ADE Bulletin

Number 113, Spring 1996

The Job Search: Observations of a Reader of 177 Letters of Application

A LETTER of application is one of the most important letters a new PhD will ever write. With English departments flooded by applications for each rare opening, a candidate needs to make a positive impression from the very first paragraph.

Many of the assistant professorships for which new PhDs apply are at small liberal arts colleges and universities, those with enrollments of fewer than five thousand undergraduates. A candidate who is truly interested in working at such a school and who is not just mailing applications indiscriminately needs to do a little homework.

These institutions, numbering about eight hundred across the country, are a diverse group, but most share certain specific qualities. Almost without exception they view teaching as their primary mission and stress close faculty-student contact. Faculty members normally teach both composition and literature, and few such institutions have teaching assistants. These schools are usually proud of their uniqueness and their tradition, and they use their emphasis on teaching and on close personal relationships and their campus culture to attract students who might otherwise attend larger institutions. To be happy and successful in such a setting, faculty members must be collegial and be willing to become involved in the innumerable activities of the campus and the department. Many of these schools are located in small towns in geographically isolated areas, and thus faculty members interact with their colleagues not just at work but also in everyday personal activities. There is simply no place to hide, no possibility of disappearing into the anonymity of a library carrel or behind the closed door of an office.

Furthermore, while these small colleges and universities include some of the most prestigious and selective institutions in the country, the huge majority fall into Barron's guides' “competitive” grouping, with fewer in the “very competitive” and “less competitive” categories. By necessity these schools require heavy teaching loads and stress teaching and service over research and off-campus professional involvement. Students are generally of average ability, and each English professor's teaching load is mainly composition and introductory literature courses; the specialized upper-level course is an infrequent and highly valued assignment. Faculty members teach in a wide range of subject areas and have little opportunity to specialize.

My institution, Ohio Northern University, fits this profile. In the fall of 1993 we advertised in the MLA Job Information List and in the Chronicle of Higher Education for a “student-centered” assistant professor to teach composition and literature, indicating a preference for expertise in eighteenth-century British literature. We received 177 applications for this position. In addition to teaching skills, the potential to perform service-related activities, and a willingness or even a desire to teach at a small university in a very small town (population three thousand) in the cornfields of west central Ohio, we, like hiring committees at most similar institutions, were looking for evidence of special skills, personality characteristics, or past experience that might enrich the department and benefit our students: previous employment as a writer or editor; overseas study, travel, or work; teaching certification, which would qualify a candidate to help advise and supervise our student teachers; undergraduate or graduate work outside English that might appeal to nonmajors or broaden the experience of majors; volunteer, service, or professional activities indicating initiative and a wide range of interests.

The vast majority of the letters we received, however, were obviously not written to us as members of an English department search committee at Ohio Northern. They were in fact generic form letters written with the apparent aim of securing a position at an institution far different from anything Ohio Northern is or ever will become. A good number appeared to be applications for some kind of postdoctoral fellowship rather than for any kind of faculty position anywhere. Most did not do justice at all to the talents, training, or experiences of the applicants. And these comments relate entirely to the content, organization, and format of the letters we received, not to their language and tone, which were also often bizarrely inappropriate.

Most letters emphasized research far more than any other subject. Such discussion of research, usually focused on the doctoral dissertation, took up half or more of the space in 76 of the letters (43% of the total), and 22 of the 76 devoted two-thirds of their text to a highly technical and detailed description of complex research difficult to relate in any way to the Ohio Northern University classroom. A few candidates even stated their eagerness to teach graduate courses, although a quick look at any college guide would show that Ohio Northern, like most small universities, has no graduate students in English. Many applicants listed all the courses they had ever taught but made no mention of their teaching philosophy or pedagogical techniques. Those who did make a positive impression on our committee not only stressed teaching over research but also gave specific examples of methods they used in the classroom and projects that had been successful, summarized the pedagogy they used (especially for teaching composition), discussed the training they had received, and mentioned positive student and peer evaluations or teaching awards.

A small campus definitely has a particular ethos, and those candidates who had studied or worked at a small school clearly had an advantage; this sort of experience was one important but unspecified qualification for which we were watching. Of the 58 candidates (approximately one-third of the total) who did have this background, however, few pointed out that they were familiar with a small-school environment like Ohio Northern's, and even fewer expressed a desire to teach in such a setting. Indeed, 47 of the 58 never mentioned having experienced life on a small campus, and only 5 made the obvious point that familiarity with small-school culture might make them comfortable at Ohio Northern.

Only 34 letters even mentioned the name of our institution; one called it “Northern Ohio” and another “Butler University.” Those clearly familiar with Ohio or even with Ohio Northern never said as much or else made rather gushy and generalized statements—“I love Ohio,” for instance, by itself did not make much of an impression on our committee. And although 13 candidates did refer to the phrase “student-centered” from our announcement, it was clear that almost none of the candidates had bothered to look up Ohio Northern in a college guide, much less to read our catalog, and those who had taken the trouble to do so were not able to use the information effectively.

Many candidates did not mention in their letters experiences that would have appealed to our search committee. Only 46 pointed out any professional or service work that would have indicated involvement in activities valuable to students or to the institution. At least 58 more of the candidates clearly had this type of experience but tucked it away in their résumés while including paragraph after paragraph in their letters about different sections of their dissertations. Another 32 applicants mentioned no activities or interests at all aside from research and teaching in either their letters or their résumés.

Moreover, of 33 applicants who had overseas experience, only 15 mentioned such experience even in passing, and even fewer pointed out that this experience would enrich their teaching, give them a broader cultural perspective, or positively influence their students. Although 10 of the applicants were not native-born Americans or Canadians, only 3 of them discussed their nationality, which would be of particular importance in teaching writing and literature to students mostly from small-town Ohio. The 2 who had taught in colleges of pharmacy said nothing about this experience, even though over eight hundred of our students are pharmacy majors. Less than half of those with secondary-school certification or teaching experience mentioned these qualifications at all, and while several applicants did cite extensive study in fields outside English as a positive attribute, just as many failed to draw any attention to such study. Indeed, applicants whose résumés suggested diverse interests and backgrounds came across as narrow and dull in their letters. And sometimes—often, in fact—both letter and résumé indicated so little that would be useful at a small university like Ohio Northern and so little interest in teaching at such an institution that it was not clear why the applicant had bothered to write to us at all.

A somewhat common error, furthermore, was the extreme brevity of many of the letters, apparently the result of a mistaken belief that the letter should be only one page long. It is difficult to sell oneself among such a large field of candidates in one page, yet 31 of the applicants attempted to do exactly that, often narrowing margins and reducing font size to make a plausible case for themselves in such a restricted space. While three or four pages is certainly excessive, very few letters of less than one and a half to two pages gave the committee an accurate sense of the applicant.

And a small minority of the letters were inadequate even in format and appearance. Writing with faulty mechanics is certainly a poor introduction to a person who is asking to teach composition. However, we received 13 letters with errors such as lack of an inside address, incorrect punctuation of the salutation, double-spaced typing, and omission of the date. Three applicants neglected to sign their letters; 2 sent computer paper that had not been separated; and 1 typed on both sides of the page.

Even more annoying for an overworked search committee was the failure to provide useful references. Some applicants did not include phone numbers for references in either the letter or the résumé. Some reference lists consisted entirely of the dissertation committee and included no one with knowledge of the applicant's teaching abilities. Worst of all were statements that the names of references would be furnished on request.

Producing an effective and persuasive letter of application requires time and effort, but when so much of a person's future rides on this letter, there are surely few projects more deserving of such an investment. At the very least, a letter to a small college or university with a clear teaching mission should be focused differently from one directed to a large “publish or perish” institution. A quick glance through a college guide will indicate the nature of the institution advertising an opening. At Ohio Northern we are far more interested in knowing if an aspiring assistant English professor has worked in a writing center, tutored athletes, planned and organized a conference, or set up a specialized reading group for fellow graduate students than if he or she has a reading knowledge of ancient Greek or a specialist's knowledge of an obscure corner of literary scholarship.

We value highly, of course, those who have read widely and who love literature and writing, who intend to be active in the profession, to grow intellectually, and perhaps to contribute to the field of literature or rhetoric. But we need, above all, excellent, dedicated, and patient teachers to instruct undergraduate students most of whom are not English majors and few of whom are brilliant. We need hardworking, congenial, and committed colleagues who will help us carry out the numerous activities of the department and will represent us well to constituencies in other parts of the university. We need faculty members who bring to our somewhat isolated and parochial campus diverse and stimulating backgrounds and experiences. If a candidate has these qualities, the letter of application should tell us about them. The letter should also show that Ohio Northern really exists in the applicant's imagination and that he or she would choose such a place as a future work environment. Finally, the letter should be addressed to us as a search committee at this particular type of institution. We were eventually able to identify some excellent candidates, but few of them sold themselves adequately in the most important letter they may ever write. Surely aspiring academics can do better.


The author is Professor of English and former Chair of the English Department at Ohio Northern University.


© 1996 by the Association of Departments of English. All Rights Reserved.

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