Higher Education

On the Market I: Brown M&M’s

Dan is doing an amazing service by documenting his process (to hopefully a well-deserved and intellectually stimulating tenure-track position). So, I thought I would add a counter-point to his. The view from across the table, as it were. What is it that a job search committee is looking for when the Dan’s of the world sent in their applications? Let’s start with the request for course syllabi from applicants who probably have not had much of a chance to actually teach courses.

Undoubtedly Dan has put together a killer course, with a wonderfully thought out lecture progression, and appropriate course material. Chances are, nobody on the search committee will give this precious document much more than a cursory scan. Send along other materials, like copies of exams, study guides, student evaluations and scores, etc? Nobody will read them. And if you are applying for a science position at a top line research university, you might think of sending your grant proposals. Which won’t be read, either.

Why do we ask for this stuff in the first place, then?

Because hiring someone is also very stressful and extremely time consuming. Above all, we want success. Someone who will get tenure. Who will uphold their collegial duties in teaching their fair share of classes and doing administrative tasks well. Above all, we don’t want to hire someone who will fail or bail, and then have to go through this whole, hard process again in a couple of years.

So if you can write a course syllabus that actually looks like a teachable class (or better yet, have already taught one), or a grant proposal that looks like if might get funded (or MUCH better yet, has already been funded!), then you have passed the first step of showing us that you know what it will take to succeed in the “game”. The best analogy I have is the story of rock bands making outrageously ridiculous demands for their concert venues, such as, “No brown M&M’s backstage!!!” This has nothing to do with some hidden toxic quality to brown food coloring. What it means is that when you come in and see a bowl with no browns, you know that the small things have been dutifully attended to. And then you feel much better that the big, important things that aren’t so easily checked (e.g., stage lighting, sound equipment, seating, etc.) have also been suitably taken care of.

Therefore, the first step in applying is to make sure you do the small things right. When you send in that cover letter and research and teaching statements (and we all know that you have them as form letters on your computer), make sure that you get the names of the search committee chair, department, and university correct. You’d be surprised how often letters arrive, where the candidate has neglected to adjust the letter to the job. Especially in the title of the position they are applying for! Meet the deadlines, and have your references meet them, too. Send in all the material they ask for, but don’t send gobs of stuff that hasn’t been asked for. Make sure everything looks neat and attractive to the eye. And that syllabus? Do spend your time making it look real and like a course set to go next school term. After all, if you can’t get these simple easy things right, how are you going to get that hard thing – tenure – right???

And finally. Back in the day we failed job applicants would eventually get that thin letter that says thanks, but no thanks. What we jovially referred to as our FOAD’s (F*** Off And Die letters). Nowadays, it’s a short email. But rest assured, if you did them in a credible manner you were never rejected just because of your syllabus or whatever supplementary material you provided. Either you didn’t fit the specifics of the job description well enough, or at this point, there were a couple of applicants a bit more accomplished in the field than your present(!) state. Never take any rejection personally. Never take any rejection as a final statement on the merits of your career. I got a 100 FOAD’s before UCLA. It happens. Learn to love rejection. I’m sure Dan and I will have more to say on this…

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.


  1. December 30, 2014 at 3:20 pm —

    Perhaps I should clarify that some of the syllabi have been for the initial application and one was in a later round of the search. So I’d expect them to read one they’ve specifically requested.

    As for FOADs: about half of the schools I’ve applied to don’t even bother, or send them so late (one over a year later) that they may as well not have bothered. The only way to know you’re no longer in the running is to see they’ve moved on to another round on the jobs wiki for our field.

    That, I have to say, is really poor form, /especially/ since all it takes is a short (even automated) email.

  2. December 30, 2014 at 4:01 pm —

    I would hope it is read carefully, but that’s not a guarantee. You may be surprised (shocked?) when you get to the interview stage and realize how lightly most of your potential future colleagues have read your file. As for FOAD’s, people on the whole hate to be bearers of bad news; so most of mine were outsourced to some poor staff person. Maybe the poor response rate has to do with staff cutbacks at many institutions. I certainly was told by the vast majority of places I applied to, that I was no longer wanted. Although, there were two places I interviewed that actually never officially told me I didn’t get the job. (UMBC? Are you guys still trying to decide about it???)

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