I am looking at the Brainstorm Column by Gina Barreca in Chronicle of Higher Education Ideas (What to do When You are Looking for a Job Part I, Sept. 1, 2009). She is writing specifically for English PhDs interviewing for faculty positions on faculties at colleges and universities. But some of the points made in the column seem transferrable to other professionals, and inspired me to write a post here. (I sort of figured I owed librarians one after the post about why MLS folks don't get a look-in for clerical jobs at libraries).
Barreca's column takes the form of asking her colleagues around the country, English professors at various universities, to give advice to her graduate assistant on the best approach as she looks for a full time position on a faculty somewhere. Here are the most useful comments translated for lawyers and librarians:
1. Aside from the obvious (publications, stellar recommendation letters, etc.), what is it about an applicant's file that would make you insist on interviewing him or her?Keeping in mind that these comments are English department faculty discussing hiring new colleagues, there are, I think, some relevancies that apply when law firms hire or when libraries hire. We DO look for a new hire who will fit into an existing team. I mentioned this earlier when I spoke about the clerical position issue. It's a major consideration when we hire, and one of the worst mistakes if we choose the wrong person. It can literally poison a department or a whole library's work environment. It's one of the reasons so many workplaces have a trial period for newly hired employees when they can be let go without the lengthy termination process that is required for a long-term employee. You hope you never have to use the trial period in that way, only as a training period, but it's an escape hatch if you really find you've made a dreadful mistake of judgement.
*Superb -teaching- evaluations.
Strike that word, teaching, and insert whatever is the key verb that you will be doing in the job you are applying for. If you are applying for an attorney position, you need evaluations for some lawyerly task; if you are applying for a librarian position, you need evaluations for a librarian's task, preferably in the area of expertise you are applying in.
(snip, intervening stuff has NO relevance!)
3. How can an applicant make his or her letter not sound like everyone else's but not be disturbingly quirky?
*By writing in the kind of iceberg-crisp prose you are likely to find at the start of each week's New Yorker-- sentences of no more than 15 words--with real verbs--and no jargon.
(Well, these ARE English professors! But still, don't you think this kind of prose is going to grab your readers' attention?)
4. What are you REALLY looking for when you interview someone? I mean, really?
(Snip, Then, the article goes on with detailed comments from individuals:)
* A consistent sense, from the entire application package, that the candidate would offer something to the institution that is needed, perhaps lacking, and which would complement what others at the institution contribute.
* A) Tailor the letter to the institution, speaking in its own language and focusing on any shared values (if it truly is a target for employment);
B) honestly communicate what the candidate sees, in/at the institution, that would provide for a rewarding career or work experience...a kind of "at _____ I could offer, do...." approach. Above all, I think an honest communication of who and what the candidate is key here;
* [E]nthusiasm communicated clearly and with pleasure.
* Thoughtful engagement with interviewers' questions--not canned, not so quick as to sound canned, and definitely tailored to the question at hand. Avoid the hop-skip to what you THINK is being asked (as in "Oh, yeah, that's the future-projects question...") because interviewers can always tell. Listen patiently while the interviewer asks the question; pause, think, and then respond genuinely.
* Maturity of the candidate--how he/she handles the stress of the interview, how she/he handles hostile or even lightly probing questions.
* THE FIT, something the candidate has no control over: Only the interviewers know the make-up of their faculty and are able to do a gestalt prediction about how that candidate will mix with the existing department.
* Worth stressing again: Enthusiasm. I've talked to academics outside of English who look for the same quality and say that a candidate who is truly excited about the intellectual adventure of his/her work often has an edge over others with better CVs. This is one of the reasons why departments should never skip interviews.
The other points, enthusiasm and quiet confidence are worth keeping in mind as well. The speakers in the Barreca column are speaking specifically about enthusiasm for the applicant's dissertation or research project, but often lawyers or librarians have research projects to talk about. These can be major talking points in an interview. Bring a copy of your paper, especially if the topic will be relevant to the interviewer. Be ready to talk about the work you did on the project. You may be surprised how much interest your interviewer will show.