Career Lingo: ‘Required’ versus ‘Preferred’

Image: Men reading the want advertisements for jobs, Melinda Street, Toronto, Canada, 1919, by William James (City of Toronto Archives)

Academic fields are renowned for their jargon — terms and concepts common among students and scholars in an area of specialization but unknown to outsiders. An aeronautical engineer might refer to a “coffin corner,” a communication researcher to the “spiral of silence,” or a molecular biologist to a “knockout mouse” with their colleagues knowing exactly what they mean without explanation.

Academe has another layer of jargon for people navigating its career ladder. From graduate school to job hunting to the tenure track and beyond, there is a host of terms that are crucial to understand. The problems for newcomers in deciphering them are:

  • Keywords are often used loosely and may mean more than one thing depending on the situation, context, or audience.
  • Many of the people using the terms have little experience with all their behind-the-scenes facets and applications.
  • Career-related jargon can have latent or hidden dimensions and complexities (political, personal, bureaucratic, economic, legal, cultural) that people often don’t like to talk about.

This column is the first in a series I’ll be writing about career lingo you will encounter on the academic job market. Let’s start with a ubiquitous set of seemingly innocuous words prevalent in almost every academic job announcement: “required” (or “minimum”) and “preferred” (or “desired” or “idea”) qualifications. You will see those words (or words like them) in jobs ads whether the position is in physics or comparative literature, at a community college or a major research university. Both words seem straightforward, and they can be. Sometimes.

Required qualifications are those you must demonstrably possess to even be considered as a candidate, let alone to be hired for the job (and approved by HR). Sometimes the requirement applies to the here and now: “at least five years’ teaching experience in the field of X.” Other times it is anticipatory: “must have doctoral degree officially awarded by 201Y.”

Preferred, on the surface, means, “it would also be nice if you had these.” Most job candidates assume, correctly, that the more of these preferred qualifications you have, the better. Not having all of them will probably not be fatal to your candidacy.
But on the job market, nuance, subtlety, complexity, and local contexts ensue: Qualified is often in the minds of the beholders. How, for example, do you show that you are qualified to teach a particular class? One hiring committee may be fine with your having been a TA in a similar class in your doctoral program while another committee may feel that being teacher of record for the course is the only experience that counts. A different committee may insist that multiple teaching gigs for the course truly define “experience.”

As you’re reviewing the listed qualifications, consider both the big and the local picture. Factor in things like the following:

  • No department today has as many tenure-track hiring lines as it would like. Many advertised positions are actually “hybrid dreams,” where the hope is to get someone who fulfills several lines’ worth of talent.
  • Departments and the colleges they reside in must prioritize.
  • Every qualification has a constituency: Within any department, somebody wants someone who will do X, while others may be lobbying for Y.

The result is that lists of qualifications often represent committee give-and-take and political compromise. Ideally, everyone agrees on the compromise. In practice, the partisan of one set of qualifications may continue to insist on their importance even if he failed to win the committee vote.

I suffered through a case of qualification boosterism early in my career. I was a finalist for a position and, darn it, I hit the bull’s-eye on all the required and most of the preferred qualifications. But during the campus visit one professor kept asking — almost to the point of harassment — about my qualifications in one of the “preferred” categories. Six times I gave him the same answer, which was a version of “I have taught that class once but don’t call myself an expert.” I later learned that he rode that hobby horse into the committee deliberations, basically trashing any candidate who did not show immense love and expertise for this subfield — which, big surprise, turned out to be his own.

Economics also plays a role. Someone who can teach many different kinds of courses might be more attractive for a position than someone who can only teach in the areas specified in the ad as “required.”

In short, not all qualifications are equal in everyone’s eyes. So what can you do to prepare for the nuances of required and preferred qualifications?

  • Gather as much intel as possible before you apply and certainly before a campus interview. Seek out friends of friends to advise you on “what they really want” — that is, those qualifications seen as more vital than others. Don’t hesitate to reach out; most search committee members will be happy to clarify something in an ad.
  • Justify in your cover letter and be prepared to answer during interviews how you are a good fit for as many of the qualifications as is credible, not just the first few. In fact, qualification No. 6 or No. 7 might be the most important to the most people in the department.
  • Read the room. Hear people out when they have questions. Don’t be so ready with a memorized answer that you don’t pick up on their emphasis, tone, and body language.
  • Relax. Yes, there might always be a hobbyhorser who wants only one thing out of the hire; likely the rest of the committee and administrators have a more catholic outlook. You won’t be resplendent in every category, but then no one else will be either.
  • Don’t be afraid to be honest. Many of us on the hiring side of the table appreciate candidates who seem to be realistic appraisers of their own skill sets. You will win points by stating “I’m not as strong there as I want to be,” rather than “I can do it all!”

So think about what “qualifications” means but don’t obsess over them too much. Make a case for your strengths without twisting yourself into someone implausible.

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