This Christmas, Don’t Be Cheap

Regular readers of The Professor Is In know that I espouse as the cardinal rule of job document writing the rule of Show, Don’t Tell.

Job documents should not make claims about your feelings or your wants or your beliefs (“I am passionate about teaching,” “I want to do a project on declining whale populations,” “I believe in the importance of hands-on learning”) because statements such as these are unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable.

In other words, anyone can make them.  And as such, they are empty verbiage and wasted space in your letter.  If you are, in fact, passionate about teaching, then let your substantive descriptions of your courses and teaching methods illustrate that.  In short, show.  Do not tell.

As I said, regular readers already know this.  However, what some may not realize is that adjectives play a major role in this matter.

Adjectives describing outcomes, in a job document, are almost always worthless verbiage.  I am not referring here to adjectives that describe, in a substantive way, the research subject itself (ie, “this study identifies a population of professionally-ambitious, urban Japanese women who pursue study abroad”), but rather adjectives that are meant to pump up the intensity level of candidate claims.

Here is a list of the kinds of adjectives (and their related adverbs) to which I refer:

Incredible (incredibly)

Amazing (amazingly)

Striking (strikingly)

Serious (seriously)

Intense (intensely)

Remarkable (remarkably)

Considerable (considerably)

Some of you may doubt that such adjectives would ever show up in a job letter, but alas, your doubts would be misplaced.  They turn up frequently.  I remove adjectives such as these from probably a third of the job documents on which I work.  They are most likely to show up in the teaching paragraph or teaching statement, which are always susceptible to hyper-emotionalism anyway, as I describe in the post The Dreaded Teaching Statement: Eight Pitfalls.  The typical culprit sentence is:  “This assignment produces some incredible student work!”

The fact is, adjectives like these are cheap.  They are a lazy effort to exaggerate the import or impact of the work.  And they are weak, because they always imply a comparator (the outcome that is not incredible or amazing or remarkable) that is left unstated or assumed.

As such, their use betrays a profound misunderstanding of the search process.  As I describe in this post, search committee members never simply take a candidate’s word that their work is “superior” and their candidacy “ideal” for the position.  Search committee members draw their own conclusions based on the evidence presented.  Indeed, search committee members may well take umbrage at  any writing they perceive as seeking to achieve an artificial boost in emotional impact.

It goes without saying that this applies in spades to the exclamation point, which I remove from a smaller, but still significant, portion of job documents.  The example above, “this assignment produces some incredible student work!” is again typical.  Other examples include: “My results were unexpected!” and “my students sometimes referred to me as their boot camp instructor!”  Or this one:

“In teaching mathematics, flipping the class means flipping the textbook! Twisting the concept-problem approach to a problem-concept approach!”

To sum up, don’t be cheap.  Stick to the facts, and let your achievements speak for themselves.  Do the work to describe your research and teaching substantively, with evidence.  And save the adjectives, and exclamations, for Christmas morning.

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