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How I Got A College Teaching Job: A Q&A With Myself

After being on hiatus for a few months, A Life In Music is back! With the academic hiring cycle just around the corner, I thought it would be helpful to have a post aimed at the entrepreneurial musician looking to make inroads into academia.

I recently accepted my first full-time college teaching position. I applied to academic positions for two years before getting this job. It can be a tough market. With that in mind, a friend who is a former academic and well-acquainted with the challenges of finding an academic position, urged me to tell my “success story.” Truth be told, I was reluctant to do so, because it feels self-aggrandizing. She disagreed, however, and suggested that my experience could be insightful for candidates applying to academic positions.

Fair enough.

So in the spirit of entrepreneurship, I present an auto-Q&A about how I got my academic job.


Quick facts

Name: Mark Tonelli

Institution: Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Position: Assistant professor of music

Responsibilities: Coordinate Program in Guitar Studies

Q: Describe your background.

A: I’ve had a 25-year career as a performer. It’s been very diverse. I’ve probably worked in just about every corner of the music industry— clubs, concert halls, studios, pit orchestras, jazz bands, rock bands. The list goes on. I had a ten-year stint with the West Point Band (yes, I was in the Army), one year on cruiseships, and many years of freelancing. On the teaching side of things, I began by teaching private guitar lessons in high school. That led to teaching in music studios and eventually becoming a teaching fellow in graduate school. It was there that I got bitten by the college teaching bug and thought I could see myself teaching full-time one day in higher education.

Q: What types of things did you do to prepare to teach full-time in academia?

A: I sought out teaching opportunities. For example, soon after earning my masters degree, I cold e-mailed the music department chairperson of every college in a 25-mile radius of my home in the Dallas area. I got one hit, a chairperson from a community college in Dallas who liked my combination of industry and teaching experience. After an interview, he offered me a job teaching a group guitar class one night a week. That led to more classes. Then, when the guitar instructor from another community college in the area needed to consolidate his teaching to one campus, he recommended me to take his place teaching private guitar lessons at another campus. But I also thought it would look good to have some classroom courses on my CV, so I offered to teach the unglamorous 8:00am M-W-F music fundamentals course. That helped me get my foot in the door to teaching classroom and then other performance-based courses.

Eventually, I began applying to full-time positions across the country. I got a few hits, including one on-campus interview, which I totally botched. At the time, I was clueless about the hiring process. I cringe as I look back at the mistakes I made, like not bothering to learn anything about the institution or having a proper teaching demonstration ready.

As time went on, I saw the writing on the wall and recognized that I would probably need a doctorate to be competitive, which I subsequently earned while in the West Point Band. But I also knew it would be important to keep one foot in the classroom, so I taught music history courses for a small liberal arts college during most of my time in the West Point Band.

In addition, working part-time in academia taught me about the kinds of things academics do— publish and present. So I began to build up my CV accordingly. Over the years, I published articles in music journals and magazines, and I landed a deal with an educational music publisher, which publishes my two guitar instructional books (working on number three now). I also gave conference presentations at national or regional conferences of professional organizations in my field, and I helped organize other conferences.

Furthermore, music performance professors are expected to be active performers, so I continued to maintain a robust performance and recording career. The West Point Band job helped tremendously in this area, but I also logged many performances and recordings with my own group and as an accompanist in a wide range of musical situations.

And I learned from the mistakes of my failed on-campus interview years earlier. This time around, I educated myself thoroughly about the institutions to which I was applying, learning about their missions and cultures, the difficulties they might face, and the things that are important to them. I scoured the bios of the key players— search committee members, department chair, dean, provost, and president. And I read voraciously about the tenure-track job market. I watched YouTube videos. I did mock interviews. I talked to everyone who I thought could help me, including professors and friends who are or were college music professors. And I hired a career counselor to help me polish my application materials.

Q: What would you have done differently to prepare?

A: I would have networked more and sooner. I assumed (mistakenly) that my experience and education alone would be enough to get me the job. In the end, those things surely helped. But I think of my friends in academia, several of whom got their job because of someone they knew. They got out there and met people— people who someday might be in a position to hire them or recommend them to be hired. As one of my dissertation research participants said, jobs don’t come from the newspaper (or online job alerts); they come from people. The value of who you know can’t be overestimated.

Q: What do you think helped you get your current job?

A: The on-campus interview, which is ironic, since I did not make the final cut initially. It was only later on, after a candidate dropped out, that I received a call to come to campus. I was surprised, because it was about a month after the phone interview, and I presumed they had moved on (I guess they had, until the candidate dropped out). So I felt like I was going in as the underdog. But it just goes to show that you can still win over the committee and get the job.

I felt well-prepared for my teaching demonstration, which entailed directing an ensemble, teaching a private lesson, and participating in a Q&A. I generally knew the level of the students, but just in case, I brought three pieces of varying levels. (After the students performed for me, I knew which piece to pick.) Surprisingly, my earlier community college teaching came in handy and matched well with the ensemble I was directing.

For the private guitar lesson, I thought it would only be me, the student, and the search committee. So you can imagine my surprise when the room filled with all kinds of faculty, administrators, and students. But I mentally shifted gears: I treated it like a performance and welcomed everybody to the student’s lesson. The “audience” laughed, and that seemed to break the ice. During the lesson, my guitar cable shorted out twice. This could have been a deal-breaker, but on the second time, I made a quick joke about it and changed out my cable in about a minute with virtually no disruption to the lesson (having my gear bag with extra cables in it at the ready helped elude a potentially disastrous situation).

I had lunch with the department chair and search committee chair and then dinner with other members of the search committee. I did my best to achieve a balance of finding points of intersection between our collective scholarly interests and the needs of the department. I avoided sensitive issues— no politics or religion or broadcasting of strong opinions on any topic, really. I did, however, offer some ideas about what I would do if hired when I felt the search committee members seemed open to it. But I avoided any critique of the department or faculty members or anything at all connected with the institution.

I also interviewed with the dean, provost, and president. I tried to learn about them before I arrived on campus by studying their biographies and the initiatives that were important to them. Entrepreneurship is a thread running through the institution, and since my dissertation is about entrepreneurship instruction for college musicians, this was a main topic of discussion during much of my interviews, and it’s something I believe helped me get the job— my vision aligns with the institution’s vision. In addition, I knew the university was built on a liberal arts foundation. In turn, I shared my perspective on the importance of a liberal arts education and the value of interdisciplinary learning, also an area of scholarly interest for me.

Though the day was long and filled with interviews and tasks, I remained alert and tried to stay on point. I tried to smile a lot and be congenial, and I thanked everyone I met, from administrators to administrative assistants. The next day, I emailed a thank-you note to each member of the search committee (three in total), the department chair, and the three administrators with whom I interviewed. Each email reiterated my interest in the position and recapped a little of what we talked about during our individual conversations. I don’t know if these emails ultimately made a difference, but it seemed like the appropriate thing to do in that particular situation.

Q: What advice do you have for tenure-track job candidates?

A: Make sure your application materials are flawless. This is one of the few things you have control over as a candidate. A search committee may pore over hundreds of packets. Therefore, write a cover letter that is free from errors and sums up who you are in the first paragraph and grabs the reader. In your CV, highlight your teaching and scholarly interests up front. Don’t make the search committee have to find them buried somewhere in the CV. And don't include every last achievement. Include only the most important and exclude anything over 10 years old. For example, I wrote 40 arrangements for the West Point Band, but I only include the 5 most pertinent on my CV.

Have talking points ready regarding your background, teaching philosophy, courses you would teach, why you want to teach at that particular school, and anything else that’s discipline-specific to the job you’re applying. Prepare and practice them. But don’t sound like you’re reading from a script. For instance, once, just to check, I video-recorded myself answering mock interview questions. I thought I was sounding pretty good until I listened back. I was surprised at how “scripted” I sounded and how stone-faced I looked. So I changed my approach. During the on-campus interview for my position, I used some of my talking points, but I tried to use them in a conversational manner, extracting bits and pieces as appropriate, rather than reciting them like a script. Sometimes I went off-book and answered extemporaneously, relying on my experience as a speaker and teacher to formulate an intelligent response that sounded (hopefully) like a person and not a robot. Warmth and humanity can go a long way.

Keep applying to jobs. After earning my doctorate, it took me two years on the market to find my position. This does not include the pre-doctorate years when I was applying and messed up my one on-campus interview. In total, during both periods (pre- and post-doctorate), I easily applied to over 100 positions. And many of those were outside academia, just in case an academic position did not work out. This included corporate jobs, federal positions, and staff positions in higher education. I watched one rejection email after another pour in, even after I got my job. It was demoralizing at times, but at least I could cross them off the list and move on.

On the flip side, don’t talk yourself out of a job you haven’t applied for. It’s impossible to know exactly what the department is looking for, so if you think you’re qualified for the job, even peripherally, apply. You never know what might happen. In the end, I got 99 rejection emails and 1 job offer. It only took that one job-- a job for which I didn’t even make the final cut initially. And though I had a good campus interview, it definitely was not perfect and had some curveballs. So learn the art of recovery and be able to think quickly on your feet.

And try to stay positive. Applying to academic jobs can be a roller coaster ride of emotions. Ultimately, it’s up to you if and when to throw in the towel. In the meantime, while you’re determined, lean on your support network. It can be therapeutic to share your frustrations and hopes with friends and loved ones.

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