Writing Cover Letters for Academic Jobs
Robin Hemley | August 1999
Fresh out of graduate school at the age of 24, I once applied for the directorship of a prestigious creative writing program. I felt certain they'd hire me, even though I had one short story published in a good-but-obscure literary journal (that transposed the pages of my story, making it incomprehensible). I've never been the practical type, nor even reality-driven-I am, after all, a writer and a teacher. It wasn't really hubris that drove me to apply for that job, more like complete ignorance. I had no idea who my competition was or what the university was really looking for, though it was right there in bold print: Writer/teacher with national visibility. Years later, I was actually a finalist for the same job. I still wasn't quite what they were looking for, but I at least had a better shot than when I first entered the job market. I've taught at the tenure-track level since 1986 and am a full professor, but it took me four years out of grad school before I found a university willing to take a chance on me. I still didn't have that many publications, but in those four years I honed my letter-writing skills and became more realistic in my expectations.
This to me is the first rule in writing a letter of application.ead The Ad. Pay attention to it. If it reads Creative Writing with a secondary interest in 18th-Century Literature, don't try to fake it. Writing that you once wrote a comparative analysis of Candide and Tom Jones is not enough to sway the selection committee in your favor. Really. Apply only to those jobs you're qualified for, even if you're desperate. For every job, you're going to have at least a hundred competitors, and even the most fanciful combinations ("We'd like a poet who can also teach in our animal husbandry program") will yield someone who has those qualifications. So don't waste your postage.
If you're just starting out, I'd recommend applying for lectureships or one year replacements or teaching part-time, though part timers are often exploited. I started out teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a place that treated its part-timers humanely, even giving us health insurance. And when a friend offered me a chance to teach my first section of Intro to Creative Writing at nearby Roosevelt University, I took the opportunity. Now I had experience teaching Essay Writing, Creative Writing, and Intro to Literature from my graduate school days at The University of Iowa. It was sometime during this period that I, thinking I had mastered all there was to know about teaching, applied for the Directors job I mentioned earlier. So this is my second rule. If you want to teach, get experience anywhere you can find it.
I also think it's important to be honest in every respect. Don't lie, exaggerate, or inflate your credentials. Don't act slavish and desperate for the job. Over the years I have done this in a couple of cases and was never offered the job I was most desperate for, nor did I feel good about myself after the interview.
Address the specifics of the ad in your letter. Don't simply hit the copy button for all the jobs for which you apply in a given year. I've been on Selection Committees before and have been shocked by how naive some writers seem in their cover letters. You should remember that most selection committees are made up not only of writers, but of other English Dept. Folk (trolls, hobgoblins, and Composition specialists). So you must understand that they really don't care that you've been published in Granta. I care. I'm impressed, but not all of my colleagues care. In fact, their reaction might be the opposite of caring. The fact that you've been published in Granta and Harper's will addle them. Do not write as one famous applicant wrote for a job at my university, "As I am nearing 40, my family would like me to settle down permanently. I have set my sights on your school."
This guy is actually a good writer, and despite the arrogance, I would have liked to give him a shot, but the committee hated him. What's more, he didn't even mention teaching in his letter and we specifically wrote in the ad, "We are seeking writers with a demonstrated commitment to undergraduate teaching." Do you think maybe it might be a good idea to at least mention teaching in such a case? Of course, there are some schools where you could get away with such arrogance. If you're the most famous writer of your generation, fine, some MFA program will hire you for your name. It doesn't matter if you write a two sentence cover letter or not. It doesn't matter if you're a good teacher. You certainly don't need this primer. But short of that, you should actually act as though you care. Not desperate. But caring. That's all I'm saying.
Try to keep your letter to a little over a page and address the main points of the ad. If the ad emphasizes teaching, do the same. If the ad emphasizes reputation, then start off with your writing. I always think it's best to start off with your strongest card-get their attention and don't just prattle. If you're asked to say something about your teaching philosophy, do it honestly. If you believe writing should be taught as a craft, say that. If you believe it should be taught while holding hands around a Ouija Board-God forbid-say that. Someone somewhere will like it, and you'll have found your creative writing heaven.