Advice on faculty job application letters

by Eszter Hargittai on July 2, 2024

I’m hosting a couple of professionalization discussions for our PhD candidates and postdocs this summer, informal conversations to help them navigate the crazy academic job market. A few weeks ago we discussed job talks as the department had just had a bunch of candidates visit (very different schedule here in Europe than the US) and we’ve had quite a few such talks over the past few years. Debriefing seemed like a good idea. After that conversation, people requested that we have a session specifically about job application letters so that’s coming up next. I’m writing now to seek your input on what works and what doesn’t. I can imagine that some of this is field-dependent, but I also suspect many aspects are generalizable.

My experiences with reading letters are a bit ridiculous in terms of volume at this point. I’ve been at the University of Zurich for eight years and have served on as many search committees. These have mostly concerned my own department (communication and media research), but a couple of times it was a search in political science and now one in sociology. It is standard to have people from other departments (and even other universities) on search committees here, very different from US practice (in my experience). I had also served on several search committees while at Northwestern and have served as an external member on some committees elsewhere in Europe so you can do the math on how many letters I’ve read over the years.

One of my biggest pieces of advice is for candidates to show rather than tell committee members about their accomplishments. I always cringe when I read things like “I am a leading researcher in the area of” (especially since most of these positions are for junior scholars, but I don’t like to see this even from a senior scholar). Rather than stating that “I’m a very accomplished scholar,” applicants should list their tangible accomplishments such as “I have published in x, I have won award y, I currently hold competitive fellowship z.”

Another piece of advice I have is that for junior applicants, letters should not go on for 4-5 pages. As a senior scholar, my letter to Zurich was 4 pages. This included half a page listing papers I was attaching and another half explaining why I was applying for the position in the first place. The latter component is rarely necessary for a junior scholar who doesn’t have a job lined up. It can be very relevant for senior scholars though. For example, it would not have been obvious why I was applying to Zurich when I was holding an endowed chair at one of the top programs in the field. I just pulled up my letter and see that I dedicated two paragraphs (239 words) to explaining why I was applying for the position.

A less crucial point, but another avoidable cringe, is skipping empty praise of the target department. Committee members know where the department stands, there is no need for the applicant to say how excited they are to apply to such a prestigious university/program. (This is more common with graduate school applications, but does show up in job application letters as well.) If the candidate has specific experiences with the department (they received a degree there, they participated in a program or workshop there, they have collaborators there), that would be worthwhile to mention, but simply telling letter readers how wonderful their program is doesn’t add value.

There is always the question of how detailed or not to get when describing past and current research. In my experience, this is where junior scholars often go on too long. The show vs tell approach here involves mentioning where work has been published and/or what grants/fellowships have supported it. Providing details is a bit more relevant for future research plans as that would not have publications or grants to describe it. But even then, no need for too much detail, just enough to show that there are future plans, how they may fit with the department, and why they are a relevant direction. I realize publications are not as common in some fields at this stage so there a more detailed description of ongoing work that hasn’t been published yet would likely be necessary.

Do you agree with my points above? What else would you add?



JDF 07.02.24 at 9:52 am

My experience in the UK is that application letters often have a short “here is who I am; here is what I do in teaching and research section” (maybe a page) which would usually be the entire US application letter, but in the UK, they then also explain in detail how the applicant meets each of the essential/desirable criteria. The practice seems preposterous since all the information is included elsewhere in the application (usually the CV), but it’s probably worth it just to make sure you cannot be tossed onto the reject pile because you don’t meet a require criterion.

When I evaluate applications, I must confess that I don’t read the application letter but just look at the CV, writing sample, research statement, and so on. I certainly don’t care about whether the candidate says anything about the school or department, at least at the junior level, and definitely don’t care if the candidate has a degree or is otherwise familiar with us.


NDH 07.02.24 at 11:24 am

My experience is mostly in the EU. I think a helpful way to approach the cover letter is that it should maximize the possibility of making you stand out (in a positive way obviously) after your CV, research plan and writing sample have been taking into account. It is important that the letter explains why you satisfy the essential criteria (as JDF above mentions), but it should ideally give the review committee an idea of you as a candidate. It should try to convey what makes you special, what makes your research project(s) worthwhile and relevant (if this isn’t part of the application), what is your plan for grant acquisition, and how you think you would fit in with the department, and writing a generic cover letter is not going to do this. It should not just list your achievements, but it should contextualize them so that the committee gets a better idea of you as a candidate. They should be able to picture you as a colleague that would be great to add to the team (this is probably not going to happen just on the basis of a letter, of course, but I think it nonetheless helps to write the letter with this in mind). The letter will not get you an invitation, but together with your CV, research plan and writing sample, it may help to make you stand out. This could be the difference between getting long-listed and short-listed, for example. I think it is usually at this stage where the cover letter starts to matter.

While I agree with empty praise of the department being somewhat cringe (I think pointing out overlaps between research interests is a better way of showing you did some research on the department), I must say I don’t share the view about the ‘cringe’ about junior scholars claiming to be leading researchers in a certain area. If they have say five to six publications in high ranked journals on related topics, this seems an apt statement to me. This is certainly not uncommon for junior scholars nowadays. Of course, the cover letter should explain how you have established yourself as a leading researcher in the field, but I don’t see any problem with pointing out that you are a leading scholar in the field you work in if you can back it up. But perhaps this is just me.


Matt L 07.02.24 at 12:09 pm

The situation described by JDF is also the case with most Australian (and New Zealand, I think) jobs – there will be a long list of “essential criteria” in the ad, much of which is sort of silly, and in the application letter you’re supposed to state, explicitly, how you meet these criteria, even though looking at the CV you’re required to include would do that much better. (This is so for many non-academic jobs in Australia, too. It’s boring, tedious, and generally frustrating. I’m highly skeptical that it helps those making the decisions, either.) At least in many cases, if you don’t do this in the early stage, you’re likely to just be weeded out, so even though it seems preposterous to an applicant from the US, it’s a good idea to do it.


Jeff 07.02.24 at 1:18 pm

US sociology here, several searches. The cover letter ends up secondary to the c.v. (for better or worse) and so it has to hit a home run concisely and complementing or explaining the c.v. Short paragraphs should hit a few themes: 1) How you fit with the stated need (research & teaching are related to the ad) & department/college (e.g. why liberal arts), with brief mention of anything innovating or different; 2) accomplishments that complement what’s on the c.v., 3) plans for the future that complement what on the c.v.; 4) anything relevant (such as why you’re leaving a tenure-track position at your school for tenure-track at ours, if relevant).

C.v.s of people just coming out are insane–too many publications (single-authored or co-authored), and it’s unhealthy. But if someone’s c.v. doesn’t have that much publication activity, a cover letter could concisely justify why (field methods, giving some time to social justice, etc.). Much of this could be in teaching & research statements, but the cover letter is the chance to signal those.

Concision & showing (not telling) are key. For what it’s worth.


Kevin 07.02.24 at 2:26 pm

The field differences here are wild. In economics, and this is true for most European departments hiring on the international market as well, almost all applications are a CV, a job market paper, 3 letters to be submitted directly later. Maybe you would write a short cover letter (1 page at most) where you would note any school specific info (e.g., “my family is from Zurich and I am able to teach in English, French and German”); even then, omst people would barely read this.

The idea that you would write five pages of content explaining what should be on the CV and in the submitted papers is incredibly surprising to me. Indeed, in economics, we talk about lowering the cost of applying – a third party website that aggregates applictions so students only have to upload their documents (and professors their rec letters) a single time has become very common.


CJColucci 07.02.24 at 2:44 pm

it would not have been obvious why I was applying to Zurich when I was holding an endowed chair at one of the top programs in the field. I just pulled up my letter and see that I dedicated two paragraphs (239 words) to explaining why I was applying for the position.

So you’re going to leave us hanging?


notGoodenough 07.02.24 at 4:25 pm

While I am considerably distanced from the UK’s academic sciences, my general impression from those less fortunate than I is that the second-best advice for applying for a faculty position is:

Have many (ideally first author or PI) high impact publications; have a track record for successful funding applications; secure as many prestigious awards/grants as possible (e.g. MSCA, Fellowships, etc.); have at least some teaching experience; signal your enthusiasm to – in your own time, naturally – take on any less-desirable tasks there may be; (not strictly necessary but it helps) be a protégé (or similarly connected) to A Big Name.

The best advice for applying for a faculty position being, of course, “don’t”.


Alex SL 07.02.24 at 10:10 pm

As others have implied, it is nearly impossible to give useful advice unless one is part of the same field in the same country, because there are vast differences in how applications work, and even between university culture and research agency culture in the same field and the same country.

As a biologist in Germany (now quite some time ago), my understanding was that the letter was half a page with a bit of boilerplate “I would love to have this job and am available for an interview”, with the CV doing all the rest of the work. Then I applied in Australia and was perplexed by the fields the online form had for various selection criteria. My replies were to the effect of “yes, see my CV for details” where a text of half a page providing details was the expectation. Luckily for me, the panel concluded that the silly European wouldn’t understand how it works in Australia and did compare my CV against the criteria. In the other geographical direction, don’t get me started on American statements on teaching philosophy etc., or on the question of where a photo of the candidate is expected as part of the CV and where it is a big no-no.

The most important advice to me, and one that carries across fields and cultures, is indeed show, don’t tell. Since sitting on the other side of the table, I realise how important it is to give the panel concrete examples. Everybody can make the empty claim that, yes, I can deal with challenges. But what the panel wants is a specific case of a challenge that you actually dealt with, and how.


Eszter Hargittai 07.03.24 at 1:50 pm

Thanks for all the helpful input!

While it is indeed difficult to give advice across fields and countries, some positions attract applicants from different disciplines, and faculty positions are very much a global market now so it is important to understand details across countries. (Certainly in Europe’s smaller countries, restricting one’s applications to one country can pose major challenges with what is already a challenging situation.)

Folks are correct that providing detailed responses to the various aspects of the application can be helpful in the European context. External reviewers – we have them for any stage hire not just tenured positions – may check candidates’ fit that way.

CJColucci ;-) – I grew up in Europe, I was missing some aspects of life here (public transportation FTW!) and I cherished the idea of being closer to my parents (luckily still going strong); I also had some push factors (even before Trump) like racism, guns, crazy healthcare system. Zurich had a very good department already at the time and by now it is also very high in rankings (for what that is worth). My biggest question mark concerned students and I’m happy to say that our students are great so that’s also worked out well.


andrew_m 07.05.24 at 2:01 pm

Long career in the same science institute as Alex SL (hi Alex!), slightly different perspective:

Even prior to the excellent advice to show-not-tell, the key principles are (i) a job application is an act of communication; and (ii) communicating effectively always requires you to adapt to the needs and desires of your audience.

For example: search panels in Australian public science have strong accountability requirements laid upon them. Search panels in Australian public science are also routinely inundated with applications from hopeful souls with deeply inadequate qualifications. Once an applicant has realized these two things, “I need to clearly show that I pass the selection-criteria filter” becomes a matter of simple professional courtesy on their part.


Jon W 07.05.24 at 3:48 pm

US; law; former hiring committee chair. For us, the cover letter is short and pro forma. But in a junior candidate, in addition to the CV, I would expect to see a research agenda (i.e., a statement of maybe 3-4 pages speaking to the candidate’s past, present, and future research). Some candidates also include diversity statements and/or statements of teaching philosophy. I wouldn’t expect to see these for a senior candidate, where the work will more nearly speak for itself.


Sashas 07.05.24 at 5:04 pm

US, computer science. I don’t have anywhere near the amount of experience as other folks here, but I was just on a search committee.

I agree with the OP’s advice, but I would be more specific with the second one. The tendency to heap empty praise on the department is IMO a misreading of something that is actually good advice. Namely, you should make clear in your cover letter that you like what the department/program is doing. You (probably) aren’t being hired to right a sinking ship and the department wants to hire someone who will actually stay, so it’s good to let them know that you know what they’re about and you’re into it! “Hey your department is cool I want to be there” is dumb and unhelpful, but when you’re doing it right this should merge right into your answer to why you’re applying. And if you don’t say anything at all about the department in your cover letter, it looks like you just spammed 100 applications everywhere you could think of and don’t actually want to work at our school.

In my context, if I see a cover letter over 1 page I think there had better be a damn good reason. I do like seeing teaching and diversity statements, but I have strong feelings about both and CS as a field has traditionally not been great about either.


John Q 07.07.24 at 9:37 pm

I agree with Sashas @12 on the desirability of saying why you want to join this specific department – not because of its high ranking and general goodness but because of its particular strengths.

A more specialised point, relevant to non-US departments, is that, with a high cost for flyouts, some candidates may be passed over because they are “too good”. Here it may be worth mentioning ties to the country in question, if they exist. A better solution, in my view, would be to interview everyone remotely, but that’s a long way off.

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