, African American Studies, American Studies, etc), film and media programs, or other humanities hybrids (such as science and literature or even Interdisciplinary Studies at those institutions that have such a configuration). 

As you begin drafting your letter, establish different prototypes along these lines, with clear rhetorical investments in the kind of position and institution.  Doing so will make the actual work of sending out your materials in the fall much easier.  But before you drop anything in the mail, make sure you read the job announcements carefully, surf the web to find out information about departments that interest you, and consciously consider how your letter might speak directly to the advertised position.  Choose the proper prototype and adjust your letter to reflect your knowledge of the position advertised, the departmental context, and the kind of institution.  You don’t want to misaddress the recipient, misname the school, or mistake the position you’re applying for. That’s a quick route to the thanks-but-no-thanks pile. 

As you begin to draft your letter, consider the practical and rhetorical situations the search committees at these institutions face: they will be reading (ever more quickly as the process goes on) hundreds of application letters. They will be seeking to reduce those many to a manageable few: something like two dozen dossier requests each. And they’ll be further winnowing that number for interviews and campus visits.

Two principles will operate to help them shrink the pool of applicants. First, they will exclude anything which seems unconventional or bizarre (and that’s why you shouldn’t be clever or cute) and, second, they will include anything that is attractively distinctive, potentially helpful—as long as it poses no obvious liability. The successful letter of application will differentiate you from the pack, but not in such a way as to make you seem risky or a bad fit. This is not easy to accomplish—but the closer you can come to it, the better your chances are for moving to the next level of their search.

Keep the letter clean: brief, direct, to the point. One and a half to two pages is the typical length. Never go over two pages. That’s a signal that you are overwinded and self-impressed.  Remember: whatever else your good virtues and professional promise, they are looking for literature teachers, so be sure your grammar and mechanics are flawless. And don’t simply trust computer spell-checkers: review the text carefully yourself—and have someone else do it. 

However good your CV, your letter is the first really personal opportunity you have to make a strong and distinctive impression, so your style here is vital. This is where you can step out from the mountain of applications.  But resist the inclination to be clever and "creative," the abiding vice of the humanist!  Instead, rely on conveying your interest in the job, your excitement about your dissertation (and future professional labors), and the clearness of your writing—not necessarily in that order. And do all this without beginning every sentence with “I” or depending on concessive constructions (“while... although….”).  State your case without apology, self-deprecation, pleading, or begging. Or inflation. You want to project personal confidence and professional competence.

Your opening paragraph should declare your status at Duke, both in regard to your progress toward your degree and your current teaching situation, if you have one. If you aren’t teaching, don’t raise the subject here.

Having expressed your interest in this particular job by being sensitive to the particulars, use the rest of the letter to let them know why they should be interested in you. At the application stage of the process, this primarily means your dissertation and your teaching experience, so be as clear and direct as you can on these subjects. 

You should explain your dissertation—its point, methodology, distinctiveness—without going on at length. You may want to append a separate abstract, but in the body of your letter, your dissertation’s value (to you and to the world) should be succinctly stated. One paragraph will handle it—the material covered, the approach, the rationale. Does it relate easily to other work you have done? Exactly how much have you in fact finished? If you are quite far along (or finished), you should mention publication plans (a book; separate articles) and any definite future work arising from what you have already completed. If you have work already published or accepted for publication, say so concisely: this will also appear on your CV, so avoid lengthy repetition.

Describe your teaching, being specific and highlighting strong points of your training and experience at Duke: the range of courses taught, your independent responsibility in designing courses, your work with different kinds/levels of students. You might even have some good student evaluations to talk about here, but don’t be effusive about them (that’s another besetting sin of the application letter form). 

There are other virtues in your preparation, and other considerations that may make you the right candidate to be looked at more closely and interviewed—and offered the position. Don’t ignore them, but don’t avoid the basics, either. Mention any particularly noteworthy professional activities you’ve been involved in, but since presumably all these will be detailed in your CV, don’t go on at length. Highlight anything that seems particularly relevant to the advertised position; leave the rest to be listed in the CV.

Your vita will be the second thing your prospective colleagues will see. Along with your letter, your CV will be screened by a committee that is intent on reducing the, say, 800 applicants for one position to a more manageable short list for closer inspection. Committee members will try to do this expeditiously and professionally, and that’s why your CV must be concise, precise, and uncluttered, providing essential data about you, your training, and professional activities.

In preparing your materials you should remind yourself that you are doing so no longer as a student, but as member of a profession. In that light, the most important thing is to represent your experience and qualifications as clearly and directly as you can. Give yourself time to review work you have done as it indicates experience (and potential) that may be germane to professional employment. It may be very useful to talk to your dissertation adviser or a member of the placement committee about the kinds of experience you should (or should not) include in the vita.

If you try to imagine the scene into which your letter and CV will appear, you may find it easier to avoid some common mistakes. The members of search committees are generally besieged by other institutional service, under pressure to do everything on time, and trying to balance a (sometimes perverse) combination of competing local needs, budgetary constraints, and professional priorities. Committee members have to make complex decisions quickly, so if they have to spend a lot of time examining your CV to find out who you are, where you were educated, or what you have done, they will weary of you before they find out. For these reasons, it might be best to understand that the CV is nota document that people read; it is more typically scanned, especially during the initial round of review. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of a CV that is concise.

Here are some general guidelines, including particular things to avoid:

  1. Prepare a vita, NOT a résumé. A CV is meant to outline the course ("curriculum") of your life ("vitae"), as it pertains to the position in question. It should therefore follow a chronological order.
  2. Avoid inflated self-characterizations. Leave those to your recommenders. You have every reason to proceed with confidence, but you don’t need to sound like a PR agent for yourself. You have been through a rigorous program at a major academic institution and you ARE competitive for the jobs in this market.
  3. Remember that your vita is first of all a graphic object, and should be aesthetically pleasing as well as balanced on the page. Whether or not the people screening the application continue reading is often strongly influenced by the degree to which they can see relevant information at a glance, and see it without eyestrain or a magnifying glass. Do not hand-type your CV; and do NOT have them typeset in special ways, or use funny fonts and colors.  Use standard fonts and avoid clutter.  Pay particular attention to how you eye moves down the left hand of the page. Typical mistakes in CV presentation is to run every line flush with the left hand margin. This makes it difficult to see distinct entries. Regularizing your formula for indentation is vital. 
  4. Keep the CV concise, but do not leave out experience that is relevant to your qualifications. Professional activities such as participation in colloquia, forums, conferences, workshops (at whatever level, and on whatever scale) are especially important at the start of a professional career, and serve the same function as publications: they indicate that you are professionally active, and are likely to remain so.
  5. Do not specialize yourself out of a job. Very few people end up teaching only (or even mainly) in the field or fields for which they were first hired, or in which they were examined-or even did their dissertation. You may, therefore, want to include areas in which you have taken exams, but there is a risk here of appearing as too much the student, jack of all trades but master of none. You are already, by virtue of your graduate work, a member of the profession. Deal in accomplishments, not in possibilities.

Designing the CV

  1. Divide it into clear and appropriate sections. There isn’t a hard-and-fast formula or a simple standard, either for the headings or their ordering; look at several models and decide what works best for you. However ordered, the sections should include the following:
  2. Your education (college and grad school, but not high school or before).
  3. Dissertation title and director. Some people include a brief paragraph about dissertation; some don’t. This is unnecessary when it is in your letter. Don’t repeat!
  4. Academic awards — if you have enough (3+) to make a list, including college graduation (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), but rarely anything earlier.
  5. Scholarly activities: publications, conference papers, public lectures. You need to make clear what’s written, what’s oral; what’s published or forthcoming, what’s submitted; what’s an essay, what’s a review; what’s of academic significance, and what’s for the general public. (If a manuscript has been submitted, it is better not to indicate where, but simply to flag it as "under review." By the time a search committee inquires, it might be under consideration at a different journal and there’s no reason to expose yourself to a confession about a paper rejection.) Label headings precisely and accurately to indicate what’s in each section. Be as narrow as you can in your headings; for example, use "Publications" and "Presentations" separately if you have enough material to warrant this, otherwise group them together under "Publications and Presentations." Give comprehensive page numbers (in standard MLA format) for any publications, and consider listing the number of pages for each forthcoming or submitted piece.
  6. Under ‘Teaching Experience’ list all the courses you’ve taught (including those before you came to Duke). Some may need to title the section ‘Employment’ or may want to have a separate section for (relevant) non-academic or non-classroom activities. In these cases, you may need to tailor the headings individually. Search committee members will always be curious about how you spent your time when you were not in school.  Although you are under no obligation or pressure to tell them, the fewer "gaps" in your CV the better. Anything that can forestall readers’ questions or reassure them in the face of even unexpressed concerns will probably be helpful. More often than applicants realize, some of the things they’ve done while "on leave" from academic pursuits can be highly attractive and enhance their CV: editorial or managerial experience, working with adolescents or community organizations, instructional activities (e.g., teaching word-processing to business executives), and other substantial achievements (partner in a law firm).  But do avoid the trivial or the completely irrelevant.
  7. Professional Service: committees, etc. Any number of things can be best included here: you organized (or helped organize) a post-colonial discussion group in the department; you were a graduate student representative on a university committee; you assisted a professor with her research; you undertook a community activity that evidences skills or recognition not otherwise documented in the CV.
  8. List the names and affiliations of your recommenders.
  9. Mention how your dossier may be obtained (give email and phone number).

"The Rhetoric of the CV." Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, 2012.

Job advertisements vary in what they request upfront. Minimally, you will be asked to send a letter of application and vita. Some ads also specifically request a dissertation abstract. Whether or not an abstract is explicitly solicited as part of the initial application, you can and should send a dissertation abstract along with your application letter and CV.

Like the letter of application, you should strictly observe the conventions on the length and formatting of the dissertation abstract. The finished document should be two pagessingle-spaced, in normal (12 point) font, with standard margins. You should avoid going over two pages (even if it’s just by a line or two). Conversely, it is not to your advantage to shorten it further: when you’re limited to two pages, it doesn’t look good if it appears that you don’t have sufficient material to fill them.

The initial one or two paragraphs of the abstract (approximately half a page) should offer an overview of the project: its issues and methods, other relevant work engaged, stakes and contexts. While you might want to repeat a key sentence or formulation that appears in your letter of application, the opening to the abstract should not simply reproduce the paragraph on the dissertation included in your letter. Think of these opening paragraphs instead as an opportunity to flesh out and supplement what you say in the letter. For example, you might want to foreground a different strand of your argument (something that complements without simply repeating what was headlined in the letter). This opening is also an opportunity to situate your project more fully in relation to relevant scholarship in your field(s). Where the description in your letter most likely had to sound a single note (as in, my dissertation takes up X), here you have the relative luxury of space to detail (the interrelation between) a set of concerns (as in, my dissertation takes up X as it illuminates Y in the context of Z). You might want to conclude these introductory paragraphs by discussing your aspirations for the project– what you aim to achieve; how you hope your intervention will advance this or that scholarly conversation.

The body of the abstract should consist of a detailed chapter outline, in which you explain the main argument (or preoccupation) of individual chapters, specific materials engaged, rationale for that selection, and analytical yield. This is your opportunity to demonstrate the design of the project and, ideally, to show how individual chapters comprise a series of discrete discussions or investigations that cumulatively amount to more than the sum of their parts. This is also your opportunity to foreground your innovation in the choice or juxtaposition of texts, or perhaps original archival research accomplished.

A few cautions: If you choose to enter the job market before finishing and defending the dissertation, you should be sure that individual chapter descriptions are nevertheless complete and persuasive. You should be able to generate a solid and compelling account even of a chapter you may not yet have composed, or finished composing. (If you can’t generate a coherent and detailed description of all your chapters, completed and in progress, it is definitely too early to apply.) Think of the dissertation abstract as an occasion to map out both the broad contours of your dissertation (the overarching concerns; the kind of intervention you seek to make; the readers you aim to hail) and the specific pathways through which you pursue your inquiry. Search committees will notice if portions of the map are missing or vague. Conversely, a finely crafted, readable map will help to persuade them that you can be finished and defended before the start of the next academic year.

The idea of a teaching portfolio is relatively new and clear conventions about format have not yet emerged. The basic elements should include:

  1. a table of contents (cover sheet);
  2. a full list of courses taught (with brief descriptions);
  3. a statement of your teaching philosophy (1-2 pages);
  4. selected syllabuses (to represent the range of your teaching and/or to ‘model’ a course you’d like to teach);
  5. sample assignments (perhaps with some examples of student responses);
  6. some evidence of teaching effectiveness: student (and peer/supervisor) evaluations, comment sheets, an impressive student paper (and its earlier draft).

Some portfolios will include plans for future courses or changes in pedagogy. Some will provide a video tape. (For the shorter version of the portfolio, you can go light on the sample syllabuses, and perhaps exclude the student evaluations, but always collect your student evaluations in case you are asked during the job search to produce them.)

As with the CV, presentation matters: a neat, well-labeled, attractive portfolio will be easier to process than a sheaf of miscellaneous forms and papers. Keep it as short as is reasonable; you don’t want to overload the readers and turn what should be informative into a burden.

You may want to think about portfolios in two sizes: a shorter version (5-6 pages) that can be sent with your initial application to those places that specifically request teaching materials. (DO NOT send it unless it has been requested!) A longer version (perhaps 20-25 pages total) for those places who (in their job announcement or later) ask for extensive sample teaching materials. (These requests usually come at later stages of the search: at, or after, the interview or campus visit.)

The best portfolios are those that have been assembled over time, as you have been actively engaged in the teaching of your classes. Don’t wait till the last minute; some of the materials you might want will be unavailable: you will have lost the assignment you used or forgotten what changes you thought about making in the course syllabus or you won’t have a copy of that student’s paper you would like to include.  (Make sure that you request permission from students to include their work!)

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

This is probably the most difficult part of the folio to produce, but it may be as important as any other part of your application since many places now explicitly ask for this in their job announcements. Instead of expanding your application letter, provide a separate sheet that sets this forth; include it in the portfolio, but also consider it as a stand-alone sheet to include in those applications where such a statement is asked for.

We all have some sort of teaching philosophy (even if it’s not yet been made explicit); we have answers to questions about what we expect of our students and how we think we should get it. But abstracting a reasonable statement of that "philosophy" from our classroom practice and experience is difficult, and it’s even more difficult to avoid doing it without producing platitudes ("collaborative learning," "clearly articulated expectations," "critical thinking," "active learning," "transparent grading criteria"…).

So, be concrete and exemplary. Focusing on a model course and/or model assignments will allow you to define the context of your teaching and the nature of your classroom activities. Use a few concrete examples to illustrate your ‘philosophy’ and give it substance and practical immediacy. This will show that you have not only taught, but have thought about teaching, and about becoming a better teacher.