An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter 22 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including the template for a job cover letter, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.
In my 15 years as a faculty member I served on approximately 11 search committees. Some of these search committees I chaired. These committees brought in ten new assistant professors into my departments.
Estimating that each search brought in an average of 200 applications (a conservative estimate for a field like Anthropology, a generous estimate for a much smaller field like East Asian Languages and Literatures), that means I read approximately 2200 job applications.
I’ve also read the cover letters of my own students, and a passel of Ph.D. students who came to me for advice, as well as a large number of clients since opening The Professor is In (as of July 2014 let’s say 1000).
So let’s say I’ve read (3200) job cover letters. Of those (3200) job cover letters, it is safe to say that (3000) sucked. Sucked badly. Sucked epically. Sucked the way Cakewrecks cakes suck.
What’s up with that?
Here’s what’s up with that.
Advisers don’t teach their grad students how to write cover letters. They send them out pathetically, humiliatingly ill-informed.
It is, in my opinion, a criminal degree of neglect.
I am on a mission to get Ph.D. students, in the social sciences and humanities especially, to stop sending out worthless, embarrassing, self-sabotaging job cover letters.
I am infuriated that close colleagues of mine in the top programs in the country–think Ivy Leagues–routinely allow their Ph.D.s to send out job letters to departments across the country–to potential colleagues and peers and reviewers across the country– that make those Ph.D.s look ill-trained, unqualified, and un-hireable.
How do I know that? Again, because I was on the hiring committees that received the letters from those Ph.D.s, the students I knew well, had met at conferences, and recognized as the students of my friends and colleagues at prestigious departments in the field.
So, anyone reading this now, here is why your cover letter sucks, and what you need to do to fix it.
1. It Is Too Long. And 1a. It’s Not on Letterhead. And 1b. It must follow proper letter norms of etiquette
Your letter must be on letterhead if you have a current academic affiliation of any kind. This is not negotiable. It has come to my attention that some departments are denying their graduate students access to letterhead. This is unacceptable, and any act is justified in response. You may steal the letterhead. You may Photoshop the letterhead. Do what you must, but send all professional letters of every kind on the letterhead of the department with which you affiliated.
If you do not have an affiliation because you finished your Ph.D. and have no academic employment at all, including adjuncting, then you must submit without letterhead (although a very sober, understated, and proper personal letterhead can sometimes be a nice touch). You may not use letterhead to which you’re not entitled. That is unethical, and it is also stupid, because your readers are smart, and they notice.
Your letter must be two pages max. No longer. Do not argue with me. If you are arguing with me, you are wrong. It must be two pages max.
It must be 12 point (ok, *maybe* 11.5) font, and have a minimum of 3/4″ margins.
It must follow normal letter etiquette, which means that it will include the date (fully written out) just under the letterhead, then a space, then the full snail mail address of the person/committee to whom the letter is being sent just below the date, left justified, and then a space, and then the address: “Dear Professor XXXX/Members of the Search Committee:” Then it will have another space, and commence: “I am writing in application to the advertised position in XXX at the University of XXXX. Etc. Etc.” Nothing in this heading material may be left out. Similarly, nothing beyond this may be added in, including any kind of memo heading or title such as “Re: position in XXX.” LETTERS DO NOT HAVE TITLES!
Why must it be these things? I will tell you. Because the care you show in the norms and forms of proper letter etiquette represent you as a fully adult, functioning professional. It demonstrates that you are a full-fledged member of the tribe, and not an embarrassing wanna-be.
And the length? Because the faculty members on the committee reviewing your letters are tired, distracted, irritated, and rushed. They will give your cover letter 5 minutes. They will not hunt for your main point, they will not squint, they will not strain their eyes, they will not pore over it.
Serve up your brilliance, your achievements, and your delightful collegial personality loud and clear, in legible large font, and a considerate quantity of verbiage. You are respecting your future colleagues’ time and eyesight, and believe me, they notice.
Do I hear whining, that you “can’t possibly say all you need to” in 2 pages? Tough. Do you want a job or don’t you? Do it.
2. You Are Telling, Not Showing.
All academics in the world, by virtue of being academics, require evidence to accept a proposition. Even the wooiest humanists have to be persuaded with some form of evidence that a claim is valid.
Your letter must include evidence. Empty claims like “I am passionate about teaching,” or “I care deeply about students,” or “I am an enthusiastic colleague” contain no evidence whatsoever. They can be made by anyone, and provide no means of proof. They are worthless verbiage.
Show, don’t tell: Instead of “I am passionate about teaching,” you must write, “I used new technologies to create innovative small group discussion opportunities in my large introductory classes, technologies that were later adopted by my colleagues in the department.” Or, “I worked one on one with students on individual research projects leading to published articles. Several students later nominated me for our campus’s “Best Undergraduate Teacher” award, which I won in 2011.”
Get it? Don’t waste our time with unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable claims.
3. You Drone On and On About Your Dissertation
We actually don’t care about your dissertation. Seriously, we don’t. Your dissertation is in the past. It’s in the past even if you’re actually still writing it. It’s what you did *as a student*, and we’re not hiring a student. We’re hiring a colleague….
4. Your Teaching Paragraph is All Drippy and Pathetic
5. You Present Yourself as a Student, Not a Colleague
6. You Don’t Specify Publication Plans
7. You Don’t Have a Second Research Project
8. You Didn’t Do Your Homework
9. You’re Disorganized and Rambling
10. You Didn’t Tailor