The cover letter and CV are the two most important components of the academic job application. Their content alone can land applicants on the short list for interviews or on the rejection pile. Applicants must use cover letters as exercises in persuasive writing.
What is your argument? “I am an excellent fit for this position.”
In part one of this two-part post, I will talk about what applicants should do in their cover letters. Part two will outline the don’ts. There are three essential things every cover letter should do: address position requirements, reference the college, and match the teaching and research culture of the department.
Do #1: Address the Position Requirements
Take job the requirements listed in advertisements at face value. Do not try and psychoanalyze the search committee to reveal their hidden motivations. Trust that they have honestly represented what they are looking for and use that information to write your cover letter. In other words, letters need to be position specific.
Surveys of faculty indicate that many of them consider generic cover letters to be kisses of death that are grounds for rejection of even qualified candidates (Boysen, Morton, & Nieves, 2019). Nothing says “I am not enthused about being a professor at your college” more than submitting a generic cover letter.
How do you write a position-specific letter? I suggest taking the job requirements listed in the job advertisement and turning them into a checklist. You cover letter should address all requirements or refer readers to the applications materials where evidence for meeting the requirements can be found.
Do #2: Make Reference to the College
As a frequent search committee member, I will admit that reading cover letters can be dull work. What inevitably perks me up, however, is when the applicant references something at my college that shows they have done their research and have a sincere interest in the position. Ideally, applicants want search committee members to make the argument “This person really seems interested in working here.”
For references to the college to be effective, they should be sincere. That means candidates should spend some time looking at the college and department webpages. Find something that truly does excite you, and work it naturally into your letter.
Do #3: Match the Teaching and Research Culture
As a search committee member, generic cover letters are bad, but letters that are clearly written for a different type of college are even worse. Search committees looking for teachers will reject applicants who overemphasize research, and search committees looking for researchers will reject applicants who overemphasize teaching (Boysen et al., 2019). As much as possible, cover letters should match the balance of teaching and research required by the position and the institution.
Based on the balance of the position, your message should be: (1) “I am a productive scholar,” (2) “I am a dedicated teacher,” or (3) “I am a productive scholar and a dedicated teacher.”
Remember that cover letters are your chance to make a lasting first impression on search committee members. If there is nothing distinct about your case for being hired, then they are less likely to remember you and argue for your inclusion on the short list of candidates to be interviewed. Stand out in a good way.
I once applied for a prestigious service position after repeated encouragement from my colleagues who told me I was a perfect fit. My CV was strong, the cover letter practically wrote itself, and I felt confident.
I did not get it.
The rejection letter came with the name of the person chosen for the position. After seeing the ridiculously overqualified person who landed the position, I thought “Well, I didn’t know the competition would be that tough!” The experience reminded me of being on the academic job market.
There is always mystery in the academic job the market. The number of positions, the number of applicants, and the strength of the pool are just some of the undeterminable market factors. What is completely unmysterious, however, is the fact that you need to meet the minimum qualifications for any position.
The most important qualifications are number of publications and amount of teaching experience. What are the magic numbers of each? One way to answer this question is to ask current faculty what minimum qualifications they look for when hiring new faculty (Boysen, in press). As you might expect, the answer differs by institution and career level.
The figure represents what faculty at baccalaureate colleges, master’s universities, and doctoral universities (Professors’ Work) see as the minimum research and teaching qualifications for applicants who are still in graduate school. Starting with research, faculty everywhere expect grad students to average about one publication and two presentations a year. However, doctoral faculty expect one additional publication.
Trends are reversed for teaching qualifications. Across institutions, qualified graduate students will have a couple of semesters of experience and will have had full responsibility for at least one course. However, baccalaureate and master’s faculty have higher expectations than doctoral faculty.
What about applicants who are already full-time faculty members or in postdoctoral positions? Minimum qualifications generally double for applicants who are full time faculty. They need to average about two publications and three presentations a year. They also need to have taught about three courses over four semesters. Minimum qualifications for postdocs fall between graduate students and full-time faculty.
Community colleges are a special case. Community college faculty do not have to engage in scholarship, and too many publications might turn off search committees because it makes a candidate look like a researcher, not a teacher. They only hire teachers. There may even be rules about the minimum years of teaching experience required for new hires.
To summarize, get published and teach a course no matter where you are applying. If you are seeking a doctoral university position, no amount of publications is too many. If you are seeking a position at a baccalaureate college or teaching-focused master’s university, no amount of teaching experience is too much.
Boysen, G. A. (in press). Research and teaching qualifications for faculty positions in psychology at 4-year colleges and universities. Teaching of Psychology.
Professors are not always expert networkers. After all, we are in academia, not politics. Nonetheless, everyone who hopes to land a faculty job needs to network at least enough to get three to five people to vouch for their potential in letters of reference
Obviously, you should choose letter writers who know you well and will have positive opinions about your work. However, also try to find people who are working in positions that are similar to the ones you are applying for. Are you applying for positions at research-intensive doctoral universities? Get as many high-powered research professors as possible. Are you applying for community college positions? Get people with experience teaching at a community college. No matter the setting, search committees will trust people working in similar positions most when evaluating candidates.
There is one person who must be on your list of letter writers if you are a graduate student or an early-career professional: your graduate advisor. Even if you have five other people who can say better things about your record, not having a letter from a graduate advisor can be a kiss of death for applicants (Boysen, Morton, & Nieves, 2019).
What are you asking letter writers to do? They are evaluating your potential as a professor. In a sense, they are putting their reputation on the line by vouching for yours. You only want letters that will be uniformly positive about you and your potential.
This leads to the issue of how to ask for a letter of reference. Do not ask “Will you write a reference letter for me?” A person might say “yes” and then write an unhelpful letter. Even lukewarm letters of reference can lead to the rejection of otherwise qualified candidates (Boysen et al., 2019).
A better way to ask is “Do you feel that you know my professional record well enough to write me a positive letter of reference?” The hope is that anyone who cannot give an unequivocal “yes” to this question will say “no.” Strange as it seems, such a rejection is good because it stopped an unhelpful letter from being written.
There should be two phases to asking for letters of reference. Phase one occurs the semester before you plan to go on the job market. Have a meeting with potential references. Ask them if they think you have the record needed to be competitive on the market. If the person says anything other than “yes,” listen to their advice about how to fill holes in your CV.
Phase two occurs at least a month before any application deadlines. Pop the question. If they say “yes,” provide them with your professional materials, share information about positions, and ask about their preferences for writing and sending the letters. Remember, you need these people’s help, so keep them happy.
Aspiring professors tend to focus on amassing research and teaching experiences. Those experiences are essential, but positive letters of reference are also needed to land a job. So, treat positive references like the necessary qualifications that they are.
Boysen, G. A., Morton, J., & Nieves, T. (2019). Kisses of death in the psychology faculty hiring process. Teaching of Psychology, 46, 260-266. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628319853942
Like any profession, there are many pros and cons to being a professor. In part one of this post, I outlined some of the many pros to being a professor. To complete the informed consent process, we must now address the cons.
There is some objective evidence documenting what professors find stressful about their jobs. The results of one faculty survey can be seen in the table below. Although the trends should not be generalized to all faculty – for example, professors at community colleges feel no pressure to publish research – the results illustrate some important truths.
Adapted from Table 1 of the 2010-2011 HERI survey.
Demands on professors’ time are exorbitant. Professors who care about their work constantly feel the pressure of having more to do in a limited amount of time. And there are always students, colleagues, and administrators who will give you more to do if you let them.
Budgets are tight in higher education. Ask any group professors what the number one concern is on their campus and finances are likely to come up. States have reduced support for public education. Private colleges are competing for a shrinking number of high school graduates. Financial struggles spread, and faculty feel it in the money available to them for research and teaching.
Mentoring students is sometimes painful. You are interested in being a psychology professor because you love the field. Not every student will love the field, and not every student will have the aptitude for success in the field. Some students make their professors pay for these inescapable truths.
Publishing research is a high-pressure activity. In recent months, I have had a couple of articles accepted for publication. But I am dwelling on those successes? No. Instead, I ruminate on the one rejection, the manuscript in preparation, and the chances of success for my next project. In many faculty positions, regular publication is a job requirement, and this is a never-ending grind with undeniable signs of success or failure.
Teaching is like getting caught in a tide racing out to sea. It is as dangerous as you make it. Floating along with the current is the safe bet – you will keep your head above the surface for long time and be in no immediate danger. If you swim as hard as you can against the current, you might make it out, but you also might sink after an exhausting effort. With teaching, it is not difficult to float by and just be OK, which is all many institutions require. In contrast, being great, or even very good, can suck up every second you are willing to devote to it, and there is no guarantee that students will appreciate the effort.
You will notice that I have not talked about the top stresser on the list: high expectations that professors put on themselves. Professors are the primary source professors’ stress. You choose to work 80 hours a week, to accept publish-or-perish positions, to redesign your courses each semester, or to agonize over “kids these days.” The academic life can be cruel, but it is self-imposed.
Academia may be worth it, but only you can make that decision.
When professors retire, they often fall on one of two career extremes. At one extreme are the professors who have been intellectually retired for years and have remained in academia only by force of inertia or a paycheck. No one is sad to see them go. At the other extreme are the active and vibrant professors who still outperform most of their junior colleges. Everyone wants them to stay.
How can the same career lead to such divergent ends? One obvious explanation is whether or not the person should have gone into academia in the first place.
Like any profession, there are many pros and cons to being a professor. Academia is not for everyone. You should make an informed choice about if it is for you. In part one of this two-part post, I will be outlining some of the many pros of an academic career.
Professors are passionate. One of the unique aspects of being a professor is the control they have over the focus and direction their careers. Academic freedom means that professors can match their teaching and scholarship to the interests they are passionate about.
There are always opportunities for growth in research and teaching. There are always more research questions and new ways to investigate them, and no course is ever finalized because it can always be updated and tweaked to improve student learning. Moreover, professors might do completely different things at different points in their career. For me, some of my current research topics and methods did not even exist when I was in grad school. In some of the courses that I teach, I have thrown out my teaching materials and started over multiple times. This type of growth is challenging but rewarding.
Working in a college setting is dynamic and energizing. You have to admit it, there is something special about being on a college campus. I am only half joking when I tell people that I wanted to be a professor so that I could stay in college forever. It is better than that, actually. Now I get to give tests, not take them.
Mentoring students is rewarding. Some professors train the next generation of psychologists. Others prepare students for the transition to 4-year institutions. Still others teach students who will never take another psychology course. In all cases, getting to know students and helping them succeed can be the best part of the job.
Being in “The Club”
Professors are part of an exclusive club. There are not many experts in your field. You may be one of a handful of people who create knowledge in a field by study. You may be one of the few people who can literally profess to others by sharing your expertise. Working with others who are in the club – be that in your department, on professional committees, or on scholarly projects – can be like finding your long-lost intellectual brothers and sisters.
I think a career in academia amazing, for me. But it may not be for you. Life is not perfect in academia, and coming in my next post are the cons.
Think about type of professor you want to be. Now, answer quickly: research or teaching?
Becoming a psychology professor requires careful consideration of how much you want to emphasize research and teaching in your career. Colleges and universities can all be placed somewhere on a spectrum emphasizing research versus teaching, and they hire professors who are a good match for that placement (see previous post on professors’ work). To be that hire, you must place yourself on the research—teaching spectrum so that you know how to build your qualifications, select positions to apply for, and convey your qualification to search committees.
What Type are You?
Take a moment to complete the teaching—research self-assessment below (link to full instructions). For each row, select the characteristic on the “research-intensive” or “teaching-intensive” side that best fits your interests and qualifications. If you truly do not fall on one side, select “both.” That is a legitimate answer too.
When you are done, follow the instructions for scoring. Take the results serious but not literally. This is not the MMPI.
Matching Your Type to Institution Type
The self-assessment is designed to get you thinking about how to match your interests with different types of institutions. Answers on the first two rows are the most important. Doctoral universities will be the best fit for professors who want to focus on research and the mentoring of graduate students above all else. Those who want to focus exclusively on teaching undergraduates are a good fit for community colleges, as well as some baccalaureate colleges.
Here is the advice that aspiring professors rarely hear: You can be both teaching- and research-focused. Master’s universities are a great fit for people with a lot of “both” answers. Professors at master’s universities have the best of both worlds because they combine teaching and research, as well as graduate and undergraduate education.
Many baccalaureate colleges will also be a good fit for people interested in both teaching and research. At baccalaureate colleges, teaching undergraduates is always the priority, but there is an emphasis on giving those students opportunities to be involved in research. Moreover, at some elite baccalaureate colleges, undergraduate teaching must be excellent, but research expectations rival those at doctoral universities.
Although they are less diagnostic, the next three rows are helpful too. Doctoral universities tend to be large, competitive, and prestigious on a national level. They hire the world’s best scholars within a narrow field. Community colleges and baccalaureate colleges are typically smaller and more supportive – reputations are made locally, not internationally. Once again, master’s universities fall in the middle.
Remember, every institution hires psychology professors that fall at a specific point on the research—teaching spectrum. Your job is to find the one that best fits who you want to be as a psychology professor.