Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cover Letters : The Contest

A few years ago, we here at FSP started a tradition of having a contest of sorts in December, just in time for the break. Each contest has had a theme involving some type of Academic Writing:

in December 2008, The Statement of Purpose;

in 2009, Letters of Reference; and

in 2010, Why I Missed the Final Exam.

In 2011, the selected topic is The Cover Letter (CL).

That is, the cover letter that is written as part of an application for an academic job such as a faculty position or a postdoc. The purpose of these letters may vary in different fields, but I am thinking of the kind that accompanies an application that also consists of a CV and a research (± teaching) statement. In this case, the Cover Letter is not the main vehicle for transmitting information about yourself to those who will be evaluating you. It is just what its name implies: a cover letter that indicates your intention to apply for something and that might introduce your most salient features.

That sounds simple, but these things can be difficult to write. What to write? How much to write? What tone to use?: humble? aggressively confident? terse? enthusiastic? Are these letters important because they are the first impression you make to some decision-makers? Does anyone even read these things?

There are many possible approaches to the CL. Anyone who has served on a search committee has likely seen variations ranging from the minimalist ("Here's my application") to the epic (many pages on the topic of Why I Am Awesome, much of which is repeated in the body of the application).

And yet, as with contests in previous years in which readers have submitted their versions of certain types of Academic Writing, I have selected the Cover Letter because there are certain elements that tend to appear in these types of letters.

The goal, therefore, is to capture the essence of the Classic Cover Letter, or at least to entertain and/or horrify us all. Parody -- gentle or savage, subtle or pernicious -- is encouraged. The goal is not to cause undue anxiety to those who are in the process of writing such letters or who recently sent off some applications with possible (?!) flawed CLs, but we recognize that such unintended side effects may occur.

Entries can be sent to femalescienceprofessor@gmail.com, and will be reviewed by the FSP Editorial Board. I will be traveling quite a lot in late December - early January, but will post the entries and results as internet access permits.

Entries will be accepted until the position is filled. Review of entries will begin Friday, 23 December, 2011.


Alex said...

I remember sending in a perfectly decent cover letter, outlining all of the elements of the school that I thought would be a good match for my research interests....except I cut and paste from a letter to another school, and accidentally put in the wrong school name.

I didn't get an interview there, but the school whose name I erroneously pasted in wound up hiring me.

I'm told that one of our alumni applied for a position here, and confirmed all of our worst gripes about our students by submitting an incomplete application.

quasihumanist said...

While idly starting to sketch out my entry, I started to want to know about the ad my letter should address, and subsequently realized that next year's contest should be for academic job advertisements.

Female Science Professor said...

Someone has also suggested that, like last year, there be some real examples interspersed with the made-up ones. This is fine with me as long as the real ones are submitted by the people who wrote them. I am interested in poking fun at Cover Letters, but not in ridiculing unsuspecting individuals.

Anonymous said...

I would like to enter the competition for "most arrogant applicant," even though I did not send any cover letters. To find a postdoc, I tried something different. I was giving a talk at a major conference in my field, and at the end of the talk, I added a cheesy pop-up balloon advertisement and said, in typical used-car-salesman style, that I was looking for a postdoc job. Everyone laughed, and in the years since, I've had multiple people come up to me remembering my stunt and asking how it fared. I'm sure some thought it was inappropriate, but I did get 7 job offers from it, one of which I accepted.