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« Propriety, good structures, and justice -- thoughts on leadership in academia | Main | Mentoring program: mentee feedback »

07/03/2019

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Jimnothan

There's a lot to say about this topic, but I've never been on a committee, so I just wanted to mention something about the paragraph on your research. I was just looking over my cover letters from last year, and in at least four of the letters for places where I got a first-round interview, I only had a single sentence about my research in the first paragraph. In the second paragraph I launched immediately into teaching, and then on to other things later, never coming back to research at all.

I don't know how useful this will be to people, but I would say, read the job ads extremely carefully. Often there are clues about the balance of components to have in your cover letter, especially in terms of whether and how much to talk about research.

Chris

Good points here! In light of the ambiguities Anon mentions, I think it would help for search committees to give a brief summary of what they are looking for in a cover letter as part of the job ad. For example, "please include a cover letter that briefly describes X, Y, and Z." This would help candidates and also make life easier for search committees, since most cover letters would then follow a similar pattern to quickly give them what they need to know.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Chris: I'm not sure what ambiguities you are referring to. The very function of a job ad is to list the things a search committee is interested in. Trust me, I've written or edited four separate job ads now. In each case, we've as precise as possible about what we are looking for.

In short, go by the job ad. If X, Y, or Z is listed in the ad, then your cover letter should probably address it. There's no reason for a job ad to say in addition, "Oh, and by the way, even though we already listed it, please be sure to describe X, Y, and Z."

Candidate McCandidateface

Marcus, I think you're being wildly uncharitable to Chris's point. I went back and looked at the job ads your university posted and, indeed, they're useful. More frequently, one sees the following (lifted directly from philjobs):

"The Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at California State University, East Bay, invites applications from exceptional teacher-scholars for a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Philosophy position starting August, 2020, with specialization in the History of Philosophy. The successful candidate will be expected to teach undergraduate courses in Philosophy, especially in the History of Philosophy and related courses. Please note that teaching assignments at California State University, East Bay may include courses at the Hayward, Concord and Online campuses.

The successful candidate will join a university that is one of the most diverse student populations in the country, and that values quality teaching, advising, and mentoring. The Philosophy & Religious Studies Department seeks applicants eager to engage and support the university's commitment to providing a quality learning experience in a multicultural setting.

The semester teaching load at CSUEB is 4/4, however new hires will receive a course reduction of 2 courses per year for the first two years of their assignment in order to focus on research and professional development. In addition to teaching, all faculty have advising responsibilities, assist the department with administrative and/or committee work, and are expected to assume campus-wide committee responsibilities."

If I followed your advice, it seems I'd end up with this horribly bad letter:
---
Dear Search Committee,

I'm an exceptional teacher-scholar applying for the tenure-track Assistant Professor of Philosophy position starting August, 2020 being advertised by The Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at California State University, East Bay. My specialization is in the History of Philosophy, specifically [something specific]. I have experience teaching a range of undergraduate courses in Philosophy, especially in the History of Philosophy and have also taught many related courses. Here are examples. I would also be happy to teach at the Hayward, Concord and Online campuses.

I am excited about joining a university that has one of the most diverse student populations in the country, and that values quality teaching, advising, and mentoring. I am eager to engage and support the university's commitment to providing a quality learning experience in a multicultural setting.

Teaching four courses each semester is something I'm prepared to do. During my first few years, I will use the course reduction of 2 courses per year to focus on research and professional development. In addition to teaching well, I will be a good advisor, administrator, and committee member, and look forward to assuming campus-wide committee responsibilities as well.

Thanks for reading my bland af letter! I hope it didn't make you want to die.

Sincerely,

Candidate McCandidateface
---
Only small amounts of that were sarcasm.

Here's the deal: I genuinely believe you when you say that you think job ads make very clear what the job letter should sound like. And you're right, some job ads do. I also think it's totally not true that job ads, as they are standardly written, generally manage to communicate to candidates what they should put in their letter. So what Chris was asking for seems completely reasonable to me.

Marcus Arvan

Candidate: I’m sorry if I was uncharitable, but this is going to surprise you...I actually think what you wrote is an outline of a *good* letter, minus the implicit sarcasm and the fact that it didn’t include an introduction to your research and teaching. I’m not kidding. Good letters *are* “bland”.

Marcus Arvan

Addendum: the blandness thing is actually something I learned from my job-market consultant. I thought the materials she helped me put together were “too bland”. That’s the *point*. Your materials are not supposed to “sell” you. That’s the mistake everyone makes. Your materials should simply *show* who you are and how you fit the job, no more and no less. Making your materials less “bland” (i.e. selling yourself) is what comes off badly. Basically, take what you *think* a good letter should do (not be bland), and do the opposite of that. Then you’ll have a good letter. That’s what i learned from my consultant, and it’s what got me a job. And I can attest to the accuracy of the lesson as a search committee member.

Postdoc

I really don’t know but many other people with jobs seem to think your letter should sell you, and that you should talk yourself up as much as possible. These people probably wrote letters like this themselves, and they have jobs. The natural letter I would have written would be quite bland, but this went contrary to what most told me. Anyway, I don’t know, but it’s certainly strange the degree of disagreement.

C McC

So... the goal is for the letter to be *un*informative? Y’all have weird ideas about what you want from applicants. I guess I just find it deeply hard to believe that your view isn’t weirdly idiosyncratic. It seems like what you want is for applicants to copy/paste the job ad and then fiddle with grammar... because that’s literally all I did with the letter I assumed you’d find bad.

C McC

OTOH, if literally the copy/paste thing is a good trick, then folks, remember that you heard it here first.

Marcus Arvan

C Mc: I think you’re missing the point. The point isn’t to copy and paste from the ad. The point is that the letter should *address* the ad in a way that shows that what you have accomplished actually addresses what the people who wrote the ad literally wrote they are looking for. You would be surprised (shocked, I think) at how many candidates don’t do this very basic thing—who write long soliloquies about how they’ve published in The Best Journals Ever when they are applying for a job with a 4:4 load looking for someone who teaches in areas X, Y, and Z.

But hey, if you want to interpret my advice uncharitably, feel free. All I am saying is that (A) I know two other people who used the job consultant I used who immediately got jobs after using her, (B) I used her following their advice, thought she made my stuff bland, and I *immediately* doubled my number of interviews and got a TT job, and (C) when I’ve read cover letters on four search committees the ones that come off best are exactly like the one she taught me to write and the ones that come off worst are the ones that look like the candidate is desperate to prove that they are the Best Philosopher Ever.

Anyway look, if you think I don’t know what I’m talking about, you can make that judgment. I’m honestly trying to help, and am honestly baffled why you seem so interested in mocking my advice.

Marcus Arvan

I will say that when my consultant first helped me revise my materials, I was *incredulous*. I thought the "bland" stuff she helped me craft would never work. I was so terribly wrong. The point (I learned from her) is not so much about the content of what you write but rather the persona you project. If you look desperate to prove yourself, you come across like someone who doesn't belong...like a desperate person looking for a date (hint: no one wants to go out with someone desperate). In contrast, if you write like you have nothing to prove (viz. "here I am, and here's how my background addresses everything in the ad you just wrote"), you look like you belong--like you're a professional. And people want to hire professionals who quietly project that they belong.

Marcus Arvan

Just to clarify: no, the aim isn’t to be uninformative. Your letter *should* informative...but it should address as many parts of the job as possible in the most straightforward terms, showing how your past experience and accomplishments address the things the job lists without “talking yourself up.” The joke letter you wrote was a good framework in that sense: the sense that (unlike a lot of actual letters) it actually talked about the *ad*, the very thing the people hiring literally wrote explaining what they are looking for. A good letter addresses those things in detail. So if you took the basic framework you copied and pasted and filled it out with your *actual accomplishments*, then yes, it would be a great letter: better than most (since most don’t even show a passing familiarity with the job ad). At least your mock letter showed you read the ad, which too many letters don’t. That was my only point when I said it was a framework for a good letter.

C McC

Look man. I used Kelsky too. And, like you, I got a job after I used her. And I thought the advice she gave me led me to write something utterly completely different from what you say you want.

But the real point is this: what you seem to *think* is that every job ad clearly tells candidates what should be in their letter. But this is patently false. Many job ads come nowhere close to being transparent. (I recall one from Rochester a few years back that basically said “apply with a complete dossier” with no explanation of what that included). Also many job ads that committees *take to be* transparent are wildly opaque to applicants. I just don’t think it’s trivial to judge these things, and your answer to Chris suggested it was. The job-ad->letter transition is *fucking hard*. And for *the vast majority of ads* what the committee wants in a letter is deeeeeeply difficult to discern. I can see your pissed, but I don’t get why you’re denying this. Surely you recall this being difficult?

Marcus Arvan

C McC: I guess i just don’t think it’s hard. Rochester is a research university—so of course their ad was vague. Research universities don’t typically know what they are looking for precisely: they just want the best damn researcher they can get in the AOS they’re advertising in. That seems simple and obvious to me. Other ads are very precise, because they know exactly what they want. So again, it seems obvious to me: address the ad. If the ad is vague and for a research school, just talk about your research—as that’s what they’re interested in. On the other hand, if the ad is precise, speak to that. As for your experience with Kelsky, I think it is telling that you got a job after using her too. But I am surprised to hear you say you didn’t get the same advice. When I read a cover letter of a friend who used her, it was “bland” and straightforward in precisely the ways that Kelsky taught me to write mine—so evidently my friend got similar advice from her that I did.

Perhaps there is some miscommunication then between you and I, as again I’d be surprised if we got different advice. To clarify (again), the advice I got from her wasn’t to simply cut and paste from job ads. It was to simply and as matter of factly as possible explain my research, teaching, and fit to the job without “selling” anything. Did you really receive different advice than that?

C

The point of the Rochester example was that they didn’t even say what materials they needed. Wtf is a “complete dossier”? Does it include anything about teaching? A paper? A dissertation abstract?

(Side note: when I asked, the person responding was a southern about it)

The fact of the matter, and I can’t believe I have to convince you of this, is that there just are poorly written job ads. Sometimes (like in the example I have) you can’t tell what materials are required. Sometimes you can’t tell what the committee wants. Sometimes it’s not obvious what’s HR mumbojumbo and what’s not. And so on. You find yourself reading hundreds of job ads, many of them badly written, and you lose touch with how to read the good ones too.

Man this is just ordinary Being A Job Candidate 101. You’ve gone through it. You know this happens. So why pretend like it doesn’t?

And yeah your description of Kelsky does not jive with what I went through. I left feeling almost the exact opposite of what you felt. She repeatedly told me that I was downplaying my accomplishments, not emphasizing my contributions or unique teaching skills, etc. what I was left with was a letter that felt (to me) much bolder than what I’d started with.

C

Lol “was a southern” was supposed to be “was a douche”.

A Southerner

C,
LOL: how did “was a douche” become “was a southern”.
That is good!

Marcus Arvan

C: see, to me the Rochester thing seems obvious. A complete dossier standardly consists of a cover letter, CV, research statement, teaching statement/portfolio, and letters of recommendation. I will happily admit that I had trouble crafting a good cover letter (until Kelsky helped me). But I never felt like poorly written job ads were a part of the problem. It’s honestly something that never would have occurred to me until this thread. So perhaps I’m just idiosyncratic!

Anyway, I do find it surprising that Kelsky seems to have given you different advice. She certainly did advise me to mention my accomplishments in my letter—in detail, in fact, since mentioning your accomplishments demonstrates fit to the job. What she did, though, is have me stop trying to “sell” those accomplishments or play them up, cutting out unnecessary bits of emphasis and so on. She also helped me see that my former letter (like many letters in her experience) was too vague, making broad claims about my research and teaching instead of being precise and concrete. Who knows. Perhaps you and I just naturally err in different directions, and that explains the apparent difference in advice we received. Perhaps you underplayed your accomplishments, not noting enough of them in letter. I don’t know. But it is interesting, because it does sound like her advice to you was different than the advice that I and the other people I know who used her received.

A Philosopher

I find your advice informative, Marcus. I also think there's some legitimacy to the concerns Mr. McCandidateface is raising. E.g., you listed what a "complete dossier" standardly consists of, but what goes in a teaching portfolio, *exactly*? If "complete dossier" really was that clear, then most job ads would just say that instead of listing out what they want.

Also, I definitely think the whole "be understated and professional" thing is the way to go. I remember job candidates coming for interviews at my R1 when I was a graduate student. With the ABD candidates or those who just finished you could tell they were nervous and new to the process, not quite comfortable in their skin, and sketchy about what to say and how to present themselves. But more senior people were (often) relaxed and seemed to have a strong sense of self: this is who I am, this is what I do, etc, and they were comfortable just flatly stating it. It came across much better. I always kept that in mind with how I wanted to present myself. I also imagine that a cover letter which is the analogue of that presentation also works better, as you suggest.

C

IIRC, Rochester didn’t think a teaching portfolio was part of a “complete dossier”, though a teaching statement was. I find it 100% non obvious what should be included in a “complete portfolio”. Diversity statements are pretty standard now. About 50% of jobs still ask for a dissertation abstract. The number of letters of red varies widely. Etc etc.

But the point is something more general: oftentimes SCs *think* candidates will get this or that message from a job ad when in fact they won’t. This isn’t entirely on SCs (the Rochester one was). But who’s at fault is t really what matters. What matters is that correctly interpreting job ads is sometimes nontrivially difficult.

C

Sorry to keep harping on this, but it’s something I Cade about.

The problem I have with the advice you’re giving, Marcus, is that you’re presenting it as one-size-fits-all advice, but it emphatically *isn’t*. When a Kelsky worked with me, she had me do lots of things to my letters that very much felt like “selling myself”. If I were to portray myself in a way that felt accurate, I would have been (according to her at least) selling myself short.

If I had to guess, you’re giving advice about how to write a letter that fails to stand out as bad. But you can do that without writing a letter that does enough to highlight what’s good about you as a candidate. The result might well be a letter that comes across as a perfectly good letter for a crappy candidate. And that’s just as bad as the first option.

The thing is, I had no idea which side of this divide I was on. I couldn’t tell if I was writing letters that over- or under-sold me. If I’d tried to follow your advice I’d have ended up in an even worse place.

This is the whole problem with cover letters. As a candidate I have exactly zero idea how to write one. I just guess. And then SCs use the results of that guess to decide my fate. So it’s essentially a lottery. And that’s just plain silly.

Marcus Arvan

C: I appreciate that you care about this. I do too, which is why I spend so much time on this blog trying to share helpful advice, while encouraging others to weigh in with their own experiences and advice.

Anyway, I guess it’s hard to know what to know what you mean when you say Kelsky had you sell yourself in your letters, or how if you would have presented yourself in a way that felt accurate, it would be underselling yourself. She just had explain concisely but straightforwardly what was original about my research, what I am like as a teacher, and various other things I had accomplished. Then I took that template and tailored it to individual schools. My two friends who shared me their Kelsky-helped letters were basically similar. What kinds of things did she advise you to write that would “sell yourself”?

Anyway, I certainly have views about these things—particularly from my experience on the hiring side of things, where my experience was that selling oneself tends to come off poorly (which I’ve heard other people besides myself say). But I also ended this post noting “Anyway, these are just my thoughts. What are yours, those of you who have served on search-committees?”. So I definitely don’t take myself to be last word or Complete Truth on these matters. All I can do is share my own answers to people’s questions, invite others to share their experiences, and let readers decide where the balance of evidence lies.

c

Essentially everything that I did that amounted to saying “what was original about my research” felt like selling myself. The truth is I took the kind of objection and response typically made over here and did the exact same thing over there. There’s nothing terribly original about that. Saying it was original felt sketchy and dishonest to me. But part of that’s just my imposter syndrome speaking up — everything I say that sounds like I did something good sounds sketchy and dishonest to me. I suspect many other folks are in the same boat. So when I heard advice about not selling myself I ended up leaning into it. My letters were nice and good and sold me as an utterly uninteresting unoriginal and moderately bad philosopher. TBH that’s still how I feel about myself. But my letters no longer sell me that way, thanks to Kelsky.

Marcus Arvan

c: interesting, I think that might clear up a lot.

It doesn't sound to me like Kelsky taught you to sell yourself. As you put it, you may have a natural tendency to "undersell" yourself (or sell yourself short), not treating your accomplishments or the originality of your work for what they are (I have a hard time believing your work isn't original!). It sounds like what Kelsky had you do was learn not to shrink from your accomplishments, and to clarify the (genuine) sense in which your work is original (even if, as you put it, you don't feel that way about it).

In this regard, I can't help but wonder whether you are unlike a lot of candidates--many of whom err far on the other side (selling themselves far too much, whereas your tendency was to *downplay* your accomplishments and work. Anyway, if this is right, then it's not clear that she gave you and me different advice. Her advice to me was: just present your accomplishments and try to explain the (genuine) originality of your research and teaching in one paragraph each. It sort of sounds like she had you do that too, unless I'm still missing something.

In any case, I think you are right to draw attention to these potential individual differences. I still suspect that more candidates fall on the other side of things, but it's important to note that there may be candidates like yourself whose natural tendency is to overly downplay themselves (which I don't think is good either!).

To bring it back to the general lesson I feel like I learned from Kelsky, the trick is to come across not as arrogant (selling oneself too much) nor as self-deprecating (underselling yourself), but simply as quietly confident. Would you say that is an accurate rendition of what she tried to get you to do (again, setting aside the subjective sense that it *feels* like selling yourself)?

C

Yes. That’s right. And the general lesson is that she’s well worth the money.

The problem is that I don’t think it’s easy to judge *of yourself* which side you fall on. And if you misdiagnose which problem you’re facing, you’re as likely to exacerbate the issue with any response you make as you are to improve matters. So I genuinely feel like, absent expert advice, candidates are honestly in the dark about letters and not really in any position to write good ones. So SCs shouldn’t use them.

Marcus Arvan

Yeah, I was thinking that too. She does seem to be worth the money. I’ve known a bunch of people who’ve used her now who got tenure-track jobs (and to my recollection only maybe one person I know who didn’t land a job after using her). And I think your diagnosis is probably right: she’s an expert at figuring out *how* one is erring in one’s materials. I’ve tried to convey what I think I’ve learned from her for free in the Job Market Boot Camp, and I’ve heard anecdotally that people have used the boot camp posts to good effect (getting jobs). But I still suspect there is probably no real substitution for an expert eye. Even after I got help from her, I still think I probably made some mistakes in revising my materials (as my research program progressed and I updated it). Anyway, I guess I probably agree with you that cover letters are more trouble than they are worth. Seems to me that a person on the hiring end of things should be able to learn enough from reading the rest of the materials, which are more directly a matter of substance and accomplishments. But, as I’m sure you know from working with her, pitching the research and teaching statements well aren’t easy either!

David Wallace

A search-committee perspective:

Your application is about sixty pages long, much too long to be read carefully by the SC at least on first pass. So at least one important task of the CL is to draw the reader’s attention to CV points that might be missed on a skim-read of your CV. What do you want people to notice on your CV? Work it out and mention it in the CL.

Chris

Hi, Chris here again! My original comment was a response to how, as Marcus has said in the past, some schools read a lot into the cover letter (and look for specific things), while other schools don't.

If a school is just looking for the basics, then they would not need to follow my advice. In contrast, if there's a school filtering candidates based on whether their cover letter discusses their ability to teach small seminar classes, or their support for the school's religious identity, or their work with diverse students, etc., then it helps for the school to come out and say this, as some schools do.

The unfortunate thing is when a school is ambiguous in the job ad, but then very strict in excluding candidates who fail to show enthusiasm for X, Y, or Z in the cover letter. When schools are "fishing" for certain answers like this, it falls short of aligning the job ad with what they are really using to evaluate candidates.

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