practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

How do faculty look at job applications?  I recently asked this on Academic Twitter and got 311 responses and some additional replies.  The vast majority of faculty first look at the CV (66 percent), but a good 31 percent start with the cover letter.  In today’s post, I’m going to talk about the CV and the cover letter and highlight what this means for those of you on the academic job market and how the pros and cons to these approaches for faculty figuring out how to approach the process.

The CV

The academic CV is a peculiar form.  It’s a LOT of information with very little detail.  The CV is just a series of lists with very little prose, which is why it’s a great thing that applicants have the cover letter and statements to provide more information about what they’ve accomplished thus far in their careers.  

The most important thing in a CV is organization in my opinion.  My biggest pet peeve is when applicants lump together a bunch of things that aren’t really alike.  In my experience, it’s most problematic for publications, but it also applies to talks for example. The problem of listing all of your publications all together is that I as the reviewer have to sort through and figure out what is a book chapter, an encyclopedia entry, an editorial, or a peer reviewed journal article.  I have also seen this with works-in-progress that are not submitted to a journal mixed with pieces under review and published manuscripts, but this organization bothers me much less.  Whether you mean it to be or not, doing this can come off as attempting to inflate your CV to look like more publications than you actually have, so make clear sections that include different kinds of work, such as sections for different kinds of written products and written products at different stages.  You might also add sections that separate things like public speaking or workshops for the community from guest lectures in university courses.  This separation not only clarifies your experiences, but also signals the kind of public engagement you’ve been doing, which is particularly important for universities like land grant institutions that have a commitment to the community around them.

Based on comments on my poll and my own experience on a search committee, it seems that faculty generally use the CV to get an overview of someone’s “fit” for the position.  Fit can be the subfields that the search is focused on, but it can also be looking to ensure that applicants have published in a peer review journal or that they have experience teaching the expected courses.  The problem that can arise with starting with the CV is when folks look for markers of prestige such as where the individual got their degree or when it becomes a counting game of how many publications each person has.  The former is problematic because it means screening out people without giving them an opportunity to sell themselves through the cover letter or research statement, but also because more elite institutions tend to have students who come from more privileged backgrounds and also attended elite schools for undergrad.  Prestige begets prestige.  

Counting publications can get problematic because there are many reasons why there are variations in applicants’ number of publications.  Maybe they didn’t have opportunities to publish with any faculty.  Maybe they wrote a book style dissertation and so don’t have as many side papers to publish.  Maybe their program doesn’t require a MA paper or other papers that they could have attempted to publish.  Lastly, maybe their funding was tied to teaching and they couldn’t focus 100 percent of their time on research.  Besides this last item, none of these are easy to figure out from an application whether the CV or the cover letter or the research statement, so while it is important to see peer reviewed publications of some sort, it shouldn’t be just selecting candidates with the most pubs.  

One thing I like to see in an applicant’s CV is evidence that they won’t drown in their first year.  This is signaled with a balance of publications, teaching experience, and sometimes also some departmental service work.  To me, this signals a well rounded candidate who will be able to handle the transition to a full teaching load and service without completely dropping their research.  

The Cover Letter

Unlike the CV, the cover letter is home to narrative.  It tells us what the candidate is prepared to do, but mostly what they’ve already accomplished.  For job candidates, this will feel like a repetitive document to draft seeing as you will also have a more detailed research statement, teaching statement, and diversity statement.  However, not all applications ask for all statements so the cover letter will do more work in many applications.  It is your chance to tell the overarching narrative about your research, teaching, mentorship, and service work and sell your fit for the position and the department.  

While starting with the cover letter is less popular, it is my preferred starting point to the process because I want to hear what the applicant has to say and how they pitch themselves.  If they seem like a good fit for the position, then I look at the CV for other prerequisites such as peer reviewed publications and prior teaching experience in the area of hire.  The downside to starting with the cover letter though is that how someone sells themselves in a cover letter is a product of professionalization.  That is, it is more of a reflection of the person’s training than anything else.  To combat that, I don’t discount when someone describes their research as contributions only to specific subfields or subareas of subfields for example instead of multiple subfields or broader subfields.  I look for interesting and innovative research above all else.  

I’m sure, however, that not all reviewers are this generous in their reading, so a couple of tips for job applicants.  What seems to be most compelling from my experience is an overarching research agenda that captures your various projects.  This is not an easy thing to write and it will take a while to nail down.  It’s easiest to start this in your research statement where you have more space to develop the idea, get feedback, revise, then boil it down to a sound bite for the cover letter.  You want to be consistent across all of your materials.  

To give an example, I do research on culture and the racial wealth gap, race and gentrification, and media representations of gentrification.  These don’t logically fit together without me providing a narrative to connect them for someone.  I picked describing my research agenda as investigating how culture and development contribute to racial inequality.  Most people use substantive connections, but I’ve also seen applicants effectively use their methodological approach to center their research agenda.  

Beyond the research component of the cover letter, make sure to include sound bites about your philosophy of teaching and diversity statement even if both are required, but especially if they’re not.  This is also the space to highlight things like a personal reason you would absolutely uproot your life and move to College Town USA.  Don’t disclose anything you don’t feel comfortable sharing with strangers, but there is nothing wrong with saying you’re eager to return home to X state to be closer to family or to remind the search committee that you lived in the area during undergrad and would love to return.  

Other Approaches

There are people who start with the research statement, the teaching statement, the writing samples, or the letters of recommendation, so job applicants need to put forward their best foot across all of their materials.  Like I mentioned before, consistency across statements, while avoiding repetition outside of the cover letter, is important so take the time to edit across statements in addition to editing each individually.  Start with the longer, specific statements (research, teaching, and diversity) then use those solid drafts to craft your cover letter.  

For search committee members, regardless of the approach you choose, you are prone to some type of bias whether implicit or explicit in ways that gives preferential treatment to those with higher status credentials.  Addressing these biases might look like reminding yourself that not everyone is trained to publish in the very top tier of journals or bust and that not everyone receives training on how to publish or feedback on their work, focusing on ideas rather than framing, and looking for well rounded applicants with teaching, mentoring, and service experience in addition to a strong research agenda.  While departments should still hire junior scholars they believe can get tenure, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that any smart person coming out of any PhD program can learn more and be successful with the right mentorship and support.  

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