Last year I was in conversation with a fine scholar and a caring mentor from an excellent northeastern university. Since I have no graduate students, I expressed surprise -- given how much more emphasis is being placed on readying candidates for a tight market at institutions like hers -- that the quality of job letters in a recent search was so uneven. She rolled her eyes. "If my students would only show me the letters they write," she said. "The problem is they tend only to show their job letters to each other, and they repeat each other's mistakes."
So this is where we need to start, as you ready yourself for the job season by drafting the letter you will use as a template for your job applications. Don't write your letters in isolation, and don't get advice from other people who don't have jobs yet. The letter is what introduces you to search committee members: not your recommendations, not your vita, not your writing sample, not your teaching portfolio. And while writing a great letter won't get you the job, it needs to perform a single function well which is to get you a preliminary interview.
The letter should, in other words, say to a search committee:
"I'm fabulous. I am your fantasy hire. Dream about me"
Pay attention to the following basic principles, and you will have a good chance of writing the letter that makes you some committee's Dream Baby. Or at least, one of ten or twelve Dream Babies who will get preliminary interviews.
A good opening paragraph delivers complete and relevant information. It should answer the followng questions: What job are you applying for and where did you read about it? (Yes, there may be more than one search in the department.) In one sentence, how do you describe yourself as a scholar and what are your major and minor fields? (It's best to do that in some way that makes an immediate and logical connection to the job that is advertised and the department you are applying to, don't you think?) Then you need a sentence that describes where you are in your career. (When do you expect to/did you defend? Where are you teaching now, and on what basis? Do not tell the committee that you just lost your job; your referees will handle this for you. And do not offer any explanation for why you are leaving a tenure-track job after two years. It is none of anyone's business at this, or any other, stage.)
Then you need one sentence that describes the writing sample you have sent, and that relates it to the topic of your dissertation/manuscript. This should be written in such a way as to cause the reader to think: "Ooh! How interesting!" as opposed to, say, "How early is it okay to eat lunch?" And please note: if you have not yet defended it is a "dissertation;" if you have defended it is "my book manuscript." And if, like many recent degree holders, you are silently twittering, "I have such trouble thinking of it as a book!" please remain silent on this point throughout the process. In my fields, history and American Studies, graduate students write dissertations; people with Ph.D.s write books. People who get hired are people who can project the image, at least, that they are people who view publication of a book in the next three to six years as realistic.
The penultimate sentence should state what is included in the application that you have sent, and a final sentence that says who the committee should expect to receive letters from and which of these people is actually your current/former dissertation director. Remember, you have no parents. You are directly descended from your graduate advisor. And you are helping the search committee cultivate a lovely fantasy about -- you!!! "A Smartypants Breathtaking student!" they want to be able to say to each other, with little stars flying out of the corners of their eyes, as if Professor Breathtaking herself will be coming to the department in your body.
But to return to a more serious tone: you want to be clear about who you are and what you do. Every sentence needs to contain basic and relevant information that will cause the committee to proceed with interest in and great openness to your candidacy. You do not want committee members to keep reading after a sigh of exasperation that they are going to have to tease the information they need out of the rest of the application (some people are too lazy to do this. Sorry, but it's true.) You can certainly recapture interest, but why come from behind when you could start by throwing the long ball and scoring first? Which is all to say, writing a letter is no different from writing anything else: the opening paragraph should contain the structure and information your reader needs to understand you as you mean to be understood.
That you are fabulous.
The next two paragraphs should describe the argument of your current major work; say why it adds to the literature; and characterize the research you have done. One paragraph for the argument and its significance to the field; one paragraph for your sources and methods. This is the part of the letter that can be reproduced verbatim for any job, because this is the one thing about you that won't change. In paragraph two, you will want an opening sentence that tells me this: if the archive, data, literary tradition has been written about a lot, why are you going back to it? If, however, your research is quite new, emphasize this. Remember, particularly at small colleges, or in small or mixed discipline (say "humanities") departments at large universities, there will be people on the search committee who aren't in your field or perhaps even in your discipline, or may -- I am sorry to say -- not be very active scholars: it doesn't hurt to draw everyone a map. And don't forget to add a closing sentence that lets the reader know what has already been published from this research and where; or what is under review.
The fourth paragraph should characterize your teaching experience, and why it, and your scholarship, makes you the person they should hire for this job. Don't make the committee figure this out on its own; better yet, don't force the person on the committee who is enthusiastic about your scholarship and field have to make the case to his co-committee members that you should have made to all of them about why they should pursue your application. This paragraph is the place to say you have actually taught the Victorian Lit survey, or to say that you haven't, but you have included a syllabus that you have thought up for the occasion (this, my friends, is where the teaching portfolio can do you some good; and if you don't have a teaching portfolio, include this syllabus in your application anyway.) This is the place to say that you offer something special: that although a microbiologist, you have taught sections of Freshman Comp for the last three years and you would love the opportunity to teach young science majors at a small liberal arts college how to write; that although a historian, you have a master's degree in anthropology, and would love to teach a course in ethnohistory, or oral history methodologies.
Eliminate jargon. This is so important I wish to repeat it.
Eliminate jargon. By this, I do not mean eliminating language that is part of being a specialist, although you might take the trouble to prune it a bit so that you can demonstrate your ability to make your work accessible to the vast number of non-specialists you will work with and teach. Nor do I mean shelving the theoretical perspective, and its attendant language, that places your work in its field. But I do mean that you have to make yourself clear, and it is a sign of scholarly immaturity to not be able to express ideas in a way that most other people with Ph.D.'s will understand. Confusing people, and creating a big mystery about what your work really is, is not fabulous. If you are in a marginal field, and you use jargony language, you reinforce ignorant prejudices about the unimportance of your specialty to the larger field rather than persuading the committee that universalist paradigms, to paraphrase David Liu, need to speak to minority knowledges, and vice versa. If you are in a field that is central to the discipline, don't make that field unrecognizable to those who know it well by putting it in a fancy party dress: say clearly why your work adds to a powerful and interesting set of questions that are in circulation. Jargon doesn't make you sound smart, and it can have the opposite effect of making you seem inaccessible and unaware of how you are perceived by others, the last thing one would choose in a teacher or a colleague.
Know your audience. Before you re-draft your basic job letter, go to the website for that department and see who works there and what they teach. This should guide your choices about what you emphasize as your minor teaching fields, or a specialty course you could offer. Extra points for calling attention to the fact that you have done this homework, e.g. "An intensive seminar I would like teach on gay liberation might ideally be positioned as an upper level elective for students who have taken the Theory of Social Movements course already offered by the department." This not only marks you as a person who is aware of others (see above), but as a person who takes initiative as part of a team.
Proofread your letter. Let it sit on your desk overnight. Then have someone else proofread it. You also need to eliminate basic mistakes like: putting the wrong name in the salutation (I have seen, bizarrely, a colleague from another institution being greeted; and I have seen "Dear Professor Zenith.") If no one is named as the chair, "To the committee" is graceful (although I do not care for the laborious and outdated, "To whom it may concern"); and if someone is named, "Dear Professor Radical" will do (not "Dr. Radical"--I'm not a real doctor.) And for a variety of reasons, in this day and age I think it is wise to avoid gender completely in the salutation.
And for God's sake, proof that first paragraph! It shouldn't say you are applying to Zenith when you are actually applying to Potemkin; it shouldn't say you are applying for a job in twentieth century United States history when the job description said "post-1945 United States."
To sum up: Let the letter represent you in all your fabulousness. It is true that brilliant people write bad job letters, and people who write bad letters get jobs (a friend of mine once hired someone who sent a job letter that was not only confusing, but written on a piece of theme paper. This former job candidate -- who turned out to be Fabulous -- is also now Very Famous.) But although you can get through to the next stage with a job letter that doesn't represent you well, why leave it up to chance?
Next week: For the scholar with everything, why ask for more? Applying for a job when you already have one, and -- for the search committee -- how to evaluate a candidate pool that contains scholars with different levels of experience.