One very important thing I have learned in my long journey of job applications is that, if you are not from the country you are applying for the job, you are at a disadvantage (not all foreigners are created equally though; but still). You need to crack all the codes about conveying the (right) message in your cover letter, proposal, and in various statements (of research, of teaching, etc). It took a very long time for me to crack those codes, which meant so many rejections and long-duree of various fears. This is exactly why I have believed that this hard-gained social capital that we lack as the juniors from the global south should pass it on to the others. There are so many absolutely brilliant young people I met who are doing really exciting work but are expressing themselves rather poorly in their applications.
Often, people from the global south grew up in an environment where humility is highly appreciated — more so than confidence. What we express, on paper, humbly might easily come off as being unsure of ourselves (even worse, unsure of what we do). If I get the chance of running one-to-one sessions with a candidate, I explain how they can stay as humble as they want in their everyday life. Humility is a hard-gained virtue and is valuable in the age of narcissism and narcissistic academia. Yet, they have to change the language in their application pack. Also, when the applicants who are more comfortable with humble words try to work on the language of confidence, they might do it a bit too much and come up as if they are bragging -- simply because they are in unfamiliar territories. As I said, finding the right tone for confidence is social capital.
Here are a couple of repeating patterns I have observed in a number of applications.
You are not just “filling a gap”
Firstly, please make sure that you don’t appear to be someone who is just filling a gap. It is true that we often either fill or address a gap or write against a common misunderstanding/try to correct it (in social sciences). Yet, in a job application, such a framing would make your work sound insignificant. Sounding one of the many, as peaceful as it sounds, is a disadvantage when the job panels receive hundreds of applications. In a such an unjustly competitive arena, it is important to find ways to stand out in a huge pile of applications.
The ideal way to alter such phrases is to take a minute and think about how this gap you mention causes a chain reaction within your discipline and in the larger studies (ie. studies of religion, the Middle East, the notions of nature and humans, so forth).
What are we missing by not knowing about that gap? Is it a simple lack of knowledge about something particular, or does it have wider effects? Such as, does it mean that we are formulating certain ideas wrongly and thus fail to capture other related aspects (of social life, of power dynamics, of historicity)? You might want to spend some time experimenting with how you articulate your contribution.
Your contribution should be broad, yet still specific
Failure to frame your contribution in words that will reflect its significance in the broader discipline(s) and in specific terms is quite common. This is sometimes about humility, but mostly about not knowing what is expected of a post-PhD applicant. When you state your contribution, it is not enough to state it too broadly. Like you did with the previous part, you need to find ways of stating your contribution in more specific descriptions. I will give an example to this, from an application I submitted in 2014:
“This research will contribute to the studies on Muslim communities in the fields of anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies.”
This is not enough. Although in the same paragraph I later explain (below), the description is still not strong nor interesting enough:
“Thus, I propose exploring non-Eurocentric models of understanding gendered Muslim subjectivities that can be applied to discern the everyday lives of Muslim communities, the new Muslim becomings, both in secular and in religious contexts.”
If I were to give advice to my 2014 self, I would probably ask her to explain to me a little bit more on the significance of this proposed work, beyond the secular-religious dichotomy. I would also ask her to move the main contribution to the beginning of this very paragraph. The very first sentence about the contribution can well be a concluding sentence, summarising what she already demonstrated. Moreover, there is something in anthropology and amongst anthropologists, that we always claim to use non-Eurocentric theories anyway; no matter how rare it is to actually do that. So, if that is the main contribution of the applicant, she should say it more convincingly and by explaining what makes her stand out. Maybe she will use certain theories that were dismissed. Or maybe, she has a particularly unique methodology that will gain her ethnographic access to certain realms of life which was formerly not analyzed -and by doing so, she will develop theories that are non-Eurocentric, just by her unique research design.
Different applications, different expectations
Once you master how you articulate your contribution in one application, then it is helpful if you try to adapt it to different disciplinary expectations. The way you frame your contribution should not be the same in an area studies job application and in a broader discipline job application. It takes some time to master this. It is however quite helpful to a) go over the entire application material based on the expectations of the newly advertised job and b) rewrite the description of your contribution and not just replace words.
Confidence: the Voice of the Privileged
By confidence, I don’t mean a vain yet brazen tone. The sort of confidence required in a job application material is one that is craftily embroidered throughout the material. And yes, it takes practice -again, especially if you are from the geographies where humility is a central virtue and taught in a particular way. I have reviewed so many applications where the tone embedded in the proposal or in the cover letter could easily be mistaken for lack of confidence. I would test the application material based on certain principles to strengthen the tone.
Start with checking how you articulate your contribution. My above note on “filling the gaps” is an important one.
You: What is your main contribution? Broaden this as much as possible. You are not just a “scholar of Islam and Muslim societies”, but perhaps also “an anthropologist of religion and of globalization”. Then, you will need to specify this interest. Perhaps you are “interested in the workings of everyday interactions between believing Muslims and the demands of secular institutions”, or perhaps you would like to define yourself as “a scholar of ontological recalibrations of Muslimhood in the Global North”. Try to experiment with articulating your research contribution in terms that will be both broad and specific, one after the other.
Disagreements matter: There would be times you will need to evaluate your disagreements with various scholars, including the big names and their followers, and carry this disagreement to the application material. That is something we don’t necessarily do when we are students but somehow, as soon as you are in the job market, they become ways of reflecting the strength of your tone. I ask my friends to think about the reasons why they avoid certain theories and engage with certain others. We then try to reflect on this when describing their own scholarship. You never have to appear as someone who is trying to write against a beloved figure. Yet, it is important to use your position to articulate your position in the scholarship. So listen to yourself and try to reflect your voice in your proposals.
Find the Interesting Angle: The interesting angle in your contribution will be clearer if you both a) locate your research both within your discipline and b) link it to the broader literature. It might help if you speak about your research topic to other people and hear about their reflections. Try to listen to yourself (seriously, I sometimes record myself when talking to others) since your answers to others’ questions should find a way into your proposal. If not in the proposal, you can use them for the Q&A after the interview. It is important to find the angle that frames your contribution.
I am still questioning the time lost
I am still questioning the time we (the academic precariat) are required to spend on job applications. During this time, we have to spend most of our energy on what I call packaging and not on the content itself. As for me, I had read so many samples provided by various career centres. When I was going through the process, I was thinking of this entire affair of revising my proposal just to get a job as a loss of time — a time that could otherwise be used for research, publications, or just for leisure (oh leisure, the sweet underrated time). My frustration was precisely this: I wasn’t improving the content of my work, but embellishing the packaging. Whichever way I present myself, I am the same person and the packaging won’t change the quality of the work I do. Which is true. However, after so many rejections, revising the proposals, rewriting and improving them, spending an unconscionable number of hours, I also see that this process of revising the application had forced me to think about myself as a scholar and what my contribution is to my discipline. In the long run, it has helped me. — Yet, me gaining personal benefit from the process, in the long run, doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeply wrong and soul-sucking in the academic world that preys on precarity.
Aftermath of Rejections
One very important thing I have learned was that we needed to keep asking for help from those who are offering it; especially in the aftermath of rejections. A large number of the people I have talked to about (and after) my rejections were, often unknowingly, unhelpful in providing feedback. People often try to console you by telling you how politically problematic the selection processes are, how deeply racist/sexist/Islamophobic this very institution is, how there are jobs announced for someone specific in mind, etc., etc.
More true in some cases than others.
Yet, such words are deeply unhelpful. I have also watched candidates not changing a single word in their proposals simply because they were told “it’s not about you, it’s about them”. Bad advice never brings improvement. We can go on and on about the systemic problems. Yet, academic life is all about making yourself vulnerable, which is by asking for helpful feedback. So if the only thing someone can offer you is to numb you (we need that too though but still), try to reach out to those who are willing to offer feedback.
Also, it is equally true that the job panels are not composed of one person or one type of person. Most of the time, there would be disagreements between the panel members about their favorite candidate and there would be members who are anti-racist/anti-sexist/anti-establishment. And they do want to hire someone like you (in terms of your academic ambitions but also political positioning as well) is for you to have an application package that is not overshadowed by others. That is especially important if your profile does not fit the department’s. They need their candidate to be strong. Here is a story relevant to my point:
Once, in a particularly, and notoriously, and famously sexist institution, the (only) female candidate was supported by the (only) female member of the committee with the following words: “She is clearly the best candidate here. The only reason not to hire her would be her being a woman.” And she made sure the brilliant female candidate was hired. That’s what the people who are eager to support you need: A stellar application package.
Seeing the internal dynamics is important also to have hope. Not at an unhealthy dose since we still need to make sure we are able to critique the system and false hopes do not bring it.
If I must reiterate, in the aftermath of rejection, what you need is to talk to the people who can provide you practical suggestions for that good polish. And, as if we weren’t going through enough emotional rollercoasters, the only way to do that is to make yourself vulnerable. I tried to send my application material to people who are willing to take a look, listen to their suggestions, and implement their suggestions to the application package. Making yourself vulnerable to critique is such a central part of academic life anyway. We constantly receive corrections, rejections, feedback, etc. Better to use them to improve your application package.
We must stay on the critical side of this power dynamic that we found ourselves in.
Even this entire process of tiresome applications is making us part of a very problematic system. Yes. But it is different to be the precariat in that system that is trying to survive. It is definitely not the same as, for instance, being one of the many seniors, who are knowingly or unknowingly extending the period of precarity in the academic life of the juniors. So I would call the seniors to constantly question their own positionalities on this system preys on precarity. That is more important than questioning the juniors’ acts (asking for reference letters, feedback, advice, etc) as they struggle.
This very problematic power dynamic also why I value and cherish the juniors-supporting-other-juniors.
The next piece is on senior academics.