27 September 2005

- Cover Letter -

So Inside Higher Education has tagged the post below on the market for associate professors and my site meter is spinning. It's no "S1d R0senberg," but still a substantial increase in traffic.

In any case, I've been working on my cover letters. Cover letters are always a challenge. When I was first applying for positions, the sheer number of job listings precluded tailoring more than a handful of letters to the institution. I had different template letters for different sorts of institutions, but within the large category and given the number of applications that needed to be sent out it was really only possible to tweak each letter. (For what it's worth, the letters tailored to the specific institution did not prove any more successful in piquing interest than the template letters.)

At the same time, because I hadn't published a huge amount at that point of my career and my research was highly interdisciplinary, I felt it was necessary to explain the direction and significance of my work. The result was a somewhat longer letter than optimal. But I calculated that long was better than unintelligible. Since I didn't test a short but unintelligible letter I can't say whether or not my calculation was accurate.

The situation appears somewhat different in applying for senior positions. First of all, I have far fewer jobs I'm applying for because it only makes sense to look at schools higher up the academic food chain and lateral moves with good locations, better graduate funding and/or good departments in the other disciplines I do work in.

Second, I feel like I have to convince the schools, especially those that would be lateral moves, that I'm actually contemplating moving rather than simply looking for a raise. For that reason, I think it's imperative that I convince myself that, given the right offer, I'm willing to move. The upshot of all of this is that I believe that each letter for a senior position needs to be written specifically for the position in question. I have to show knowledge of the department; I have to flatter the faculty in the department; I have to show how my scholarship would fit into the department and so forth. At the same time, I think it's more important to talk more about who I am, what my current scholarly interests are and so forth. As a colleague of mine puts it, once your publications have exceeded a certain threshold, your CV will serve to document your research and you no longer need to be concerned with explaining that in the cover letter. Consequently, the letter can—and probably should—be much shorter.

I've been involved with a couple of senior searches at FU and I can say that there is nothing quite so ridiculous as a seven or eight page cover letter. Yes, the search committee learns a lot about such a candidate from that kind of letter—he or she has a large ego, doesn't know how to edit him- or herself, will probably be a pain at departmental meetings, etc., etc. Yes, the search committee definitely learns a lot.

All of this means that applying for senior positions consumes a lot of time that could be used on research, teaching, etc. Essentially, it is lost productivity to the university. I have to presume that overall the powers that believe that it is in best economic interest of the university to proceed thus, but with the lost productivity and faculty resentment that this situation creates I have to wonder if they are right.