The CV: The first gate

I don't remember thinking very much about my academic CV until I went on the job market. I submitted a copy to my dissertation adviser, who returned it promptly, covered in ink. Whole sections were deleted. Elements had swapped places. My dissertation synopsis sounded more like an abstract and less like a rationale. What I had treated as a fairly clear cut genre turned out to be more complex and nuanced than my writing sample. Like the personal statement, used often in doctoral program applications, the academic CV (curriculum vitae, in Latin, the course of life) is a functional document which serves as a proxy for the candidate. Its audiences are varied, but in all cases, if an academic CV is requested, the stakes are high. Often, the CV is the first element in any dossier; as such, it acts at the first gate through which candidates pass in their move from graduate student to colleague. This post is intended to begin discussion on the genre, lay out some basic guidelines, and call attention to typical pitfalls.

It's most helpful to think of academic CVs--and any dossier materials--as contextually bound and responsive to the exigencies of each job call.  For example, when I entered the market, I sent applications for positions at R1/R2 institutions and SLACs. Some of the positions were focused entirely on teaching, some on research, some on administration, and most on a mix of the three.  Further, like most doctoral students, I could lay claim to a number of areas of interest and expertise.Working backward through my educational history, I could foreground experience with professional/technical communication, writing program administration, research methods, rhetoric, and composition. The job advertisement determined not only which area I chose to highlight but also the order of elements, like teaching awards, publications, and service to my department.

If candidates remember that job search committees are made up of humans who are very likely already overworked and exhausted, they can best craft a document that efficiently and effectively communicates their potential value. Knowing the gloriously convoluted process of the academic job search may help: The search committee has access to all of the dossiers from all the candidates. From the initial stack, they choose perhaps 10-15 candidates to move to the next stage. Often, prior to phone, Skype, or MLA interviews, schools will request additional materials from a larger pool of candidates in order to further narrow the field. Once a candidate has been invited for a campus visit, the entire voting faculty has access to that candidate's dossier.

While CV templates can be created in advance, candidates should also do their research by checking out each school, department, and program to which they are applying. If job ads cite particular classes the candidate would be expected to teach, that knowledge should help structure the CV. 

1. The first and most golden rule: the first two pages should carry the weight of the candidate's professional identity and potential contributions. I'm not arguing that committees never read past the first two pages. I am arguing that search fatigue makes those first two pages the most important.

2. Candidates applying for a range of foci should create separate CV templates for each. A CV for a candidate applying to teach 4/4 at a SLAC would look very different from an advertisement for a research position at a large university. Further, a CV for an administrative position would order its elements to showcase pertinent work. Details get even finer grained as candidates with multiple academic interests assemble materials for these different institutions and positions.

3. However, even candidates applying for R1, research-intensive, positions should remember that teaching is valuable. While publications will appear before teaching awards, recognition for outstanding teaching should appear on the first two pages, if possible. Candidates with multiple professional contributions (may we all be so prolific!) should, of course, still include publications, conference presentations, and grant funding before teaching when applying for research positions.

4. Personal skills and interests have no place in an academic CV. The document is intended to communicate professional contribution. As such, the first page is prime real estate. Candidates should resist the urge for font pyrotechnics. The first page, regardless of focus, should include contact details, educational history (in reverse chronological order, stopping at undergrad), information about the dissertation or capstone (title and adviser), and a short list of research interests. The order of elements following this core information should meet the exigencies of the position and institution.

5. Candidates should resist the urge to put anything on the CV that they're not comfortable discussing at an interview. These entries could range from fabrications to side-work taken on to float the bills during graduate school.

6. All of these shall-nots may work up the CV as a potential textual minefield, and it can certainly serve that function if care isn't taken. However, candidates who consider the CV an opportunity to display their work--that is, the last five to seven years of their academic life, maybe more--are those who have started to make the move from candidate to colleague. Indeed, the CV stands in for this important identity shift and is often the first document a job candidate creates which will mirror his/her post-graduation status.

I give each of these points with the caveat that candidates should never drive themselves crazy customizing CVs. High levels of customization translate to high instances of typos and other egregious errors. While misspelling the name of a publisher buried on page six of an eight-page CV may not cost a candidate an interview, forgetting to change the name of the school in the "Courses I am Interested in Teaching at State University" might.

A CV documents past achievements and hints at future potential. In contrast, the job cover letter contextualizes these achievements and moves them into the future tense. In the next blog, I'll break down this very important element of the dossier, as it works to supplement the CV.


Statements of Purpose and Personal Statements: Genre Conventions and Rhetorical Demands

Last December, I wrote a series of posts, starting here, dedicated to breaking down the academic job search process from application to campus visit. The academic job search was still very much in my memory, still cycling through my credit card payments, and still baffling. But for Master's candidates, the academic job search is still just so much nightmare fuel. Many MAs choose to pursue additional credentialing. That application process creates its own set of anxieties, costs (both personal and fiscal), and problems. But like the academic job market, it relies on careful attention to genre conventions.

Doctoral programs are, it seems, attracting larger pools of applicants, which makes entry more competitive. And while candidates--for either doctoral programs or jobs--can't control where the jobs are or the quality of the competition, there are many factors that they can control. In this post, I'll deal with the personal statement and the statement of intellectual purpose, two separate but similar documents. Transcript bobbles can't be revised, and letters of recommendation follow too long of a timeline to change significantly. (I suppose an MA student could possibly dramatically improve his/her relationship with a referee in a semester. Possibly. Not probably, though, and I certainly wouldn't take that risk.) Elements like the personal statement, the statement of purpose, and the writing sample are fully within each candidate's control.

To be considered for graduate study, candidates submit a dossier, or a collection of materials intended to communicate their academic narrative and potential within that specific program's trajectory. Doctoral admissions are, by and large, holistic decisions which may take the following metrics into account: transcripts, letters, writing samples, GRE scores (either general or subject), and the personal statement or statement of (intellectual) purpose. Know this: the doctoral dossier is a job application, not a biography. It is a PR document with a purpose. Candidates should carefully attend to those elements within their reach to supplement cumulative elements, like GPA or letters.

The rhetorical situation
You have 10-15 minutes to make a positive impression. You are 1 of maybe 100.
Five years of working relationships will be judged quickly.
Admissions committees are exhausted and overtaxed. Give NO reason to be shuffled to the NO pile.
The PS/SoP is a small but important part of a larger dossier.
It’s the portion over which you have the most control.
The committee wants to get a firm sense of how well you might progress through the program, enrich it, and (eventually) become a colleague.

Personal Statement 
Who you are makes you well qualified to succeed in graduate school. 
This includes reflections on success and failure, worldviews, philosophies.
Answer: Why graduate school? Why you? Why that focus? Why that program?
Situate experience in theoretical frames, if relevant and not only novel.
Otherwise, self-check for heavy name dropping.
On that note, careful to mention specific faculty members by name. You can't possibly know a department's internal squabbles, plans, or problems. Outlining a plan to attend a specific university to work with a specific faculty member may backfire if that person is retiring or going on sabbatical. Focus instead on program strengths and opportunities.
Personal experience should be relevant and applicable, not maudlin.
On that: guard against the sappy-sweet or precocious.

Statement of (Intellectual) Purpose
What you know, your future plans, makes you well qualified to succeed in graduate school. 
This includes reflections on future plans and aspirations. 
What will graduate training help you do? Be action-oriented.

In both
How do you fit into the department or program?
What do you have to offer them? What is your potential?
Know your schools. Tailor one or two paragraphs.
Think about the coherence of your educational narrative. Are you claiming overwhelming interest in science and technology but have submitted a writing sample that’s a literary analysis? 
If you do project scattered focus, use the PS or SoP to connect the seemingly disparate points. 
Project maturity, discipline, and active engagement.
Rely on detail in a very short form. Think prose poetry not novel.
Be vivid but also serious.
Focus locally.
A SoP may not include personal details, but a Personal Statement will include a Statement of
Intellectual Purpose. 
Don’t overpromise or overreach (with language or application).
Follow basics of good writing (avoid the “Since I was a child…” intro). It counts.
At this level everyone “loves” what they study (books, literature, teaching, composition).
Have multiple people read. Take revision seriously. Typos are noted.  
To prepare
Talk, talk, talk about your research and positionality.
Write, write, write for difference audiences.
Read, read, read the current conversations in your field.


From Candidate to Colleague

I've been fortunate to take part in a few recent professionalism panels intended to prepare current graduate students for the academic job market. Each panelist encouraged their respective audiences to avoid acting like, sounding like, or dressing like graduate students. Good advice, even if it's a bit nebulous and softly offensive. This advice is not intended to mark graduate students as less qualified on the market--and current nattering suggests the opposite--but to encourage candidates to move their discourse and professional identities into a new peer network before they're actually there.

What does it even mean to move from grad student to professor? At the time of entry, students have many models from which to choose; however, those performances of professors in classrooms and at conferences offer only a gloss. What do professors even talk about over dinner? What's protocol for talking about the dissertation? Are new shoes really necessary?

I thought it might be useful to open discussion on that move from job candidate to colleague and to operationalize some of the more obvious markers of graduate student identity. While these points apply most urgently to the current job market, I think they're equally applicable to conferences and other opportunities to meet the people who will be future colleagues.

1. While the dissertation is certainly top of the mind for those about to graduate, it's not especially the most interesting thing to talk about. Work to avoid making it a topic of conversation, primarily because they've already gotten a version of it in the dossier and have or will in the job talk. If someone asks, it's prudent to have the short version ready. No more than 2 minutes should give enough detail to be interesting without reaching the dreaded ramble. And keep it positive: no complaining about committees or deadlines. Once graduate students are close to market time, committee members are colleagues, not evaluators.

2. Polish it up, to the best of your abilities. Pressed pants, clean shoes, business casual at the most relaxed end. Jeans are perhaps appropriate for travel, but be wary. Err on the side of more conservative, rather than less. This doesn't mean that every candidate needs to own a $600 suit, but do pay attention to clothes that fit, are clean, and look professional. (And, yes, I hate this kind of body policing, but the unfortunate reality of the market is that some people are not understanding or compassionate when it comes to these sorts of things.)

3.  First-Name Basis: Your committee members and professors are colleagues now. When talking to other members of the disciplinary community, use of the honorific reminds people of the student positioning.

4. Be conversant in local projects. It surprises many graduate students to learn that their professors have projects outside of dissertation advising and classroom teaching. By knowing the projects their committee members are working on, graduate students show that they can peek beyond the mountain range of the dissertation. Likewise, recognizing search committee members' current work (by looking through recent conference programs, for example) is a good place to find information about recent or ongoing projects. Anyone can read a published article on the plane on the way to the campus visit. A colleague will remember that Professor Smith gave a talk a the Cs in St. Louis. The most well-adjusted academics, in my experience, are those who move away from self-centered models and more toward community-minded ones.

5. Learn the language. Faculty life is thick with acronyms, and TNP is perhaps the most important. Having the knowledge to thoughtfully discuss tenure and promotion expectations means that graduate students are already thinking about their reappointment as assistant professors. Advisers can help here as contact points for home institution requirements. Informed candidates will be familiar with current MLA discussions about the status of TNP while also understanding that expectations are incredibly local and historical.

6. Research all the schools. It's common knowledge that job applicants should know both programmatic and institutional details about each school to which they apply. It is just as important to know this information about home institutions. If, for example, a candidate from an R1 Land Grant institution is applying for a job at an SLAC, that candidate must be able to articulate the ideological and pedagogical connections between those institutions and student populations.

7.  R1 Land Grant? SLAC? Academics trade in acronyms. Reading around in disciplinary journals, attending talks, and talking to professors as colleagues can help.

8. Practice humility, avoid desperation. Even when they are desperate, even when every thought returns to finances and living situations, candidates move to colleagues when they practice open-minded humility and refuse desperation. Self-deprecation is as persuasive as narrow-minded, uninformed self-confidence. Fatalism is rampant in graduate school. Avoid any semblance to the stereotypical grad student in PhD Comics.

9. Redesign documents. CVs shouldn't foreground graduate student activities. No one cares if a candidate served three selfless years as social chair of the Graduate Student Organization. (I was, and it made me sad to learn this.) Quest about for examples of CVs of senior academics. Most departments require that professors upload their CVs to their public site. Use these CVs at models. Writing samples should look like journal articles, not seminar papers.

10. Attend talks. The very best professionalizing I received was free: I attended both job talks by job candidates and research lectures by visiting scholars. Even if the talk was far outside my field, I gained facility with the language that academics use when they speak with other academics, and I learned a great deal about how I wished to be perceived.

All of these fairly minor points help move job candidates from their lived reality to their hoped-for future reality. It's awkward and not-at-all intuitive to be asked to inhibit an identity that's not yet real, but that's exactly the demand for graduate students on the academic job market. Knowing the code and thoughtfully engaging in the expected ways can help move a very anxious graduate student job seeker from job candidate to future colleague.