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“So, I think, is doing research on courses offered in the department. Which specific courses in the curriculum could you teach, given your background?”

Isn't there a risk here of stepping on other people's toes, though? I worry that if I make it seem that I'm interested in teaching specific courses that are already in a school's curriculum, someone on the search committee might think, “But that's *my* course." I suppose there wouldn't be as much of a risk here if I just mentioned some of the standard intro-level courses, such as intro to ethics, critical thinking, etc., since courses like these are less likely to “belong” to anyone in particular. But then, when it comes to courses that are that general, presumably the search committee will be able to immediately infer, just from looking at my AOS and AOC, that I'd be up for teaching them. In sum, I worry that mentioning specific courses that are already in the curriculum would be either risky or redundant. But I suppose I could simply be being paranoid about the first worry.


Should I send a cover letter to a school that does not ask for a cover letter in the ad?

Trevor Hedberg

This is not a response to the poster's question but rather something that I have been wondering about with regard to this issue: do search committee members believe it is reasonable to expect all applicants to do the level of research that is being suggested here? Most people I know who have had success on the job market applied to a ton of jobs -- 80-180. (Yes, I know someone who applied to 180 jobs last year; he got an excellent job, so it was not in vain.) Let's imagine that it takes, on average, one hour to find the information that's being suggested -- info on the department, course offerings, etc. -- and incorporate this into your cover letter in a way that's consistent with the rest of your application materials and creates a positive impression (rather than creating a negative one by brown-nosing or overestimating your fit or just being poorly written). Maybe that's an overestimate, but not all institution and department websites make it easy to find this information, and info on web pages is not always accurate or up to date. Plus, your efficiency in doing this tailoring will go down as you get mentally fatigued from completing so many applications.

In any case, if the tailoring cost is 1 hour per application, then that's 80-180 hours that's being added to the amount of time you have to spend on your applications. And I guarantee that completing 80 applications will eat up hundreds of hours of your time on top of this.

Surely search committees are aware of the circumstances that people face on the job market. Do they know this and still think that people with full-time, temporary positions should pour in this level of effort into tailoring their cover letters? While possibly teaching 3 or 4 classes per term and maybe having other duties (and hopefully a life outside philosophy)? Such an outlook seems to treat early career philosophers as application-producing robots rather than actual human beings. I'd think the better stage to address a candidate's interest in the institution is at the Skype interview phase.

There are some advertisements which specifically mention what out-of-the-ordinary things they request to be included in the cover letter. At least in that case, applicants don't have to guess or conduct research about what to include in their tailoring, which likely saves them considerable time and cognitive energy.

Marcus Arvan

Gradstudent14: that is a really good concern, and I’m glad you raised it!

Indeed, it is possible for a search committee member to get “territorial” over a course, and avoid a candidate who seems over-eager to teach it. The key, I think, is to be careful. This can be done in two ways.

First, pay close attention to any areas the job af mentions as teaching needs or wants. Some ads make it clear that the hire will be expected to teach course X. But I’ve seen many a job ad that indicate they are looking to hire someone to teach a range of courses in a given area (e.g. “courses in applied ethics”). Other job ads mention other types of courses they have teaching needs in. The key here is not to simply mention what the job ad says, viz. “I can teac course X and courses in biomedical ethics, etc.” This doesn’t show any indication that you bothered to do any research besides read the job ad. Instead, search the instituition’s catalog to see the course codes and the names of courses the institution actually offers. Then say something like, “I would be well prepared to teach your PHL 209: Biomedical Ethics course, etc.” That shows you did a least some homework.

Another thing to do is to read a bit about the faculty members in the department. If there is someone who focuses on subject Y and always seem to teach it (faculty webpages often lost their courses), then that’s probably one to stay away from: saying you’re enthusiastic about teaching *that* course very well could step on someone’s toes!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: it is indeed time-intensive, but actually I think there might be a lesson of sorts to learn here.

I get the general impression (one implied by your comment) that many candidates apply to as many jobs as humanly possible, looking to win the proverbial lottery ticket. I did that one year, applying for something like 90 jobs. It didn’t go well. Conversely, over the years I’ve heard more than a few stories of candidates who applied to fewer jobs but had *much* better success, in terms of interview numbers. I cannot help but wonder whether this issue might have something to do with it. If you’re applying to 90-100 jobs but all of your cover letters are boilerplate, with no real indication that you’ve done any background research on the department or institution, then although you’ve applied for a gazillion jobs, each of your applications is rather ho-hum. You are going to be competing against someone else who *did* put the work into their cover letter to tailor it to the job—and so their application may have an advantage over yours (again, I literally know of at least one case where someone wasn’t interviewed because their letter didn’t show they knew anything about the school).

Long story short, I suspect some candidates adopt a “spray and pray” approach of applying to as many jobs as possible, such that they don’t have enough time or energy to make their app stand out. As in other areas of life, this may be a place where quality matters more than quantity.

Anyway, in my final years on the market (when I did very well), I split the difference. I sent out boilerplate letters to schools I didn’t know that I was a good fit for—and prayed. But when it came to schools I *was* a good fit for, I put the work in on those, researching the place and tailoring my letters. It seemed to work, and wasn’t an unbearable burden (at least not anymore than the job market is more generally).

The common saying goes, "you need to pick your battles." Probably true, I think, when it comes to tailoring cover letters. It's not feasible to tailor 100 of them--so if you do apply to 100 jobs, tailor the ones for the jobs you think you have the best shot for.

Derek Bowman

Trevor: You're right that it's not a reasonable thing to ask of candidates, but under present hiring conditions that doesn't matter.

Search committee members aren't demanding these things of candidates, they are simply executing their own unenviable task of sorting through dozens of applications to find the right fit for their school. From their standpoint it's not unreasonable to prioritize a candidate who has succeeded in demonstrating the right kind of knowledge and interest in the job.

It would certainly be unreasonable for search committees to cast aspersions on candidates who haven't properly tailored their letters, or to infer that such candidates aren't interested in the job. But it's not unreasonable for them to weigh the evidence of demonstrated interest over the lack of such evidence in evaluating candidates.


Hi Trevor, I agree with you that it is time-consuming. But I think it is also worth realizing that most people (as far as I know) rank the jobs based on their backgrounds and spend more time on the ones that fit well.

This might be a separate topic but I am really curious to see how many jobs people apply to in general. I've been on the market for a couple of years and my AOS is neither ethics nor social/political phil. I heard that people applied to 80-100 jobs. But I just cannot find that many jobs. Do people really spend time tailoring materials for those jobs that ask for a different AOS?


Thanks for the response, Marcus! I think your suggestions are very plausible. The problem comes with implementing them. The specific problem I have is finding the things to say that will "show I've done research on the institution". You mention seeing whether "there particular initiatives currently taking place, such as a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP)".

If I had to guess, I'd say that (1) `quality enhancement plan' is adminspeak unique to your university (I've certainly never heard it mentioned at any of the half-dozen schools I've taught at), and (2) to most of us it is indistinguishable from the rest of the (mostly bullshit) adminspeak one finds strewn about university websites.

Another issue is that, being frank, departments just *aren't* all that unique. Or at least, they don't seem that way. I mean, look at the example you gave of something I might say: “I would be well prepared to teach your PHL 209: Biomedical Ethics course". Every university everywhere teaches biomedical ethics. What maybe makes this unique to your university is the number (PHL 209). But that's throwaway trash. Or am I wrong? Will literally saying the same thing but making the numbers match work across universities?

Same thing goes for other natural things that make a department `unique'. Oh wow! You have an ethics bowl team. (So do all the schools you compete against, of course...) Oh my! You're committed to inclusiveness. Etc.

Of course, I don't doubt there are things that the search-committee members *think* are unique about their institution. What I don't know is how to figure out what those things are.

another perspective

I do not think you should try to force a fit, especially with respect to stuff like Quality enhancement plan. I saw people interview for Dean positions that tried to sound like they knew what we were doing and they looked like asses. But you can make it clear that you read the ad. At many US state colleges HR departments have a heavy hand, and they may interfere if you do not explicitly address some of the points in the ad. Also, I do not think you need to list the course numbers, but it certainly helps if you can say you taught a similar course at another school.


I always personalized my cover letters simply by showing I read the ad. It seemed way too time-consuming to go look up individual departments before the interview stage. I did all right.


Trevor: I have to agree with Marcus here. No one is qualified for 180 (or even 50-75) jobs. There just aren't that many open/open positions out there. And just because the spray and pray method (I LOVE that) worked for one person does NOT mean its a good idea. And besides, did that person land a job that did not fit their AOS and qualifications? I have to think that it was the opposite. I definitely think its a good idea to at the least rank the jobs and tailor the letters for the jobs you are actually qualified for. 10-15 hours isn't going to kill you. You will waste a lot more time on the other 90 apps that are going straight into the recycling bin. Sorry, but that's just the harsh reality.


Paul: In 2017-18, Marcus counted 40 open jobs. He counted 36 in 2016-17. Since most of us have two AOSes, it's not at all inconceivable that someone might be qualified for 50-75, and even more when you get more international in your search, or when you start including non-TT jobs, which people are probably including when they report their numbers. If you can't find 50-75 jobs to apply to, then I suspect that something is going wrong with your search process.

I think we tend to overstate how time-consuming it all is (that, or we're not very efficient appliers!). The first time is by far the hardest and the most time-consuming, and there's no question that it eats up all kinds of time. But after a couple rounds of 50+, you get pretty good at it (you can also recycle your tailoring from previous years, or comparable institutions).

I apply to as many jobs as I can, which means about 75-120, all told (note: my primary AOS gets 0-2 jobs a year). Tailoring my cover letters doesn't take much time at this point--ten minutes or less, unless I'm a particularly good fit or really want that particular job, in which case I spend much more time tailoring. In the end, it doesn't really take all that much time, especially spread over a period of several weeks. It's much more time-consuming if you do all your applications in fits and starts, sending out 8-10 in a single day. Or when you have to generate an entirely new document, like a pitch for a specialized course (but that's rare).

Honestly, I quite like writing cover letters and sending out applications. I don't mind that part of the process at all.


It feels a bit dishonest to say I care about working at a particular institution when I usually don't. There are exceptions, but for the most part University A looks the same as University B. I just want to work at AN institution. There are certain cities I'd rather live in than others, but beyond that it's difficult to evaluate a university from their website. Without knowing how a department operates, it's difficult to know if I'd be a good fit.

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