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 temperament 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.