My girlfriend has recently been working on her first attempt at a cover letter for a teaching position. She teaches high school, and they usually apply through school districts, not via letters to individual schools. As she and I were talking about it, she commented, “This is like writing an ad for an Internet dating site.” Since she and I had both used such sites (though not to meet each other, for the record), I knew exactly what she meant. I realized that she was on to something, that there is a similarity between the two that might shed some light on writing cover letters for academic jobs.
First, the quickest way to kill someone’s interest in a personal ad is for it to smack of desperation. The writer includes phrases, such as “I’m flexible and up for anything” or “I’m open to all kinds of movies, music, books, television shows, whatever.” A comment or two like those, and any viewer will click on the next ad. Quickly. When I was in graduate school, an undergraduate woman was trying to flirt with me. We were talking about novels, as the class was American Fiction I, and I mentioned that I liked Naturalism. She immediately added that she did, as well. I asked her what she liked to read from that era. Her response showed me where things really stood: “You mean, like, authors?” My graduate friends never let me forget her response.
In the same way, we often come across as desperate in our cover letters. If you see a job advertisement for a position in colonial history of Francophone nations, and your specialty is in Soviet history, do not apply. The search committee is not interested in the fact that you once had a course in colonialism, and the instructor spent several class periods on Francophone nations. You do not fit the position, no matter how loudly you say, “Of course I can teach that.”
Similarly, you will see ads for positions in places you clearly do not want to live. If you prefer an urban setting with numerous cultural events, do not believe that you can happily exist in a town of 25,000 people in the plains of South Dakota. You may tell the search committee, “This is a lovely place. I could see myself here for the rest of my career.” You will not appear to be a viable candidate; you will seem desperate.
Along the same lines, you should be honest. There are horror stories about Internet dating, where people do not live up to their descriptions. I have a friend who claims to love hiking when he posts personal ads, yet he never seems to find the time for a hike when he is not in a relationship. At times in my life when I was not quite in the shape I wanted to be, I’ll confess that I have made slight alterations. What is the difference between “a bit overweight” and “big-boned” anyway?
Having served on a few search committees now, I can assure you that personal ads are nothing compared to cover letters for stretching the truth. I have a colleague who used to list himself as the co-chair of a committee when he would send out letters or biographical information for publications. However, as the chair of that committee, which consisted of only three people to begin with, I was fairly certain he was not my co-chair. Of course, he wanted to show his involvement and his administrative skills, which were actually largely absent.
Even when people do not completely fabricate experience, they can often make themselves seem better on paper than they are. My favorite approach is the use of “under consideration,” as in “I have a paper under consideration at PMLA.” I could have a paper “under consideration” there, too, if I just sent one off to them. All “under consideration” means is that you’re sending work out. If you’re publishing enough in your field, it will show. You do not need to pad it with work that no one has said anything positive about yet.
However, honesty also has its limits. I have seen personal ads that reveal problems that should take someone months to be able to talk about with a significant other or even family members. People lay out financial and social problems as if they are talking to their therapists in some ads, all in the name of honesty. While I completely understand that many people have made some poor decisions in life and found themselves in bad situations, and that those people are still seeking love, perhaps a personal ad is not the best place to reveal that information. The first date is not a good idea, either.
Cover letters are also not the place for such information. Certainly, if there is information that a search committee absolutely must know before giving your materials consideration, list it -- but those situations are incredibly rare. There is time enough for those conversations when a job offer is made, if it is even necessary then. What is more prevalent, though, are comments about departmental or university politics or conflict, which is often the cause of one’s leaving.
You may very well believe that your department chair sabotaged your promotion or tenure case or that your colleagues are all closed-minded Neanderthals who do not see the wisdom of your progressive ideas. However, a search committee reading such comments might perceive the problem to be with you and not your Cro-Magnon colleagues. Thus, it is better to wait until you actually work with them to discuss the problems at your previous job. Perhaps pointing out how much better your current job is in comparison is a positive way to bring up the topic.
When we’re honest about job searching, we need to admit that we are looking for a match. We want search committees to like and accept us as we are. If you give misleading information just to get the job, you will be miserable there, and you will only end up having more material for your next cover letter, which you will be writing soon.