Friday, October 15, 2010

Dear Search Committee

Last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there was an advice column that provided a how-to guide to writing a cover letter for applications for faculty positions. In this particular case, the focus was on 2-year colleges, institutions with which I have no direct experience. I have friends, colleagues, and former students who teach at such institutions, but have never worked at (or applied to work at) a 2-year college.

Perhaps this reflects my ignorance, but I was dismayed at some of the advice about writing cover letters. Some of it was excellent and practical -- don't emphasize your research when applying for a teaching position, do your homework about the institution, provide the most relevant information about your background etc. All of that is good.

This type of advice is what filled me with dismay:

Be sure to address the cover letter to a specific individual by name, even if no individual is named in the job ad or application instructions. Apparently, certain people, who are nameless, want candidates to seek out their identities so that the cover letter can be addressed to "Dear Ronald Zook" instead of "Dear Search Committee". If this information is not available on any webpage, applicants are supposed to make some phone calls.

Why do I hate this advice? I do not like the fact that someone on a hiring committee would really care about such a trivial issue. If you want the letter addressed to you by name, put your name somewhere prominent; don't play games. If there is an administrative reason why your name is not listed anywhere, then don't make it an issue. And why should the letter exclude the other members of the committee and be addressed only to you, the head of the committee? Does the greeting really affect your impression of a candidate? Is that reasonable? OK, maybe if the greeting is something like the e-mail we get from some of our students (e.g., Yo! Proff! or Hey!), maybe that would be unprofessional, but "Dear Search Committee" should not be a reason to start forming a negative impression of a candidate. "

Ask for an interview. I had no idea it was so easy. Actually, it seems that asking for an interview doesn't necessarily get you the interview, but not asking for one is apparently bad. How strange. I personally would find it obnoxious and pointless for someone to write in a cover letter (as advised in the column in question): "May I travel to [name the city] to discuss this position with you in person?". This would be seen as deeply strange in a cover letter to my department. Is there really such a difference between 2-year and 4-year institutions? I could be very wrong, but I would have thought that both get large numbers of applications for most positions and that this particular approach would not be fruitful. When someone applies to my institution, I assume they want the job unless there is other information that shows this is not the case.

I have saved the two weirdest ones for last:

Below your signature and printed name, type the word "Enclosures". Otherwise, the idiot search committee members may not know that you have included your CV and other application materials.

Print the letter in black ink on good-quality white or ivory paper. Paper? What is that?

I do not mean to denigrate this well-meaning writer who is seeking to help applicants, but I am bothered by the fact that some of the cover letter advice implies that hiring committees focus on minutiae and that an application can be downgraded by things that have nothing to do with the applicant's qualifications or degree of interest in the job. Applicants should not have to worry that committees are mulling over their choice of font or whether they get the greeting or sign-off words exactly right for the unknown preferences of the unknown persons who will be reading the application.

In my experience with hiring committees, it does not work that way. We look at the substance of the application, we make allowances for inexperienced applicants, and we expect there to be wide variation in the approach applicants take to their cover letter, from terse but informative to long, pleading, and repetitious.

Of course we want the cover letter to be articulate and useful, but beyond that, an applicant can go wild and use a sans serif font, sign off with "Warmest regards" instead of "Sincerely", and address us impersonally. Many (most?) of us won't notice, won't care, or will be able to deal with it without developing a deep loathing of the applicant. Just don't ask for an interview.


Anonymous said...

I am in complete agreement with you about the first point about addressing a specific person (and also all the other points). But, even though I do not at all agree with the following argument, it is very slightly more reasonable (hence only 99% unreasonable) and the one I think a lot of faculty employ when you see advice like this.

Seeing the name of a specific person in the cover letter, when that person's name was not in the ad, is a tipoff that the applicant actually researched the department before sending an application and is more likely to be a good fit and less likely to have sent a mass application (as if sending out large quantities of applications should somehow count negatively in today's job market).

I think this line of reasoning is the natural result of a search committee chair being arrogant enough to feel each candidate should have spent days pondering the greatness of the department before applying, combined with being self-pitying enough to think that having 400 applications to read is the worst misfortune that ever befell anyone and any excuse to race through the pile is acceptable.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice, FSP. My take on the article was exactly the same as yours, but as a PhD student I obviously don't have your level of experience in academia. It's really helpful to hear the voice of reason echoed by someone who genuinely knows whereof she speaks.

Anonymous said...

I worked at a (non-US) government human resource centre for a short while where we advised folks, mostly young people and new immigrants on job searching, cover letter/resume writing etc.

These tips were definitely all "standard" pieces of cover letter advice that you would find in most general "How To Write A Cover Letter" pieces of info. (Except the enclosures one, never heard that). So it is not specifc to 2 year colleges but general to any position that is receiving a huge number of applicants and those hiring are looking to weed folks out.

It may be that a 4-yr university TT position is a specialized enough position that these details become irrevelevant but they are certainly not weird IMO. (I would have hoped that something like Higher Ed would tailor it's advice to items more specific to the academic world though)

Anonymous said...

You mean those two goats I sacrificied to get a teaching job are doing me no good? Ughhh

AnthroChick said...

Writing "Enclosures" (or "Attachments" for the digital age) and listing them is actually just part of an old-fashioned business letter. I include it in my application letters - maybe it helps me more than it helps the committee (as I'm sending off a couple dozen applications, and I can't always remember which school wants which additional materials). And yes, in the social sciences, some departments do still want paper applications. (I do not buy fancy paper, though, that's just dumb.)

Tim said...

why not ask for interview? i don't understand. How is this obnoxious? You mean because then the applicant presumes he/she will be granted an interview? What if you are from Nepal or something, and you want to express being prepared to pay for your flight?

mathgirl said...

Here is a reason why in the (not so distant) past it was a good idea to have the enclosures list.

When I was applying for postdocs 6 years ago, a big number of the applications were to be mailed. In pure mathematics, it is common that postdocs in the US are university positions, so you don't apply to a particular PI, but to a department, just like a TT.

The worst part was that not all the institutions asked for the same thing. There were small variations. Some have different specifications for the research statement, others asked for additional documents, etc. And really, you can't send everything to every university, because some of them are the same document with a different title, kind of incompatible to send them all (not to mention a waste of paper).

I prepared first the envelopes and the cover letters, each of then with the enclosures list. Now, the reason why I put the enclosures list was for me to remember what kind of documents each university were asking. So, basically, I printed copies of my documents, and I then proceeded to make the packets as in an assembly line: pick envelope, check the cover letter to see what they want, get the documents in the envelope, close, continue to next envelope.

It is hard to imagine doing this nowadays, as everything is electronic and so much easier!

Anonymous said...

Well, I feel better about all my cover letters this season (close to 50 I think so far) after reading this, so thanks! I try and do my homework, make them look nice, but they are all addressed to the Search Committee, whew, that's a-ok! Well, I've had two campus and one phone interview this season so far, so it couldn't be that bad, right?

As for the "paper" comment. I would love it if no one asked for paper anymore, but I still get applications that say "electronic applications not accepted" or at least force my references to send hard copy letters. Can't we all go digital?


KateClancy said...

As I work at Illinois, I think I might actually find a cover letter that addresses Ronald Zook kind of amusing :). It might give the candidate another look!

Of course, being junior, I don't think I'll be making those kinds of decisions any time soon.

Female Science Professor said...

Actually, I don't really care if someone writes "Enclosures" (even though all our applications are electronic files), and I don't even care if they ask for an interview. I just wouldn't penalize someone who doesn't do these things. I do not see it as a sign of lack of professionalism or interest in the job if the cover letter lacks these features.

Female Genetics Professor said...

Paper applications are now just a nuisance for my department. Our search committees all operate via a university website & circulation of electronic documents. I like holding a nicely typed, old-fashioned letter, but these have to be scanned & made into pdf's. At best, a paper letter will get filed away somewhere and never actually looked at by committee members.

Nicole said...

All of ours are electronic too... and the only time we look at the cover letters at ALL is when the candidate looks stellar but we are looking for a clue as to why they could possibly be interested in us. (ex. They love their dept but the 4/4 teaching load is getting to them. They are eager to move to a place with a different kind of weather. They are from this region of the country and eager to return.)

The admin in charge may also go through them if necessary to check off that they fill the things we advertised in the ad. As this is a state school, we have to leave a paper trail about things like that. So it's a good idea to mention the classes and research specialty we mentioned in the ad.

Mom, Ph.D. said...

I agree with your concerns. However, I suspect some of the advice will simply help the applicant stand out from all the other hundreds of applicants--especially the willingness to travel to interview on their own dime. It shows you don't just consider a 2-yr college as a last resort but are actually serious about the job.

One of the dangers for anyone on the job market reading the advice is that they might also apply it to applications for 4-year colleges.

Anonymous said...

I just started reviewing files for our open faculty position and was a bit dismayed that some of the files did not include a real, signed, cover letter. We are accepting applications electronically, but it is not that difficult to make electronic letterhead and attach an electronic signature. Some of the candidates just wrote an email as their cover letter (bad idea!) and others included a letter on "blank paper" with no real signature. This won't put them out of the running, but leaves me with a generally less favorable impression of the overall application packet.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has served on over a dozen search committees in my ten years in academia, here's my take:
1. admins and secretaries are so overworked, calling them to see to whom to address a letter is a nuisance to them; address a cover letter to Search Committee if a name is not specified
2. I actually find it arrogant when a letter writer asks for an interview, as if somehow they just know exactly what we are looking for
3. enclosures, well others have covered this
My piece of advice: explain how you fit the department. If they want someone who teaches cell biology, state you can teach cell biology and if you can expound on that, all the better. If they want someone who mentors undergrads, you'd better state somewhere in there you like undergrands and not that you want a gaggle of grad students.

Ace said...

When I was reading this sort of advice, I kept hearing that bit about calling the search chair, making a personal connection,and specifically, asing your advisors/mentors to CALL their colleagues at the university "to put in a good word"...

I was applying for a position at Top University where my postdoc advisor's BFF was on the search committee. I asked if he would "put in a good word" to his BFF to help my application stand out as this is a really competitive position. He was like, erm, no... I wrote you a standout letter, he will read my letter and that will be sufficient. Once he said it, it made a lot of sense, actually and I never asked for something like that again... (Got interview, but no offer. Was not a good a fit)

I don't think it helps to bug the search committee and some of the advice I read was too aggressive. Sure you want to be polite, enthusiastic, express thanks etc, but I find a lot of the advice on how to apply for jobs to not really apply to my experience, at least in my field... Or maybe it is not my style...

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe one difference is that some institutions and people are on board with the 'universities should be more like businesses' idea, and others are not. Some will look for attention to detail (according to some particular definition of detail), and others don't think such things are good indicators of the best people to hire for a faculty position (whether it involves teaching, research, or both).

Doctor Pion said...

"May I travel to [name the city] to discuss this position with you in person?". This would be seen as deeply strange in a cover letter to my department. Is there really such a difference between 2-year and 4-year institutions?


It would be viewed as deeply strange, not to mention inappropriate, at my CC. All candidates, whether local or distant, are treated exactly the same way once the process begins. There is a point of contact for information about the position, but it may or may not be the chair of the screening committee, and phone is much preferred if you are so dim that you can't use Google to figure out what our job is about.

And I would add, "Enclosures, what is that?" All of our 'attachments' are submitted (and, I might add, reviewed) electronically these days. However, some items must be submitted as signed originals (and are then scanned) as we don't have a secure way of accepting letters of recommendation, and transcripts are transmitted in whatever format the sending university uses.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

Searching for TT for next year.

Let's my corner of academia

* About one institution in ten still expects paper applications and another couple accept them. Those are a pain, but the ones I really hate are the "go to our web site, set up an account, fill out about a jillion pages of fiddly little boxes with the information from your CV and attach miscellaneous documents". Email with attachments is best. Your cover letter become the text of the email and your mailer shows you which documents you've attached and keeps a record that you sent it.

* Ask for an interview!?! For research type departments in my field it is understood that the committee will winnow the pile to a short list and ask the winners out for an interview. The application is a request for an interview. I think I would read a specific request as a demonstration that write either didn't know the process or thought they were special. I'm more open to this idea for small schools, but I've spoken to senior people from a few and they report application piles and processes very much like the big boys.

* I do try to tailor my packet for each school---especially the cover (e)letter---and that makes each application take upwards of an hour to complete separate of time spent keeping my CV and list of publication up to date.

Dr. Lisa said...

Having been a faculty member at a community college for a decade and having been a part of several search committees, that advice is just bizarre. First of all, most community colleges are part of districts and the applications (electronic!) go directly to a central HR office. Interviews are part of a even third round, not a first round, of vetting so asking for an interview is not feasible.(HR clerk checks minimum quals - first round, search committee combs through dozens of apps - second round, a few are invited for interviews with the committee - third round, final interview with college president - fourth round) Search committee members (besides the chair) are often asked to not have direct correspondence with the applicant outside of the official process.

Just strange, strange advice.

Anonymous said...

I had heard this advice about finding out the name of the head of the search committee and tried to follow it for my applications. I contacted department administrative staff and the results of my efforts so far have been:

a) no response to my email or voicemail messages.

b) being told in a surly and exasperated manner to address it to 'Chair, Faculty Search Committee'.

c) being given a name and subsequently finding out it was the WRONG name.

So I have concluded that trying to find out the name of the search committee chair is not very worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

anon@ 10.30

I was surprised by your view on 'electronic signature', I would have never guessed the absence of it may be taken as a negative.

Younger applicants who grew up mostly communicating via emails, in which a signature is the exception and not the rule, may be unaware of this 'requirement'.

I have also seen advice to keep the letter as simple as possible so it could be easily searchable and readable by a variety of softwares...

Point is, I had no clue this was an expectation, and suspect many others may be in my position.

Is this really required?

Jon said...

I'm surprised that people expect an "electronic signature"--that means so many different things! To the IRS, it's my AGI from last year; to me, it normally means a cryptographic signature (which I suspect 99% of search committees wouldn't understand.) Are people really just scanning a signature and attaching a JPG?

Re: minutiae: I am familiar with one institution (not CC) which made the decision not to hire any interviewee who did not submit a (paper) thank-you letter within a certain timeframe after the interview.

MathTT said...

The advice I got for cover letters when on the market was:

- Keep it to a page or less. No one will read the second page; they'll just be annoyed that it's there.

- If there's a compelling reason why you're a good fit for the position, mention it.

- If there's a compelling reason why you're interested in the geographic location, mention it.

- Mention funding. Specifically, if you have any, have applied for any, or at least that you intend to.

This year is my first on the other side of the search... I'm very interested to see what we get

Anonymous said...

I'm in my last year of my first postdoc, so applying for more postdocs and (for the first time) faculty jobs, and I've been wondering who to address cover letters to. One piece of advice I received was to address them to a faculty member I know in the group doing search. But it seems kind of silly. It's a relatively small field, so I know almost everyone, and they almost all know me. If I explicitly address the letter to someone I know, it just reads weirdly -- why would I write to this person, saying things like "I'm a postdoc at [place], I work on [topics]" when we just had a long conversation at a workshop within the last month or two? The impersonal letter seems to make more sense, as I can imagine it's for anyone in the group who doesn't know me, or for the department as a whole.

AnonProf said...

I'm always amazed by the advice on cover letters. Does anyone read those things?

As far as I can tell, the only purpose of them is to make it easy for someone on the search committee to throw your application into the appropriate "bucket". Most fields have a half a dozen or a dozen or so broad specialties. At some point, someone on the search committee is going to have to fit you into one of those categories, so they can send your application to the right people for review. They might appreciate you making it easy for them to do so.

My sense is that, apart from that, the rest of the cover letter is immaterial and not worth worrying about.

AnonProf said...

I can't believe someone wrote in to say that they have a less favorable impression of academic job candidates whose cover letter is an email rather than a PDF, or whose electronic cover letter doesn't have a digitized scan of a signature.

WTF? How incredibly shallow is that? Are you in a field that has so many incredibly qualified people that you can afford to disqualify strong candidates based upon stupid immaterial trivia and personal whims? That is pretty fucked up stuff.

Maybe there is a point to the advice after all, if there are schools out there whose hiring process is so dysfunctional and lame. Then again, candidates, maybe you wouldn't work at a place that would judge you based upon such criteria. I'd encourage you to apply to my university, where we evaluate job candidates on their merits rather than on trivia -- but I guess that'd pierce my anonymity, so I won't.

I'm still gobsmacked by that comment.

Anonymous said...

As a faculty member at a community college who has served on search committees 5 out of her 7 years, I agree that the Chronicle article is hit-or-miss. Why would he emphasize the material to print on if he later discusses that it might be an electronic application? And for electronic applications sans serif fonts (such as Arial and Helvetica) are the preferred standard for reduction of eye strain due to pixel resolution.

Regarding the "ask for an interview" point though, one thing you might not have considered is that CCs generally do not have the funds to bring interviewees to campus for the first round, and often not even for the second round. As a result, some search committees I have been on have automatically thrown out any applications beyond a 3-hr drive away. We have recently started widening our searches and allowing first interviews by phone, but we still expect the applicant to come to campus for the second interview on their own dime. If someone is applying for the job and has an address across the country or an ocean, we do think twice about interviewing them, both because we're not sure if they'd be willing to foot the bill to travel, and because we're not sure if they'd be willing to relocate for "just" a community college job.

David Stern said...

If someone is applying for the job and has an address across the country or an ocean, we do think twice about interviewing them, both because we're not sure if they'd be willing to foot the bill to travel, and because we're not sure if they'd be willing to relocate for "just" a community college job.

So why not just e-mail them or phone them and tell them that you are willing to interview them but they need to pay for the trip?

Mark Kille said...

"So why not just e-mail them or phone them and tell them that you are willing to interview them but they need to pay for the trip?"

There can be concern that it makes the hiring institution look bad.

In which case, unless the candidate is stellar, the risk of bad word-of-mouth outweighs the opportunity cost of dropping them from consideration.