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Academic Cover Letter Search Committee

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  22 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including the template for a job cover letter, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.

In my 15 years as a faculty member I served on approximately 11 search committees. Some of these search committees I chaired. These committees brought in ten new assistant professors into my departments.

Estimating that each search brought in an average of 200 applications (a conservative estimate for a field like Anthropology, a generous estimate for a much smaller field like East Asian Languages and Literatures), that means I read approximately 2200 job applications.

I’ve also read the cover letters of my own students, and a passel of Ph.D. students who came to me for advice, as well as a large number of clients since opening The Professor is In (as of July 2014 let’s say 1000).

So let’s say I’ve read (3200) job cover letters. Of those (3200) job cover letters, it is safe to say that (3000) sucked. Sucked badly. Sucked epically. Sucked the way Cakewrecks cakes suck.

What’s up with that?

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Here’s what’s up with that.

Advisers don’t teach their grad students how to write cover letters. They send them out pathetically, humiliatingly ill-informed.

It is, in my opinion, a criminal degree of neglect.

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I am on a mission to get Ph.D. students, in the social sciences and humanities especially, to stop sending out worthless, embarrassing, self-sabotaging job cover letters.

I am infuriated that close colleagues of mine in the top programs in the country–think Ivy Leagues–routinely allow their Ph.D.s to send out job letters to departments across the country–to potential colleagues and peers and reviewers across the country– that make those Ph.D.s look ill-trained, unqualified, and un-hireable.

How do I know that? Again, because I was on the hiring committees that received the letters from those Ph.D.s, the students I knew well, had met at conferences, and recognized as the students of my friends and colleagues at prestigious departments in the field.

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So, anyone reading this now, here is why your cover letter sucks, and what you need to do to fix it.

1. It Is Too Long. And 1a. It’s Not on Letterhead. And 1b. It must follow proper letter norms of etiquette

Your letter must be on letterhead if you have a current academic affiliation of any kind. This is not negotiable. It has come to my attention that some departments are denying their graduate students access to letterhead. This is unacceptable, and any act is justified in response. You may steal the letterhead. You may Photoshop the letterhead. Do what you must, but send all professional letters of every kind on the letterhead of the department with which you affiliated.

If you do not have an affiliation because you finished your Ph.D. and have no academic employment at all, including adjuncting, then you must submit without letterhead (although a very sober, understated, and proper personal letterhead can sometimes be a nice touch).  You may not use letterhead to which you’re not entitled.  That is unethical, and it is also stupid, because your readers are smart, and they notice.

Your letter must be two pages max. No longer. Do not argue with me. If you are arguing with me, you are wrong. It must be two pages max.

It must be 12 point (ok, *maybe* 11.5) font, and have a minimum of 3/4″ margins.

It must follow normal letter etiquette, which means that it will include the date (fully written out) just under the letterhead, then a space, then the full snail mail address of the person/committee to whom the letter is being sent just below the date, left justified, and then a space, and then the address:  “Dear Professor XXXX/Members of the Search Committee:” Then it will have another space, and commence: “I am writing in application to the advertised position in XXX at the University of XXXX.  Etc. Etc.”  Nothing in this heading material may be left out.  Similarly, nothing beyond this may be added in, including any kind of memo heading or title such as “Re: position in XXX.”  LETTERS DO NOT HAVE TITLES! 

Why must it be these things? I will tell you. Because the care you show in the norms and forms of proper letter etiquette represent you as a fully adult, functioning professional.  It demonstrates that you are a full-fledged member of the tribe, and not an embarrassing wanna-be.

And the length?  Because the faculty members on the committee reviewing your letters are tired, distracted, irritated, and rushed. They will give your cover letter 5 minutes. They will not hunt for your main point, they will not squint, they will not strain their eyes, they will not pore over it.

Serve up your brilliance, your achievements, and your delightful collegial personality loud and clear, in legible large font, and a considerate quantity of verbiage. You are respecting your future colleagues’ time and eyesight, and believe me, they notice.

Do I hear whining, that you “can’t possibly say all you need to” in 2 pages? Tough. Do you want a job or don’t you? Do it.

2. You Are Telling, Not Showing.

All academics in the world, by virtue of being academics, require evidence to accept a proposition. Even the wooiest humanists have to be persuaded with some form of evidence that a claim is valid.

Your letter must include evidence. Empty claims like “I am passionate about teaching,” or “I care deeply about students,” or “I am an enthusiastic colleague” contain no evidence whatsoever. They can be made by anyone, and provide no means of proof. They are worthless verbiage.

Show, don’t tell: Instead of “I am passionate about teaching,” you must write, “I used new technologies to create innovative small group discussion opportunities in my large introductory classes, technologies that were later adopted by my colleagues in the department.” Or, “I worked one on one with students on individual research projects leading to published articles. Several students later nominated me for our campus’s “Best Undergraduate Teacher” award, which I won in 2011.”

Get it? Don’t waste our time with unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable claims.

3. You Drone On and On About Your Dissertation

We actually don’t care about your dissertation. Seriously, we don’t. Your dissertation is in the past. It’s in the past even if you’re actually still writing it. It’s what you did *as a student*, and we’re not hiring a student. We’re hiring a colleague…. 

4. Your Teaching Paragraph is All Drippy and Pathetic

5. You Present Yourself as a Student, Not a Colleague

6. You Don’t Specify Publication Plans

7. You Don’t Have a Second Research Project

8. You Didn’t Do Your Homework

9. You’re Disorganized and Rambling

10. You Didn’t Tailor

For the rest of this post, please see Chapter 22 of my book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job.

 

Posted inBad Advisors and Good Mentors, How To Write Academic Job Cover Letters, Landing Your Tenure Track Job, Major Job Market Mistakes, Stop.Acting.Like.A.Grad.Student, Strategizing Your Success in AcademiaTaggedacademic job cover letter, academic job market help, academic job search help, applying for academic jobs, applying for professor job, applying for university job, getting a tenure track job, getting faculty job, higher education job, how to fix your cover letter, how to get a professor job, how to get a tenure track job, how to write a job cover letter, tenure track job cover letter, the academic job search, what do search committees look for, why can't I get a tenure track jobpermalink

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

View all posts by Karen

Academic Cover Letters

When you're applying for a faculty position with a college or university, the cover letter is your first chance to make a strong impression as a promising researcher and teacher. Below you'll find some strategies for presenting your qualifications effectively in an academic context.

Distinctions between Academic and Business Cover Letters

A cover letter for an academic job has a function similar to one for a business job, but the content differs significantly in quantity and kind. While the general advice for business cover letters—such as tailoring your letter for the specific job and selling your strengths—still applies, a cover letter for an academic position should be long enough to highlight in some detail your accomplishments during your graduate education in research, teaching, departmental service, and so on. The typical letter is thus usually one and a half to two pages long, but not more than two—roughly five to eight paragraphs.

The First Paragraph

In the opening of your letter you need to convey some basic information, such as what specific position you are applying for (using the title given in the job notice) and where you learned of the opening. Since a cover letter is a kind of persuasive writing (persuading a hiring committee to include you on a list of candidates for further review), the first paragraph of your letter should also make the initial claim as to why you are a strong candidate for the position.

Tailoring for Your Audience

In an academic context knowing your audience means reading the job notice carefully and knowing the type of institution to which you are applying. Most graduate students have studied a broad range of material within their discipline before specializing in a narrow field for the dissertation project. Since it is rare to find a job notice specifying your exact qualifications, you need to emphasize those aspects of your graduate training that seem particularly relevant to the position advertised.

  • Job notice: If you've written a political science dissertation on populism in early twentieth-century US national politics, you probably won't respond to a notice seeking a specialist in international politics during the Cold War. But you may wish to apply for a position teaching twentieth-century US political parties and movements. In this case you would want to stress the relevance of your dissertation to the broad context of twentieth-century US politics, even though the study focuses narrowly on the pre-World War I period. You might also highlight courses taken, presentations given, or other evidence of your expertise that corresponds to the job notice.
  • Type of institution: Often the job notice will provide a brief description of the college or university, indicating such factors as size, ownership (public, private), affiliation (religious, nonsectarian), geography (urban, suburban, rural), and so on. These factors will influence the kind of information emphasized in your letter. For example, for a job at a small liberal arts college that focuses on undergraduate teaching, you would emphasize your teaching experience and pedagogical philosophy early in the letter before mentioning your dissertation. On the other hand, for a job at a large research university you would provide at least one detailed paragraph describing your dissertation early in the letter, even indicating your plans for future research, before mentioning your teaching and other experience.

Other Advice

If you're still working on your dissertation, you should mention somewhere in the letter when you expect to be awarded the Ph.D., even being as specific as to mention how many chapters have been completed and accepted, how many are in draft version, and what your schedule for completion is. Last-paragraph tips include the following:

  • Mention your contact information, including a phone number where you can be reached if you will be away during a holiday break.
  • If you will be attending an upcoming major professional conference in your field, such as the MLA convention for language and literature professionals, indicate that you will be available for an interview there. Be sure to mention that you are available for telephone or campus-visit interviews as well.
  • If you have some special connection to the school, type of institution, or region, such as having attended the school as an undergraduate or having grown up in the area, you may wish to mention that information briefly at some point.
  • Mention your willingness to forward upon request additional materials such as writing samples, teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation.

Job seekers at Purdue University may find value in the Purdue Career Wiki.

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