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I've served on search committees only twice, so just my two cents. Never could anyone who didn't fit the job ad have made it to the interview round had they done the "small things", nor could anyone who did the "small things" have made it had they not fit the job. Fitting the job involves most of the "big things." Sure, small things can alter assessments at the margins, but I doubt that this can make a significant difference past the threshold of a well-put together application dossier where even small things may not be perfect. There's a wrinkle, though: some small blunders can stick. I'm not talking about typos and such. But small remarks in a cover letter and/or interview that indicate poor judgment or lack of interest reflect very badly on candidates, even compared to otherwise impressive assets. Small positive things, on the other hand, are nice but that's about it.

Marcus, I worry that your experience could only show what you take it to show if you could control for all other factors, including publications, courses taught, the particular jobs offered that year, etc. Of course, it's likely that many factors affected your odds holistically, including some small things. Still, I wouldn't waste too much time focusing on small things for jobs you don't fit. For those you do fit, there's a good chance the small things don't give that much of a boost compared to big things. I for one would never throw away or rank poorly a good application because of small things.


Hi Marcus,

Thanks for responding. I'll cede the floor to folks with more experience, but will just note that most of your examples of 'little things' don't seem all that little to me! So maybe we have more common ground than is apparent.


Edit: obviously I failed to delete a redundant part of the sentence: ‘Never could...’. Sorry about that.


Hi. I've been on multiple search committees. Here are some thoughts, of course they only represent one person.

Overall thought: the little/big thing is not that helpful of a distinction.

--Tone/not coming across as arrogant, not collegial, self-absorbed, a sycophant, etc. really matters.

--Exactly how your cv or any of your materials is formatted, which talks you choose to include, etc. basically doesn't matter *except* if you commit the sin of including stuff that is e.g. under review under the heading "publications" or otherwise distort things. (I think it's fine to list work under review, but in a clear separate section.)

--At my R1 university, your cover letter basically does not matter unless either (a) you say something off-putting in it or (b) we (as we sometimes do) ask you to address a particular part of the job description etc. in the cover letter. If (b), you should not ignore this (as a surprising number of otherwise well-qualified candidates do).

--For better or for worse, I think how clean/put together your whole file looks matters. Use the same font and formatting the whole way through, make the thing organized clearly so we can skip around, etc.

--Having your letters be consistent with what you yourself say in your materials matters. Mostly in bigger picture/philosophical ways. But also in other ways (e.g. if your dissertation advisor and you say two different things about whether you have a book contract and where, it is going to raise alarm bells).

--Your teaching statement matters a lot and it is the easiest place to reveal crappy things about yourself or accidentally "reveal" crappy things that are not even true of yourself. Even though my department mostly hires for research, we read teaching statements, both to see what kind of teacher you are and also to learn more about you as a person.

--Your website matters only in that you should not come off like an arrogant self absorbed person (see above), it's better on balance to have a photo but ok not to, and there is clear contact info for you on it. Also, that there are not inconsistencies between the materials you have on your website and materials you submit to us. (Putting things in different order is fine.)

not named bill

I think the issue here is what counts as "small things." The format of your teaching portfolio, or the tone of your teaching statement, for example, are not actually small things; they are really big. Obviously you need to have teaching experience--that is a necessary condition for most people. But the way you present that experience is incredibly important, and is the reason why good job documents take so long to create.

Marcus Arvan

anonymous writes: “I think how clean/put together your whole file looks matters.“

Yes, yes, 1000x yes. So many dossiers (particularly teaching portfolios, but also cover letters and research statements) seem quickly thrown together. Then you come across a dossier that is just sparkling: well-written, well-edited, and detailed—in ways that make it clear that the person is highly conscientious and put a great deal of effort into their file.

Some readers might think this is absurd: that we should judge files on their content rather than how well they are put together. However, the empirical literature actually suggests there is some validity to it. One of the better predictors of career accomplishment (believe it or not!) is the personality trait of conscientousness (particularly certain facets). A well put together file suggests that in addition to their tangible accomplishments (publications, teaching, etc.), the person under consideration is highly conscientious—something that very much does benefit organizations. Trust me, it’s vital to have dependable people in a department and university. Many departments have people (i.e. full-time faculty) who you can't depend on to get things done or get things done right. It can be a huge drag on resources, requiring other people to pick up the slack. So finding conscientious people can be very important indeed.


I once looked at the CV of every person who was hired in that year. I think it was 2016. I noticed one interesting similarity, in that the persons hired, or most of them, seemed to have a very similar organization of their CV that basically amounted to a thick line separating sections, i.e., the important commonality was that all of the CVs were very easy to read.

The people who are reading your CVs are tired and busy, and only have about 1/100th of an investment in the process as you do. So it is so important to make things easy on the search committees members. I tend to think a huge mistake is making cover letters and teaching statements, and even writing samples, too long.

The above however, are big things. The little things like maybe an extra teaching workshop or publishing a popular piece...I think they make a difference, sometimes. Remember the competitiveness of the market.The more competitive the arena in any area, the more likely the differences will come down to seemingly small things.

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