Any job applicant, especially in academia, has been drilled at great length about the importance of the almighty Cover Letter. A good one moves an application out of the pile and a bad one moves a file to the trash. A masterful Cover Letter truly is a thing to behold – that is, if you are lucky enough to see such an elusive creature in your fleeting years on this planet. They are reputed to cure cancer with a mere touch of their cotton-bonded stock.
After many attempts at securing employment in academia, I have decided to discard my highly professional, edited, and thoroughly serious Cover Letter. I have been reassured that it is appropriate, but it is failing to deliver the desired results. In its place I have decided to go with a letter that actually sounds like me. Those who know me will doubtlessly label this a poor strategy. However, with the sheer volume of applicants on the market (200+ for American Politics positions) I might as well throw the Hail Mary and see if brutal honesty can help me stand out.
For my fellow academics, rest assured that I am about 63% serious about sending this out with my applications from now on. I mean, there has to be at least one person somewhere in this profession with a personality and a sense of humor who will appreciate this. Someone destined to end up in the middle of every 200-deep pile of applications might as well take some risks, no?
October 30, 2010
Prof. Joseph M. Blow
Chair, American Politics Search
Department of Political Science
University of Anywhere
Pigsknuckle, IA 75018
Members of the Search Committee:
I am writing to apply for the American Politics position at University of Anywhere. I am currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Giant Southeastern Public University and I received my Ph.D. from Giant Midwestern State University in 2009. At this point I am supposed to indicate what specific attributes of your University make it a place at which I want to work. I would rather not patronize you. Let us be frank: I am applying because you have a job opening and I need a job. I have no reason to think that your department is anything but a fine place to work, but I would apply for a tenure-track job on a burning oil rig at this point.
In fairness, the search committee, if using standard search committee logic, has no reason to hire me. With the sheer number of un- and under-employed people in our profession, your pile of 150-some applications has numerous candidates who are superior to me. If you decide based on pedigree, you have plenty of Harvard and Stanford people to choose from. If you are simply counting publications, there are applicants with more than me. If superstar letters of recommendation are your thing, there are applicants who can beat me on that count as well. In fact, everything about me as an academic is average. Decent track record, decent Ph.D.-granting institution, decent recommendations, decent research agenda, decent teaching…well, honestly I'm pretty well above average at the last one but let us not pretend that teaching is a factor in hiring decisions at research universities. I would emphasize my teaching experience but I'd gain as much from telling search committees that I have an impressive stamp collection. Let us just say that if you need it taught, I can teach it and do a pretty good job of it. The 15% of your undergraduate student body that actually pays some attention to academics will like me.
Attached is a description of my research agenda, my teaching philosophy (including evaluations, which I did not cherry-pick to remove the venomous comments), and samples of my work, both published and in progress. You will not read any of this stuff because no rational person is going to read 60-plus pages from hundreds of applications. Frankly I am surprised you've read this far rather than glancing at the University logo in the letterhead and moving to the next file.
I could waste everyone's time talking about projects, publications, teaching awards, and all that stuff we are supposed to brag about in a Cover Letter. But there are now dozens and dozens of people on the market who have those things so it makes more sense for someone like me to take a different approach. So, here's the deal. I work hard, I care about students, I'm devoted to turning out publishable research, I won't be looking to leave for a "better" department as soon as I arrive, and I am not psychotic or interested in departmental politicking. I actually have a personality, albeit one that may not be to everyone's liking, and thus I am neither painfully socially awkward nor a venom-spewing asshole. I mention this only because these characteristics describe such a vast portion of academia. If I get a chance to speak with you about this position you'll find my work pretty interesting and my interest in teaching sincere. Best of all you won't walk away feeling like you had to spend an hour with Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man or a sociopath who erred in choosing Political Science over the joint MBA-JD program. As an added bonus, if you interview me you'll be interviewing at least one person who isn't using your institution as leverage to get a better offer elsewhere.
It would be great to hear from you, but as with any application there is a 99% chance I won't. In that case I wish you luck with whoever you decide to hire. There are all kinds of supporting materials attached on the off chance that you care to read them. I wouldn't recommend it, as doing so will kill your chances of plowing through 150 applications in the 30 minutes before your next class and that three hour late afternoon faculty meeting. I would offer more sympathy for the fact that search committee work has been added to your many other responsibilities but, hey, you're the one with a job. And I'm crazy enough to want to join you.
Edward _______, Ph.D. 2009
This is clearly a good idea.