Design Educators Community

How NOT to blow an academic job interview in design, the arts or the humanities (Part 2)

December 7, 2015 / Michael R. Gibson, with some content suggested by Steven McCarthy

This is the second of a series of pieces that will appear on the AIGA DEC blog during the 2015-16 academic year. They are offered on behalf of both emerging, university-level educators entering the academic job market for the first time, as well as on behalf of those who have accrued significant teaching experience. Each of these posts will address issues pertinent to engaging in the academic job interview process. The first article in this series is available at How NOT to blow an academic job interview in design, the arts or the humanities (Part 1).

Avoiding typographically induced disasters 
Avoid sending or making available poorly designed correspondence (cover letters, curriculum vitaes, web-based materials, etc.) to anyone on any academic search committee you wish to take you or your application seriously. This is especially true in the design disciplines, and particularly in graphic, communication design and interaction design, where poorly considered information hierarchies and ill-structured negative spaces in a single page, much less an entire system of visual communications, can and will keep you from even landing a phone interview (more about phone interviews will appear in the next installment of this series).

Additionally, if the design of your materials evinces your apparent lack of understanding about issues such as how line length, point-size and leading/line height all work interdependently to affect readability, there are some people on some search committees who will question the legitimacy of the degrees you’ve earned, especially if the include the word “design” in their titles. For people reading this who don’t understand the issues broached in the last sentence, consult with or hire a designer skilled in typography to ensure the design of your materials effectively communicates the record of your experiences without making you look as if the only taste you possess exists in your mouth.

Avoiding prose-based, syntactically abetted disasters 
Even if you’re a reasonably a good writer, or think you are, it would be wise to hire an experienced copy editor or grammarian—you may need the services of both—to proofread and edit all of the written content that appears in your application materials. This is as necessary for experienced educators and researchers, who often tend to over-write (I’m notoriously guilty of this…), as it is for people who plan on entering the job market for the first time as they complete their graduate experiences. Almost anyone attempting to secure an academic position in an institution of higher learning should be capable of producing syntactically well-structured prose. It should effectively communicate not only essential meaning, but it should be crafted so that key contentions are bolstered with viable rationales, and crucial claims—whatever they may be—are supported with actual evidence.

At their most minimal, academic job application packets call for your curriculum vitae (it’s not a resumé…), cover letter(s), descriptions of particular pieces of your work, scholarship or research, and material that articulates whatever your aspirations are within the specific institution to which you’re applying. Bear in mind that the people who are facilitating most of the searches to which you’ll be applying aren’t only trying to ascertain the skill sets and bases of knowledge you can operate, but that they’re also trying to determine if you’d be a good colleague for them to bring into their particular mix. This is especially true if you’re applying to a tenure-track position, where you need to be mindful of the long-term investment an institution has to make to hire a potentially tenurable faculty member (see below).

This means that tailoring how you write what you write for each search committee is essential, and it’s now easier than ever to do this. Because of what you should be able to determine about “who’s doing what and why” among a given array of future academic colleagues by perusing their institutions’ websites, and those of at least some of their faculty, there’s now an expectation among many search committees that viable candidates will specifically craft their applications to suit particular postings. Not doing this can make it appear as if you don’t care enough about what what they’re doing and why to submit an application “just for them,” which can cause them to think you’re not worth their precious time to consider as a candidate.

Avoiding disasters stemming from not understanding
“return-on-investment” (ROI)

Hiring someone into a tenure-track position at the Assistant Professor level in design, the arts or the humanities—or in any other discipline—requires a significant investment of money and time over three to six years for most colleges, universities and academies. In contemporary terms, the expenditures necessary to support a “tenure-track hire” in many institutions of higher learning can easily approach half a million U.S. dollars. This estimate accounts not only for the cost of their salary, but of their benefits package, the office and/or lab space they require, the cost of purchasing and maintaining their computing equipment, contributing to their moving and travel costs, and maintaining the various infrastructures that make it possible for them to teach, engage in scholarship or creative activity, and pursue research. This is a significant investment for most institutions of higher learning, and they tend to want a reasonable return on it from whoever they hire.

As is the case with most investments, the hiring of a new faculty member also entails significant risk for the investor: not having someone attain tenure, or not “work out” at a higher employment level, can mean losing this investment, or even netting a negative return on it if the faculty member teaches poorly, or squanders the resources and time of colleagues and administrators who work with her. Thinking about a prospective academic hire from this point-of-view can be useful for an academic job applicant to bear in mind as a given academic job search season, or an individual institution’s search process, transpires. What follows are descriptions of three aspects prospective academic job applicants can use to inform their thinking about ROI.

ROI generated by being perceived as a “good teacher” in your discipline, and then from actually doing this well
As students are required to pay more per year to earn their degrees, college professors whose classroom practices can best assure that students get “the best bang for their bucks” become crucial recruiting “sells” necessary to attract prospective students and to retain those already enrolled. College professors in professional programs like design who teach effectively also help ensure that the students who graduate from their programs compete effectively in the marketplace. This ability to demonstrate alumni success, especially over time, becomes another recruiting draw for programs like design, and helps sustain the flow of tuition revenue and, in public universities, state funding. Faculty who can effectively operate more than one or two pedagogic approaches to positively affect their teaching become more “worth the price of tuition” for current and future students, and this is something programs can publicize to their benefit. Smart university, college and academy administrators understand this and try to hire accordingly.

ROI generated by the perception of an applicant’s ability to “cross disciplines,” and then actually being able to do it effectively
Teaching effectively, and the ability to avoid teaching badly, requires that a faculty member possesses the ability and the will to engage in continual learning processes that inform and are informed by her own discipline, and, more recently, a broad spectrum of others like the social sciences, marketing and some aspects of computing and information science. Learning to incorporate understandings from disciplines outside your own into your teaching, and placing students in learning situations where they learn to construct rather than merely perform knowledge are being increasingly sought after by academic search committees. This can allow specific departments, and areas within departments, to seek funding derived from projects undertaken by faculty-led teams of students sponsored by public and private sector companies, philanthropic organizations, alumni and alumni groups and community foundations. Bringing funding into your area, department, college or school = ROI generated (at least in part) by you. Applicants for faculty positions who are capable of planning and operating these types of projects stand a much better chance of “making the cut.”

ROI generated by an applicant’s ability to “broadly spread” her knowledge of design across her institution
Faculty members who can teach courses that allow students from their discipline to coalesce with students from other disciplines, and, in so doing, create more broadly informed learning experiences for all of the students involved, also have the potential to increase some aspects of their institutions’ ROIs. This is being fueled by the demand across more institutions of higher learning for people who possess the ability to think as designers think, to analyze the functions of multiple models and prototypes to inform decision-making, to engage in iterative, experientially informed processes, and to invent when innovation fails to improve or ameliorate. People who can teach these skills and understandings to students who graduate and then use them to earn more money and to afford themselves a greater array of life and career opportunities are now becoming more highly valued by institutions of higher learning, and this trend isn’t showing signs of wavering. Designers and other university-level faculty who can work across disciplines also have greater opportunities to seek and secure funding in the contemporary American fiscal landscape to support their creative activity, scholarship and research. If your application materials provide evidence of you having done things like this, or having the potential to do them in the near future, you’ll also bolster your chances of being added to many institution’s short lists for potential hires.

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  • Jessica Barness

    Thanks for this. Specifically regarding the parts on ROI, it’s great advice for academic job seekers. I also see this as a necessary ‘call to action’ for those of us advising and mentoring graduate students headed toward academic careers.

    It’s one thing to tell graduate students about ROI-related concerns, but confidence in a job interview comes with active, firsthand experience. Graduate faculty are in an ideal position to foster that: practice talking with students about the value of his/her specific disciplinary knowledge, and how to craft a viable research/teaching agenda with it; facilitate ways for them to bring cross-disciplinary processes into their teaching assistantships; and, whenever possible, guide them to seek out ways to apply their knowledge broadly across your institution — and beyond! These things, unfortunately, may not be common practice in every grad program, and grad students may not even know they should be asking about them. Ultimately, though, it’s a win-win cycle. The home institution increases the strength of their overall program, and the student’s future institution benefits as well. So does the discipline.