(The very first search I ever served on was for an accounting position. I was used to the sorts of letters English lit folks send out: intro para, para or three on dissertation, para on pubs if any and on future plans, para on teaching overview, para on dream course or comp, para on how much they'd fit at your school. In contrast, accounting letters basically say, "I'm an accountant and interested in your adertised position.")
Back to our current search. The UB Dept needs a deepwater basketweaving specialist with a lot of experience and interest in SCUBA technologies used for basketweaving. And it would be a real asset if the person can add to diversity in some way or has experience with interdisciplinary work or with reed cultivation. We also asked for evidence that the person could teach underwater basketweaving basics, because everyone needs to here. We wrote up the ad, got it approved by the legal beagles, and waited for the apps to start coming in.
And come they did, many, many apps. You might not think there are that many folks in this discipline looking for jobs, but there are.
And so, I've been reading apps. And I'd like to say, if you're a brackish water specialist who's friend uses SCUBA sometimes, please don't apply! I look in the letter for some mention of the qualifications, and if you don't mention SCUBA, and if your CV doesn't mention SCUBA (either in teaching or research), and if your letters of rec don't mention your work in SCUBA, please don't apply! I know you're probably brilliant at what you do, and a fine person, but we have a ton of apps who actually do deepwater basketweaving with SCUBA technology in a serious way, so you're wasting your money and energy.
The reality is that a lot of people are desperate for a job, and they're casting their net as widely as they can, hoping against hope. Every single person on the search knows that, and I'm guessing every one of us has also been a desperate searcher. We read the underlying despair in many of these letters, but nothing changes the fact that we have one job to offer, and even that is tenuous because the assistants to the headmaster may decide that balancing the budget means we have to freeze hiring this year. So while I vent a bit, please remember that I know the desperation and empathize, and that I'm doing the best I can to find us the strongest candidate who fits our position needs best.
I've been noticing some weird things. The strangest was the person who started wrote,
My dissertation on [Deepwater SCUBA air compression and basketweaving topic] is directed by [Name], whose book [Specialized Monograph title] was published by Pretty Good UP, and whose work on [UB theorists X and Y] is well known.Seriously, you're writing about your director's work in your diss paragraph? And I've read more than one of those. Really, I don't care who your director is; I care that the work you do sounds interesting and that you explain it so that I can understand it, because if you can explain it to me, then you will probably be the sort of teacher who can explain things to our students.
Another weird choice was to write about being a Mommy/Daddy (you guess which) to X number of adorable children. I don't care if you've bred; it's illegal for me to take it into consideration or ask. I realize it's important to you personally, but it doesn't belong in your job letter so far as I'm concerned.
Some of the more irritating letters come from students at Grand Old Ivy, and talk about their superiority as students at GOI, basically implying that we should feel honored that they've applied. But then their dissertation is on the same basic subject as about twelve other dissertations, any of which echoes what was done in the 80s, when the field was focused on weaving tightness and waterproofing studies.
Others talk about how they were their high school's valedictorian, and then went to GOI, barely mentioning that from GOI they've gone to a grad program at Second Rate State. I'm left wondering what happened there.
Here's a little secret: I don't care where you went to school in my first pass, or who you worked with. I care that you actually study deepwater basketweaving and SCUBA stuff, that your work sounds interesting enough that I wouldn't tear my hair out at your job talk, that you can communicate well even with non-specialists, that you've got good experience teaching what we need taught. I care if something about you adds to diversity (you're interested in the comparative techniques of South Asian and African SCUBA use, and have done some study in the field, taken a couple seminars, something), or that you've done interdisciplinary work (with an art historian or a plant geneticist, whatever). I only look at where you've gone to school if I've got you in my "hey, this person sounds great" list, and by then you're already on the list. I only care about who's writing your letters when the letters sound enthusiastic about your work (though I'm at least a little sensitive to where letters originate, to the extent I know that, and how different cultures frame letters of reference).
Then I take my "sounds great list" and talk to the other people about their lists, and we hash out who we want to talk to further. Now maybe other folks care more about where you went, but it doesn't much come up around here, not when we're busy talking about how someone would be a great complement to our air compression training, or someone has great experience doing this or that cool teaching thing.