A recent posting for a tenure-track junior faculty position in my department attracted more than 200 applications, a frightening number in and of itself. Perhaps more terrifying, however, was that fewer than 5% of these candidates made any effort whatsoever to communicate why they wanted to join our department’s faculty in particular. The cover letters—essentially all of which outlined a foundation of great science and a forward-looking vision for teaching and research—failed to articulate why the applicants were specifically interested in us, our department, or our university. As best as any on the search committee could guess, the identical applications might well have landed, unaltered, upon dozens of recruitment piles across the globe. What these applicants apparently failed to recognize is that we don’t just want to recruit a great scientist; we want to be certain that our new hire will thrive at our institution. Our search committee also concluded that the applicants failed to capitalize on an opportunity to foresee collaborations, forge synergies, or propose new directions that could relate to our program. So few candidates had done their homework.
In raising our frustration with this problem to faculty members from other departments at our university, as well as to chairs of science departments across the country, it became painfully clear that a concerted effort by an applicant to connect their expertise and interests to a specific faculty opportunity was rare. Perhaps such omissions are a result of generic, open-ended job advertisements. Or maybe the issue is that so few academic openings exist that a wider cohort is applying for any posting that appears, with the hope that the more applications submitted, the better chance for a positive response. Perhaps with so many applications to write, the candidates decide they can’t invest the time to tailor each to the opportunity at hand.
But whatever the reason, it’s important for applicants to know that you will markedly improve your chance of being invited for an interview if you help the search committee and departmental faculty members understand why an investment in you will prove to be an investment for us. You can’t think of a faculty job as existing solely in an isolated lab in a building on some campus. You are hoping to become part of a community, and we need your help in understanding what it would mean to recruit you to our program.
With relatively little extra effort on your part, a customized application package will help us recognize how your stellar work and breathtaking goals could work synergistically with existing initiatives. Help us understand why we should consider you beyond what appears on your CV. Help us understand what the fit is.
In formulating your application cover letter, invest the same care and rigor you would when submitting a grant proposal to a funding agency. Take the time to help the hiring committee understand why you’re applying. Why here? Why now? Why us? Articulate why Department X at University Y is the perfect fit for you and how joining the campus will not only fuel your own growth as an independent scientist, but also bolster or complement a given strength of the program—or extend it into an area not yet represented by the resident faculty members. Making it evident that you have reviewed the curriculum and that your background would help extend it in this or that direction is also welcome and warranted. And reach beyond the department: Propose some potential collaborations, both in research and teaching, with other programs that would serve to forge connections with other areas of the school. Yes, this requires work, but it is work well invested. It will make your application stand out, at the very least, and will also help us understand how you see yourself fitting in. It might just earn your application a second look, or land you some early advocates on the search committee as the culling inevitably begins.
Indeed, in our department, the last two searches prioritized those who made it clear why our department was right for them, and we were very fortunate to have recruited our top choices. The new hires are thriving, and everyone is happy.