General Advice on the Job Application Process

Applying for a job is a multi-phase endeavor that involves the application, the interview, the campus visit, and the job offer. In order to go on the job market this year, you should:

  • Have at least two polished chapters of your dissertation and be able to defend by the Spring.
  • Have a draft of the introduction or a strong conception of the overall structure and argument of your dissertation.
  • Have one peer-reviewed article published or forthcoming in a respected journal.
  • Have attended conferences and professional meetings.
  • Have your director’s and committee’s support for the plan.

Interpreting the Job Listing | Applications | Writing Samples

Teaching Materials | MLA Interviews | On-Campus Visits | Job Offers 


Interpreting the Job Listing

The MLA job list comes out in September. You can access it online, or check out a paper copy from the Graduate Studies office. New jobs are posted weekly. Also check the Chronicle of Higher Education and the SMLA job list. 

Apply widely while remaining within your area of specialization. Although ads often request highly specialized candidates, hiring committees may be more open than they sound. If you have a dissertation chapter or a published paper in the area advertised, or have taught on the subject, you may be qualified enough to be competitive.

Scholars from any period can apply for generalist jobs. Because the emphasis in these jobs is on undergraduate teaching, the applicant must demonstrate a wide range of knowledge. UNC is recognized for producing graduates with breadth, so students are encouraged to apply for such jobs.


The Application

The components of an application are the job letter, recommendations, dissertation abstract, curriculum vita, teaching portfolio, and writing sample. What search committees are looking for ranks the components of the application in order of importance. Committees use the job letter to eliminate candidates, so it should be a microcosm of your application as a whole, highlighting your dissertation, teaching experience, and achievements. For advice on how to craft this important document, see Ten Rules for Writing a Job Letter. Study the letters in Sample Job Materials, and note the Evolution of a Job Letter sequence, which traces the development of a successful letter over several years.

Career Services sends out letters of application. See How to File Letters of Recommendation for detailed instructions on how this process works.

After receiving the initial application, schools have two options. Either they can schedule an interview with you for the MLA convention, or they can request further information before making the decision to interview. Roughly 40% of the schools ask for additional materials from about fifty of their strongest applicants. Additional materials may include any of the following: the placement dossier, a sample of your written work, a packet of your teaching materials (syllabi, course assignments etc.), or transcripts.


The Writing Sample

If asked for a writing sample, you should send the piece of writing you think best represents your scholarly interests and talents. The sample may be an excerpt from your dissertation, an article based on your dissertation, or an article unrelated to your dissertation. It should be the best example of your critical writing, and should be able to stand on its own as a complete argument, even if it is part of a larger work. Most schools would like to see a section of your dissertation, so send an excerpt even if you choose another work as your writing sample. Something in the 20 page range is ideal.  If you have a publication that is already in print, send a Xerox or offprint of that piece. While a cover letter may be too elaborate, a paragraph situating the writing sample in the longer work is called for in most cases. Consult your committee about which selection would be best to submit. Your director, your committee, and should review this sample.


Teaching Portfolios (see sample materials)

Teaching materials include the teaching philosophy, course syllabi and materials, and, in some cases, student evaluations. A short (i.e. less than one single‑spaced page) cover letter explaining the materials should also be sent.

Later in the process (i.e. if you get an interview or an on‑campus visit) some schools might want to see a collection of all the materials you used in (at least) one particular class‑‑handouts, grading rubrics, exams, paper topics etc. The portfolio should provide insight into the way you organized and taught the class.

Some schools ask for student evaluations. If so, it may be wise to call the university and ask them to exactly what they are looking for. Do they want photocopies of student evaluations? How are you to select them?

You should have a letter in your placement file that discusses your abilities as a teacher. If there is no professor who can write such a letter, ask your dissertation adviser to observe your teaching and then to include a paragraph (at least) on your teaching in his or her letter.


The MLA Convention Interview

In the standard procedure, after the dossier/writing sample request phase, schools narrow down the field to 10‑12 candidates, whom they interview at the annual MLA convention. Interview requests usually come between the end of November and the second week of December. Sometimes applicants are asked for an interview without having been asked for a writing sample.

The typical interview lasts 30 minutes, is held in a hotel room, and involves 3 or 4 members of the department asking you questions about your dissertation and your teaching experience. There are lots of atypical interviews, however; while in some interviews you will face a committee of ten, in others there may only be one interviewer. The MLA also provides an interviewing area, so not all interviews are in hotel rooms. See "Dos and Don'ts for MLA Convention Interviews" on the ADE webpage for interview protocol guidelines.

See "interview tips" and "sample interview questions" for preparation resources. Mock interviews will take place during exam week of the fall semester. All prospective job applicants are encouraged to undergo the mock interview process.


The On-Campus Visit

Almost all (99%) schools now ask 1, 2, or 3 of the 12 people they interview at MLA to come to campus for two days to meet everyone in the department, make some kind of presentation to faculty and students, and meet various deans. Although you pay all your expenses to go to the MLA convention, the school that invites you should pay all the expenses for the on‑campus visit. While on campus, you may have a chance to ask questions about teaching loads (number of classes, types of classes, and numbers of students in the classes), tenure expectations (how many people get tenure, what do you need to do to be a strong candidate for tenure), leave policies (do they have a sabbatical, is there supplementary support if you get an outside fellowship), research and technical support (how is the library's off‑campus loan dept; do you get a computer; what are computing facilities and support like; is their money available for xeroxing, travelling to collections, and travelling to conferences), teaching conditions (what are the students like), and benefits (health insurance, retirement/pension funding, child care, etc.). Etiquette, however, requires that even if you have this kind of talk with the chair that you not ask about salary; the chair may bring salary up, but if he or she does not, you should not. Salary negotiations begin only after an offer is made. That is also the time to negotiate any other conditions of employment. You may not, however, get the opporunity to discuss such details during your on‑campus visit. Some schools prefer to leave all that stuff until after an actual offer is made. This can get a little tricky. You will of course be asked repeatedly during your on­campus visit if you have any questions for them. But that doesn't necessarily mean questions about health insurance.

The Job Talk
Almost every on‑campus visit involves some sort of presentation. Pay careful attention to what you are asked to do. Some schools want a formal, scholarly presentation, such as reading a paper that comes out of your dissertation. Usually, that involves giving a forty minute lecture and fielding twenty minutes of questions afterwards. Many schools, however, will ask for much less formal presentations, and may want you to focus more on your teaching than on your scholarship. Some schools might ask you to teach a class‑‑either in lieu of the job talk or in addition to it. For tips on teaching a class as part of the campus visit, see Dr. Flaxman's notes.

On‑Campus Interviews
While on campus, you will almost certainly meet at least one dean and you will also probably have a fairly formal interview with the chair of the department and (perhaps) with a search committee or other small group of faculty.

A Word on Spouses
You may be asked about your spouse during the on‑campus visit. If your spouse is not an academic, simply tell the interviewer that there are no personal obstacles to your taking the job. What you want to convey is that you think such information is irrelevant and would appreciate it if the conversation moved back to professional matters. If, however, your spouse is an academic‑‑and especially an academic in English‑‑the matter is trickier. The issue shouldn't come up in an MLA interview, but if it does, the best policy is to tell the truth‑‑but again in such a way as to indicate that you find the question irrelevant to the matter at hand. You are not in a position to bargain for a job for your spouse; after all, you are there trying to get a job for yourself. But it is best that the college and your prospective department know that you have a spouse who is ready, able, and willing to work. Schools know this is an issue for an increasing number of candidates, and will usually at least have suggestions about possibilities for your spouse in the area even if there is nothing for him or her at the school where you are interviewing. In short, people can't help if they don't even know your spouse exists‑‑and they will not be pleased if the existence of an academic spouse is revealed very late in the process.

On the other hand, you may get through the on‑campus visit without the topic ever coming up. In that case, it's best for you not to raise the issue either. Unfortunately, at the present time, in hiring for beginning assistant professorships, candidates are not expected to bargain for work for their spouses. If the school offers to help out, great; but if the school does not offer, there is really nothing you can do.


The Job Offer

It is inappropriate for a university to offer a job before or at MLA. If offered a job under such circumstances, it is OK to say you will need time to think about the offer.

The job offer is usually made by phone, either by the chair of the department or a dean. You are not expected to say yes or no over the phone, but it certainly helps to make it clear that you are very pleased to be their choice. A few days after the phone call, you will receive a letter formally offering you the job and listing the terms of employment. Your response to the letter should also be in writing. Sometimes you will be asked to sign a copy of the letter and it will be considered the contract between you and the school. If you have questions about anything in the letter and want to change any of its conditions (salary or anything else), you should do that by phone. Your phone call should be to the person who called you with the job offer, even if that person is not the one who signed the official job letter.

The Non‑Standard Procedure
Once the MLA convention is over, schools that (for any number of reasons) need to hire someone who will start in the following fall but were unable to begin the hiring process in time to interview people at the convention look for candidates in a variety of ways. Most often they advertise (in the Chronicle or in the spring MLA job lists) and then cut to the chase immediately, inviting 2 or 3 applicants directly to campus. But other screening procedures‑‑including telephone interviews‑‑are also employed. Spring job hunting involves keeping your ear to the ground and getting letters, vitae, and other requested materials out promptly. Here, more than in the fall, being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference since hiring schools are working under time pressures that don't affect fall searches.

If you find yourself in a particular geographic area and looking for work, a blanket mailing to all the area's colleges will very often land you some adjunct work. Almost all colleges now hire some lecturers and they rarely bother to advertise these positions, depending instead on blind applications that come in the mail. Early April is the optimal time to send out such letters since many schools hire for lecturer positions right at the end of the spring semester. April to June is the season for such openings.