Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The art of the job letter redux, part 2

Even though we're all saying similar things, some information about job letters may bear repeating:
  • When you write the letter, think about your audience. I know, this goes without saying, but you'd be surprised at how many writers do not address the criteria for the job they're applying for. If a committee at Small Directional State U gets an application from Fancy U many thousands of miles away, one natural question is this: why is Fancy U Ph.D. applying here? If the letter is the standard research/teaching boilerplate, without any mention of the job except for the INSERT JOB TITLE HERE slot in the first paragraph, the search committee may deduce, probably correctly, that the applicant is papering the known world with applications and decide that the writer isn't serious.
  • And then think about your audience again. If you're applying for a job at a teaching-oriented school, it's not just a matter of switching the paragraphs around and putting your teaching paragraph first instead of your research paragraph. The search committee will want to know how all those grandiose statements about teaching will translate into the courses you can teach for them. The job ad should give you some clues, even if it seems schizophrenic (eighteenth-century literature and modern poetry, for example). Use those clues, and talk about your teaching in specific ways.
  • And again. This usually comes out only in the interview, if you get that far, but if there's any hint of condescension, of how grateful the school should be to get your expertise, coming as you do from Big R1, know this: such an attitude is not received well. At all.
  • But in a lot of ways, the choice isn't about you. For example, if you're applying to Small School near Big R1, you may assume that Small School is lucky to have you, and indeed, Small School might feel this way in other circumstances. But if Small School already has three or four graduates of Big R1 in its department, the committee may not think it wise to hire another, just because they want a faculty with diverse educational experiences.
  • It really isn't. As a lot of other people writing about this have mentioned, committees and departments don't always know exactly what they want, although they've written a job ad that presumably addresses everything. But maybe when the applications pour in, they discover that people with expertise in X and Y also tend to have a background in Z. They realize that Z would be a "special added attraction" to the department, so to speak. Although it might be nice to cancel the search and cajole the powers-that-be for a new search next year that includes Z (as if that would be approved!), that's not how the world works.
  • There may be reasons why an ad specifies a full dossier. It may seem, and even be, more rational to ask for a cv and letter in the initial job ad, especially because sending all that information is expensive. But the committee may in fact be using letters from references or writing samples to get from the list of total applicants to the list of those who may be good matches for the job. Also, an institution may have layers upon layers of bureaucracy that have to be negotiated at every step, and adding the challenge of sending for more information, having it arrive and be processed, and then sending all the necessary paperwork through the system to the next step (more paperwork, more processing) might slow up the selection process intolerably. You can't predict this, of course.
[More posts and more links here.]


Michael LeVan said...

Thanks for the great advice. I'm about to hit the market for the first time in eight years and feel particularly uneasy about it.

Professor Zero said...

The best answer we ever got in a phone interview from an ABD candidate at a fancy U who obviously could get a job at a better place:

Us: why are you interested in coming here?

Him: well, I know I shouldn't say I prefer to go where it never snows, but it is a factor, I cannot deny it. More seriously, where I am you have a student in a class and then you never see them again. I would rather work somewhere smaller, where you do in fact find out how that student later progressed. Where I am actually needed. Where I can have an impact.

We were in a hiring freeze for budgetary reasons, but there was the possibility of making exceptions. When I told the dean what this candidate had said as a reason why we should make an exception, he said, you are right, that is a good answer for us.

undine said...

m(mmm), you're welcome, and good luck. I hope the jobs are plentiful in your area. Some years are like that: feast for long-18th-century people and famine for medievalists or vice versa.

professor z, you're right--that is a good answer---the second part of it, anyway, and even the first part about the weather makes sense. I wonder sometimes how the search committees at places like U of Hawaii manage to figure out which ones are all about the location.