Friday, November 4, 2011

On applying for jobs

Here is how I applied for jobs the first couple of times: I put together my vita, rushed to finish papers as soon as possible, tried to come up with the best research proposal I could think of, and sent copies of the whole application to universities and colleges, hoping some of them would show interest. That was unsuccessful.

Then Lynne Butler looked at my application materials and pointed out:
- that I ought to get the name of the university right. Sometimes I addressed my application to, say, "Williams University" instead of "Williams College". I answered that it was a detail, but she said that such details show indifference on my part;
- that my cover letter, identical for all places where I applied, would be a turnoff and that in many universities they would not even turn the page and look beyond it.
That year, in the early 1990s, the job market in TCS was very tight. In Math Lynne told me that it was even worse, with 900 applications received for one temporary 1-year instructor position!

My discussion with her at that time shifted my perspective entirely.

Here is how I apply for jobs now: I look at the web page of the place I am considering. I try to picture myself being there. What would I like about it? Could I imagine being there in the long term? How could my being there help develop my research or my teaching? How could that place make a difference for me, and how could I make a difference for that place? What would be its most attractive features for me? After I've spent some time making up a story of my hypothetical future there, after I have, perhaps, visited, or at least explored connections, once the picture is a bit more clear, I can easily write an interesting cover letter, inserting a couple of personal specific sentences.

26 comments:

  1. Thank you, I really appreciate you've answered my question!

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  2. does the cover letter really matter?

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  3. Despite serving on faculty recruiting committees for six of the last ten years, I have never looked at a single cover letter.

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  4. Maybe it varies from place to place. Maybe small liberal arts colleges read applications in a different way.

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  5. Claire, you have been applying to small liberal arts colleges?

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  6. what is wrong with staying at Brown?

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  7. While I'm sure I've looked at cover letters, it would have been because they were on top of the content I wanted to read. So I echo Jeff's sentiment.

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  8. I have applied to small liberal arts colleges in the past. I am not applying to small liberal arts colleges right now.

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  9. Thanks Claire! This is really helpful..but also sounds very time consumming especially considering that people usually apply to 50+ places.

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  10. Claire's point is very true. I've been in recruitment committees for two French universities (or, rather, grandes ├ęcoles). A significant number of applicants evidently send the same application to all universities they see open positions in, not bothering to adapt it to the local circumstances.

    I've for instance seen people with a background in data-mining applying for a junior position at a place where there was no data-mining team, even though the position advertisement clearly said that the candidate should join one of the existing tean.

    Do not be fooled by the large number of applications for a single position. Many of them can be discarded at first sight.

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  11. "I've for instance seen people with a background in data-mining applying for a junior position at a place where there was no data-mining team, even though the position advertisement clearly said that the candidate should join one of the existing tean."

    But then the person is not being rejected because they don't write the correct cover letter but because their area is not actually desired.

    While it is unlikely that one will get hired if their area is totally different from the one in the announcement, it does happen, and the probability might be worth the small extra effort.

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  12. @Anonymous: It was manifest that these people were sending exactly the same application to just about all places with open positions, without bothering to check the particulars of the place. That's the basic error that Claire was pointing to, whether it shows through failing to type the correct name for the university, or applying for nonexistent teams or teaching in nonexistent curricula.

    (French applications generally don't have "cover letters" if I remember correctly.)

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  13. Echoing DM, it is more than the cover letter, and because of that, it may not be a small effort.

    Different institutions want very different things--or better, they all want the same things (superb research, inspiring teaching, ability to cooperate/coexist with colleagues, generating grant money, etc.) but the value they give to each of these components may differ greatly from place to place. For example, a small liberal arts college would care very much about teaching ability, and willingness to spend time mentoring students. Some of the best would also demand excellence in research, but would accept a somewhat diminished productivity. Of course, a top research university would place research above everything, and many of them, although claim to pay attention to teaching ability, consider it a desirable but not essential quality in recruiting faculty (again, some of the best departments have faculty who are dedicated and inspiring.)

    Your application has to be tailored to the job you are applying to. This is a lot of work. Welcome to the real world, where employers expect you to excel in the areas that matter to them.

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  14. If I take all job ads that specifically mention theory and I am in fact a theory candidate, I could just send the same cover letter, if they are research universities.

    The only thing this post/comments has pointed out is that different types of schools (e.g. research universities vs. liberal arts colleges) want different things, which is clear in this example, b/c LAC have no grad students.

    Also, if someone is not targeting your area and you send your application, it does not matter what cover letter you send, because you won't get considered anyway.

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  15. Anonymous, even if your are a theory candidate and applying only to research universities, they are not all the same. You may look at one and see that it has a good statistics department and start day-dreaming about how nice it would be to work across departments and develop a joint project or co-teach a course together. You may look at another and notice that it has a particularly large number of masters' students, and wonder whether you would have research projects suited to such students. You may notice that one place has some nearby research labs and think about consulting and other opportunities for ties with them. You may see an Ivy League and its traditions and think of how the past is influencing the present. You may see a particularly well endowed university and consider the things that become possible with extra money, and see how they have leveraged that power. A university may have many postdocs, or none; it could be a vibrant place with lots of PhD students, but many of them drop out; or with only a few, but they are monitored closely and most of them succeed. The style of advising may vary. There are many small things that combine to give the department its own characteristics. In research, even if you restrict attention to theory, what the people there work on matters. Etc.

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  16. Claire,

    I think there are different things going on here.

    1) Is it a good idea to think before applying to schools to determine if they are a place where you really want to go, for various reasons? Absolutely. There are schools I never applied to because not only did I think they would not hire me, but also I knew even if they did I wouldn't want to go there. Best to save everybody time. (On the other hand, also best not to prejudge -- if you don't know enough about a place, apply, and learn more about it if/when you interview. Don't let your biases decide for you!)
    2) Does it matter if you express this level of thought in your application cover letter? No, I don't think so -- at least not if you're applying to only research universities. For liberal arts colleges, I can't say, but I imagine they're just looking to see if you're not a mismatch. (If you're all research focused in your letter to a small liberal arts school, they may decide you're a mismatch.)
    3) Does it matter on the interview? Here, I'd say yes. Candidates that come in ignorant about a university, the people in the department, or the related research being done there tend to come off poorly. We don't expect you to know everything about us, and we expect questions. On the other hand, if say a theorist applied to Harvard in Econ/CS and when they visited they didn't know who David Parkes is and what he's done, it would leave me with a very negative impression -- it would demonstrate a lack of breadth of knowledge in the larger area of Econ/CS, and it would show they hadn't bothered to do any research on us before visiting. (David, arguably, wouldn't care, but I would.)

    I think the discussion has focused on point 2, and now you're moving to point 1.

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  17. You're right.

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