Thursday, October 14, 2010

Deep thought of the day

Cover letters take a lot of time...

-- Second Suitor


Xenophon said...

I'm puzzled by this line in Iowa State's ad: "the department has teaching needs in 20th and 21st century analytic philosophy." They can't be looking for the history of 21st century analytic philosophy, because not that much has happened in the past decade to justify that as a specialization. But too much has happened in the past decade for them to say "we're OK with people who haven't kept up with the literature for the past 10 years. We're OK if you're trying to engage in debates that were active in the 80s and 90s."

Anonymous said...

I am not sure that they should--but it would be interesting to get more opinions. I can say that based on A) what I tend to do when serving on a search committee, B) what my current colleagues tend to do, and C) and what some people I know at other schools do, cover letters are largely ignored. Obviously that is too small a sample to base judgements on, but my general feeling is that you are wasting your time if you put a lot of work into customizing cover letters.

Anonymous said...

I would assume that someone familiar with contemporary analytic philosophy can teach a survey or 20th century analytic philosophy, or they should be able to.. its not like the last decade appeared out of a vacuum

Mr. Zero said...

I think it is probably true that cover letters are largely ignored. I think it might even be right for them to be mostly ignored. But past discussions here and at the old job market blog have revealed that they are taken extremely seriously by a nontrivial number of search committees. Therefore, it is probably worth spending at least some time making them at least somewhat good.

improfound said...

As a search committee member at a medium-quality liberal arts school, I offer the following advice. DO NOT overlook the cover letter.

I have heard that depts in R-I universities tend to care less about cover letters, but I can assure you that many liberal arts schools take them seriously.

Anonymous said...

My take on cover letters: keep them short. It seems to me the best cover letters should create just enough interest for the reader to go and look at CVs, papers, etc. A "teaser" of sorts.

Asstro said...

Do not ignore your cover letters. Some of my colleagues say that they don't read the cover letters, but I certainly do, and I spend a fair bit of time thinking about what they say. It's one of the few places I can get a sense of a candidate and why they'd be a good fit to work with me. Granted, letters are not the first thing that catches my eye, but once I've gone through the CVs and writing samples, and if I have a top list of 25 or so possibilities for the APA interviews, you'd better believe that I read your cover letters closely. This is your opportunity to humanize yourself.

Having said this, too much information in the wrong direction can just as easily spike your application. E.g. "I took a short hiatus from graduate school to recover from heroin addiction, but I'm better now."

(Word verification: "Priesm," as in "a potentially harmful and painful medical condition in which the driver of a hybrid automobile does not return to a flaccid state, like the state of Alabama, despite the absence of both physical, psychological and electrical stimulation, within four hours.")

Anonymous said...

If I ever decide to move to Minot, North Dakota to cover a one semester sabbatical leave that requires me to teach 4 classes and be paid by the course, please put a bullet between my eyes.

zombie said...

My cover letters tend to be short if the requested dossier includes things like research statements and teaching statements, but longer if it does not include such items. Some positions have fairly detailed specifications for what they want you to include in a cover letter (I find this to be the case with tech and med schools especially). All of which tells me that the cover letter is of more or less importance to different SCs, but that I can't know with sufficient epistemic certainty which ones will care and which won't. So I'd better err on the side of caution and write a good cover letter. I could be wasting my time, but let's face it, most of my applications will come to naught, so I'm wasting my time anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'm on a job market this year. A good friend of mine, who has served on many search committees in philo, instructed me to put time/thought into my cover letter. He tells me that the letter serves as the "face" of the applicant, ties together various app threads and makes a compelling argument that the applicant is a good fit for the job. More or less generic cover letters are turn offs. Yeah, I would imagine that many SCs reject applicants on the basis of a CV alone, skipping the letter altogether.
Ah and I hate putting together those fucking letters, listing "accomplishments" and "selling" myself and all that shit...

Anonymous said...

7:05 here--as an aside, I should note that I do not teach at an R1 school, nor do any of my relevant colleagues and friends. We all teach at small undergraduate universities and SLACs. I say this not because it really proves anything, but just because 8:58 seems to assume that only people at R1 schools would ignore cover letters.

A bit on my reasons for ignoring them--they don't provide any real valuable information. Perhaps I might get "a sense of the candidate"--but I am probably just as likely to get a bunch of pandering drivel about the love of philosophy and how awesome my school is. Obviously information can be faked at all parts of the dossier, but I tend to think that CVs, writing samples, and peer teaching reviews are all going to be more likely to provide me with a really meaningful sense of the candidate.

For this reason, I also don't really care about things like teaching statements. Anyone could cook up the kind of thing Kate Norlock wrote (which was referenced in an earlier thread) without it being any proof that the person is a good teacher. I would rather read an actual evaluation from someone who probably has less reason to dissimulate.

Anonymous said...

Take it from me (having served on many searches for a large university system): do not ignore the cover letter. It probably may never exactly make you a viable candidate--but it can certainly break you in that respect.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually wondering about what to include in the teaching dossier. I used to have one that included students' comments, but I've taught at several different sorts of schools now and I find that student comments vary a lot from school to school. I'm not sure that info is really useful.

zombie said...

What I've heard about student comments is that if you cherry pick your comments, it just looks like you cherry picked your comments, and that's bad. On the other hand, how can you possibly include each and every comment in a manageable package? (Anyway, anyone can go look me up on, and see what the trolls have to say.) So I don't include any comments. I include only the eval data, and all of the eval data. The data means very little to me, but I assume it means something to someone, and I'm better off including all of it rather than being suspiciously selective. It also speaks to the breadth of my experience -- how many classes I've taught, how many subjects, etc. And I also have a bunch of syllabi in my dossier, and my teaching statement. One of my reference letters is from the dept chair at the school where I taught, and he told me that he would specifically speak to my teaching ability. The whole package gives a sense of my experience, approach to teaching, and quality. But only a sense.

Anonymous said...

Cover letters are all about where you are looking. I teach at an R1, and when I've applied I tend to get a pretty good return on my apps.

My cover letter: like a fax cover page. Who (to and from), what job, and what's in the package. Not a personal comment in the bunch--or really a comment at all.

It has NEVER been suggested to me that anyone gives a flying f*ck about the cover letter. But that's the R1 world. Maybe SLACs care. But for any app you are sending to an R1, don't put any time into your cover letter. Just get back to your desk and publish. (Sure, it's too late for this year, but who ever thought you wouldn't be doing this again this time next year...)

Word: distro. Joining forces with Cobra Commander to beat those Joes, and listening to the BeeGees.

Asstro said...

I teach at a Leiter-ranked R1. I read the cover letters. Don't ignore them. Again, they won't save you from a bad dossier, but they can sometimes push you into the keeper pile. They're not super important for the R1s, I'll confess, and it's probably true that I'm an outlier, but there are at least a few of us who read the whole packet and spend many hours deliberating over who to interview. If you have something that we should know about you, let us know it in the cover letter.

m.a. program faculty member said...


With teaching evals, what I did was to include *all* numerical data, and then *all* student comments for classes from the latest semester I had them for, along with a note saying I'd be happy to provide further comments from earlier semesters if the committee wanted. That way it looked like I wasn't just cherry-picking good comments, while keeping the amount paper provided manageable.

Anonymous said...


So if you're an outlier an you read the cover letters, what do you look for? I can't help but think that it would all be BS (want to work with you, like this, etc), perhaps with the exception of filling in CV gaps (had a baby etc.

If there's something that you find actually jumps folks up who are otherwise equal, I'd love to hear what sort of thing it is.

And whatever it is--is it really a good reason to prefer someone? Again, I'm curious, interested, and perhaps a little skeptical about its use.

Asstro said...

I don't really look for anything specific, but if there's something that I should know about a person that won't be emphasized by the CV, then that's what I think is helpful in a cover letter.

For instance, statements about collaborative activity, research synergies, outreach, grant applications, publication ambitions, close work with students, etc. those can all be very helpful.

Remember, in many cases we're going on very little information, particularly for junior hires. Unless you've been circulating for a while, we probably only have one or two publications, some letters from famous people who write all manner of smiley-faced bullshit about your potential, a list of talks you've given, your largely uninteresting and useless teaching statement, and your writing sample (the importance of which should not be downplayed).

You should bring out your strengths in the cover letter. Bear in mind that CVs often follow a somewhat specific format. Name, degree, school, publications, presentations, and the other crap. I want to know why you're a good fit for our opening.

A good cover letter will therefore obviously also depend on the job ad and what we're looking for, but ideally it will go beyond the rest of the dossier. _Particularly_ if there is no required research statement, and often there isn't, I would like to know what you're up to.

Asstro said...

Maybe I can even say this a bit more controversially.

I try hard with candidates to look past the usual and presumed indicators of quality. I try to tune out the pedigree factor, to tune out the letter-writer factor. I want to identify really good people who have worked hard, have a good project or set of projects, and can produce enough quality material to eventually make it through tenure at my university. I want to give a fair shake to grad students who may not have had all their shit together when they applied to grad school seven years prior. The cover letter tells me who you are _now_.

So, maybe it's true that if you're going on the market with a degree from Rutgers or NYU you'd be better off letting us imagine how fantastic you are, even with zero publications. But if you're not coming from one of the top five or ten places, I need to know why you deserve an interview.

Again, some of my colleagues actively tune out the cover letter _on principle_. I tune it in _on principle_.

I guess my suggestion is this: those who tune it out on principle won't read it anyway, so it doesn't matter. Those who tune it in... eh, it'd probably help to have a good cover letter.

Having also been once on an SC for a small liberal arts college, I can tell you that, for sure, the letter was very important there too.

And yes, I know it sucks to write them all.

A-One-58 said...

I was part of a few search committees at an R1 a few years ago. I was a grad student then, but I got to read all of the files and participate in all of the meetings. In most cases, we were looking for an experienced assistant professor.

After talking to a few other committee members, it became clear that what mattered most were (a) fit, (b) publication record, how much and where, and (c) pedigree. We received 100-300 applications in most cases, so we could be a little picky.

I am not trying to start up the pedigree conversation, though it is only a matter of time. But this is what mattered. Criteria (a)-(c) did most of the work.

However, when (a)-(c) did not clearly distinguish two candidates, then everything else counted -- cover letters included. (And even websites!)

A short letter did not doom a candidate -- we knew that many people don't bother in the case of R1s. But a long or tailored letter helped in some cases. The most effective cover letters gave some committee member something to wave in front of the other members.

E.g., "Yes, Candidates P and Q seem equally good, but in P's cover letter she says ABC, and that makes me think P would be good here because XYZ. Q might be good too, but she didn't say ABC."

And sometimes it worked the other way: "I like both P and Q, but what do you think Q meant by XYZ? Doesn't that sound odd?"

So take this for what it's worth. Should you write something in the cover letter? It seems like you should. But what should you write? In my experience, there is no single thing that always helped or hindered (except rudeness, of course).

SLACker prof said...

As someone who works in a small department, finding people that are somewhat administratively competent and willing to do stuff is important to me. Otherwise, you have one, maybe two, people who, if stuff needs to get done, shoulder the bulk of the burden. The cover letter is a good place to show that you've taken initiative organizing various things, or putting together some kind of project or something else that shows that you have done more than sit in your office, or in the library, preparing to teach and writing papers.

I have a few close friends still that will be, or are, great researchers and teachers. But I wouldn't want them as colleagues in my small department because getting them to do stuff as simple as respond to e-mails is a pain in the ass, let alone getting them to start a new program for students, put together a colloquium series etc.

The cover letter provides a chance for those that have been active beyond their research/teaching responsibilities to show that they will be an engaged colleague in departmental life. And that matters in a small department like mine. At least it matters to me.

Asstro said...

A-One-58 is exactly right about fit, publications and pedigree. I will say also that at R1s, publications trump all. If you apply as a recent graduate with 10 publications in Nous, JPhil, Mind, and so on, you can bank on an interview. Fit is also pretty important, and can sometimes trump a few good publications and/or pedigree, if it looks good. The way to make your case for fit, of course, is to have publications that fit, but also to accentuate your strengths for the job in your cover letter. SLACker hits on this, and it's true at an R1 too.

Some people will tell you that they only look at pubs and pedigree, but trust me, when SCs meet, pubs and pedigree are not the only topic of discussion. There's a lot of fit talk. "Candidate X's publications are fantastic, but she doesn't seem to be working quite as much in this area as Candidate Y." If you're Candidate X, you don't want this to be the topic of conversation. Seal the deal in your cover letter.

Word Verification: "Enisms" as in "an ideological disposition of certain monsters to hurl creative racial epithets at Sesame Street letters-and-numbers-of-the-day. On next week's show, Emisms, Fivisms, and Apostrophisms."

Anonymous said...

I'm still a little confused about what it means to 'address' something in a cover letter. Does this mean like one sentence dedicated to why it took me X years to finish and one more sentence that says I do contemporary metaethics but I'm also really interested in these parts of the history of philosophy. The conversation in this line is so vague--I guess I'm a bit confused about what it means to address something in a one page letter.

Asstro said...

Holy Christ. All the more reason we need to have professional training seminars for our grad students. Here, read this:

(15 seconds on google)

Anonymous said...

There have been lots of good reasons given in this thread why cover letters are important. They are also important at shitty schools like mine. In the last three hires we have had a lots of applications from candidates way beyond our league. Some people in the department believe that hiring these people are a risk and worry that they will move on quickly and then most likely we would lose the tenure line. One faculty member made a case for interviewing an candidate with excellent credentials by using material from the cover letter. It turns out the candidate had grown up in the area, had family there and was keen to move back. This evidence convinced others that it was worth interviewing the candidate. Cover letters are a chance to give us some reason why you are genuinely interested in the job when it may not be evident from the rest of the application materials.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, those websites really explained how to address gaps in your C.V., pregnancies, mental illness, or something else that might address issues to the committee that might otherwise not be known.
(many hours thinking about this)
But your advice is just about as marvelously useless as most.

Anonymous said...

Also, it looks like one of our wives started a Twitter account.!/philosopherwife

Anonymous said...

I ignore cover letters on principle, after scanning them to see if they contain any cash gifts. A few Benjamins in the letter will easily move you from the "Discard Immediately" pile to the "Discard After Discussing" pile.

Asstro said...


Good luck on the market, dude. Make sure to have an exceptionally strong CV and some pretty substantial publications. Without those, your comprehension of the political and professional landscape is likely to lose you more jobs than to land you them.

The cover letter, and the whole dossier, is about fit. If you can't figure that out, you likely won't get many interviews; and you certainly won't get interviews when I am, or others like me are, on the SC.

Maybe this won't be a huge problem for you. From appearances, your critical thinking -- nay, your reading -- skills aren't much stronger than some of my undergraduates.

Those articles, particularly the article from the Chronicle, in no way addresses primarily gaps on a CV related to "pregnancies, mental illness, or something else that might address issues to the committee that might otherwise not be known." That's an entirely asinine way of reading those essays.

All this to say, with your refined critical thinking skills, you likely won't be headed to any R1 jobs. As you get further into teaching territory, your cover letter and your understanding of a school's unique objectives will become more and more important. Good luck with that too.

But, you know, hey, prove me wrong. More power to you. Come back here in a year and tell me about your embarrassment of riches on the market.

Asstro said...

Here's a good overview of how to write a strong cover letter. At minimum, read it for the Berkeley-is-great stuff.

For chuckles, here's another:

Anonymous said...

A very good article, and comments, from the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week:

Anonymous said...

Asstro, that Berkeley link is simply excellent. Check it out, folks, seriously. ...And Oh, lucky me, I don't have to sweat bullets about that troublesome "Berkeley" Factor." Doom. Doom. Doom.

Anonymous said...

3:53 here,
Sorry my critical reasoning skills are such an affront to your well-intentioned R1 advice.

My question was whether you should address non-academic gaps in one's C.V. through the cover letter. "Hi, I think I'm a good fit, but I had to take a year off of grad school because I had cancer" or whether that is better addressed by your advisor in Rec. letter. I was always under the impression that gaps are better addressed through letters rather than cover letters. Oh well, I guess I'm stupid. Maybe if you use really small words I will understand this time.

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone care about gaps, especially between undergrad and grad school? I don't get it. I have a several year gap between stints in grad school. I never mentioned it. I got a job.

If you've been out of the business for a few years directly prior, then no amount of explaining is going to help. At least, I can't see how it could.

Anonymous said...

I've been on many search committees at my non-doctoral department. I always look at cover letters, but recommend that applicants keep them short (no more than one page) and easy to skim. Highlight things that make you a "good fit," based on what you know about the department from their web site. E.g., if the department is proud of a center or its interdisciplinary programs in certain areas, point out your qualifications relevant to that. Yes, it's possible for search committees to find those things in the dossier somewhere, but with hundreds of applicants (not unusual, even at my non-prestigious campus), don't take chances that they will. The cover letter also tells me something useful about the applicant if they took the time to learn about my department and tell me why they would be a good fit.

On the other hand, I've noticed in the "advice to our graduate students" at some doctoral/R-1 schools that they tell their own students to use a one-sentence cover letter. ("I am applying for job x, as advertised y.") If they urge that for their own students, it seems like a good idea for applicants to teach in their department to follow the same model.

Regardless of where you are applying, do a little homework on each department to decide how best to tailor your own application. Yes, it takes a little more time, but it's easy to do on the Web nowadays and might keep you in the right pile during the first screening. I remember an applicant who mixed up my department with a different state institution which offers doctorates. ("I look forward to working with your doctoral students.") It was enough for me to toss the applicant to the do-not-consider pile. Did he bother to find out we don't offer doctorates? Would he only be happy working with doctoral students? I'll never know, as he didn't make the first cut.

And make sure your references know what kinds of schools you're applying to. I remember one reference that said, essentially: "This applicant is an outstanding researcher, clearly too good for just a teaching institution." We want a good research program, but we also want a serious commitment to good teaching. That reference seriously hurt the applicant in my review.

Asstro said...


I doubt the small words will help. If you're asking a question, try using a question mark. I'm trying to help here. Poorly written snarks are hard to interpret.

But yes, sometimes you can include something about yourself in the e-mail that will explain the gap. Obviously, make it as positive as possible.

"I took a year off to find myself," is not a good line.

"From 2002-2004, I worked with X, Y, and Z organizations to apply my interest in philosophy to more practical endeavors," is much better.

If you've had medical or family issues, it will depend on the nature of the medical issue whether it is better for you to say something in the cover letter.

"In 2005 I had to take a leave of absence to care for my mother as she was suffering from breast cancer," I think is a reason that we can all understand. Still, if you're not productive during this time, even if you had other shit going on, there will be questions, whether it's you who raise the point or your letter writer.

Other matters are more touchy. Talk with your advisor about the best strategy.

There's no formula for this.

Anonymous said...

Hey-- before this thread disintegrates into insults, I want to say that it's so far been really helpful. This is my second year on the market, and I've seen some of this advice before in programmatic form, but the candid insights from SC members are really, really great.

Thanks and keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I just want to make a comment to the SC members who look down on the brief cover letters some of us write coming out of R1's. I was advised very specifically (when I was on the market a few years ago) by Big Name professor at my top 10 program that my cover letter should be three to four sentences: Here's my name, here's the job I'm interested in, my dissertation defense is scheduled for this date, etc. Now, some of you may not like such a letter and *infer* from this that I'm not a good fit because I haven't written about this in the letter, but it's not clear to me that that's a good inference. Isn't that the fallacy ad ignorantium? "We don't know he's a good fit, so therefore he isn't." I'm inclined to say to this that I might have made a good fit with some of the schools who summarily tossed my application in the trash for this reason. After all, there are lots of strong candidates who would be good people to work with and who I suspect could fit with various departments (I mean in general, I know there are extremes towards the edges). So if you end up throwing out an application because it lacks a desired letter this doesn't mean you are interviewing those people most likely to fit. It merely means that you are making a decision about something for which you lack information.

It's not that I wouldn't like to write these letters oh-so-carefully in the best possible world. The trouble for some of the R1 grads is that they are trying to build strong publications which are more important for the job file than letters at most places, and so any time taken away to write letters means time away from this crucial activity. I don't fault the SC's for wanting this information. But let's just be clear that SC's who do this may be overlooking candidates that they might otherwise like to interview.

zombie said...

With everything else going against me in the job market, I count myself SO lucky not to be burdened with a degree from Berkeley! Phew!

Anonymous said...

2:04's comment could apply to any aspect of a dossier. Clearly, eliminating any candidate on the basis of any part of the dossier runs the risk of eliminating a candidate who might have been a great fit. "I might have made a good fit with some of the schools who summarily tossed my application in the trash because my CV didn't strike them in the right way...or because the writing sample wasn't what they wanted...or...etc." I get the point about pubs. I have more than 5 myself in my second year on the market (and I come out of a top ten program). And I still take the time to craft my letters. How can you afford not to perfect every part of your dossier?

Hank said...

Anon 2:04's comment is priceless! "Yes, bad search committees. You make fallacies left and right when you mistakenly infer that I am not a good fit for your schools based on my four sentence cover letter. Can you not see that I have better things to do like my research than to tailor my letter to your lil' ole school?"

Two comments: (1) you not see that you already told the SC that you aren't be a good fit for their school?? If you fail to take the time and write a tailored cover letter to the school, you admit by omission that you do not care nearly as much as someone who writes a well-crafted, tailored letter. I do not know how someone can miss that...which leads to my second point.

(2) WAKE UP YOU PRETENTIOUS R1 SHITS! Listen to the advice being given on this thread - and in every other thread devoted to this topic. You need to take EVERY ASPECT OF YOUR DOSSIER SERIOUSLY. You MAKE the time. This is crunch time, and to say something like, "I need to devote every second to my important research and not writing cover letters," is such BS pretentiousness that I want to scream. If you pull that shit, no SLAC or teaching university is going to take you seriously. At my school, we would flush you down without a second thought.

So humble your pretentious R1 asses, write a well-crafted, tailored cover letter to EVERY school you want a serious shot at, and then hope that your first impression hits the search committee member (me) in the right way. Remember it is a buyer's market, and there are many candidates who are better than you in every respect. The trick, for you, is to come off better than those other candidates even though they may be better (the best candidate doesn't always get the job!). The cover letter is one way to try and do that.

Asstro said...


You can't be serious.

I look closely at dossiers with short letters too. Do I put a lot of stock in them? Yes, if they demonstrate all the right things. Good pubs, exceptional recs, a strong writing sample. Yep, that'll do it for me. Without those, I need other reasons.

You can obviously get a job with a short cover letter, but you're far more likely to get one of those jobs at a ranked R1 than at an unranked R1, an R1 in a difficult location, a farm school, a teaching school, a religious school, a junior college, or any other institution that may wonder why you're applying. If you don't put time into your cover letter, those schools may -- and will -- just glance right past your dossier. If you're coming from a top ten program, you'd damn well better write letters for the schools that may think that you'll have better opportunities.

(No offense to Big Name professor, but s/he likely played this job game back in the bad old days. FWIW, I advise all of my grad students to listen closely to the advice of very senior and established faculty, but to contextualize it with the current state of the market and the publishing expectations of search committees.)

Read that Berkeley overview. There's some good stuff in there about some problems that students with research-heavy dossiers from fancy schools face.

I have many times seen very good candidates from great schools get passed over for very good candidates from less good schools because the abiding perception is that the good candidates wouldn't want to take a job at a less impressive college or university.

Is it true that that candidate wouldn't want to take the job? Don't know. Some search committees just won't want to bother finding out. It's a costly gamble for them.

Soooo.... if, coming out of a top 10 program, you want a job at a non-R1 school, write a good cover letter and make it clear why you want to work there. And, if you don't have a phenomenal dossier but you want a job at my ranked R1, write a good cover letter and explain to me what should make me take an interest in you.

One other quick point: I really loathe this argument: "The trouble for some of the R1 grads is that they are trying to build strong publications which are more important for the job file than letters at most places, and so any time taken away to write letters means time away from this crucial activity."

First, the argument smacks of self-importance.

Second, it's true that you should be working on your publications, but there's an opportunity cost for everything you do. Unless you're working on your publications 16 hours a day, without interruption, you can probably take a bit of time away from watching a movie or playing ball or going to the bar to write your cover letters. Is the trade-off between writing for publication and writing a cover letter one-to-one?

Obviously, we can't interview everybody, so your cover letter, or something else in your dossier, needs to give me a reason to call you.

Asstro said...

One other quick point: I really loathe this argument: "The trouble for some of the R1 grads is that they are trying to build strong publications which are more important for the job file than letters at most places, and so any time taken away to write letters means time away from this crucial activity."

First, the argument smacks of self-importance.

Second, it's true that you should be working on your publications, but there's an opportunity cost for everything you do. Unless you're working on your publications 16 hours a day, without interruption, you can probably take a bit of time away from watching a movie or playing ball or going to the bar to write your cover letters. Is the trade-off between writing for publication and writing a cover letter one-to-one?

Euthyphronics said...

@2:04: People don't have to look at your letter and infer you're a bad fit to toss out your app. It's enough to look at your letter and notice that they have no evidence one way or another. Other apps will provide evidence of good fit in their letters, and it is, to put it mildly, a buyer's market. Why should an SC take a risk on no evidence when they have plenty of evidence for other candidates that reduces this risk?

Of course, like Asstro said, if you've got 10 pubs in top places, you can get away with a pithy letter (at least at most ranked R1 places; SLACs and the like may worry you'll just try to move up the food chain next year unless you say something in the letter to persuade them otherwise). But if that's not your CV, odds are there'll be others in the stack with equally impressive pubs who do provide evidence of good fit in the cover letter, and they'll get preference over you.

Nobody's taking absence of evidence to be evidence of absence. They're taking absence of evidence to be absence of evidence and (quite rationally) preferring the surer bets.

zombie said...

It's time to stop encouraging the R1 candidates to customize their cover letters. I have two jobs and a young child. I presented 3 conference papers, published 3, have 3 more under review, had 5 non-refereed pubs, and applied for (and got) a grant, all in the last year. I write a weekly newspaper column. I maintain a blog. I carefully review and comment on one paper a week for my colleagues, and others for journals. I also commute 1.5 hours a day, make dinner for my family, do laundry, and (usually) sleep at least 7 hours a day. I waste more time than I care to think about looking at LOLcats. Yet, I manage to customize every letter during the few months when there are jobs to apply for.

I didn't graduate from a R1. My program was barely ranked, except in my specialty. I'm old. I have enough going against me here. I don't need the special kids suddenly pretending they care about jobs they don't care about and writing competent letters. It would be terrible for them if they were required to go to all those interviews and fly-outs for jobs they don't plan to stay in. What a waste of their precious time!

Anonymous said...

2:04, meet 3:20 (& 7:15).

That is, as far as I can tell, nobody infers from presence of an R1-style letter to absence of interest in any particular non-R1 job. But for many non-R1 philosophy departments, interviewing a lot of flight risks feels very, very risky.

That said, there are some things that search committees like the ones I've been on should be more willing to do. For example, we should be more willing to request an informative letter when we encounter especially great candidates who didn't provide one. We've tried contacting references in such cases, but that hasn't been very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Asstro brings up a good point about cover letters. But don't be like the author of that article Asstro cited and misspell curriculum vitae as 'curriculum vita' in your cover letter. Why? Because those of us who know better, will think less of you.

Anonymous said...

Strawman much anon 2:04?

Mocha said...

Good point, Euthyphronics.
But several of the other criticisms of 2:04 leave me puzzled.

First, could someone explain to me what an R1 is? I have a vague idea that it just means a research university -- but in that case, how could Zombie have a PhD from a program that isn't an R1? And why is Hank saying that R1 graduates are "pretentious", when nearly everyone on the job market has a degree from an R1?

Second, Hank's general attitude is very bizarre. If I don't spend hours on my cover letter, he "would flush you down without a second thought." Why? Because

"The trick, for you, is to come off better than those other candidates even though they may be better (the best candidate doesn't always get the job!). The cover letter is one way to try and do that."

So, Hank will deliberately flush down my application because I'm not doing what I can to deceive him into thinking I'm better than I am??? Is his department deliberately trying to get the candidates who are good at pretending instead of the candidates who are good???

Unlike 2:04, I've never been told to skimp on the cover letter. But if I had been told that by Big Name Prof., I would take the advice seriously. I don't understand why so many commenters are asserting that they would take the lack of a cover letter to mean something that it *obviously* does not mean in 2:04's case.

Applicantus said...

I think Zombie just means her program is not Leiter top-50.
Zombie, hats off!! Really amazing. Also, you made me stop my round of procrastination for the day and get back to work.
(And I have to share my verification word, a bit of culture here at the Smoker: ensor)

Hank said...

No, I am saying that getting first and second looks at your dossiers require more than merit alone. You have to sell yourself in the right way. Don't be deceptive (why would you think I'm advocating that?); rather be interesting AND show that you are interested in the schools you are applying to.

When a candidate shows us that she is interesting and interested, that leaves a great impression as we muddle through her dossier. If a candidate does not come of as interesting and doesn't show that she is really interested in our school, that also leaves an impression as we go through her file. As many have said already, our judgments of "fit" per candidate is important. If you don't show that you are interesting and interested in your cover letter, your "fit" score (no, we don't actually have "fit scores") can be low.

Candidates who are not good at advertising themselves in the right way are at a marked disadvantage. One would think that that is commonsense by now given the way the consumer market works. But there are still quite a few candidates who strongly believe that the most accomplished philosopher should "logically" get the job. But that is so fantasy that I can't believe anyone really believes that. You have to sell yourselves so that you are tasty - and there is an art to it because there are pitfalls everywhere in how one should write cover letters, CV's, writing samples & teaching philosophies not to mention who should be your recs.

Welcome to the real world of getting a job. One of my graduate school profs once said that landing a job requires three factors: what you have produced, hard work, and hell of a lot of luck. And I'd like to think that crafting your dossier well can minimize the luck just a little bit.

If you think my views are bizarre. I can't help that. I believe that to think otherwise is more bizarre. But my approach has landed me multiple job offers.

It's all marketing, my dears. It's marketing with the content you have to shape at this moment. You can either make your content shine, or let it be limp.

Mocha said...

It's all marketing. And furthermore, if a candidate does not market herself really well, then you will flush her application down the toilet.

I guess the surprising thing to me, the bizarre thing, is that people on search committees actually admit this. I understand why job candidates think that way (and I certainly don't blame them). I guess I shouldn't be surprised that search committee members actually do look for 'marketing' techniques; but I would think they wouldn't admit it.

Wouldn't your department get better if instead of looking for the candidates who are best at "advertising themselves", you just looked for the best philosophers?

Applicantus: that sounds plausible, but Zombie said her program was "barely ranked". So it was indeed in the top 50.

Anonymous said...

I'm 2:04.

My comment seems to have bothered several people who perceive me as being "arrogant" and "a little shit," which was not my intent. So let me see if I can make a few comments to clarify my perception of the issue.

When I went on the market a few years ago the job market director directed candidates specifically to write brief letters. I mentioned in my comment that he is a big name merely to indicate that his advice was not to be taken lightly (he was not, in fact, my advisor, but a senior professor). I wanted to point out that there are many of us at good departments being advised this way, and it is apparent from other posters here that they're familiar with this norm. I'm not saying that I agree with this norm, but merely that it exists for a good number of candidates.

Now, it is clear from some of the comments that some SC's aren't interested in your application *for this reason.* Given this the point I made was to suggest that there is a flaw in the system here (not to come off as a pissy R1 candidate--apologies if that was the impression). SC's are making decisions about candidates in the absence of reliable evidence about fit despite the fact that such candidates are being advised this way. How SC's work is certainly their prerogative, but there are risks involved that go in both directions. As to some of the more specific comments:

(1) "Can you not see that I have better things to do like my research than to tailor my letter to your lil' ole school?"

I didn't say anything of the sort and I don't know of R1 candidates who think this way. I was merely making an observation about an unreliable inference being made. In fact I took a job at a nonelite, medium-sized school I fit quite well with.

(2) " you not see that you already told the SC that you aren't a good fit for their school?? If you fail to take the time and write a tailored cover letter to the school, you admit by omission that you do not care nearly as much as someone who writes a well-crafted, tailored letter."

This is exactly the fallacy I was arguing against and which still strikes me as unexceptionable. GIVEN THAT there is an existing norm for brief letters at many places to make this inference is problematic. As I made clear, I was EXPLICITLY advised not to write a detailed letter. Here clearly somebody is claiming "absence of evidence is evidence of absence" for those of you paying attention.

(3) "..humble your pretentious R1 asses, write a well-crafted, tailored cover letter to EVERY school you want a serious shot at."

I have not denied that in the best possible world I would like to write well-crafted, tailored letters to each and every school I applied to. But consider the other side of this. Is it really an effortless activity? Consider the very specific information some SC's are asking for in this post with respect to fitting with their program. This is not to be satisfied with some "general letter" that fits various programs, but I am to write something that conveys my careful understanding of and interest in "the unique objectives of the school" (Asstro). Now if you were anything like me, you submitted upwards of 70 applications, and many people even more (over 100). And you were also trying to finish your dissertation, maybe teach a class or two, and get yourself published in the damn best place possible. So my worry here was not coming out of thin air. Yes, if there was time to do everything right, all candidates should write beautiful, relevant, and interesting letters that demonstrate fit. But given some of the other constraints candidates are under (which again (!) I note advisors are *directing* us to focus on) it does involve a nontrivial time commitment.

I don't want to seem like I'm whining here. There is some time to do these things, but it is true they also come at a cost. So I recognize room for reasonable disagreement here.

CTS said...

I'll repeat what I have said about cover letters many times: they help you make the cut, or they can help cut you out.

I do think that showing some real intrest in the position/place is very helpful. But be careful not to outsmart your self - as did a candidate who wrote a great letter about teaching and liberal arts using our college's name on the first page...and another college's name on the second page.

Anonymous said...

Other people may have commented ahead of me on this, but about the meaning of "R1": here is a classic list (from 1994) of public and private institutions classified as R1. I think because that category included all the prestigious research universities in the country— Ivies, Michigan, Berkeley, et al— people tended to use it as a metonym for "top schools" or "schools where (research-driven) prestige is a big factor." The classifications have now changed, in the ways described exhaustively here. The new categories, which no one ever mentions colloquially, are RU/VH, RU/H, and DRU.

Is this actually a useful metric for thinking about how to write cover letters? I don't know, but that's where it comes from...

Anonymous said...

Hank at 11:07: "It's all marketing, my dears."

I'm ok with letters that make marketing blunders and that don't ooze enthusiasm for my little circle of hell. Candidates who have that sort of marketing talent are good to have around, of course, since marketing philosophy to potential majors and to administrators is hugely important to the central goal of keeping the administration from nuking the dept.

But really, marketing talent is just icing on the cake. And we don't like icing (it's way too sweet)--we just know the paying students and administrators do.

So: so long as I can detect from cover letters that their authors have at least a clue (i) what this particular job in my department would be like (because they've bothered to find out), and (ii) whether the job is something they're really sincerely willing to do and do well, then I'm pretty happy.

The (I'm applying to an) R1-style letters call to mind images of the dean talking about "budget cuts" and about how it "makes [our department] look bad" when the hires we spent so much college money searching for leave after just a few years.

Trust me, you don't want members of the search committee having nightmares about the dean when they should be getting excited about your writing sample.

Anonymous said...

Forget cover letters. It's clear from what's been said in here that a few irrational folks care, but I wouldn't want to work with folks who take marketing over ability. I have friends who live there, and you guys all work on X, which I think is great, and blah blah blah lie lie lie ass kisssss.

Worse are the stories about chucking out applications because they had some other school name in the cover letter on page 2! Yeah, because it's not the case that they aren't writing 100 of the things, and we fine folks are so f*cking self-important that if you have a typo or mistake in your letter we'll decide either that a) you suck as a philosopher (does that follow...?), or b) a bad fit (does that follow...?) and won't interview on that basis. What utter crap.

I suppose those folks have never made a typo; what kind of asshole sums up a whole application on that basis? Get off your high f*cking horses. No decent department does this. Keep your snotty 4-4 teaching factory, and I'll keep my typos.

Decent philosophers care about ability, not marketing and goddam typos.

Mocha said...

1:55, thanks for that.
So Rutgers is not R1 -- no doubt it's all the Rutgers PhDs who are upset about how pretentious the R1s are.

CTS, do you really care that the applicant isn't all that good at find-and-replace, or was that a joke?

When I get on a search committee, I swear I'm going to actively seek candidates who aren't polished, make embarrassing typos in their cover letters, and dress badly at the APA meetings.

Anonymous said...

I'm someone who typed 70 individualized cover letters the year I went on the market and got a job when the market was as bad as this. And yes, I made typos and then corrected them or retyped the damn thing. Maybe professionalism doesn't count with lots of newbies here--but I--or someone much like me--will probably read your cover letter. Make the cover letter short, sweet, but make it sound like you care in all the relevant ways, in your expression and with respect to my institution. Want to be a professional? Then act like one.

Anonymous said...

3:18 and 3:31:

Stay away from my department. Seriously.

Hank said...

Hi. My name is Ms. Irrational Folk on a SC. Nice to meet you. I care about quality philosophical work, professionalism, attention to detail, the ability to convey who one is in a short interesting letter. I care about candidates who show a genuine interest in my school. You see, I take these factors to be indicative of not only their philosophical acuity, but of the quality of their collegiality and ability to work in a professional environment. Oh, and I know I am being terribly irrational...

I do care about the hundreds of other qualified candidates, but if they fail to convey due interest and professionalism where others have shown them successfully, there is no reason to break my back for them. To the level of seriousness the candidate shows me, I do the same for him or her. [My God, this sounds like EVERY OTHER JOB APPLICATION PROCESS!! But I digress...]

My friend, Ms. Rational Folk on SC, begs to differ with me. She also cares about quality philosophical work, but that appears to be the limit of our agreement. She doesn't care about the quality of a cover letter. Apparently she doesn't even care if a candidate demonstrates genuine interest in one's school. No no no. All that matters is the level of philosophical quality. So if the person is a pretentious prick to colleagues, no matter - we got philosophical quality. If the person cares squat about professional etiquette at the school, no matter - we got philosophical quality. Yes, even my good friend Mocha doesn't care if the person wears ratty t-shirts everywhere, even in interviews - because goddamnit we nailed the head on philosophical quality, didn't we! Such BS.

Somewhere down the road, philosophers let their "work of the mind" go to their heads (yes, laugh, there is a pun there, or are you still mad at my last paragraph?). They believed that nothing else mattered but their self-important work. And now we see their offspring touting that all that should matter is the work of the mind presented in the dossier. That is so not how the world works. Yes, you need good shit, but everything else needs to be good too. If you skimp on something (e.g., cover letter!), it gives a good indication (no I am not making some asinine deductive argument here - its called an "i.n.d.u.c.t.i.v.e" argument) as to the kind of person behind the dossier. EVERYTHING MATTERS. And if you don't have time to get your shit right now, how the hell do you expect to get it together for tenure-review and the like? The process doesn't stop with landing the job.

So to be clear [for all you who can't quite see the implications I've been sending all along in my posts], professionalism and marketing yourself well are not mutually exclusive with quality philosophical work. You must have BOTH if you are going to get by me. If you only have the latter, then those who have both will fly right by you - and you can sit and whine about logical fallacies till your rejection letters come sailing in. I don't mean to be so blunt, but for all those job-seekers still reading this already long enough post, the fire should be lit under your asses to do the best with what you have. Don't listen to the blowhards trying to convince you to skimp on anything. Their selling crap.

zombie said...

Really? We're arguing about typos now?

Yes, typos happen, and sometimes, you miss them, even after reading something several times. Everybody knows that. In reviewing papers for journals, I come across the occasional typo. That's not a reason -- by itself -- to reject a paper, and it's not a reason -- by itself -- to reject an otherwise excellent candidate. I'm going to guess that SCs know that.

But there are LOTS of reasons to reject candidates, not least of which is that there are too many candidates for every job. So, all else being equal, the candidate with the typo-free letter comes out ahead of the one with typos.

You should apply the same standards to writing your dossiers that you do to writing papers for publications. Make it as good as possible. Don't give them a reason to think you're sloppy and uncaring.

Mocha -- it's not that the candidate isn't "good at find-and-replace" that's the problem. It's that the candidate isn't good at find-and-replace AND obviously couldn't be bothered to write an individualized letter for the application, or to put in enough effort to make it look like an individualized letter. If you're on the SC, and you see that Candidate X just sent the same letter to you that s/he probably sent to all the other schools, how seriously are you going to take that application when you've got hundreds of others to choose from?

Word verification (really): chump.

That's randomy goodness!

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain to me how it is possible to discern *genuine* interest in a department from a cover letter? What makes genuine interest clear and distinct from dissimulation? How can I tell that the candidate isn't just trying to cover his or her ass in a bad market? Furthermore, shouldn't someone who is good at "marketing" precisely be good at dissimulating in just this way?

Anonymous said...

Anon, I don't think you're necessarily arrogant, but I do think that like many people you're mistaking "a good fit for this department and tenure line" for something that correlates perfectly with "innate philosophical talent." (It's a common fallacy, come job market time.) This ain't searching for the Platonic form of young analytic hotshot.

Fact is, the talent field is quite deep. There are fantastic people at top ten places who don't get jobs. There are fantastic people at schools that are unranked. There's just a lot of good philosophers out there! Smaller schools need lots of things covered and want to hire people that won't hate it there. That's... most of the jobs out there. More to the point, schools can decide to value things like collegiality and teaching and still have their pick of top notch scholars from other top schools. I have no reason to believe that you're not a top-notch philosopher, but there are plenty of the rest who are capable of doing great research and writing a short cover letter at the same time.

Anonymous said...

I'll take the other side of anon 4:04. I went on the market last year in ernest for the first time after getting my PhD in 09. I applied for 50 position, got 10 APA/first-round interviews, 4 fly-outs (pulled myself out of 4 other searches when I found out things during the APA interview like... the position isn't 3/2 anymore, it's now 4/4 or well, I know we said it was TT, but now it's just a VAP), and got offered 2 positions. With the exception of a couple of lines at the top addressing the specific position (and I do mean a couple... like 2), the rest of the letters were entirely the same. They were all about two pages and further explained/highlighted items on the CV. My interviews and fly outs ranged from an 800 student liberal arts school to a 15000+ undergraduate research university.

Let's not fool ourselves. It's pure chance whether or not someone who cares about cover letters reads your cover letter. If you're crafting a person, 1 or 2 page letter to each school, and doing the necessary research to craft that letter, that's wasted time. Most of these schools are interviewing 15-25 people at the APA. If you made the cut, it's due to your qualifications. If you get invited for a fly-out, then it's usually due to your qualifications + perceived fit. If you get an offers, it's usually due to your qualifications + perceived fit + likelihood of staying + ability to make tenure + other things like that.

Don't waste your time on the cover letters. Write something intelligent and send it to everyone.

Asstro said...

I love this thread. So much fun here. Fortunately, others have come to beat down the cynics.

Here's another way of thinking about it, reflecting Anon 8:20's "Talent Pool is Deep" line of reasoning.

Suppose that for each job there are 300 applicants. Suppose that this is a deep pool of high talent. The bottom 100 have no publications. They're easy (buh-bye). The middle 100 have one or two publications. The top 100 have three or more publications. Of those, suppose, the top 40 have at least one publication in a top journal. Of those, the top 20 also have very strong letters of rec from famous people, interesting dissertations, and strong writing samples. (But wait, of the middle 100 who have only one or two publications, several have publications in super-top journals, and they're younger, so maybe we should reintegrate them into the top of the pile.)

How to winnow them down.

Hmm... what about this person makes him or her stand out against the rest of the crowd? Where might I look for that information?

Should I look on the CV, randomly, to notice that such-and-such a person was a post-doctoral fellow for two years at Oxford? Or should that be brought to my attention elsewhere? Should I read deeply into the CV to see that such-and-such has received a prestigious award for the most innovative essay published in that year by a top journal? Or is there some other place to look?

More to the point, if you are such-and-such a person, do you want to rely on me, weary-eyed as I am from reading 300 obnoxiously black-and-white dossiers, to find this information on your CV?

Or... do you want to fucking highlight this information in your motherfucking cover letter?

Anonymous said...

I suggest that writing a cover letter that is tailored to the institution you're applying to, clarifies the sorts of activities you've completed that are relevant, and is a well-crafted read designed to highlight your best work so far is fantastic practice for future professional life. There are vast amounts of self-assessment documentation in the next phase from hire to tenure and beyond that. This stuff has to get written while doing everything else required. The ability to generate concise summaries of the work you do and explanation of its value is something you get good at through practice. I guess my point is that this sort of thing does not go away. It gets more important (writing a "tenure narrative," for example). Maybe it's really hard to imagine this future of important self-assessment documentation. I know that nobody told me about it. But no one told me a number of things. Sure enough, administrators may gloss over the *required* narratives in contract renewals, annual evaluations and tenure dossiers, but what one is doing is providing descriptive language to one's best advocates on the various levels of review committees. This is to say that in a brief, effectively written self-assessment, I have the power to draw attention to particular data in the dossier and/or CV or supplement this data. Again and again, I have found that chairs of evaluation committees, especially at the department level, often quote or closely approximate the points I raise in their review letters of documentation. (The dean, in turn, pays attention to that and it appears again in the dean's letter, the provost, in turn pays attention to that in the provost's letter.) When I think back to my cover letters, they seem to me to be an initiation into something I have to do constantly and have to do well. Take heart, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

By the way, respect the cover letter but be sincere and don't make up stuff. I have been surprised at what members of search committees will do by way of digging up information to detect bullshit or sincerity in candidates.

Euthyphronics said...

Hmm. I'm starting to lose the plot a bit here. Are we arguing about whether to spend some time making cover letters good? Or individualized, reflecting a significant amount of research about the ins and outs of each school?

If it's the latter, then a bunch of the arguments don't make sense. What kind of inductive base do we have for "this candidate didn't say a bunch of stuff about us in this letter, so s/he will make a bad colleague"? I took 2:04's point to be that SC members have positive reason to think this a bad induction (namely, there's a very widespread practice of senior professors giving this sort of advice).

I also don't get the point about "professionalism": what's unprofessional about a polite but relatively generic cover letter? (It's not like anyone's suggesting we write them in crayon...)

Asstro's point about highlighting your selling points in the cover letter is a good one, but again, that can be done with one well-written cover letter and judicious find-and-replace.

None of this is to say you shouldn't write individualized cover letters. Personally, I don't pay much attention to cover letters, and do at least skim every CV. And I don't really understand colleagues' mindsets when they look down on a candidate for not having crafted an individualized cover letter (nor do I understand what they're looking for). But,, some colleagues do look for it, and do look more favorably on applications that have it. You're more likely to get hired both they and I are impressed with your packet. So: get to work on those letters! It's in your own best interests.

Mocha said...


Yes, even my good friend Mocha doesn't care if the person wears ratty t-shirts everywhere, even in interviews - because goddamnit we nailed the head on philosophical quality, didn't we! Such BS.

Why is that BS? That's exactly what I think.
Look, I haven't made an extensive study of philosophical haberdashery. But I've noticed that Ted Sider and David Chalmers do wear t-shirts often. Alexander Nehamas and Martha Nussbaum dress really well (I think -- I'm kind of clueless about fashion, but even I can tell that those two are well dressed). In my (admittedly very limited) experience, there isn't any correlation between dressing well, or wearing t-shirts, and philosophical ability.
Furthermore, I think the true bullshit is the appeal to 'professionalism'. My favorite t-shirt wearing philosophers aren't worse teachers, or worse colleagues, or worse at anything that matters, and their dress isn't an indicator of anything important.

They believed that nothing else mattered but their self-important work.

This seems like a very fundamental difference between us. I don't think philosophy is "self-important". I think it's just, important.


Mocha -- it's not that the candidate isn't "good at find-and-replace" that's the problem. It's that the candidate isn't good at find-and-replace AND obviously couldn't be bothered to write an individualized letter for the application, or to put in enough effort to make it look like an individualized letter.

Okay, my mistake. So, each candidate is suppose to write an individualized letter for each job, with no cut-and-paste.
I guess it honestly wouldn't bother me if an applicant came right out and told me she didn't write from scratch an individual letter for every job she applied for.
Hm, I don't get the "chump" thing -- seems vaguely insulting, but, whatev.


Good point. I get that. It does seem like a very good idea to highlight in the cover the info that you want the SC to pay most attention to. (Does this mean writing an individualized cover letter for each of the sixty jobs you apply to?)

I seem to be almost wholly in agreement with Euthyphronics now.

Anonymous said...

If the point of a good cover letter was to make you stand out as somehow the top of pile B, then sure, waste your time. After all, it may get you an interview, but with 20 plus people in pile A, they are getting a job.

Better yet, keep in mind that 'cover letter readers' are rare, and even if every SC has one, they have two or three (or five) who aren't. And they all make lists. So if Hank doesn't pick you our of pile B, who cares? If you are worth picking, someone else (who gives a crap about philosophical ability--whassup Hank, kinda crap at what you do?) will select you.

Death to cover letters.

Oh, and let's not forget, we are talking about getting interviews, not jobs. Why not ignore the typos--and use the interview process to figure out if they aren't a good fit? I love how clearly stupid a suggestion it is that fit can be read off a cover letter, or that professionalism matters (or worse yet, that typos indicate a lack of it!).

HANK: the final line of your post: "their selling crap". Please discard your own file; it is now evidence to all of us that you are a poor philosopher, that you are not professional, and that you wear t-shirts.

Yeah, I call Bullshit on all of this.

Death to cover letters.

Asstro said...

Anon 7:14, as well as others:

A good cover letter is a letter that is tailored to the school. You highlight the stuff in your dossier that makes you appealing to that program, unit, department. Should be straightforward. At R1 schools, you highlight your research. At teaching schools, you highlight your teaching. At SLACs, you highlight your commitment to close work with undergrads.

As for the rareness of cover letter readers, you are close to dead wrong about that. First, I had drinks the other night with some of my colleagues and the general consensus among the younger set was that the cover letter is pretty damned important. We are a ranked R1, mind you. We all laughed a little at the silliness of prospective applicants who seem not to understand the value or importance of a cover letter.

Second, I can be a loud and forceful bitch on a search committee or during a faculty meeting. All it will take from me to get your name stricken off our interview list is a bit of protesting that there are better people in front of you. No malice to you, but you roll the dice if you think I'm going to sleep with your CV enough to know all the things that make you a good fit for my department. Someone who tells me what's up is much more likely to have that case represented and made during the faculty meeting.

Dr. Killjoy said...

Anyone who has time to compose dozens of detailed, department-specific cover letters had better already be a superstar in the publishing black because all of that sweet, sweet time and precious, precious effort could have been better spent polishing your writing sample and research statement.

Fuck up your cover letter eight ways from Sunday for all I care--it's not an application killer. However, send me a sloppy writing sample or a meandering, unfocused research statement, I'll personally escort you to the unemployment line right behind all the other unemployed highly polished professional quality resume/cover-letter having doofs.

Dear Job People,

Me want job. Am real good at thing you want. Give me job now.



Anonymous said...

Euthyphonics writes:

"Hmm. I'm starting to lose the plot a bit here. Are we arguing about whether to spend some time making cover letters good? Or individualized, reflecting a significant amount of research about the ins and outs of each school?

If it's the latter, then a bunch of the arguments don't make sense. What kind of inductive base do we have for "this candidate didn't say a bunch of stuff about us in this letter, so s/he will make a bad colleague"? I took 2:04's point to be that SC members have positive reason to think this a bad induction (namely, there's a very widespread practice of senior professors giving this sort of advice)."

Yes, this is the point. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Don't understand why Hunk's perspective continues to be molested. Weird that Ph.Ds are so clueless sometimes. The need to be professional, communicate collegiality, desire to be at institution X and all that shit. Hello, there's nothing assholish about these expectations, it's called "looking for a job". Wake up, folks.

Anonymous said...

Jesus wept. As someone who has chaired and sat on many, many hiring committees I despair of the (slightly hysterial) self-justificatory attitude of the comments here about not needing to 'make your case'. I am reading hundreds of CVs, they are boring, I am tired, and I've probably had a glass or two of vino to fortify me in my efforts. Show me that you have given even a few moments thought to why you want f*&%ing job - it at least shows me some respect.

There are obviously two lines of argument here - whether it's worth putting effort in, and whether you should. I'm firmly in the camp that thinks both that you and that it helps you, in practical terms.

And again, just to clarify, if you come off as a talented but arrogant prick, I don't want to work with you, end of story. And what makes you come off as an arrogant prick? Yes, you got it...a total absence of effort in your covering letter to say why you want to work here.

Anonymous said...

Asstro writes:

As for the rareness of cover letter readers, you are close to dead wrong about that. First, I had drinks the other night with some of my colleagues and the general consensus among the younger set was that the cover letter is pretty damned important. We are a ranked R1, mind you. We all laughed a little at the silliness of prospective applicants who seem not to understand the value or importance of a cover letter.

I laughed when I read this. For one, it's pretty clear that Asstro thinks she can figure out your worth from a letter. But better is that I'm also at a ranked R1, and at dinner last week the chair and a few members of the SC (which I'm part of) were laughing about cover letters and how folks seem to think we care about them. We think we're pretty smart folks, and as such we can do things like read a CV--all on our own--and read a writing sample. We know how to judge. We agreed that nobody got struck off the list for having one, but that ass kissing and telling us how to read your file were real turn offs. And telling you that you want to work on x becuase we do is just sad. Anyone can say that. Marketing is marketing. So we stick to the stuff that isn't annoying, nerdy, and can't lie: CV's and writing samples.

I have to say that I read every cover letter, but only for kicks. They are amusing. I'm keen to see how desperate some folks are, and how stupid they clearly think we are.

The only exception is explaining why your degree isn't stale, or those gaps. Beyond that, you just make yourself look like a loser. We want talented folk--and we'd like to have a drink with you. Try to hard, and it's a complete turn off.

Anonymous said...

"Don't understand why Hunk's perspective continues to be molested."

You wrote "Hunk" instead of "Hank", therefore you are unprofessional and I will not read the rest of your comment.

Pretentious, self-important commenters who cannot even bother to check their own comments for spelling are going to the bottom of my comment-reading pile. Believe me, there are many, many blog comments in this blogosphere, and if you want yours to get my attention you will not misspell anybody's name. And don't even get me started on the would-be sentence that begins your comment. No subject??? Really???

Dr. Killjoy said...

Wow. Asstro, despite our past differences, I've always thought of you not unkindly. However, your last post painted a horrifying image that I now can't get out of my head. That's right, I am forever cursed to imagine a generic faced Asstro and faceless Asstro cohorts get together to have a good assholish chortle over those poor folks who mistakenly devalue the cover letter.

The fact that you value the cover letter at all is one thing. That you find not valuing the cover letter a subject sufficiently silly to cause an audible chuckle is a freakishly different thing entirely. You, my dear Asstro, are a right royal prick, and Dr. Killjoy (a prick specialist) recommends that you take a full punch to the face at least twice daily until that annoying little laugh of yours goes away.

Chairephon said...

I just thought I'd relate my experience with cover letters on the job market. I draw no general conclusions from that experience, especially because I thought the results were strange.

For most jobs I applied to--maybe 2/3--I wrote the two-sentence cover letter. For the other 1/3, which were the jobs I particularly wanted or for which I considered myself a particularly good fit, I wrote longer cover letters that attempted to make the case for a particular interest in that department or institution.

I think I got one APA interview from the latter 1/3 of my applications, and 7 from the two-sentence cover letters. My only flyout and job offer was from a large but not terrifically prestigious R1. I did have interviews at SLACs to which I had sent very brief letters. (I put a lot of effort into my teaching statement, so that may have helped.)

Anyway, take it for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

@9:42, this is 9:03

Love it :)

Anonymous said...

"Don't understand why Hunk's perspective continues to be molested."

I'm pretty sure anon 9:03 just sexually harassed me too

Asstro said...

I'll confess to being a total prick, as long as you, Killjoy, confess to being flamboyantly wrong on just about every count. Disregarding this, I'd like to give a fighting chance to struggling grad students who want to get a job. Ignore the cover letter at your peril, grad students.

Obviously, if you write an ass kissing document, it'll be thrown in the trash. Hell, I'll throw it in the trash. Not once have I suggested that you should write an ass kissing document; and none of those links I gave earlier suggested anything of the sort.

As for you, 9:32: "It's pretty clear that Asstro thinks she can figure out your worth from a letter."

Yes, given my above comments, it's very clear that I think this. Everyone, just send me your cover letters. Leave out all other features of your dossier. Those matter not at all.

Anonymous said...

Oh-oh, the nastiness on this blog is on much earlier than last year during the job-hunting season. Just saying.

Xenophon said...

I'm on the market this year, so I like the idea of y'all writing cover letters in crayon.

But seriously, folks, I don't think there's a steadfast rule. It depends on who you are and what jobs you're applying for. If you're fresh out of school and sending out 80 applications, go ahead and use a form letter for everyone. See how well you do with a good CV and research statement. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones. (I'm not being ironic here.)

When you're a couple of years out, if you're not yet on the TT, maybe it's worth your time to focus more on personalizing letters. And if you really want a job because of location, cool department, etc. you might want to do this selectively from year one.

I will say that I've had interviews where I got questions that showed that the SC had read my cover letter, visited my website, etc. And I've gotten questions about what's on my CV, sometimes where they noticed things I didn't emphasize elsewhere, and sometimes indicating they either forgot or didn't notice what was there. So I conclude that all the other stuff is worth it. But some candidates might profit from just throwing the spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.

PA said...

85 comments on cover letters? That's got to be some kind of typo. Now if the topic were really "cover Leiters" (devices used to keep BL out of direct sunlight) I would understand the controversy. Yeah, that gotta be it. People are wondering whether its appropriate to include cover Leiters in their job packets.

Hank said...

Damn, it is getting downright shady in here....yummy, personal attacks always win the argument...

And yes, when the personal attacks start to fly, it usually means that someone is backed into a corner without a way out. But it also means that the arguments are mostly put on the table, and that is what we have here. I can't add anything else to persuade the dissenters to writing a tailored cover letter (and how I laugh that there are those of you out there), and they can neither persuade me that it is not in their best interest to do so.

So we are left with psychological ruminations!! Here goes: back in grad school, there were two general types of grad students (sure, there were exceptions). Group 1 was the analytic metaphysics group (faculty and students) and they were quite the combative crowd (numerous too). Philosophical conversations always became "defend yourself or lose." It was as some philosopher called it, "The Adversarial Method." And our colloquium Q&A's were mainly of these blowhards trying to come up with every nitty-gritty counterexample to throw at the speaker, nevermind what good points the speaker had.

Group 2 was pretty much everyone else. And we (I am included here) generally had a collaborative spirit about philosophy. We were not combative, and we liked to hear the good ideas of our colleagues so that we might integrate them into our own philosophies. We, of course, had arguments and debates as well, but they were not of the adversarial stripe where someone had to win and someone had to lose. The quality of the philosophy still mattered (lest someone infers otherwise).

Here's the rumination. There are two definite sides of the debate on the cover letter thing from those who are actually commenting about it. I wonder how closely Group 1 matches with the dissenters to writing a tailored cover letter (and all the other thoughts on their side), and how closely Group 2 matches with the people who advocate writing tailored cover letters (and all the other thoughts on their side).

My guess is that there is some correlation, yet this is only a guess. But please please, I would really like it if you misrepresent everything I said...I get my giggles from it.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone else curious how many cover letters one could have customized in the time it's taken to follow this thread?

Mocha said...


I can't add anything else to persuade the dissenters to writing a tailored cover letter (and how I laugh that there are those of you out there), and they can neither persuade me that it is not in their best interest to do so.

I do want to make one distinction, though. I never even suggested that it isn't in applicants' interests to write a tailored cover letter. (Nor do I suggest that it isn't in anyone's interests to wear tailored clothing to an interview.) As I said, what surprises me is that SC members *admit* that they are so interested in these things, since they are not relevant to philosophical ability. (Nobody is even attempting to argue that they are relevant to philosophical ability.)

So, I guess the SCs who pay a lot of attention to cover letters and t-shirts will pass up the next Ted Sider. I wish I could say that was me you're passing up, but, alas, it isn't. But, hm, maybe if I do wear a t-shirt to my interviews, I'll have a markedly better chance of being the next Ted Sider's colleague! That would be very cool.

I'm not interested in the psychological ruminations, myself. Also, I am having slight misgivings about having mentioned any philosophers by name. But I'm pretty sure Sider wouldn't mind.

Anonymous said...

Is there a contest somewhere for most useless thread?

Anonymous said...

Don't be fooled by Ted Sider's Tshirts. I have heard they are actually quite expensive.

My advice is to take all of this with a grain of salt. Which is not to say the grains are not helpful. I should hope that you use different application strategies when applying to different schools. Cover-letter essentialism probably does not exist. I think quite a bit of good advice has been given in this thread. Use common sense when applying it.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi Mocha,

I think it's pretty obvious that search committees are often interested in things other than philosophical ability. I think it's pretty obvious that this makes a lot of sense. One thing other than philosophical ability that search committees are interested in has to do with how well the candidate will get along at that school. Will this person be happy with a teaching-heavy job at a big state/regional state/slac/football team with a school in there somewhere/small school in the middle of fucking nowhere/satellite campus in the United Arab Emirates? Cover letters can speak to that.

One thing to notice about Ted Sider is that while he's had a pretty terrific career so far, he's moved around quite a lot. Maybe they don't want the next Ted Sider because they know the next Ted Sider is going to be at Rutgers in five years, and then at NYU five years after that. Or because the next Ted Sider won't want to teach a 3-3 load. Or because the next Ted Sider would never be happy teaching at an undergrad-only department. Or whatever.

And again, it makes perfect sense for some departments to value things other than philosophical ability (while still valuing philosophical ability), and to avoid candidates who seem like they think they're the next Ted Sider.

Anonymous said...

This thread has been wildly entertaining and totally useless info-wise.

zombie said...

I disagree. I think this thread has been wildly entertaining AND fairly informative. It's like a book you can't put down, or a huge car wreck you can't stop rubbernecking, or a Jet Li movie.

For one thing, I learned that it is a terrible burden to graduate from Berkeley. I also learned that different people have different views on cover letters.

I think the photo of Ted Sider on his website is hilarious. He looks like a mime pretending to be a serious professor. That's what happens when you wear a black T to teach.

Anyway, it all started with Xenophon's question. Hey Xenophon, did your question ever get answered?

Mocha, the "chump" thing was just the actual word verification for that post. Nothing personal. Methinks we're all chumps here. Procrastinating chumps who should be working on our cover letters.

Mocha said...

Mr. Zero,

Now I get it. Thanks. So, for instance, a SC at Big West Univ. is going to want to see evidence that the really good philosopher they're interviewing would be reasonably happy in Big West, and wouldn't be trying desperately to get back East/to the West Coast/to Berlin/etc.

In my defense, I think I would have caught on to the point if someone had put it so clearly earlier. Also, it is somewhat difficult for some of us to internalize the idea that SCs might sometimes worry whether I (!) would really want their job.

Zombie, cool, I'll try not to be defensive...

Also, where can I get some chaps for my interview?

Anonymous said...

Well, people seem cheerful now, but a few comments ago I was going to say: this astonishing discussion COULD, possibly, culminate in a reader poll. Such a poll could confirm (or not) the apparent state of affairs: that you should have the best dossier you can and write a cover letter that is so stupendously graceful, light on its feet, and to-the-point that the cover-letter-haters don't even notice that you wrote one: the information will simply seem to have emanated, without mediation, from its true source in your CV, writing sample, heart, and soul.

Alternately, attach a cover letter purporting to be from your leading competitor on the job market which is sycophantic, full of typos, and apologetic about things that didn't happen. This will buy you time.

Anonymous said...

Xenophon: "And I've gotten questions about what's on my CV."

My dept. made a rule a while back that we would ask everyone the same questions during conference interviews, and in the same order. We hoped that would reduce the "apples and oranges" feeling we often have when trying to rank candidates for the flyout list.

Getting a question that's already answered in your file doesn't necessarily mean the questioner didn't read it or doesn't remember that part if she did.

Anonymous said...

2:38 here. I take it back, this thread has been informative. I learned that Tid Sider's t-shirts might be expensive after all, and who knew that being a Berkeley PhD could be such a stinking draw-back? (Zombie, I'm glad to see that there are other more fortunate non-Berkeley people out there.)

Love this blog.

Popkin said...

Can we argue about something really important now, namely letterhead? Does it matter one way or the other if I use my department's letterhead when applying for jobs (the department where I just received my Ph.D.)? And if I want any written communication to be sent to my home address (rather than to my mailbox at the department), is it weird to use the University letterhead but list my home address?

zombie said...

Not to change the subject to JOBS or anything, but the Hawaii Hilo job seems to have disappeared. I am shedding tears for my lost dreams of becoming a surfer. Dude.

word verification: lounce.
def: What philosophers do when they lie in wait, all casual like, before pouncing on another, weaker member of the herd screaming "Defend or lose!"

Anonymous said...

This has been a great thread indeed: Sergio Leone would have filmed it as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly II: Philosophers Smoke One Another.

Enough about Sider. He's a talented philosopher who earns his keep at a high level of contribution to the profession. And as far as I know him he's a good person who doesn't deserve his dress being an issue. His professionalism is attitudinal, not
sartorial. And the presumption for our profession is to present oneself first professionally--even sartorially--and then establish the exact manner of professionalism in one's career. For Sider currently it is his manner and content of expression that sets him apart--not his dress. For others in search of a job it is always the former that's important--but at least at first also something of the latter. Be cautious and genteel in communication--unlike many on this thread--but also present yourself as someone sensitive to social covention. Wear a T-shirt to your interview at your peril: you might earn that quirky privilege later, but you must earn it by the sweat of your brow in publication and/or teaching. Otherwise--be a professional completely, in presentation in your letters and your dress in interviews. As many have said before me: think you're hot (as despising 4/4s for example) ? Then think again--you have plenty of company--and your attitude is probably the only factor that might keep you from a job--or by adjustment might give you one.

Filosofer said...

@Popkin: Thanks for raising a new issue.

I was on a search committee last year, and [insert ceteris paribus warnings, comments about how this is just one person's opinion, and other relevant clauses here] my experience was that letterhead is nice, but it doesn't matter. If you're coming right out of grad school, we know that your department has fancy letterhead, but we also know that you're really poor and might not be able to acquire it. If you can use it, do so; it looks polished and professional. But don't spend your own money on it. A properly headed letter on plain paper is fine.

A related point: I felt really bad for applicants who had clearly spent a lot of money on fancy resume paper. Their applications looked lovely and were a pleasure to hold, but the paper made absolutely no impact on anyone's assessment whatsoever. No favorable impact, anyway. I sometimes thought that those applicants seemed awfully naive. Why would you spend money on that?

Oh, and one other thing: Take this with a grain of salt, but I also felt bad for people who paid to have official transcripts sent. In my case, the institution's HR department required us to request transcripts in the ad. We didn't care, though; copies or unofficial transcripts would have been fine. If you're applying for a position, and the ad lists transcripts as one of the things you need to send, just send copies and include a line in the cover letter indicating that official transcripts are available upon request.

Filosofer said...

@Popkin again:

I failed to address your other question about letterhead.

In my view, at least, there's nothing weird about using institutional letterhead with a home address. I can't imagine anyone being put off by this. Most people won't even notice; if we're sending thanks-we've-received-your-application postcards, we'll probably have an administrative assistant do it. If we have something more important to contact you about, we'll call you or send an email.

Popkin said...

Thanks Filosofer. Very helpful.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has chaired a number of SCs at a highly competitive SLAC, I want to offer one other bit of advice that I think will apply more broadly than just to liberal arts colleges: ask your graduate placement advisor to look at your letters of recommendation, and (i) both tell you to remove those that are less than entirely positive, and (ii) tell your departmental administrative person (or whomever is responsible for sending out your letters) how to order them. It seems like a trivial point, but you should have your most positive letters at the top of the pile; I can't remember how many times I saw a stack of letters that began with a tepid recommendation from someone who had little positive to say about an applicant, and ended with a much more positive endorsement. As with the cover letters, in an ideal situation this wouldn't make any difference, but in the process of trying to cull 300+ applicants down to the 15 or so we're able interview, first impressions are really important, and if the first recommendation starts off with something along the lines of 'um...she seems pretty smart, though I don't know much about her,' it's hard to overcome that initial impression of mediocrity, even if the later letters are much more enthusiastic.

P.S. For all the righteous indignation about the role pedigree plays in hiring decisions, I will say that the letters from faculty at more highly ranked institutions are, as a whole, an order of magnitude better than those from less selective places. The level of detail, engagement with, and subtle assessment of an applicant's work and potential is--by and large--much more impressive when the letter writer is from a top place, and I think that plays far greater a role in hiring decisions than many people acknowledge. It's not just the aura of the Leiter rankings--it's also the quality of the letter that come from the more esteemed departments. This disparity in the nature of rec letters is likely unfair to those very smart people applying from programs lower down the food chain, but I think it's worth noting in the context of complaints about how pedigree exercises an undue influence in the application process: one additional advantage to being at a higher ranked program is the strength of the endorsement letter you receive from your recommenders.

Anonymous said...

This might be a tangential remark, but in the context of various complaints about the role that pedigree plays in the hiring process--an admittedly fractious issue--I wanted to note that there is a high correspondence between the rank of a department and the quality of the letters from an applicant's recommenders (I speak as someone who has chaired three searches in the last five years). It's not just the reputation of the institution an applicant comes from--it's also the level of detail about, engagement with, and subtle assessment of an applicant's work that comes from a highly ranked department's letter writers. Given the importance of recommendations in the application process, it's important, I think, to keep this in mind when raising complaints about the supposedly undue influence pedigree plays in hiring: it's not just the aura of the letter writers, but the informativeness of the letters themselves, that plays a key role in why applicants from better-ranked places do better on the job market than those from less prestigious places.

Xenophon said...

Anon 5:06,

No offense, but I think that's one of the dumber interview strategies I've ever heard. I know a fair number of schools do it, so I'm not dogging you personally for it, but I think the best interviews ask questions about each candidate that you actually have about each candidate. In a nutshell (to mix metaphors), apples to apples comparisons are only useful if no one has any oranges in their CV, but some of us do.

Now, that's my view. What's your take? Why do you think it's a good approach, other than the apples to oranges thing you mention?

(BTW, questions about my CV have to do with things that wouldn't be on most CVs, having to do with the sequencing of things. So that's not why they've asked those questions. I could explicate further, but then I'd have to kill you.)

Zombie, no, no one ever did. But it was just a casual and blatant attempt to threadjack the current post, and not something I've been desperately waiting for responses to anyway. I've really enjoyed this thread. Thanks, everyone. Dr. Killjoy, you're an angry SOB. Love it. I hope you interview me this year. Or vice versa.

Xenophon said...

Anon 7:52, you've demonstrated that Sergio Leone is the wrong movie analogy. It should be Charlie Kaufman (Being Ted Sider).

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:06

Our equal opportunity office requires that we use the same list of questions with each and every semi-finalist and finalist we interview. As a female, I'm comfortable with that, as it ensures we at least start from a level playing field in the areas of discussion. We try to draft the questions (which they have to approve) so they are somewhat open, letting us take the discussion in different directions, as appropriate. And we always have a final question that essentially lets the applicant tell us anything about themselves that they think we should know.

zombie said...

I've had two interviews where they told me in advance that they were asking every candidate the same things. And they told me what those things would be. They were not completely specific questions, which is to say that they were the kinds of questions that every candidate could put their own spin on. It served, for me, as a warning about what the SC cared about. I prefer that to getting those surprise curveball questions that just strike me as weird.