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Underground Advice:
Applying for Support-Staff Jobs


For many years I have offered jub-hunting advice to fresh PhDs in my department. This advice is now available on a separate page link.

Since I have also been involved with hiring for support-staff jobs, not always for Anthropology, I made up a separate advice guide for them, which is the origin of this document. I have made only a few changes from the pre-coronavirus revision, including an attempt to accommodate Zoom interviews.

Good luck in your quest.


Page Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Technical Skills
  3. Social Skills: Presentation on Paper
  4. Social Skills: Presentation in an Interview
  5. Referees
  6. Beer Debt

Underground Advice to Candidates
Applying for Academic
Support-Staff Jobs


“Staff” here refers to non-faculty university employees. Their world is different from the faculty world in many ways, one of which involves how they are hired, so I have created this document separately from my guide to applying for faculty jobs, available on a separate page (link).

For a staff job, you need to demonstrate what you are able to do in basic clerical and similar skills, not what your research or teaching competence is. This means your resume (as opposed to your curriculum vitae, which is what a resume is called when applying for a faculty position) should be organized to center on skills.

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Technical Skills

Most jobs require a mix of technical and social competencies. I am here assuming the job you are applying for is clerical or some variant on that, but the same general advice would apply mutatis mutandis for more technical and even managerial positions.

Clerical Skills. Clerical positions require competence in filing, typing, editing, proof-reading, maintaining web pages, scheduling, etc. If you have done this in a prior job, it is useful to describe the job, making sure that all the skills likely to be of interest just happen to be in the description. (If you have additional experience from a volunteer position, include that so as to be able to list the experience.) Editorial positions obviously require better evidence of ability to edit and proof-read, but even clerical positions normally have some need of that.

If you have edited a newsletter, written abstracts, drafted correspondence or the like, this is useful evidence that you are not a total illiterate.

If you have experience with financial work (bookkeeping, payroll, travel accounts), you should enumerate the specific tasks you have done; it is also useful to indicate the particular software or accounting system used. Since such tasks require training, the employer wants to know how much training you are going to need. Being vague is conducive to the default assumption that you will need a lot.

Computer Skills. Computer competencies are easy to list, but some indication of the level of competence increases credibility, since so many people claim skills far beyond what they really have. (This is one of the biggest shortcomings of the resumes I have read over the years.)

Bad Example: “Computer skills: Word, Excel, Access, WWW”

Good Example: “Computer skills: Word (including mail merge, styles, tables, macros); Excel (including charts and database functions); Access (basic level only), WWW (ability to use browsers and write HTML directly, including CSS and simple JavaScript).”

The bad example (which comes from a real resume) shows that you are not actually dead, but it hints that your skill is probably minimal in each individual bit of software listed. (WWW is of course not a piece of software, and including it without specification suggests that you don’t know that.) In contrast, the good example shows that you understand what you are claiming. All candidates, however dunderheaded, can make claims like the first of these. Only intelligent and serious candidates dare to provide details.

(If your ability to use common office programs is limited, you might consider improving it. Mail merge, for example, can be mastered in about half an hour. So can macros. So can style sheets. Being able to say that you know Word to that extent may put you ahead of the opposition, since most candidates have no idea how mail merge, macros, and so on work.)

Web Skills. The ability to do more with web sites than look at them is in extremely high demand in connection with almost all positions, but is rarely claimed by job applicants. The weekend you spend learning to make a web site and making one for yourself will put you ahead of about 80% of all competing job candidates for an extremely wide range of clerical and other support positions.

An additional advantage is that you can put your resume on your web site, formatted and composed as you want it to be seen, and not as a Human Resources office wants it to be seen. The dirty little secret here is that it is Very Modern for HR offices to scan your resume (sometimes introducing errors), suppress the formatting, and then provide only the standardized scanned version to your potential supervisor. (At UCSD cover letters are routinely suppressed in this process, by the way, or at least they were when I last yelled at HR about that practice.)

Very often, you will be required to submit your whole application by filling out a form on the HR web site designed to standardize candidates and minimize any evidence of actual creativity. In fact it can be worse than that. Some HR office have a computer scan for keywords and then send your application not to the unit you have applied to, but to whatever unit gave them an employment request with the largest number of keywords that also occur in your resume. You are, in other words, being hired by a robot.

One obvious implication is that you should be sure to include in your resume any keywords you can identify in the job listing. But you can do better than that. By mounting your resume and additional information about how wonderful you are on your own web site, and then including your URL as an example of your web skills in your resume (or wherever there is a chance for free narrative on the HR web application), you can defeat the HR homogenizers and regain a little bit of control over how you are represented. (You heard it here first.)

Give some consideration to what information you put on the web, regardless of where you put it. For one thing, Google finds everything, and often caches it long after it was taken down. Already in August of 2007, Time Magazine cited two interesting statistics. One was that about 12% of employers in somebody’s survey admitted to consulting “social-networking” web sites like Facebook and MySpace in connection with the intereview process. Another said that 63% of those who did so declined to interview a candidate because of what they found. Time suggested that the potential employer’s suspicions [!] of faked qualifications or criminal behavior were the two top reasons given.

Anecdotal evidence from 2012 suggests that by then about 80% of employers routinely looked at applicant’s Facebook pages. Just as insurance companies are suspected of buying information from data miners to learn whether your supermarket loyalty card shows you eat too many jelly doughnuts, there is no reason to believe that data miners are not selling lists of your on-line book purchases to potential employers. One can get way too worried about this, but since it easy to keep an eye at least on your own Facebook page, there is no point in being careless.

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Social Skills: Presentation on Paper

Most positions involve some kind of contact with other people, whether co-workers or the public. It is not helpful to list skills like: “good ‘people’ person,” “excellent team player,” “insightful problem solver.” These may be things other people can say about you, but since they are evaluations, saying them about yourself comes across (correctly) as vacuous, self-serving, manipulative, and lacking in taste.

It is more helpful if you list some of the kinds of human contact you have experience with, such as responsibility for telephone support, staff training, office intake, complaint handling, dispute resolution, union liaison, or whatever. You can say you enjoy this, but don’t claim that you are brilliant at it. Saying you are brilliant is the job of your referees. Don’t poach.

Here is a selection from an actual job application for a staff support position. Not only are the bulleted items not syntactically parallel or identically punctuated (suggesting poor grasp of English and/or poor attention to detail), but the mindless self-promotion makes this candidate seem to be a person whom no respectable manager should even contemplate hiring. (The form was submitted to me. I did not bother interviewing this obvious loser.)

In general, anything job-relevant that is conspicuously left out of a resume invites the default assumption that it is not good. Many applicants hide their education, leaving it out altogether, leaving out the school, omitting the dates to hide their age, saying nothing about their college major, or the like. Your education is part of the background you bring to the job, and leaving it out flags it as something you are probably ashamed of. You can replace that negative impression with a positive one by simply including the information, the same way you include information about your prior work experience. (Despite [illegal] ageism and sexism in hiring, a woman who hides her age, according to Texas A&M economist Joanna Lahey, receives fewer call-backs than one who does not. Go figure.)

Prior Short-Term Jobs. Job applications nearly always want a list of your prior work experience, and a long list of short-term jobs without an explanation will hurt you, since it implies you won’t be around very long. Hiring is a time-consuming enough business these days that your employer is not going to be enthusiastic about hiring you for what will probably be a short time. Simplyt include a reasonable explanation and all will be well! (“My husband is in the Marines and we have been transferred an average of about once every two years. He is now retired.” “My last several jobs have been in support of grant-supported research and have ended when the research funding ran out. I am applying to your position in part because I seek greater job stability.”)

Relevant Non-Job Experience. Other kinds of experience are sometimes listed and may imply knowledge or skills of potential use to an employer, so to my mind it is entirely appropriate to list extensive stints abroad, extensive volunteer work, time away from work to be a full-time parent, and so on.

It is true that your private life is not inherently any of your boss’s business. But your experience is part of what you are selling. Decide what may make you an attractive candidate and go ahead and list it. There is no shame whatever if your having been a Red Cross translator in Cambodia puts you ahead of the person who never heard of Cambodia or can’t find it on a map. (Be selective. Joanna Lahey, cited above, has also found that listing homeowners association membership has a negative effect.)

At the level of the materials submitted as a job application, a very large proportion of the applicants can usually do the work adequately, but very few provide enough information to allow a potential employer to feel confident about them. To stand out from the crowd, you need only provide better information so an employer can feel confident. Frankly, given some of the appallingly flaky resumes you are competing against, this shouldn’t be hard, even if HR tries hard to make all applications look identical.

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Social Skills: Presentation in an Interview

Some interviews are conducted only by your prospective boss or a single representative of the boss, but many, especially above the purely clerical level, are conducted by small committees. Most of what follows refers to the committee kind.

  1. Be on time. Early counts as anxious; late counts as ditzy. (Anxious is not great, but it is better than ditzy.) Bring extra copies of your resume, since the interview committee probably lost their copies or got badly Xeroxed or (worse yet) computer scanned ones screwed up by HR. (No HR office should be assumed to be competent. Ever.)
  2. Be dressed just a tad more formally than the job requires, but remember that university jobs do not require (or reward) being dressed quite as formally as outside jobs do. (I actually saw a graduate student on a selection committee exclude an excellent male candidate from further consideration on the grounds that he had failed to wear a tie, but I have also seen women subsequently described by interviewers as “insufficiently familiar with the university” after they had appeared at an interview wearing unusually heavy makeup or overly dressy shoes.)
  3. Answer the questions asked. You lose points by appearing to evade questions or getting lost in a meander. If you tend to wander, you might want to try a one-line answer plus an explanation rather than putting the explanation before the conclusion. (“Briefly, I guess the answer would be ‘no.’ Here are some of the factors I think are involved: …”) If you meander and then come back to the point you can sometimes gain credit as long as people notice you got back to the question asked. (Say something subtle, like: “So therefore, getting back to your question, the answer is no.”)
  4. Be ready to explain why you want the job. There is no right answer, but you need to convey the impression that you will be pleased to take it if it is offered, not that you are merely toying with the search committee. In particular:
  5. It is (stupid but) not uncommon for a committee to ask your greatest strength and weakness, despite the failure of the question to elicit useful information. Be honest about your strength. Unless you lie about it, it’s hard to go wrong there. Weaknesses are more complicated. The conventional weakness people mentioned used to be workaholism, which became so predictable and so transparently mendacious that it fell into disrepute and is now considered a risible response.

    Excessive fussiness about details became a more fashionable self-declared weakness in interviews a few years back. That too eventually became obvious.

    I think this year’s fashionable failing may be taking a long time to make decisions because one wants to be sure to have all the data and to have seen all the implications. This too will pass. If you can come up with an original (but trivial) weakness, it will probably be refreshing.

    It is a rare and inspiring candidate who describes a real weakness (such as crabbiness, or getting easily distracted, or being too casual about getting to work on time, or misspelling everything). The problem is, of course, that if the failing seems even remotely real, it will in fact be held against you, and may be magnified just because people who don’t know you magnify everything to make up for the missing bits. Don’t be honest; it is better to go for a petty crochet (“I make faces at the telephone”) and leave it there. (Being mildly dyslectic so that one has to be attentive about proof-reading is probably not too bad, since it may gain sympathy points, turning a failing into victimhood, but I have not seen this actually used.)
  6. Most people react positively to humor, but generalized affability is safer than jokes. Don’t push the edge. If the first try for a laugh doesn’t work, leave it alone thereafter. If you have a beautiful smile, use it; it is very hard for most people to avoid loving a smile. An occasional naive grim or amused smirk is okay. Snarky sneers are definitely out.
  7. Committees are suckers for high energy levels. Don’t scream or twitch, but do make a point of being attentive and eager. Don’t leave long gaps between the questions they ask and the answer you give. That may strike you as thoughtful, but it comes across as bizarre. If you tend to yawn when talking to potential employers, don’t give up your present job.
  8. A disability that is obvious but irrelevant to the job probably will not be a big deal. But if you have a disability that can potentially be misconstrued, explain it at the outset so people admire how well you overcome it rather than wonder what’s the matter with you. (Examples are essential tremor, partial paralysis, stutter, facial tics, being mushy-mouthed due to braces, a slight limp, deafness in one ear, squinting because of new contacts, or whatever.)
  9. Know about the job. This may seem obvious, but I have seen candidates dismissed because they did not appear to understand the job or the institution to which they were applying. Before an interview it is important to have gone over any publications and the web site of the hiring entity. You will not understand the institution as well as the review committee does, so be conspicuously humble about your continuing need to learn about it. But the humility should in fact be something of a façade: the better you show or suggest that you know the institution, the more credible you become, and the more your humility is seen as a sign of depth rather than ignorance.

    For some jobs your ignorance of the specifics can be offset by your seeming knowledge of the national scene. (“I don’t know how you handle this here. Many institutions have been shifting from A to B as they have tried to contend with rising rates of C.”) Review committees tend to be parochial, so they can easily be impressed by people who seem to understand national trends. I have seen this work as the principal reason why one candidate got the job over others who were probably equally qualified.
  10. Don’t be too eager to work from home. The Covid-19 pandemic brought universalization to remote execution of clerical and managerial jobs, a trend that was already in progress, and as the pandemic eased it was unclear how soon, if at all, offices would replace Zoom conferences again. Provocatively, however, a pre-pandemic (2014) Stanford study conducted of a large, multinational company, found that remote employees had a 50% lower promotion rate after 21 months than their in-office colleagues (as reported in The Week, 2021-10-08, p. 12). This should probably be in the back of your mind even if interviewers want to know whether you are "willing" to work from home. Willingness is in general a good thing. But a strong preference for something that could snap back and bite you may be something else again.
  11. Zoom Interviews involve all of the above, of course, but they are less interactive and more theatrical. Phil Blair, a career adviser and co-founder of Manpower San Diego, offered the following advice for online interviewees during the Coronavirus lockdown of 2020:
    Where you sit (too close or too far away), how you sit (too stiff or slouching), what you’re wearing (busy patterns drive us crazy), what your hair looks like (a wandering strand can be very distracting), matters. Same with unpleasant facial expressions, nervously touching your face, or, my pet peeve, twirling your hair. While you’re at it, a touch more makeup than normal and a closer shave might be in order. (2020-06-01, San Diego Union-Tribune, pp. C-1-2).
    Blair goes on to advise planning ahead for the lighting and the zoom background —no sink full of dirty dishes— setting a camera angle that does not peer up your nostrils, and keeping your eyes looking into the camera instead of the computer screen. (He also recommends keeping kids, dogs, and in-laws out of view and points out that there is no need for a face mask when you are alone with the computer. Seems pretty obvious.) Zoom allows you to pick your own graphic and make it a background, but for an interview it is a bad idea; even with a green screen, pieces of you tend to vanish and reappear when you move, Cheshire-cat-fashion.

    A similar article by Jessica Roy of the L.A. Times three months later (2020-08-31, SDUT, pp. C-1-2) also emphasizes that greater theatricality matters in E-interviews, and mentions that television news anchors use far more make-up than you think they do. She also stresses dressing appropriately even for that lower half of you that the camera shouldn’t see, just in case you suddenly need to stand up. And she recommends very careful advance rehearsal of all the technical things that can go wrong.

    In short, appearance always matters, and like an actor moving from Broadway to Hollywood, you must adjust your performance to the new medium.

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Consulting your referees (including your most recent supervisor) is a routine part of the search committee’s work. It follows that you should provide names of referees who think you are wonderful.

You referees will almost necessarily include your present supervisor. You need to talk with your supervisor before a hiring committee does. This normally works fine. The supervisor may be pleased to be rid of you (and therefore give you a positive recommendation) or think it is good for you to be moving up in your career (and therefore give you a positive recommendation) or may feel betrayed and deserted (but nevertheless feel duty-bound to give you a positive recommendation).

A supervisor who is unlikely to give a positive recommendation probably would have fired you already, so there is nothing very problematic here. However if you apply for another job on the sly, your supervisor may feel betrayed by your lack of trust in his or her professionalism, and can be expected to say as much. An important question that your potential new employer might ask the old one is, "Would you hire this person again?" Remember that as you negotiate your exit.

If your superisor is an unsympathetic pismire, you may feel that you need to do your job hunting out of sight, and it is not unknown to ask a search committee to hold off consulting him or her until you are their prime candidate for the new job. They may or may not honor that request, but at least they are alerted to your situation.They are going to have to consult your supervisor sooner or later before they offer you the job. Live with it.

Don’t expect celerity. Searches take a long time as applications are gathered and sorted, interviews arranged, and notes compared. Sometimes the first person offered a job turns it down, and others are not usually told that they were not selected until an appointment has been successfully made, which makes the whole process longer yet. It is reasonable to ask a review committee when they expect to be able to announce an appointment, but it is rather bad form to hound them to make the decision earlier than their procedures allow. Be patient.

Beer Debt

If you follow all, most, or some of this advice and get a job, you owe me beer. If you follow it and do not get a job, I do not owe you beer. This is because it is my advice, so I get to make the rules about the associated beer too.

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