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08/17/2022

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anon

My R1 is in a place many people want to live. We all know it is an awesome place to live, so don't spend a quarter page explaining how excited you would be to live in our city. That's a quarter page that would be better spent addressing how you fit into what we want. I am continually surprised by how many applications we receive where the applicant make no serious effort to explain how they fit the job ad. (If we advertise for an ethicist and say we are not interested in political philosophy, please don't tell us in your cover letter how you can teach a variety of political theory courses as well as an ethics course.)

Daniel Weltman

Similarly to anon's advice, my university is in a place many people have never even considered living, and to the extent anyone has considered living here, many people would judge it to be undesirable. It helps if the cover letter shows at least some awareness of the fact that, if you were to get a job here, you would be living here, even if it's as minimal as "I don't have any particular attachment to the area but the job market is bad and I want a job anywhere."

Trevor Hedberg

I was on the job market off and on for the last 6 years and edited hundreds of cover letters. Every year, I looked for advice about what makes cover letters good. Outside of some of the most obvious things, such as briefly explaining how your credentials are a match for the job ad, there's really no consensus about how cover letters should be written. Even basic characteristics like how long they should be or the extent to which one should tailor their cover letter to a specific department, location, etc., are the subject of tremendous disagreement. So I generally just made my own judgments about these things. It worked out in the end, though I wonder if I could have done just as well with less work on cover letters -- I never detected any difference in success rate between the applications where I tailored my cover letters extensively vs the letters that were more generic.

Dan

I have been serving on search committees often in the past 5 years. The main problem I've seen with cover letters is that they often just repeat what is on one's CV, and they're pretty generic (one size fits all type). My view is that a cover letter is a candidate's chance to say something specific about the job they're applying for, and about the department they will work in. So, I recommend researching the people in the department, saying something about how potential collaborations with future colleagues might develop; research the courses THEY are offering and say how one's teaching experience might play a role there. In short, make an effort to give search committees the impression that the cover letter you use for a job is tailored to that job. It takes time and effort indeed (it is just easier to use the same cover letter for multiple applications) but i think it is worthwhile.

non-tt faculty

I've been wondering about this for quite some time. How difficult is it for search committees to see from a cv and a generic cover letter whether a candidate will be a nice fit for their institution?

anon

My own sense is that detailed tailoring (potential collaborations, etc.) is too much work and might get you nowhere. For instance, maybe the person you suggest collaborations with is tenured but checked out of active research, or just too busy with their family to co-write something with you.

But the tailoring that is essential is the tailoring they ask for in the job ad. If the job ad says they want someone who (e.g.) teaches a lot of content that's outside of the canon, then have a paragraph discussing your history of doing so.

Marcus Arvan

@anon: I agree. I too have heard it's a bad idea to suggest collaborations, as the person(s) you mention might not *want* to collaborate! In fact, people can be rather (I'd say, unreasonably) protective of what they take to be 'their own turf.' So, it can be a mistake to suggest that you want to work with them. Bizarre, I know, but my experience is that this kind of thing can be all too real.

I also think you are absolutely right that it is vital to tailor cover letters to things specifically mentioned in the job ad. I would just also add that I think it is absolutely vital--particularly for liberal arts colleges and universities--to show some knowledge of the university in the cover letter beyond cursory stuff. My experience is that people at these kinds of universities can be proud to be there and want to see that the candidate actually cares about where they are applying. Don't mention cursory stuff that you come across on the department website, such as the philosophy club. Departmental websites can be out of date. Focus instead on showing--in some brief way that doesn't take a lot of time--that you are good fit for the university. I'd say taking a look at the University's Mission and Values is a good way to go.

Michel

I confess that I don't really understand the advice to talk about collaborations. It seems to me like that's the kind of thinking/signalling that's appropriate for PhD programs and postdocs (especially), but it seems misplaced to me for a FT faculty position.

I wouldn't hold it against anyone who wrote that they wanted to collaborate with me (!), but it would seem pretty strange--when we're hiring, it's solely to find someone to teach (in our case, service courses). I'd imagine the same is true at research-intensive institutions: the priority is to find someone whose profile fits the department's desired areas of research productivity, and any anticipated collaboration is going to be quite low on the list of wants. Talk of collaboration is one way to suggest fit, but it seems like a strange and inefficient way to do it.

Perhaps this is a weird importation from advice pertaining to the sciences?

Humanati

I've served on a few search committees now in the UK. I don't hold it against candidates when they use a generic cover letter. But I find that I do tend to appreciate it when they provide a tailored one. The reason is simple: providing a tailored letter can help to give the committee the impression that you really want and care about the job.

Personally, I've never come across candidates suggesting *collaboration* with other staff members at our institution. More often, I see them mentioning 'interesting overlaps' with particular staff members' work, or drawing attention to the fact that their work in (e.g.) epistemology nicely complements Professor Z's work in (e.g.) epistemic injustice.

I agree with the suggestion that a cover letter gives you a good opportunity to say things that you haven't been able to fully communicate in a CV. I might suggest that it also gives you a good opportunity to *emphasise* things in your CV that you don't want the search committee to overlook. For instance, if the committee is looking for someone to teach in areas A,B, and C and you have only taught in area C once, be sure to emphasise in the cover letter that you do indeed have some experience in the area and that you are keen to hone your skills further.

And yes, tailoring to the job ad is essential. If you have experience teaching in areas A-F but the committee is really looking for teachers in areas B-D, then that's presumably what you should focus upon when you mention teaching in the cover letter.

Bill Vanderburgh

The consensus seems to be to tailor cover letters to the specific job. I agree (after chairing several searches over the last few years) that it is important to show how you would be a good fit. The real question, though, is how to do that. Two recommendations for candidates:

You will have some common elements in any cover letter. A description of your educational background (including date of completion), a quick review of teaching experience/evals, research areas (including dissertation summary--this can be shorter than you think, especially for teaching institutions), experience with service, and perhaps a diversity statement in a few sentences.

Other material can be finessed for the specific job. Do this by looking at the job ad itself, and making comments about the specific required and preferred qualifications listed there. This includes how you list and discuss your AOS and AOCs. (BTW, make sure the cv you submit doesn't describe them differently.)

If you go through this process and find you don't meet the qualifications in the ad or don't meet them well, that's a good indication that you should not bother to apply. Competition is extremely high, and people who are not good fits are not getting hired. Fit is the most important consideration for hiring committees (though that means something different in every circumstance).

Manny

This discussion really winds me up. Committee members should acknowledge that people on the market are applying for 10s of jobs, with little hope of getting any particular one—each of which already takes up to a couple of hours to apply for. To put any additional weight on how much further tailoring an applicant does for a specific job (when they've likely already tailored some of their documents to fit with idiosyncratic requirements), is to make an already awful experience (and, for each application, almost certainly a waste of time) even worse.

At the first stage: CV, writing sample, research statement, teaching portfolio with max 2 syllabuses—all generic. Anything else is an abuse of power.

If you later want to request further information, then do so.

Early career

Not a search committee member, but a junior candidate instead.

To the qualm that one has to spend hours tailoring one’s job app to a specific search, maybe this way of thinking can help: with a few hours’ work, you may get a 1-3 years appointments/TT position in return. It is well worth the time and effort!

At least this helps me a lot in patiently going through pages after pages of the hiring schools, landing two offers in the end (as an ABD), and getting to know more about different departments/programs/special initiatives. It does eat up my research time for the whole job season, but I also get to learn a lot through this process.

Bill Vanderburgh

I wish I could agree with Manny. But considerations on both sides push in the other direction. On the department side, they have received permission to hire for a narrowly defined set of requirements. Their dean and HR department will (normally) not let them hire someone who fails to meet the required and show well on the preferred qualifications. Departments therefore *need* to know if candidates meet those qualifications, and the cover letter is the best place for the candidate to make their case.

On the candidate's side, competition is so high that NOT making a good effort to demonstrate fit for the job is likely disqualifying in many cases. With dozens or hundreds of applications to each position, committees are looking for reasons to reject, and not making an obvious case for fit can be such a reason. As in tenure cases, the burden is on the candidate to prove that they meet the expectation.

In a job market where the odds of success in any one application are low, candidates seem to be incentivized to apply to many jobs. But unless the candidate is a good fit for the job, and demonstrates it, they aren't going to get that job. My advice to those bothered by the (admittedly, large) burden of tailoring applications is to only apply for jobs that are a good fit. Surely there are _few_ candidates that are genuinely a good fit for widely different jobs, and so the tailoring for one good-fit job will likely carry over to the others.

Or think of it this way. Spending a couple of hours on each application is not much, really, compared to the hoped-for rewards. How many weeks would you work to secure what amounts to a lifetime appointment?

Manny

I don't see how those HR considerations bear upon it. Unless the HR considerations are much stricter than those advertised in the job advert, then a 5 line generic cover letter is, 9 times out of 10, sufficient to show that one meets those qualifications. E.g. for a TT job AOS ethics: "I have a PhD in X from Y. My areas of specialisation are ethics and blah. My dissertation was about blah and my its central chapters have been published in Journal blah and blah. To date, I have taught X Y and Z. See the rest of the application for further information."

In the vast majority of ads there is nothing extra to demonstrate as far as I can tell. (Perhaps I'm missing something?) In which case, the generic cover letter should be fine. (If I am missing something then the job adverts should be more explicit. UK adverts are generally like that—fair enough.)

On the candidate side, my point is that departments shouldn't take into account stuff that one can easily BS into a cover letter, but it just takes time to do. I could easily spend much time researching blah blah blah about why I love the department in question and the location and blah blah blah and fill every cover letter with such details........my claim was that it shouldn't count for anything and departments should recognise that and disregard it—at least until later on (i.e. when it can be discussed in interview and BS-ing is easy to detect). What I can't BS is where I got my Phd, where my work is published, what it's about (and thus my AOSs/Cs) and that is covered in a generic cover letter.

Regarding your last paragraph: spending $5 on a lottery ticket isn't much relative to the hoped for rewards either.......

my2cents

I think it depends a lot on hiring departments. I work in a small department. When we hire someone, literally every department member but the chair is on the search committee. We also have heavy teaching loads. So, we just have no time to read anything other than cover letters and CVs for the first round.

Thus, we want to read informative cover letters. I would say that the cover letter is the place for you to highlight what single(s) you out--research, pedagogy, public engagement, or whatever makes you an attractive candidate. I personally do not mind reading longer cover letters; it is easier for me to read two additional paragraphs than looking for further information in other materials.

UK-Based Thoughts

Some more thoughts (speaking with experience now from both sides having until recently been on the market, and have now sat on hiring panels at a Russell Group uni; comments mainly reflective of UK market - millage may vary for other places):

1) I see no reason why, at the initial stage, anything except cover letter and CV is needed. Teaching statements are largely generic and any interesting elements can be in the cover letter. Research statements likewise. Writing sample should be asked for from longlisted candidates. References from shortlisted only.

2) Cover letters should indicate how you fit the essential and (if possible) desirable criteria in the job description. I've read too many cover letters that read as if the person has not looked at those documents, assuming them to be generic. Some of the criteria are, but not all. Some parts are specific to the job and normally include important information relating to what the panel wants to see/is looking for.

3) Evidence claims in the cover letter to show how you fit the essential/desirable criteria. Too many letters just assert that a candidate can do X. Tell me something about how you've done X in the past.

4) Relating to concerns about candidate time: some criteria are generic and those are easy to copy/paste across letters. I ended up having a stock letter, with highlighted parts that changed for each place, normally relating to fit with department and/or teaching needs in the job spec. I could send it out with about an hour of research into the post/university. Some additional tweaking might be needed for unusual essential/desirable job criteria, but mostly this worked fine as most jobs (in the UK at least) have similar criteria even across universities. Like others, I saw no difference in success rate between places I spent longer tailoring for than those I did quicker (my permanent job came from one that was quicker for instance).

5) On 'fit': my experience is mainly that we are looking for someone that someone in the department could talk to/engage with, so that the new hire is not isolated. This need not be extensive. We have various research groups in our department - one way to illustrate fit and knowledge of the department is to say which one(s) you and your work would fit within. This can be done in a sentence or two, so is not that much work for a candidate.

Dan

Perhaps cover letters should not be asked in the first place; the job market has gotten to the point that, regardless of how undesirable the job location is, and how bad the job is, search committees are inundated with applications. Perhaps CVs are enough to do an initial long list of applications, so that a search committee can ask for further material at a later stage.

But given that cover letters are a common requirement of job ads, I reiterate my advice to tailor a cover letter to the job under consideration. This can be done in different ways (my earlier advice to mention 'collaboration' is only one possibility, and not always the right way to go. By the way, I meant to suggest highlighting potential for collaborations, in teaching and/or research, certainly not saying "I want to collaborate with x, y, z). In my view, that shows that the candidate made an extra effort, and might make the candidate stand out, everything else being equal, compared to those who wrote a generic cover letter.

A cover letter that said, as Manny above suggests - "I have a PhD in X from Y. My areas of specialisation are ethics and blah. My dissertation was about blah and its central chapters have been published in Journal blah and blah. To date, I have taught X Y and Z" - strikes me as a wasted opportunity. I see pretty much all that in your CV, so why are you wasting everybody's time repeating what's in there?

Assistant Professor

I agree with others that it might seem nice if, especially given the high volume of jobs many people apply for and the relatively low statistical chance of getting any one of them that there was essentially a "universal application" for philosophy jobs.

BUT, I would say that this would probably lead to hiring for even more of the wrong reasons (i.e. merely based on the ranking of someone's PhD department or a rote tally of their total publications) and provide less opportunity to hire for better reasons.

In my experience unless a job is an "open" AOS/AOC/rank then the cover letter should be tailored. For those "open" jobs that are going to get hundreds of candidates you might not have much to base your tailoring on. If a job ad is specific, then BE SPECIFIC in your cover letter - which doesn't mean the whole letter. Keep some formulaic language in and then have an opening and closing paragraph that are tailored to the job and institution (but also be open to revising your formulaic paragraphs too if you can tweak them in ways that best respond to the job ad).

It *is* incredibly time consuming to apply to academic jobs. I think rather than trying to make the process less detailed on the part of the job-seeker, we might consider other kinds of modifications in practices like:
- Only applying to jobs that you think are sincerely a good fit *for you* or that you would actually accept if offered (maybe your bar is low and you would accept many - if that is the case, great, apply to them all. But don't waste your time tailoring an application to a job you know you won't take).
- Graduate departments with students on the market recognizing that market season is its own full-time job, and adjusting the outside expectation on students accordingly (i.e. for teaching or other departmental duties).

It seems like many hiring committee members consistently start with only reading a cover letter or only reading a CV, so these are two documents that you want to be really polished and stand out. Yes, you are asked to submit a bunch of other materials too and that is annoying - but those are usually much more standard and frankly, they will only get to those if they like the cover letter or CV, so it is worth the effort to make those solid.

ABD

I have to say that I am questioning the advice to only apply to places where you are a good fit after my first year on the market. While I did have the most luck with places where I would be a uniquely good fit, a number of those jobs ended up going to candidates who were clearly not a good fit, at least based on the job ad (e.g. ethics candidates being hired for philosophy of mind positions). Maybe those candidates were really good at tailoring their cover letters to make their seemingly irrelevant credentials look relevant. However, even if that is the case, it does make me question the sentiment, in this thread and others, that attempts to push blame back on the candidates for applying for jobs they aren't necessarily a good fit for. If hiring committees aren't willing to stick with what they said they were searching for, then why should I?

sisyphus

@ABD - not sure where you're coming from, but I feel like, sadly, if you're not coming from a top rated Leiter ranked program it might create an odd predicament. Speaking from my own experience, I have rarely gotten interviews for jobs where I am a very good fit - but I get interviews from places that make me scratch my head. Why? My only guess is that when a job ad is very squarely in my AOS, it's also then likely to be at a "better" school with a bigger department looking to get an expert in my little area, but (unspokenly) they're also willing to take in someone they think could be a rockstar in any area, so long as they can do a little of the advertised AOS. And, given prestige biases when combined with my alma mater, I'll never out compete others for such jobs. I'm probably stuck applying to open positions merely with the hope that they'll look at my AOS and think, "cool AOS, don't know anything about that - maybe we could use some of that in our department."

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