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Mark Alfano

This is probably just repetition from what I've said before, but I think you want to focus on one important distinction having to do with the character of the school, the department, and the search committee (henceforth 'THEM'). There are only a few ways THEY can feel about THEMSELVES. THEY can be:

* insecure,
* narcissistic,
* mission-obsessed, or
* sane

That's about it.

THEY might be insecure for any number of reasons. Perhaps THEY have a non-Leiter-ranked Ph.D. program. Perhaps THEY don't have a graduate program at all. Perhaps THEY are located in a place that google maps doesn't given directions to. Perhaps THEY publish a lot less than you. If THEY are insecure, the cover letter needs to demonstrate that whatever drawbacks THEY perceive about THEMSELVES aren't really drawbacks, at least for you. (Incidentally, I think that most insecurity is unwarranted.) Doing so will probably take you between 1 and 2 single-spaced pages.

Next, THEY might be narcissistic. Perhaps THEY think they're in the best place on Earth. Or that THEIR philosophical mode is the best and yet oddly neglected outside THEIR campus. Maybe THEY believe that THEIR interdisciplinary/activity-based/interactive/whatever pedagogical techniques make THEM better than anyone else. Well, then your letter needs to demonstrate that you are more than willing to share THEIR narcissism. (Incidentally, I don't think there are all that many narcissistic institutions.) As before, doing so will probably take you between 1 and 2 single-spaced pages.

Third, THEY could be mission-obsessed. This is closely related to being narcissistic, but it typically is the result of top-down pressure from the administration, the president, the provost, or the religious denomination. The result, however, is the same: you need to demonstrate that you're already as mission-obsessed as THEY are (or nearly so) and would gladly take their marching-orders. And as before, this'll probably require between 1 and 2 single-spaced pages.

Finally, THEY might be sane. From what I've seen, research institutions in desirable locations are almost all sane. Some SLACs are also sane. Many insecure institutions should be sane, but aren't. When you're fairly certain that THEY are sane, your cover letter can be nice and tidy: 1 paragraph should do the trick. Heck, one sentence might do the trick.

Anyway, these are just my anecdotally supported impressions. (Does anybody have better?) Feel free to disagree or disregard the advice.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks Mark. That's really helpful. Basically: let the rest of your dossier convey your research, teaching, and accomplishments, and let your letter show them you "fit" and know stuff about the school, dept, etc. Quick question though: should a letter say *anything* about your research and teaching, or should one really leave all that stuff for elsewhere in the dossier? If the former, how *much* should one say? (this has been my problem. I have four distinct research programs, so saying anything about them in my letter leads the letter to read like a research statement). Thanks again!

Mark Alfano


Yes, you certainly want something about your research/teaching/etc. in the letter, but the filter for what makes it in should be set to 'fit'. Mention the aspect of your research that makes you the best fit for the advertised AOS and for THEIR particular hangups (insecurity, narcissism, or mission-obsession).

On the "how much" question, I guess I tried to answer that already: between 1 and 2 single-spaced pages for insane departments. How exactly that plays out depends on how easy it is for you to make the case that you're a good fit. A strategically placed "as you will see in my statement of research/teaching/faith...." helps to keep things to a reasonable length.

Kyle Whyte

I have a few comments. (1) I like Mark's suggestions. Were I to spell it out, the heuristic I've used for cover letters is pretty similar. The thing I've found which is impossible to account for, but I will just mention, is that there are always weird cases to be prepared for where the heuristic can fail (I'd like to repeat that in writing one's letter one cannot possibly adjust for this, but one should be prepared for APA or on campus interviews to encounter this). For example, in the mission situation, it is often the case that the administration (who is not on the hiring committee) is down with its own mission (of course), but the philosophy department is not. But the philosophy department wants a new colleague. So the philosophy department does not want someone who is infatuated with the "mission," because the department members are taking some distance from that. So the best move is to write a cover letter that is down with the mission (but appropriately so), but to be prepared for some subtle cues going on should you get an APA interview, that you should be prepared to finesse a bit in relation to what you wrote in your cover letter. (2) I'd like to reiterate something in the previous comments, but maybe more straightforward. Assuming your adviser has not networked for you in a particular job, the purpose of the cover letter is to get you through the bulk sorting phase of all of the applications. There are at least a few filters going on there, some of which are covered, I think, in Mark's good posts. The most obvious one has to do with the job description. These days, all sorts of people, and understandably so, are applying for jobs that they really don't fit as far as AOS/AOC. So committees are sensitive to that. The cover letter primarily has to express, in the most "no BS" language, that you're a natural fit for the job description, that there's no question. So in the bulk sorting phase, the committee members pull your application out because it is among those that naturally and obviously fit the description. In a 1-2 page letter, then, there should be some front loading that fits this purpose, or else the letter won't help you survive the bulk sorting phase. Another thing about the letter. It is exactly correct that the letter should not repeat what is found later in the materials. So the letter should say more "synergistic" things about you that will be proven in the various and more fragmented parts of your application. By synergistic, I mean the "takeaways." So you might say some distinctive things in your cover letter about your teaching (what you ultimately want them to take away about your teaching), which will set up the expectation that when your application is thoroughly reviewed, the proof of those takeaways will be seen later (e.g. in terms of what classes you taught, what you say in your teaching statement, etc.).

Marcus Arvan

Thanks Kyle, *really* helpful stuff!

Mark Alfano

Agreed. Well said, Kyle.

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