Dear budding academics: When you write a cover letter for a teaching appointment of any kind, there are several things you need to understand. <thread>
1. Your adviser in your PhD program (not always, but usually) came to your R1 university from another R1 university. They do not experientially "get" what's going on in 95% of the profession.
2. Because your PhD adviser is heavily research-focused, they will tell you to lead with your research in a letter. If the job is in any kind of liberal arts college or small- to midsized state institution, this is bad advice.
3. PhD-granting/R1 institutions are a strange and rare beast in the overall landscape of academia, though it will appear to be the whole game when you're a PhD student in such an institution.
4. If you apply to any sort of institution that doesn't offer a PhD in your discipline, there are several things you should know. a) You will be teaching undergrads with a minimum 2/3 load, often 3/3+. b) Research will be important, but not the main focus of the job.
5. They will care that you do research and publish it, which you should be able to demonstrate in your letter. Publishing makes you tenurable on an institutional level. It's important that you do research, at least somewhat in keeping with the specifics of the job ad, but...
6. Teaching will be your bread and butter. 2nd paragraph of your letter should give an overview of your teaching experience & overall methodology, followed by an real-life thing you do in the classroom that is a different, interesting, & memorable way to get across X concept.
7. Not only do you need to focus on teaching, but you need to indicate that you know what *kind* of institution offering this job. If you, for example, do not get what a liberal arts college is like, you will lead your letter with some critical theory/Frankfurt school stuff...
8. ...that literally no undergrad on earth, except like 3 pretentious English majors, will really give a crap about. Sure, fine, teach a course that involves critical theory, but you better propose it in a way that would sell to undergrads as an actual class.
9. Even in the research portion of your letter, you will need to address how your research could tie in directly to a course that would add to the institution/department's existing curriculum, which means you better know what that curriculum is & the department's strong points.
10. You must also include a paragraph on service to your existing department, institution, & any national service that might apply. Undergrad-based institutions are interested in how you will help their program via extracurricular events, advising, assessment, committee work.
11. I have been on several hiring committees now, and the #1 thing that will get your application tossed is an apparent lack of awareness of the specific institution, department, and curriculum.
12. The #2 thing that will get your letter tossed is that it looks like a form letter. And yes, I have actually read letters where the applicant has even done a poor "find/replace" on the name of the school, such that it names another institution. Don't be that person.
13. The #3 thing (or maybe also the #1 thing) that will get your application tossed to the bottom of the list is that it has zero personality. 90% of the people applying for the job are completely qualified. You need to differentiate yourself in some way.
14. You need to give your readers a real picture of who you are as a teacher & program builder. How can you best demonstrate that? Show, don't tell.
15. Also keep in mind that the writing in your letter shows who you are as a communicator. It's not just what you write but how you write it. Dynamic people write dynamically. To make an impression, the words and the energy behind them need to jump off the page & grab the reader.
16. If you can't do that on paper, what hope is there that you can do that in the classroom? Keep in mind that this letter is not just an application for a job, it's an application to work with a group of teacher/scholars for - potentially at least - the next 30 years.
17. Who *are* you? Why would *you* hire you? If your letter doesn't answer those questions right away, the reader will put you on the maybe list at best. At worst, they'll lose interest one paragraph in and not even look at your cv.
18. Yeah, you read that right. In many academic fields, we get 150-200 or more applicants for a position. If you don't distinguish yourself right away, your reader will move on to the next applicant. We know you're qualified or you probably wouldn't apply. That's not the issue.
19. We want someone who *wants* to work with us. If your form letter doesn't match our institution, department, and job ad, you won't get the job. That means that, to some extent, you need to craft different letters that focus on different strengths, depending on the institution.
20. If you haven't researched the specific institution, department, & faculty doing the hiring for this position at least a little bit, it will be glaringly obvious, & it will seriously take away from your chances of getting an interview, or even a second look.
21. The academic job market is tight. 90% of your 178 competitors are just as qualified as you - even if you have a PhD from a fancy institution. The letter is not pro forma - it's precisely what gets your foot in the door and gets you noticed.
22. Tl;dr, apply for the job that's advertised, not the one your PhD adviser has. Know the institution. Get an experienced colleague from a non-PhD program to f*cking destroy your sample letter. It'll hurt, but it'll be worth it. Treat every application as unique. </thread>
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