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Several small related questions about how to present oneself in a faculty application, and in particular the cover letter:

Should it end by saying something, like "I am waiting for your call" or "I will follow up by phone or email"? I have seen the latter recommended, but for me it seems somehow annoying.

Should the cover letter contain qualifications and skills like highly-motivated, fast learner, etc?

Some recommend mentioning potential members of the department that the applicant can work with in a faculty application. Is this a good idea? If Dr. A is working on topic T, and I want to work on topic T, then should I say that I would like to collaborate with Dr. A, and if so, how?

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    Are you talking about applications for faculty jobs or for something else? (It would be very strange for a faculty application to include "skills" like "fast learner".) – JeffE Nov 27 '14 at 2:27
  • yes faculty application – Thomas Lee Nov 27 '14 at 2:28
  • Please ask one question per post – ff524 Nov 27 '14 at 2:43
  • So should I delete this topic and write 4 questions? – Thomas Lee Nov 27 '14 at 2:52
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    I have edited to make the question more coherent, and am voting to reopen because I think that the answers are valuable and it is too difficult to split the question and answers at this point. – jakebeal Jan 6 '15 at 2:44
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(1) For the cover letter, should it end by saying something,

In my experience (~10 years on hiring committees, starting my second year as hiring committee chair), almost nobody will read your cover letter. If you have something to say about your research, say it in your research statement. If you have something to say about your teaching, say it in your teaching statement. If you have something to say about your personal life, don't.

If the department doesn't acknowledge receipt (typically by email), it's reasonable to call or email the department to double-check. But "waiting for your call" is unreasonably optimistic. Each department you're applying to probably gets hundreds of applications for each faculty position.

(2) Should the cover letter contain qualifications and skills like highly-motivated, fast learner etc?

Absolutely not! "Motivated" and "fast learner" are neither skills nor qualifications; they're useless boilerplate. Of course you're motivated and a fast learner; otherwise, you wouldn't have a PhD and a publication record consistent with a tenure-track faculty position. Your actual skills and qualifications should be apparent from your CV, your research and teaching statements, and your recommendation letters.

(3) Some recommends to mention potential drs from the department that the applicant can work with. Is this a good idea? If Dr. A is working on topic T, and I want to work on topic T, then should I say that I would like to collaborate with Dr. A? If yes, what is a good way to say it?!

Don't just say it; make a convincing case. Just dropping a few names into your research statement will be written off immediately as meaningless boilerplate. If your research goals really do converge with Dr. A's research interests, that should be obvious from your larger research narrative, and it should be easy for you to draw specific, technical, and credible connections between your interests and Dr. A's. Do not fake it. We can tell.

(4) For the research statement, should I use "I" or "we" for joint papers, assuming that I was the first author?

"We" or "my coauthors and I"; using "I" for joint work is dishonest. But this is a relatively minor issue.

  • Great answers! for question 3, I am not sure if I should mention some names. Does it make a big positive effect? I guess it may have some negative effects also, since Dr A may not be willing to share teaching his courses with a new guy. – Thomas Lee Nov 27 '14 at 3:09
  • Does it make a big positive effect? — Not usually, no, but if you make a good case, it can have a small positive effect; other aspects of your applications are far more important. – JeffE Nov 27 '14 at 3:13
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    Perhaps this is a difference between different kinds of schools, but I read cover letters very closely and I have voted against candidates because of their letter. I view the cover letter as a chance to comment on why an applicant applied for the job. My personal opinion is that if someone cannot say why they want to be at my school in particular, then I can't say why we'd want to hire them in particular, since we will have plenty of "qualified" candidates. I view the cover letter as one of several important chances for a candidate to demonstrate their "fit" with the school. – Oswald Veblen Nov 27 '14 at 3:29
  • I would appreciate if you provide a sample of excellent cover letter, and other statements. – Thomas Lee Nov 27 '14 at 4:31
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JeffE has given an excellent answer, but I want to give a slightly differing viewpoint on the purpose of the cover letter, which will address items (1) and (2) in the question. It will take a few paragraphs to motivate the answer; the summary is "Use the cover letter as an opportunity to show you are genuinely interested in the school."

Two important caveats: I am writing this from the perspective of "non-elite" U.S. schools. These schools often have a more teaching-oriented mission, and are often located in more remote locations. I am also writing from the perspective of mathematics, where even at such schools there will be a few hundred applications for each advertised position, and certainly over a hundred "qualified" applications even for a relatively specialized job ad. Things are very different in other fields where there may be a lack of applicants in a given subfield.

These non-elite, regional schools have a few common issues during job searches:

  • Candidates may have applied to the school only as a "safety net", without really wanting to have a job there. In math, when I was in graduate school, I saw some people who applied to 100 jobs (!) in the same search.

  • Candidates who are only familiar with larger, research-intensive schools may have unrealistic expectations about salary, teaching load, amenities, etc.

  • Candidates may come for an interview, but turn down the job offer because they get a better offer somewhere else.

  • Candidates may leave more frequently than expected to find a "better" school. Of course some turnover is natural and expected, but if the turnover rate is too high for too long then there may be a lack of experienced faculty. Some candidates may stay, but hate the area (e.g. if it is very rural) and wish there were somewhere else (e.g. in a larger city, or closer to the coast).

How does this relate to your cover letter? You can (and should, in my opinion) use the cover letter as an opportunity to address points like these:

  • Make it clear that you really do want to work at the school (e.g. by not having a boilerplate cover letter, by bringing up experience at similar schools, or by otherwise establishing a connection).

  • Avoid any faux pas in which you treat a non-elite school like elite schools (e.g. talking only about research in your cover letter).

  • If possible and reasonable, for remotely-located schools, establish why you would be happy to be at the school. Perhaps it is near some of your family. Perhaps you have lived in a rural area before. Maybe they have some sort of outdoor activity that you enjoy.

  • Don't say anything that signals you view the position just as a stepping stone. You can always apply someone else, of course, but in your application you should have a plan for what you can do if you stay at the school for some time.

  • Remember that even if the search committee only skims the cover letter, the packets for the finalists will often be read by the whole department, and by the dean. At that stage, there are only a few candidates, and every aspect of the packet is subject to scrutiny.

From those bullets, you can guess my answers to (1) and (2).

For (1), you shouldn't say anything like that. Those types of statements go in a cover letter for a business job, not an academic job. When we have 400 applications for one position, we will not call every applicant to say we received their package. And, while you can call the committee, you can imagine the workload if all 400 applicants did so. (For math, with the advent of mathjobs.org, this is less important anyway.)

For (2), qualifications like "fast learner" are meaningless. But you should think about the "extra qualifications" I mentioned above:

  • Why in particular did you apply to the school, besides the obvious fact that they have a job ad? What can you contribute in particular to the department?

  • Are there any special reasons you'd like to work in that location?

  • What are your professional goals for the next 5-10 years, and how do they fit into the mission of the school you are applying to? For example, some applicants are keen on developing online courses, or are interested in various sorts of service. These things would be less relevant to a tenure-track position at a research school, and might even be red flags there, but service and teaching are much more important at non-research schools.

  • This is a more difficult choice, but if you have a spouse who is also looking for a job, you need to decide whether to mention it in your cover letter or not.

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