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Round two

I've had similar worries about tailoring cover letters. It's going to be hard to find anything really plausible to say about overlapping research interests/potential for collaboration unless you really take the time to read department members' research (which seems like a bad use of time, if you're applying to 30+ schools). Failing that, there are just a lot of ways that you can end up saying something dumb or irrelevant. I have no evidence for this whatsoever, but I think it might be more effective to tailor your letter to specific aspects of the undergraduate/graduate program at the institution - that information is a little more accessible, and not as hard to screw up.


In many parts of Europe, post-docs and even admission to Ph.D. programmes are tied to specific grants. These are often very large grants, and they have very specific goals. In these cases if you do not tie your letter and research to the institution or people involved you will not get serious consideration. The committee will not be allowed to push your file forward. But in these cases you SHOULD NOT APPLY unless you really work in this area. Of course the pool for these positions is small. But they will only hire a person who has the requisite training.


First, the case with Europe and specific grants is different, so my advice won't apply to that.

Anyway, on my two years on the market I got a fair amount of interviews, I think like 25 total (the majority my second year). Granted some might be that they just wanted to interview a woman. But anyway, I never once mentioned I wanted to work with specific faculty members. (I did on occasion mention an aspect of the program that I was well fit for). The main reason I didn't mention faculty is that there are two types of people. Some faculty will like it. Others will find it corny and like you are sucking up. I know one search committee member mentioned that on here. I relate to the second type of search committee member. To me it just sounds like trying too hard and I can't bring myself to do that. Also, for what it's worth, I was rejected from a fairly prestigious liberal art school once, and they told me it was because "my research interests overlap too much with their current faculty". So basically, you don't know what search committees are looking for.

anonymous TT prof

I would never mention a particular professor. Why not just say "The strengths of your department align with my interests" and then name such strengths and how you could contribute. It's awfully presumptuous to say "I could collaborate with professor X" when you don't know if professor X will like you, will want to work with you, or will be put off by such familiarity. If someone said that about me, I think I would regard their work with extra scrutiny, like, if I'm supposed to *collaborate* with this person, they better be good, and I better like what they do.

Anon Postdoc

I can report anecdotally that I have heard from some people who have served on hiring committees that they place a lot of stock in cover letters. They have told me that this is largely because cover letters offer an efficient way to get a feel for the candidate and their fit for the position before deciding whether or not to read more of the application. Now, this does not necessarily mean the excessive tailoring of letters is a good use of your time, but it does mean that their importance shouldn't be disregarded. Fwiw, I have also heard many people say that they don't even read them. But, that's the nature of the job market. You have to cater to the entire committee, all of whom likely place different stock in different parts of the application.

Trevor Hedberg

Writing cover letters seems like one aspect of dossier preparation about which there is no agreement. I have been read or been told all of the following in the last few years:

(1) You need to go into detail in your cover letter.
(2) Long cover letters are a turnoff for committee members.
(3) You need to tailor your cover letter to the institution.
(4) You will not know enough about the faculty preferences or program needs to accurately tailor your letter, and some will view it as brown-nosing.
(5) Cover letters are an extremely important part of the application.
(6) Cover letters are rarely read and carry little weight in your application.

It's a nightmare trying to deduce which perspective (if any) is the most accurate. Generally, I've thus far treated letters similarly to my personal statement from graduate school applications: I lay out my relevant experience, qualifications, research interests, etc., and let the committee decide if I'm worth interviewing. Is that the right approach? I really don't know, though it seemed to work during my first run on the market.

Monday dude

Amanda, you now have a TT job and you had 25 interviews over two years?! I can't believe you seem to have such harsh feelings toward the job market given how well you've done relative to most of us. That is likely well deserved and not just brute luck, but if so, there's even more reason to adjust your feelings.


Hmmm... So, I agree with the OP that the advice to explicitly name-drop faculty members is widely circulated. Kelsky also seems to suggest it's a good idea (at least in moderation) in her book and in the following post:

Of course, something can be widely circulated advice (and even Kelsky-given-advice) and still be wrong, but I'm wondering if Amanda and anonymous TT prof might want to say a bit more about the view that one shouldn't name-drop at all.

On the other hand, I'd really like to hear more about what Round Two has in mind when they say "specific aspects of the undergraduate/graduate program at the institution". In my experience there's basically nothing at all to say about *that*; they're all pretty much the same. But maybe I just don't know what I'm looking for.

For concreteness, maybe(?) it would help to look at an example: I did my undergrad at Sacramento State. Suppose they were hiring. How would you tailor to the "specific aspects" of their program?

Anonymous TT prof

Tim, Sac state is hiring. I am not an expert here, I am only offering one perspective. But I also was fairly successful on the market. Name-dropping may work at big research institutions? I don't know. Those aren't the kinds of interviews I got.

My approach to tailoring my cover letter is basically to write a fresh one for each job. I do some basic research about the institution, what kinds of courses they offer, what courses might be welcome, what they seem to care about. And then I imagine myself there, and think about what would be attractive about that, to them. Here are courses I would be excited to offer, here are ways that I could contribute to your graduate program, here is something that shows up on my teaching evals which shows that I would serve the demographic of students at your institution well. If I mention research fit, I talk in generalities, e.g., your department is strong in the history of subfield x, I work in sub field x, I believe we could have productive exchanges, etc. Of course, different institutions will care about different things. Princeton isn't going to care about how I can contribute to their gen ed requirements. And a school with a 4/4 teaching load isn't going to care about my research so much, except insofar as it indicates that I would be pleasant to bump into in the hallway and there aren't going to be tenure problems. So part of tailoring is figuring out what things to talk about.


Well shit! I feel like I should have known Sac State was hiring. Anyways, I guess you now know something my AOS *isn't*.

Thanks for your response, btw! Much of what you call "basic research" are things that it would never have occurred to me to look into. Also it would never have occurred to me to mention things that show up on my teaching evals in my cover letter. So all around this was an incredibly useful exchange.


Monday dude I am not sure what you mean by I have "such harsh feelings on the job market". I am also not sure why you seem to assume my feelings on the job market overall should be judged according to my individual experience, as I am only one person out of thousands on the market. My judgement about the job market overall is based not only on my experience, but listening to others on the market and other search committee members.

If you are referencing my long discussion earlier, I still say that no individual can know what factor contributed to them not getting a job. I took strategy very seriously when on the market, and I also had 8 publications. FWIW, at my grad program 3 other women went on the market my year, none got a job other than adjudicating, and only 1 of those 3 had any interviews. I feel kind of gross saying this stuff because I dislike anything that might be called "bragging", but I just want to make my point. All of that said, I don't doubt that some interviews were because they wanted to interview a woman. (although I can't know this for sure). That still doesn't change my overall perspective that it is a very rare case in which an individual could know their gender was the cause of getting or not getting a job.

Ps not all 25 interviews were TT. Maybe 15, just a guess.

As for my advice about not mentioning specific faculty members. I can't really explain it. I just kind of get a "roll my eyes reaction" when I think about that. It seems presumptions to think you will work with someone, and it also seems a bit disingenuous that one is interested in that place because they get to work with someone. Come on we are all trying to get a job. When I told the committee in my cover letter I had such and such to offer, that seemed more real. In the end, I really tried to be myself in my cover letters. Being genuine and sincere, and writing the letter in a way I might actually talk to someone, was one of the consistent things I did in all my letters.


I have tried everything with cover letters. These days I no longer customize. I have what I think to be a very strong cover letter that is totally honest to my CV, my skills, experiences, and talents. The way I see it is if a school wants someone like me, my cover letter will make it very clear that I am that person. Trying to fake being someone I am not, doesn’t seem particularly worthwhile. The job market is so bad that I don’t think this strategy is going to make me stand out. If there is someone at the school who likes my research they can clearly see what I am working on and what I will be working on the next 4 or so years. They can decide whether they think collaboration is possible. They are in a better position to do this than I am. I have a solid research agenda that can result in articles for years to come. Also, I, like Amanda, find mentioning scholars by name and talking of potential collaborations to be in poor taste. Maybe we’re in the minority. But so be it! You only need one committee to like you.

Don't do it!

I work at a small liberal arts institution that will have hired 3 TT professors in 4 years and I've chaired the committee each time (we're hiring the 3rd person this year).

You have very little to gain from name dropping and have a much better chance of making search committee members just shake their head at your shot-in-the-dark attempt to make us think you've read enough of our work to actually say something meaningful about it.

Do make us believe that you actually took the 3 minutes necessary to put the school's name in your letter. Even better, if you can do some research about the program or region and say something meaningful about that, that is more likely to impress.


Don't do it!: What kinds of things are worth saying about the program or region? I've heard this kind of advice many times, but haven't figured out how to take it, because I have no idea what the advice is advice to do. I worry that, if I do try to say anything about the program or the region, I'll just end up sounding desperate.


I want to second NK's comment. People give advice to "say something about the program" quite often. But, being frank, it looks to me like basically all programs within the same level are the same. That is, with a *very* small number of outliers, all liberal arts colleges look to me to have the exact same philosophy program. And all R1's have the same philosophy program. Etc.

So, while I'd love to say something unique about the program at a particular school, every time I try, I draw a blank. I end up with nothing to say. Because there's nothing (that I can see) *to* say.


Some things I've said about programs include:

1. I would love to get involved with your philosophy club/debate team.

2. I really like that your program is a philosophy/religion, philosophy/humanities department.

3. I noticed your philosophy program caters to pre-law students and I think I fit well with that because...

4. I noticed that your program thrives on fulfilling the intensive writing requirement and I have taught a lot of writing centered courses...

5. I noticed your town is close to lots of museums which has always been a hobby of mine.

Those are just a few examples.

Don't do it!

Amanda is right. Anything you can say that demonstrates you've taken some (any) time to look at the program or region is a benefit.

Doing this won't land one a job, but I find it does invest me more in candidates - it allows one to cut through the crowd much more easily. The observation or remark doesn't have to be groundbreaking, but especially at smaller schools, you'd be surprised how often search committee members acknowledge these things in passing. To suggest comments like this aren't important would be wrong.

Sara L. Uckelman

I've been in a number of longlist to shortlist meetings in the last couple of years, and the tailoring of cover letter (or lack thereof!) makes a significant difference. It helps to think about it from the perspective of the committee, the people who are in a position to welcome a new colleague that they are likely to work with for decades. The question they're asking is "why does this person want to work here?" and the answer had better be something more than "this person wants to work anywhere".

In my own cover letter for the job I have now, I mentioned the existence of an interdepartmental institute that I looked forward to collaborating with, and connections I had to another department in the university. I also included this:

"I first visited Durham about five years ago; in our short visit there, my husband and I both fell in love with the city, and decided that if there was ever an opportunity to apply to the philosophy department, we should take it. We have lived in Europe for nearly a decade and have no intention to move back to the U.S., preferring instead to settle down permanently in an English-speaking European country."

Who knows if that made a difference, but it's certainly something specific to Durham that I couldn't have said about any other place!

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