Tailoring a Job Letter, Beginning and Advanced

Today I return to the subject of tailoring a job letter. Whenever I find myself making the same corrections again and again across different client documents, I know that I’ve found a pattern (or “pataan”–as they say in Japanese–and “pataan” has more of the judgmental, ‘why do you keep doing the same thing over and over when I’ve clearly told you not to?’ feel to it, so naturally it’s the go-to word around my house).

Anyway, first, the basic and all too common mistake: if you can say it about any school or department or to any school or department, then it is not tailoring.


I am excited to develop my career in research and teaching at your excellent department.”

This position appeals to me because of the excellent faculty and resources of your department.”

I would be interested to develop a range of undergraduate and graduate courses in the department.”

I am intrigued by the many possibilities for collaboration in the department.”

My specialization in XXXXX will be valuable for the graduate students in the department.”

Etc., etc., etc.

I am constantly surprised at the difficulty that clients have in coming up with substantive and meaningful ways to describe the actual potential collaborations and involvements and initiatives they might participate in in the departments to which they are applying.

This difficulty really goes to the heart of the matter in the dysfunction that is graduate training in the present time. It is so profoundly myopic, and graduate students are enabled and indeed encouraged by their advisors and committees to be so completely self-absorbed and self-indulgent in their single-minded focus on the minutiae of the dissertation, that the poor students have absolutely no idea what the actual requirements are of the tenure-track position. Those requirements prominently include collegiality, sociality, and working energetically with the resources—whether large or small—of the department and the larger campus. The candidate who demonstrates an ability to think and write like such a colleague, and who demonstrates effort in exploring the potential for such collaborations, is the candidate who is going to rise to the top (assuming of course that research and publications, letters of rec, etc., are all unassailable) of the pile.

I will not give examples of good tailoring here, because I’ve already done so in this blog post, How To Tailor a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging). In that blog post I go to the other distasteful tendency in tailoring, which is not self-absorption, but the impulse to flatter and pander. Flattery will never get you short-listed. Remember the fundamental Dr. Karen rule of the job hunt. Make them want you.

You don’t do that by FAWNING all over them. You do that by maintaining a dignified distance and a calm and factual –but emphatically non-braggy –articulation of your specific achievements in research, publishing, and teaching.

And a final bonus note about tailoring. As you know, in the core TPII template for job letters, only the final paragraph is tailored. I have made it so to create a simple template that can be applied and easily adapted to any job situation. But of course, more advanced tailoring is possible. If you are applying to different sorts of jobs, it is very possible that you might want to shift the content of your “next project” to be one that aligns with the discipline or thematic of the job at hand. You could also subtly adapt the dissertation description to emphasize one methodology or body of theory you used over the other (ie, the archives for the history job, and the ethnography for the anthropology job, in the event that your project employed both equally). The courses that you list in the teaching paragraph could easily be shifted to reflect the thematics of the job advertisement.

I have not emphasized this because the desperation of job seekers is so great that this can fall all too easily into a kind of humiliating pleading—”I can teach ANYTHING you want,” “I will say ANYTHING you want,” “I will be ANYTHING you want….” That is precisely the opposite of the true goal, and hammering out a single consistent message steers far clear of that potential pitfall.

But for those of you who trust yourselves to retain your dignity, you may try this more advanced kind of tailoring. The key is subtlety and substance—every claim in every job document must be firmly based in evidence, and an ethos of showing, not telling. Desperate allegations (I’m capable of teaching any of your courses! I could easily adapt my methodology to the theme mentioned in the job ad!) just embarrass everyone.



Tailoring a Job Letter, Beginning and Advanced — 16 Comments

  1. How does tailoring work for postdoctoral applications? Since the process goes through an interdisciplinary committee then the department committee, who are you trying to win over? The university at large or the department or both?

    • My best answer to this is to direct you to my blog post, “The Postdoc Application: How It’s Different and Why.” That whole post is pretty much about tailoring, and how to understand what it is that the postdoc is seeking to accomplish through its work.

  2. A good question, S. The most effective tailoring speaks directly to the person (or people) who will ultimately make the selection. When applications go through multiple layers, you should normally compose your letters (and other supporting materials) as if you are writing to the final committee–trusting, of course, that those sitting on the screening and pre-screening committees will recognize that you’re a serious competitor based on the professional, tailored approach you’ve taken. Matters are complicated, of course, when different groups collectively have different ideas as to what constitutes a “competitive” application; but you really should trust that the folks at the earlier stages want the applicants whose materials they forward to the next stage to be selected for the position (or award or honor)–for, if nothing else, territorial reasons.

    And, specifically with respect to your question, it is possible to tailor one piece to be perceived as addressing the needs or interests of two particular groups. With respect to postdoc applications, you can show how your project would be of interest on a broader (institution-wide, for example) scale and within the particular target department. Such tailoring is easiest when it’s done within a limited system–meaning, for example, members of the same institution comprise the interdisciplinary committee. In that case, your materials can speak to the ethos of the institution (gleaned from how the institution presents itself and what you know about it through connections) in a way that will reach readers with diverse disciplinary groundings. You can demonstrate that you understand both the institution (important for the interdisciplinary level: How will you fit in as an institutional colleague?) and the particular department (How will your project specifically complement the work that’s already being done in the department?). A lot, really, has to do with nuance; and being aware of the kinds of things that Dr. Karen frequently points out is one step in the direction of understanding how to use those nuances to your advantage.

    • This is a totally technical question about how to tailor with the search chair/committee in mind. If the person I want to collaborate with happens to be the search chair, and therefore the person to whom the letter is addressed, do I write, I would like to collaborate with you on your work with X… or since while the letter is technically addressed to a single person, it is really addressed to a committee, say I would like to collaborate with John Doe on his work…. (even though John Doe’s name is above)?

      • This is actually a very good question and one I struggle with in the editing work. Generally the second person should be avoided in job letters; it feels overly casual. But when the potential collaborator is the person to whom the letter is addressed–what do you do? I generally advise sticking to the third person even though it’s definitely weird. But i find it less weird than suddenly using “you” in a formal letter, which i find quite jarring. but if others feel strongly otherwise and want to use “you” I don’t strongly object. Having been a search comm chair and having read these letters, I’d find the line, “I look forward to working with Kelsky on xxx” less jarring than “I’d look forward to working with you on xxx.”

        • Also, theoretically, wouldn’t other people on the search committee (and potentially the whole department) be reading the cover letters as well?

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  5. Hi–this is the most helpful website I have seen about surviving academia. I just got tenure by the skin of my teeth and these blog posts were great in supporting me. thank you. However, I just wanted to say that I love your comment in this post about the Japanese way of saying pattern–pataan–SO true and funny!

  6. What a great post! I was wondering how much detail about my dissertation my cover letter should include if i’m in a post-doc position now and applying for assistant professorship at another university. Isn’t the dissertation somewhat ‘old news’ by now?

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