Shall We Dance? (Mentoring Aspiring College Faculty)

One of the most important jobs we undertake beyond our work in the classroom, studio, or rehearsal hall is the hiring of faculty. Over the next seven months hundreds of college teaching and administrative positions will appear, and across the nation we will perform collectively the anthropological dance of finding the right candidates for our unique positions.

Faculty committees will wade through reams of letters, vitas, references, and supporting materials. There will be long meetings, contentious debates, exciting as well as disappointing interviews, and agonizing choices. The hiring process will include the opinions and observations of many constituencies and administrative offices.

For the applicant, the dance is time-consuming, anxiety provoking, and laborious. There are job notices to check, applications to write, supporting materials to organize, references to request. And then there is the wait in the wings for an interview: the tango that may never happen.

Why is it that we do not better prepare aspiring faculty members for this important round on the dance floor? Over the past seventeen years, I constantly have been surprised-even dumbfounded-by the inability of many professionals to present themselves favorably. Some schools have programs that assist their graduates and alumni to find employment. Regrettably, they are the exception, not the rule. As professionals, we need to be better mentors.

In this essay I offer suggestions to those aspiring for college teaching positions, especially at the instructor or assistant professor levels. My focus rests on the first challenge of any job seeker: that of getting a foot in the door, or, to continue the metaphor, to gain a spot on an institution's dance card. I have no dreams of superseding, even replacing the work of highly trained professionals in this area, let alone the substantive literature in professional and trade publications. Instead, I offer advice from the field, culled from work on search committees at three different institutions.

Know your audience. Learn something about the school to which you apply. Review a college guide, read the institution's Web page, contact its Admissions office, check the list of music faculty in the CMS Directory of Music Faculties, and seek out the institution's catalog in your library or placement office. If you call a school requesting information about a position, make sure you have done some preliminary work. Asking questions that suggest you know nothing about the school or even its geographical location makes a listener wonder how serious you are about the job.

Present yourself clearly, unambiguously, and in a reasonable amount of ink. You will be one of 50-250 applicants. During the initial stage of a search, a committee member may spend ten minutes or less reviewing your letter and vita. Faculty are busy people. With teaching, committee work, and their own professional, scholarly, creative, and/or performance activities, their time is precious. As fascinating as you may be, they do not have an unlimited amount of time to review a thirty-page document, especially with one hundred applications still to be read before the committee meeting in two days.

Send an application that will interest a committee. Veterans of search committees can sniff out a hastily written, generic application easily. Do not waste their time or yours by sending something half-baked. When submitting a meaningful application, keep the following in mind:

  • Write a good letter. Individuals highly trained in critical analysis and interpretation will be reading your letter. They will be looking for a future colleague; they will want to learn about you as a person along with your accomplishments.
  • Write a letter that speaks to the job. Search committees will wonder how serious you are if you send a generic letter that has no reference or relevance to the position advertised. Don't blanket the coun try; be selective.
  • Let a committee decide whether you are "perfect for the position," that your credentials are "impeccable," or that your research is "monumental" and of "seminal importance." Such bragging often does not settle well with committee members who are either put off or, frankly, threatened. Ask your references to sing such praises of your work, ability, and promise.

Send a readable dossier. There is ample literature on writing an effective academic resume, and there are numerous workshops to assist you in presenting your credentials effectively. Here are some of my own suggestions:

  • Submit a resume that is clearly laid out so that information is easily accessible. If you are unsure about format and the like, consult with a trusted colleague or teacher, or purchase one of the many software programs that can help you design an attractive, easily readable, professional-quality vitae appropriate for an academic position. You are telling more about yourself by the way you organize your resume than you may think.
  • Avoid idiosyncratic phrases and ambiguities. That concert series in a lesser-known suburb of a small city in the Midwest, which you never identify as a concert series, may be well known and reputable in your circles, but it probably has little meaning to someone thousands of miles away or even in the next county. If you list something that needs an explanation or description, add a brief parenthetical phrase that will help your reader.
  • Be selective. Resume stuffing is more obvious than one thinks; you will kid no one. If you have done something worthy of documenting, make sure you list it in a way that will help an uninformed reader understand its significance.

Use judgment when submitting references. The quality of your references, not their quantity, will speak well for you, especially if they relate in some way to the advertised position. In this light, include current references in your mix of letters. Committees are skeptical when an application file is filled with photocopied recommendations more than five years old that show no knowledge of your most recent work, let alone any mention of how you would be appropriate for their position. If you are asked to send three letters of reference, send three or maybe as many as five; twelve will not have the impact you wish.

Send the search committee what it wants. Every committee has its own rationale for requesting certain materials at various points in the process; it is not your place to question it. If the application requires letters of recommendation in the initial screening, send them. Telling a committee you will submit them only if you reach the short list will most likely mean you will not be on that list. Committees do not know why you will not send things, nor generally will they ask. With a hundred more files to read, they probably will eliminate yours.

Submit requested materials instead of what you feel is important. Committees ask for different supportive materials at different times; they all work differently. If you wish to send them something relevant, then choose wisely. On all the committees I have served, the quality of the materials has always outweighed their quantity. Keep your supplementary materials to a manageable size.

Find a mentor. Seek advice. All of us learn through input from other professionals, and going through the labyrinth of a job search is no different. Ask an academic dean, a trusted colleague, faculty who have served on search committees, or even someone outside your discipline for advice. Ask them to review your materials, read your cover letter, and suggest ways to write an application that will invite more than a cursory glance.

No matter how objective we try to make it, faculty hiring in the end is a highly subjective process. The final decision will be based on a group of individuals choosing one candidate above others. There are as many ways to succeed as to misstep in the process. I hope the suggestions in this essay will help an aspiring college teacher with the first important step of moving from the initial screening to a shorter list. These recommendations, weighed with advice from a mentor, may help one gain the invitation so desired.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

Keith C. Ward

Keith Ward received a Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance from West Chester University, Master of Music in Piano Performance Pedagogy from Northwestern University, and a Doctor of Music in Piano Performance, also from Northwestern. Currently he is Director of the School of Music at the University of Puget Sound. In the field of academic leadership he has been active as a writer, reviewer, panelist, workshop facilitator, and accreditation evaluator; currently he is a member of the Commission on Accreditation for the National Association of Schools of Music. As a solo pianist and collaborative artist he has appeared in concerts on college campuses, on artist series, and on both commercial and public radio. He has presented clinics and workshops on piano teaching, piano repertoire, instructional technology, and piano pedagogy. In essays, reviews, critical editions, presentations, and his recently published book, For the Parlor & the Concert Stage, his scholarship has focused on Arnold Schoenberg and Charles Ives, American piano music of the 18th and 19th centuries, and musical responses to the AIDS pandemic.

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