The Worst Job Letter Ever Written (Not really…)

A few months ago one of my clients, after completing work with me on her job letter, ruefully sent along the original version of the letter that she had been using the previous year.  She wrote,

“I’ve attached a copy of the first job letter I ever sent (to a well-known private research university in the Midwest) during last year’s job cycle.  This letter is beyond bad, and I’m quite embarrassed that I sent it.

“What’s worse is that it was approved by my ‘nice’ advisor and another senior faculty member, also on my committee, who is considered a good writer and editor.  Yes, I received a few minor edits from both of them, so I could at least tell that they had read it, but not enough to make much improvement.  

“This letter was written before I discovered your blog.  I wasn’t officially on the job market last year and only applied for a handful of positions (the letters were better after the discovery of your blog), but this year I’m FT on the market so no room for error.  I’m glad I decided to go with your Quick Job Letter Diagnostic Package.  I feel so much more confident and competitive for this cycle!

“Anyway, I attached that first letter, edited for anonymity with a lot of XXXXX’s, to show how far I’ve come. Job letters have always been the bane of my existence, by far the weakest part of my application package.  The attached letter demonstrates many of the major letter writing mistakes you mention, but I think the most striking one is my severe list addiction. [KK: for more on the national scourge of list addiction read this post: Break the Cycle of List Addiction]

“When I re-read it, I realized that I’m not saying anything despite the wordiness.  Nothing is discussed in any depth; instead everything is told in list after list.  Feel free to share it as an example of what not to do.”

I am overcome with gratitude to this client for being willing to share this document so generously.  One of the hardest things for me to do in my work at TPII is to provide compelling examples of just how wretchedly bad job documents can be (and ususally are in their first draft).  I of course always tell each individual client how bad his or her document is.  I usually say some version of:  “Oh, xxxx, I’m so glad you found me. This letter is a total train wreck.”   But then we quickly banish that draft to the digital dustheap of shame, and it disappears never to return again.

Thanks to this caring and brave client, I now have a train wreck job letter draft that can live on as a model. (BTW, those of you who purchase the Quick Job Letter Diagnostic Package also get, in the included pdf, a set of four terrible first drafts along with their final versions–these are also very helpful.)

I give the letter to you below, with each paragraph annotated for the errors it makes. I  include references to the relevant blog posts addressing the error in more detail in a list below the letter..   The only errors this letter does not make are:  it is a good length and it has proper heading material in terms of date and address at top.

And just a note: I facetiously titled this blog post “The Worst Job Letter Ever Written” but it is far, far from the worst that I have seen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[DATE]

XXXXXX, PhD
Associate Professor, XXXXXX
Chair, Search Committee
Department of XXXXXX
Private Research University
XXXXXX Campus Drive
XXXXXX, XX 12345-6789

Dear Dr. XXXXXX:

I am writing to apply for the assistant professor position in XXXXX as advertised on XXXXX. I am excited about the opportunity to apply for a faculty position in the School of XXXXX at [Private Research University] based on its variety of innovative degree programs, interdisciplinary approach to education and research, and supportive environment for students and faculty. I am a doctoral candidate in XXXXX at [Public Research University] and fully expect to fulfill my degree requirements by XXXXX. My
dissertation, which I am completing under the direction of Dr. XXXXX, uses XXXXX method to examine the process of XXXXX among XXXXX population. I believe my teaching experience and interests, combined with my interdisciplinary learning in XXXXX and research background in XXXXX and XXXXX, make me a strong candidate for the position outlined in your notice.

[Candidate flatters and panders to the institution to which she’s applying (B).  “Fully expect” sounds defensive and unsure.  “Completing under the direction of Dr. xxxx” shouts grad student, shows excessive subordination, and is over-humble (A). “I believe” shows insecurity and hyper-emotionalism. A letter is not a screed (H).  “make me a strong candidate…” is a desperate and anxious fit sentence (F).]

My primary theoretical and empirical research goals are directed toward understanding and enhancing XXXXX and XXXXX in XXXXX and XXXXX contexts, including finding ways for XXXXX population to maintain their XXXXX and improve their XXXXX and XXXXX in a variety of settings, and I am well prepared to meet
these goals. My doctoral education and training in XXXXX and prior degree work in XXXXX have enabled me to develop a truly integrative and holistic way of thinking about XXXXX and XXXXX, which is why being part of an interdisciplinary program such as yours, is especially important to me. My research interests span many areas, including XXXXX dimensions of XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX factors that affect XXXXX and XXXXX, the process of XXXXX and its outcomes, transnational and comparative perspectives on XXXXX and XXXXX, and XXXXX education. I have advanced training and experience in research design and a number of methods, both qualitative (e.g., XXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX) and
quantitative (e.g., XXXXX statistics, XXXXX statistics), though my current work is mostly qualitative. In your school, I am particularly interested in the activities of the Institute on XXXXX as they coincide with my interests in XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX.

[Telling rather than showing (E).  No specifics of the research and no title. Devolves into a dreary and endless list of topics (D). “I am well prepared to meet these goals” is defensive and desperate.  “enabled me to develop a truly integrative and holistic way of thinking about…”  substitutes adjectives for content (E).  “Which is why being part of a department such as yours…” is desperate, begging, pandering, and also overly emotional (A, B).   “My research spans many areas….” spirals into a vortex of list addiction (D).  “In your school…” uses a second person pronoun that is best avoided in job letters (B) and although this is actually valid tailoring, is buried in lists and distracting verbiage.  “I am particularly interested in…. coincide with my interests” is telling not showing; also, nobody cares what you are interested in, they care about evidence of what you did and published and will do and publish next.]

My dissertation provides an examination of the process whereby XXXXX population develops, maintains, and communicates XXXXX, employing XXXXX study design and using XXXXX method. I used XXXXX to explore XXXXX, as a function of XXXXX and XXXXX, in order to develop an understanding and explanation of XXXXX for this particular group. I plan to turn my dissertation into a manuscript after its completion. Additional research experience includes my work as a research affiliate with XXXXX Initiative, a statewide project to access the challenges and opportunities that arise from XXXXX. After analyzing statistical data from the household survey, I wrote the chapters on XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX, and XXXXX for the state report. This experience familiarized me with social implications XXXXX has for
XXXXX and XXXXX, and I can therefore bring these issues to the classroom in an informed manner. I am also completing two independent projects, XXXXX and XXXXX. Both manuscripts will also be submitted for peer review to XXXXX and XXXXX, respectively.

[Dissertation arrived at too late, and not titled.  Again relies on a verb list (“develops, maintains and communicates”).   “Develop an understanding and explanation of xxxx for this particular group” is  unimpressive as a research goal; appears derivative and unoriginal (A).  No core argument and intervention of the research articulated.  Plan to turn diss into book mentioned with no substantiating evidence or plan of work.  Detour into other research of unclear relevance confuses the reader, who is further bewildered by a long list (D).  “I can therefore bring these issues to the classroom in an informed manner” is damning self with faint praise, also raising teaching abruptly and inappropriately in the diss paragraph.  “I am completing two independent projects” is bewildering–are these related to the diss project or not?  If not, why doing them?  Mention of specific publication plan with journal title is good–but no clear articulation of a larger and coherent publication trajectory from past to present to future.]

In addition to research, I am committed to pursuing an academic career that values teaching and mentoring. My teaching interests include XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX influences on XXXXX, and research design and methods, but I am prepared to teach other XXXXX courses. I believe I am qualified to teach the undergraduate courses XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX and the graduate courses XXXXX and XXXXX in your school. I have several semesters of teaching experience,
ranging from teaching assistant to graduate instructor. Most recently I designed and team taught a new undergraduate course, XXXXX. Feedback from my students identified me as an effective and approachable instructor. I also held a teaching internship with Dr. XXXXX, current president of XXXXX Education Organization. I incorporated a new section on XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX that was well
received by the class and resulted in an engaging discussion with the students. His mentorship, along with the instruction I received from Dr. XXXXX in my teaching practicum, taught me a great deal about instructional pedagogy, course design, and class management. I look forward to a time when teaching and mentoring play a larger role in my academic responsibilities and would be privileged to work with your doctoral students in XXXXX program and undergraduates in XXXXX and XXXXX concentrations.

[Opens by stating the obvious.  Then an excessive list.  “I believe I am qualified….” shows insecurity and damning self with faint praise (H).  “Feedback from my students identified me as an effective and approachable instructor.” is pathetic in how low the bar of faint praise has been set.  “teaching internship with Dr. xxxx” subordinates self, emphasizes grad student identity, and is over-humble. “His mentorship….” is distasteful in its excessive humility and self-abnegation, situates candidate as perennial grad student peon.  “Would be privileged to work with your….”  distasteful degree of over-humble flattering, pandering, and begging (B).]

My commitment to higher education extends to my service activities. I am very active in XXXXX National Organization, currently serving on its XXXXX and XXXXX Committees and as the elected XXXXX Representative for [Public Research University], where it is my job to encourage student involvement in the organization. I also served as the student representative to my department’s XXXXX and XXXXX
Committees and to the College of XXXXX’s XXXXX Committee. My service activities cover commitments as serious as my appointment to XXXXX National Organization’s XXXXX Committee and as fun as organizing and leading the XXXXX activity and hosting XXXXX at last year’s XXXXX Meeting.

[This long para on service is the last nail in the coffin of this candidate’s identity as insecure, overly humble, and excessively eager to serve.  Service does not get anyone a job.  National level service can be given one sentence and no more; campus level service none.  This much on service raises a major red flag that the candidate will be one of those young female hires who can’t say no, expends herself on service, doesn’t get publishing done, and gets turned down at tenure.   “as serious as…. as fun as….” is utterly inappropriate for a job letter, and juvenilizes and genders the candidate as a frivolous female.]

I believe that I would be an asset to your school and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the position and my qualifications with you further. I have enclosed a copy of my curriculum vitae, together with two writing samples, and have arranged for three letters of reference to be sent to you under separate cover. If you require additional information or materials, please contact me by phone (123.456.7890) or email (XXXXX@XXXXX.edu). I will also be available to meet with anyone from your
school at the XXXXX Meeting in XXXXXX this [month]. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

[“I believe that I would be an asset…” is desperate begging (B).  Meanwhile, there is no substantive tailoring of this letter speaking to the actual initiatives and faculty of the department/campus and how candidate would contribute (C). The repetition of  “would welcome the opportunity….If you require…. please contact me…. I will also be available….” communicates desperation.]

Sincerely,

Clueless PhD Candidate

Enclosures

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blog Post Reference List

A.  Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks

B. How to Tailor  a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging)

C.  Tailoring a Job Letter, Beginning and Advanced

D.  Breaking the Cycle of List Addiction

E.  This Christmas, Don’t Be Cheap

F. I’m The Ideal Candidate For Your Position!

G. The Dreaded Teaching Statement: 8 pitfalls

H.  Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Try.

 


Comments

The Worst Job Letter Ever Written (Not really…) — 28 Comments

  1. Karen, just curious about your comments about the service paragraph: since you write that national service should get one sentence, and campus level service should be left out completely, do you mean that departmental service should flesh out the rest of the paragraph, or that we should have, functionally, a one sentence paragraph on service? That seems to fly in the face of both every job letter I’ve seen (I’ve looked at job letters from all of my own department’s hires from the last four years, as well as as many written by friends who got jobs other places as I could) and all the advice I’ve been given, including advice from Kathryn Hume’s and Greg Semenza’s books.

    • Service never gets anyone a job. A very brief para of perhaps two sentences, at the end of the letter, before the tailoring para, would be all that I’d ever recommend if absolutely necessary, and the vast majority of letters that clients send out have no service mentioned at all.

  2. What strikes me about this letter is that once the identifying specifics are removed, readers have no sense of who this person is as an academic, what she argues in her diss, or how she teaches. This could be a useful exercise for anyone working on job materials- remove the course names, research interests, diss. title, etc. to see what the letter is really communicating. It reminds me of something an adviser said about writing a diss. precis (for anthropology): try to write out the argument without referencing the country where you did the fieldwork. Doing so forces you to focus on the substantive argument you are making (or not making).

    • (This train wreck of a letter is/was mine.)

      Amy, you make a good point. I had planned to send Karen my new and much improved letter along with this horrible version so readers could see the amazing transformation. The problem (or rather the good thing) was that I couldn’t edit my new letter with XXXXX for anonymity. The entire letter would be “XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX” because in the new version every sentence SHOWS. My dissertation paragraph lays out my argument. After that I describe my other, related research projects and how they and my dissertation feed into my next project. My teaching paragraph provides evidence showing how I teach. There is no longer any mention of service. Instead, I list (but don’t elaborate on) my service activities on my cv (the last heading). The entire dynamic of my letter has changed. It actually communicates something!

      • One more thing…

        I modeled much of the “bad” letter on example cover letters from different universities’ career counseling services for doctoral students. Don’t.

          • In my alma mater university (an old, non-US, research university) Career Services are clueless when it comes to helping prepare academic application documents. People there are well-meaning but are not, nor have ever been, academics.

          • I have a blog post called, Don’t Ask Career Services For Help With Your CV! (true story!)

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  4. Hi Karen,
    I ran a job search last year (at an R1) and agree with most if not all of your critique, but I am baffled by the service advice. The canidates that rose to the top of our list were people who showed not only that they had a solid research agenda and teaching skills, but that they ultimately would be good colleagues. A short service paragarph at the end of the letter shows that at least you are trying to play well with others in the sandbox. Could you talk a bit about how a canidate for a job might indicate that they are collegial or at least that they understand that they are supposed to contribute to the ehalth of the department and be a good citizen.

    • I don’t know if you’re at an R1, Jo, but in my R1 searches services simply never rose to visibility or relevance. In fact, service was a red flag, as I remark in this post, because to get tenure in our departments required a pretty single minded focus on research. Of course everybody DID service, that was understood—a dept can’t run without it. But it was not a thing that anyone made a central part of his or her identity at the asst prof. level. Once at more senior levels then various leadership roles will play a larger role, of course.

      I always counsel any junior candidate who has enough service to fill a paragraph to look very hard and seriously at how they are spending their time.

      The tailoring para is where the candidate should show that they are interested in their colleagues—the emphasis there is on research and teaching in my model, but the meta-message is, “i like other people, I’m not a misanthropic freak, and I can play well in the sandbox.”

      • Hi,
        I am at an R1 in the south and you are correct it is research that matters most for asst. profs. But my department has had such bad experiences with recent hires that we decided to look for some indication that they would be good colleagues. Collegiality does indeed matter. Beyond research and teaching, the only way to tell that is by some indication that they have contributed to the health of their grad program, etc. in our case we hired senior asst. someone who had an established publication record, a lot of teaching experience and showed a record of service both to the institution he came from and as well as to our professional academic association. Of course the research record comes first, but we wanted a well rounded candidate. Our dept policy is that asst profs do very little service until they get tenure, but at least we know he is willing. So if I may, I do not think it is neccessarily always a red flag, at least not when there is evidence of an excellent research record and teaching. We are very pleased with this hire.

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  6. Update: My new and improved job letter just helped me land an interview at my top choice; I received the notice today! My second-top choice doesn’t begin reviewing applications until next week, but I’ll keep you posted if I hear back from them.

    Thanks again!

  7. Karen, would you omit entirely any sentence that goes ‘I will be at XXX Convention and will be available to interview’?

    As I’m overseas I’d like to give an idea that I’m prepared to travel for the convention, but I can’t think of a way to phrase it that doesn’t sound like subtextual begging for an interview.

    Part of me suspects that if I’ve made enough of an impression to be invited to interview, they’ll assume I’m professional enough to go to the convention – i.e. it doesn’t have to be mentioned.

    • I don’t provide examples of good documents on the blog because I have such a large readership that too many people would imitate it, and its effectiveness would be lost.

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  12. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for this really useful blog.

    I am applying for a place in a PH.D. seminar course at another university, on a topic that relates closely to my research interests. I feel this seminar will be very useful to me and will give an opportunity to interact with leading scholars in my area. It will also help me seek out post doctoral opportunities. There are limited places and hence my application needs to be strong.
    Here are the application instructions given by the organizers: “Selection will be made from among applicants on the basis of a letter of interest, which should address the student’s dissertation research interests and the fit of this seminar within their doctoral program or other research interests. The letter of interest including research project presentation should be no longer than 1.000 words”

    My letter of interest includes my research interests, brief summary of my dissertation and fit of the dissertation with the seminar. My question is should I include details of the dissertation(not exceeding the 1000 word guideline) in the letter of interest itself , or should I include a separate page giving a description of the dissertation?
    I would love to hear from you.
    Thanks
    Nina

  13. I suspect this is all bull and this lady Karen just found an easy source of occasional income on the side.

    There are no rules to academic letters. Just be yourself. As a SC member, I actually don’t mind the graduate student tone in certain job applications.

    • Anyone reading this, please see my column from Inside Higher Ed in 2012, “The ‘Be Yourself’ Myth.”http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/01/30/essay-why-candidates-academic-jobs-cant-just-be-themselves#sthash.ZSkYFYpn.dpbs

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