Miguel A. De La Torre
Associate Professor of Social Ethics at Iliff School of Theology
and Director of the Justice and Peace Institute
Mary C. Churchill
Assistant Professor of Women's Studies
University of Colorado at Boulder
Associate Professor of Religion
Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
"Good Fit" or "Fit to Be Tied"?
Several guides exist on the market today that offer guidance to those seeking tenure-track academic jobs. Specific guides for adjuncts have also been published in recent years and are listed in the "Suggested Resources" chapter. But unfortunately, relatively few of these guides address the often unique needs, experiences, and circumstances of candidates of color. This chapter will not attempt to describe in detail what can be found in these guides, but will instead supplement them, offering insights, recommendations, and other factors to consider. This chapter assumes that most candidates will seek a tenure-track appointment as their position of choice.
The term one seems to encounter when involved in a job search, either as a candidate or part of a search committee, is often "fit," specifically "good fit." Usually "fit" suggests the degree to which a candidate is, or at least appears to be, compatible with a hiring department as assessed by that department. While "fit" may indeed be the most crucial (and enigmatic) factor in hiring decisions, candidates should also consider what constitutes a "good fit" for themselves. We hope you find these steps helpful when determining the best possible fit for you in relation to your unique search.
Begin with Your "Shoes-Off Self"
A Native American psychologist who specializes in career development regularly administers interest inventories to help students in their process of defining career goals. She tells the students, "This inventory isnít a test. Only you know the right answers for you. Answer these questions as if you were at home - answer them with your Ďshoes-off self.í" The academic job search must also begin with your "shoes-off self"- who you are when you are most comfortable. We may think that by the end of our graduate work we know pretty well who we are and what we want from life, but for some candidates, "job search" can mean a life-long process of seeking oneís calling or vocation as it changes over time. Also bear in mind that our academic institutions, families, and communities can impose subtle (and not so subtle) incentives and pressures on us to move away from pursuing our individual talents and aspirations. Regardless of your experience, approaching the job search and your career development as a life-long process of self-discovery will not only enable you to begin with your "shoes-off self," but can sustain you throughout the trajectory of your professional life, particularly if you must choose at least temporarily to take a position where the "fit" is not all that comfortable.
Determine What Would Be a "Good Fit" for You
Despite the impression that job candidates will have few choices in their job searches with only one offer (if theyíre lucky) that theyíll be forced to accept, it is a useful exercise to separate what one might want from a position from what is merely available. Making such distinctions independent of the lure of one or more offers may give you a kind of personal "second opinion" about the choices you have before you. You might want to approach this process by considering the contexts, both personal and professional, in which you have and have not thrived. You might also imagine the possibilities and limitations of environments you have not experienced (some preliminary research here is helpful). There are many factors to consider in determining "good fit." The following lists serve as starting points and can be consulted throughout the entire job search process.
Personal factors might include:
- Geographic region and whether or not to move abroad
- Urban, suburban, or rural environment
- Physical terrain and altitude
- Weather, including amount of sun and humidity
- Proximity to family, including partnerís family and the ease with which family can visit you
- Existence of or proximity to communities that are important to you, including religious, ethnic, racial and LGBT communities and indigenous nations
- Employment opportunities for your partner, including positions on campus and services on campus dedicated to helping partners find positions
- Commute methods, distance, and time
- Availability of kinds of consumer products you prefer
- Cost of living, quality of schools and day care
- Access to and quality of long-distance travel resources (airports, train stations, highways)
- Housing options, including university programs to assist faculty homebuyers
- Political climate locally and statewide
- Distance from various industries or their byproducts (including nuclear facilities/waste storage, hog farms, smog)
- Recreational options.
Common professional factors include:
- Size of school
- Type of school (research university, liberal arts college, comprehensive university or college, community college, public, private, or religiously-affiliated, historically Black college or university, tribal college or Hispanic-serving institution)
- Presence or absence of graduate programs
- Class sizes
- Degree of selectivity (undergraduate and graduate admissions, tenure)
Other aspects to consider at the institutional level include:
- Financial stability
- Political commitments and philosophies
- Faculty make-up (by race, gender, class, sexuality, religious faith, including at what ranks)
- Diversity of the student body
- Requirements and timelines for tenure
- Salary equity
At the department level also consider:
- The number and rank of faculty of color
- Teaching load (including enrollments, types of courses, student advising, and thesis and dissertation committee work)
- Financial health, including research funds for diversity-related research and graduate student support
- History of conflict, mismanagement, or grievances
- Expectations of service
This information may be obtained through research on the internet, including:
- School websites
- Publications that rank universities and programs, such as those by:
- Inquiry with colleagues including faculty in your own department (donít forget new junior faculty who have been on the job market recently) and contacts at other institutions
- Tactful questions to the appropriate persons at the appropriate times during the interview process and more pointed questions after an offer has been obtained
- Documents the university itself will provide
Another aspect of "fit" to consider concerns timing - how far along in the dissertation writing process one should be to enter the job market. Some ABDs venture into the job market early to gain experience and practice. One would feel hard-pressed in such circumstances to turn down a job offer in favor of taking additional time to complete the dissertation. The pressures may be multiplied for candidates of color, who may feel the demands of communities, colleagues, or the state of their sub-fields weighing heavily upon them. Yet many factors urge caution in accepting a job offer without the dissertation very nearly completed or there being a very high likelihood that it will be completed before starting the job. ABD hires face difficulty in managing the dissertation and the heavy responsibilities of teaching and service, separation from oneís mentors and committee members when their guidance is perhaps most needed, the upheaval and loss of time that accompany moving to a new place, and perhaps a kind of second-class status in the department until the dissertation is completed. Still, for some candidates, declining such an offer is a luxury they cannot afford, in which case, nearly all other commitments may have to be deferred in order to complete the dissertation on time.
Finally, if your goal is to land a job in a research university, be careful of taking too many adjunct teaching positions before you go on the job market. Many research universities stigmatizes those who do a lot of adjunct teaching as fit to do only adjunct teaching.
Maximize Your Chances for Being a "Good Fit"
It is a disturbing reality that discrimination still impacts all areas of employment, the academy included. Despite the presence of laws and policies prohibiting racism and despite the good intentions and commitment to impartiality that faculty members might bring to hiring decisions, racism remains an invisible (and sometimes not so invisible) structure that shapes hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions in the academy. Assessing "good fit" is one way departments make difficult decisions among candidates who equally meet the qualifications for the position; unfortunately, racism along with other forms of discrimination can enter into these assessments, if only subconsciously. While not condoning it, an informed candidate must recognize discriminationís potential impact on his application and strategize accordingly.
Part of this strategy entails adopting a proactive attitude - finding ways to work with and around the system to the degree that you can succeed, rather than succumbing to feelings of victimization. One woman of color scholar joked about job searches, "Itís easy for a person of color to get an academic job - just be like a white person!" While perhaps crass, her remark contains a kernel of truth. It could be argued that all candidates are implicitly evaluated based on standards in our society and in our professions, standards which take as their norm economically-privileged, heterosexual, Euro-American men. Some candidates may waste precious time and energy resisting such realities, feeling demoralized by the lack of options or the coercion of the system, or becoming immobilized due to stress. It is important to honor these responses, but not to be deterred or defeated by them. Each of us must consult seriously with our "shoes-off self" to determine to what extent we tailor our credentials and self-presentation after the "norm," knowing that such decisions are situational and subject to change. For some candidates, knowing that they are simply postponing being agents of change provides sufficient incentive to tolerate it.
The practice of tokenism in hiring deserves mention here. Institutions today face increased pressure to attract diverse pools of candidates. Under these circumstances, applications of candidates of color may receive increased attention, often resulting in minimally qualified candidates becoming semi-finalists or finalists for positions in part because their presence gives the impression of a fair search. Although these practices are unethical and dehumanizing, candidates of color can take advantage of the opportunity to influence the departmentís decision while still recognizing the role tokenism can (but does not always) play in the search process.
As a candidate with a proactive attitude, you must determine for each opening you pursue how to present yourself as being a "good fit." You must assess your strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of each institution, including your potential colleagues, who view you as someone they will likely work with for many years. Research institutions, for instance, view you as someone who will bring prestige to the university through publications and grants. Liberal arts colleges look for demonstrated excellence in teaching. All application materials must be tailored with these requirements in mind.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) often provide a rewarding teaching contexts for racial and ethnic faculty. In general, the institutional tradition of commitment to justice issues that accompanied the formation of most HBCUs as well as the perspective of many students at HBCUs, means there is considerable transgenerational memory of the need to resist white supremacy, elitism, and other exclusionary practices. Minority faculty teaching at HBCUs frequently find there is less need to translate when to include social justice issues in the curriculum. Such realities make HBCUs a fertile context for exploring some teaching and research interests (e.g., formation of subjugated knowledge, the role of memory in constructing counter hegemonic discourses, the importance of theoretical frameworks, etc.) particularly interests that are significant to racial and ethnic scholars. For Black faculty, there is the additional reward of contributing directly to critical engagement, activism, and intellectual development in oneís own community. For other racial and ethnic groups, teaching in HBCUs provides an opportunity to deeply explore the complexity and diversity of the social context in which we teach, as well as the diversity and complexity of black communities. Moreover, the presence of racial and ethnic scholars who are not African American provides opportunities for solidarity while disrupting the predominant black/white paradigm and complexifying explorations of white supremacy and racism.
While these general considerations apply, at the same time, each HBCU is its own unique context. For example, in some HBCUs there are established traditions exploring diverse forms of injustice such as sexism, heterosexism, religious pluralism, global justice, diversity and multiculturalism, and the like. Yet, at other HBCUs traditions of activism are more narrowly constructed through preponderant focus on black/white issues. Historic realities of wealth distribution means some HBCUís salaries have not kept pace with industry norms, though in regard to salary considerations HBCUs may be especially appealing options for new scholars, since, in general, starting salaries are on par with industry averages. Moreover in some cases, the salaries of HBCU mid-career and senior faculty are comparable. For a few relatively well-endowed HBCU institutions, salaries outpace the norms of the religious academy. As with other employment possibilities, do the homework during your job search by researching the HBCU institutions you consider.
Nuts & Bolts
Below are some helpful hints to keep in mind while searching for employment.
Understanding the Market
As basic as it may sound, you are essentially marketing yourself. Therefore if you wish to succeed, you must develop a marketing plan. How will your application rise to the top of a pile that can easily consist of another hundred applications, many of which are as impressive as yours? Believe it or not, the best way to secure a position is to begin preparing for it on your first day of graduate school.
- Donít wait until you are ABD to begin attending academic conferences. Begin attending as many as possible, starting on your first year in graduate school. If the old adage "Itís not what you know but who you know" is true, then the only way to get known is to attend conferences within your discipline. The AAR yearly conference and regional conferences are a must. Present papers, volunteer to be a student representative, and mingle! Start padding your cv. now! In addition, the more scholars who get to know you personally and your scholarship professionally, the greater range of contacts you will have when you need to acquire references. Who knows? The person who was impressed by a paper you gave may end up sitting on a search committee at a school to which you are applying.
- Money, specifically for people of color who lack class privilege, is a reality that prevent many from attending these conferences, simply because they canít afford to go. But in reality, you canít afford not to go! Check with your school. Many universities provide modest stipends for their students to attend conferences. Consider inexpensive forms of transportation. Maybe you can organize a carpool and split the cost to get there. Find a less expensive hotel close to the conference site and share your room with three or four other students. Worst case scenario, take out an additional student loan, or other type of loan. If "it takes money to make money" then you must invest in yourself, specifically marketing yourself.
- Publish, publish, and then publish some more. Euroamericans with financial class and white privilege may not need to publish during their graduate school years to secure an academic position, but as a person of color you already know that you must accomplish twice as much as an Euro-American colleague to receive half the recognition. Therefore, you have no choice but to start publishing now. The papers you write for your classes should always be recycled, first as a paper to present at a conference, then as a chapter in a book or an article in a journal. When you present a paper, donít be surprised if you are approached by either a senior scholar editing a book who wishes to include your work in their volume, or by a publisher who wishes to discuss the possibility of developing your paper into a book. However, if you are not approached, then you need to seek an outlet for publication. Send out your paper, ideally to refereed journals, for possible consideration for publication. If they reject your paper it may have nothing to do with the paperís quality. It simply may not be a good fit for the journal. On the day you receive a rejection letter, send out your manuscript again to another source (after rereading it to incorporate any suggestions given). One particular scholar of color received three rejections on an article he submitted to three different journals in a row. The fourth journal to which he submitted the article (Journal of the American Academy of Religion) published his work.
Searching for the Job
After you graduate, your student loans demand repayment. Itís time to seek out employment.
- Let all your contacts know that you are on the job market. They can offer you some advice or insight about what positions are available, or what positions may soon become available.
- A resource for locating job opportunities within the field of religion is the AAR publication: Job Postings. Updated lists appear at the start of each month.
- A second important source to check is The Chronicle of Higher Education. Job lists are published in a special separate section every week. Subscription is costly, but fortunately, most departments or school libraries subscribe to the Chronicle. Get into the habit of checking the career section every week.
- Check the societies that specialize in your particular discipline. Many post job searches specifically within your field on their website or their member newsletters. This is why it is important to belong to the society that represents your field.
Entering the job market consumes more time and energy than many candidates may realize. You will have to prepare an extensive set of materials in addition to writing your dissertation, and in some cases, teaching or holding other employment and preparing conference papers or publications. Time management is crucial. During the summer before you apply for positions, request letters of recommendation from faculty who know your work and who as a group can elaborate upon your range of expertise. It is possible that some search committees may look more favorably on letters from both faculty of color and Euro-American faculty. Many campuses make dossier services available to graduate students that administer the collection and mailing of letters of recommendation, which are usually confidential.
In the summer, also begin preparation of application materials you are likely to submit either early into, or midway through the application process. These materials include:
- Your letter of application. Be sure to clearly describe why you will be a good fit with this particular institution. This implies that you have already done the necessary research to make a "fit" connection. The letter should include a review of your scholastic accomplishments and a summary of any research projects with which you have been involved. It should be a detailed letter ranging from one to two full pages.
- Curriculum vitae (cv). Be sure to consult job search guides for detail instructing on creating a cv.
- Transcripts. They donít need to be official transcripts. Unless otherwise requested by the institution, copies of transcripts should be sufficient.
- Reference letters. Some institutions request that letters be included with your dossier. Others request that the letter be mailed directly to the institution, or they may simply want a list of references to contact with if they are interested. It goes without saying that you should follow the institutionís instructions and avoid the temptation of "doing your own thing." Choose wisely who you ask to write a reference for you. It does you no good to have a so-called "big name" in your field agree to write you a letter of reference if they do so reluctantly. A poorly written reference letter lacking enthusiasm about you can very well become the "kiss of death." One strategy is to ask a potential reference writer, "Would you be able to write a strong letter of support on my behalf?" This approach allows reference writers with any concerns to decline gracefully and may reduce your chances of unintentionally soliciting mediocre or damaging letters. Develop good relationships with leaders early in you graduate school days who will not hesitate to sing your praises.
- Research and teaching dossiers:
Your research dossier may include:
- An abstract of your dissertation
- Abstracts of any book contracts you may already have
- A separate statement of your plans for future research
- Polished writing samples. Include the actual article or books you have published. If you have yet to publish, then submit a section of your dissertation that best reveals the depth of your scholarship
The teaching dossier may include
- Teaching evaluations
- Syllabi of one or more courses you have taught or could teach. For the preparation of syllabi, you can review sample syllabi on the AAR Religion Syllabus Project website.
- Statement of teaching philosophy
- Written reports from faculty who have observed your teaching
- Teaching awards.
Academic job search books discuss the preparation of these materials in detail. You may wish to collect samples and obtain feedback from faculty in your department and other colleagues, especially faculty and colleagues of color.
Preparing Your Dossier
Start preparing your dossier early. If "first impressions" are important, your dossier will be the first impression you give. If it is not of the highest quality possible, it may very well also be the last impression you give to that particular institution.
- Donít wait until ads begin to appear in late summer for employment opportunities - work on it now!
- Consider having it professionally printed and bond.
- You should have the vast majority of the dossier ready to go, except for a few sections that should specifically deal with the institution to which you are applying. Once you decide upon the institution, you should incorporate the parts of the dossier that personalizes it to the specific institution, print the entire packet, bind it and mail it.
- Some graduate schools might offer to do this for you. Donít let them! Many times they rely on student employment to do this type of grunt work. If the photo copier toner is low, the student may not be motivated to replace the cartridge, resulting in a sloppy finished product. You can expect missing or improperly copied pages, and an incorrect correlation of the material. No one else will care as much about your future employment than you. Therefore, you should either delegate the responsibility to someone you fully trust with your future livelihood, or do it yourself!
Preparing for the Interview
- As already mentioned, research the institution to which you are applying. Study their webpage and catalogue carefully. Investigate any controversies, past or present. Become familiar with the town/city where the campus is located. Research the history of the department, its past ethos and present culture. Has the department had a particular philosophy or reputation? Have they all been active in the life of the school, or just a few? Will you be the first scholar of color they ever hired? Also, research the members of the faculty. Become familiar with the books they wrote. It never hurts to demonstrate your knowledge of their scholarship.
- Role play the interview process with a few friends or student colleague. This may help you better prepare by thinking though possible answers to probable questions.
- Ask your favorite professors for any advice they might care to give. They might point to strengths or weaknesses you were previously unaware of.
- If you will travel by plane to your interview, plan to take your essential interview items, including your clothes, on the plane with you in carry-on luggage. Lost or delayed luggage is the last thing you want to worry.
Congratulations. You made the short list. Out of as many as one hundred applicants, the choice has been narrowed to probably three of you. Obviously, the search committee felt that a good fit is possible. Now you need to convince them that they are correct in their assertion. Remember, at this point in the process they really want to know if you would make a pleasant colleague they can chat with around the water cooler. You must ooze confidence and collegiality. The interview is not the time to be aggressively combative. Below are some things to keep in mind.
- From the moment you step off the plane until you reboard for your flight home, you are being interviewed. Do not let your guard down for a second. Every event you attend, no matter how informal it may be constructed to be, is part of the interview. Therefore:
- Avoid alcohol - even when everyone else is bending the elbow. There will be plenty of time later, if you get the job, to enjoy a drink. For now you need a clear head, so do not take any substance, legal or illegal, that can hamper your ability to maintain a sharp mind.
- Avoid crude humor or offensive jokes. Avoid any type of behavior that may be offensive.
- Avoid revealing personal things about yourself. Do not discuss your sex life.
- Avoid making friends among the interviewing faculty. You simply do not know where the power lies. The faculty member that befriends you may very easily be the faculty member that is disenfranchised from the rest. Others may become concerned if you now appear to be their best friend. Also, beware of overly friendly faculty members. They can have a hidden agenda.
Story: A faculty member of the search committee went out of his way to befriend a certain candidate of color. After the candidate was hired, the colleague who originally befriended him refused to speak to him for the five years he stayed with the college. It appears he was angered that the rest of the faculty chose the faculty of color and not someone else he preferred. The only reason he was being nice was to gather information that he could later use against the candidate during the deliberation process. Play it safe - keep all relationships professional.
- Maintain proper grooming. Get a haircut. Long meetings where you might feel stress may create more perspiration than normal. Be sure to pack your deodorant, mouthwash, and breath mints, and be sure to use all of these liberally. It is difficult for a search committee to hear or see your brilliance if unpleasant aromas are distracting them.
- Dress professionally. For men this means jacket and tie. The search committee is evaluating you as a potential representative of the department and school. One male candidate who came to campus for an interview appeared in a T-shirt and flip-flops. When we went out to dinner that night, he was the only one not wearing a tie. This was one of the reasons used to eliminate him for consideration early in the process. Likewise, it is important that women not wear revealing attire or tight-fitting clothes. Wear something professional and conservative. Plan to wear something more formal when you are taken out to dinner and something more comfortable for the day-long session of interviews. Consider comfortable shoes, especially if your hosts have you walking all over the campus grounds. Also, make sure you feel comfortable in your formal attire. Some professors have reported that when they did job interviews in very formal suits they normally never wear, they felt so uncomfortable that they did not make a good impression during their visit.
- More than likely you will be asked to prepare a lecture. They want to witness your skill as an instructor. Pick a topic you are familiar with - a topic that can generate some good discussion. DO NOT read a paper. This may be acceptable when presenting at the academy, but it is simply boring in the classroom. You want the students in the room sitting on the edge of their seats. Prepare a comprehensive outline of your lecture, and have some pointed questions handy to get the discussion going. The faculty will be more impressed if the students in the class become engaged with what you are presenting, than how many scholars you are able to reference.
- Know your audience. Your presentation must be geared to the class. You cannot expect to lead a class of first-year college students the same way you will lead a class of PhD candidates. Prepare accordingly.
- You will probably meet with the entire faculty at some point, who will ask you questions about yourself and your scholarship. This may occur in a conference setting or over dinner. Answer all questions in a truthful and straightforward manner. Beware of dueling faculty members who frame their questions in such a way as to attack their colleagues. Yes, this is unfair and unprofessional, but it happens. If you find them playing racquetball, and you are the ball, move the discussion to a different area while diplomatically answering their questions in such a way as not to offend.
- At some point you will be asked if you have any questions. The answer is always yes. Never sit there without knowing what to ask. The depth of your questions can be as revealing as the lecture you gave. If the school or department is going through or has undergone a controversy, politely ask about it, specifically how will it affect your employment. Besides asking specific questions about the institution, below are some additional questions you should consider asking:
- What would help me most would be to get a better feel for the culture Iíll be walking into and the styles of the people with whom Iíll be working. Could you take a couple of minutes to give me a better understanding of those issues?
- What do you anticipate will be the first challenge we will be facing together?
- What are the three most important issues facing the school?
- What are the schoolís strengths and weaknesses?
- Can you tell me some of the schoolís successes?
- What can a candidate like myself contribute to this school?
- What is the key thing about your school that you want potential candidates to know?
- What question should I be asking that I havenít yet?
Once you return home from the interview, follow-up with a thank you note. Be sure to thank the search committee for their hospitality and share one thing that impressed you about the interview experience. If you canít think of anything, this might be an indication that the "fit" is not right. Do not contact any of the faculty for the inside scoop. This is both unprofessional and can clearly work against you.
Negotiating the Offer
Congratulations. You made it. You just received a call offering you a job. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- The offer being given to you is the result of a year-long process. They really want you to accept so that they wonít have to repeat the process again next year. This might be the only time you have the upper-hand, so negotiate.
- Before you negotiate, know what the market will bear. What are the going salaries for your rank in the academy? In that geographic area? For that school? Counter back to be sure that your salary is indeed comparable. Even if the offer is financially generous, counter anyway. You have nothing to lose and may add a few thousand dollars to your annual pay.
- Negotiate the length of time required to apply for tenure, especially if you already have teaching experience. Negotiate release time for research, particularly if you need to finish your dissertation.
- Review medical benefits to determine they are adequate and financially affordable.
- Review the moving allowance. Is it sufficient to move your earthly possessions from point A to point B? Will you be provided with additional funds for you and your significant other to travel to the school to find housing before your move?
- A possible point of negotiation can be a one-time moving grant over and above the cost of the moving so as to cover additional start-up expenses. Grants as high as $5,000 are not unheard of.
- Ensure that your offer includes up-to-date (preferably new) equipment and resources you will need, especially computer equipment and specialized software. Institutional budgets may limit opportunities for obtaining these items once you are hired.
- Try to obtain funds dedicated to professional travel, especially for research and conference participation.