Placement Practicum

As the Chair of the Graduate Placement Committee in English, I currently direct the department's new Placement Practicum. The course combines conventional job market preparation--drafting and workshopping written materials and practice interviewing--with broader discussions of professional development and career planning, including visits from faculty at community colleges and small liberal-arts colleges, as well as alt-ac professionals.

The advice on this page derives from our Practicum discussions during the course's first semester. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to be a guide to some of what I think are the central issues, principles, and problems with the initial stages of the job search process. Suggestions are of course welcome! You are also free to use this material, as long as you abide by the terms of the Creative Commons license for this site.


Course Description

The Job Market - Overview

Recommended Readings and Resources

Initial Application Materials

Cover Letter

CV (curriculum vitae)

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Teaching Portfolio

Dissertation Abstract

Research Statement

Application Files

Dossier / Letters of Reference


Course Description

"Professional Development and Career Planning" (ENGL:5050)

This one-hour course is designed to prepare graduate students for the job search by focusing on career planning and professional development. This is a practicum, meaning that it is not only practical, but concerned with action: students will learn to present themselves as practitioners actively engaged in the profession of research and teaching--in whatever form it may take. We will emphasize the skills necessary to thrive in your lives after finishing your degree. Because there is no guarantee of academic employment, this course aims to prepare students to apply for many kinds of positions. This course may be repeated, and is suitable for students seeking jobs, as well as those still a year or two away from finishing the dissertation.

We will begin with an overview of the academic placement process, including the timelines, protocols, and practicalities of the job search (relevant databases, job lists, publications, and dossier services); the different kinds of academic positions (research institutions, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, etc.); the necessary written materials (CV, cover letter, dissertation abstract, teaching philosophy and/or portfolio, sample syllabus, and course descriptions); and the various kinds of interviews (phone, Skype, conference interview, campus visit, and teaching presentation). Separate small-group meetings will be held for job-seekers to workshop these materials and to conduct mock interviews.

In addition, we will address the professional skills and tools that can support your research and teaching strengths, from the presentation and articulation of your research in a variety of venues (such as conferences); mentoring; creating a web presence and using digital technology and social media to further your scholarship; and non-academic and alternative-academic (alt-ac) employment opportunities. We will also welcome local faculty at liberal-arts colleges and community colleges, former Iowa PhDs, and campus career services officers to address these issues.

The Job Market - Overview

Few of us approach the search for employment with eagerness or enthusiasm, particularly within the idiosyncratic environment of the academy. Professional development is now an integral part of graduate education--one that complements and supports, rather than supplants, the intellectual engagement that drew you to the program in the first place. The job market requires a combination of intellectual and practical approaches--that is, it requires you to articulate and communicate the substance and value of your research and teaching to a wider audience, just as humanities scholars and professionals must do to the wider world. The same talents and skills honed during your graduate studies--an openness to challenging ideas, gifts as a writer and researcher, and a teacher's ability to organize and communicate effectively--can serve any job candidate well during the placement process, which extends and applies the knowledge and skills you have already acquired.

As is often the case, if you can demystify the process and break the preparation into small steps and stages, the job search will be far more manageable. Fortunately, a great deal of information and guidance is now available, including standard reference books, formal articles on the websites of professional organizations such as the Modern Language Association, and blogs created by faculty and graduate students with experience in the job search. This document offers an overview, advice, and some links to useful resources online.

This document should be used in conjunction with the recommended readings and resources listed below.

The MLA Job Information List is usually released in mid-September—though it will continue to be updated throughout the fall semester, and indeed the entire academic year. The earliest deadlines for initial applications normally fall in October, so you will need to work quickly and diligently (indeed, ideally you will have been drafting and preparing your materials for months, if not years). Positions will continue to be advertised—and thus deadlines will continue—throughout the spring semester.

Recommended Readings and Resources

  • Kathryn Hume, Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs. 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) **This is the most useful resource available, since it is aimed directly at English and Humanities Ph.D. students. If you are actively on the academic job market, you should plan to read (and re-read) the relevant sections repeatedly.
  • Gregory Colon Semenza, Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) **Someone should have told you about this book during your first year in graduate school, but it is useful at any stage of your career.
  • Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your PhD Into A Job (Three Rivers Press, 2015)
  • Gregory Colon Semenza and Garrett Sullivan, Jr., eds., How to Build a Life in the Humanities: Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
  • Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
  • Jennifer S. Furlong and Julia M. Vick, The Academic Job Search Handbook. 4th ed. (U. of Penn Press, 2008)
  •  Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, So What Are You Going To Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia. 2nd ed. (U. of Chicago Press, 2007)
  • William Germano, From Dissertation to Book. 2nd ed. (U. of Chicago Press, 2013)

Online Resources
The MLA website hosts the Job Information List, the most important listing of academic jobs, which usually goes live in September. You will need to login to search the list, either with your own membership information, or with the department’s login:
The MLA website also includes a number of resources for the job application process, including data-driven reports, articles, advice, and guides:

For better and for worse, the Chronicle is the standard source of information and commentary on higher education. You may want to get oriented at the “First Time on the Market” page:

The site includes a substantial section of job listings and advice columns, much of which has been moved to the spin-off site Vitae

The Chronicle also now sponsors one of the best academic blogs, ProfHacker. The blog primarily focuses on the role of technology and productivity in the classroom, but it offers generally useful career advice as well:

Similar to the Chronicle in that it publishes articles, advice columns, and blogs on all aspects of higher education. The site also includes a section of job listings:

You can access yet another job listing at H-Net, which aims to be more interdisciplinary than some of the other online academic websites.

This site is useful for identifying and collecting information on jobs, which are listed by field and sub-field. It also hosts a variety of resources, including links to job market and alt-ac resources

This is a consulting and advising service run by a former tenured professor. There are several services available, including, most usefully, a free blog that offers a variety of unvarnished advice on aspects of the job market process, including leaving the academic market.

Alt-Ac Resources
This site offers resources for PhDs and ABDs who are looking for jobs outside of the academy. The University of Iowa now has a subscription to this service—more information can be found on the Grad College’s website here:

Initial Application Materials

At a minimum, you will need to produce:
  • A cover letter
  • A CV (curriculum vitae)
  • A statement of teaching philosophy
  • An Interfolio dossier including letters of recommendation
You may also need to submit the following:
  • A dissertation abstract
  • A teaching portfolio (including a summary of student evaluations, and sample syllabuses)
  • A writing sample
  • Other miscellaneous documents (e.g., a statement of research interests, etc.)

Cover Letter

While the genre of the cover letter is formulaic, it is better to consider it as a chance to communicate—as a form of public engagement that requires considerable thought about your work as a scholar and as a teacher. It is your chance to define and demonstrate your interests and investments in the profession. It is at once the most important and the most difficult document to write. You will need to produce multiple drafts of multiple versions of the letter which will require multiple rounds of revision. However, the genre of the cover letter is also formulaic—there are a set of conventional components and rules that you should familiarize yourself with, thus allowing you to focus on the intellectual work of describing (and the in the process advancing) your work.

A cover letter should be on departmental letterhead, and it must be no longer than two pages. Note that the order of paragraphs #2 and #3 below (the “teaching” and the “research” paragraphs) must be switched depending on the job for which you are applying.

Here are the basic components:
  • Department letterhead
  • Date and address of the institution (and/or search committee) to which you are applying
  • Salutation (to the committee, or to the chair of the search committee, if noted)
  • Paragraph #1: the introduction – list what position you are applying for, and introduce yourself by stating your field(s) of teaching and research, and your dissertation defense date (if you have not yet defended). Be honest: search committees will not accept misleading statements, particularly in a market in which so many candidates have already earned a PhD. You might also note a few of your strongest details up front, like a prestigious fellowship that will help you reach that defense date, or a publication deriving from a dissertation chapter. This paragraph must be brief, including only the most basic, crucial information.
  • Paragraph #2: Offer a lively overview of your dissertation, emphasizing the major argument you are making and its importance to your field. Provide a quick map of the project’s contours through a brief gesture to your chapter arc—but without a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. Feature a brief and specific example from a literary text to show as well as tell what you do. Be aware that search committees are often wary of candidates who do not seem to be “literary” enough. You must write with absolute clarity—avoid theoretical jargon, and directly state the significance of your project. Communicating the importance of your project requires you to simplify, and thus clarify, your language so that it is broadly accessible. Be bold, a little bolder than you normally would be (find a balance between obsequious modesty and arrogant immodesty). Note any relevant major publications or awards. Do not use the same language as the dissertation abstract.
  • Paragraph #3: Describe your teaching experience in lively, detailed prose that offers a statement of your guiding pedagogical principles, along with one or two quick examples of how you cluster texts or create assignments. These examples must show what kind of teacher you are. Clarify the objectives of your teaching, especially your goals for your students. See the guidelines for the teaching statement below. It may be more productive to draft the teaching statement before you attempt to write this section of your cover letter.
  • Conclude with a succinct paragraph stating that you will be available to further discuss the position, and noting (if appropriate) that you will be attending the MLA. You should also provide clear contact information, preferably a cell phone number and an email address. Be sure to include your signature. If you are submitting the letter online, it is better to scan a JPEG or TIFF of your signature and insert it into the document, rather than scanning the whole letter in what could be a messy process.

In practice, the order of the dissertation and teaching paragraphs must be altered for different kinds of jobs. In fact, your teaching paragraph should be expanded into two paragraphs for teaching-intensive jobs, and your dissertation paragraph may need to be revised in order to frame it as an extension of your teaching interests and goals. For research jobs, you may also insert a brief paragraph about your ongoing research, or a “second project” already underway.

Your cover letter should be tailored to each institution—or, at the very least, to each kind of institution to which you are applying. You will need to use significantly different language to address research universities, small liberal arts schools (or smaller, regional state schools), community colleges, etc. If an institution has a particular religious affiliation or ethical objective, you should address it; likewise, if a school serves a distinct student population, you should also address the issue—diversity in the student population is not necessarily a strength of Iowa, and so you will want to demonstrate how you would be an effective teacher and member of the academic community.

If you have experience with a particular kind of institution in your background (i.e., you attended a small liberal arts school for your undergraduate career, as opposed to the flagship state university at which you are earning your PhD) then you may (and indeed should) briefly mention this fact, and explain how it shapes your approach to education—that is, you can honestly demonstrate a familiarity with and investment in the approach taken by the institution.

At this stage, you are not expected to be intimately familiar with every aspect of the school—but you must take the time to look at the websites of the schools (and the individual departments) which are advertising positions (remember, this is fundamentally a research project). This will allow you to add a brief paragraph or section that indicates your knowledge of a particular department—including the kinds (and the names) of the courses you would be expected to teach. You must demonstrate your suitability for the specific job—that is, you must demonstrate how you will be a productive and useful future member of the specific department. Be careful, though: revising the entire letter can invite typos, and you must double-check that you have listed the correct name of the institution!

If you have any additional relevant experience—prior teaching positions, university and/or community service, or other significant experiences that have influenced the way you approach your work as a teacher and as a scholar, then you should mention it. You may also need to address any significant gaps in your history. Re-imagine and re-frame what you may perceive as liabilities as advantages. When in doubt, ask your director or another advisor to tell you honestly what should stay and what should go.

Length: You must limit the letter to two pages—more than two pages will be entirely unacceptable to search committees. You must use a legible, 12-pt font, with standard margins. You must be concise—the last thing a stressed search committee wants to see is an unattractively cramped page.

CV (curriculum vitae)

As its Latin name suggests, an academic CV represents the course of your (academic) life—that is, your career. (A CV is often referred to as a “vita,” the incorrect anglicized form—if you choose to title your CV with the Latin name, which is not necessary, be sure to use the genitive case: this is the course of life). It is not—and should not be—absolutely comprehensive, but it will be far more extensive than a résumé (note the accents). A good CV should emphasize your strengths in teaching, scholarship, and service—and it should do so in a standard, formulaic fashion.

There are three key qualities to a successful CV – it should be :
  • Clear : The most important quality in a CV is that it must be clearly organized—legible, comprehensible, and easily and quickly readable. Create a format that utilizes white space to your advantage, and avoids forcing your reader (and your reader’s eyes) to scan the page unnecessarily. It should be visually distinctive and attractive—but it must not be distracting. Use a font of your choice—but choose a standard 12-pt font. Avoid the overuse of italics, bold, and underlining. Form always affects content, but this is the one genre in which attention to the details of format, layout, and typography is crucial. Be sure to submit your CV—and all your materials—in PDF form to preserve the layout.
  • Consistent : The format of your CV must be consistent—use the same formatting details for similar elements (equivalent sections should have the same style of headings, text, etc.). The content should be presented in a consistent and coherent manner—visual consistency aids comprehension in the reader. The information in your CV should also be consistent with your other materials—ensure that all your relevant and important information matches your letter, teaching statement, etc. Your CV should also be consistent with conventional terminology: there is a standard rhetoric to CVs, and you must demonstrate that your know how to appropriately and correctly use this terminology.
  • Candid : It should go without saying, but your CV should be an accurate, honest representation of your career. You must avoid stuffing your CV with irrelevant and extraneous material (there is a reason there are universally negative connotations to terms such as “stuffing”). Readers can very easily determine when you have included inappropriate material—if you do so, it will seem as if you are trying to mislead your readers, or that you are trying to fill out a thin CV. It may also seem as if you are ignorant or ill-informed of the basic rhetoric and conventions of a CV. For example, the “publications” section is often problematic: be sure that peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters are clearly separated from book reviews and encyclopedia articles, non-peer-reviewed work, creative work, or work that is not actually published. Be sure that you distinguish work that is forthcoming (i.e., it is about to be published, meaning there is a specific and scheduled publication date) from work that is accepted, or under review (and thus a work-in-progress).

Use headings and sub-headings to separate types of information. These usually include the following: your contact information, educational history, dissertation title and director (and, if possible, defense date), list of honors or awards, list of publications, list of conference papers, courses you have taught, teaching interests and capabilities, departmental and professional service, and any “other” category, if applicable, along with a list of names and contact information for your recommenders.

  • Name and contact info
  • Educational history (and, if relevant, job history in another category)
  • Dissertation: title and director (listed under your PhD institution—necessary for ABD students, who should list a defense date—but unnecessary if you hold the PhD degree)
  • Awards and fellowships (make sure to distinguish major awards—such as a dissertation fellowship, or a major teaching award—from minor awards such as travel grants)
  • Publications: in a list that separates articles from short pieces like book reviews and encyclopedia entries, if pertinent. Any published creative work should also be listed separately, and it helps to clarify what these items are—poetry, creative nonfiction, or short story. Many search committees may not have heard of the venues, so clarify what’s a journal, a chapbook, an online publication, or the like. As noted above, be sure to use terms such as “forthcoming” in an appropriate and accurate manner
  • “Public Scholarship,” or “Digital Scholarship,” or any other category you’re free to invent (within reason)
  • Invited talks and conference papers (these should be separated from panels you have organized or chaired, and from seminars or workshops you have participated in)

  • Teaching Experience: in a list of course titles, because course numbers are meaningless outside of your own institution. You may add a brief description about the content of each course, or at least each kind of course. For example “Interpretation of Literature” will be generally meaningless to anyone outside of UIowa. You should clarify which courses you designed and taught independently, and for which you served as teaching assistant.
  • Teaching interests (in a brief list the recognizable, established, and consistent elements)
  • Service (departmental or university committees, Program Assistant work, etc.)
  • Additional experience (community service, committees, volunteer work, etc.)
  • Memberships in professional organizations
  • References: the contact information for those who have written on your behalf (include their names, positions, affiliations, and email addresses; a full address is unnecessary, but a phone number is still useful—check with your references to make sure the information is accurate)
Ask several people to proofread your CV to identify any confusing details or typographical errors.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

The document known as a teaching philosophy is increasingly important, and most institutions to which you apply will require one for the initial application. Before you draft this document, you need to take a moment to think about the varied (and often vague) term “philosophy”: it does represent an idealistic and earnest pursuit of knowledge—but knowledge that is fundamentally practical. Remember, as well, that the degree you earn is a doctorate of philosophy—so you should consider this document an extension and an articulation of your work as a teacher and scholar.

It is more constructive to consider this as a statement of pedagogical principles (a productive parallel is the semantic shift from “personal statement” to “statement of purpose” in your application to graduate school). You must avoid the vague (and repetitive, and thus meaningless) phrases that the term “philosophy” often implies. This document should be a demonstration and expression of your pedagogical theory and praxis—with an emphasis on the latter.

The most important thing is that the reader must be able to see what you do. That is, the reader must be able to envision the work you—and your students—do, in and beyond the classroom. You must include evocative and distinctive details. You will need to balance one or two fundamental terms or principles with specific examples from the courses you have taught.

Teaching is emotionally exhausting and exhilarating work, so in order to draft an effective teaching statement, you must put aside your daily frustrations with students and focus on the best and most successful moments you have experienced in the classroom. Before you compose a first draft, it will be helpful to make a list of these moments. Everyone has experienced some form of success—and, admittedly, failure—and so you need to concentrate on the ways you have helped your students to achieve specific goals and acquire specific skills.

The most popular (and perhaps least important) aspect of this document is a statement of the juxtapositions of texts you have designed and assigned. You will of course need to include an example or two—but you also need to move beyond content. Think about the class sessions you have recently led: what did students actually do and learn beyond the basic content of the material? What are the questions you devise to animate discussion? What kinds of activities occur inside your classroom? What kinds of assignments and projects do students complete outside the classroom?

Before you begin, you should read through some samples and strategies for writing the teaching philosophy. Several examples—including a “Rubric for Statements of Teaching Philosophy”—can be found here:

  • Pedagogy: Because this is fundamentally a research process, it is always useful to familiarize yourself and engage with pedagogical theory—particularly if you have prior educational or work experience in which you have encountered it. If you have experienced any explicit pedagogical instruction, you can draw on and adapt the principles and the vocabulary of these programs in your own teaching statement. If you have not—which is, unfortunately, rather likely, considering the lack of explicit pedagogical instruction in doctoral programs—you can at the very least be well-informed by reading the major higher education publications, or by consulting useful websites like
  • Terminology: You must absolutely avoid using vague, trite, and therefore meaningless phrases: a “student-centered classroom” that fosters “critical thinking” is the most egregious example, but there are many such terms that you will need to delete. Terms such as these describe basic requirements and components of education itself—they describe the ideal and the result, not the method. If you use terms like this, you will be perceived by your readers as someone who does not know or understand a theory of pedagogy; another way of saying this is that one who uses such terms is merely imitating or impersonating actual theory and practice, or is merely lazy, uninformed, and unreflective.
  • Methodology: Think about the fundamental principles in your sub-field—not necessarily the specialized theories and materials in your dissertation project, but the major theorists, scholars, and writers that provide the foundation for your work (and your attraction to the field) but that you may not think about explicitly on a daily basis. What are the essays and articles that have influenced you? How would you introduce your work and your sub-field to an audience (or a class) unfamiliar with it? (One good example is Peter Stallybrass’s short PMLA essay “Against Thinking”). You may not mention these scholars or essays by name in your teaching statement, but thinking about them will help you articulate the essential and productive connections between your teaching and your research.
  • Diversity: Think about the range of students you have taught (and will teach) and the range of pedagogical strategies required to reach the various students you encounter (often simultaneously in the same classroom). It is important to re-frame and re-define the idea of “diversity” (which is a difficult and contrary term at its very root). Obviously, diversity is not simply a matter of identity politics—of race, or religion, or gender, or class, or any other category that is often conjured by the term. It may also be a matter of educational background or skill level (including second-language learners), or of location (global, national, rural, local), or of academic major, or of anything else that is appropriate. Some institutions will require you to address some aspect of diversity—so it is a good idea to incorporate at least some discussion of the idea into your teaching statement.

  • Goals and Skills: You must be specific about your ideals, and the methods you use to approach those ideals. So, you must outline your central pedagogical goals, the skills required to achieve those goals, and the methods and activities you employ to help students acquire those skills. Remember to be specific—terms such as “critical thinking” and “close reading” are often used, and, once again, are merely the basic conditions that education should fulfill. You should emphasize that you teach reading and writing—as broad conceptual categories, and as a series of discrete skills.
  • Literacy and Literacies: You will need to emphasize the teaching of literature—particularly since jobs continue to be defined by conventional markers of period and genre. This does not mean that you should focus only or primarily on content. Although one definition of “literacy” is an acquaintance with or knowledge of literature or another related subject area, your focus should be on the skills of reading and writing. That said, you should also think about the multiple literacies involved in teaching in the twenty-first century: you are preparing students to navigate and engage with media environments saturated with text. So, while you should include an assurance that you practice and teach some conventional methods, you should also make clear how these methods are broadly applicable. This also means that you should include descriptions of the brilliant cultural and digital texts that you use which fall outside of conventional descriptions. Another way of saying this is that while you should describe the various intriguing forms of media in your classroom, you must also explain how these forms of media fulfill your pedagogical goals.
  • Projecting Research: If your own teaching derives from and contributes to your research, then you should expect that the learning process of your students is connected to and actively produces research. What kinds of projects and activities have your (best) students created? What kinds of primary research have you—and they—done? How have your students contributed to the surrounding community? (This can include, but is not exclusive to, service learning) Thinking about and describing specific projects and assignments is a good way to provide detailed examples.
  • Ethics and Environment: Think about your larger ethical or conceptual goals as a teacher, beyond the level of specific skills. Be aware that this can easily lead to the use of vague or fuzzy terms—yet, it also prevents your goals from being perceived as merely utilitarian. That is, think about how you are a “humanist” in all the varied senses of that term. This is also a chance to describe how you construct a productive, collaborative, and inclusive classroom environment. Again, be sure that you are specific, and that your examples and statements are relevant to your pedagogical goals and principles.
  • Evaluation: You may also include examples of your methods of evaluation, broadly conceived—from rubrics for grading and commenting, to more general (holistic, but not vague) principles for assessing the progress of your students. You can also think about the ways in which you structure and design your lesson plans, on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis: what are your short-term and long-term goals with each assignment? How do you respond to student work, and what, in turn, is the response of your students? This may be particularly useful to think about if you are applying to positions that require you to teach writing-intensive courses.

Teaching Portfolio

You should be keeping a careful and well-organized teaching file that includes syllabuses, lesson plans, assignments, rubrics, student evaluations, and anything else that is relevant and appropriate. In conjunction with the principles discussed above, this file will provide the materials you need to construct a teaching portfolio. A “portfolio” is both a physical (or digital) object that you can create during your job search, but it also represents your investments and commitments as an educator, and you should be collecting and refining these materials over a number of years.

Many institutions will require you to submit a portfolio along with your teaching statement. The portfolio will generally require the following standard set of materials, but you should expect idiosyncratic requests for other kinds of materials from different schools.

  • A table of contents
  • Statement of teaching philosophy
  • Summary of student evaluations: If your evaluations are numerical, you can include the average rating for course you have taught. Because these numbers are of limited value—or if your evaluations are not numerical—you should include representative student comments for the courses you have taught. Make sure that each comment is copied verbatim, that it is not vague or irrelevant, and that it demonstrates something important about your pedagogical methods, as outlined in the teaching statement. You can organize these comments by semester, or by course. It should be no longer than two or three pages, and should include a statement that you can provide copies of the actual evaluations upon request.
  • Sample syllabus: There are two kinds of sample syllabus that you may need to present. First, you should include the syllabuses for the courses you have already taught, particularly if they are similar to the courses you will be expected to teach in the future. You can omit course or college policies that are distinct to and required by your current university, since those policies will differ from the institution to which you are applying. You should include your own course policies and descriptions of assignments—think of this as another chance to articulate and elaborate the principles in your teaching statement. You may also include sample syllabuses for courses you would be expected to teach at the institution. You can draw on your own previous syllabus template, but you need not produce a complete, weekly schedule of readings and assignments. You should include a thoughtful course description (including goals and objectives), a list of readings and texts, and a basic semester schedule. Remember that a syllabus should be legible and visually appealing.
  • Other documents: You may want (or be required) to include other documents related to your teaching, such as sample assignments, a grading rubric, sample comments on a student draft, or anything else you use on a regular basis that is central to your pedagogical practice.

Dissertation Abstract

The name given to this document includes two fraught terms, and the syntactical order is crucial. An “abstract dissertation” might be a convenient way to summarize a common critique of advanced work in the humanities: an abstruse theoretical disquisition with little relevance to the subject or study of literature. A “dissertation abstract,” however, is a lively summary of a discourse, discussion, or debate. The most important thing to remember is that a dissertation is a narrative—it makes an argument, of course, but it also tells a story. A dissertation abstract must make the argumentative significance and the narrative trajectory of your project absolutely clear to the reader.

The dissertation abstract has become optional in many job searches, a result of many different factors, including the fact that many job candidates have already earned their PhD and have been teaching for several years. However, doing the work that is required to write a good abstract (both preparing and then actually writing) is not only useful—it is real (if difficult) intellectual work that will contribute to your project.

An abstract should explain the general topic or subject area of your project, and it should describe the range of content it analyzes. However, it is far too easy to focus on the topic and the content, to the exclusion of more important elements. Remember, you should show and not tell, and you should emphasize how you approach your material rather than what you are examining. That said, you should include specific details about your project: abstracts often open with a captivating anecdote—an example from your project that highlights your dissertation’s principal concerns—as a prelude to the argumentative claims that capitalize on that opening example. The remaining paragraphs should provide a brisk survey of each chapter, with a brief example and a clear statement of the “so what” factor for each in turn. There are other models, of course, and opinions genuinely vary about length. But shorter is better, so do not exceed two single-spaced pages.

While your abstract will likely be a conventional prose description (of 1-2 pages) it will be helpful to think about the major components you must include and the questions you must answer:
  • Argument: You must actively assert an argument—and it will be helpful to think carefully about the verbs you use when describing your project. You should argue—you should not passively examine, consider, or contend. It can be difficult to distill and then convey your argument in a manner that is clear and comprehensible, so be sure to avoid vague language and specialized theoretical jargon.
  • Contribution: You must explain how your specific (and perhaps esoteric) project contributes to—or changes—the concerns and questions central to your chosen field. As stated above, you must be able to communicate the value of your research to a wide audience—within and (far) beyond your sub-field. You must justify and explain the relevance of your work. Whereas an argument is about your own actions—the assertions you are making—your contribution is connected to a larger community engaged in a collaborative endeavor with common concerns.
  • Narrative: Remember that you are telling a story. The elements of your story—the content and the argument—are not self-evident, and so need to be explained and connected in a rational, logical manner. You will need to justify the overall shape of your project, demonstrating how each of the chapters is connected to a central concern, and also how they are connected to one another. As a practical matter, you might consider writing transition sentences between the paragraphs describing each chapter, as a way to make the narrative progression of your project clear to yourself—and thus to your reader.
  • Titles and Verbs: The title of your dissertation should clearly and cleverly communicate the central concerns of your project. You will need to put a fair amount of thought into choosing a title—but you should not overthink it or procrastinate, since the title will likely continue to evolve, up to and beyond your defense. Do not make a grammatical or syntactical pun using hyphens or parentheses. Be sure you are using active verbs, in the title and throughout the abstract. Avoid gerunds—did you know that “gerund-grinding” used to be a derisive term for “pedantic instruction”? If you have a gerund in your title, particularly a vague one, then you may need to rethink it (or, indeed, to identify a more specific central term or argument for your project). Remember that scholars actively argue. You should also avoid clichéd phrases and outdated jargon—do not fulfill or evoke the old chestnut that your scholarship “fills a [necessary] gap” in the field.

Dissertation Models

It may be helpful to think about the model or shape your dissertation conforms to—if you know what kind of project you have, then you can acknowledge its particular strengths (or weaknesses) and thus find an effective way to describe it. That is, you can tell the story of the story you are telling. The following is by no means a comprehensive list—and many projects combine aspects of multiple models—but it is at least a starting point. You can also consider these models as descriptions of individual chapters, as well.
  • Someone else is wrong, and I am right! This is often how dissertations begin, at the prospectus stage, because it shows your mastery of the field, and provides a convenient way to sharpen your argument.
  • Look, I found something! You have discovered or created something new—an author, a work, a genre, a type of evidence, a methodology, etc.
  • Look, this is overlooked! Similar to the previous model: most likely you have focused on a relatively obscure author who represents an established genre, or an obscure work by a canonical author
  • I am putting this next to that! You are juxtaposing things—ideas, texts, authors, methodologies—that are not usually brought together. This is the methodology of many interdisciplinary or cross-period projects.
  • I did the same thing four times! You have used a case study approach, focusing on a single issue or concept or methodology that is applied to four different texts or authors.
  • I did things in chronological order! Chronology is often a convenient and logical way to organize a project—though it is not the only possibility. If you have worked in this order, you should justify the decision, rather than considering it as self-evident.
You can find sample abstracts of dissertation projects that received the American Council of Learned Societies Dissertation Completion Fellowship at On the left sidebar, click on “Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellows.”

Writing an abstract alongside a cover letter can be difficult, particularly since you cannot repeat your best phrases even while discussing the same project. Your abstract should also differ from the sentences that will introduce your writing sample, as well as the brief project profile you will offer at the beginning of an interview. When you have been narrowly focused on writing your dissertation, it can be hard to create an accessible description. Remember, the reason a department is making a hire is to fill a gap (a phrase that you should never use in your abstract, by the way), meaning that your materials must be accessible and intriguing to those outside your sub-field.

Research Statement

Some institutions, and most post-doc positions, will ask for a separate statement of your research interests and future plans. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, you should consider this document as analogous to the teaching philosophy, since the preparatory work is actually quite similar. In a dissertation abstract, you must present the narrative of your project; in a research statement, you must present the narrative of your career. What are the central questions and common concerns that unite your disparate and discrete interests? What are the foundational terms and principles that guide your research? Remember that “research” is a verb—it is not just a product, it is a process of investigation, discovery, and—crucially—of communication.

You may also need to discuss your future plans—your research agenda and prospective timeline over the coming months and years. Are you working on, or have you submitted, articles derived (or excised) from the dissertation project? What future articles will you write that are related to your current work? Can you describe—in convincing detail—a second project? Are you engaged in any interdisciplinary or digital projects? As with your teaching materials, remember that each element should do work for you, so the articles and projects you describe should demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge, interests, and capabilities in a related field or area of inquiry.

Application Files

You should set up a sensible and useful filing system for the application process—and you should dutifully update the files. Keep meticulous records of which schools you have applied to, and which materials you have sent, along with any responses you have received, perhaps on a spreadsheet. Keep the names and contact information of anyone from the school that corresponds with you.

For example:
  • Create a folder/file that is your master list.
  • Keep a list of all schools to which you apply
  • Keep notes on dates and actions taken
  • Create a folder/file for each position to which you apply.
  • Cut and paste in a job description from the MLA list or any other source.
  • Assemble a checklist of requested materials based on the information in the advertisement.
  • Change the name of the file accordingly after you’ve sent the letter.

Dossier / Letters of Reference

A “dossier” is a file in which your letters of reference are collected. You may also place a copy of your university transcript in your dossier, although applicants (or, more likely, successful candidates) are often required to have an official transcript sent directly from the Registrar’s Office.

You will need three or four letters, including at least one written by a faculty member who has observed your teaching. Plan ahead!

To maintain your dossier, set up an account with an online service called Interfolio ( which manages the tasks of storing and sending your letters of reference. These will be uploaded directly by your referees.

If you are applying to jobs through the MLA’s Job Information List, you are eligible for a free Interfolio account—and some of the costs of routing materials can be waived, as well. See the MLA website for more details:

Ask for letters at least 3-4 weeks before you need them, if not sooner. If you have a professional relationship with a faculty member from another institution (e.g., you took a seminar at another university, or a seminar at a research library), you may want to inquire about a letter of reference. Otherwise, most (if not all) of your letters will be from dissertation committee members, so approach your advisors collegially:
  • Ask formally and politely whether a particular faculty member will write on your behalf.
  • Provide all of the necessary application materials: the cover letter, CV, dissertation abstract, teaching philosophy, and anything else that may be useful—along with a cover sheet itemizing crucial information such as deadlines, or any other relevant information.
  • Clarify the date by which the letters will be needed. You can check Interfolio for uploaded dossier contributions. Polite reminders are acceptable—you can phrase these reminders as updates on your job search process.
  • Inquire about whether your advisors know anyone at the schools to which you apply. A brief email or phone call can sometimes ensure that your application is reviewed.

Schools prefer to receive confidential dossiers from applicants. You must sign a form to waive your right to review the letters. A letter of reference that is not confidential will be considered as worthless by search committees. Choose your referees with care and trust that they will write vigorously on your behalf.


It has long been customary for job interviews to take place at the annual MLA convention. However, due to a variety of circumstances (limited budgets, scarce resources, and the shifting timelines of the job search process) many initial interviews are conducted via phone or video conference. The advice offered here is useful for any kind of interview—and indeed, for any situation in which you speak about and present your work.
  • Communication: Although an interview is necessarily an artificial situation that requires familiarity with certain codes and conventions of behavior, it is fundamentally about communication. An interview is an opportunity to articulate your interests and investments in the profession—that is, in your work as a teacher, a scholar, and a humanist. The skills you develop by preparing for an interview are valuable, useful, and practical, allowing you to present your ideas—and yourself—in a compelling manner, both within and beyond the narrow confines of the interview itself
  • Conversation: An interview is not an exam—it is a conversation that requires you to be active as both a speaker and as a listener. The goal of a search committee in an interview is to allow you to exchange and share ideas, earnestly, enthusiastically, and enjoyably. You must be energetic and engaged as you make confident contributions to the conversation. Keep your answers concise, so that you do not monopolize the conversation, and be prepared to ask questions, as well as to answer them.
  • Collegiality: To be collegial is to be courteous and considerate, rather than confrontational. Above all, though, collegiality means that you must act like a colleague—as an active and established member of the profession. That is: Do not act like a graduate student!
  • Confidence: You must both feel and project confidence in your attitude and abilities. That is, you must trust in yourself; this is a matter of assurance, rather than arrogance or anxiety. You should be active, positive, and calm, rather than shy or submissive. Do not be overly modest or apologetic. (Fake confidence until it becomes real, or until you are really good at faking it!) Think of the persona you project as a teacher: authoritative, yet collaborative and cooperative.


The process begins when a department contacts you to request an interview. You will usually receive either a phone call or an email from the search committee chair or the department administrator. The primary purpose is of course to schedule a time for the interview—but you are allowed to know, and hence must acquire, much more information than this. A good search committee will provide you with most of the information you need. However, you should make a list of the things you need to know, and the questions you need to ask. You should practice what you will do when someone contacts you—especially calls you—to arrange an interview.
  • Keep a meticulous, detailed, and updated schedule
  • Exchange contact information, including your cell phone number and/or Skype ID
  • Arrange any practical matters: if you are interviewing in person, check the location of the interview; if you are interviewing over the phone or via video, check the necessary arrangements and technical issues
  • Ask the names of the faculty members on the search committee and/or who will be present at the interview
  • Ask if there is anything specific you need to prepare for the interview
  • Think about any other information you may need to know

Preparing for an interview will require research. You will need to focus your attention on two things: the institution interviewing you—and you.

You will already know a fair amount about the institution, since you will have conducted research while tailoring your written materials for the initial application—so you should start by reviewing your notes. However, you will need to conduct a more thorough and detailed search for information on the institution, the department, the faculty, and the expectations of the job.
  • Institution: Examine the mission statement and goals of the school, the student demographics, and the location.
  • Department: Examine the mission statement and goals of the department; its strengths and specializations, including connections to research centers and resources (such as library collections); and the structure of its degree programs (undergraduate and graduate). Seek out distinctive features (honors programs, colloquia, publications, etc).
  • Faculty: You should be aware of the general structure of the faculty—both by position (tenure-track, lecturers, adjuncts, etc.) and the range of faculty specializations; pay particular attention to faculty in the same (or contiguous) field(s). Be sure to do some research on the search committee members; this does not require extensive research, but you may want to be familiar with their published work.
  • Expectations: If possible, you should find out what kinds of courses the department requires—and thus what kinds of courses you would be expected to teach. Pay attention to course names and numbers, and descriptions (if available). You can also attend to the requirements for research and for service.

You should begin by reviewing the written materials you sent to the department at the initial application stage, and any other materials they may have requested subsequently. You will need to begin preparing answers to standard questions about your teaching and research.
  • Checklist: Think about the strongest and most crucial aspects of your profile, and create a list of things that you absolutely must communicate to the committee during the interview. You will need to memorize this list, so that you can focus on finding ways to mention these aspects during the interview (by shaping questions or asking questions). Think about the parts of your profile that do not easily fit into the genres of the written materials.
  • Teaching: You should create provisional syllabuses for the courses (or at least the kinds of courses) you would be expected to teach. You need not design an entire syllabus (with a schedule of readings and assignments); review the sample syllabuses you have already created, but tailor those to the course names and numbers of the institution. Think about the texts—and the actual books (i.e., anthologies)—you would require. Be sure that your courses have a broad appeal to majors and non-majors alike.
  • Research: You must prepare a description of your research project that is concise, compelling, and clear. You should aim for a length of about 60-90 seconds. You must articulate the following: the argument, the scope, the contribution to the field, the originality, and the trajectory or narrative. Think about what story your project tells—the narrative is just as important as the conceptual framework. You need not describe the chapters in detail. Being brief will allow the committee to ask follow-up questions.

Continual and committed rehearsal is crucial. You should practice answering questions on your own every day, but you also must practice with others, whether formally (through mock interviews) or informally (with friends, partners, etc.). You must practice answering questions aloud. There are many available resources that provide extensive lists of sample questions (that you can and should shape for your own particular needs). The following list outlines the general areas and kinds of questions you can expect to encounter in an interview.
  • Interest: Why are you interested in and qualified for this job? Why are you interested in this kind of institution and/or department? Why are you interested in this specific institution? This is not only a matter of research—you may need to address perceived weaknesses in your profile (i.e., if you have exclusively attended large state universities, but are applying to teach at a small liberal arts college). Broad questions like this also give you an opportunity to articulate the items on your checklist
  • Teaching: What is your approach to teaching? What is your pedagogical “philosophy” or your most important goal for your students? What practical and intellectual skills do you want your students to acquire? Are you aware of curricular politics—either within the field or at the institution? What courses, or kinds of courses, are you prepared to teach? You can rely in part on your teaching statement and the sample syllabuses you have prepared—but you will also need to prepare additional, new examples. You must be specific, using examples and details to illustrate and explain your answers.
  • Research: Questions about your research will likely focus your dissertation or current book project, so you can rely in part on the statements you have already prepared. You may be asked a combination of practical and intellectual questions about your future goals. You are also likely to be asked larger questions about the field: how is your work positioned within the field? How is your methodology similar to, or different from, others? What direction is the field heading in? What are the latest and most interesting developments? Remember that you will likely be speaking to faculty outside of your field or sub-field, so be sure to use specific examples (and avoid using jargon) in order to provide clear and coherent answers.
  • Service: You may be asked about your experience, and willingness to participate in, various kinds of activities grouped under the broad rubric of service. This is also a chance for you to articulate your broader investments and interests in the profession—and of course to mention items on your checklist that were not previously mentioned.
At the end of the interview, you will be given a chance to ask the committee questions. Your questions should be genuine and thoughtful, demonstrating your level of preparation and commitment to the profession, and to this specific job. Your questions must do work for you—that is, they must help you articulate important aspects of your profile, and your life as an engaged academic citizen. However, you must be brief—the interview will likely be almost over, and you may only get a chance to ask a single question.

The academic ethos—or at least a caricature of that ethos—eschews style and embraces substance. However, performance is crucial and fundamental to the successful and effective presentation of your ideas (and hence of yourself). It is easy for listeners to be distracted by seemingly superficial aspects such as the tone, speed, and ease of your delivery. The best presentations—whether in an interview, a teaching demonstration, a conference paper, etc.—are well-rehearsed, witty, engaging, entertaining, and easily understood. A professional performance requires rehearsal.
  • Be punctual and professional
  • Be reliable, relaxed, and personable; generous, curious, and interested; do not project grim anxiety or eager desperation
  • Be aware of any verbal or behavioral tics
  • Attend to your appearance; dress professionally, with some distinction
  • Make eye contact, and be sure to speak to (and look at) everyone present; look for a connection to a committee member who seems supportive or sympathetic to you and your ideas, but do not alienate anyone
  • Avoid negative assertions—about yourself, your school, or anyone and anything else
  • Turn perceived disadvantages into advantages; shape or alter awkward questions (or questions that are difficult, or which you cannot immediately answer) so that you can still project positive aspects of yourself
  • Give thorough, yet concise, answers; at all costs, avoid rambling
  • Give specific examples to illustrate your answers
Everyone has either heard of, or actually experienced, interview horror stories. Do not worry if anything seems to go wrong; remain calm and collected, and proceed with the interview honestly, and with a sense of humor. Remember that your perception of the interview—either positive or negative—is unlikely to be entirely accurate.

Phone and Video Interviews
You should prepare and practice for the challenges specific to phone and video interviews. Be sure to test your technology and your interview skills. Because interviews are increasingly conducted in this manner, there is no shortage of guidance available. The following are three basic areas and issues to think about.
  • Technology: If possible, make your technology redundant: use a wired connection, which will be more stable, and test out your wireless or cellular reception. Be sure you have the necessary software (i.e. Skype) and hardware (check your laptop’s camera, and consider using an external camera). Ask your department or IT contact for advice or help.
  • Location: Find a quiet location where you will not be interrupted. Check the lighting and adjust it as necessary. You should be in a professional location, and the background should not be distracting; some people recommend “curating” a bookshelf behind you, but this is not strictly necessary.
  • Performance: Wear your interview apparel—even if you are only on the phone—because it can help you maintain the appropriate professional attitude and demeanor. Make sure the camera is positioned at a good angle (i.e., straight, rather than tilted up or down at you); make eye contact as much as possible, given the limitations of the technology. In phone interviews, you do not have the advantage of visual feedback; you may want to print out pictures of the committee members (if available) or, at the very least, to keep notes on the names and identities of the interviewers. You may use your own notes—but do not rely on them, since you should think of this as a conversation, as in a formal in-person interview.