So You Want to Write a Job Letter

“How do you like them apples?” is probably not a good closing line for your letter.

With summer winding down and the fall semester upon us (or nearly so), that means it’s also time for those headed onto the job market to make sure their materials are in order as the first application deadlines approach. There’s lots of advice out there about how to do that (enough that I can’t begin to link to the many essays). But as I advanced from years on the job market into a position myself—including work on a department search—I’ve thought about what advice I would offer based on my perspective of the process. Rather than offer a bullet-point list of do’s and don’ts (though you can see those at the end), I’d like to provide some perspective on the audiences of the job letter. It’s a weird genre of writing, so it bears consideration as you put together your materials.

I want to start by stating that the purpose of the job letter is not to get you the job. It serves instead as your introduction to the groups of people who will consider your application. Those groups form the three (possibly four) audiences for your letter, who will read it at very different points in the application process.

The first group to see your letter is the search committee, who will read your letter this fall as their first introduction to you. At this point, you are one of 100 or 150 or 500 applicants (depending on the job description). So the search committee is looking to see whether you are worth moving past the first cut, into the group from whom an interview pool will be drawn. So they will read the letter with a few things in mind. Do you meet the minimum requirements for the job as laid out in the job ad? Do you have potential as a scholar (even if the university is teaching-intensive)? Do you have potential as a teacher? Do your interests align in some way with the needs of the department? Are you able to articulate a start to how you’d fit into the department?

You cannot do all of this in the two pages you have in a job letter. Instead, as many others have suggested, you might think of your job letter as an introduction to your CV. What are the most important points on your CV that you’d want to highlight? How do your research and teaching intersect and inform one another? Have you ever taught the survey course? Your letter should help lead the search committee to want to look at whatever else you sent, including not only your CV but any additional materials such as course syllabi, research statements, writing samples, and so on. Keep in mind also that these faculty members are reading all of these applications on top of their other teaching and writing responsibilities, and doing so within a few weeks. You have to be clear. You have to offer good signposts in your writing.

The search committee is the group that will have the most familiarity with the field (simply by virtue of reading 100+ applications), but they will very likely by definition not be experts in early American history, let alone your subfield. From my experience, now is not the time to name drop, because few will be familiar. Writing a job letter that sounds like Will Hunting’s monologue about Gordon Wood and Daniel Vickers won’t get you very far. (To put it another way, imagine you participate in a department search for a twentieth-century European historian. How many scholars of postwar Germany can you name and what are their scholarly contributions?) In other words, it’s time to start thinking about how to explain the significance of your research in terms that are accessible outside your subfield — few, if any, names, and little, if any, jargon. That issue will only get more acute the further in the process your application advances.

I’d add that being able to explain your research in that way also signals in a small way your ability and interest in teaching undergraduates who have not read deeply in subfields. If you think referencing Habermas and Foucault is sufficient to explain your work, you’ll likely lose many freshmen.

Let’s assume that the search committee likes the letter and your profile generally fits what the department is looking for, so you get a first-round interview via Skype/phone or at the AHA meeting in January. Great! Now your letter will get a second audience after that process is over: the whole department. Every department operates differently, so there are no guarantees about when exactly others may look at the letter, but it would either be when the committee proposes candidates to bring to campus, or right before your visit if you’re selected. Again, the letter serves as an introduction to smart non-specialists. When you get to campus, the letter is the most likely thing each person you see will have read. So they may ask you to describe that course you proposed for the university’s freshman seminar program, or the topic you’d pick for the department capstone seminar. They might ask you more about your research. They might even say, “I read Vickers in grad school. Your project sounds like it takes issue with his conclusions. How do you engage with him?”

The third audience will probably not be a historian. If you get invited to campus, you will likely meet with a member of the administration: a dean, provost, or vice president. That’s because at most universities, it’s the administration (not the department itself) that offers the job, so it retains some review role (your mileage varies widely on what that means campus to campus). Sometimes it will be a dean of humanities, but even in that case it’s very likely the person is not a historian, and very likely the person will be a social scientist or scientist. (They won’t ask you about Vickers unless they happened to watch Good Will Hunting the night before.) Administrators are busy, and they’re likely overseeing several searches across the university. They may well only browse the letter quickly before your meeting (which I don’t mean as a criticism of them, but a heads-up to the letter writer).

The possible fourth audience, with which I have no experience, is the university human resources office. If they look at the job letter at all, they’d be checking for your ability to meet the minimum requirements for the job and otherwise ensuring that the search is above-board.

So what does all this mean? Let me boil that narrative down to a few pieces of advice for your two-page letter (do NOT go over two pages):

  1. Be clear and concise.
  2. Answer the question (how do you fit the job and the university?).
  3. Pay attention to the university you’re applying to; do some research before you hit “send.”
  4. Do not lapse into jargon or scholarly name dropping.
  5. Remember that the letter doesn’t get you the job, it just opens the door.

Based on that, let me offer my most important piece of advice: have non-specialists read your letter. Your advisor may be wonderful, but they are experts in the field and, frankly, by the time you get to the job market, hopefully experts in you. That makes your mentors less than ideal readers for this purpose. Instead, show it to a wide range of people: friends already in jobs (especially at institutions not like your graduate one), other people in your department, and so on. Say for example you’ve occasionally chatted, but only on a professionally social level, with a faculty member in Japanese history at department events, who has offered to help if he or she could. Now’s the time to take him or her up on the offer. This is one of the few times when I don’t think you can get too much advice, because you need to tailor your letter (if you’re casting a wide net) to so many different types of institutions, and because—often for the first time—you’re exposing your research and writing to an audience of non-specialists.

In closing, I’d welcome other faculty to offer their thoughts on the job letter. And best of luck to everyone sending out applications this fall!

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11 comments on “So You Want to Write a Job Letter

  1. […] via So You Want to Write a Job Letter — The Junto […]

  2. Rosemarie Zagarri says:

    Thanks, Joe, for this very sensible and useful post. I’d like to add a few other points: Don’t say in the letter how perfect you are for a particular job. Tell the committee about YOUR INTEREST in the job ( i.e., what you offer them) and how your background/experience/research makes you a strong candidate. It’s for the committee to decide if you are a perfect fit. If you have any additional skills or background experience ( in business or politics, digital skills, public history experience, teaching at the non-university level), mention those skills, especially when you apply for jobs at small liberal arts colleges or universities with small history departments. Those additional traits might distinguish you from other candidates. In addition, departments might see an opportunity to use your other skills to broaden their course offerings or advise undergraduates or connect with other departments in the college/university. Signal your willingness to do these things. Departments like candidates who bring more than just their research interests to the job.

  3. Michael Leroy Oberg says:

    I have chaired a number of search committees, and served on a number of others. Joe gives a lot of good advice. I have found in recent years, however, with the increasing reliance on the online submission of uploaded documents for applications, that an alarming number of candidates attach letters that were written for other openings–sometimes with the other institution’s address still on the letter. Further, many letters arrive, both from applicants and referees, on blank paper. Take the time to print out the letter on letterhead, scan it, and double-check it before you send it to us. Have a job letter for the research institutions, and another for teaching colleges. And do get to the point quickly in your letter. You are one of a hundred or more applicants. You need to land your blows.

    Another point: make sure that your referees understand the positions for which you are applying. We are a college that emphasizes teaching. We teach a 3-3 load. If we get 150 applications for a position, it is difficult to muster the stamina to read a four-page letter discussing your research–you will already have told us about your research in your cover letter. And referees who tell us that “I cannot speak to Applicant X’s teaching ability” do not help you much at a school like ours. Make sure your referees are informed about the positions for which you apply.

    • One quick note to search committees, from someone freshly off the job market: please don’t read lack of letterhead as lack of professionalism!

      Some universities/departments (including the one I just graduated from) do not grant graduate students access to their letterhead. We tried contesting this policy for years — but to no avail. It’s stupid, and the justifications for it vary widely depending on who you ask. But I suspect that places that have such policies are unlikely to change them anytime soon, because the push for grad-student unionization heightens the stakes of any policy that involves debating whether grad students are primarily students or employees.

      • Historiann says:

        I’m sorry. This letterhead crap is utterly idiotic, now that we’re just talking access to a digital PICTURE of your university’s logo to copy into a Word or PDF. It’s not like you’re going to bust the stationery budget! So stupid and counterproductive.

        But in the end: it’s not the letterhead but your credible achievements and your CV that will get you the job. So this is just another pointless humiliation meant to remind you of your unimportance. Welcome to the working week!

      • The Craftsman Redux says:

        I think I read about a fix about these types of problem in a history book once… it was called the “moral economy.”

      • That’s horrible, Michael! I was in a similar situation with letterhead a few years ago, when I was in a temporary position at a state university. I was obviously on the job market, but state ethics laws prevented me from using public resources (like letterhead) for personal gain (a permanent job). Not everyone understands that (I had a Twitter dispute with an academic coach about that very issue), but it’s a real problem for many people for one reason or another.

  4. This is really great advice, Joe. As the veteran of now eight search committees, I would add to it:

    1) if you’re applying for everything, have two templates, one for teaching jobs and one for research jobs. For teaching jobs, you should lead with your teaching, and for research jobs, you should lead with your research.

    2) When you discuss your dissertation/manuscript, don’t use phrases like “my dissertation explores…”. I’ve read so many letters that make the topic of the diss clear but not the actual argument and contribution. Use a phrase such as “I argue that…” and then follow it with your diss’s argument. Then the next sentence should clearly state the stakes/significance, followed by a sentence that serves as a succinct explanation of the novelty of the project. If a committee member finishes your letter without achieving clarity on argument/significance/novelty you will go in the reject pile.

    3) When addressing stakes/significance, don’t “shed light on” or “fill a gap.” Historians don’t fill gaps, they solve problems.

    4) If you’re currently a grad student, get together with other students on the market. Workshop your letters, teaching statements, and other materials. Go through multiple drafts and proofread, proofread, proofread. Michael is absolutely right above–the quickest way to get to the reject pile is to have egregious errors or to submit a letter that doesn’t fit the job.

    • Historiann says:

      All great advice here. No to gap-filling and light-shedding. Use active verbs that put you in the story, not your dissertation as a disembodied actor.

  5. Ken Owen says:

    Excellent advice, Joe. I’d particularly emphasize making sure your letter demonstrates clearly that you meet minimum requirements. This is essential for when the university HR department checks applicants. But it also has amazed me how many mistakes I’ve seen in job searches – even at advanced stages – where more careful attention to the job posting would have paid dividends.

    I’d also add that any candidate should make sure that the cover letter doesn’t conflict with any easily available information online. That is – make sure your digital presence matches up with the impression you give in the letter itself. If you do that, the letter is a springboard to a much deeper engagement with you as a teacher, scholar, and potential colleague. If not, it will stick out like a sore thumb.

    One final thing: I’d also advise people to remember that given the time constraints you mention, most people reading your letter are going to summarize the message of your letter in one (at most two) sentences. Think of what makes you right for the job, and how you want the committee to remember your letter. Then, when you get others to read it, ask them how they’d sum it up. If it doesn’t match, you might need to redraft more carefully.

  6. Thanks to everyone for your comments. The post was already rather long, so I stayed focused on my contribution, but I agree with pretty much everything said here.

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