How To Tailor a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging)

Dr. Karen is on vacation in Italy July 2012.  During that time she is re-posting older blog posts  her regular Tuesday and Thursday posting days.  She’ll recommence new posting some time in August.


Today’s post is going to address the difficult matter of tailoring a job letter. In the work my clients do on their job market materials, it seems that nothing gives them as much trouble as the one small paragraph, in their job letters, tailored to the job. (Well, nothing, maybe, except the dreaded teaching statement, discussed last Friday).

I am always startled at how often the tailoring that I tell them to do comes back in the form of pandering, flattering, or begging.

Proper tailoring is none of these things.

Now, before I get to what good tailoring looks like, let me take a step back and consider the letter as a whole. My working principle, when I was on the job market myself, when I trained my own Ph.D. students, and now as a coach and consultant, is that a candidate has one basic job letter template, which is then adjusted into 4-8 subsidiary templates, depending on the type of institution, department, and specialization of the specific job being applied for.

The basic templates vary only a little. Your dissertation, your teaching, your publications, your second book project: these remain mostly constant across platforms. And so, there is only one part of the templates that changes substantially, in the Dr. Karen cover letter model, and that is the “tailoring paragraph” which comes at the end of the letter.

The basic goal of the tailoring paragraph is to identify programs, initiatives, centers, emphases, and specializations on the campus to which you are applying, in which you, the candidate, could productively participate.

I do not approve of “fit” sentences in academic job letters. I know that, in this, I depart from some other advice circulating in academic circles. To my eyes, however, a sentence in a job letter that claims, “My expertise in xxx and xxx makes me an excellent fit for your position,” will only rile up the academic temperment that will inevitably respond, “I will be the judge of THAT!” No amount of telling your reader about your fit can replace a paragraph effectively showing it.

In a previous post I advocated mentioning specific faculty by name, as people with whom you might collaborate or co-teach. However, after working with many clients since publishing that post, I’ve come to understand that this advice does not yield the results I had hoped for.

Simply listing some faculty members in the department—ie, “I would look forward to working with faculty such as Nelson and Smith on transnational history”–is not terrible, but it is not, I now feel, the sole demonstration of familiarity with or enthusiasm for the campus and its strengths. In other words, yes, you should list a few people by name and how you anticipate collaborating with them. But that should be augmented with other content.

The other content should not be abject eagerness, undignified flattery, or desperate pandering, which are defined below:

Abject eagerness to fill adjunct-level teaching needs: ie, “I would be happy to teach any of your introductory courses, including Anth 103, 105, 112, or 121.”

Undignified flattery: ie, “I would be thrilled to be a part of a department like yours with such a long and illustrious history in the field of Asian Studies.”

Desperate pandering: ie, “it would be a great honor to join the dynamic faculty of the English department at the University of XXX and I would strive to be a productive member.”

Tailoring, done correctly, is demonstrating your familiarity with real, substantive ongoing initiatives that already exist in the department and on campus, and signalling your enthusiasm for participating in them.

A good tailoring paragraph might read something like this:

I would particularly look forward to participating in the Ethnicity, Race and Nationalism interest group in the department, and envision developing an upper level undergraduate course, “Ethnic Nationalisms in Eastern Europe,” as part of that dedicated curriculum. I can envision collaborating with Smith on projects related to Eastern European politics and economics, and with Nelson on work related to the post-socialist transition. I am also interested in the activities of the Center for Democracy Studies on campus, and would look forward to bringing an anthropological and Eastern European perspective into those cross-disciplinary conversations. ”

Why is this good? Because in addition to showing a real familiarity with both a departmental emphasis, as well as a campus-wide program, this paragraph communicates that the candidate is a good potential colleague who is willing to adjust his teaching to the needs of the department, AND to represent the department and its interests in cross-campus, interdisciplinary venues.

The candidate does not look slavishly pandering in this, but rather like an active, dynamic, and imaginative scholar who is alert to new ways for his own fields of expertise to coincide with and further the aims of his wider intellectual community.

Here is another tailoring paragraph example:

The department’s long-standing strengths in Francophone cinema make this position a particularly appealing one for me. I would look forward to the opportunity to develop courses on emergent cinemas from West Africa and the Caribbean, and can also envision bringing material on those cinemas into introductory courses such as “Introduction to World Film.” I am familiar with the annual Film Festival hosted by the Center for Media Studies on campus, and I would enjoy collaborating with those organizers to increase the representation of Francophone cinema in that Festival’s offerings.”

Why is this good? Because it shows the candidate is already thinking like a departmental colleague, asking how she can be instrumental in widening the department’s geographical and cultural coverage. She is also demonstrating that she is an involved and generous campus citizen who will add to the visibility and prestige of the department by getting involved in one of the campus’s most high profile events, the annual Film Festival.

In neither of them is the department or the campus explicitly flattered or pandered to. In both of them, the already existing strengths and priorities of the department/campus are acknowledged, and the potential of the candidate to be an active participant highlighted.

To conclude, in your tailoring paragraph, above all else, do not flatter. Sentences like :

Your department is an exciting and dynamic intellectual community,” or

As one of the top ranked programs in the country, your program is very exciting to me,” or

Being home to one of finest student bodies in the country, your campus would be an ideal location for me to start my teaching career”

will not get you the job. They will just make you look a bit desperate.

Even in this job market—no, ESPECIALLY in this job market— the basic rule of all job searches in all times and all places still holds true: you have to make them want you.

You make them want you by retaining your dignity and your sense of self (and definitely your sense of humor), and comporting yourself like a scholar and colleague worthy of pursuing.



How To Tailor a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging) — 7 Comments

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  4. I also have a question for the future. In my last “tailored” paragraph, sometimes I have a really hard time finding something nice to say. What suits me about the school is that it has a job opening, and it doesn’t sound terrible, and really not much else. Help!

    • everybody struggles with this. but you have to remember that they are people and are making an enormous investment in the person hired. you have to give them confidence that you really do like/are excited about the position/department/campus/geog location, and will integrate with their faculty and are likely to stay.

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