Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: How to Write a Good Job Ad

Full poppins

I’m a new faculty member on a search committee, and I’m trying to figure out how to write a good job ad — one that will yield the best results while also providing as much transparency as possible to applicants. (I remember what it’s like to be in the applicant position.)

Great question. Ultimately, a job ad — aside from the requisite boilerplate that every institution requires — has to clearly express your departmental needs and make its expectations clear. The more specific the ad, the fewer the applications you will get. There are only so many anthropologists, for example, who work on biomedical topics in French Polynesia. There are many more anthropologists, however, who work on biomedical topics throughout the Pacific, and even more who work on biomedical topics without a region specified.

Whatever your discipline, you and the other members of the search committee need to identify, as a department, which topics or areas of focus you want the position to cover, and how broadly or narrowly. Then write the ad accordingly.

Don’t say "area of focus open," unless you want to be deluged with 1,000 applications. But in phrasing the job ad, if your department want to have some leeway — to see "what’s out there" — make the language of the ad more general, and less definitive.

Do remember the distinction between "required" versus "preferred"qualifications. When a job ad refers to some characteristic as "required," most candidates will interpret that as an absolute qualifier/disqualifier, and use it as a basis for deciding whether or not to apply. "Preferred" will bring in a lot of applications that have little to do with your stated "preference" because neither of those words is an absolute gatekeeping word and in academe, hope springs eternal. Everyone knows someone whose friend with a thesis on Romanian embroidery folk practices got the job that was advertised for a Lusophone Africanist.

Be clear about the job requirements. How many courses will your new colleague have to teach? Does your department or institution offer research support for tenure-track folks? What is the contract timeline like for a lecturer? Much of that information will be in the boilerplate from the university, but if not, make sure your ad answers those questions.

Next, find out how much leeway your department has in determining which application materials to request upfront from job candidates. At some campuses, that may be dictated by HR and out of your hands. But for the love of everything that is holy, if it is up to your department, show a little compassion. You impose pointless busywork on a lot of people by requiring all applicants to secure letters of reference at the initial screening stage. Once you do the first cull to produce a long list of candidates — or better yet, once you have a shortlist — then, sure, go ahead and ask for letters of recommendation.

But as for demanding that all 300 applicants ask their letter-writers to send 900 letters of reference that the search committee will, for the most part, never read? Just don’t.

Some scholarly associations — including my own, the American Anthropological Association — have a "best practices" guideline that recommends departments not request letters of reference at the initial stage. That’s because it costs applicants to request those letters in two key ways:

  • It costs them personally — in terms of how much they feel they are imposing on their professors. In some cases, with busy or irritated letter-writers, candidates may feel they have to pick and choose how many times they will bother their advisers. Some candidates may even pass on applying for certain jobs for that reason. (Yes, in an ideal world it should not be a bother, but academe is most certainly not an ideal world.)
  • Or it costs them literally — if they use services like Interfolio, which charges candidates for every letter of reference sent on their behalf.

Likewise, it is generally unnecessary to request writing samples at the first screening stage. In our digital age, that is less inhumane than it used to be in the days when broke graduate students would have to mail a copy of their 300-page dissertation by certified express mail because a particularly sadistic job ad required it.

Finally, we all know that inside hires happen. There are situations when a department — seeking to keep a good temporary hire — moves to "convert" a lectureship or a visiting assistant professorship into a tenure-track position. Some institutions have mechanisms in place to do such a conversion without launching a full-on search (usually if the internal candidate was initially hired via a national search).

But in some cases, departments are forced to stage a national search even though they already know they want to retain a specific colleague for the permanent job. In those cases, the most efficient (and kindest) thing to do is to craft a job ad that is hyper-specific in a way that reflects the strengths of the internal candidate.

It’s my professional opinion that inside hires are far less common than unhappy and suspicious job seekers tend to believe — I write about this in my book and in a blog post — but they do happen. So if you know your search has a preordained conclusion, try to write an ad that conveys that message. You want job seekers to read it and say: "Oh. This position is obviously earmarked for X, who is already in their department. I am not going to bother applying." That saves everyone time, energy, and hope. However, since some people are going to apply anyway, and since nothing is guaranteed, and since your desired person may turn out to have received a better offer elsewhere, phrase the specific qualifications in the ad as "preferred" rather than "required," which gives you leeway to go back to the applicant pool if need be.

And now advice to those who might apply to such jobs: Honestly, you will never know for sure if an ad is targeting an inside hire. And believe me, your instincts on this question are not perfect. Likewise, you also will never know for certain that an inside hire will actually take the job. So even if there’s an heir apparent, if the position seems like a good match for you, it’s wise to lean toward applying.

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