|Tips for Applying for Academic Jobs or Graduate School: |
Putting Your Best Foot Forward (or at Least Keeping it Out of Your Mouth)
|Mitchell M. Handelsman, University of Colorado at Denver|
Joseph J. Palladino, University of Southern Indiana
of us have had experience applying for graduate schools and serving on graduate
admissions committees. Likewise, we have been applicants for academic jobs, and
we have been on committees that hired new faculty members. After over 20 years
of such experiences, we have learned that the skills that are necessary for
applying to graduate school are the same as those that will come in handy later
when you apply for jobs. Our solemn task in this column is to help you prepare
for the application process. Everything in this column--except for the made-up
parts--is based on actual interviews.
all, truth IS stranger than fiction.
the Right Position
While undergraduate students are perusing Graduate Study in Psychology,
graduate students (and some faculty members) are busy looking at the APA
Monitor and other such publications. In both cases, months of searching lead to
the realization that there is no perfect graduate program and no perfect job.
Graduate programs want applicants with publications; a letter to the editor of
the South Evansville Weekly Post-World-Dispatch-Intelligencer just won't do.
Likewise, universities want new faculty members with international reputations,
and having spent one's last vacation in Montreal is not as impressive as you
may think. Thus, it is important to spend some time narrowing down choices.
Say, to about 50.
Once you've made the choice about where to apply, the trick is to write a form
letter in such a way as it does not sound like a form letter. In the age of
word processors with mail-merge functions, this is easier, but it still takes
some doing. Here are some tips that we have picked up for writing such letters:
- Do not use stationery from the motel you stayed at
during your last spring break, or last year's job search.
- Do not write letters of application in longhand, even
though your handwriting looks like a doctor's.
- Although it is very desirable to provide some detailed
information about yourself in your letter, it is not good to provide
information ON your letter. In other words, do not leave any indications
of what you had for breakfast, lunch, or dinner on the letter. This is
because it tends to show some sloppiness. It's also because you need to
leave room for committee members to leave bits of their own meals.
- Do not indicate that your career aspirations include
being dean of the college, and then supreme leader of the world.
- The correct form of address is not "Dear Sir,
Madam, or whatever . . ."
- Do not question the wisdom of the institution's
requirement that letters of recommendation (a) be forwarded directly to
the institution, (b) be from people who actually know you, and (c) cannot
be written in your handwriting.
- Remember that committees will probably not be inclined
to accept you for a position at "Name of School here."
Whether you are applying for graduate school or a job, you sit by the phone,
hour by hour, day by day, week by week, hoping that it will ring with news that
you have been selected for an interview. (The only difference is between
sitting in a dorm room or an apartment, on a secondhand sofa or a beanbag
chair, with textbooks or with journals on your shelves, and whether the shelves
are made of milk cartons or cinder blocks.) You gladly accept the invitation
before you realize that you have no money to travel and you'll have to start
driving this afternoon for your interview next week. Some places have travel
money, but others do not. You should be careful, however, not to accept an
interview at a place that asks you if you have some Burger King coupons you
could bring with you.
impressions are very important. Thus, appropriate clothing is a must for any
interview. Be aware, then, that a Santa Claus hat is NOT in good taste, even if
the interview occurs during the Christmas season. Although the data are
sketchy, it appears that wearing dark glasses to interviews does not improve
Some places make it a point to take the applicant out to lunch (assuming that
the applicant is not out to lunch already). It is important to bear in mind
that even mealtimes should be considered part of the interview, so be on your
guard. For example:
- Do not order the most expensive item on the menu
(assuming you are NOT using your own Burger King coupons).
- Asking for a doggie bag at the buffet line is not
considered top form.
- For that matter, neither is bringing your dog.
- Forgetting to remove one's lobster bib for the
afternoon interviews has been known to cast clouds over the entire
- Eating olives by throwing them high in the air and
catching them in one's mouth has been known to reduce chances of acceptance.
are some tips that are especially useful when interviewing for graduate
- Do not convey to the interviewer that you will answer
questions "on a need to know basis."
- You should prepare to interview by reading one of
several very good books on graduate school admission. However, you should
not leave the interview to phone the author of the book to ask if it's OK
to loosen your tie.
- Most interviewers will not be interested in your stamp
collection, bird calls, or jazz oboe.
- Even clinical programs will not necessarily be
impressed with your idea to revise the traditional Rorschach cards by
inserting graphics from Nintendo games.
- Do not challenge the interviewer to hand wrestle to see
who buys the other beer after the interview.
- Try to avoid questions concerning the strictness of the
school's policy against selling illicit drugs.
- When asked what your research interests are, do not
respond, "You mean, in my current life?"
- Do not ask the interviewers how they ever got into graduate
- Do not bribe the interviewer. However, it may be
acceptable to send gifts to interviewers if the gifts can be consumed
without leaving traces.
- When asked about your long-term goals, do not say,
"Define 'long-term'; define 'goals.'"
- It will not help your chances of acceptance to
volunteer automatically to participate in any research project that
involves hypnosis, out-of-body experiences, drugs, or sensory deprivation.
tips for interviewing for academic positions are similar:
- You will invariably be asked to give a colloquium or
talk during your interview. Dress well, speak clearly, and remember always
to refer to "collecting" rather than "buying" or
"making up" your dissertation data.
- During your talk, try as best you can to ignore the
noise made by senior faculty members who think an applicant's talk is a
great time to eat lunch.
- Eating habits of senior faculty members is not a good
topic of conversation during the rest of your interview.
- When you are interviewed by the dean, it is considered
less than impressive to place a tape recorder on the desk "just to
make sure there are no misunderstandings."
- Do not ask if the school has a policy prohibiting
faculty from cohabiting with students. This will not endear you to the
- When they ask your opinions about grading, try not to
say, "I think everyone deserves an A regardless of effort."
- If they ask you if you've ever been in trouble with the
law, do not ask, "Just what exactly do you mean by 'trouble?'"
general, it is best to present yourself during the interview as a dedicated,
highly motivated, self-starting individual. After all, there is limited time
during an interview, and the truth can wait.
Copyright 1998 (Volume 2, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the
International Honor Society in Psychology
Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members
and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs,
awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers,
graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various
fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.
Eye on Psi Chi is published quarterly: