A reader writes:
Hi Marcus: I was wondering if you could open a job-season thread on cover materials? Last year was the first time for me at the other side of the interview table. I was part of an interviewing panel (not in philosophy; the job involved designing and carrying out experiments on human participants which had ethical implications - I was asked to be part of the panel to evaluate how job candidates thought about the ethical aspects). Anyway, I went through applications (ca 100) for a temporary research position within a project, and convened with the other search committee members to longlist (12) then shortlist (6) applicants.
Here are my introspective thoughts about the cover materials [note: I paraphrased from the cover letters, so nothing is an exact quote]:
- In the total application package, I found the cover letter to be more important than I expected. Of course, CVs are important too and give essential info like completed degree and publications. But many candidates have CVs that are very similar in quality. When you're at application #20, you've seen at least 10 people who meet and exceed all the criteria. The cover letter allows one to see the motivation of the candidate and place that in a larger picture. We didn't shortlist anyone who did not tailor their cover letter to the job.
- There was lots of redundant verbiage in the cover letter, empty phrases like "I am a hard-working and committed researcher" and "I am passionate about research" and "I am a very fitting candidate for this position". I used to use this verbiage in my cover letters too (not anymore though!). It is not a total turn-off, but in the limited space of a cover letter, it is useless (anyone can claim these things about themselves). The people we shortlisted had few, if any, such phrases.
- The institution I work for is highly ranked worldwide for research. I was surprised, in at least 20% of cover letters to see the following statement "I think working at [your university] would help my career greatly forward" - yes, probably, but that does not give us any reason to hire you. The cover letter needs to be written to convince the SC that you are a fitting candidate, not to argue why you'd like the position. At this stage, your enthusiasm for the job is not important.
- I was surprised to find pedigree play a non-negligible role in my decisions to longlist and shortlist. I am not pedigreed myself, and I have always found the emphasis on pedigree unhealthy, but I caught myself thinking "She did her PhD under xxx. And xxx has really done lots of work related to the project. Moreover, university Y has a good reputation for this field."
- Very flashy CVs with unusual fonts, bright colors, etc are a turn-off - they are just hard to interpret or sometimes just even to read. Yet about 10% of our applicants had CVs like this. One of them used 4 different colors, including mustard green and red. One of them looked like a film poster from the 1930s. None of these applicants made the shortlist stage.
- Also puzzling was that many candidates listed non-relevant non-academic experience on the CV, such as being shop assistants. If this was their current job (as for some it was), I can see the point, also perhaps to explain gaps in the CV, but otherwise, it does not make a CV look better. Completeness is not an end in itself.
- Similarly, at least for me, high school grades and where you went to high school and elementary school are not important. I am interested only in your degrees since the BA. All our applicants had at least a BA and many had a PhD. Yet about 25% of applicants listed where they went to high school (sometimes even primary school), and listed grades for high school
- If you have to go through many applications in a very short period of time, you will not bother (so I have found) with materials that people send but were not requested, such as transcripts, research statements or writing samples. If there's anything essential in there, I will have missed it (note: we needed to go through all these materials in less than a week - with other commitments it was not possible to look at non-requested materials).
- Although fit is important, we ended up hiring someone who did not fit the profile as well as some other candidates. The candidates we shortlisted on the basis of their cover letter and CV who weren't a perfect fit provided some rationale for why the mismatch, e.g., "the past year, I have shifted my research attention to topic [of the project], having followed courses and read books on this topic [specify]; moreover, I have one article in preparation and one under review on [topic]" While this search was not for philosophy, and not for a tenure track, I think some of my experiences might apply to that domain too.
Any thoughts? I'd like to thank this person for sharing their experience, particularly the point about cover letters mattering, as well as how not to write them. I also have to confess that I'm pretty surprised by many of the things mentioned. Flashy, colored CV's listing high-school grades and accomplishments? Sounds like some people aren't receiving anything remotely close to adequate job-market guidance. Finally, I'm happy to report that this same individual offered to share their experiences/thoughts on interviewing, so look forward to it!