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for candidates

Hi Marcus
Your post focuses on what cover letters are for from the perspective of the search committee members. They also serve valuable functions for the applicants. They are a chance to highlight things in the application package that are most impressive - and deserve to be said again, so they are not overlooked - and also things that are most relevant to the job.
"I recently published a paper on ... in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science".
"I have taught bioethics several times, including to nursing students ..."
"I am currently collaborating on a project on ... with Donald Davidson"
"I completed my undergraduate degree at a state university in Missouri and I have a good sense of the challenges and opportunities of teaching at ..."

not a search committee member

This is a really interesting topic. I've never been on a search committee, but can contribute some anecdotal evidence about the value of different types of cover letters. Of the jobs I've applied for over the years, there was no significant difference in success (in terms of a first round interview) based on whether I used a boiler plate cover letter or a very tailored cover letter (where I discussed things like how I'd teach specific classes). If anything, I've gotten slightly more interviews from apps with boiler plate letters, especially when the job was for my AOS rather than "Open."

a philosopher

Although writing cover letters is very draining and takes a huge amount of time (sometimes 3-4 hours each), I find it one of the best parts of the application process. Unless it's an open/open job at a top research school with no real needs that's obviously just looking for The Best(tm) candidate, I write a custom letter. This letter will mix-and-match parts from other letters, but will include new material that specifically addresses whatever needs are noted in the ad, plus whatever else I feel is relevant given what's on the department's website and what I know of the place. Since I just don't apply to a job if it's a stretch, I always have *something* to say in these letters about how I address the department's needs. This spiel typically feels genuine to me and is a nice opportunity for self reflection and contextualization as well.

Perhaps there isn't "really" a point to all this, in some final cold analysis of how a job search "should" be run, but from my perspective, as a candidate, the point is pretty clear: it's my chance to make my own case for why I'm a good fit for the job. Despite the energy and time this takes, I'm glad for the opportunity.


Is it a good idea to specify certain philosophers that you'd be interested in collaborating with?


LM: This question is asked a lot, and of course, one answer is there can't be one answer because some faculty like it, and others don't. But overall, my recommendation would be against doing. I'm welcome to hear other perspectives, but from what I've seen the risk is higher than the reward. Many philosophers see it as sycophantic and off-putting, others worry about you taking over their classes, some see it as pretentious, others thing to themselves that they just don't have the time or desire to collaborate with a junior faculty member, etc. For all these people, it would annoy them quite a bit. For those who like it, I don't get the impression they like it so much it would be a major advantage.

on the market

I have heard from enough folks at this point that unless it is explicitly a teaching school, then research should always be discussed in pretty serious detail in a cover letter. I don't mean I've heard you should drone on about your dissertation, but you should certainly discuss your research past and present in some detail. Are you saying this isn't quite true, Marcus?

As far as tailoring goes, whenever I find myself doing it, I can't help but feel as if it sounds insincere. It's not: but if I was on a search committee and some one says, "I would enjoy working with the Philosophy Club," I am not sure I'd believe them. So can we really trust that search committee members won't find MOST of what goes in a cover letter off-putting? This leads me to the thought that Cover Letters are there just so that you can trip up, make a mistake that annoys some one, which allows the pile to shrink.

a philosopher

I'm only a job applicant myself, but it just seems silly to me. What are the odds, if I name specify faculty members I might work with in some way, that the person reading my cover letter thinks "ah, yes, very good, that collaboration sounds great", vs "what? that's a stupid collaboration to suggest, for zillion reasons X, Y, Z, ...". I feel very safe in assuming that if I did this 100 times, I'd get the second reaction at least 90 times, probably more like 95-98. It takes a very special set of circumstances for substantive collaborations to work, and usually they have to arise organically.

I think I mentioned specific faculty once so far in my applications, and that was because the job ad seemed to me to be asking for a pretty demanding overview of how my work would complement the department's existing programs. And I did not say I was interested in collaborating with these faculty, I simply situated my own work w.r.t. theirs.

Marcus Arvan

on the market: yes, always discuss your research in a cover letter. You just don’t want your letter to focus so overwhelmingly on research when applying to teaching focused institutions. Some people do this and look completely out of touch with the kind of job they are applying to!

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