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Writing the Job Letter: What’s Too Much Information?

Building on our October series on career events, we’re going forward in November with some posts about the actual application phase of job seeking.

Feel free to write to us with any requests!

This is too loose to qualify as any kind of segue, but I think it’s too topical to pass up, what with the daylight savings time change: are you tired? Concerned about your sleep patterns? Perhaps you needn’t worry because the idea of a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be a myth after all. If you’re working round the clock these days, first, maybe take a step back and re-evaluate your priorities. But second, read this neat article on “bi-modal” or “segmented” sleep, and consider that waking up for some time at night might not be any reason to add to your stress.
Now, onto the topic of job letters.

It's not always obvious.

It’s not always obvious.

You may have seen this article kicking around the internet, “A Dozen Sentences That Should Appear in your Application Letter,” by Professor Philip N. Howard (originally published on the University of Washington Graduate College Mentor Memo site, and was later reprinted in Inside Higher Ed) and, if so, hopefully also this article “Those Twelve Sentences: Evaluating Cover Letter Advice,” by Dr. Karen over at The Professor is In.
There are a couple of the recommendations that merit talking about further, I think.

One is:

I am interested in this post for a variety of reasons: [something about the character of the department/university/community/city].

And Dr. Karen’s reply:

This is tailoring, and it’s essential.

She goes on in a related post called “How To Tailor a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging)” to suggest that:

you should list a few people [faculty in the department to which you’re applying] by name and how you anticipate collaborating with them. But that should be augmented with other content.

...without begging, flattering, or pandering.

…without begging, flattering, or pandering.

For instance:

I can envision collaborating with Smith on projects related to Eastern European politics and economics, and with Nelson on work related to the post-socialist transition.

I put this to my references for a recent job application as well as some other friends and colleagues, and the only specific advice I received was exactly contrary: this kind of tailoring, where you name particular faculty, should be avoided at the cover letter stage. The rationale I heard was that you never know who is reading the letter and what their relationship might be with the person whose name you dropped. You might have just unwittingly aligned yourself with their arch nemesis and if it comes to the “would I want to have a beer with this prospective colleague?” that may not bode well. Once you make it to an on-campus interview, however, you can feel out the dynamic of your prospective department and this kind of discussion would be more appropriate.
What do you think? What advice have you received, and what kind of experiences have you had with your approach to the name issue?

Another question is: do you write the ~2 page “job letter” with paragraphs that deal with the necessary formalities, detail current research, future projects, teaching philosophy and experience, do tailoring, and sign off, all in one? Or do you write a short, simple cover letter and include a separate statement of research interests and let your teaching dossier take care of the pedagogy component? The two posts I quoted from above both assume a ~2 page comprehensive letter is the way to go. Personally, I like this format for the way it lets you integrate these components. But some jobs specifically request a statement of research interests, meaning that you’ve got to separate them. Again, we’d love to hear your experiences. It can be hard to distinguish norms from guidelines and idiosyncrasies.

Sometimes it takes a good mentor to teach you the unwritten rules.

Sometimes it takes a good mentor to teach you the unwritten rules.


Send us your questions and your wisdom.

Posted in Jobs and Careers Tagged with: , , , ,
One comment on “Writing the Job Letter: What’s Too Much Information?
  1. Love this blog Sharday. Looking forward to hearing thoughts from students

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