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 email@example.com, 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?”