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. We want to know about your dissertation only as it relates to identifiable past, present, and future faculty colleague achievements, i.e., debates and interventions in your fields, publications, conference talks, grants, teaching.
Package up your dissertation into an easily digestible paragraph. Then, in a brief paragraph following, specify what major debates in your field/fields the dissertation intervenes in, and the nature of the intervention it makes. We care less about the micro-details of the topic, than we do its intellectual or disciplinary import and significance. Your goal here is to speak as a world-class scholar whose work is changing the face of/pushing the boundaries of/engaging the leading thinkers of a discipline.
From this discussion, move quickly to the conference papers and publications that came out of it, and the current and future publication plans that are forthcoming from it. Also how it inspires and motivates your teaching. See #4 below.
4. Your Teaching Paragraph is All Drippy and Pathetic
We don’t care that you “love” teaching. What we care about is that you are an effective teacher. We need evidence of that so give us some (see point 2 above). And more to the point, we want to know you are an inspired teacher. How do you show that? By showing us that “the same commitment to xxx that inspires my research also propels my work in the classroom. Here’s how….”
Like that sentence? You can use it. I give you permission. It’s been used by a bunch of Ph.D. students of my acquaintance, and it’s damned effective. Here it is again, “the same commitment to xxx that inspires my research also propels my work in the classroom. Here’s how….” [UPDATE 10/3/12: Please stop using this sentence! The readership of this blog has expanded to such a degree that the sentence is now becoming overused and resented. You may keep the sentiment, but find your own words to express it.]
And then, give evidence. If you don’t have any, then start being a better teacher. If you’ve been fully funded without ever setting foot into a classroom (my own case, actually), seek out limited teaching opportunities at universities or colleges in your area. And craft a really persuasive teaching philosophy statement, with help from experienced teachers.
5. You Present Yourself as a Student, Not a Colleague
I’m restating #4 above, but more directly. We’re not hiring a student. We’re hiring a colleague. We want to hear you speak like a faculty member. Don’t know how? Fake it ’til you make it.
Don’t be humble. Don’t be a supplicant. Don’t be groveling. Be firm, confident, and forceful. Write in short, declarative sentences. Don’t make excuses. Don’t write about what you didn’t do, don’t know. You’re an expert in your field. Act like one.
Don’t EVER refer to faculty in the department to which you’re applying as “Professor so-and-so.” What are you, a grad student? In your paragraph about why you’re a good fit, write something to the effect, “I am excited about the prospect of teaching in the xxx department and would look forward to collaborating or co-teaching with faculty such as Smith and Wesson.”
6. You Don’t Specify Publication Plans
Clearly specify what publications are out, which ones are in press, which ones are in submission, and which ones are in manuscript stage, and where you intend to submit them. Do NOT expect the committee to locate this information on your c.v.
If you’re in a book field, mention the presses with whom you’re in discussions about your book. If you’re not in discussions with presses about your book, start that immediately. Set a timeline for the book, and an anticipated publication date well in advance of spring of your 5th year in the job.
7. You Don’t Have a Second Research Project
It doesn’t matter if you’re still dotting your i’s on your dissertation before submitting it, or haven’t even defended it yet, you still have to have a second major research/book project in sight, well thought out, funded if possible. This second project should arise organically out of the first, showing BOTH continuity of interest and specialization, but also vibrant new directions.
This shows that you are the real deal, a tenurable assistant professor. Not a one-hit wonder, but someone who is going to keep up the work schedule through 6 years, tenure, and beyond.
They do NOT want to hire someone only to turn them down for tenure 6 years later. Show them you’ve got what it takes.
Here’s what you may not know: the second project is now required for a successful tenure case at many institutions. It may not have to be “out” in published form, but by the 5th year, when your file goes out to external reviewers, that second project has to be, at minimum, proposed, underway, funded, and have produced some high profile conference talks.
8. You Didn’t Do Your Homework
Show that you have researched the department, know the faculty, have read their work, appreciate their contributions, know the focus and specializations of their specific program. If they specialize in Gender
Studies, and your project relates to Gender Studies, make that explicit. Mention one or two faculty members by name as potential collaborators. COLLABORATORS, mind you, NOT mentors. Refer to Point 5 above. You are now to be a faculty member, not a student.
9. You’re Disorganized and Rambling
Here’s how a job letter should read:
Para 1: Short self-intro; your current position; your Ph.D. granting institution, your general field and subfield and area of specialization.
Para 2: Your primary research project, briefly what, where, and how, and the achievements arising out of it such as publications, conference papers, panels, and grants.
Para 3: Your primary research project’s large contributions to the field and discipline as a whole—how it pushes boundaries, engages in dynamic new debates, and enlarges the discipline.
Para 4: Your publication plans.
Para 5: Your second project.
Para 6: Your teaching, as it ties in with all of the above.
Para 7: Your specific interest in the job and department to which you are applying, with specific programs, specializations, and faculty by name.
Para 8: “I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you, signature”
10. You Didn’t Tailor.
You don’t have just one job letter template file. You have at least 8. Let’s take my own case—a cultural anthropologist of Japan with a focus on gender and transnationalism. I had the following letter template files ready to go:
1. General anthro job, research institution
2. General anthro job, teaching institution
3. Japan area studies job, research institution
4. Japan area studies job, teaching institution
5. Gender studies job, research institution
6. Gender Studies job, teaching institution
7. Transnational studies job, research institution
8. Transnational studies job, teaching institution
The difference between research and teaching institution jobs? The former emphasizes your research, the latter your teaching.
This list doesn’t even include the postdoc letters. And it doesn’t include the tailoring for EACH INDIVIDUAL JOB, which as I said above, must include mention of that department’s specific specializations, programs, and faculty.
Follow these ten rules, and you have a fighting chance of getting shortlisted.