59 Applying for Academic Jobs

Academic jobs are typically announced in professional journals and on university websites. The MLA Job Information List (JIL) is the main source for academic employment opportunities in our discipline; Rhetmap, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed are other important resources used by many universities for disseminating information about academic positions and there are other, more specialized, job listings as well. It is important to do some preliminary research about jobs before applying, including learning about the nature of the school and the community in which it is situated, the size of the library and its potential for advanced research, teaching obligations required of faculty, class sizes, and any other details considered important by the applicant.

The faculty search process takes several months, beginning with the posting of job openings in the fall semester, so academic job-seekers should start applying for positions a year before they actually need a job. Most application due dates fall in October or November. Many of the colleges and universities advertising positions will conduct preliminary interviews virtually or at the annual MLA meeting in early January, so job-seekers may want to propose a paper at this conference and plan a budget that includes airfare, hotel, and food for this trip. More and more institutions, however, are using Teams and Zoom for first-stage interviews, so you should be prepared for interviews under such conditions, also.

Application Materials

The following materials are commonly submitted when applying for academic positions:

Cover Letter

The cover letter provides the first impression of a candidate to a search committee. The letter should be individualized to address the specifics of the job listing. You may need one letter that emphasizes research and another that focuses on teaching. The letter for research-oriented positions addresses one’s research interests and provides a brief synopsis of the dissertation. It should also mention teaching experience and any honors or awards that have been received for scholarly work or teaching excellence. Letters for teaching institutions should highlight teaching and minimize descriptions of research.

Curriculum Vitae (C.V.)

The curriculum vitae or c.v. (often alternatively referred to as the vita) is the academic equivalent of a professional résumé and succinctly presents one’s credentials to the search committee. It should be thorough, but concise, outlining the applicant’s college education and degrees, publications, conference activities, teaching experience, honors and awards, grants, service, and any experience outside the university that is related to the applicant’s field of study or to teaching. The c.v. should also include the names and contact information for three references who may attest to the candidate’s abilities as a scholar, teacher, and colleague.


Many schools will request an abstract of the dissertation. The abstract should be no more than two pages in length.

Philosophy of Teaching

Many search committees require a statement of teaching philosophy. The statement should be 1 to 1½ pages long and should include views on lecturing, group-work, the goal of writing assignments, the goal of studying literature, and how these particular goals and activities work together toward achieving the larger goals of a liberal education. Occasionally a search committee may require a philosophy of research or of research and teaching.


Most committees will initially require unofficial copies of transcripts from all of the higher education institutions attended by a job candidate, showing the degrees earned. Official transcripts will be required if the candidate is considered for the position.

Writing Sample

Writing samples are often requested along with other application materials. The sample should (obviously) represent the candidate’s best work, for instance, an excerpt from the dissertation or an offprint or photocopy of a paper that has been published in a reputable journal. The sample should be around 20–30 pages in length, though some committees may ask for less.

Letters of Recommendation

The letters of recommendation may be the most important part of the application dossier.  Impressive as the c.v., writing sample, and transcripts may be, the letters are the search committee’s most revealing window into the candidate as a potential colleague. As a result, candidates should ask for letters from people who can attest not only to their brilliance as scholars and teachers, but also to their work habits, collegiality, and ability to meet challenges and overcome obstacles. The dissertation director should always be one of the references. The other two references should be people very familiar with the candidate’s scholarship and teaching abilities. If necessary, ask the references to observe a class you teach and to look over the syllabus, so that they will be able to write on this topic.

The references should always be given at least one month’s notice in advance of the date that letters will be needed. Each reference should be provided with a sample of updated application materials and the due dates for the various applications being submitted. Applicants should not be afraid to ask for confirmation that the letters have been sent, though most referrers will send notification when they have done so.

Applicants should never ask for copies of the letters of recommendation. Some referrers will voluntarily provide a copy; others will refuse to write the letters unless they can do so confidentially.

Candidates preparing for the job markets should consult the professional development resources provided by the department, attend relevant workshops, and consult with faculty mentors while developing their application materials.


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