How To Apply For Academic Jobs In Linguistics

  1. Schedule
  2. Who Decides
  3. Applications
  4. Application Letters and Self-Praise
  5. Opportunities for Personal Presentation
  6. Job Talks
  7. Some Things You Must Absolutely Do in a Job Search
  8. Dealing with your Recommenders
  9. A List of Ordinary Interview Questions
  10. A Common Trick Question
  11. Who Should Be Speaking in an Interview and How Much?
  12. Job Talk Design
  13. The Race Is Not Always To The Swift
  14. Morale

1. Schedule

Tenure-track jobs are usually announced during the first half of the academic year. You find out about them by consulting the Linguistics Department job list, by looking at the Linguist List job postings, and by whatever other means become available to you serendipitously. Due dates for applications start around October 1 and go up through about January 15. (Over the years, they seem to be getting earlier and earlier).

Search committees usually read the pile of applications and form a medium list, who they often interview remote by Zoom. From the medium list is formed the short list, consisting of a small number of candidates (often three or four) invited for a campus visit and job talk.

One-year jobs tend to be advertised later in the year, and openings sometimes appear as late as July or August.

2. Who Decides

Deans decide if departments are awarded faculty positions to advertise. They can also take away positions, even in mid-search.

Departments appoint search committees to read and screen applications. But final decisions are usually made by vote of the whole department faculty. This, incidentally, has interesting consequences for searches: people who are linguists, but have no specialist knowledge of the target field, often get to cast decisive votes, based on superficial impressions gathered at job talks. See “The Race Is Not Always To The Swift”, below.

3. Applications

Job announcements tell you what to include. Often, these materials are: cover letter, curriculum vitae, description of research, research papers, letters of recommendation, teaching evaluations. Once in a blue moon they ask for transcripts. If you want to include more than they ask for, you don’t (in my experience) get punished, and you might conceivably benefit. This includes, for instance, sending a paper or two more than they asked for.

Don’t include stuff that’s not your best, just to make a bulkier file.

Teaching credentials, such as evaluation forms, often are included. Nowadays, digital technology makes it easier to transmit the full evaluation set, for instances by using a Google Docs page. This gets you off the hook as far as being accused of selecting the best ones. Be sure to let your letter-writers look at your evaluations, so they can say something nice about your teaching.

Your web site is a tool to make material instantly available to a search committee that has seen your application and wants to see more. It should include all papers you’ve written that might help your case, including work not yet published. It is essential for job applicants to have a well-created and up-to-date web site.

UCLA’s Career Center can be of help as you prepare your application.

4. Application Letters and Self-Praise

The thought of preparing a document in praise of yourself is rather disgusting to many people. And indeed, on the relatively rare occasions when I see a job letter filled with blustering self-praise, I tend to feel a bit disgusted at the applicant.

One way around the problem is this: your letter can express delight at how well things are turning out for you. For example, your dissertation project turned out to have all sort of fascinating angles you hadn’t anticipated (specify); your undergraduate students surprise and delight you with their (specify), and so on.

Separating out the discussion of your research into a separate document can help, because you can use the prose style normally used in research papers rather than letter style. This seems to be becoming the standard in job applications now.

5. Opportunities for Personal Presentation

Many job applicants go to the Linguistic Society of America meeting in the January of their job application year.  This meeting was at one point extremely important, but is perhaps a threatened species now that departments can interview you by Zoom or similar procedures. It’s still the case that the LSA can be a really good meeting and there is a lot to be said for meeting people in person. The abstract deadline is usually in early September.

Ideally, job seekers giving LSA talks select a topic that suitably presents them as job candidates. Thus, this talk should be on a topic that comes from the dissertation research, not some peripheral topic that happens to fit the time slot. It’s delicate, because the time slot is short (20 minutes), and talks that try to cram a whole dissertation into such a short period generally don’t work well. Try extracting the crown jewels of your dissertation and packaging them intelligibly.

The LSA usually offers a large room with tables, at which representatives of departments that have jobs do interviewing. Some interview all comers for a short period; others interview only people they have contacted in advance.

Sometimes a department has decided not to interview you. You can try grabbing the sleeve of a department representative and asking for an interview, and see if they are too chicken to say “no”. Whether this is a good use of your time (and theirs) is something one could debate.

6. Job Talks

During a job talk visit, you give the talk, give further interviews, and socialize so they can decide if they they wouldn’t mind having you around as a colleague.

Job visits vary in terms of whether the applicant has fun. If the people in the department are nice, and they take good care of you, the visit can be surprisingly pleasant. If they are schmucks and are not nice to you, well, at least that’s exceedingly informative. My impression is that nice is more common than not-nice.

Once all the job talks have taken place, the department usually has a meeting to make the final decision. Note that if you’re aware of the faculty meeting date, and don’t get an email right away, not all is lost:  often the department’s choice must be approved by the Administration before they can contact you.  The winner is usually notified fairly soon; the losers are sometimes told early on that they are second choice (or whatever). In the case of schmucky or ill-run departments, the losers are notified exceedingly late. You’re in your rights to ask.

7. Job searches and academic advising

a. When you are applying for academic jobs, it is essential to make sure that the dissertation advising process is proceeding optimally. This means visiting your committee members individually in appointments, and using these visits, in part, to educate them about the content of your thesis. If your committee members have suggestions for you, take these suggestions seriously — you can reject the suggestions, but if you want to do so, you should explain clearly why you are rejecting them.

When advising is going well, and particularly when the dissertation is coming out well, the committee members will often feel feel personally vested in your project, a good result in many ways.

Beyond the dissertation, it’s good to encourage your committee members to read your entire research oeuvre, so they can give a full and balanced view of your work.

A procedure that works badly is to have a neglected committee member who is asked at the last moment to read a lot of stuff, come up with an informed opinion of it, and then write glowing letters for you. If they are good sports, they will do the best they can, but this is almost certainly not as good as if they had been steadily involved.

If, through poor planning on your part, you end up having a letter writer who has been out of the loop and has not read your stuff in a long time, at least you can ask them for letters long enough in advance to let them read through your work just before they write.

b. Have your dissertation adviser carefully look over all your application materials, providing detailed advice, before you submit them anywhere. Ponder your adviser’s words and revise before submitting.

c. If you are going to the LSA or to give a job talk, have your dissertation adviser and/or other committee members conduct a mock interview.

If your adviser is unwilling to do items (b) and (c), you might ask him why; also ponder whether you have the right adviser. But this is a strictly hypothetical case; I have never heard of an adviser outright refusing to do these things (though some desperately busy ones have been known to stall…).

8. Dealing with your Recommenders

Pick as letter-writers the people who are in the best position to make a good case for you.

a. See above on keeping the advising process up-to-date.

b. Ask your letter-writers exactly how they want to proceed, i.e. how you impart the essential information about the jobs (these are:  address, salutation, deadline, job description) to them.  Some applicants make a little webpage, others a text document, others a series of guidance-emails.  Find something that works well.

c. Give the letter writers copies of the materials you yourself are submitting, long enough in advance for them to vet these materials and give you advice on them.

d. Keep the letter writers particularly well informed about deadlines. If you make a printed list of the jobs you are applying for, sort it by deadline and print the deadline dates in large type.

e. Nowadays, most jobs work with an application website to which your recommenders will upload their letters. This permits you to discreetly check if the letters have been submitted and nag your recommender if they are late. It’s not rude to send such nagging, as long as it it politely worded. For those jobs that primitively don’t use an application web site and work by email, you’re in your rights to send an email to them to check what letters have come in.

f. Sometimes letter writers get confused/worried because you’ve told them you’re applying, but they haven’t gotten their automatic letter request from the job website because you haven’t yet submitted your application. It’s good to provide clarification to your letter-writers when this happens.

9. A List of Ordinary Interview Questions

a. “Tell me about your dissertation work.”

b. “What sort of stuff do you see doing in your research as you move beyond your dissertation project?”

c. “How would you explain your research to a dean?”

d. “If you were applying for a grant, what would it be about?”

e. “What sort of things do you think are important in (graduate/undergraduate) teaching?”

f. “What textbook do you like to use for course X, and why?”

g. “On what topics would you like to teach an advanced-topics proseminar course?”

h. “Could you teach X for us?”

i. (laboratory fields): “What does it take to equip a lab?”

Think up good answers to all of these questions. Speak the answers to your dissertation adviser; then after modifying on the basis of her advice, speak them to a blank wall repeatedly until they are fluent.

Question (b) is answered badly by the majority of job applicants. The incorrect answer that is given is: “I’m going to do repeat exactly what I did in my dissertation, only for (different languages/slightly different phenomena)”. With a little thought, you can do better than this. One possibility is that you are thinking of doing something different, and you could talk about that. It’s also possible that you really are going to repeat your work on other languages and similar phenomena, and you have a good reason for doing so; one which involves a big-picture, long-term research goal. Tell them that long-term goal.

Concerning all questions about your future research:  if hired, you will not be held to your answer! The question is asked simply to see if you have good ideas and can think about the big picture.

The correct answer to question (h) is often held to be invariantly “yes”.  This is mostly true, but be a bit circumspect–followup questions might indicate you are faking.

For question (i), the uninspired answer is a recital of the equipment in your own lab. Better answers give a range of options, based on goals and budget.

10. A Common Trick Question

The question:

“What would you like to know about us?”

is also one you should prepare for.  This question might be considered a trick question:  the interviewers ask it because they want to be nice (i.e., to engage in reciprocity in a social interaction).  But of course, they are the ones who have a job to offer and you are unemployed, so practically speaking the need to impress and persuade falls entirely on your side. So don’t take the occasion to indulge your curiosity. A sensible gambit that has been suggested to me is to ask the interviewers about their hopes and aspirations for the position — perhaps you can then point out relevant aspects of the position that make you a good match.

10. Job interviews and the law

Pretty much anything that refers to you personally rather than professionally is illegal for interviewers to ask you (age, gender identification, sexual orientation, partner, ethnicity, etc.). You can spontaneously divulge such information, but it’s not clear to me when this would help …

Be aware that some committees may behave in a strangely mechanical way during an interview (reading the questions from a text, no follow-up questions). They are probably complying with a particular legal requirement of their university, so don’t think they are weird.

11. Who should be speaking in an interview, and how much?

If you dominate the interview with extremely long answers to the questions, you are really hurting your case (I’ve seen it happen, with fatal results).  So take care. On this point, I rather like this link.

On the other hand, if you ending up speaking rather little, that may be a good thing. I know a job applicant who got his job after an interview in which he could hardly get a word in edgewise. There’s surely empirical data out there on this point but I can’t find it; a hint (“studies show…”) is here.

Amusingly, random web sites tell us that the interviewer is making a terrible mistake if she talks more than 20% of the time, and the interviewee is making a terrible mistake if she talks more than 40% of the time. I guess some sort of accommodation has to be made.

12. Job talks

Preparation:  Given that essentially everything hinges on it, it is essential to prepare and practice a job talk thoroughly. A good place to rehearse and improve your talk is the department seminar for your field. It is helpful specifically to invite department members in areas other than your own, since they can give you perspective on how your talk will be perceived/understood by nonspecialists. After you have revised your talk in response to comments, polish it (say, by giving it to a wall several times) until it gleams. With a beautifully-prepared job talk, you will be more relaxed during your visit and make a better personal impression.

Ask in advance how long your talk slot is, and be sure that your talk fits with ample time for questions.

Content:  There are two well-known strategies.

a. Give a narrow, extremely technical, intimidating presentation that only fellow specialists in your field will understand. The majority of your audience will be dissatisfied with your talk, but when the time comes to explain just why the department should not hire you, they will have little to go on other than this general dissatisfaction.

b. Situate your research in its broad context, emphasizing why anyone would have gotten interested in your specific question in the first place. Go lightly on the endless details of the dissertation project, emphasizing the lively examples that illuminate your general point. Be sure to provide enough background that people who are linguists, but not in your specialization, will find the talk intelligible.

I personally prefer talks of type (b). But I have seen people get jobs giving talks of type (a). Which one works best depends on you, on the subfield you’re in, and on the department you are visiting.

A compromise is 10 minutes of difficult stuff in the middle, to establish your credentials, with the rest addressed to a general linguistic audience.

In any event, it is helpful to ask around and find out what the department is like — the search committee chair probably will not mind giving you advice.  It is particularly good to know how much background knowledge your audience is likely to command, so you can pitch the talk appropriately.

To combat nervousness, remain aware that most department members want you to succeed and are rooting for you. After all, they want to obtain a wonderful scholar and colleague, and yearn for you to be that person.

13. The Race is Not Always to the Swift

Academic jobs are sometimes awarded to people who, all knowledgeable individuals agree, are grossly inferior to other applicants in the same year. Part of the problem is that often the department looking for someone in field X doesn’t have an X, so they’re not in a good position to judge. See also the remark made under Who Decides?, above.

Beyond extreme cases where the incompetent get hired, there is of course a wide range of latitude for personal taste in hiring, leading to widespread disagreement on whether the outcome of a search was just or wise.

I say this because you should bear it in mind when you are turned down for jobs, as you certainly will be (nobody ever gets all the jobs they apply for!). If you do get a job, however, then go ahead and feel that it was entirely merit and that luck had nothing to do with it!

14. Morale

The linguistics job market, from year to year, ranges from “not too bad” to (in times of economic recession) pretty awful. You knew this, of course, when you applied to graduate school in linguistics.

As far as keeping your head held high, in what has some chance of becoming a demoralizing experience, I can offer the following bits of advice.

a. A number of people get jobs only after several years of searching and temporary appointments.

b. Rather few people get tenure track jobs right out of graduate school.

c. Often, one-year jobs (which keep you in play, give you teaching experience, and give you time to develop your publication record) are advertised quite a bit after the tenure-track jobs.

d. For many people, the thought of actually sitting down and writing application letters is pretty revolting. The important point is to hold your breath, overcome the revulsion, and write the letters anyway, so you won’t miss the deadline.

May your sufferings be brief, and your dream job fall into your lap.