Rachel Herrmann

Academia, food, and history

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The Elusive Task of Tailoring
I wrote a fair number of cover letters while I was ABD this year. At the start of job season, I remember feeling particularly perplexed by the idea of tailoring my cover letters. How much was too much? Where in the letter was I supposed to do it? And where else could I insert tailoring into the remainder of my job materials?

I thought it might be helpful to write up a post describing the cover letter that I generally used, and to point out the spots where I tried to tailor. I started with Karen Kelsky’s cover letter template, but then I sent it on to history colleagues for discipline-specific feedback. After that, it went through a round of revisions before I asked my adviser to look it over. What follows is a cross between a cover letter template, and a discussion of how I drafted my letters. I hope it’s useful for those of you entering the market in the fall.

[letterhead: to avoid having to print and then scan all your letters, you can make a digital copy using this how-to over at ProfHacker. Or you can do what I did: 1) Scan page of institutional letterhead. 2) Save as JPEG. 3) Open in Paint and crop until just the letterhead part remains. 4) Open Word document and insert and draw textbox. 5) Paste letterhead inside. 6) Change formatting of text box so that the outline is invisible. 7) Move letterhead around until it looks like a reasonably close copy of original.]

Date [note: when January comes, don’t be an airhead like me and forget to switch the year]

Physical address with name of search chair if known

Dear Professor X [alternately: To the Selection Committee],

Please accept my application for [job title]. I am currently [your status—I listed myself as a PhD candidate, but I also gave my current affiliation as a fellow], where I am [identify the type of historian you are—I’d probably identify as an early Americanist specializing in food and race in the Revolutionary Atlantic. My adviser warned me not to change this summary line too much, so if you have to alter it significantly to justify applying for a job, maybe reconsider that application]. After [find a brief way to describe your progress on the dissertation, IE “after a year of writing, I have had a completed draft since May 2013” or “after visiting X number of archives, I have made significant progress outlining my dissertation, and”], I will defend my dissertation in [as early as your adviser will sign off on what you put in this letter].

My project, “[dissertation title],” [Describe your dissertation in the broadest strokes possible, including its main historiographic contributions].

[Longer paragraph on the diss, pitched to the non-specialist on the search committee. Lay out the contributions as clearly as possible—I think I used three points. I have a line in this paragraph about the interdisciplinary nature of the project, so if the job was for a specialized post (as opposed to just a first half of U.S. history survey job) I usually changed the wording here to explain how my work contributed to, say Native American or environmental historiography].

[Very short paragraph on the second project. You don’t need to be sold on carrying out the work for this project, but this paragraph needs to accomplish two things. 1) It needs to convince the search committee that you’re not a one-trick pony, and that the second project will grow organically from the dissertation without taking on the air of Dissertation, Volume II, and 2) It needs to convince the specialist on the search committee that you’re aware of the direction of your field. This second task is trickier, because you want your second project to sound current without sounding cliché. As far as tailoring goes, IF and ONLY if your second project relates to a center at the campus to which you are applying, mention it here—but don’t stretch the project to fit].

[The “Why I’m awesome” paragraph. This is the hardest part of the letter to write because you really have to sell yourself, and some people will say you don’t need it—but I disagree. I used this paragraph to summarize the high points of my CV, assuming that some selection committees would read my cover letter first. I included publications and major fellowships, as well as tentative publication plans for the dissertation and a couple articles. In most cases, the writing sample I sent was a draft of one of these two articles, so I mentioned that here (but I’m increasingly of the opinion that a published article that doesn’t relate to the dissertation is a better choice of writing sample simply because it’s published). I had a line about my writing for The Chronicle, but if you’re part of a big group blog, you could talk about that, too. I also included a line about service. Finally, I spotlighted some of the things I’ve done that might be considered part of the digital humanities. I did the latter because everyone department is interested in DH, and ESPECIALLY if the search is NOT a DH search, committees like to see that you’re aware of/contributing to the field.]

[The teaching paragraph. A few opportunities to tailor here. If you’re applying to a SLAC, this paragraph goes right after your first paragraph on the dissertation. If it’s a research school, the paragraph goes here. For the bigger schools you will need an extra line about teaching graduate students, so make sure you know whether the school offers an MA, a PhD, or both. If the application materials require a teaching philosophy, you can also tailor there by adding or removing a paragraph on how teaching graduate students is different from teaching undergrads. Because I didn’t have much experience, I tried to explain how the little experience I did have had yielded transferrable skills, and then I described several ideas in which I’d use food to teach early American history. If the job ad mentioned a certain kind of teaching, I included a line about how my teaching experience would enable me to teach that way at their institution.]

[The why I want to work in your department paragraph (for god’s sake, get the name of the school right—but if you don’t, know that I’ve also screwed this one up. It happens). People might disagree with me here, but I decided not to list the names of faculty in my cover letters. Instead, I opted to identify the department’s strengths, and to say that I wanted to work in a particular place by highlighting faculty interests that overlapped with mine. (Note that for bigger departments, finding out this information took about an hour to an hour and a half for each letter). Name the courses you are willing to teach, IN ADDITION to the ones mentioned in the job ad. Be strategic about this line; if there’s an established faculty member who teaches Native American history, maybe don’t mention that you will teach Native American history. If, however, you desperately want to teach Native American history, and said faculty member focuses on, say, the Ohio Valley, you could offer to teach a course on Southeastern Native American history. Next, do a bit more research on the school. I generally checked to see if a school had any food classes, early modern seminars, or race seminars that I could contribute to (CONTRIBUTE TO, not “participate” in—you’re a potential colleague, not a grad student). Find a way to describe your enthusiasm to make those connections. If it’s a small college, they might not have any such seminars—focus instead on how you will help history majors become part of a scholarly community and get jobs. If you have any training preparing students to think about history jobs that don’t require going to grad school (such as public history training), this is the place to say so—departments like being able to sell job security to their undergrads.]

[The sign-off paragraph. Say you’re attending AHA. If you’re presenting, even better. This line lets departments know that you will be there so they don’t have to wonder. If they haven’t asked for writing samples or syllabi and you still have room, offer to provide them. Thank them for considering your materials.]


All this needs to fit on two pages, which isn’t to say that I fit it all using 12-point Times New Roman. I opted to piss off older faculty members with poor eyesight by fiddling with fonts and margins, rather than break the “no cover letter should exceed two pages” rule.

Note that my version of a cover letter requires tailoring in several paragraphs, which can seem time-consuming compared to some. But once you have this letter prepped for a research school and a SLAC, you should still be able to copy and paste accordingly.

Disagreements? Comments? Additional advice for job-seekers? Have at it!

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