What is the role of a cover letter in the application for a faculty job?
The primary function of the cover letter is to help you make the short list. Many search committee members use cover letters to cull the tower of applications to a workable height. If your cover letter doesn’t communicate a good fit, then it’s easy for your application to be tossed aside.
Once you’re on the short list, your application will get scrutinized in more detail. Your cover letter, along with your CV, is your foot in the door, before the door slams shut.
Because cover letters are used for culling, the absence of negatives in the letter is particularly important. In addition, the there are a number of required elements showing that you are a potential good fit. Your letter can’t have things that rule you out, and it needs to have things that take you to the next level.
It doesn’t take a paleocytogeneticist to figure out that you need to identify the traits that are seen as essential, negative, and positive by the institution to which you are applying. You can do some research, but what a department thinks is often mysterious, even to the members of the department. Regardless, there are a number of commonalities among most teaching institutions in how they pick candidates, which I attempt to elucidate here. This might be an incomplete or flawed list; I’d love to see comments.
Required elements: These are needed to make the short list.
You are capable of teaching what the job requires. You have to be qualified to teach the courses in the job ad, and then some. If you haven’t taught these courses already, that’s okay. Be sure to explain what you have already taught, where you’ve taught it, and that you’re fully prepared, and excited, to teach what is in the job ad.
You are focused on teaching. There are different ways to communicate this fact, but it has to clearly emerge throughout the letter that teaching is your highest priority.
You are serious about research, and discuss it in the context of undergraduate mentorship. Be clear that student research experiences are integral to your research. This doesn’t have to be the purpose of your research, but nearly every undergraduate institution is expecting its new faculty to substantially engage students in research.
Your research program is workable on campus. Nobody is going to want to interview anyone whose research looks like it isn’t compatible with the campus. It needs to be obvious that your research can continue after you move. If your work has involved specialized locations or facilities, you need to make it clear that you have a way to continue a productive research agenda after the moving. (For example, since my research is based in a different country, then I have to mention that I always do my fieldwork in summer and winter break. Another approach would be to indicate that I’m prepared to operate my research program locally.)
You’re not a weirdo. Being a weirdo isn’t just a negative; you have to actively not be a weirdo to get on the short list. What does a weirdo look like in a cover letter? Well, a weirdo has a weird cover letter, meaning that it appreciably deviates from the norm. Be normal in the cover letter, just do it in an excellent way. One exception is if the search committee is composed of weirdoes. This is academia, after all.
Negatives: Stay away from these things in the cover letter
Research comes before teaching: At a teaching institution, teaching comes first. That means, literally, that teaching should be mentioned first. Don’t be more excited about research than about teaching.
Research gets more verbiage than teaching. You’re being hired to teach. I understand that describing your research program in the level of detail you wish might take three paragraphs. But that would require at least three, better, paragraphs on teaching. And if you did that, your letter would be too long.
Not doing your homework: There could be many small things that could suggest that the applicant hasn’t taken the time to learn the basics of the campus. Don’t mention that you really want to teach a specific class that is clearly the territory of someone else. Don’t say that you would like to teach the laboratory of a course which is offered without a lab. Don’t refer to a department-less program as a department, and don’t use acronyms or names for things on campus unless you know those are in common use.
Typos. One can be overlooked, but two is mighty bad. Be careful to avoid cut-and-paste errors that show traces of other applications. Of course everybody knows that applicants apply for many jobs, and this isn’t fatal, but it obviously doesn’t look good.
Educational mumbo-jumbo. It would be great if your teaching included quickthinks, think-pair-share, formative assessments, and uses Bloom’s taxonomy to formally establish expectations. To many scientists, even at teaching institutions, you’d be overbearing if wrote about it in your cover letter. You might not even want to mention clickers unless you know the department has already adopted them. Many scientists, even at teaching institutions, are threatened by other scientists who are progressive in finding effective modes of teaching. You can present yourself as a progressive, experienced and innovative instructor without making the recalcitrant relics in the department think that you’ve gone to the dark side of education.
Namedropping. Let your CV and reference letters speak for themselves, especially if you were blessed with a pedigree including Dr. Famous. Keep in mind that small campuses have people in such divergent fields that Dr. Famous might not even matter to your audience.
Boasting. The cover letter is not the place to mention awards you’ve received, big papers you’ve published, or big grants you’ve landed. That’s on your CV and it can speak for itself. Discuss your projects, but not the amount of money connected or who funded it. If you have a record of external funding, then say in your cover letter that you intend to continue the projects that you’ve been running.
Discussion of the nice location of the campus. Anybody can waste words about the perfect weather in coastal Southern California, the great cultural scene in Los Angeles, New York’s great bagels, that charming rural towns are great places to raise families, and that Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh. To say so is cloying, unless you’re a Warhol scholar.
The mistake that being a student informs you about the life of a professor. Many people who apply to liberal arts colleges mention that they were liberal arts college students, suggesting that this experience gives them a better preparation for the job of a liberal arts college professor. This argument is both pedestrian and non-compelling. We are smart enough to read your CV and connect the dots. It’s okay to mention it, but don’t write about the topic as if you have some magical level of understanding, unless you had attended the same school to which you are applying for a job. Being a student at a liberal arts college doesn’t help you know what it is like to be a professor at one. If imply this idea, you could sound a little naïve.
You’re coming up for tenure. The longer you are in a faculty position, the harder it is to move, unless you want to become an administrator. If you want to move from one job to another, it’s possible, but you have to convince the committee that you’re really serious about moving and that you’re not just applying for a counter offer, or to test the waters. Don’t mince words and be clear about your motivation if you want to leave. You also need to remain positive and not say anything negative about your current position. This is a delicate dance. Make sure that this is backed up by a letter-writer from your campus, who can be more frank than you. You need to bring this out in your cover letter so that the committee will choose to look beyond your CV.
Expression of negativity about anything. Don’t complain, don’t make excuses, and don’t air any grievances about anything. If your publication record is subpar, the worst thing you can do about it is to make excuses or promises. If you’re looking to leave one job for another, or choosing one career path over another, your motivations need to be positive. You might be working in a snakepit, but you can’t speak badly of your current employer if you are to land a new one.
Positives: Recommended but not required
The letter is the right length. Spilling onto a third page is too wordy, but not getting far enough into the second page is too terse. The best cover letters I’ve read (in my opinion) go some distance into the second page. Five brief paragraphs should be fine. You’re not fooling anybody by shrinking the font, other than yourself.
You communicate that you might have a realistic idea about what it is like at that institution. Many applicants for teaching jobs really have no idea how much teaching happens. If you’re smooth, you can subtly phrase things to make it clear that you won’t get sticker shock when you find out what the teaching load is like. If you can find a credible way of explaining that you are able to thrive while teaching a full course load, include it in the letter. As a drawback, I don’t know how to recommend how to do that smoothly without having already had that experience.
You are open-minded about your teaching assignments. Sometimes, new hires are stuck with the classes that senior faculty are tired of teaching. In others departments, new hires are rewarded with the opportunity to teach their specialty. You never know what the department needs, and even if the job ad is detailed and specific, the people in the department might not have equally specific ideas. In addition to explaining that you can teach the things in the ad, you should indicate that you enjoy teaching at all levels (if this is true) and that you’re open to a variety of courses that are suited to your qualifications (if this is true).
Specific references to campus-specific traits indicating that you can fit in well: These things are particular to a person and to a campus. For example, if you do work in Latin America and the university has a clear emphasis or strategic direction towards Latin America, bring this up. Another example could be that you know that the college has a nature preserve adjacent to campus, and that is the home to organisms that you study, and that working there would facilitate long-term and student-centered research. The more you do your homework, the greater the chance you might find a connection. Don’t make a stretch, but if it’s a natural fit, it’s okay to mention it in the cover letter and them amplify in the teaching and research statements as needed.
Your research is in the area required in the job ad. Perhaps this is a surprise, but this is not in the “required element” category for a reason. Job ads are forged through compromise, and are typically unsatisfactory to members of the search committee, and might be altered by administrators before going to press. You can’t put too much stock in them (Including the role of research on campus, or the role of religion on campus). You never really know what the department is looking for, from just reading the job ad. You can’t ever really know until you get an offer. If you really want to work at a particular school, it can’t hurt to apply even if you don’t fit the exact subspecialty in the job ad, except for the time spent on the application. Your odds are lower, as the job ad might be accurate about the search, but you never know if they’ll like what they see. Just don’t try to sell yourself as something that you are not. For example, the ad for my current position called for an ecosystem ecologist. I clearly am not an ecosystem ecologist. It turns out that the department just wanted an ecologist, and an ecosystem ecologist was a field that they were somewhat interested in, but they weren’t that picky. If you do fit, that’s wonderful for you, and you have much better odds. But, there is a chance you still could land an interview if you don’t have the exact specialty in the ad. Just be honest about your qualifications and interests, because the untruth usually smells a lot like bull.
Gorgeous prose. A workmanlike and sufficiently written letter isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But excellent writing will make you stand out. There are different ways to write beautifully, but they all require practice. There are lots of people and places that are pleased to tell you what good writing looks like.
You’re a member of an underrepresented group. Nobody is going to be hired solely because of ethnicity or gender. However, this can help get you on the short list. Once you get on campus, this stuff mostly doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter to the department, though it could to an administrator. (I’ve only once been involved in a faculty search in which there was a clear affirmative action candidate. Administration insisted that we create an extra interview slot for a particular applicant from an underrepresented group, who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a slot. This person showed up and was nothing short of amazing, far better than all of the other candidates. That was affirmative action at its best, in an environment where it was necessary.) If you’re a member of an underrepresented group, make sure it is overt in your application somewhere, because it could increase the chance you get an interview. It’s not cheating, and it’s not unfair. It’s giving the institution the opportunity to make the choice that it wishes to make. Once people meet you in person, how you got the interview doesn’t matter. My campus is has 50% Latino and 30% African-American students, and we need more faculty who are not only role models for our students, but also physically appear to be role models. Research shows that this makes a difference in students’ lives, and if there’s a chance that a person from one of these groups might be the best candidate, I definitely want to find that out. The best person for the job is picked, but indicating your underrepresented status could give you the opportunity to show that you’re the best.
If the job is in an unpopular or expensive location, provide a compelling reason to live there if you have one. In my opinion, it’s helpful to spend a single sentence explaining a specific personal reason for moving to, or staying in, what many consider to be a difficult place to live. For example, there are a bunch of great colleges in the Midwest, and upstate New York, in tiny towns multiple hours away from what any genuine city. Those places may have trouble recruiting – and keeping – faculty because of where they are located. There are similar recruitment problems in very cosmopolitan – but expensive – cities. If you explain that you have deep personal ties to a location, or that your spouse is interested in returning back to his or her hometown, I think it would help. For example, when I applied for a job in Los Angeles while I was employed in San Diego, I had to explain (in one sentence) that I grew up in the area and was interested in moving back. Otherwise, they probably would not think that I was serious, because San Diegans universally think that San Diego is way more awesome than LA. (When I lived there, I thought that, too. It might be something in the unfluoridated water that causes the mass delusion.) Keep in mind that your reason to bring up personal stuff has to be very compelling. Just saying that you’d like your kids to grow up in a rural town with a nice community isn’t going to cut it. The academic job scene is a seller’s market, and these personal factors matter only when you think you can prevent them from not taking you seriously. For example, if an applicant has a very strong publication record, teaching campuses might be afraid to waste an interview slot on someone who, in their view, is likely to opt for a job at a research institution.
You don’t have too many strings attached. Search committees shouldn’t – and often don’t – make decisions based on their knowledge of the personal lives of the applicants. But, if you have information, it’s hard to avoid thinking about it. The bottom line is that if you have a spouse with a portable job, and the search committee knows this, they would feel better about investing an interview slot in you. Likewise, if they suspect that you have a personal barrier that would keep you from moving, this could, unfairly, influence the decision-making process. Such possible scenarios include dual-academic-career situation when a double hire is impossible, or being single and moving to a small remote town, or having a spouse whose job cannot easily move. If you can say something to make it clear that these possible negatives don’t apply to your situation, you might be better off by doing so. Is it fair? No. But it is in your interest, and life isn’t fair. You don’t want to specifically refer to a spousal employment situation, or the lack thereof, with specifics. But pushing that borderline by saying that you ”do not have any personal or professional constraints that would prevent you from permanently relocating to the area.” (I’d like to be very clear that I intentionally work at avoiding using these kinds of data when making decisions about applications, and I honestly think that I am functionally unbiased. However, I’m going to leave it to the committee members to decide which information they want to use, and I typically lean towards sharing more rather than less if it has the potential to work in my favor.)
That’s the end of the lists.
As a guiding principle, when in doubt, be straightforward and honest. You don’t want to get a job by pretending to be someone that you aren’t, because then you’ll have to continue pretending for another six years.
As a caveat, keep in mind that all generalized advice about how to prepare a faculty job application is apt to be wrong about some things. The people who evaluate applications are normal folks just like you and me, and we all do things our own way. So, anybody who says that the cover letter is the most important part of the application, or that the CV is, or that the teaching statement is, well, they’re just making that up. The search committee is not monolithic, and every part of the application is important. I’ve already written about the teaching philosophy, and more on the other parts is forthcoming.