Every year I want to write this post, and every year I think of it too late — which is to say, after we’re in the thick of hiring and graduate school applications. And I wouldn’t want to post it then, because if I did, people would think I was breaking the rules of discretion and referring to some specific applicant.

So this year, I’ve got the timing right: I’ve seen no applications, either for jobs or graduate admissions. And I wish to offer a suggestion governing such applications: thou shalt do thy homework.

If you’re applying for admission to study history at the graduate level, or if you’re applying for a job in a history department, you are not applying to Platonic Ideal History Department, you are applying to a specific actual one. It is not like other ones. Why is this department not like all other departments? Please find out, so you will not sound (not to be rude, but) like an egomaniacal ignoramus.

Graduate school applicants: applying to graduate school is like applying for an medieval apprenticeship — you’re applying to study with someone, as much as at someplace. You need to show that you know why you should be an apprentice to this person, and not to some other person. Furthermore:

  1. Please consider, checking the website is not good enough. A department website will tell you that Professor Q is an expert in administration during the Age of the Pharaohs. You mustn’t cut-and-paste, saying, I want to study administration during the Age of the Pharaohs with Professor Q. Because Professor Q will have a very specific take on administration during the Age of the Pharaohs. Professor Q will have strong opinions about the sources you should use to study administration during the Age of the Pharaohs. And — this is the key point — Professor Q will not have kept these ideas secret, but will in fact have published them somewhere. Get hold of that publication. Read it. Then explain why you should study with Professor Q, using meaningful and specific examples.
  2. Please don’t write Professor Q to ask her opinion on administration during the Age of the Pharaohs until you have read what she has already said in print. Emails that say, “I am interested in administration during the Age of the Pharaohs and I see you are too. Could you tell me more about your research?” are emails with the secret message in invisible ink reading “I did not go to the library. I do not care enough about you or your research to read it before writing you. I am, honestly, unclear on the concept of being a graduate student.”

Which is all quite understandable, as people applying for graduate study are often unclear on the concept, and it’s more the fault of their undergraduate advisors for not helping them with it. It is in short as nothing compared with the job applicant who does not do his/her homework.

Job applicants, let me repeat: if you are invited to a campus interview at a department, you are invited to a campus interview at a specific actual department with real people in it who have real expertise. You are not being invited to Platonic Ideal History Department. Find out who’s in this department, especially within your own field. Interestingly, the same caveats apply as with graduate students, but need slightly stronger phrasing.

  1. Please consider, checking the website is not good enough. Seriously. You’ve got a PhD, or are about to. You got that PhD in a real department full of real professors. Have you not noticed how thin-skinned they are, how specific and narrow their interests, how much they need placating and flattering like a bunch of Versailles courtiers? Let’s stipulate they shouldn’t. But you can’t get a job in the department that should be, you can only get a job in a department that is. Please, figure out who’s there. Read a little of their work. Have a sense of what questions they might ask you, and prepare yourself to answer them.
  2. Please, don’t indicate too obviously that you’re unfamiliar with work that’s relevant to your field, especially if it’s published by someone in the department you’re applying to. Quite possibly, it might come up in conversation. It might even have substantial relevance to what you’re saying. And if you don’t know about it, you are saying silently, “I do not care enough about you as a prospective colleague to read your work even when it’s obviously relevant to my research. I will probably therefore be a terrible colleague, honestly.”

You’d be surprised how often — more than 3/4 of the time, I’d say — applicants exhibit a newborn’s frank innocence of where they are standing and with whom. And you can say all kinds of things about whether it should matter, but let’s not pretend it doesn’t.

I was going to talk about why almost all job talks are bad and how to fix them, but it appears I’ve rattled on for rather a long time and will have to save that for another post.