Friday, October 30, 2009

Job market signals from another planet

Dr. Crazy has a good post on the job market, with lots of great advice. I haven't written a post on the job market this year for fear of repeating myself (here and here and here), but there are a couple of things I've heard recently which have made me wonder if those of us giving the advice are operating on another planet from some other people.

1. Tailor the letter or not? I heard recently that some job candidates on the market had been given the advice "Don't bother to tailor your letter to the institution. It's a waste of time. Just give them the boilerplate and move on." My reaction wasn't very moderate; it was somewhere between "no" and "hell, no!" I've been on search committees and have chaired a few, and, like Dr. Crazy, I believe that tailoring the letter to the institution makes a difference. Part of the advice I gave in one of those earlier posts is "Don't make us guess. Connect the dots for us by showing why you fit our qualifications so well." I think that still holds true.

Let me put it this way: If you don't seem interested in the position--or interested enough to show some faint glimmering in your letter of who we are or what we're about, or even what the position is about, why should we think you'd be interested in coming to work for us? Let me be even more blunt: unless you are really, really exceptional, if you don't have time to show an interest in the institution, we don't have time to show an interest in you. Frankly, we receive too many applications to pay attention to those that are obviously sent as a pro forma exercise.

2. Lead with teaching or research? It depends on the institution, but for heaven's sake don't leave out the research entirely, even if it's a teaching institution (another piece of dubious advice apparently handed out by someone not trained on my planet). You need to have both. Oh, and please be specific about what you're doing in terms of research and teaching. "Student-centered learning," etc., is all well and good, but we get that in every letter. What do you do in class? Do you have an innovative exercise that makes the students respond really well to George Eliot? Tell us!

What I said a couple of years ago still holds true: 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.
3. Thank you/no thanks? "If you get a campus interview, don't send a thank-you note; it makes you look desperate." "Always send a thank-you note, even after the MLA or phone interview." What do you say, search committees? My take on this: I don't think it makes a huge difference, but since when is being polite considered "desperate"?

4. Have your dissertation chair give personal contacts in the department a call? What do you say, internets? On the one hand, it's nice to have a personal recommendation. On the other hand, as a search chair this always made me uneasy, since we just had to put that information in the folder for HR anyway, and we could never be sure how much weight to give this kind of informal recommendation.

I'd love to hear from those of you who are hiring this season so I know whether we're on the right track or whether it's time to get the old Interplanetary Passport renewed so I can go back to my own planet.

Update 11/16/09: Profgrrrrl has a good list of tips.


Ink said...

Great post. I agree with your stands. And a thank you note is standard business etiquette, so I definitely support that. But you're right: it might not make a difference to some committees.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Seriously, people are saying not to tailor letters? I've been on a bunch of search committees over the past few years, and boy, I can tell you that we wouldn't give a second glance at letters that didn't communicate some sort of awareness of what our institution was like. So, yes, I'm with you on all these points. Including ambivalence about thank-you notes... they're right on the line between awkward and gratifying, so I don't pay them much attention either way.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about hiring from your side, but I had to write my first reference a short while back and an old colleague of mine took all horrified and advised me against writing anything substantive at all. "I just write a pro forma these days, and ring the department chair up and tell them what I really think on the phone," he said, "because they can get their references back these days and that can implicate you." So that may be why some referees prefer to ring: apparently some are afraid of being involved in lawsuits if they actually referee someone.

undine said...

I support it, too, Ink, and the business etiquette argument is a good one.

Pilgrim/Heretic--yes, I actually heard this! It took me by surprise, too. I'm glad to hear you say that your institution wants tailored letters, too. Even if you're Fabulous McRisingStar, we want to know if you're serious about the job. Of course, Dr. Crazy's right--we don't need to know that you know course names--but you should show some signs of having done your homework.

tenthmedieval, I had heard of that in business but not in academics. That's kind of scary, actually. Assuming that you'd only ask someone to write for you who had something good to say, it's disconcerting to think that the applicant could sue you if you weren't complimentary enough. I had always heard that you should leave anything like "please contact me for more information" out of a letter of reference because it could signal a problem that the writer didn't want to put into writing, but the barebones approach is new.

Anonymous said...

It may differ by field. I'm in a social science at a research university. No one tailors letters. We only read cover letters if there is something unusual (e.g. a particularly long time to degree). Informal communication from advisers and departments is very important.

undine said...

Thanks, Anon. I didn't know that that was the case in the social sciences; that's good information to have.

Earnest English said...

I'm on a search committee in the humanities right now. YES! Tailor letters. I think it should be standard practice to look at the darn website and get a sense of whether you're looking at a SLAC, a comprehensive, or something else. But AT LEAST tailor the letter toward the ad. Of the 85 applications I've read so far, only 20 applicants actually meet the requirements we included in the ad (saying that they were requirements). To be blunt: if you can't take the time to show that you want the job by tailoring your letter (as you would tailor your classes for our population, for example), we don't want you! It's easy for me to put your letter in the no pile because you haven't bothered to tailor your letter, showing me you don't really want the job in the first place.

I say yes to thank you notes. Standard in the business and academic worlds. Polite.

I think a recommender should only contact the search committee if the recommender really knows someone on the c'tee. I want substantive material in the actual letter itself, so all committee members and department members can see the info. Since we have to make sure all our material is documented, phone calls are a mixed bag.

undine said...

Earnest English, I agree with everything you've said. That linking of tailoring a letter to tailoring classes for the institution is absolutely right, too. I hope the jobseekers realize this.