Academic Job Search: How to Write a Cover Letter?

I know that this post is not appearing in a very timely manner since people normally go on the job market in the Fall or, at the very latest, in winter. But I think it’s still a good idea to make this information available to those who are preparing to start looking for a job in academia in the near (or not so near) future. The post will be long and since it is hardly of much interest to people who are not on the academic job market, I will put half of it under the fold. (There are funny stories under the fold, though.)

Now that I am “a real professor”, I have started working on search committees that evaluate candidates for academic positions. This has been an eye-opening experience for me. If only I had understood how the academic job search works from the inside (i.e. from the perspective of the employers), my own job search would have been completely different. Of course, I ended up with the job of my dreams, but that was sheer luck. As I’m working on my search committees, I’m realizing how horribly and frequently I screwed up during my time on the market.

In this series of posts, I want to share the insights that I have gleaned into the academic job search process with my readers. To begin with, I will discuss how one should write a cover letter. What you need to remember is that the market is over-saturated and search committees have to sift through hundreds of portfolios (or dozens if the search is extremely specific, say a Chair search.) This is why it is not a good idea to write a 6-page-long description of your intellectual journey. This is what I did and only now have I started to realize what an irredeemable idiot I was. That cover letter would have made an excellent blog post but, in its capacity as a cover letter, it sucked something fierce.

A cover letter should be tailored very specifically to each job announcement you are responding to. I know it’s an incredible drag but that’s the only way. Remember that members of a search committee have a list of requirements for their position, and as they sift through 300 portfolios, they tick off boxes on that list. You win if you make that process as easy as possible for them. This will allow you to make the short list of people who will be interviewed by phone (Skype, at the MLA, etc.)

So how do you tailor your cover letter in practice? Here is a sample job announcement that I have created:

Assistant Professor, tenure-track. A PhD in hand or an ABD near completion. The Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Illinois State University in Alton is looking for a specialist in French Literature with a specialization in the History and Culture of Quebec and a demonstrable capacity to teach courses in Advanced French Grammar and Conversation. An active research agenda is a must. Native or near-native command of French. An experience supervising language instructors is highly desired. Needs to be familiar with ACTFL and NCATE guidelines for proficiency testing.

You need to pick this job announcement apart and make a list of criteria this department is looking for in a candidate. Then, you address each criteria in your cover letter. If you can address them in the order in which they appear in the announcement, that’s even better.

This means that you start paragraph #1 by saying, “I have a PhD in French Literature from the University of Rimouski that was awarded to me in 2011.” Or, you say “I’m completing my doctoral dissertation and expect to be awarded the PhD in May of 2012.” If you are ABD, it is very important that at least one of your letters of recommendation mention that you will be graduating when you say you will. Make sure you gently remind your recommender (usually, the thesis director) to address this issue in the letter.

In paragraph #2, you need to mention words “French Literature” and “History and Culture of Quebec.” If you don’t have the required specialization, this is not the end of the world. Say that you don’t have this particular specialization and then list the experience that will make you capable of teaching courses in that field. It makes no sense to avoid mentioning the criteria you do not possess. “Well, maybe they are just not going to notice” is not a productive approach. They will notice that you are avoiding the issue for sure, so you will only come out as either careless or dishonest. Don’t make an exhausted member of the search committee go over and over your entire portfolio looking for information. Provide it in the cover letter and the committee will be grateful to you for that.

Paragraph #3 will discuss your “demonstrable capacity to teach courses in Advanced French Grammar and Conversation.” Please remember that the word “demonstrable” is there for a reason. You either can demonstrate it or not. Rambling on for an entire page about how you always dreamt of teaching these courses does not equal a demonstrable capacity to teach them. Once again, just say directly whether you have taught such courses or not, how many times, and at which school.

Paragraph #4 will address the daunting “An active research agenda is a must” that appears in most job postings. Please, remember that working on your dissertation is not evidence of an active research agenda. Every single person who will be competing with you has a dissertation. This means that you need to have a very concrete vision of your research goals for the next several years and this is what you need to address in the cover letter.

Paragraph #5 will talk about your native or near-native fluency in French. If your name is Jenny Smith, it is absolutely crucial that you not only reassure the committee that your French is excellent but that at least one of your recommenders do so as well. As a non-native speaker of Spanish with a very non-Hispanic name, I’m already under the suspicion that my Spanish is below par. This is why it is necessary to make it abundantly clear (and offer proof) that your fluency in the language is very high.

Paragraph #6. If there is any hint in the job announcement that you will have any supervisory capacities, you need to work as hard as you can on demonstrating that you are capable of being a supervisor. Everything that marks you as a kid, rather than a scholar and an intellectual of great maturity, needs to go. And in case you didn’t know, saying “I am very mature” makes you sound extremely immature. The same goes for the letters of recommendation.

Paragraph #7. The words ACTFL and NCATE need to appear. If you have never worked with them, just say so and add that you know what they are (Google them if you don’t) and briefly demonstrate that you really do know that (without copy-pasting anything from the websites where you found your information).

What not to do:

1. Try to avoid listing courses that you have taken and discussing how well you did in them. You are not applying for a position of a grad student. You are applying for a position of a professor, so the A+ you got for a course in your first year of grad school is of no interest to anybody. A detailed discussion of your good grades and participation in student clubs and sororities makes you sound immature. The only courses that matter from now on are the ones you have taught or are planning to teach.

2. If you have no idea where Alton, Illinois is located, then Google it. This will allow you to avoid saying things like, “I have worked in the Midwest for many years and now I’m dying to move to the West Coast, which is why I’m applying for a position in Illinois” (here and everywhere else in the post, the examples have been taken from real life.)

3. I know that you’ve been living and breathing your dissertation for several years. However, it is a great mistake to dedicate two pages of the cover letter to what the dissertation is all about. One short paragraph is more than enough.

4. If the email address of the Director of the search committee is nmsitw@alton.edu, this does not mean their name is actually Nmsitw. In all probability, this person is called Nicholas Mead Sitwell, or something of the kind. If the name of the Director is not mentioned in the job announcement, then visit the page of the Department where you are applying and figure out who s/he is. Just don’t address it to “Dear Dr. Nmsitw”, unless you are absolutely positive that this is their last name. (Yes, as I said, these are all true stories.)

5. I know that it’s easy to confuse Southern Mississippi with Northern Missouri, Iowa with Ohio, and Modern Languages with Foreign Languages. However, it is very important not to annoy the search committee with this kind of carelessness. Just double check and triple check every single time you mail a portfolio.

6. How would you feel about a person who comes up to you and says, “I want to ask you out on a date because I think you will be useful for the purposes of my sexual fulfillment”? That’s exactly how a search committee feels when a candidate writes, “I look forward to working at your department because I believe your pool of students will come useful to me in my research.”

7. If you write something like “You must be wondering why a person who has graduated from an Ivy League university is applying for a position at a second-tier school like yours”, then beware that what we are actually wondering about is why we would ever want to place such a condescending, self-involved creature on our short-list.

8. Another sentimental favorite of mine is the following statement, “I haven’t had any opportunity to teach in the course of my graduate studies, but I have often babysat for my professors’ kids and they all loved me.” And if I need to explain why it is a terrible idea to write something like this, then I’m not sure you need to be on the academic job market at all.

9. Copy-pasting bits from the website of the department where you are applying is a horrible idea. We all deal with students who copy-paste instead of producing their own texts every single day. Can you imagine how annoying it must be to see the text one has participated in creating for one’s own departmental website appear verbatim on an applicant’s cover letter? One needs to be a better person than I am not to think immediately, “If you are so ready with the copy-pasting, how do I know that your publications are not plagiarized?”

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5 comments on “Academic Job Search: How to Write a Cover Letter?

  1. Thanks for this! I’m looking forward to the next few in this series. :) Granted, I am hoping I won’t be on the job market for at least 3-4 more years (probably more like 5), and I’m in sciences, but this is still a great resource. Thanks for taking the time to write it up for us!

    And amusingly enough, I *am* young. If all goes well I’ll have my PhD by the time I’m 25 or 26 (I could have aimed for 24 if I’d decided on a different track, but I chose more rigorous classwork and some time to slow down and explore more intellectual interests instead – no sense in rushing when I’m funded for up to 6 or 7 years). Quite often, people tell me they’re taken aback when they realize I’m 8-10 years younger than them, so I can definitely be “mature”, but I’m also very young in many ways. My advisor, even, when he was writing letters for me for grad programs, noted in his letters that while I am young, and definitely have some growing up to do, I am well beyond my years in many ways, including academically. Ah the dichotomy… But at any rate, your comment about writing “I am very mature” reminded me of that. I will be fighting that battle when I’m going into my job search, because unless something goes horribly wrong, I will still be very young (24, 25, 26ish) when I start (though I’ll probably be applying for post-docs more). I assume letting your recommenders dis-spell the age vs. maturity level thing, along with presenting yourself appropriately, is the way to deal with this?

    • I think there is no need to bring up your age at all. By law, the search committees are not allowed to discuss age during the deliberations. I remember that as new faculty members we tried to bring age up during a search but were immediately cut off (and rightfully so) by senior faculty members. I believe that as long as you don’t obsess over being too young or too old, nobody will care either. The important thing is to project the air of authority and control over the classroom during a campus visit.

  2. Great advice! If you are interested in the application/interviewing procedure, you may want to check out these blogs and posts.
    – advice on interviewing and job search in humanities:
    http://theprofessorisin.com/pearlsofwisdom/
    – two collections of the same for science:
    http://scientopia.org/blogs/drbecca/tt-job-search-advice-aggregator/
    http://bluelabcoats.wordpress.com/2008/09/12/its-the-seasonacademic-job-search-reposts/
    I found these invaluable when interviewing last autumn and winter and thanks to the advice two latter ones, managed to get the offer, negotiate it successfully and get a new job.

  3. I think this is great. I have served on a few search committees and have almost the same advice. I would also add that people should avoid seeming too “out there.” It’s great to be creative and stand out but, especially at the beginning, you mainly want to avoid getting cut. So if, for instance, you think that students can or should text an entire class discussion instead of speaking, perhaps save that for when you start actually teaching. That information does not belong in a cover letter because something like that will inevitably make you upaltable to at least one member of the search committee. And, especially at the beginning, when people are sifting through hundreds of applications, one strong “no” is sometimes all that takes to remove you from the running………..As a side note, maybe you should repost this during the start of “job-hunting season”.: I bet people would want to read it. :)

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