Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Guest Post: Cover Letter Hell

Presenting ... The Epistemologizer. -- PGOAT

Writing cover letters is giving me panic attacks. I'm trying to get input from a number of different professors, so it's not just my committee telling me "Yes, your letters look good. Now get back to writing your dissertation." Perhaps predictably, the advice I've been getting from the different professors I've shown my letters to is all over the map. So far I've received, on the one hand, a multiple pages-long response giving me paragraph-by-paragraph suggestions. On the other, a six-line email saying that you can never really help yourself by saying things in the letter, really you can only harm yourself, so in that respect the less said the better. What does one DO with a response like that?

Then there's the conversation I had with another professor today, in which he said: "Well essentially this has been rehashed already for the past decade by plenty of people, so what makes your dissertation project new and important? How is it different from what X said in 1996?" I think my mouth was open, but no sounds were coming out. Not a good sign. (Mental note: start prepping for job interviews so I can actually answer that question should anyone decide to interview me after reading whatever becomes of this cover letter.) So not only do I not feel so great about the state of my cover letters, but now thanks to my efforts at trying to improve first impressions, I've been thrown into a crisis of self-doubt that my project is at all worthwhile or philosophically significant, so should I even make it through the first round by some miracle, I'll blow it once I get to the interview stage for lack of being able to answer very basic questions like the one just cited. Did I mention that I've only written 12 pages of my third chapter? There are four chapters of my dissertation, so really I haven't even written (and therefore have no idea what will be in) the end yet. Come to think of it, my committee might be onto something.

-- The Epistemologizer


Anonymous said...

Not to be a downer, but I can tell you that at least one placement director (the one at my institution, who has an outstanding track record getting grads into jobs) would say that you're wasting your time. Twelve pages into a third chapter, with no confidence about the details of the fourth and final one?

Save yourself some money on postage and apply next year.

Anonymous said...

Dude, you are seriously overreacting. The only person I got feedback on my cover letter from was the Placement Chair (not a single committee member). And that person only gave a few sentences of suggestions (though they did give some tips beforehand to help structure it).

And not done writing the main ideas of your dissertation? Join the club!

Anonymous said...

there's nothing to do about the conflicting advice.

My only concern with writing minimalist cover letter is that you only have so many opportunities to get your foot in the door. If your letter is so long people won't look at it, it doesn't help you. But it seems like while a minimalist letter does not hurt you, it doesn't create a good impression either.

All that is to say, the standard of success with all of this is whether the person reading you app likes and it and there doesn't seem to be a particularly good way to establish that in advance.

Anonymous said...

"philosophically significant"!!!!

If you're worried about that, you are delusional. What percent of the output of academic philosophes, do you suppose, is "philosophically significant"?

Anonymous said...

Epistemologizing... but isn't that just wanking about Gettier Problems?

Anonymous said...

This doesn't address the issue of the cover letter, but the issue raised at the end of the post. The placement director at my school says that a sine qua non of going on the market is being able to say what you do in the diss. that philosophers up to this point have not. He refers to it as "your trick", but that has pejorative connotations that he does not intend (there is no meant to be anything deceptive or unreal about one's dissertation trick). So it is crucial to be able to answer questions of the sort your prof. asked. Did you you know about what X said in 1996? If so, surely you've had some thought about why what you're doing is different. If not, then start figuring it out. It could be that you arrive at the same conclusion, but your way of getting there is importantly different (that is true of my thesis). Or it could be that you're not really doing the same thing. Or that you're spelling out in a far more detailed way the suggestion made in 1996. Just some suggestions.

Anonymous said...

I think your committee is on to something, but every probably goes on the market too early.

The whole cover letter thing frustrates me. I've been told everything from, "All a cover letter should do is officially say you're applying for the position and how you meet the specific criteria for the advertisement, if there are any," to "Spend two-three paragraph on your dissertation, your research, your teaching". I've heard more people incline toward the austere version than the robust version, the latter being more common in Literature & Critical Studies fields. But everyone hears different crap everywhere.

Anonymous said...

A sixth year writes: If I may be so bold, why are you going on the market now, as opposed to next year? Won't your letters, which only reflect the letter writers' impressions of your first two chapters, be mediocre? Did your department say it won't fund you next year? Or is it that you are going on the market this year as a test, or to force you to write your dissertation, so that you'll be a better candidate next year (with letters and dissertation already written)? What is your rationale for going on this year instead of next?

philo said...

Thanks for the post, Epistemologizer. Dealing with crises of confidence would seem to be a major part of surviving the job search process. It is hard to write confidently about your accomplishments when that confidence gets sapped.

I want to write cover letters in a way that takes into consideration both the occasion and the intended audience, but ultimately, I think it is just really hard to anticipate what this audience might be like.

In any event, I tend to be rather skeptical about cover letter advice. The interviews I got last year were with institutions to which I had written not very carefully crafted cover letters; other letters that I had slaved over came to naught. That's not to say this year will turn out the same. The letter I'm slaving over today may do the trick. Or not.

Anonymous said...

Here is the advice I have received:

For R1 schools, the cover letter means sweet fuck all. Your CV, rec letters, and writing sample do all the talking, so anything beyond the basics can only hurt you.

In all other cases, the cover letter is a way for you to address your potential status as a flight-risk ("I promise I'll stay at BFU 4Eva."), the geographic location ("I love 18th century barn country."), how any particular elements of the program make you the perfect match ("Motherfucker, my middle name is Interdisciplinary."), and how teaching gives you a huge philosophy boner ("Of course I would rather teach than do research. Duh!").

Bad idea to mention specific faculty members ("I just adore Joe Blow's work on X.") because for all you know, they may have just fired Dr. Blow for diddling the Dean's poodle or they simply think Dr. Blow is a schmuck.

Hope this helps.

Midi said...

I have a TT job that I love from last year's job search (I had two TT job offers -- one which was a 3/3 -- and I'm not from a Lieterific institution; far from it). I believe that all things being equal, great cover letters have two things in common:

1) they are VERY specific to the job that you are applying for. Although there is a general disparaging attitude expressed on this website regarding many if not most jobs (elitist?) the fact is is that schools want to know that you're a fit. This can only be accomplished by having some knowledge about the place to which you are applying and tailoring each letter to show that you are a good fit.

2) Each thing that you say in the letter should point the quick reader to why you're a stand-out. This will be to both point out your accomplishments and link your interests/experience to the interests of the particular school that is reviewing your dossier. Of course, '1)' in its fullest form is a pipe-dream; you may not have enough time to tailor make every letter, but the close you come to this idea, the better. Good luck to all this year!

Anonymous said...

I want to write cover letters in a way that takes into consideration both the occasion and the intended audience, but ultimately, I think it is just really hard to anticipate what this audience might be like.

The audience is YOU, 1-50 years older. Just think about what you'd want applications to look like if you had to read a huge stack of them: you'd want not to have to waste too much time, you'd want the person's good points and all the relevant info to be in an easy-to-find format, and you'd want to be woken up.

Speaking of being woken up: The way to get someone to start reading your writing sample is to have an exciting dissertation summary. The way to get someone to finish reading your writing sample is to have an exciting first couple pages.

search committee member said...

i'm on a search committee this year, as i was last year. i like long letters that specifically address our ad. i don't know you from eve or adam, i don't know your aos (that's why we're hiring in that aos), so i need you to be very, very descriptive.

short cover letters reflect very, very badly on applicants at my school.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:53 made my day.

"Motherfucker, my middle name is Interdisciplinary."

I think I shat in my pants.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, sure, but I've had SC members from other departments say they like short letters. It only takes a sentence to say what your AOS is. Damned if you do; damned if you don't It's all a crapshoot. Choose to do A or not-A and you offend some SC member somewhere no matter what.

veteran said...

See, this is the problem: there are no norms, and any counsel you receive will be only partially applicable. Perhaps it is best to go with the advice at 10.53.

I always skip the cover letter when I pick up a file, and my own (which got me more than one job offer) was two sentences long. But I don't understand the idea that your cover letter should show that you fit well, and be informative about your work. Surely that is what the rest of the dossier is for?

That being said, I did put a dissertation abstract in my file. That is something that a typical search committee will want, and some people include that in the cover letter. I sometimes find myself going back to the cover letter looking for that information.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of hijacking a worthwhile thread (or, if not hijacking, at least interfering with)...

Did anyone see this ad in the Chronicle today?



Anonymous said...

I was on the market last year from a non-Leiterrific school and recieved two job offers. I think the key to good letters is to show that you read the JFP ad and that you are actually a good fit for the position. This usually means: showing how you're already working in the AOS or already teaching courses in the AOCs. It also means you know the difference between a small liberal arts college and a research instuition and the difference between a public university, a secular private university, and a religious private university.

Those were the three issues I addressed in most of my cover letters.... Plus anything else unusual they request (like interdisciplinary interests). But, the most important thing about a cover letter is to say all these things while AVOIDING anything that might annoy anyone on the committee.

mr zero said...


If you're for real, I wish you'd say what school so I'll know to send you a nice cover letter.

Also, give me a fucking break. I'm applying for just under 70 jobs this first round. If I spend even 15 minutes per letter, I'll end up spending almost 18 hours just on cover letters. That's crazy, especially since most people don't give two shits about cover letters, so almost all that time would be wasted. Why don't you just read my CV, writing sample, research and teaching statements, etc, instead? I think you could get just as much information from that stuff as you could from a well-crafted cover letter.

Anonymous said...

I am a search committee member this year (from an above average LAC). The last thing I want is a long letter addressing our position specifically. To my mind, however, the lesson is this: there is just no guiding principle here. Search committees are constructed in a way that makes useless attempts to cut through the random collection of preferences.

My advice: The only thing you have control over is ensuring that the essay is extremely well written.

Asstro said...

I think I agree with Search Committee Member above. I prefer longer cover letters, though many of my senior colleagues strongly disagree with me. I'm junior faculty at a mid-level Leiter-ranked institution and have only been on a few search committees so far in my career. I may change my mind later, once I'm a search-committee veteran, but so far I've always felt that I learn something from a well-written and well-reasoned cover letter. Here's why.

I try to be as fair to candidates as possible, which means that I want to know why they're distinct from other candidates. Those SC members who rely solely on the CV, the letters, and the writing sample are, in a way, not evaluating on a level field. Sure, the writing sample is usually helpful for gauging philosophical sophistication, but even the best reader of philosophy cannot help but be influenced by letters and doctoral institution as well (if only because they know that when they take their list to their full faculty, they will have to justify their selection of candidates to grumpy elitists). For applicants without superstar advisors and/or from non-Leiterrific institutions, no indication of distinction can be crippling. The cover letter offers an opportunity for applicants to tell me why they deserve a shot at my time -- and why, in particular, I should feel justified taking their case to my full faculty.

Since so many of my colleagues disagree with me and prefer short letters, I think the safe bet is to be concise and short. If you have something to say relevant to the school, mention it. If you don't, don't. Ideally, stick to distinguishing yourself from others and not to ingratiating yourself or filling space.

At the same time, recognize this: if you _do_ get an interview, you will certainly have your cover letter read by the interviewing committee much more closely immediately prior to your APA interview. In particular, if you're being interviewed for a job at a less research-intensive University, the cover letter is really an opportunity to prime discussion around the table.

Anonymous said...

Search Committee Member: Thanks for your post. I generally write longer (1.75 pages) cover letters personalized to each school. But:

1) If I can't figure out what a department's looking for, I write less. For example, if their ad is very brief, their website doesn't have faculty bios, maybe they don't even have a dept website, just a page that the administration wrote targeting undergraduate majors.

2) If a school asks for a statement of teaching philosophy and a statement of research interests, I'm inclined not to include shorter versions of those in the cover letter.

Your thoughts? Thanks

Anonymous said...

Dear "Search Committee Member",

Do you think your preference of that sort of letter is a function of the sort of school you are at? Or not?

Anonymous said...

The key to cover letters is simple (but hard work): show that you read that ad, understood the ad, and are a good fit for the position. Show that you fit the AOS/AOC and understand the kind of school you are applying to. It isn't rocket science, its just time consuming.

Anonymous said...

Meh, all my cover letters were extremely short and not tailored at all to particular schools and I only had one chapter of my dissertation written (~27 pages) and I got a TT job. Don't be such a pansy. Whether or not your shit is any good is going to do most of the work.

Anonymous said...

Question for Search Committee member: What is a "short" cover letter? Less than one full page? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I have experience on search committees as well, including this year. That kind of vague information is not helpful in contextualizing cover letter advice.

My department is research oriented and most seriously considers job candidates from roughly top-30 programs. For us, long cover letters, unless there are special circumstances to explain, are unnecessary at best. In the absence of such circumstances, long letters tend to reek of desperation or cluelessness.

Why should candidates spend the time writing a long letter geared specifically to our job/department? The odds of getting the job or even an interview are, as in general, low. We have a very good, not a great, department/university in a desirable location. Since this is obvious, candidates do not need to prove their interest.

You, as a candidate, surely have better things to do than write a long cover letter. We have better things to do than read it.

My main point is that such advice is likely to generalize across research-oriented departments. In fact, I would wager that the greater the expectations about cover letters, the less desirable or more idiosyncratic the job/department.

There isn't much gaming the system, though there are pitfalls to avoid. A lot of the strategizing that job candidates worry about is a waste of energy.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the advice that at a larger more research centered depeartment the cover letter usualy means basically nothing.

At smaller schools it can mean a lot, not always but it can. I know that one on-campus interview last year was aided quite a bit by my cover letter. Should it have been? Probably not, cover letters are arguably a bad way to make decisions. But the process isn't rational, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that a cover letter can make a signifigant difference.

If you really want the job (at a smaller school) then spend considerable extra time on the cover letter. You can't do this for every job, there just isn't enough time. So put together about 4-6 cover letter templates, reflecting different types of schools. And adjust as you have time to do so.

Anonymous said...

If you really want the job (at a smaller school) then spend considerable extra time on the cover letter. You can't do this for every job, there just isn't enough time.

It seems to me that this is exactly why a search committee (especially at a small, not-so-prestigious teaching institution) might prefer a detailed letter: it's evidence that the applicant really does want to teach here. Now, that can't possibly be the only important factor to take into consideration, but given that lots of us probably have roughly equal qualifications, it might be an enormously helpful tiebreaker.

Anonymous said...

I'm on the TT at a SLAC, and I've served on 2 searches so far. For us, at least, the cover letter tended to be pretty important. I think at an R1, the cover letter can be unimportant because they are looking for the best philosopher, and the writing sample and letters do all of the legwork there.

But we're looking for something a little bit different--we're looking for the best *fit*. What does that mean? Obviously, it starts with being a good philosopher. But we're also looking for someone who understands what a liberal arts college is all about. We have a small department, and so you need to be willing to stretch out and teach pretty broadly. We have a 3/2, but I taught something like 10 different classes in my first 3-4 years. You have to be willing to teach all-college classes--interdisciplinary classes, team-teaching, first-year seminars, etc. You have to be willing to do a lot of advising, given that (like many small colleges) the advising runs almost entirely through departments. There's just 4 philosophers here, so you have to be genuinely interested in working with and conversing with folks across disciplines. Committee work is heavy at small places, and you need to be willing to shoulder some heavy lifting with respect to all-college governance.

So what's involved in finding the best fit for us? Rec letters and writing samples don't make much headway at all with respect to these kinds of considerations. We don't have the resources to run searches every 2-3 years, as people come in and quickly look for greener pastures--we want people who genuinely want to be at this type of place. We want people who understand what's involved at being at this type of place. Cover letters can go a long, long way towards addressing these kinds of issues.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 7:46,

I'd love to teach at a SLAC if I could only get someone to interview, not being from a leiterrific school and all. Honest.

Seriously, though, I've always suspected that SLAC SCs were looking for something like what you describe, but besides just mentioning all the things you list, what can I do to show that I would be thrilled at a SLAC? I mean, anyway can just SAY all those things you mentioned. Is that what I should do? I'll do it if you say so. I've always avoided writing such letters because it looks like pandering, but given that this is an election year, the stigma is wearing off.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 1:43,

This is Anon. 7:46 again.

Seriously, though, I've always suspected that SLAC SCs were looking for something like what you describe, but besides just mentioning all the things you list, what can I do to show that I would be thrilled at a SLAC? I mean, anyway can just SAY all those things you mentioned. Is that what I should do? I'll do it if you say so. I've always avoided writing such letters because it looks like pandering, but given that this is an election year, the stigma is wearing off.

For sure, you're right to think that a list would come across as pandering. I don't think there's any simple formula, but the best I can say is to find an angle. So, for example: the SLAC I'm at has a first-year seminar program that's billed as being "non-disciplinary," a chance to stretch out and model the kind of inquiry that the liberal arts is about. So maybe you have experience (or even just real interest) in teaching in a program like that. Write about that. Maybe you've worked closely with undergraduates in some context besides the ordinary TA-ing/teaching settings. Write about that. Maybe you've done some work with someone from another discipline. Write about that. I mean, I don't think there's any one way to do it--but it's those kinds of details that can make a SLAC SC member think, "this is the right kind of person for this kind of job."

Anonymous said...

In response to the post about this ad:


You could do a lot fucking worse. Go some googling and maybe you'll see what I mean.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with anon 9:15. Sounds like you are not ready. I would spend my time this year finishing the diss 'cause the job market takes up A LOT of psychological space. On the cover letter thing, though, my own is rather sparse. I say nothing other than what my areas of specialization, competence and interest are, and let them know what's in the package. But now you have me worried about whether my cover letters are ok. URGH! Damned job market!