“My Family Lives In Driving Distance” – Or Not

For Fall 2016 I am reposting the top 25 posts on academic job applications.

In the past month a client wrote in his tailoring section that he was excited to apply to a position at the University of Chicago, because his “family lives in driving distance.”

And another write that a position at Berkeley was exciting to him because “I have friends and family in the area.”

Can we all agree that this is… um… less than ideal cover letter rhetoric?

Rule of thumb:  if the institution is one of the top-ranked institutions in the world, hotly coveted, and the object of academic dreams, then mentioning the existence of family and friends in the area comes across as laughable.

Of course, if an institution is small, low-ranking, or located in a far-flung region…ie, an institution that you can imagine might have trouble attracting or retaining hires, then mentioning the existence of family in the area makes sense, as long as it’s done without undue hysteria, desperation, or emotionalism. Just stay brief and factual. One sentence in a paragraph that primarily focuses on SUBSTANTIVE connections related to research and teaching.

But seriously, nobody prioritizes Harvard because family lives nearby.

If your family does, sure, that’s icing on the cake, and a great thing.

But don’t mention it in the application. It makes you look fundamentally unserious. And like you don’t grasp the unspoken but unyielding rules of hierarchy that shape academia status.

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“My Family Lives In Driving Distance” – Or Not — 23 Comments

  1. Could pose a question on a similar situation? I am applying for a position at a semi-prestigious Midwestern music conservatory in Kansas City, and I am aware that the position has opened up because their “fast-climbing Ivy hire” from three years ago is jumping ship for a job at a leading university in Chicago. Do you think it would be helpful to briefly mention that I am a native of the state, as well as the fact that many family members and close friends live in the area?

    • I applied for a position in my hometown recently and I wrote in the tailoring paragraph , ‘As a native of (city), I have always held (institution) in high regard, and I would be keen to develop curriculum where students engage in social justice initiatives in the community, such as x.’ Good or bad?

        • Not sure what Karen’s take will be, but I just included almost the exact same comment in my tailoring paragraph. Since you (and I) tied it to your specific academic plans, it seems like “good.” But I’m interested to hear others’ feedback.

      • i’d say that the “held in high regard” is pointless, as it’s basically flattering and pandering and says nothing of substance. But the native of city part, and then specific examples of work connected TO the city, is effective.

  2. Is being local worth mentioning in terms of money saved on potential interviews or campus visits? And would a sentence like “I am available to meet you here in <> at your convenience” work to convey this?

      • Not necessarily. Having served on a few search committees at an institution where money is tight, we’ve been told to find a comparable candidate who’s geographically cheaper to bring for a visit.

  3. Laura, I think the sentiment was good but the phrasing was a little weak. Karen had a previous post about language judging the institution. Saying you have held the school in high regard can come across as you implying the school should feel honored to have met your high standards.

    It would be better to say something concrete, based on your local knowledge, about what you could do.

    • Thanks, David. The rest of the tailoring paragraph was very specific to how I could work with colleagues on specific research, teaching, and service activities within the community. For brevity’s sake, I left that out of my comment. I would agree with you and Karen that “held in high regard” is a bit mushy and pointless, so if I have an opportunity to apply to a hometown institution again, I’ll strike that sentiment.

  4. I just want to step back for a second and comment that the underlying feature of this line of debate is a question about whether the dept/institution has concerns about RETAINING faculty. That is really the only context in which mentioning your interest in the location matters. Harvard doesn’t worry about retention – but other places genuinely DO and are likely to respond positively to the idea that you choose their region knowingly and with some motivation to stick around.

    The real issue is: how do you know what the situation is in any given application? Do what you can through networking to find out if there ARE retention concerns because then your careful signalling of the “local family” or whatever investment MAY make a useful difference (especially if someone just ditched them and they’re seething from that). But when in doubt, just leave it out!

  5. I would love a bit more advice on how to tailor a job letter for extremely high level institutions and departments. Of the three universities mentioned in this post, two have openings in my field… but I know better to say that I want to work at Berkeley because my family lives in San Francisco. At the same time, every time I start to write my tailoring paragraph, I find myself telling the search committee that Berekely has strengths in my area and approach. So, how does one say that she wants to work in a top department without pandering or flattering?

    • I talk about tailoring in two other blog posts, with examples. If you searching Tailor or Tailoring, you should be able to find them. Be substantive. real connections around research and teaching are the key.

  6. Outside of academia…yes! I’ve done hiring in consulting, non-profit, and government settings. If you’re applying for a job that isn’t in commuting distance from your current residence, then a sentence that indicates you have a connection to the job location can tip the balance.
    It isn’t necessary and certainly do not stretch the truth. And don’t be too personal – I don’t care about your kids being close to grandma.

  7. Yes, for places that had high turnover, committees may read between or on the lines. My dept head asked me why I had a local area code during our pre-interview dinner. It is because I got my cell phone when I was growing up a few towns away. Something that wasn’t clear from my pedigree. Is that why I was applying? Absolutely. I didn’t include a sentence about it, but they were in search of someone committed.

  8. Would it be relevant to add a line to this effect if it helps the university determine my visa status? My partner is moving to the UK to pursue an MBA and this means that as his dependant, I would be authorised to work there.

  9. Wow. Can I just add that as someone who’s studying in the US and not from this country, these kinds of moves seem especially insidious. Being from an area shouldn’t automatically be taken as a sign that a candidate would be willing or likely to stay, and this kind of signalling really seems like it’s marshalling privilege rather than credentials. I know the line between the two is murky but this really seems beyond the pale.

  10. “Being from an area shouldn’t automatically be taken as a sign that a candidate would be willing or likely to stay”– of course someone with ties to a particular area would be more likely to stay there. It’s not a guarantee, but social networks are sticky.

  11. How about for candidates who are already in a TT position in a desirable institution, but are now applying to another competitive institution because of the two-body problem? Should the family circumstance be hinted at in CL?

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