The Déjà Vu of Today's Application Files

Brian Taylor

May 07, 2013

Not long ago, I spent a weekend with 28 application files from candidates for two tenure-track positions in agribusiness and applied economics. It wasn't pretty.

The positions were standard assistant professorships at a land-grant university with the typical teaching, research, and service requirements. In any search, job candidates are reduced to a stapled set of documents. A staff member made an organized file for each of the 28 candidates that included, in order: the applicant's cover letter, teaching statement, research statement, leadership statement, CV, transcripts, and three reference letters.

The first key decision—whether a candidate makes the cut for an interview—is made based on that set of documents. As I read the 28 files, I wondered if all the candidates knew that simple fact. Because some of them should have spent more time making sure their application was not just in order but compelling to the hiring committee. We ended up interviewing seven candidates, all of whom had something in their files that broke the mold or called attention to their special qualifications for the two openings.

As an academic job seeker, you should realize that your competition is reading the same self-help books and Web sites as you are on how to produce a strong package. What that meant for our search: indistinguishable files, all of them promoting "brilliant" candidates who were "perfect" fits for the position, but that all seemed to include versions of the same sample documents from the same self-help book. What was often missing was some original thought or insight on the position or the contributions the candidate might make to our program. The self-help Web sites do not get specific, and neither did most of the candidates.

The cover letters were especially boring after the first few, as all were nearly identical. Coincidentally, every candidate was ideally qualified for the position; matter of fact, it was the exact one they had wanted since birth. What a miracle of probability.

Candidates: Your cover letter is your first chance to make a good impression. I have to admit that after the first six or so letters, I moved from reading them carefully to scanning them quickly, looking for anything different. All of the candidates felt the need to fill an entire page, but the risk of writing too much is that key points get lost in the job-market jargon. Instead, write a short letter that stresses the one or two things that are different about you. What makes you stand out from the other candidates?

You want to avoid a letter that stands out for the wrong reasons. A couple of candidates didn't bother to send a cover letter, just a short e-mail. When a position description asks for a cover letter, that is not a time for informality. An e-mail is not a cover letter.

Next in the files came the teaching statements, which often seemed to start with quotations—for example, quoting Confucius on teaching—that were cute but told me little about the person. Most of the quotations ended with something about being inspiring to students.

It's safe to say the teaching statements were meaningless. All of the applicants professed to have some experience showing great teaching skill, or at least great interest in students and teaching. Certainly search committees expect candidates to say positive things about teaching. Certainly, too, committees at research universities sometimes attract people who are not the least bit interested in teaching or students. But one original thought on teaching would be refreshing. How will teaching complement your research or service? Succinctness is a virtue to people reading candidate files. These statements, too, don't need to be a full page, and shorter ones are bound to be read more intensely.

The research and leadership statements were more of the same. What is the probability that 27 of 28 candidates had the exact research interests to match our job description? Well, it happened. Only one candidate offered a different sort of research statement, and he made our shortlist to interview. He wrote that he would spend time talking with his colleagues, getting to know the constituency around the state and its needs, and spend time figuring out where the research grants were. His candor made him stand out, plus his statement was short and to the point.

The leadership statements are intended to be open-ended and relate to service. But few candidates took the ball and ran. Most just stumbled through it. Maybe few of the candidates had time to be leaders. Some mentioned being head of the departmental graduate-student association. That might seem to be minor, but hiring committees know that such graduate-student leaders usually stand out. Don't underestimate yourself; don't think committee members won't know how hard some of those "minor" accomplishments were.

The CV is crucial. Be sure your CV follows the standard format for your discipline. In particular the committee will study dates. What were you doing, and when? Be certain the temporal aspects of your CV are easy to follow and clear. When did, or will, you graduate? When did you have any position? When did you have that fellowship? Committee members don't want to have to decipher dates on a confusing CV.

The organization of your vita should stress important things. At a research university, that means including publications (especially refereed ones) and presentations. New assistant professors will have a short CV, not having much time to develop entries. The committee expects that. Don't include long lists of trivial things just to flesh out your CV. Respect the time of the hiring committee.

There is not much you can do about transcripts, except to be sure all of yours are included in your application. The committee will glance at them, and a missing one can put your file in the discard pile.

For young academics, letters of reference are, by far, the most important part of the application package. Usually they are the last item in the file, and they can make or break a candidate. After reading through those 28 files, it became clear that some candidates do not have a clue just how important those letters are.

There is a code concerning these letters. We understand that a reference letter will take a positive tone, but we usually expect each other to be truthful as a matter of ethics. So the letters will tie your application materials together. Just what is your potential? What did the references see as major points?

It is important who writes your letters. Academic disciplines are small worlds, and we all tend to know each other, at least by reputation. One of your letters has to be written by your adviser or major professor. If not, that is a huge red flag. Put much thought into your choice of references. Consider factors like a scholar's reputation, expressed opinion of you, real opinion of you, relevance to the position and you, and—this is important—probability that he or she will actually write the letter.

If you are missing a reference letter, hiring committees will raise questions about your seeming inability to communicate with a busy person, your inability to judge people, and your inability to follow up with the recommender or with our committee. Several of our 28 candidates were short a letter.

The reference letters are often the point where most candidates make the shortlist. Their CV's and statements usually leave some questions and issues, and good reference letters resolve those. Professors know how to talk to each other and know the correct words to make a point.

Sometimes the references letters are the only place to discuss a particular issue. One candidate was in his seventh year at a research university on a tenure-track appointment. That looked suspicious. The candidate hadn't explained that anywhere in his file, but his first reference letter was from his department head who explained the candidate had been denied tenure because of a new provost and changing standards. The reference letter was so strongly in favor of the candidate that it largely negated the issue.

Never underestimate the importance of your references. Who could best explain a problem in your application? Who will write the letter in a timely manner?

Candidates for academic positions should always picture how their documents will look in a stapled package. Does the cover letter truly present you in your best light? Does it go beyond the standard fluff most candidates will recite? Like for any manuscript, is it clear and concise? Do your statements of interest explain why you are different? Keep in mind that your competition is claiming to be perfect. Were you respectful of the committee's time? Did you choose the right references and follow up?

A final word on this from the staff member who organized the 28 files: She noted that the job advertisement had clearly stated the order in which the application materials were to be submitted together in a single PDF file. Many candidates, however, did not follow directions. It was left up to this staff member to organize the files and do what those candidates should have done correctly in the first place. When so much is at stake, it doesn't seem particularly wise for candidates to ignore instructions and rely on an unknown staff member to place their documents in the correct order.

Your application package will determine whether you make the shortlist, and you are the one who controls what it looks like.

Thomas J. Straka is a professor of forestry at Clemson University.