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05/02/2015

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anon

Marcus, thanks so much for this helpful post (and series).

I was surprised by your recommendation not to use letter-head at your current institution (assuming you're a post-doc or lecturer). I understand the reasoning behind it, and it's great to hear that some people consider that a form of theft (!) But how exactly do you create a nice-looking letterhead without that? Do you just use a cool font/size/proportion for your own address at the top? I'm really just talking about the visual design issue here (more a rhetorical question than anything, i'm sure there are loads of examples on the internet I can crib).

Also, as for the tailoring/fit paragraph: in my own cover letter last year, I included a few vague sentences that I anticipated that my research would complement the department's strength in X or Z. I did *not* list particular faculty members. Some people I asked thought even that vague statement was too presumptuous in a way... maybe it was TOO vague? And if I had specifically listed faculty members that would help? I'm fearful of somehow misinterpreting someone's current project (e.g., they've published a lot in X in the past but now no longer work on X at all), given how much publications can lag behind one's current interests..

Just thinking aloud--thanks again for all of these suggestions!

Marcus Arvan

Anon: Thanks for your comment, and for the kind words. I was as shocked as you seem to be that anyone would consider using letterhead a form of theft--but there it was: at the blog I visited, several different faculty members said that's how they saw it. Seems crazy to me, but it still seems to me not worth risking.

As you can see from my letter, I didn't use any special font: just my name, address, institution, etc--all in normal size, ordinary font. And it didn't seem to hurt me at all (in terms of interviews). Personally, I think that if I learned anything at all from my work with the consultant and my performance on the market, it is that "design" can only hurt you, not help. Fancy designs may give off the scent of "trying too hard." Just focus on content. That, at the end of the day, is what SCs are looking for. They're not looking to hire someone with a pretty-looking cover letter or CV. They're looking to someone who comes across in the *content* of the letter, CV, etc., as someone they want to hire.

In terms of the tailoring/fit paragraph, I would suggest that "fearing to look presumptuous" is the exact opposite of the attitude you want to convey. You want to convey that you Belong. You show you Belong by treating the search committee members as *peers*, not people who have power over you. This--in my view--is one of the most important things I think I learned from the market: namely, that our "instincts" as candidates tend to be systematically the opposite of what they should be. It is natural to operate out of fear--wanting to avoid looking presumptuous etc. But acting out of fear is anathema to Showing You Belong. You show you belong through quiet confidence--and saying that you would look forward to working with faculty X, Y, and Z shows them that you see yourself as their peer.

Does that make sense? Even if the faculty member is no longer working on the stuff mentioned on their webpage, showing them that you know what they are up to and would look forward to working with them shows them that you have *confidence*--which seems to work on the job market in much the same way that it works in the dating world. Also, you can always check individuals' philpapers profiles to see what they have worked on recently. I did this, and referred to some people's recent work in some of my cover letters--and suspect it may have worked to good effect. *I* would probably be impressed by a candidate who showed familiarity with what I've been working on!

anon jtt

Marcus: I got caught up in the mystery of "using letterhead is stealing" and did some internet searching. I've seen the various sites where people voice the opinion you mention. However, I've seen considerably more people denounce this as a ridiculous view point. My two cents: one is far less likely to face ethical criticism from search committee members who think use of letterhead is stealing (particularly when most cover letters are digital) than one is to face the implicit bias against a cover letter absent any visual institutional affiliation. There certainly seem to be people out there who think of letterhead use for job applications as illicit, but I'd be willing to bet that they are a slim minority rather than the general consensus. On the other hand, the unconscious positive bump your letter is likely to get from having an affiliation up front seems likely to be widespread rather than isolated. In a perfectly rational world I would advise that the safe choice is to submit without letterhead, but we all know that's not the world we live in. If one has an affiliation, I think the best bet is to use the letterhead and hope that you avoid the odd scholar here or there who thinks letterhead users are thieves.

Though perhaps you have more robust data than my 15 minutes of internet searching provides...

Marcus Arvan

anon jtt: Thanks for your comment. I think it's hard to say. Maybe if you're in a prestigious post-doc or VAP, letterhead may give you a "first-look bump." Maybe. But that information (your affiliation) will be in your address and second or third sentence without letterhead. So, I sort of doubt that letterhead provides a "bump" that wouldn't be there without it, and having letterhead runs a risk of turning that *one* search committee member you need to get on your side to consider you a thief. To me, this incredible possible downside more than outweighs any marginal upside letterhead might provide (again, your institution will be highlighted in your address anyway!). Given that every search committee member counts--and pissing just one of them off might tank your application--it just doesn't seem to me worth risking. At any rate, I didn't use letterhead at all this year and I got more interviews than when I did.

sj

I have never heard of the anti-letterhead bias! Having recently served on a search committee, I can say that it did not bother me in the least if an applicant used institutional letterhead. What did bug me was not bothering to use any kind of letterhead, and just launching into the letter. Perhaps my own bias, but it looks too informal. You're not writing a letter to your grandmother. If you want to look like a professional, it helps if your letter looks professional too.

Word and Pages both provide letterhead templates, any of which are fine, but just using a readable font and making your own works too.

A.P. Taylor

Thanks for the very helpful advice/information Marcus. I am curious about what you'd recommend re: the length of the cover letter. My current cover letter template is just a single page. I've read and been told that anything more than this is typically too long, unless the job asks the applicant to address specific non-standard areas (e.g. university mission, religious affiliation, experience teaching students of diverse backgrounds etc..). If I adopted your six paragraph schema, I don't see how the cover letter could avoid being to pages.

GFA

One note: for SLACs and other teaching-oriented places, I would consider have a longer teaching section, and perhaps a shorter research section -- and I would reverse the order of those sections in the letter (i.e. put teaching first).

I think that this is directly related to Marcus's main principle: to show that you Belong at a SLAC, you need to show the faculty there that you take teaching very seriously.

Marcus Arvan

Hi GFA: I just took a second look at some of the SLACs I received interviews from this year, and lo and behold, I *did* invert the teaching and research sections for some of them! (I'll update the post to reflect this).

Filippo Contesi

Hi, Marcus, many thanks for once again a very kind and helpful post. Is the letterhead aversion you discuss here a philosophy-specific thing? Are these bloggers you mention averse to letterheads even in cases in which the institution approves of their use? I hadn't been using a letterhead except I was recently converted into using it (influenced by web advice written by _the_ academic job consultant). My postdoc institution has provided me with the letterhead file precisely for job cover letters purposes. This eliminates the stealing worry, doesn't it?

Searched a few times and been on a committee once

I think there is a risk to saying you want to collaborate etc with Prof. X. I had an on-campus interview and I specifically mentioned a particular professor's work that I was interested in. The other two faculty members I was with sort of looked at each other and then me and confessed that Prof. X was rarely available and they roughly transmitted that the dept doesn't get along with that person. It was awkward all around. I could see this happening in a letter as well. It came at little cost and I eventually got an offer, so this is minor, but I think it is worth thinking about. Here is an extreme case. Consider some of the now well known, ugly events in the discipline. Imagine you say 'I'd love to work with Prof. X'. Prof X, let's suppose, is a serious problem in the dept unbeknownst to you. A real shame if this were a deal breaker for an unknowing, well meaning job seeker, but it seems risky. Is it worth it?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Filippo: Thanks for your kind words. The people in question, if I recall, were not necessarily from philosophy--but if some people in one discipline are apt to consider it theft, then I see no reason why the worry should carry over into others. In terms of getting permission, it may of course eliminate the stealing worry on your end--but the search committee member won't have that information available to them. They still could think it is stealing even if you got permission, simply because they don't know that.

Look, I know it's a crazy worry--but since there were at least a few SC members on the blogs I visited to voiced their view that it is theft, *I* didn't think it was worth running the risk. And again, not using letterhead certainly didn't seem to hurt my prospects on the market. (If my experience not using letterhead wasn't so unequivocal--it didn't seem to hurt me getting interviews in the slightest--I would be a bit more cautious about advocating not using it.)

Marcus Arvan

Searched a few times and been on a committee once:

I suppose there is that risk. But, to me, the likely benefits outweigh that risk. Empirical psychology strongly suggests that in order to get hired, you need to get people to (subconsciously) *like* you. Although we all like to think that we are "objective" or judge people on their merits, psychology indicates that hiring--like most things in human life--are much more driven by *affective* (i.e. emotional) components than rational ones.

So, I say, when it comes to mentioning faculty X, Y, and Z by name, here are the benefits and risk:

(A) Likely benefit: if X, Y, and Z are on the committee, you'll endear yourselves to them. If X, Y, and Z are merely friends of committee members, you'll also endear yourself.

(B) Unlikely risk: everyone in the department hates X, and will despise your application if you mention them.

Given that I think the likely benefits here are much greater than the unlikely risk, I say one should go for it. For the opposite tack--not mentioning faculty by name--has *greater* likely risk and unlikely benefits, namely:

(C) Likely risk of not mentioning faculty by name: you don't mention X, Y, or Z by name, but other candidates do--and those candidates endear themselves to the SC members whereas you don't.

(D) Unlikely benefit of not mentioning faculty by name: everyone hates X, and you benefit by not mentioning them.

In short, there are risks to just about everything. To me, the likely benefits of mentioning faculty by name outweigh the risks.

Filippo Contesi

Thanks very much for your thoughts, Marcus!

Senior Prof

I'm a senior professor at a non-Leiterific department with a modest PhD program. Even though the job market is a nightmare and a job at my school is, on the whole, pretty desirable, we also know that, mostly, the best people from the best places are not likely to take us too seriously, except perhaps as a fallback place to land for the short term. So, speaking for myself, if I'm reading a file from someone at a top-ranked school and the cover letter says nothing specific about our department, university, or town (other than a quick reference to the job number), I'm going to assume that the person isn't seriously interested (that doesn't mean I won't suggest we interview the person, however). So those letters that either note some kind of personal connection or that at least indicate that the applicant cared enough to look us up get my interest. And it can make a difference when push comes to shove at either the first or campus interview stage. Keep in mind that when you get hundreds of applications, you're looking for a reason to exclude people.

While I know that not all my colleagues view the matter as I do, I also know that I'm not alone. Furthermore, I think the point generalizes. If you're from a school with a good-but-not-great ranking and you are applying to, say, a small, regional state school with a 4-4 teaching load, and you are genuinely interested in teaching there, give the school a reason to think that's true.

Karl

Quick question. I know I am coming to this late, but say you are a member of a protected minority in the country you are applying to, how does one tactfully (but clearly) indicate this in a dossier? I would think in a cover letter. But how to fit it in?

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