Saturday, October 20, 2007

The art of the job letter

So many people have written such good posts about this recently that this post may be short. Check out the advice at Academic Cog, CitizenSE, Dr. Crazy, Bardiac, Tenured Radical,and Narratives, just for starters, and don't neglect the excellent advice in the comments. (I wrote about this issue last year, too.)

Some things to remember:

  • Your letter is just part of the process.. As the talk that Sisyphus heard indicates, you can have a letter perfect in all details, but if you look too similar to someone already in the department, or offer a subspecialty that isn't needed, or whatever, you might not make it to the interview stage. It's a matter of fit; it really is. Also, if the committee is searching in some area that overlaps with another area (women's studies, say), committee members have to be sensitive to the research areas (and touchy egos) of that department as well. These are things you can't predict or control, so don't feel as though you've done something wrong if you don't get an interview.
  • Make sure that you really are suited for the position. I know, lots of people now have jobs that they applied for and got even though they were a long shot for the position. If you just had one grad course in a field, though, or have just taught one course in it, do consider carefully before putting yourself forth as a specialist in the area. Even if you get through the committee's review, which is unlikely, candidates invited for interviews will still need to be vetted by diversity committees, HR, or other agencies that ensure that those invited match the qualifications of the job.
  • Make your research sound exciting. When I think back to the search committees I've served on, after questions of fit and suitability for the position, the excitement generated by the possibilities of the candidate's research program is really what sticks in the mind and makes the candidate stand out. Also, don't make us do the math: if it's exciting and has great potential for changing a field, explain how that's the case. If you are the first person to study the social significance of lawn mower blades in consumer culture, you need to tell us why that is important. You recommenders will do this, too, but it's your letter that we read first.
  • Ask a nonspecialist in your field to read your letter and especially your research paragraph. Some research paragraphs sound as though they've been turned out by an academic cliche generator: "always already," "interrogate" (which has come to seem an increasingly uncomfortable piece of LitCritSpeak, given the current political climate), "imbricate," etc. Everything will be "trans" and not "inter": transnational, transcultural, etc. Gender is always "performed"; hierarchies or binaries or boundaries are always "interrogated" or "deconstructed" or "destabilized." Some of these are unavoidable, of course, but if you give your letter or your paragraph to a person in your department (but not in your field) and his or her eyes glaze over, it's time to lighten the mix. Oddly enough, sometimes writers never mention the authors or texts they're working with in this paragraph, so dense is the theoryspeak. A little of both is better. The best research paragraphs use critical terminology but describe the projects in such a way as to make us see immediately the significance of what you're doing not only for your immediate project but for the discipline.
  • More on the research paragraph.. Also, if you have publications (or forthcoming publications), mention at least one or two of the relevant ones. I know they're on your CV, but again: we read your letter first. The letter tells us how we ought to read your application. If we've got, say, 200-300 letters to read, you can't count on us to scour your CV to figure out that you got X prize or that you have Y publication forthcoming. We will probably notice it, but we might not.
  • Tailor your letter for the institution. This is old advice, I know, but when someone sends what's clearly a piece of boilerplate (intro, research, teaching, and conclusion) rattled off with no regard to the institution or the specific needs of the department in regard to teaching, it gets less consideration. This is especially true if you're applying to a teaching-oriented school. What courses could you teach? How could you fit into the our department, and what needs would you fill?
  • Don't make us do the math. I mentioned this above about making the search committee ferret out your real area of specialization, but this goes for the CV, too. If you lump all of your "works in progress" and "works under consideration" in with your publications, we'll just have to sort them out anyway, and it won't make us happy to do so. Also, you can point us to your web site, but we probably won't go there unless we're really interested. I guess the sum of the advice is this: If you want us to know something, tell us; don't make us hunt for it. We don't have time.
  • Teaching is important, too. Your teaching paragraph should--surprise!--be specific and convey your excitement about teaching. Again, think about all those eye-glazing cliches about "student-centered classrooms" and "interactive assignments." What we want to know is this: how do you achieve this? What do you actually DO that's innovative or that works? You don't have to go on for pages, but an example or two would be great.
  • Letterhead or no letterhead? I'm with Tenured Radical: use the letterhead. It's not disloyal, and everyone else uses it. I'd say that fewer than 1 out of 10 letters won't have some kind of letterhead.

    One complaint for search committees: I wish that job ads would specify the head of the search committee instead of HR or "Search Committee" or the academic coordinator as the person to whom the letter should be addressed.

    And good luck to all applying this year!

    ArticulateDad said...

    Here's actual wording from one of the current postings I'm considering: "Secondary areas congruent with existing departmental specialties desirable but not essential."

    Now, what the hell am I supposed to make of that? Along the lines you've mentioned, it'd sure be nice if committees didn't make the applicants do the math. Come on, people, just say what you'd like to see, or at least specify what "existing departmental specialties" might be. And if you really don't care, don't say it! If your committee can't agree, then KEEP MEETING, or reconstitute the committee.

    The Constructivist said...

    Wow, I've never seen anything like that before. It sounds like they're trying to reassure candidates that their secondary areas won't count against them and can count for them, but what a way to do it and shouldn't it go without saying?

    I know it's hard when the deck is so stacked against applicants to keep in mind that you're evaluating the departments as much as they are you, but ad wording like that should prompt some special attention from those who get the MLA interview and particularly the on-campus interview with them. What kind of department ethos/culture has to exist for a sentence like that to make its way into an ad?

    undine said...

    This sounds like HR language to me: "desirable" is not the same as "essential" to them, and they may have a form that requires that secondary areas get mentioned even if the department doesn't seem to believe they are going to be a determining factor. They want to spell everything out so that it can be an evaluation point and so that there is no room for misunderstanding, even if the points seem obvious (like where you will be teaching). Behind every statement like that lies the fear of a lawsuit, IMHO.

    Anonymous said...

    "Make sure that you really are suited for the position."

    this would be easier if committees were more forthcoming about what they want. the job ads I've seen are unbelievably obscure.

    undine said...

    I know, anastasia--sometimes the ads are impossibly vague. I guess what I'm thinking about is that if (to use a lit example) you're an Early Modern specialist and you apply for a Medievalist position on the basis of a Chaucer course back in the day, the search committee will figure it out. Again, what I've seen is that some of the vagueness may be driven by administrative (HR) imperatives more than by departmental wishes, though departments are sometimes at fault, too.