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March 20, 2015 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Oh, That’s What They’re Looking for… Job Letter Edition


A while back, I set about asking for input from faculty who serve on search committees to weigh in on their experiences and what they’re looking for when reviewing files from applicants. Between some random social media outreach and targeted invitations, I ended up with several responses, which both confirm and challenge some of my assumptions and experiences. In this post, I’m reproducing a handful of answers to my first question — what do you look for in a job letter? — and a few reflections on job letters these days.

So, from a friend at a large, public research university who has served on a few search committees over the past decade:

When reading a job letter I look for the usual things, like descriptions of the candidate’s dissertation, next project, publications, and teaching, but also something more: a quality of self-knowledge and even vision. Does the candidate have a vision for the field — what it is and should be — and clarity about how their own research and writing move it in that way? In part, this requires clarity in explaining the dissertation itself. I like to see one or two sentences that express the central finding or argument of a dissertation, as opposed to merely describing the subject matter, topic, questions, methods, approach, and so on. I also look for a concise discussion of what the work means — its larger implications. Can the candidate describe their dissertation’s core argument in a way that reflects a compelling understanding of how it fits with (or is set against) a larger configuration or trend of scholarship? Does it exemplify certain intellectual or ethical values we should all be considering?

Another thing that should go into a job letter is an abundance of care in reading the job ad. This is not my issue personally, but I have been on enough search committees to know that many colleagues treat this as extremely important, explicitly or tacitly. From the candidate’s point of view, the job in my department may be just one of many on a list to apply to, but from the committee’s perspective, it is the one and only job that we are thinking about and trying to fill. So seriousness about this job is important to demonstrate. Another reason to read the job ad carefully is that nearly every word of a job ad is carefully chosen, and the criteria stated in a job ad are reviewed by many parties and can be binding on the search committee, so they are crucial to recognize and address.

A more junior faculty member at a small, private research university responded to the same question with, “‘Spark.’ Some trace of what they are passionate about. Something that shines through the formulaic phrases that, somehow, have become normative.” Another junior colleague at a large, state research university added, “A sense of what they do and who they are in scholarly life beyond the dissertation.” Who knew that having a life beyond your dissertation was even possible?

A junior faculty member at a large, private research university suggested, “Clear articulation of an argument and contribution to existing literature, clear articulation of research program. Writing that is clear and accessible to scholars outside the immediate area of the applicant’s research.” This is especially important in departments that are mixed — like Anthropology, Sociology and Criminal Justice, or Human Development, or Cultural Studies — where you might be the only representative of your field.

A full professor at a medium sized private research university added, “A cogent account of what their dissertation project was about, what it contributes to the wider field, what their methods were (and why). A sense of where they might head next, project-wise — though perhaps more important is a sense of what they’ll do with their dissertation work (turn into a book [have they been talking with editors?]? journal articles [are any in the pipeline? out?]).”

And, finally, from a mid-career faculty member at a small, private liberal arts university,

First and foremost are qualifications and fit for the position. From there, I look to see how much effort has been made to tailor the letter to the institution and job description. I don’t mean simply that the candidate has incorporated the language of the job ad into their letter, but that, for instance, if it is a small liberal arts college, they have emphasized their commitment to undergraduate teaching, rather than simply spending the entire letter talking about their research. Brief mentions of personal reasons for being interested in the position (i.e., proximity to family and friends) don’t hurt, particularly if the institution or location is not conventionally considered desirable in its own right.

My own thoughts on job letters haven’t really changed much over the years, but these responses definitely add a few things to consider for prospective job seekers:

1) Don’t just be descriptive. When it comes to describing one’s research — especially a dissertation — it can be pretty tempting to get bogged down in the details. But what people really want to know is that there’s more to a dissertation project than the content — and they want to be surprised…or at least intrigued. A lot of dissertation projects can be pretty predictable — topic from Column A, theory from Column B — to the point that a well informed reader can pretty much guess the findings with a brief overview of the data. And when you saturate a job letter with pure data, it doesn’t really leave anything to the imagination. It’s better to hold back on the description of evidence and lists of topics, and instead give a sense of what the debates in your field are and how you’re entering into them with your project — and potentially your whole career. Taking such an approach also gives people a sense that your interests extend beyond whatever your dissertation is about, and that you have contributions to make — what was referred to above as “spark.”

2) Give a sense of your trajectory. I tend to think that your CV tells your past and your job letter tells your future. You don’t need to spend a lot of time recounting your achievements — they’re in the CV — but you should take the time to tell readers what your plans are for the future. This can have to do with your next project, but, also where you are in terms of publishing your research material and what your plans for it are. Faculty want to know that they’ll be able to recommend you for tenure at their institution — in part because they might not get a chance to replace you if you don’t get tenure since the economy is awful — so looking at the profiles of recently tenured faculty and thinking about your trajectory in similar terms might be very helpful. Did they just need a few articles? A book and some articles? A huge NSF grant? If you have a sense of what an institution is looking for in junior faculty, work it into the job letter.

3) Respond to the advertisement and institution. It’s really tempting in an age when there are a lot of demands on one’s time during job season to not customize every letter that you send out, but consider it from the reader’s perspective: when you’re serving on a search committee at an out of the way institution and you receive 200 applications that make no mention of the part of the world you’re in, what the ad is calling for, and the strengths of your institution, the handful of letters that do will really stand out. I used to allot myself a set amount of time for each application to do some research on the institution in relation to the advertisement, to check out the local area (looking at real estate and local newspaper websites can be very helpful) and reading faculty profiles and abstracts of their published work. Generally where this all fits in is in the paragraphs about teaching and your institutional fit, but if you can fit it into your research statement — maybe in the opening sentence as a hook — all the better.

4) Appear to be a human being with thoughts, feelings and something resembling a life outside of academia. Again, in an age when people are reading 200 applications for one position, appearing to be a human being with a life outside of your dissertation research can make a huge difference. Remember, you’re applying for a job that might be for your entire career — and the entire career of your future colleagues. Having a sense that you can talk about more than just your research might go a long way to differentiating you from the pack. And a canny way to do this is to think about what your life would look like where the institution is — are there features of the place that are particularly appealing, like national or state parks? Are there institutions that you might reach out to, both as faculty and a member of the community? Do you have personal ties to the area? All of these things give letter readers a sense of life beyond the research.

There’s a lot to fit into 2 short pages, but I always tell people that job letters are like a Las Vegas show (not that I’ve ever been to one): you need to leave your audience wanting more. If you tell them too much — especially about the dissertation — the conversation is pretty much over. But if you can engage them on their own terms by addressing the advertisement, the institution, the area, and their imaginations as scholars, you can get out of the slush pile.

Other thoughts on what should be in a job letter? Or have great job letter success or fail stories? Share them in the comments. And thanks to the anonymous friends who responded to my questions.

(NSFW alert: In searching for a picture of a wringer, I stumbled across a fetish I never considered. If you need something to disturb you, check out images of ‘the wringer’ on Google Images.)



Leave a Comment
  1. Jessica Cattelino / Mar 21 2015 2:34 pm

    Although there are various kinds of letters that stand out among those I’ve read on a bunch of searches in several fields, one thing is consistently beneficial: an articulation of what (often quite broad) questions/problems the candidate is tackling as a scholar. Of these, some part will be reflected in the dissertation, some likely by earlier work (M.A., articles), and some other in future work. Junior candidates too often present their intellectual life and their dissertation as one and the same, rather than being able to position the dissertation as a major project within a larger set of questions and longer trajectory.

  2. Lenore Manderson / Mar 22 2015 10:56 pm

    You have it: (1) read the advertisement/selection criteria and addresses these – teaching & administrative & professional skills/contributions. (2) future research and other plans – you are right, the cv does the past well ….

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