Does anybody actually read cover letters? September 14, 2007Posted by Ben Webster in jobs, math life, wiki.
So, looking at the jobs wiki got me a bit riled up about jobs. Given that I have funding lined up for the next 4 years, I don’t think there’s much point in my going on the job market this year, so I had to find somewhere to displace my energy.
One good place to do so is the Applying for Postdocs page of Berkeley’s MGSA wiki. After all, who likes unsolicited advice as much as the internet? (Incidentally, let me suggest that any graduate students in the audience read that page, and leave any questions they have as comments on the talk page on the wiki, or as comments here. I’d be happy to add more material to the page if I knew what people were curious about).
But there are things that should be on the page that aren’t. Particularly missing is info about preparing application materials. Any guesses as to why that is?
I think the answer is pretty simple; the page was mostly written by people who recently applied for postdocs, not by people who were recently on postdoctoral hiring committees. Thus, we’re all relying on hunches about which application materials are important and what application materials should be like. (Of course, the fundamental problem which it would be nice to correct, but which almost certainly never will be, is that people don’t get commentary or critiques on their application materials by the people who evaluate them. Or anybody else for that matter. Unless they, say, post said materials on their website). We don’t want to pass our possibly quite inaccurate hunches down to a younger generation, so we don’t say anything. It’s better that they guess for themselves. That way it’s their fault if they’re wrong.
One of my hunches (probably the strongest) is that the cover letter is a useless document. It serves a few purposes: making clear which job you’re applying for, making clear what letters of recommendation they should have gotten, putting information like where you got your Ph.D. and your current job in marginally more accessible position than your CV, as a space for random things the committee should know that you can’t really insert elsewhere (for example: if you are applying for an NSF postdoc with that institution as your sponsoring institution), but they’re an old and pointless habit from the times before the AMS cover sheet, which performs the same function better, and there’s really no way to write a good one that will really improve your chances.
Let me emphasize that I’m just talking about the context of applying for postdocs in math. If you were applying somewhere in industry, I can imagine you could write a cover letter that really hit it out of the park for you.
(The aforementioned hunch fits into a larger one: that basically all of the application materials supplied by you are there primarily to show that you can produce them without screwing up royally, and are of rather minor importance compared to your letters of recommendation and the plain facts on your CV).
So, my bleg to you, dear readers, is this: am I right? Am I justified in telling a new crop of prospective postdocs “Chill out. All you have to do on your cover letter is include information X, Y and Z, not sound like a chimp, and who will be fine,” or would I be encouraging them to write bad cover letters that will hurt their applications?