The person, the package, the presentation: Lessons from a recent job hunt

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Philip McCasland, Tokai University and Brent Poole, Georgia State University

Five minutes after dropping the job application packet in the post office box, the realization hits—you have failed to write "application for employment" in red ink on the envelope. This sets off a wave of paranoia.

  • "Do I have any surface errors in my essay (on my philosophy of education)?"
  • "Did I misspell the name of the person in charge of employment applications?"
  • "Should I have placed the requested materials into a folder to make my packet more esthetically pleasing?"
  • "Oh, these job application packets are such a pain!"
  • "Why do they ask for so much material?"

It is August and the job-hunting season for university positions here in Japan is in full swing. As a serious contender in the job market this year, you have already sent off several applications packets and are in the process of mailing out the next batch. However, you may have some questions about the process. Here is a view of the field from the angle of fellow job-seekers who were actively job-hunting in Japan between 1998 and 2001. This is what we have learned from our experiences, and this is the kind of information we would like to have known before we started our job hunt.


The material in this paper comes from the experiences of the authors. The overall profiles of author one and author two are very similar. Both are male, in their early thirties, have master's degrees, arrived in Japan in the spring of 1997, live in the Kansai area, had formerly taught English at language schools in Korea, had four years experience teaching at a university in Japan, and both had been unhappy with their employment situation, resulting in an active search for a new teaching post.


The figures and numbers in this paper help tell our story. These were collected and combined from our experiences over the period of one calendar year—2001—the year we successfully landed new jobs. Author one applied to twenty-two universities offering a total of thirty-six positions. Author two applied to seventeen universities and one junior college with a combination of twenty-three positions available. Both applied to the same five universities resulting in a small overlap. Subtracting this overlap results in a combined total of thirty-five institutions offering fifty-one positions. Of these thirty-five institutions, twenty-four were private and eleven were public.

When is the job-hunting season?

Usually, universities are looking for an April 1 hiring (30/35 in our sample). Therefore, they will request an application packet in the summer or early autumn of the year preceding the hire date and will then hold interviews from as early as August and as late as November. For a September hiring (4/35), schools will request applications by late November, and will generally interview in January or February. However, there is always the chance of learning of a position late in the hiring cycle, usually by word-of-mouth, when unexpected circumstances cause a vacancy. Nevertheless, an aggressive job-hunter will be busy almost every month of the year.

Where is the best place to find job postings?

Generally, the best places are Japan-based web sites, which are specifically related to tertiary employment. Here is where we found ours: twenty-one from the National Center for Science Information Systems' (NACSIS) Japanese site, career information page; Six from The Language Teacher; three from The Japan Times; three from the JALT National Conference Job Information Center (JIC); one from Dave's ESL Page; and one by word of mouth. The homepage addresses for these sources can be found at the Job Information JIC section of this publication with the exception of The Japan Times and Dave's ESL Page. The former has no Internet job listing, but the latter can be found at Other places we recommend are the Chronicle of Higher Education: The Career Network (, TESOL Job Information Network's Job Finder ( and American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL) (

What does the application packet entail?

One might assume that a cover letter and a curriculum vita (CV) are all that are necessary when applying for a job. However, an entire packet of documentation and verification is usually requested in the job ad. In our experience, up to eight additional items were required with an average of 3.6 items per application packet. A comprehensive list is included in Table 1.

Table 1. Required application items

Required Items Requested Specific Information
Photo 21 recent and dated on the back
Essay 17 almost every one is different
Publication copies 17 photocopies usually accepted
Diploma copies 14 photocopies of all diplomas of higher education
Letters of recommendation 12 three are usually required
Publication abstracts 12 sometimes in Japanese with a specified format
Special CV or application form 8 reformat your CV adding very specific information
Transcripts 8 copies are usually sufficient
List of referees 6 at times very specific requests
Unusual requestsa 5 examples listed below
Video or audio recording 4 your teaching recorded
Visa copy 3 photocopy of passport pages with your working visa

N = 35

Unusual requests: examples include: complete authority for release of employee information, health certificate, copy of lesson plans, and materials used in class.

Of all of the required items, the essay seems to be the most troublesome and time consuming. About half of the applications required one essay, sometimes more than one. Each request was different enough and specific enough to make it impossible to use one standard application essay. Here are some examples of topics and word limits of the personal essay: your teaching methodology (500-600), outlining language philosophy and approaches to classroom management (300), statement of future plans while in this position, with a brief statement on the role of university education (1,000), explain your approach to teaching English (750), statement on applicant's background (500), strengths, and interests with regards to teaching and developing teaching material at the university's program(800).

Publications or abstracts of publications were required by over half (20); four wanted both. Six institutions requested copies of all publications. This we found proved expensive even though we are not even remotely prolific. Thankfully eight institutions only wanted three publications while three required only two publications.

Sometimes the institution asks for a special CV or application form that uses their prescribed format or a handwritten application. Often it is the exact information from the CV with only a slight variation. At other times, detailed information is requested, such as your entire educational history as far back as elementary school, an explanation of any gaps in your CV, current visa status, marital status, children's ages, and highlights of cross-cultural experiences. This can be very time consuming the first time; later it becomes an exercise of the cut and paste function on your computer.

Video or audio recording can be some of the most perplexing, not to mention humiliating, documentation you may be asked to add to the application packet. Perplexing, because you are not sure what the search committee really wants; humiliating, because it is inviting a group of strangers with little, or no, context to critique your teaching skill and ability. These requests come in one of two forms: 1) video tape fifteen minutes to an hour of your teaching a live class or 2) give a self-introduction on an audiotape.

What are the most common requirements?

Almost every job advertisement had a different variation on the set of requirements. Some were listed as absolute, while others were desirable, but not absolutely required. Additionally, some were unstated requirements not mentioned in the list of requirements but implicit in the items requested in the application packet. The most common was a request for three principle publications not mentioned in the list of requirements. Generally, the requirements fell into three categories coded: 1) explicitly stated as a requirement, 2) implicitly stated: inferred from items requested, 3) stated as desired but not required.

Table 2 Most Common Job Requirements

Requirements Listed Explicit Implicit Desired Comments
Masters degree 34 24 -- 10 TESOL, English or Linguistics
University teaching experience 29 22 6 1 often 2 or 3 years
Publications 27 8 16 3 often 3 required
English as native language 19 19 -- -- others: native-like competency
Japanese language 14 6 -- 8 general ability / proficiency
Age 10 8 -- 2 perfect age 35
Computer skills 3 1 -- 2 Computer/ Internet literate

N = 35

The Japanese language requirement remained the most ambiguous with such general descriptors as ability, proficiency in, or working knowledge of Japanese. More specific descriptors included: sufficient to communicate with administrative staff, in the management of University matters, to fulfill duties, or communicate in daily life in Japanese. Interesting enough, no ad stated a desired level on a standardized Japanese proficiency test.

The most contentious requirement was age, mentioned in ten different ads. Eight explicitly stated their desire for varying degrees of youth and vigor balanced with maturity and experience: three wanted applicants under the age of 40, two desired applicants between 30-40, one 30-60, one 27-45, and one 32-37. Two ads stated a desired preference: 30-40, and under age 55.

Two requirements were difficult to code, but fell into two general categories: 1) character and motivation, and 2) skills and experience. The former included such descriptors as enthusiastic and skillful, firm determination to improve students' English proficiency, creative and cooperative, a team player. The latter, included experience writing classroom materials and tests, ability to keep pace with established schedules of classroom activities, and overseas teaching experience.

Are term limits negotiable?

We found three types of terms of employment stated in the job advertisements. 1) Tenure track is the opportunity to become a full faculty member after a probation period of generally eighteen months to three years. 2) A limited-term contract is restricted to a set number of years or contract renewals. Sometimes these limits can be negotiated after the first year of employment because it is common for universities to advertise a term limit in order to provide flexibility in their hiring decisions; later one may be informed that a contract can be extended, sometimes indefinitely. From our research, the shortest stated term-limit was one year, while the longest was nine years; the average was 3.94 years. 3) A short-term contract, a classification that falls somewhere in the middle of the former two, can be renewed at the end of each contract period for an unlimited number of terms upon the mutual agreement of both parties. Therefore, it does not have the security of the tenure track, but neither does it have the stated restriction of the limited-term contact.

Table 3. Terms of Employment

Type Offered
Tenure track 6
Limited-term contract 18
Short-term contract 9
Not stated 2

N = 35

How much time will it take?

When looking at the big picture, the time investment can be significant. First, a search must be conducted to find the appropriate job listings, which can take one to two hours a week. After a job posting is found, it will need to be evaluated and researched, which can add one more hour per institution. Then one must complete the application packet by collecting materials, filling out applications, writing essays, and finally packaging and posting the materials. This will take a minimum of two hours, but could take more than six hours per application depending on the number and type of items required in the application packet. Also one must consider time in preparation for interviews, travel time, waiting time, and finally the time it takes for follow up calls and thank you letters after the interview. Clearly, an effective job hunt will take many hours, especially during the busiest periods of the job-hunting season.

How much does the job-hunt cost?

This is a major investment which could easily cost 250, 000 yen for one year of job hunting. Here is what we considered job-hunting related expenditures.


Application packets often require an extraordinary amount of printing, along with official copies of transcripts, copies of publications, videotapes, audiotapes, official health certificates, and more. The average application packet required four sets of items besides the basic CV and cover letter. If everything in your packet is photocopied, there is an investment of at least 600 yen. If there are several official documents in the packet, a conservative figure could be 5,000 yen. Postage can cost 600 to 1,500 yen per packet.


Do not expect the school that invites you to an interview to pay for any travel and accommodation expenses incurred along the way. In our experiences, tertiary institutions paid for travel related expenses only 20% of the time.


Lost time at work (i.e. make-up classes at your current job), additions to your wardrobe, dry cleaning, haircuts, shoe shines, computer related expenses (i.e. printer toner and paper), video camera expenses, stationary, Kinko's printing and photocopying, and internet charges are just some of the incidental expenses that must be considered in the overall job-hunting budget.


Attending conferences, giving presentations, writing publications, and forming networks should be a regular part of one's professional development and happen long before the job search begins. However, for the person new to the field, who has yet to reach the minimum number of presentations and publications, it may be necessary to play a bit of catch-up. Attending a local, one day conference such as a Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT) Pan-SIG or Mini-Conference can cost as little as 9,000 yen per day depending on location (3,000 yen registration, 3,000 yen transportation and 3,000 yen meals). On the other hand, an international conference such as Korea TESOL (KO-TESOL), Thai-TESOL, or the AAAL can cost more than 100,000 yen. Membership fees, for professional organizations such as International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL), JALT, and Japan Association of College English Teachers (JACET), cost between 8, 000 to 10,000 yen a year, with SIGs costing 1,500 yen each. During 2001, the authors were playing catch-up by presenting at the JALT CUE Min-Conference, Pragmatics SIG Mini-Conference, KO-TESOL conference, and the PAC 3 JALT conference. We also published in the proceeding of these conferences with the exception of the last one. The networking at these conferences proved especially helpful and brought in several inside tips about job openings.

How many applications before one is invited to an interview?

As with other facets of the job hunt, one will find some degree of variation. Author 1 had an invitation to application ratio of almost one to four, while Author 2 had a rate of one to three. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the authors only applied to the universities they clearly felt qualified for—meeting most, if not all, of the stated criteria.

What is the interview like?

Generally, from our experience, it was a panel interview: more than three people, and on one occasion twenty. A panel of six was the average with both academic and administrative elements represented. One person took the lead as a spokesperson for the group while some of the panelist said little or nothing, but seemed to be evaluating personal appearance, body language, and overall demeanor. The questions ranged from the personal to the banal: marital status, reasons for coming to Japan, your research, teaching experience, philosophy of education, ability to deal with specific teaching situations. However, it seemed that every interview had at least one element of surprise—something that came out of left field. Be prepared to do something extemporaneous such as make a lesson plan, teach a mini-lesson, or introduce your most recent classroom research in Japanese.

Did the committee read my publications?

Many universities rate the accomplishments of the applicant on a grading scale. A full-length, feature publication in a reputable international journal will receive high marks while an institutional (in-house) journal or a magazine publication might have less value. Similarly, an invited presentation to an international conference would receive more weight than a presentation at a small conference.

Be advised that some interview panels will actually read your publications and even attempt to challenge your research, so be able to diplomatically defend both. The fastball question may be more of a test of your presence of mind under pressure, than an actual challenge to your research methodology. The point is research does count: it is often a vital consideration for the hiring committee. Moreover, the manner in which it is documented and defended is a crucial part of your overall presentation. Keep in mind, the presentation is not just the person (yourself), nor is it just the package (the documentation); it is a finely tuned orchestration of both.


It is absolutely natural to have questions and concerns about the job application system here in Japan. It is also natural to feel a sense of trepidation and at times even overwhelmed when subjecting oneself to such a challenging and often humiliating process. Good luck on your next job search and remember when you send out the application, don't forget to write in red ink "APPLICATION FOR EMPLOYMENT."

Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2002 JALT Conference, JIC Forum.

Acknowledgement: The authors would like to acknowledge TLT's Peer Support Group for the assistance they provided us with our revisions.

Philip McCasland received a BA in TESOL from Hobe Sound Bible College, and an MA in TESOL from Biola University. He has lived and worked in Japan for the last seven years and is currently a full-time lecturer at Tokai University in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa. His varied professional interests include teaching with literature, intercultural communication, and content based learning. When not working or hunting for a job, you will find him cycling or hiking in the outdoors with his daughter.

Brent Poole is currently pursuing a PhD in applied linguistics at Georgia State University. His research interests include pragmatics, sociolinguistics and genre theory (particularly the systemic functional linguistics school of thought).