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From The Professor Is In and from other sources, I've gotten the impression that it's very good practice to refer to possible collaborators both within and outside of your department or academic unit. This makes sense to me. Doing so demonstrates that you're not just applying blindly, but rather have thought through how you fit in on that particular campus. It also makes the sale that you're a good fit with the folks already there.

I'm unsure if this practice should start at the cover letter. Is it appropriate to mention potential collaborators (either within or outside of my targeted dept) whom I don't know in the cover letter?

Talking about working with people I don't know feels a little bit pretentious--how on earth should I know what they want to collaborate on?--but I can get over it if I have incentive.

Meanwhile, it also feels natural that I should be contacting these potential collaborators if I'm sincere about thinking there's potential to work together. OTOH academia's a bit emphatic (relative to industry) about recusal so contacting such people might seem pushy, or even like trying to cheat.

Is it OK to contact potential collaborators at the institution/in the department to which I'm applying? Is it ever expected?

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  • This is a job application? What kind of job are you applying for? – Nate Eldredge Aug 27 '17 at 0:05
  • Apologies @NateEldredge--this is for an assistant professor job in a business school in the United States. I should have mentioned that. The Professor Is In is a book geared toward graduate students applying for their first academic job. – Philip Aug 28 '17 at 17:58
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I think your need to trust your instinct that this kind of 'name dropping' is pretentious and avoid it.

By contrast, if you have carefully read someone's papers and truly believe you might want work on a closely related topic, then you might mention that as a one possibility.

Personal mentions can backfire as often as they may have some positive effect. For example, suppose you make a strong case in your application that you really want to work with Prof X. But Prof X is about to go on sabbatical or to change universities. So the hiring committee figures you're not such a marvelous fit to the department after all.

However, I think you are right to realize that it is helpful to show that you have background, interests, focus and organizational ability that will make you an asset to the department. Obviously, it should be clear in your mind why you want to be accepted. Giving some inkling (without being pretentious) of why they should accept you is a good idea.

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  • @NateEldredge: Good point. I'd still be careful agressively dropping names of people I'd never met. But the details and examples would surely be different. Editing. – BruceET Aug 27 '17 at 0:16
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Personally, I followed this advice during my job search. I think most of my peers did as well. We used this as a signal of our sincere interest in the department, as figuring out potential collaborators typically takes time. Job applicants who are "spamming" many departments don't have time to do this customization. I think it also helped the committee to understand how to think of my work, as it is pretty interdisciplinary. When I mention professors they know well, they start to understand how I categorize myself.

I didn't say directly who I would like to collaborate with, because it did feel pretentious. I used lines like....

The department’s strength in SUBFIELD is particularly appealing to me. My research is complementary to the work of current faculty like A, who shares my interest in RESEARCH OVERLAP.

I think this communicated that I saw A as a potential collaborator but didn't assume too much.

Of course it is better if you have been really working conferences and know people. I was fortunate that I had at least seen many of the people I named present or met them briefly. They might not remember me, but I was pretty confident our interests aligned. In terms of contacting people, I did not contact people I didn't know or who I knew only slightly. I did contact people with whom I had meaningful previous discussions and who would know my name. I got very positive reactions when I did this, and I didn't get any negative reactions regarding people I mentioned but did not know well.

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I've been a committee member on many searches, including three searches in the last three years. It's quite common for applicants to mention possible collaborations in their cover letters. It's also a standard question that we ask of applicants during their interviews.

In many cases, applicants who do this demonstrate that they know about research being done in the department and they make a reasonable case that the collaboration would be likely. That certainly helps a candidate.

However, there are other cases in which the applicant hurts their case by saying something foolish. For example, if you say "The reason that I'm applying for this job is so that I can work with Professor X." and it becomes clear during follow up questions that you don't have much expertise in that area, then you'll have hurt your chances by bringing it up.

Feel free to contact potential collaborators, but realize that at the application stage you're probably one of hundreds of applicants. Most faculty who aren't directly involved in the search will want to wait for this kind of discussion until there is a short-list of applicants. If you contact a member of the search committee they'll probably avoid having any extended discussion with you in order to avoid creating a conflict of interest (and also because they're probably too busy to talk to every applicant...)

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