David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Career Lingo: “Demonstrated Commitment to …”

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Image: meeting room stencil graffiti, by Richard Rutter (Creative Commons) 

I once had a conversation with an acquaintance who had just been turned down for a tenure-track position. He was perfect for the opening, he argued, since the area of research and teaching was exactly his specialty, and he was furious with the “blindness” of the hiring department. After much discussion I asked to see his CV, and immediately noticed that it never once employed the same keywords that the job ad had used to describe the specialty.

“They should have known!” he insisted.

Well, no. Your mother and your adviser probably know you pretty well. But most job candidates are opaque vessels to a search committee. You must show and tell how you fit what the hiring department wants from the position. Hence this series on job-market lingo, aimed at demystifying the common words and phrases found in tenure-track ads.

Next up: “demonstrated commitment to.” When you read that phrase in a job ad, it means the department is emphasizing a particular requirement that is either required or preferred of applicants. In essence, a department that uses the “demonstrated commitment to” lingo is saying: “We won’t just take your word for it. Point out something you have done in the area we want.”

The “it” in question will, of course, vary. You may be asked to demonstrate a commitment to “teaching excellence,” “major grant applications,” “path-breaking research,” “the study of 17th century Dutch literature,” “leadership of student organizations,” “mentoring of doctoral students,” “inclusive diversity,” or any number of other things.

Let’s consider, then, some ways you might show a “demonstrated commitment” to:

  • Obtaining grants. Ideally this will be clear from your actual record, especially if you’ve been a principal investigator or a co-investigator on a successful grant proposal. If you worked on a successful grant project, ask your adviser or lab supervisor to comment in a letter or reference that your role was not just washing beakers or filling out forms. In short, prove that you can replicate the success independently in a new setting, possibly in concert with your previous partners but also with new ones. If you don’t have any grant success to report, try to show your commitment in other ways — perhaps you attended grants workshops or assisted on an existing grant. Always make clear that you have big plans by emphasizing your fundable line of research.
  • Research. Publishing expectations have increased tremendously in the 20 years since I got a tenure-track position. But so have start-up packages and support for research. As a dean, I am spending — even adjusted for inflation — at least 20 times more on a new assistant professor than my first employer did on me. If you are applying for a postdoc or tenure-track position at a major research university, mentioning your love of scholarship is clearly not enough. Quality counts, of course. One signal publication in a top journal may outshine a brace of them in lower-ranked journals. Your track record also should be “ascending” — that is, your publications should be growing in number or in prestige, from year to year. Finally, make clear that your research is part of a consistent strategy, not just scattershot and opportunistic. What is your five-year productivity plan?
  • Mentoring. Like every other institution, mine is reluctant to hire hothouse flowers who plan to work with their doors closed, uninterested in collaboration with colleagues. Specifically, many departments want someone who will help in the endless task of mentoring graduate students and/or advising undergraduates. Doctoral students and postdocs may have very little evidence to demonstrate commitment in this area, but provide what you can. What activities did you conduct in a lab, for example, that might be considered mentoring? How about your time as a TA or a teacher of record? Perhaps you helped out other students at your own level in your program. Even the smallest incident or action can help you build a narrative of commitment.
  • Teaching. Few academic programs want to hire people who are purely researchers or who implode in the classroom. You often need to show that you care about teaching, and not just rhetorically. State your teaching credentials but don’t just list the courses you’ve taught. Cite any efforts you made to improve the quality of your teaching, such as workshops you attended. Share any high evaluation scores you received. Pull out strong examples of your teaching having a positive effect.
  • Engagement. More and more institutions are trying to increase their public profile as both locally and globally engaged. Beyond your academic work, have you done any volunteer work on the campus or in your community? Do you have any nonacademic work or service experience? Have you engaged in any activities meant to serve as outreach beyond your immediate scholarly community? Basically, you want to show that you are interested in, and capable of, communicating with audiences beyond people like you.
  • Diversity. You may be asked to comment on how you have assisted and addressed diversity issues. Many people, especially early in their careers, will draw a blank in this category. They haven’t served on a diversity committee or task force, or helped craft a diversity policy. But you may have served on other committees — for example, as the graduate-student representative on a search committee — where these issues arise. Perhaps you were a teaching assistant in a diverse classroom. Reference those experiences. If your research touches on diversity issues, mention that.

Overwhelmingly, search committees, hiring departments, and administrators understand that academics at the beginning of their careers (A.B.D., new Ph.D., or postdoc) may not have pages and pages of documented accomplishments in the areas for which they are asked to “demonstrate commitment.”

That’s OK. We all started out with no experience. Instead, try to demonstrate that your commitment in the designated area is on the right track. That is the best indicator that you will fill out the CV we want you to build.

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