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.

39 thoughts on “NPF: THE (OPEN) COVER LETTER”

  • I wholeheartedly endorse this course of action. You've really got nothing else to lose by appealing to the rationality of a search committee.

    The only change I would make is the Ryan Gosling reference. While some people might know who and what you're talking about, we're talking about (most likely) 50+ year old white men. Make it something more universal, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or something similar.

  • I've half a mind to support your use of this letter. As if the opinion of a half-drunk lurker matters.

    Thanks for sharing your triumphs and struggles Ed. I hope something good happens to you.

  • Ed, I think you're on the right track. As a person who has read thousands of cover letters, I can assure you that the standard use of action verbs and corporatisms are enough to make me pray for an aneurism. At the end of the day, however, I still have to consider that there is a real live person whose hopes hinge on my decision of moving it forward or round-filing their resume.

    That being said, people want to hire people that they like. I've hired people who, on paper, were fall less qualified that other applicants. I hired them because they were interesting, motivated, and would fit in well with the existing team. Personality and likeability goes a long way in getting your foot in the door.

    I discovered over the years that interviewing is a lot like a first date. Both parties are a little nervous and everyone is hiding something. Much as I discovered in dating, being yourself and, frankly, not sucking up to the other party proves infinitely more fruitful than being a sycophantic doormat.

    Yes, the person reading your cover letter has the power but you also have the power to turn down the position. People naturally want to hire the person they have to talk into taking the job.

    By all means, send out a few resumes with your cover letter. I'm willing to bet you get a few interviews out of curiosity if nothing else. After all, a face to face meeting is often all it takes to move you to the top of the heap. Also, if they read your brilliant blog, they might just accidentally round-file some of the Ivy dickheads.

    Good luck. You deserve a great position for no other reason than providing an excellent forum for a lot of smart people to discuss the matters of the day.

  • I once updated my resume and accompanied my mom to her office where she, a private secretary, professionally arranged it and printed it out. Above the printer was the sign: Clean up after yourselves. Your mother doesn't work here. PS Today's her birthday.

  • Waste'o'space says:

    Brilliantly done sir! I'm in roughly the same boat (minus the current gig and different discipline with similar issues) and have been frequently tempted to do this. The big problem is that if it works, then you have to follow-up with an even better performance at the interview. It's one thing to be brutally honest about the job market on paper with faceless committee. It's another to do that sort of thing in the 'So why do you think you'd be a good fit at university X' stage of the interview. Though, I'm tempted to go the performance art route this year if I get an interview from a place that is particularly pedigree-conscious (they do have to fill out the numbers for interviews with us mid-range candidates after all).

  • In the last graph, change "whoever" to "whomever," and you're IN, baby.

    As long as you're sending out dozens of applications, you may as well throw this in the mix and see what happens. If I were on the search committee, I'd be bored out of my skull.

  • I was going to say, you want "whomever" rather than "whoever," and I'd put a comma after "Best of all."

    Also, it's a little long– can you tighten it up a bit? You don't need to go on for quite so long to get across the point that you're being radically honest.

  • Send it. You'll do no worse than hearing nothing and there's an excellent chace that you'll put a smile on the face of some crusty, defeated academic desperately looking for a reason to crack a smile before enduring that faculty meeting. And, really, isn't that enough?

    Well, no. Still. You shoud send it. Get rid of the Ryan Gosling reference, though. That might be a deal breaker.

  • TL;DR.

    I kid, I kid. I like the honestly without being an asshole. I agree with Scott about referencing Ryan Gosling. As someone over 30, I am not sure who he is and can't be bothered to Search for information when there are better things to do on a computer. Like updating my own reseume. Or Peggle.

    Keep up the great work!

  • Random thoughts:

    PhD in '09? Doesn't this make you 1-year-old in academia? A mere toddler? I'm heartened that you haven't been at this grind too long and predict great success–make that I KNOW you're going places in a few years, if not immediately. My own final degree is/was an M.F.A. (in studio art), but I've known academics in other fields who taught for years before completing their PhDs, however rare that is these days. Seems to me you're in the dawn of your career.

    I had been lighting candles and saying novenas for your job search, which was odd since I'm not Catholic. Or even Christian, come to think of it.

    The letter was a scream. As usual I fear G&T will cease if you get a great spot somewhere. But enough about me.

    If I were a committee member on the other end and considered granting you an interview, I'd want to call you on the phone first, just to make sure you weren't Louis Black or some compulsive bastard who couldn't turn off the joke machine. Is there opportunity for that verbal exchange in these matters? Should be, I warrant.

    Glad other people pointed out the "whomever." Though Navajos warn against perfection.

  • Ed, I think I love you.

    I'm in almost the exact same place you are: PhD defended in 2009, working as a lecturer in Georgia, and a couple of years in to the process of trying to get some sort of interest. (Although I've finally given up on the whole institution-specific boilerplate in the cover letter. It's one more area that a typo can creep in and I figure that search commitees can recognize the pandering).

  • I'd change "asshole" to "jerk" to avoid offending people who have a sense of propriety about such things, and someone else already pointed out "whomever". Apart from that, let 'er fly!

  • Snip the fourth paragraph. They don't want to be told that they're elitist assholes in quite such detail. But otherwise, golden and I agree that you could do no worse than send it to a few places which you think are long-shots anyhow.

  • Entomologista says:

    Love it. I am about to graduate with my Ph.D and the thought of writing all these cover letters and statements of teaching philosophy fill me with horror.

  • I'd re-work it some, but it is definitely worth a shot.
    While it wasn't in academia per se, I once got a great foot-in-the-door job with a similar tactic. I cut the bullshit and put out a "what you see is what you get" letter. They loved it and I got a job for which scores if not hundreds had applied.

  • This matter-of-fact approach is appealing. I like the last two paragraphs and would move them to the top – or just go with those two, since it is a really long letter.

  • I have served on many search committees, am chairing one now, and I have never read a single cover letter. I look first at the CV, and if prior accomplishments look interesting, then I look at the research plan.

  • I'd really like to read those scathing reviews you alluded to. Actually I'd like to read the whole 60 page packet. Your idea of boring and dry deals with part of you having to maintain this split personality segmented between personal and professional writing. How much of you shines through in those pieces?

    I'd like to read the scathing reviews because I always like to read what the entitled and uninterested leaders of our future have to say about things they don't understand or pay attention to – hence (my) interest in what stupid things tea party supporters are going to say next.

  • I have served on many search committees, am chairing one now, and I have never read a single cover letter.

    Me too, and me neither, although I don't work in the US, so this observation may be of zero value.

    The recruitment culture of the US may be quite different, but I wouldn't send that letter, as entertaining as I found it. One person's amusing sarcasm is another person's bitter snideness, and it's so unusual to receive communications from candidates (whether in the form of CVs, or personal statements on application forms, or letters) that aren't blandly professional, that the breach of the 'rules' is likely to have even more impact.

    In my experience, most search committees / recruitment panels tend to be pretty sober and conservative in their discussions. It's a costly thing to get wrong.

  • Worth a shot, althought I agree with Maren: drop or seriously cut down paragraph 4. Even with such cynical humor, you want to be saying positive things about yourself, not negative things about others.

  • Ah.

    Even after walking away from academia, I've considered this very approach just to get a fucking desk job, for the exact same reasons. If it stands out, it's working, right? If they laugh it off and/or throw it away, well, that's what was going to happy anyway.

    good luck, Ed.

  • Tenure track position on a burning oil rig. lol. I see shelf stocking at Costco in your future. I'm not being a dick; it's in mine too.

  • I like the letter a lot, though it does seem overly long, particularly for what it actually says. Many comments above seem very helpful. I'd say at least *something* about your research, maybe in your rant on potential/publications. Even if it's along the lines of: "Currently, I research (xyz), but obviously will research whatever you want me to with equal enthusiasm if I get the job."

    I've been through this what feels like fifty times, but this year I've deluded myself successfully that my _new and improved_ cover letter is far better. But not this good.
    Good luck!

  • While it is a witty response to the asinine way academia works, I'd suggest not sending it. In today's drivel-driven youtube media culture, it comes across as a gimmick. And considering how the divide continues to grow between new school and old school academics, this could chaff a great deal of people.

    The process sucks. It's hazing. What other profession drags out the process for 9 months? You apply in October, have your first interview in Dec/Jan/March, possibly a second interview via phone a month later, have campus visits in March/April and are expected to sign a contract in May and move in June/July for a job that begins in August.

    In order to get through the door, you have to have an exciting vitae. ComradePhysioProf confirms what I've suspected and witnessed from other hiring committees: the letters are secondary to the vitae and teaching dossier or research plan. I just made sure all my letters had a paragraph about why I thought the school/program/area was a good fit for me, which means I did this for 300+ letters.

    Again, it sucks. I know what you're going through. The job market for my area, English, is awful, abysmal, putrid. I was lucky to get hired in 2008 before the bottom fell out. But it took two full academic hiring cycles to get that job. Something will come through for you, it just is going to take longer than you want.

  • I'd distill it to no more than three short paragraphs, three killer sentences each.

    Less is not only more, it's the heart of everything.

  • I wouldn't send it. You're a relatively young academic. You come off as desperate and frustrated in the letter. If the members of the search committee haven't been through a bad job market, they may not understand your frustration. If they have, they might think you're weak for letting it show. In either case, they're going to be worried that you might be unpleasant to have as a colleague. They're going to have to put up with you for 30 years.

    Put yourself in the mindset of the search committee. A lot of them may have been hired under better markets. They may not really understand how bad the market is. They may have even convinced themselves that they're better than the candidates that they're reviewing because they have a job and the candidates don't. Perhaps they were hired when their campus was more of a regional one and were merely observers in its transition to a research university. They may not have the Stanford or Harvard degrees that you're mocking them for wanting. Heck, their heads could explode in cognitive dissonance at your letter.

    A lot of departments are badly run. And often leaders of badly-run organizations don't know that they're badly run. They may not know the criticisms made of them or even that there are criticisms. They're not dumb people, if they knew, they might do something about it.

    Anyway, your letter was great fun to read and I'm in the same situation this year. I've decided that my job is an applicant is to collect offers. I'll play along with the rules of the game and go from there.

  • Don't send it. I'm sure it was cathartic to write, but it's not professional. I'm not in the same field as you, but when we interview, we look for professionalism above all. It comes across as a bit of a gimmick as well. Everyone understands people are interviewing to get any job so you don't really need to spell it out.

    Your comment on Harvard-with-potential vs not-Harvard-with-results reminds of me the recent NBA where 19 year olds with potential are chosen ahead of proven four year dudes. It's all about risk vs reward.

    I would submit a more standard cover letter, but emphasize your work on this blog. Blogging is now considered legitimate and your writing is excellent. It would provide something to distinguish you from all the knuckleheads without pissing anyone off.

  • Go for it. I just hired a new network technician, and out of 50 applications that were all qualified, and all capable of doing an adequate job, I hired the one with the funny cover letter.

    Of course she ended up being completely incompetent, and now I'm about to fire her, but the funny certainly got her in the door. I'd do it again in the hopes of having an employee that wasn't the same old boring shit.

  • I'm Just a Bill says:

    Don't send it. The fact that it is on the internet already could be damaging. The fact that you are at the begining of your career, this could come back to haunt you over & over again.

    (I keep having to explain that as an 18 year old I had a smart mouth that got me into trouble – again. 20 years later, I start, "You know how when you were 18 & fresh out of your parents house…")

Comments are closed.