Updated 5/4: see section on ordering teaching and research.
Now that we have examined building and composing CVs, obtaining recommendation letters, the European job market, job-market consultants, and developing a coherent research program, I would like to move onto the rest of the standard job-market dossier materials, beginning with cover letters.
Some readers might wonder why I'm going over dossier materials so early, given that it's only May and the main US job market doesn't heat up for several months for now. The answer is two-fold. First, foreign job markets are currently in full-swing. It seems like I'm receiving foreign job ads in my email box from the philos-l listserv on a daily basis. Second, even though the main US job season doesn't open for several months, it takes a long time to get one's dossier materials to get into the kind of shape they need to be in.
All of which brings me to my first point: don't underestimate the importance of having really polished dossier materials. Search committees look at hundreds of applications--and you want to knock their socks off. You want your cover letter, research statement, teaching statement, and teaching portfolio to sparkle. The question then is how to do it.
The single most interesting thing I learned from working with a job-market consultant (someone who, for the record, served on many academic search committees) is that job-candidates systematically misunderstand what search committees are looking for in job-market materials. When I sent my consultant my materials--my cover letter template, research statement, and teaching statement--I was pretty sure they would be impressed. I could not have been more wrong. They told me, in no uncertain term, that I was doing everything wrong, and that I'm not alone: candidate after candidate, they told me, writes their materials with the wrong aims in mind. How so?
Let me begin with the most general point I learned. The most natural thing to think as a job candidate is that you need to "talk yourself up" to search committees--going on about how novel your research is, how passionate of a teacher you are, and so on. However, while this seems perfectly reasonable on its face (how are you supposed to convince a search committee to hire you if you don't make it crystal clear how awesome your research and teaching are?), the problem--or so I was told, and I totally buy it now--is that talking yourself up in your materials actually has the opposite effect: instead of making you look awesome, it makes you look like someone who is trying to convince them you're awesome--whereas a really awesome person will just let their work do the talking. Let me explain by way of an analogy.
What's the best way to get a date? Should you come right out and profess your undying love to the object of your affections? Should you talk about all of your accomplishments? Of course not. These tactics will make you come across self-absorbed and/or desperate. You're far better off projecting a quiet air of confidence and nonchalance--of being comfortable in your own skin. Similarly, when it comes to job-marketeering, you want to come across to search committee members not as Someone Desperate to Belong, but rather as Someone Who Belongs.
Before I was introduced to the job-market consultant who taught me this--and who got me to take out just about every self-aggrandizing word or phrase out of my materials in favor of flatly descriptive accounts of my research, teaching, etc.--a couple of my friends who utilized the consultant (to incredibly positive effect) showed me their letters. I was unimpressed. They seemed so flat to me. Where was the "selling" one's research and teaching? It was nowhere to be found. And yet...once I worked with the consultant, I totally got it. I revamped my materials in line with their advice and got a ton more interviews than I had ever gotten before. And so I now firmly believe: your primary aim in composing your cover letter, research statement, and teaching statement should not be to "sell yourself." It should merely be to describe in detail to your reader--the search committee member--exactly what your research is about, exactly how you teach, and so on. No editorializing, mere description. Mere description will (1) show the reader who you are (as a researcher, teacher, etc.), and (2) give them the impression that you are Someone Who Belongs.
Now that we have this general point on the table, allow me to move onto specific parts of the cover letter (for reference, here is a link to my cover-letter template from last year):
- Heading: unless you are in grad school (i.e. if you are in a temporary job or post-doc), do not use your school letterhead. I came across a blog last year where more than one academic search committee member said they considered this a form of theft (!). I have to admit that I was shocked that anyone would think this way--but I say: you don't want to run that risk. Instead, tell your reader where you're from in the return address section. Also, be sure to write in the complete address and correct addressee(s) for the position you are applying to, including street and zip code. Leaving stuff out can only make you look like someone who's too lazy to even fill in an address!
- Introductory paragraph: If there is a particular contact person in the job ad, introduce your letter, "Dear Prof. X"; otherwise, utilize "Dear Search Committee." Next, state the job you are applying for (noting the job ad code/# in parenthesis). Next, state in a sentence when and where you received your PhD from (or, if ABD, when degree conferral is expected). Next, if you have had full-time academic positions post-grad school (post-doc, VAP), state clearly where they were and what type(s) of job they are (note: I am not sure whether it is wise to say one is in an adjunct position. Thoughts from readers? Although I personally believe it is unfair and wrong to lower one's estimation of a candidate on such grounds, several readers have commented in the past that this may be a sad reality). Finally, end your intro paragraph stating your AOS, and only state AOC(s) if they line up directly with AOC(s) advertised in the job ad. Otherwise, just state your AOS.
- UPDATE on ordering teaching and research: when I went back and looked at some of the SLACs I received interviews from this year, I did put teaching before research in some of the cover letters--so I would suggest doing so for schools that are clearly teaching oriented.
- Research Paragraph(s): Your second paragraph should simply describe your main research program, no editorializing. Tell your reader, as clearly and concisely as you can, what you are working on (for me, it was a book manuscript). If your description is precise, it should be clear how your research advances philosophical discussion without you having to say so. Also, although I've heard people say you should put a teaching paragraph before research for teaching jobs (Update: ...and did so successfully with some of my applications to SLACs), (A) I had no trouble getting interviews with teaching schools putting my research first, and (B) my early research on this year's hires strongly suggests that even teaching schools care about research . Finally, if you have a bona fide second research program, you may describe it--again in flatly descriptive manner--in a third paragraph. Definitely don't do more than two paragraphs on research, though!
- Publication history and future research plans: After describing your research, your next paragraph should include a brief publishing history (i.e. a list of journals you have published in) and brief description of your research plans over the next several years. Be brief but specific!
- Teaching paragraph: Next, you should have a paragraph on teaching. Begin with a sentence or two listing courses you have taught--particularly courses they have advertised needs for--and then spend the rest of your paragraph showing your reader how you teach, giving a concrete example of some creative teaching exercise (Don't say "I utilize in-class group exercises"--give an actual example of an in-class exercise). We will come back to this with the teaching and research statements. Don't talk about your teaching in broad generalizations or wax poetic about how much you love teaching. Show your reader you are a committed, thoughtful teacher by giving a real, concrete example of something you do in class.
- Department/fit paragraph: Your final paragraph should show how you would fit into the department and/or college. Do this by stating that you would look forward to collaborating or co-teaching with particular members of the department, referring to them by last-name only (not 'Prof. X', just 'X'), and stating concisely how your work aligns in some way with theirs. This will show them that you know who they are, and took the time to look into their department. It will also project a quiet air of confidence, indicating that you see yourself as a peer who belongs in their department (rather than a desperate job seeker they have power over).
- Signoff/signature: I learned (rather late in the game) that it looks good to include a picture of your signature in your signoff. I created a quick one with my computer's Paint program.
Most letters should end there, with a quick "I look forward to hearing from you", or some such, as well as an invitation to visit your webpage (with a link) if they desire more information. Although you may be tempted to close your letter with a list of accomplishments--e.g. your work with students on-campus, etc.--avoid this temptation. They will see this stuff in your CV.
Other stuff for non-standard letters:
- Religious institutions: If you're applying to a religious institution, my understanding is that you should once again simply describe how your research and teaching are consistent with or would advance the institution's (religious) mission. Be honest. Don't lie and say you're a Believer if you're not! But do try to address the institution's religious mission if you can.
- Special programs: Some jobs are associated with a special academic program, such as an Ethics Institute or some such. If so, you should have a separate paragraph in your letter showing how your research, teaching, and/or campus activities would add to the program (this, in my understanding, is the one place where it might make sense to refer to some campus involvement--but again, avoid the temptation of giving a list. Avoid lists at all costs!).
I guess that's all. Did I miss anything? Get anything wrong? Any thoughts or questions? Fire away! :)