In response to our most recent "how can we help you?" post, anon job seeker asked:
Two questions. First, should one use the letterhead from your institution if you have a position (for graduate students, I think the answer is yes)? Second, one piece of advice I have heard is to hit every part of the job ad in your cover letter. Does that include service? To what degree?
Good questions, so let me address each in turn and then open things up for discussion!
On using letterhead: As I explained in my post on cover letters in our Job-Market Boot Camp, it is fine for grad students to use their institution's letterhead but potentially risky for people in other jobs. At one point several years ago when I was on the market I came across a thread somewhere (I don't recall where) where search-committee members were sharing their "secrets." One thing that several search committee members in the thread said--much to my dismay--was that they regarded use of an institution's letterhead by a non-grad-student as somewhat akin to theft. My own feeling is that this is unreasonable, and that if you work at an institution then of course you should be able to send correspondence using the letterhead. Nevertheless, as unreasonable as it may or may not be, I decided at that point that it just wasn't worth risking. So, to be safe, I would once again advise post-grads not to use their current institution's letterhead. I just don't think it's worth risking offending that one search committee member who might look at it negatively. As long as you put your address and affiliation at the top of your letter and in your CV, the committee has all the information it needs without the letterhead.
On addressing the job-ad: As someone who has served on two search committees (and now made two hires), my feeling is that one should address important elements in the job-ad, but there is a fine line between that and "trying to do too much." Let me explain. First, my experience--both on the search committee side and job-candidate side--is that, yes, search committees care very much about whether you "fit" the job. Typically, if something is listed in a job-ad, particularly if it is an AOS or AOC, then your file (and cover letter) should demonstrate that you clearly fit those parts of the ad (and no, don't stretch the truth: you won't fool anyone - if you don't fit the job, you don't fit the job!). Second, in my experience, at teaching institutions in particular search committee members may care a great deal about whether you demonstrate knowledge and interest in the institution you are applying to in your cover letter. Don't say how you went to a liberal-arts college yourself or personal things like that (as I would be willing to bet my bottom dollar no one cares about that). Instead, show that you know some things about the institution and how--in concrete terms--you would address needs there. For instance, in my cover letters, I routinely looked at standard course offerings at the institution I was applying to and said something brief about how I would be well-prepared to teach those courses. Don't underestimate how important this is. If my experience is any indication, people at teaching schools tend to want to know that you've done your research about their institution and how you would add something unique and important to their department. Finally, though, and this is crucial, I don't think you want to go overboard. In my view, one of the most important things I learned from the j0b-market consultant I used--and which sits well with my experience on the hiring side of things--is that a big part of the battle with cover letters and other job-market materials is hitting the right tone. I am sure many of you have heard this before, but if you haven't it bears repeating: the proverbial mark of death in academic philosophy--whether it is publishing, or interviewing, or job-market materials--is coming across like a desperate grad student. I know it sounds terrible, and no, I don't like it either, but many people told me over the years that it is important and I found through experience--in all of the above areas--that, for better or worse, it is important. For whatever reason, writing articles that come across confident and professional tends to work better for publishing; writing cover letters that come across as confident and professional seem to work better too; and the same goes for interviews. So, I would say, hit the major elements of the job ad (AOS, AOC, anything else emphasized), demonstrate how you would contribute to the institution (e.g. courses you could teach, people in the department you would look forward to collaborating with), and do so with a kind of quiet confidence, just stating matter-of-factly what your experience and qualifications are (without the kinds of emotional/hyperbolic language, or "talking yourself up", that is so tempting to include in job materials but which, or so my consultant told me, comes off as cloying).
Anyway, these are my thoughts, and I hope anon job-seeker finds them helpful! What do you all think?
Update: oops - I just realized I forgot to address the question about service! In my experience faculty and (especially) administrators at teaching oriented schools really value service. That being said, I suspect service probably only plays a significant role in judgments later on in the process - at the choice who to fly out and/or final choice of who to extend an offer to. At the initial application stage, I doubt one's service experience will make much of a positive difference. The primary things that will turn heads and get an interview are research and teaching, I think. And giving an exhaustive list of service experience in your cover letter might even run the risk of making one look desperate. My cover letter once had a lot of service stuff in it but I got a lot more interviews once (following my consultant's advice) I took it out. Fwiw - but again these are just my thoughts. I will be curious to see if others who have been on the hiring side agree!