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Tenured prof

I work at a religious institution that really values its religious identity. It's not hard to find out--just go to our website and you'll see it immediately on our materials. But we don't require people to sign off on a statement, and we also have atheist faculty. We just did a junior search and here's what I found, I cannot emphasize it enough:
**please, if applicable to the school you apply to, write a paragraph in your letter that shows you understand the religious identity of the school and its mission and how you intend to further that mission/identity. You do not need to be Methodist/Catholic/etc to do this (unless the school requires it of course), rather it's about whether you understand the identity and your role as faculty. Surprisingly few applicants do it, even though we especially mentioned this in the ad as a desideratum "Ability to further the [religious identity] mission of the school." Don't neglect this!

Served on two search committees

I understand being frustrated that there isn’t a standardized understanding of what cover letters are for, but I think this is largely inevitable. Different people looking at your file care about different things. Some people will care about the order of your cover letter, some won’t. Some will read your cover letter very carefully, some won’t read it at all. Each committee member has their own take on the needs of their department and will use your materials to search for signals about whether you meet those needs and they will have idiosyncratic methods for interpreting the data you give them. It’s hard to believe how different a single file looks to different search committee members, even those with ostensibly similar philosophical backgrounds. The most recent time I served on a search committee there were multiple applicants whom I thought it obvious we should interview, only for another committee member to think it obvious we shouldn’t.

In some ways that all sounds terrible to someone on the job market, but it might also be sort of freeing! Just present yourself in your best light and if there happens to be a department that wants to buy what you’re selling, great!

Now here are some things I want in a cover letter—take it with a grain of salt! I want a cover letter to hit the highlights of the rest of the file (teaching experience, research experience/plans, service), mention things I won’t (easily) find elsewhere in the file (e.g., why you’re genuinely excited about this job (don’t BS); also, don’t rely on your letter writers to explain major oddities in your file — e.g., why you were denied tenure at your last TT job —because at my large public university, we don’t get the letters until we’ve chosen whom to interview), tell me things that might distinguish you from others, and if possible give me a sense of how familiar you are with teaching at my (kind of) school (where teaching is prioritized, but research is highly valued as well). I’m mostly looking for evidence, not wishful thinking (e.g., if you say you can teach X but you haven’t taught X and it isn’t your AOS, what’s the evidence?). And I’m trying to establish whether you actually are qualified for the job—so many of our applicants just aren’t even working in the advertised AOS/AOC; they change their CV so it says they are, but when I read their cover letter it becomes more obvious they aren’t, or questionable whether they are without clear evidence. In general, all of the materials in your file, including your cover letter, should tell a coherent story.

Again, I’m just one data point. But that’s some of how I think about cover letters.


FWIW I've always put research first, teaching later, service last in my cover letters. I've received about an equal number of interviews for teaching-oriented (4) and research-oriented jobs (3) during my years on the market. Though the default ones I have received have changed: I finished my PhD just before the pandemic, then taught through it, and then after that started going into research-oriented gigs.

On the other hand, these have always been interviews in Europe (including the UK) and Asia. I have never received any positive feedback at all from any of my (admittedly rare) applications to North America.

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