Does anybody actually read cover letters?

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?

24 thoughts on “Does anybody actually read cover letters?

  1. I couldn’t disagree with you more. At my school, the cover letter is our primary means for evaluating postdoctoral applications. Think about it–what other information do we have to go on?

    Recommendations: So your advisor and two other professors with whom you regularly go out for beers are willing to say that you are one of the strongest students they’ve ever seen. Big deal!

    Research statement: Oh, that’s nice–you’re going to prove the Riemann hypothesis and the Hodge conjecture; that is if the other 99 applicants don’t beat you to it.

    Teaching statement: I see that Math 1B student Eric Robinson described you as “the best calculus instructer ever.” What do you want, a medal?

    Yes, the cover letter is your one opportunity to really shine. Tell us why our school is better than all other schools, and let your sparkling prose demonstrate how lucky we will be to have you around the department. And, most important, show that you know how to spell our school’s name.

    Just kidding. Chill out.

  2. Who was that masked man?

    I don’t know, but I’m not too fond of his cavalier attitude. I hate the job market with a passion that burns with the heat of a thousand suns, and I hate even more being dumped back out on it right away.

    I appreciate the strides that are being made this year in providing some clarity, and being told to “chill out” when people try to make heads or tails of an incredibly obfuscated process is somewhat offensive. I’ve spent more than half my life aiming at this, and I think I’m justified in finding the possibility of failure at this point to be more that a touch stressful.

  3. I’ve been on both tenure-track and postdoctoral hiring committees. A pro forma cover letter is usually fine, especially at the tenure-track level. At the postdoctoral level, the only part of the cover letter that usually helps is naming one or a few people who you might want to work with. But you have to make it credible for it to really work. If you say “I’m particularly interested in working with Professor Smith” because you work in exactly the same area, that could be helpful. On the other hand, this is not cool: “I would be thrilled to accept a position at Enormous State University because of the guiding lights of Professors Atiyah, Baker, Connes, and Drinfeld. I’ve always been fascinated by K-theory, analytic number theory, operator algebras, and quantum algebra.”

    Well, even if it isn’t fake, it’s not a good idea to make the cover letter too fancy. With, I think, you may not even have a cover letter. The most important sides of an application remain: letters of recommendation; arxiv papers and journal acceptances; and meeting members of the department or giving talks before the job cycle begins. E-mail and blogs can also be a way to “meet” people, although again, better to do it before the job cycle begins.

  4. Speaking as the former owner of Sherlock Holmes Resume Service (700 happy clients) and a 2-year volunteer running Mock Interviews for unemployed researchers, doctors, lawyers, teacher, engineers, and the like at the at the Pasadena Unemployment Center:
    (1) The only purpose of the cover letter is to motivate someone to read th CV;
    (2) The only purpose of the CV is to get you an interview;
    (3) The only purpose of the interview is to get you an offer;
    (4) The only purpose of the offer is so you can pick the best one.

    That’s pretty much a consistent set of axioms. Your lemma was what, exactly?

  5. That’s pretty much a consistent set of axioms.

    That’s true, but we’re doing social science, not math, so consistency shouldn’t be our number 1 priority.

    While what you state are good general guidelines, the market for postdocs in math is a little weirder. After all

    (2) The only purpose of the CV is to get you an interview;

    is just plain wrong, since it’s normal for postdocs to be hired without interviews (I had 5 offers last year and didn’t do an interview for any of them).

    What I was claiming is that in this particular case, the cover letter isn’t what gets your CV read, but rather, that section in the middle of the AMS cover sheet (if you’re not familiar with that, here’s mine) which states your Ph. D. granting institution, the year and your advisor’s name, making the cover letter entirely useless.

  6. I think the cover letter might be relevant for people with a two body problem, depending on circumstances… (for instance,
    at some schools, if you don’t let them know about your significant other early on, it’s hard to get mobilized to interview them). Also, in some instances (e.g., Canadians), nationality carries some weight, so the cover letter might be a good place to emphasize that.

    Incidently, the masked man might be a woman; as I’ve heard
    one such person with a similar attitude before on a “how to get a job panel”.

  7. My ignorance is admitted herein. My 1977 PhD dissertation (“Molecular Cybernetics”) was never either accepted NOR rejected, 30 years ago, at UMass/Amherst Computer & Information Science Department, but still listed on transcripts as an “incomplete” despite all other requirements for the PhD having been met and exceeded. Complicated academic politics story.

    So I couldn’t, by definition, be a Postdoc, though I’ve taught Postdoctoral seminars, and been Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, and also Astronomy, and also taught several thousand other students. Plus my Erdos number is 5, going through 3 Nobel laureates in Physics. I’m not in the Mathematics Geneology Project, though dozens of my teachers and mentors are.

    Corollary: I am unlikely to get a tenure track professorship anytime soon, and so concentrate on getting many publications with many coauthors, in many subjects, inclduing on arXiv and edited web venues such as the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, and biding my time.

    Hence I claim expertise in CVs and cover letters for certain professions, including Actor, Lawyer, Judge, Engineer, Software Manager, but not Postdoc. Thanks for explaining this to me.

  8. Blah,

    We know who the anonymous is (hence Ben’s comment). He was joking, though maybe the tone was lost in the text.

  9. None of this stuff matters if you apply for jobs in some European countries. Then, in addition to having been a student at the university to which you are applying for a job, and having done your PhD with a professor in the department to which you will be applying for a job, if it is the case that the job announcement was not already specifically tailored to your thesis, you will need the sum of the papers you have published in indexed journals, weighted by impact factor, to exceed that of all other applicants, and even then you had better hope there is not another applicant who meets the preceeding criteria.

  10. At the postdoctoral level, the only part of the cover letter that usually helps is naming one or a few people who you might want to work with. But you have to make it credible for it to really work.

    Completely agree, and completely disagree with the anonymous coward who claimed that research proposals are useless.

    Anyway, as someone who’s been on the hiring end a number of times, I can assure you that where I’ve been the cover letters (and everything else) are looked at, but as Greg says the only real information they might contain is a list of people to work with. What I do with that information is point it out to the people on said list.

  11. Obviously the “anonymous coward” didn’t make his farcical tone apparent enough. To set the record straight:

    – I (the “coward”) agree with Ben
    – I have worked very hard on my research statements
    – I’m sure that I’ve benefited very much from the thoughtful letters of my various recommendors (especially that of my advisor)
    – I have never been on a hiring committee.

  12. “None of this stuff matters if you apply for jobs in some European countries. Then, in addition to having been a student at the university to which you are applying for a job, and having done your PhD with a professor in the department to which you will be applying for a job,”

    I knew a guy who complained incessantly about this. He even left his home country X (which is to remain nameless) and said it was so much better here, and how X was so political etc etc and it made him sick. In the end, he got a job here, in a school that his PhD advisor had since moved to.

  13. Its a small community. In sensible places, people already know your work, and know whether they want to hire you (long before you’ve even thought of applying ;) ). Not that many places are sensible, true…

    In that respect a blog is an ‘interesting’ career move—people will have heard of you *before* they hear of your theorems. Odd (even if it sounds like ‘normal’ for most of humanity.)

    A blog like this presumably has no career downside—its clear of political rants, or ‘controversial’ opinions, and just consists of an online informal seminar. (With charming streaks of naivety, sometimes mathematical, sometimes other.)

  14. In philosophy, it seems that there’s been a better tradition of talking about this sort of thing on the blogs (both Brian Leiter and Brian Weatherson posted job application advice a couple times a year when they dominated the philosophy blogosphere) – hopefully the same will be true in math soon too! Anyway, I’ve always been told (in philosophy) that a cover letter should be as short and contentless as possible – it’s basically just to tell them that you’re applying, and if you have any unusual situation that you specifically want them to consider (like being married to someone who’s already at their university).

  15. To me, the big problem is the intersection between cover letter and, surprise, recommendation letters. When a senior (or a peer) is asked to do a recommendation letter, is is not unusual that he answers “bring me a model”. So you must decide what to put in your cover letter, and then rewrite it in the way he could do it, but not intersecting exactly. You must put some virtues and praises in your cover letter and in two different recommendation letters. And, in honor to privacy and the final committee, the recommendation letter will be edited and sent without your knowledge, or in any case later than your cover letter, so be careful not letting any important statement hidden in the recommendations, they can be edited out after all.

  16. Having been on more hiring committees (for tenure-track positions, not postdocs) than I can remember, I agree with those who espouse the importance of the cover letter. The key, as Greg noted and Allen reiterated, is to personalize it to the place you’re applying by indicating with whom you wish to work (assuming that the position involves research and not just teaching).

    What I find is that is that each person on a hiring committee brings a different emphasis to the table. There are those who read the CV and nothing else. Some read only the recommendation letters. Some look at where the candidate’s degree is from and pay no attention to any other details. Someone in the group scans the cover letters looking for ones that are not clones of all the others. Somehow, it all comes together and a potentially tenurable person gets hired. As Henslowe said in “Shakespeare in Love”: ‘I don’t know. It’s a mystery.’

  17. The cover letter can get the attention of key personel in the department. If your work depended upon or built upon the work of B. S. Richard at Big State University, then mention B. S. Richard in your cover letter. Before you do, send her a link to your dissertation so that she is aware of the connections to her work, even if and especially if she is not on the hiring committee.

    The cover letter should be short, well written, and should not be replete with the pronoun “I.” It should indicate why you are interested in Big State U. And you can, with the correct TeX tricks, make that paragraph independent. So you have a separate paragraph for Liberal Arts College and one for Big State University.

    Before you apply check out the faculty at the places you want to be. Also it helps is B.S. Richard knows you in advance, so meet her at a conference, or correspond.

    Shorter, well written teaching statements are better than long winded statements. If you have sincerely thought about teaching, you should be able to express yourself concisely.

    Whatever you do during the hiring process, do not swamp the hiring committee or the chair with email. When you receive a form letter in response to your specific query, realize that rules and regs require us to respond in form letters. If the letter does not address the specific question, read the letter carefully, there are clues.

    We wrote, “In order to offer a position,
    we must have original uindergraduate and graduate transcripts, three original letters of recommendation, a biographical data form, and [blah blah blah] on file.” (Our school is paranoid about credentials. It seems that the school has hired surgeons that weren’t). We did not say that we needed those to interview. What we told people during the initial contact phase, was that we wanted the files in order as soon as possible, so that we could proceed with the offer.

    You can loose an offer if there is departmental contention, and the file is incomplete. It hasn’t happened where I am, but it can happen.

    We all want to believe that hiring is based solely on quality, and to a certain extent it is. What qualities can vary from department to department. Every place that I have seen has big turf wars over hiring especially tenure track positions. There are good reasons for this. You have to put up with a person, and they have to put up with you for at least 6 years. You have to decide if you like them or at least can interact with them mathematically.

  18. Since the job hunting season is starting up again, I thought I would start this comment section again. I am applying for a postdoc and I was wondering if people think it is helpful to email potential postdoc advisors at a university that you are applying to their school. I don’t really know any of the people at the universities where I am applying but I think we may have similar research interests. Is that helpful or overbearing?

  19. Craig-

    Yes, absolutely you should do this. It’s not overbearing if you just state the basic facts about you (school, advisor, interests) and say you hope they’ll have a look at your file. The number of applicants to good postdoc positions is absolutely overwhelming, so counting on being noticed by any method other than word-of-mouth is very dicey.

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