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I'm an assistant professor in my fifth year and have decided to go on the job market this year. Obviously I prefer tenured positions to pre-tenure positions, but I'm interested in either one. Would it be weird to leave this ambiguous in a cover letter, that is, to simply say "I am applying for a position in your department" without specifying the rank? It seems to me that if I say I'm applying for an associate position, then some departments might say "oh, she's not ready for an associate position, too bad, we would have hired her at the assistant level", whereas, if I apply at the assistant level, I might be passing up opportunities for a tenured position.

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    I've been on faculty recruiting committees for well over a decade, and I have never read a cover letter. – JeffE Sep 28 '13 at 18:46
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    If I head an application without cover letter on the table I never read the application. – Dirk Sep 28 '13 at 19:02
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    I also do not read applications in which the cover letter does not say anything more than "I am applying for the position...". I expect that the applicant is able to express why the position is interesting for him and why I should be interested in him. – Dirk Sep 28 '13 at 19:16
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    @Dirk: That's what research and teaching statements, which all US academic job applications require, are for. The cover letter is simply redundant. Moreover, many web-based application systems don't even give you a way to upload a cover letter. – JeffE Sep 29 '13 at 1:08
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    @JeffE: I'm not sure your experience is universal. I've had interviews where the interviewer brought up things I'd mentioned in my cover letter (and not elsewhere), so at least some people do read them. I agree that they are not a very important piece of an application, but in some cases you want to include information that isn't appropriate anywhere else. – Nate Eldredge Sep 29 '13 at 14:21
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I suspect this is one of these questions where there is no truly "correct answer" as you can't predict what's going on in any given search committee, but I think you're unlikely to do any damage by leaving it open. At least my understanding of these things is that a department would rather hire you w/o tenure (note that this is not quite the same as the associate/assistant distinction) as it is less of a headache with the administration; you'll get tenure if they really want you, and don't think they'll get you otherwise. I don't think it will matter much what you wrote in your cover letter. Concentrate on making them want you, and then worry about what they have to do to get you.

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