We all know that a PhD from a highly ranked program guarantees that the world will beat a path to your door for the mere opportunity to speak with you. How can you persuade departments that are hiring not to interview you?
Because my department is currently conducting a search, I have recently surveyed essentially the entire pool of job applicants in Classics, and have a good sense for how the best trained candidates manage to avoid getting interviews. For those PhDs who have not yet mastered such a basic skill, I am summarizing here the strategies I have observed.
Let me stress that these comments are aimed only at a very small fraction of candidates. When I tried to compile a short list of roughly 5% of our applicants for interviews, I was unable to do so. Rephrasing that in positive terms, more than 95% of the candidates successfully avoided an interview based solely on my first fairly cursory reading of their dossier. When you consider the kind of dedicated and talented students who go on to graduate study in Classics, that figure is a remarkable testimony to the powerful effects of graduate school.
First let me suggest three fairly general guidelines:
- Do not read the job description.
- Find out nothing about your potential home institution and colleagues.
- Focus relentlessly on your personal career advancement, to the exclusion of any suggestion that your professional work might affect another human being positively.
These may seem obvious, but after reading many applications, I have a better appreciation for how some candidates apply them most effectively. Remember, even in a field like Classics, you cannot count on letters of recommendation to disparage you adequately: you need to use the parts of your dossier that you can directly control — your CV, any specific essays or statements that an advertisement requires, and, especially, your cover letter — to ensure that you do not get an interview.
Almost all candidates will start with the easiest tactic: send in the same generic cover letter that you use in response to completely different job advertisements. Many candidates will let a bland, off-topic letter speak for itself, but one rhetorical refinement I came to appreciate is the addition of a single sentence or two mentioning the hiring institution, but clearly appended to an otherwise unmodified cover letter. If the appended sentence can raise some subject that is central to the job description, but otherwise unmentioned in the cover letter, it will be especially clear that this is an afterthought, and that you have no real interest in the subject. Even better is the appended sentence that implicitly contradicts the emphasis of the rest of the cover letter. Of course, if you are not confident that your reviewers will appreciate this subtlety, you can always resort to brute force: leave the name of a different institution in your appended sentence. Although I saw this only rarely, it demonstrates to even the most insensitive reader that the cover letter is completely impersonal.
What should you do if your generic cover letter actually responds to some part of the job advertisement? Unlikely as that may seem, it can happen, and candidates will then have to take extra precautions to stay off the interviewers’ short list. Use your CV and additional statements to obfuscate or directly contradict any apparently relevant sections of your cover letter. If you allude to a potentially interesting digital project in your cover letter, do not include it on your CV, or else present it on your CV as trivial (e.g., list it under some category like “Other service”, beneath a more highly valued contribution such as “ordered pizza for grad student lecture series”). If your cover letter could be misread as referring to collaborative research among students and faculty, expand on that in a separate statement about your research that never mentions students. As I saw repeatedly this fall, it can be especially effective to dwell at length on your contract for a forthcoming book if you emphasize that it will be published by a press charging more per monograph than your library ever pays, and if your topic leaves potential colleagues paralyzed at the prospect of having to read your book when you come up for review.
While many applicants use the protracted and obsessive ”forthcoming book” discussion to put off potential interviewers, the possibilities it offers for avoiding an interview are almost limitless. If done properly, you can demonstrate with it that years of advanced study have taught you only a narrow range of technical skills without fostering any kind of development as a thoughtful member of an academic community. Prose style is highly individual, but you can heighten the effectiveness of this trope if you strive for a tone of entitlement. Make it clear not only that the proper role for students and colleagues is to advance your career, but that they should be grateful for the chance.
Perhaps the handful of applicants to whom I am offering these suggestions cannot benefit at this point in their careers: if you have not completely internalized these fundamental habits of thought by the time you receive a PhD, it is highly unikely that you will ever pick them up, and we should recognize that some people may simply be incapable of learning such ideas. But given the nature of the job market in academia today, I feel ethically compelled to share these suggestions. If even one applicant thinks differently about applying for a job because of this post, that will be more than enough of a reward for my efforts.