Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dream A Little Dream Of Me: Six Easy Steps to Writing a Great Job Letter

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.


Anonymous said...

Great advice. I would add that if there are multiple searches at the same institution, don't write one blanket letter for all of them! [true story, saw this more than once the last time we had three searches going on in the department -- even though they were three different time periods and geographic regions).
Tailor your letter to a specific job.

clio's disciple said...

This is great, and I shall keep it handy as a reference. A question however: you mention sending a writing sample in the first paragraph. Not all committees request one at first. Do you advocate sending one anyway?

Tenured Radical said...

No, I do not recommend sending it until they ask for it. It's best to follow directions: some committees follow the sane practice of not asking for scholarship until they have decided you are actually the kind of scholar they are thinking about.


AcadeMama said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for delivering, once again, sound advice for those of us hitting the market this fall! Fortunately, most of what you mention here has been echoed by both my advisor and the placement director in my program (also one of my committee members).

I do have one question: How does one attempt to sound like an exciting, interesting, Smartypants Breathtaking student without crossing into the realm of boasting?

Tenured Radical said...


Honestly, just name-dropping, to wit: "My dissertation, Looking at Your Underwear: the Geneology of Delicate Things, was directed by Professor Breathtaking. In addition to Breathtaking, you will receive letters of recommendation from Professors Cheese Burger and Cafay Olay."


Ahistoricality said...

Though this template contains excellent advice, it's a bit rigid. Specifically, I highly recommend putting the teaching component first when applying to heavily teaching-oriented jobs. I actually have two different versions of my standard letter: one with a longer research section, and one with a longer teaching presentation. Which one I use and which order they appear depends on the nature of the job as described.

davidjhemmer said...

I disagree with one thing, I think it certainly is the hiring institution's business why you are leaving a tenure track position after two years. You should have a good answer ready for this question, and "none of your business" is not going to cut it! There are many good reasons why you may be doing it, but giving a bad answer to this question can doom you.

Dr. Virago said...

After beginning your post, TR, I decided to pull up my old job letter (or one version of it) and compare it with what you said, point for point. And lo and behold, I pretty much did exactly what you advise (with a few minor exceptions here and there) and, for the record, I got 13 interviews at MLA.

One thing I would add: if you're applying to a teaching-oriented school, you might think about switching the order of the research and teaching paragraphs. Or discuss your research briefly and teaching in more detail, perhaps two paragraphs.

Anonymous said...

May I add one more thing? Please be sure that you're actually qualified for the job you're applying for! I can't tell you how many letters of application I've read from fine young scholars who have neither the training nor the fields of expertise specifically listed in the job advertisement.

Please, please, please: don't apply for a public history job if you're not trained in public history. Don't apply for a job in military history if you're not a military historian. And don't apply for a women's history job if you're not trained in and writing about women's & gender history. Just because the job also specifies a time or place in history that your work is in doesn't mean that the search committee will be fooled into thinking that you're actually a public/military/women's historian when you are not, and it's highly unlikely that they'll decide that you're so absolutely brilliant that they'll cast aside their carefully crafted job description so that they can hire you.

It's nothing personal--just please read the job ad carefully, and respond specifically to each and every qualification it lists.

Tenured Radical said...

Virago and ahistoricality: switching the teaching and scholarship may be a good strategy, and I bow to your more recent experience in this regard. On the other hand, knitting clio has been putting up comments on several posts that suggest this isn't a fail-safe assumption. Some schools, like hers, where you would assume because of the heavy teaching load that scholarship was less important, are suffering from what she calls "mission creep" great scholarship *and* eight courses a year for a good tenure case. And I would also say there are many heavy teaching schools that are full of people who are as prominent in their fields as knitting clio is in hers. So it's tricky. Candidates might want to get inside info if possible, school by school, when going outside the SLAC/R-1 bubble.

And right-wing prof: my point was, don't volunteer it in the letter. It isn't relevant at that stage, and it's over sharing. You might want to volunteer it at a later stage to put paid to the questions committee members might have, but asking may tread on tricky legal ground. Someone may be switching institutions because of a marital relationship, for example -- well, committees aren't allowed to ask whether you are married and/or pregnant, whether you are gay or straight, whether you are divorcing -- so asking about why a person is switching jobs is borderline, in my playbook, because it puts the candidate in the position of "volunteering" information that the committee is otherwise not legally permitted to ask.


GayProf said...

I don't have any personal experience at SLAC's, but the general word on the street is that research is still what gets you the job. You might have to demonstrate more ability in the classroom as well, but it is the research project that makes you seem different from the 124 other applicants in the pile who teach well, receive good evaluations, and have snappy course descriptions. Obviously, though, I would like to hear more about this from people who have served on/chaired recent search committees at SLACs.

Paris said...

Most of my job letter follows that model but I believe that you just fixed my First Paragraph Problem. I have not been happy with it and I think your suggestions exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!

davidjhemmer said...

All those things you say are illegal to ask the job candidate are the questions the spouses of the faculty are supposed to ask the job candidate socially over dinner! Perfectly legal but quite annoying.

Anonymous said...

This is great advice. You are helping candidates to understand that an academic job letter in the humanities is a genre, and as with any writing that belongs to a genre, it works best when it can fulfill basic, structural generic criteria in order to make the individual qualities of the writer's scholarly project legible and (paradoxically) original to readers.

I will only add -- as someone who has served on a number of hiring committees in English -- that there are a couple of things that people do in letters to make themselves original and fresh that should be avoided at all costs.

The first is a small matter, but it will get a candidate knocked out of the competition right away. Do not use colored paper or a cutesy font for any part of your job materials. Don't take letter writing advice from a "how to write a cover letter" book that tells you to give random information, or even put things in embedded text boxes. Yes, I've seen these letters. Yes, it does make you stand out in a crowd. But not in the way you hope. I still remember your names. But not in the way you hope.

The second piece of advice is more important. Do not give basic, factual information in your letter if you have not given it to your committee. What you say in your letter should be known to your committee, because if you look fabulous enough so that we want to dream about you in technicolor by asking for your letters of recommendation, your committee should all agree on the title of your dissertation, and on how much is done. Not vaguely agree. Really agree. Pay attention to TR when she says to share your letter with your committee.

Unknown said...

As someone who has been on many a job search committee, I say great advice! I differ only about folks returning to the market. Readers do want to know why you're leaving an institution. In one line, say (even if you have to fib a bit)something positive about your current institution, then explain that you hope to relocate for more research opportunities or for more diverse teaching opportunities or for geographical reasons. The brief explanation will benefit you, especially when backed up by a recommender's letter. Search committees are wary of taking on someone else's problem faculty member. Show them that's not you.

Lisa Dunick said...

Thanks for the great advice! Keep it coming-- those of us going to market this year need all we can get.

Tenured Radical said...


if you put it that way....okay, that does not seem like over sharing. I would certainly say that if you have something real to say that you don't *mind* saying when you want to relocate, go for it. But I would add two caveats. For applicants, your story had better be more than close to the truth, or not veiling a different, more difficult truth, since people have friends at other institutions, and a quick call elicits more information than the candidate may want them to have. For search committees, you do wish to ask discreetly if there seems to be a fish somewhere, but also know that your "friends" elsewhere will be more than happy to offload a problem (and we should construe this category broadly, since one person's problem colleague can easily be another person's catch) on another institution. To be brutally frank, people lie -- or to be charitable, they get vague about certain things like sexual harassment or other forms of abusive behavior.

When I apply for jobs I ask for confidentiality: if they can't give me that, I withdraw, because even though I can't lose my job, I don't want constant gossip about me leaving Zenith when it would actually take the right offer from the right people for me to do that. Not to mention enemies getting their jollies when I don't get a job. I also say that if they are serious about my application then my candidacy is no longer confidential -- because at that point, particularly with a tenured person, of course they want to know more.


davidjhemmer said...

How do you "ask for confidentiality" when you apply for jobs? In departments I have been in, even when there is a "hiring committee," the entire department has access to the files. In fact thanks to a fabulous website called mathjobs.org, we can access the folders online. It's pretty hard to get an entire department to promise confidentiality! I think it's safest to assume when you go on the job market that the word is going to get back to some of your colleagues.

Anonymous said...

To what extent can this advice be applied to a personal statement in a graduate school application?

Anonymous said...

I should suggest linking to this in our next position announcement. I was amazed at the poor quality of many of the cover letters I read during our last search!

Tenured Radical said...

Right-wing: Ah, there's the rub -- you can *ask* for confidentiality, but you can't guarantee that you will get it, and one has to be prepared for that. I say something like: "please keep my application confidential unless you decide to activate it." That means, if I'm not in the mix, try not to gossip to my colleagues; if I am, and talking to people I work with helps you decide whether to interview me, that counts as "activating." I also have a recommendation from a colleague, and I tell him to send it when I apply for something. So that should allay initial questions as to my sanity and good behavior, although further ones would have to be asked.

student: applications to graduate school are a different genre, I'm afraid, but if you write my g-mail and remind me, I'll take it on in another post.


Jarrod Hayes said...

This is fantastic. AS a graduate student heading into my final year, this is exactly what I need to know. I am so glad I happened upon your blog. Any chance you'll address the issue of interest/teaching statement?

Anonymous said...

I'll go one step further than Historiann: especially when applying to public institutions, make sure that you address all of the required qualifications listed in an ad and all the ones you can for preferred qualifications. If possible to do elegantly, do it in the order in which the qualifications are listed, because there are plenty of public institutions (including mine) where the first step in reviewing applications is literally a checkoff that eliminates applicants who don't meet the required qualifications.

I think Lisa is right, and generally I think it's possible to explain the application in terms of opportunities at the target institution, letting the search committee read between the lines about the current job. After all, a job applicant may well be asked the question informally on a campus interview, and it's better to think this out in advance and figure out a way to make it a strength.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for some very good advice, it is much appreciated by those of us entering the job market.

I wanted to follow up on Jarrod's question, and ask something which may seem quite basic. Does the cover letter count as the statement of interest? Also, do you have a recommended limit to the length of the letter (sorry if I missed that above)?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Regarding confidentiality, how would a statement like this be: "At this early stage, I am keeping my search confidential. Should the search committee select me as a finalist for the position, I will be happy to provide contact information for my department chair."

I can't tell if that crosses the line between professional and arrogant. Any opinions?

Anonymous said...

TR might just be one of the most intelligent people in the whole wide world!

Anonymous said...

As an ABD Ph.D. candidate about to go on the market, I want to thank you soooooo much for this... the information (and subsequent comments) will be invaluable...

JackDanielsBlack said...

Any reactions to Palin's speech last night? Also, does anybody besides me think that she is a feminist -- albeit of the blue-collar ("Hey, Joe, throw me some more ammo -- I see a moose!") rather than the academic variety? When all is said and done, she has actually accomplished a lot -- and seems to have the potential to accomplish a lot more.

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