Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Tailoring the job letter

Another Graduate Student asked me to talk about my experience on a hiring committee, and especially about the degree to which a candidate should tailor her application materials to each institution.

Other committee members may feel differently, but I think it's absurd to expect first-round applicants to do a significant amount of tailoring. First, it's inhumane: an applicant has other demands on her time, and researching every department in depth, imagining their possible needs and desires, and reworking the already-difficult genre of the job letter 25 or 30 times is not only labor-intensive, but psychologically exhausting--insofar as it requires vividly imagining each place and how one might make a life there.

Second, it's almost certainly time wasted.

Here's the thing: your job letter is, simultaneously, the most important document you'll produce in your job search and a hard document with which to really distinguish yourself. I've read a few catastrophically bad letters from people who genuinely didn't know the conventions of the genre, and a slightly larger but still small number with enough errors or awkwardnesses that it was impossible to take the applicants seriously. But after weeding out the bad letters, the rest sat somewhere on a spectrum from adequate to quite nice; at that point, what mattered most was what the candidates had done and how well they fit our position--not whether their every paragraph was a thing of fire and music.

This, I hope, is good news: your letter just has to get the job done. You don't need to write the world's most eloquent, original letter (in fact, in this context, originality is a bad thing; if someone asks you for a sonnet, you will not be rewarded for your exciting new verse form). You do need to be clear, succinct, and aware of your audience, and your writing should not contain elementary errors. But the conventions are there for a reason: they allow a committee with hundreds of applications to size up each one swiftly, and on more or less the same terms.

Obviously, you shouldn't send exactly the same job letter to every institution, but it's most useful to think in terms of general types of schools. You'll want a few different sentences or even different paragraphs that you can swap in and out depending on a particular department's teaching expectations, and you might emend your wording slightly here and there for similar reasons (e.g., "I would be eager to join [such a distinguished faculty] [a department of committed teacher-scholars] [an institution so dedicated to student success]").

But that kind of semi-generic tailoring should cover most things.* Personally, all I want is evidence that the candidate has read the job ad and has a sense of the kind of school we are (e.g., if the ad mentions comp, your letter should not speak exclusively about the graduate and upper-division courses you're interested in designing). It's probably useful to spend 20 minutes on each hiring department's webpage to flesh out what the job ad tells you--but I wouldn't recommend more than that.

Here's what's definitely labor wasted: showing that you have a detailed knowledge of the ins and outs of our curriculum.

Every department has oddities in its curriculum and its requirements, and it's hard to master them from the outside; it can also be hard to tell, from looking at online course listings, which courses are weirdo one-offs, which are regarded by a particular faculty member as his exclusive property, or which are holdovers from a different era. You don't need to reference our existing course numbers or titles. Just say what kind of courses you've taught or are prepared to teach: surveys, comp, single-author courses A and B, topical courses C and D, and what upper-division or grad classes you might design in the future. With minor adjustments, those things translate into most curricula.

I also think it's generally wasted labor for your letter to name-check existing faculty unless they work in your immediate field or their scholarship really does seem to be in productive conversation with your own; it's worth having a sense of the general profile of any department to which you're applying, but listing a bunch of names is not necessary.

Statements of affinity are nice--that is, remarks about your connection to the region or your interest in the institution's mission ("as a first-generation college student..."; "as a long-time admirer of the Jesuit humanist model of education..."). For my part, I'd say those are agreeable statements to encounter, and I usually remembered them for candidates who got a convention or campus visit, but I don't think they prompted me to give an application a second look if it wasn't strong to begin with. That may be different at other institutions.

As for your vita, it shouldn't require tailoring. As long as it's clearly laid out and easy to read, the committee can find whatever they're looking for. (But seriously, make sure it's clearly laid out.) Think of your vita and your job letter as being in conversation with each other: one allows you to list everything you've ever done; the other gives you a chance to narrate, explain, and reflect on the highlights. Resist the temptation to let either do the other's job.

To sum up: a good letter and an attractive, readable vita are worth laboring over. But there's no need to reinvent them each time. A good letter is a flexible document that you can emend around the edges without--hopefully--driving yourself crazy.


Readers who have served on hiring committees: are my reactions idiosyncratic (or particular to the kind of institution I'm at), or do you generally agree?

*I'm speaking throughout of the differences among four-year institutions, since those are the institutions I know; if I have readers who want to talk about the differences between application letters for four-year and two-year colleges, have at it in comments.


heu mihi said...

Generally agree. There should certainly be some tailoring to type of institution; I teach at a 4/4 SLAC, and my ideal job letter demonstrates a commitment both to teaching and to the mission of a liberal arts college. Neglecting the latter in your letter won't disqualify you, but neglecting the former probably will.

The advice not to let the CV do the work of the job letter and vice versa is spot on. If you have a great vita but your cover letter is two paragraphs long and basically tells us to read the vita, you don't seem to know the genre and may be disqualified. This might seem unfair, but when we have upwards of 100 applicants and 50 of them are fully qualified, every little detail that can push you up or down the ranking matters. And if your CV is some idiosyncratic mess of headings (or--God forbid!--you list your unpublished MA thesis as a "publication"), we may not take the time to sort it out. Again, unfair? Maybe, but professionalism does count.

I'd go a little further on the name-dropping, and say that (at least at a small, non-research-y college like mine), it comes across as slightly silly and, worse, brown-nosy--not the impression you want to make. In essence, then, I agree with you, Flavia: You want to show that you are familiar with and interested in the specific type of institution, but not that you've spent countless hours memorizing our website (because that's kind of weird).

That's my view, anyway.

Flavia said...

Heu Mihi:

Re: name-dropping: yes, that's exactly what I'm getting at. I've almost never seen it done well (e.g., the writer seems to actually know the faculty member's work, or to have something thoughtful to say about it--this is probably because my department doesn't usually advertise for positions in the same field as an existing faculty member; it would be different if we had, say, three medievalists).

Instead the writer often seems to be straining for connections. E.g., "My work seems to fit well with that of Professor Smith, in our shared interest in women's writing; with Professor Jones, in ethnic literature; and Professor Hall, in the overlap between literature and politics."

And as you say, that can come off as a little socially weird.

Bardiac said...

I think this is great advice, Flavia. I DO want students to talk about their commitment to undergrad ed and teaching comp, because if hired, they'll do that here. But I also want to hear about their cool research.

And one thing that really sparks my interest is them having demonstrated that they think usefully about inclusion and equity, race, gender, and so forth. We mention these issues in our ads, and they're important to me, at least.

Also, when we invite candidates for campus visits, everyone on the faculty gets a copy of their letter and CV, so it works as a general introduction for the visit, too.

Anonymous said...

I mostly agree. I will add this: as somebody who works at a mostly teacher-oriented Jesuit university, a statement like "a long-time admirer of the Jesuit humanist model of education" is nice to find if you follow up with a few sentences that demonstrate they are not empty words (that show you actually have an idea what the Jesuit humanism model of education is).
Also, I don't know how applicable this is to other religious universities, but at my university, we don't ask for statements of faith. So it's OK to say you're Catholic/Christian/religious, but don't overdo it. If we didn't ask for a statement of faith, we are not going to hire you because you go to Church 3 times a week. And it can be a turn-off.

Flavia said...


Yes, that's a great point, and something that job candidates may not know: those who get invited to campus will likely have their file made available to the whole department; and in mine, most people will at least read the letter and vita (and I usually read the writing sample and glance at the rec letters).


Thanks for weighing in. I've always wondered about that. When applying to Catholic schools I always mentioned being Catholic--but since faculty aren't necessarily of the denomination of their institution (and sometimes are in active conflict with the administration over what a given religious identity actually means or how it should be reflected in campus or scholastic life), I tried to make clear that I wasn't a freaky hardliner by talking about the opportunities that studying religion and let gave students to reevaluate their religious presumptions--or whatever.

Anonymous said...

I think it varies by departments. I am an agnostic Jew, but I was always very familiar with Jesuit educational model. That's why I fit in well here. Personally, if you talk about how your faith influences your teaching in general ways (believe that every human being is unique and has an untapped potential, etc, etc,) I like it. Also, in the Jesuit case, option for the poor, and how it would relate to your classes, is a good idea.
However (and I've seen it), a whole paragraph devoted to how you practice your faith in your personal life plus a list of the charities you volunteer for at your Church is a turnoff.
Again, Jesuits can be special. But I've seen applications dismissed because they start talking about their willingness to work at a Christ-centered institution the same way they lead a Christ-centered life.

Withywindle said...

All very depressing. I consistently listed the precise course numbers and titles I was prepared to teach, and tried to mention common interests where I could. I thought I was signaling that I was trying to pay attention to the individual institution. Oh, well.

Contingent Cassandra said...

It's been some time since I was on the market, and the procedures were quite different than they are today (e.g. dossiers were sent out in paper format by an actual secretary, rather than through interfolio et al.), but the one thing that surprises me here is the "one c.v." rule. I always had two, which were basically similar, but one listed research first, and the other listed teaching experience first. We were told that this was an important way to show that one realized the priorities of the institution to which one was applying.

If one sends one c.v. to all, am I correct in assuming that research (publications, conference presentations, and perhaps fellowships, prizes, and the like) should be listed first (after education)? I mostly generate c.v.s for internal purposes these days, and, after a bit of dithering back and forth, have gone with the research-first format, because, although my position is a teaching-oriented one, my institution is research-oriented, and I'm pretty sure that's the kind of c.v. that looks "right" to most of my tenure-track colleagues, deans, provosts, etc. But if I were applying to a job at a teaching-oriented college, I'd still be tempted to start flipping categories to emphasize teaching experience. At the same time, I realize that I can only put one version in various places (e.g. on the web, or in an electronic porfolio), so I'd have to make a choice (and that choice would be the research-oriented c.v., since that's the direction I'd prefer to go.

Flavia said...


Oh, I'm not saying those are *faults*, just that they're entirely unnecessary.

The point of this post isn't to freak anyone out by suggesting that someone somewhere might be rubbed a bit the wrong way by something you did for a good reason (because of what *isn't* that the case?), but the opposite: to assert that it's the big picture that matters more than minor awkwardnesses or infelicities.

Susan said...

I think your guidance of 20 minutes on the department website is about right. Enough time that you are not entirely clueless, in any case. That avoids obvious factual errors - when someone raves about our library, I cringe. Knowing course numbers is cool, but I'd be more. Impressed if you paid attention to any idiosyncrasies of our program. So someone who comments on whatever might be unusual gets brownie points.

I also think the ties to the region bit is *very* tricky. We had a job candidate tell us the hir spouse taught at the place 25 miles up the road, and it felt a bit creepy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post Flavia! It is quite helpful.

scr said...

Working in the tech industry, where we've been hearing nonstop for the past couple of years that we don't hire enough women or minorities (sorry, enough of the RIGHT kind of minorities; I guess we hire enough of the WRONG kind of minorities?), the line "I've read a few catastrophically bad letters from people who genuinely didn't know the conventions of the genre" really caught me out.

I think the reason is that we keep hearing that looking for the "right kind of people" is code for "25 year old white males who went to a top-tier technically-oriented university", and we should instead challenge our assumptions and look for hidden gems with unconventional backgrounds. In other words, the importance of not relying too much on signals of already belonging to the club, in order to hire a more diverse staff.

Of course, I realize that a letter could be bad *in addition* to not understanding the conventions of the genre. And, more importantly, while the coded implication of looking for the "right kind of person" might be somewhat taboo in hiring, this doesn't mean that a candidate doesn't want to do everything they can to appear to be that same "right kind of person" if they want to get that job.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

What would you do with a letter like the one I wrote to Columbia a while back?

Flavia said...


Do you want an honest answer to that question?


I think we're not talking about the same thing. The academic job letter is a very particular document, usually two full pages in length, following an established format. Usually, in my field, there's a short intro, two meaty paragraphs about research and publications, two meaty paragraphs about teaching (and maybe something about service, particularly for people who are already in tenure-line jobs), and then a short standard closing.

So when I talk about someone not knowing the conventions, I'm talking about someone writing a two-paragraph cover letter, or writing in a weirdly jocular tone, or something that's REALLY outside the professional norms. Ph.D. students get their letters reviewed by job placement officers and are given model letters as templates, so it's unlikely that someone who got their Ph.D in the last two decades in a relevant field wouldn't have access to that knowledge. (And a Ph.D. In X or Y field is always specified as a requirement.)

Incidentally--and this may speak to a different candidate fear--I've reviewed lettered from multiple candidates from the same institution who were clearly working from the same template (A LOT of the framing language was identical), but though that's not ideal, I focused on what was unique to each candidate and certainly didn't penalize the applicants for using a workable outline.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Of course I do!

Full disclosure - I did not apply, and if I did, I wouldn't send this letter. But I'm interested in what you'd do with a letter that is betting on the search committee having a sense of humor.

Flavia said...


In the context of a search, a committee would throw out a letter like that immediately. It's not about not having a sense of humor. It's about the applicant not submitting the required materials and demonstrating an understanding of professional norms.

See my sentence about how when you're asked for a sonnet, you will not be rewarded for your exciting new verse form. (And for a more familiar analogue, consider how most of us feel when a student decides to submit a paper totally unlike the one described on the assignment sheet.)

A candidate could, I think, address a lot of the issues you raise in your blog post within the understood conventions of the traditional job letter.

Susan said...

I think, to pick up on something that Bardiac said, some understanding or acknowledgement of our student population is really helpful. I worry a lot when I read a letter from an Ivy Ph.D. who doesn't quite seem to have any sense of different institutions and the challenges of different populations.

Earnest English said...

I work at a very specialized institution and have been on a two search c'tees, one as chair. Because we are so specialized, we really look for letters that speak to our specific institution. Even while we do realize that applicants are busy, still we've thrown letters out because they focused on things that might be appropriate in other contexts but are inappropriate for us. (Like talking about grad classes in fields we don't even teach. We name things differently here and don't have a grad program.) Yes, 20 minutes on the website and department page should suffice for guiding an applicant about the kind of institution we are (we don't hide who we are!), but we see many letters that show no evidence of knowing anything other than our name. We do keep in mind that applicants are busy, but if they are too busy to check out what kind of institution we are and what the situation is, it's hard to believe they are 1) going to be happy here because of its unique challenges; 2) going to be a good colleague. So I worry a bit about the generic letter issue especially as it keeps people from doing the most important thing, which is: speaking to the language of the ad! Those position announcements often are paid by the word, so there's not one thing we write in there that is extra or boilerplate or smart to ignore. Yet applicants do all the time. And I think it's because of this "norm" of having a generic letter, as if the generic letter trumps the specific ad. It doesn't. Please speak to the ad and all its requirements. In the field I'm in and usually on search c'tees for, I regularly make the argument that if they can't speak to the ad, they don't belong here teaching our students. And in my field, that's a compelling argument.

Earnest English said...

I mean that one often has to pay by the word for position announcements (or at least for extra beyond a specific word count), so every word has been considered and thought about.

Anonymous said...

When applying to top ranked Catholic colleges and universities, DO NOT mention your religious affiliation or preference. Just don't.

Flavia said...


Yes to what you said about the job ad--except at my institution, at least, there's often weird language or rewording insisted on by HR that might be puzzling to a candidate! Still, the essential stuff about teaching and research expectations, primary and secondary fields, and the level of the hire should be clear.

On a related note, I'm happy that many more schools these days are clearer about the exact level of the hire and what is and isn't possible. E.g., for jobs listed as assistant professor: "Qualified candidates with tenure are encouraged to apply, but the hire will be made at the assistant level"; "this is an entry-level assistant professorship"; "for exceptional candidates there is the possibility of hiring at associate."

winterbourne said...

The commenter above who is recommending not to disclose religious identity when applying to Catholic schools is giving bad advice. I teach at the University of Notre Dame, which certainly is a "top ranked Catholic university" and our statutes require us to strive for a faculty body that is at least 50% Catholic. Indicating that you're Catholic won't get you hired by itself (we mostly maintain the quota through so-called "mission hires" at the senior level), but it will certainly help you get a second look by the search committee.

As far as tailoring applications is concerned, I'm actually of slightly different opinion than Flavia. Given how much you will have riding on these applications, is it really that much to ask to carefully study the universities' web sites? The trick, in my opinion, is to tailor to an institution, not to a department. If my (fortunately limited) experience on the job market is any guide, SLACs especially love it when your letters show that you understand they each have a specific identity.

winterbourne said...

Just to clarify my off-the-cuff remarks above: I didn't mean to imply that identifying as Catholic is a good idea at EVERY Catholic institution - in fact, it probably really IS a bad idea at some. But no two Catholic schools are alike, which is all the more reason to - wait for it - tailor your letter accordingly. Learning which (if any) religious order runs a school is a good starting point.

prof wino said...

I think this is generally excellent advice, and I will direct my students to read the post and the comments -- anything that helps make the process a bit more transparent is good, even if there is some disagreement.

But on the CV: I would recommend the model Cassandra uses: make a clear and readable CV and then adjust the order. I've chaired several searches, and I tend to read the CV first, for basic qualifications. If the search is for a specific admin-oriented job (like a WPA or Writing Center director), put your admin experience first; if for a teaching-oriented job, put teaching first; otherwise (for research or unspecified), putting research first is the general standard.

Thanks for this post!