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My life as a job applicant

One pianist's quest to obtain the elusive faculty position

I found that the most difficult part of entering the academic job market was getting started in the first place. At the time, I was teaching (adjunct) at a university and finishing up my doctorate. Finding more time to gather job prospects, prepare cover letters, recording so and other materials, and make dozens of trips to the post office seemed impossible. In the end, I reserved Friday (the day I received job notices from the College Music Society and my university's Career Services office in my e-mail inbox) as my weekly job search day. 

Creating a portfolio


My first step was to assemble the materials that almost every application requires: the cover letter, curriculum vitae, recommendation letters, and an audio or video recording of my performances. That became the core of my application portfolio, but I discovered that I would also need a diverse array of other materials that varied with the requirements of each job posting. Some schools asked for copies of my recent performance programs, a statement of my teaching philosophy, syllabi for college-level courses I had taught, videos of both my group and private piano teaching, or ideas for future cow'se offerings. I had many of these materials on hand, but some requests were time-consuming or made me scramble at the last minute. When one school asked for a video demonstration of my teaching, I had to borrow video equipment and record one of my scheduled classes. I wish I had been recording my classes during the previous four years so that I could have compiled a stronger tape. 

Sometimes it was difficult to remember what materials had been sent where if a given school asked for more information. Early on I realized how important it was to stay organized. I developed a "job search" folder on my flash drive (for portability) that contained a file for each school. In an Excel spreadsheet I tracked deadlines, the materials that I sent for each application (and when I post-marked them), and all contact information for the search committee chair. When schools replied, I documented these communications, additional materials that were requested, and status updates. This was time consuming, but it helped me manage the process as I juggled multiple applications and deadlines. 

Oh no, phone interviews!


After a month or two of submitting applications I felt like a pro. I soon found myself on unfamiliar ground, however, when I got my first request for a phone interview. I am far more comfortable interacting with people face to face than over the phone. I don't even like calling to order pizza (I make my husband do that)! I sought advice from my father on how to approach phone interviews-he regularly conducts business over the phone and always seems to connect with people effortlessly. He gave me three pieces of advice: 1) Smile when you talk on the phone-it makes you sound upbeat, and gives you confidence; 2) Take notes during the interview-the moment you hang up the phone you will be so relieved you may forget everything that just happened; 3) Find out who will be on the phone and arrange their names on pieces of paper so you can imagine them sitting around you. As I answered the committee's questions I pretended to face each of them in my virtual interview room. This helped me respond to a person with a name rather than to an anonymous voice.

After my first two phone interviews, I realized the importance of letting the committee members talk. Instead of filling in all the pauses in the conversation myself, I could engage them in a dialog that felt much more natural. I felt like I became a more interesting candidate, and I was able to learn a lot more about the school from the tone of the interviewers, their interactions with each other, and details they volunteered. I had also prepared some questions of my own to find out more about the job and help keep the dialog moving. The more I engaged them, the more they might remember me when it came time to choose finalists for the position. My approach seemed to work, since I was invited on campus by every university that gave me a phone interview. 

Visiting campus


It's tremendously exciting and very daunting to realize that an invitation for an on-campus interview means you are a top candidate! The most intimidating part was knowing that during the entire visit I would, in a sense, always be "performing." I was being judged not only on my teaching and performing abilities, but also on what I said, how I looked, and especially on whether it appeared that I had the potential to be a good colleague. I couldn't let my guard down, even during meals. All of my interactions with faculty members, administrators, support staff, students, and faculty spouses would likely be reported back to the search committee.

Despite the adage, most people likely will judge a book by its cover. I was much more aware about my physical appearance during interviews. I bought myself a new suit, a leather briefcase, and a new pair of shoes devoid of any scuff marks. I even paid to have the jacket tailored so it fit well and was comfortable. I wish, however, I had thought to break in my new shoes before traveling so I could have avoided some blisters. Fortunately I had band-aids in my travel kit! 

I tried to be aware of how I presented myself-in my first interview I realized that I was slouching in a particularly squishy couch. I looked people in the eye, tried to keep a smile on my face (despite the blisters!), and tried to speak slowly enough to prevent stumbling over words and overusing "um," "uh," and the dreaded "like." Although the interview was, in a sense, all about me, I tried to be mindful of when I started talking too much and would switch into listening or dialog mode. 



Life on the road required a certain amount of flexibility. My schedule was dictated in advance and I was not in control of breaks, meal times, or regular access to caffeine! To that end, my briefcase always contained a water bottle and some snacks to keep myself hydrated and alert. I also carried extra copies of my CV, my teaching philosophy, and any handouts I created for teaching demonstrations, so I was prepared should the need arise (it did more than once). I tried to keep myself open to unscheduled opportunities. For example, when I arrived for my first campus interview, I skipped the chance to rest and prepare for the next day and instead accepted an invitation to go directly from the airport to the Music Department's holiday ensemble concert. I was able to meet several members of the faculty and administration (including the committee) and gain an immediate sense of the department and its ensembles, all before my interview officially started.

Despite the pressure of being viewed under the microscope, I always tried to be myself. The interview process is not just about the university liking the candidate, but also about the candidate liking the university. Though I felt desperate to secure a position in a very tight job market, I realized along the way that if I wasn't happy with the location, school, or faculty, or if I had to pretend to be something I wasn't in order to get the job, then I would likely be miserable and back on the job market again next year. Throughout my visit I tried to get a good sense of the campus community, the town, and the tone of the program to envision myself in that setting. I interviewed them almost as carefully as they interviewed me.


In the end I was delighted to receive multiple job offers. I weighed my options carefully, consulted further with friends and family for advice, and then took the plunge as a new faculty member. Although entering the job market seemed foreign and stressful at the time, I have no regrets and love my new position, my new home, and my colleagues. 

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