How To Tailor a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging)

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  23 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.

 

Today’s post is going to address the difficult matter of tailoring a job letter. In the work my clients do on their job market materials, it seems that nothing gives them as much trouble as the one small paragraph, in their job letters, tailored to the job. (Well, nothing, maybe, except the dreaded teaching statement).

I am always startled at how often the tailoring that I tell them to do comes back in the form of pandering, flattering, or begging.

Proper tailoring is none of these things.

Now, before I get to what good tailoring looks like, let me take a step back and consider the letter as a whole. My working principle, when I was on the job market myself, when I trained my own Ph.D. students, and now as a coach and consultant, is that a candidate has one basic job letter template, which is then adjusted into 4-8 subsidiary templates, depending on the type of institution, department, and specialization of the specific job being applied for.

The basic templates vary only a little. Your dissertation, your teaching, your publications, your second book project: these remain mostly constant across platforms. And so, there is only one part of the templates that changes substantially, in the Dr. Karen cover letter model, and that is the “tailoring paragraph” which comes at the end of the letter.

The basic goal of the tailoring paragraph is to identify programs, initiatives, centers, emphases, and specializations on the campus to which you are applying, in which you, the candidate, could productively participate.

I do not approve of “fit” sentences in academic job letters. I know that, in this, I depart from some other advice circulating in academic circles. To my eyes, however, a sentence in a job letter that claims, “My expertise in xxx and xxx makes me an excellent fit for your position,” will only rile up the academic temperment that will inevitably respond, “I will be the judge of THAT!” No amount of telling your reader about your fit can replace a paragraph effectively showing it. 

In addition, of course, such language is painfully overused and thus trite.  Particularly the line, “I am uniquely qualified…”  Uniquely?  Really?  Did your mom say so?  And qualified?  You and 50 other people are all “qualified” for the position. You better be  setting your bar a hell of a lot higher than “qualified.”

For more, refer to my post on the subject:  “I’m the Ideal Candidate!

In a previous post on job letters I advocated mentioning specific faculty by name, as people with whom you might collaborate or co-teach. However, after working with many clients since publishing that post, I’ve come to understand that this advice does not yield the results I had hoped for.

Simply listing some faculty members in the department—ie, “I would look forward to working with faculty such as Nelson and Smith on transnational history”–is not terrible, but it is not, I now feel, the sole demonstration of familiarity with or enthusiasm for the campus and its strengths. In other words, yes, you should list a few people by name and how you anticipate collaborating with them. But that should be augmented with other content.

The other content is all too often abject eagerness, undignified flattery, or desperate pandering.  Here are examples:

Abject eagerness to fill adjunct-level teaching needs: ie, “I would be happy to teach any of your introductory courses, including Anth 103, 105, 112, or 121.”

Undignified flattery: ie, “I would be thrilled to be a part of a department like yours with such a long and illustrious history in the field of Asian Studies.”

Desperate pandering: ie, “it would be a great honor to join the dynamic faculty of the English department at the University of XXX and I would strive to be a productive member.”

Tailoring, done correctly, is demonstrating your familiarity with real, substantive ongoing initiatives that already exist in the department and on campus, and signalling your enthusiasm for participating in them.

A good tailoring paragraph might read something like this…

[…]

In neither of these examples is the department or the campus explicitly flattered or pandered to. In both of them, the already existing strengths and priorities of the department/campus are acknowledged, and the potential of the candidate to be an active participant highlighted.To conclude, in your tailoring paragraph, above all else, do not flatter. Sentences like :

Your department is an exciting and dynamic intellectual community,” or

As one of the top ranked programs in the country, your program is very exciting to me,” or

Being home to one of finest student bodies in the country, your campus would be an ideal location for me to start my teaching career”

will not get you the job. They will just make you look desperate.

Even in this job market—no, ESPECIALLY in this job market— the basic rule of all job searches in all times and all places still holds true: you have to make them want you.

You make them want you by retaining your dignity and your sense of self (and definitely your sense of humor), and comporting yourself like a scholar and colleague worthy of pursuing.

 


Comments

How To Tailor a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging) — 40 Comments

  1. Pingback: You’re Elite, The Job is Not: How Do You Tell Them You’ll Really Stay? |

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  3. Pingback: Tailoring a Job Letter, Beginning and Advanced | The Professor Is In

  4. I also have a question for the future. In my last “tailored” paragraph, sometimes I have a really hard time finding something nice to say. What suits me about the school is that it has a job opening, and it doesn’t sound terrible, and really not much else. Help!

    • everybody struggles with this. but you have to remember that they are people and are making an enormous investment in the person hired. you have to give them confidence that you really do like/are excited about the position/department/campus/geog location, and will integrate with their faculty and are likely to stay.

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  6. Hi Karen I love the site. You have stated elsewhere that a cover letter should be two pages max. Is that single spaced paragraphs with a space between each? Or double-spaced? Thanks.

      • Please use spaces, they make the letters so much easier to read. I’d rather see a letter drift onto page 3, with spaces btw paragraphs, standard 1″ margins and 12 pt font, than no spaces, 3/4″ margins, and 11 pt fonts. There’s nothing miraculous about 2 pages, and there’s lots to be said for legibility and reading ease. I’m judging letters by whether they keep me engaged, not if the info is crammed onto 2 pages. Not hurting my eyes helps too.

          • Last year, I read *a lot* of cover letters trying too hard to conform to only 2 pages. They were so beholden to 2 pages that they used all the margin/font/spacing tricks instead of allowing the last “CV etc enclosed” + thank you/signature to sit on the 3rd page.

            From the perspective of this committee member, I’d much rather see a signature on page 3, than margin/font stunts fitting it onto 2. I think it’s important for job candidates to know we’re not torpedoing applications because 1 final paragraph sits on page 3. And given the size of some letterhead, most letters that *drift* to page 3 would be 2 on blank sheets. The point is: write a compelling cover letter. If it’s succinct but ends up needing a few lines on a third page to make it easier to read, please err on the side of easier to read than overly bound to an arbitrary page standard.

          • Wow, 2 pages is mostly for academic positions. But the best is to reduce it to 1 single page. This is advantageous first, as the person reading it will not get bored (yeah, they receive a LOT of applications, you’re not the golden nugget) and second, it gives you the opportunity to condense your professional life, so that it shines. One sentence per experience place. 1 Introduction (put reference for contact here). 2 Blast through your proven experience and successes (put the ivy league names, hide the shadowy ones with successes). 3 reiterate the skills you bring to the place = 3 paragraphs with 2 being the fat one. and a single line to “be glad to be invited to an interview”.

          • What about positions that *only* ask for a cover letter (no research and teaching statements)? This is very common in my field.

  7. Hi Dr. Karen. My department provides a fair amount of support for graduate job candidates–we even have a TT professor with a 33% appointment devoted to working with us. Her advice conflicts with yours, though: when I asked about tailoring my job letter. She said not to do it, ever, because it comes across as “stalkery.” Was she wrong, or do perceptions of tailoring vary by field?

    • I served on many search committees in four departments and we always noted the degree of knowledge and interest a candidate showed in our department, its people, and its programs. To call it stalker=y is bizarre in the extreme, in my view.

    • woah! that’s rotten bad advice! How many persons’ carreers has this person murdered? Stalkery? Try well informed. It should look as if you already dominate the field there and you’ve worked there forever (without being familiar).

      It doesn’t matter if you only did a 1 month internship, you rule the field (without being arrogant). And in another letter, you fit your experience to it like a glove (horseshoeing it if necessary). But NEVER picture yourself as a jack of all trades, because those are always good in everything but excellent in nothing.

  8. One problem I’ve found in attempting to tailor letters is that sometimes it’s hard to know from the outside what initiatives are for real and which ones are more–how to put it politely?–aspired to rather than practiced.

    At my PhD school the department website made a big deal out of how faculty were organized by “knowledge hub” or some such term, and applicants would regularly say how their work would fit in some hub.

    The problem was, the department never actually used these. It was all for the website and the administration to make the humanities look broader.

    A second example: I once had an interview with a school that featured a robust defense of the western intellectual tradition on its website; I even found a YouTube interview with a professor espousing that view. I pitched my letter accordingly.

    First question of the interview, from the same guy in the YouTube video: so we’re doing away with western civ and going to world civ; how would teach that course?

    Since then I’ve leaned towards just showcasing my strengths and not worrying about how they might fit into a puzzle that is so hard to discern without really knowing the school firsthand.

    • This is actually a fair point. But nevertheless, in my experience showing that you made the effort to know something about the dept mattered more than the chance that you might have missed the target slightly. The effort shows the kind of colleague you may become.

    • Don’t confuse the PR side with the real work of a group/company. For tailoring your letter don’t look at PR material, look at what they really produce(Papers, documents, projects, etc.).

      And people who just make themselves look awesome without fiting themselves in the job, fail. Why? those letters look like “me, myself and I are awesome.. and screw your opinion”, while it should be “you and my skills = love forever” (in that order, company/group interests first). Everyone likes to hire somebody that puts the company’s interest before their personal goals.

  9. What advice would you have for applying to a department I have a fair bit of inside knowledge of? I’m applying for a TT position in my area of specialization at my undergrad alma mater. While I don’t want to sound “gushy,” this is an institution I really love, and I actually do believe the intellectual climate, students, etc. are top-notch based on my experience there. Further, the search chair is my undergrad advisor and has been something of a mentor to me over the years. I’m currently in my 2nd year on the TT at my current institution (first hire out of PhD), and fairly happy where I am. So I feel I need to in some way convey that my desire to move to Alma Mater U is rooted in my enthusiasm for their program, not poor fit at my current institution.

    • here’s what you absolutely must not do: Become a Liberal Arts Mush (find that post by me, in Chronicle Vitae). And, also read: What Insider Candidates Persist in Doing Wrong. From this email I can tell you’re on the verge of doing everything I write about in both posts. Beware!

  10. ‘Desperate pandering: ie, “it would be a great honor to join the dynamic faculty of the English department at the University of XXX and I would strive to be a productive member.”’

    I am inclined to make inappropriate comments about the possible departments and majors available at the University of XXX. Moreover, if there was such a university, I’m sure all of the ‘members’ would be productive.

  11. Huh, my advisor/committee said never to mention the specific school in a letter, as I can convey my interest in their particular department in specific if I get an on-campus interview. In the meantime, I need the space to get them to care about my work.

    Don’t know that there’s a wrong answer here, really.

  12. What about when the job ad asks for this tailoring, which is I’m seeing more frequently: “Cover letter should speak to your ability to work effectively with a student population that is broadly diverse with regard to gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion”

    Is that some kind of code? My adjunct intro class this semester is 90% Latina/o, and I took a field exam in critical race theory, but I have no idea how to answer that without mush and I don’t have space to go all Paulo Freire on them. Is it just anxiety since since most of their faculty is white, as I am?

  13. How appropriate is it to mention my desire for a specific job partially because of the geographical location? I’m interested in a job that’s thirty minutes from where I grew up and where most of my family still live. I could see mentioning something as a way of saying I’d stay at the school and not leave after a few years because of the familial draw, but I know they don’t really care about my personal life and it’s not a factor in their decision. This isn’t the only reason I’m interested in the school; I am fully onboard with their mission statement, their motto, the requirements of the job, etc.

      • You can do this if it’s a low-ranking school that has trouble attracting/keeping people. However, if it is a ranking school then the geography should not be mentioned. I once had a client who said he was interested in the U Chicago because his family lived in driving distance. I kid you not.

        Just no.

  14. Dr. Karen,

    I wanted to say thank you for the tremendous work you are doing. I have been using your blog as a template to write my materials, I have already received a few requests for interviews, and hoping for a few more. My undergraduate research assistants applying to graduate schools, (who are mostly female), are already committing some of your blogs to memory. Thank you for tackling these topics with humor and candor, and for helping all of us be stronger applicants.

    All the very best,
    Meaghan Altman

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  16. My undergraduate degree is from a not-very-fancy school in a large system of regional public universities that serve largely first-generation and minority students. I am now finishing my Ph.D. at a fancy research university. It has always been my goal to work at a school in the university system I went to for undergrad. I care a lot about teaching and especially serving first-generation college students.

    My question: I’m applying to a few jobs in this university system. Is it ok to talk about my status as an alumna in my cover letter, and how invested I am in the system’s mission? I feel like this is different than “liberal arts mush” because I’m not saying “I had the best time of my life and I want to go back,” I’m saying, “I know what it’s like, I’m not going to be thrown off by students who need a lot of help figuring out what it means to be a college student, and I still want it.” Is this ok, or is it just Lower-Tier Regional Public University Mush?

  17. To echo the previous commenter’s concern, I’m wondering about your advice (and hoping you might address a blog post to) applying to schools where you and the search committee know each other well, but where you’re not an inside candidate. If you did your MA at a school and your PhD elsewhere, but are now applying for a TT position at your MA school, would you advise keeping the mask of impersonality on and pretending that you’re applying for just one more position (that you happen to know very well), or being quite bold about how and why you know the department and focusing on things they might not know about you at the expense of addressing characteristics they already know in detail?

  18. “The good tailoring paragraph,” which is a major draw of reading this post, seems to have been redacted. I hope this isn’t true! Disappointing.

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