Positions in Academia: Letters that Get Results

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Chair, Geology Department
University of Wisconsin
Green Bay, WI 54311-7001

Dear Sir/madam:

I have 23 years experience in environmental remediation in industry and am seeking an academic position. I am writing to inquire about any openings at your institution. My resume is enclosed. If you have no openings at present, I would appreciate your keeping my resume on file in case a position becomes available. If possible, I would like to be considered for hiring at the associate or full professor level.


John Q. Applicant, Ph.D.

This letter gets results, all right. I wad it up and fire it forcefully into the wastebasket. Here's why:

Chair, Geology Department
We don't have a Geology Department here, we have an Earth Science Program. You have all that time in industry and you never learned the importance of getting titles correct? What else don't you know?
University of Wisconsin
Okay, we're not the University of Wisconsin. That's in Madison. We're the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. There are lots of campuses in the Wisconsin system, and we're not the only state organized that way. We may be a lot smaller, but this is exactly like addressing a letter to the University of California and sending it to UCLA. More lack of attention to detail.
Dear Sir/madam:
This is a killer in any field. Every job-hunting manual out there tells you to find out the name and proper title of the person you're writing to, and find out as much as you can about the organization. You haven't bothered to do the slightest research. Whether it's "and/or" or "Sir/madam," the slash construction is a red flag that you're too lazy to word things precisely.
I have 23 years experience in environmental remediation in industry and am seeking an academic position.
From your perspective this may be a step down. Not ours. Whether your industrial experience is relevant will depend on what it is. But at the very least you absolutely must be current in the academic side of the science, not just the applications pertinent to your industry. Industrial professionals are just as skilled as academic professionals, just like sprinters and weight lifters are equally skilled athletes. But they're different skills. You'll make it in academia only if you can demonstrate you have the skills we need.
    But what if you are planning to retire and seriously want an academic position, or are sincerely looking to make a career change? First, find out what it's actually like in academia before firing scattergun resumes. Find out the protocol. Get a teaching resume by teaching ad hoc courses for a while at local colleges. It can be done. But not by just sending resumes willy-nilly.
I am writing to inquire about any openings at your institution.
There are standard outlets for posting academic positions and you obviously don't know or care what they are. For someone coming out of a long industrial experience, not knowing the procedure is unfamiliarity and sloppiness (for not bothering to research it). For a graduate student or recent Ph.D., fresh out of an academic environment, not knowing demonstrates complete professional cluelessness. Does sending out resumes randomly work in your field?
    Hint: these days every university has a Web site, and most job offerings will be posted there. It's faster and cheaper than mailing. Plus, we really like it when applicants show they've researched us. And it's the place to go to get accurate information on names and titles.
My resume is enclosed.
A waste of money in any event. For a graduate student desperate for a job and strapped for money, it's especially futile. You might as well flush ten dollar bills down the toilet.
If you have no openings at present, I would appreciate your keeping my resume on file in case a position becomes available.
We can't do this because of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity laws. We can't just pull a resume out of a file and offer that person a position. We have to post it openly so everyone has a chance to apply. Not only do you not know how academic hiring works, but you have no idea how society works. And you're trying to sell us on your practical knowledge?
If possible, I would like to be considered for hiring at the associate or full professor level.
Wonderful. I have 30 years experience as a professor and I'd like to apply for a senior management position at your company. This is like Cat Stevens' Car Wash Blues: "tried to find me an executive position..." You have a shot at being hired at a senior level if your academic credentials are a perfect fit to the job description and they are so outstanding there is no doubt about your qualifications for tenure and you can bring in tons of money.
John Q. Applicant, Ph.D.
A dead giveaway that you're either insecure or arrogant. News flash: we're all Ph.D.'s here. We're not impressed when you put Ph.D. after your name.

Then there was the letter of reference addressed this way:

Prof. Actinium J. Cation
    Chair, Chemistry Search Committee
Prof. Rock W. Magma
    Chair, Earth Science Search Committee

Yes, this reference actually sent a letter addressed to two search committees simultaneously! He couldn't even be bothered to run off two versions and change the address. Guess how seriously the two committees took this letter. Or the candidate who asked such a clueless person to write a letter of reference.

It would knock your socks off if I told you the name of the university on the letterhead of this letter. Suffice it to say it would be a valuable lesson to anyone who thinks there's a real difference in quality between "top tier" and smaller campuses.

Here's the want ad:

Teach courses in the undergraduate Earth Science program in introductory geology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, and environmental geology. Also teach in the undergraduate Environmental Sciences program and the graduate program in Environmental Science and Policy, depending on expertise. Ability to teach environmental science, Quaternary geology, paleontology or hydrology is desirable.

And it will draw any number of letters like this:

I have 15 years' experience as a hydrologist, including experience in environmental monitoring and regulatory compliance ....

I call this "credential stretching." In the dozen or so search committees I've been on, roughly half of all applicants are credential stretchers. This guy, on closer examination of his credentials, has no meaningful experience in any of the core subjects listed in the ad. He has experience in one of the subsidiary subjects listed as "desirable." The fact that he's got experience dealing with some of the environmental issues faced by hydrologists doesn't necessarily qualify him to teach environmental science, although he tries to make it look that way.

People probably apply for positions this way in the hope that the applicant pool might be small enough for them to get lucky. It might work if they have enough overlap with the target qualifications and the applicant pool is weak. But there comes a time when you just have to admit a search has failed. Even if this guy were the only applicant, he wouldn't be a good hire because he needs so much retraining. Close the search and start over.

We'll also get a few letters like this one:

I am currently finishing a post-doctoral fellowship in advanced isotope geochemistry. I am particularly interested in teaching upper-division and graduate level courses in stable isotope geochemistry....

Gee, with a broad list of courses like those listed in the want ad, do you think you're dealing with a campus that offers "upper-division and graduate level courses in stable isotope geochemistry?" Did you bother to go to our Web site and view the course catalog to find out?

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with this applicant. He'd be a great fit at UCLA, or MIT, or Ohio State. Problem is, there are a lot more people who want to work at those places than there are openings, just like there are a lot more people who want to get on American Idol than will. So the rest of them apply at smaller places, which they will grace with their presence until such time as they get the job at Harvard they so richly deserve.

Your odds of becoming a full professor at a leading research institution are better than becoming a professional athlete or making it in Hollywood, but they're still against you. There are too many people competing for too few jobs. So most newly-minted Ph.D.'s will eventually have to deal with the reality that they will not make it to the academic bright lights. Most will end up at smaller campuses with less resources for research and greater teaching loads.

Once in a while an applicant seriously wants to get out of the high-pressure academic rat race and move to a smaller campus where expectations are more realistic and humane. Or they just discover they enjoy teaching more than research. Or they realistically face the fact that they just cannot compete for research funds. When that happens, everybody wins. The big research institution gets to hire someone who wants that lifestyle. The applicant finds a position more compatible with his or her desired lifestyle. The smaller campus gets a star performer who can give his or her students cutting-edge expertise. But these applicants won't write letters expressing the desire to do things wholly out of line with the institution they're applying to.

All too often it's blatantly obvious the candidate is settling for something he considers beneath his dignity. A smart search committee will weed that applicant out, but occasionally they slip through. They either don't listen or go into denial when they're told about teaching three or four courses a semester. Sometimes they make it through the screening process and get brought in for an interview, and all parties concerned discover they've made a horrible mistake. Maybe the applicant gets hired, maybe even thinks he or she might make a go of it. Generally the results are not pretty. Typically the applicant discovers a year or two later that this is not what he or she wants. In fortunate cases, the applicant and the institution part on friendly terms, but that often is not the case. It takes a mature person to do that, and mature people are honest with themselves about their qualifications and limitations, and they're not going to apply for jobs they're not serious about. So as often as not, the parting is acrimonious; the institution is unhappy with the applicant and the applicant feels ill-used by the institution. Even at best, the institution is stuck with the labor and expense of running another search.

And thanks to the Internet, I just got this gem:

Dear Recruiter,

I am seeking a part-time position in the DC metropolitan area. I have attached my resume for your examination. Please feel free to contact me and/or forward this e-mail as you reasonably see fit.

Best Regards,

If this guy thinks Green Bay, Wisconsin is in "the DC metropolitan area," what else doesn't he know? Bonus: he's a software engineer sending his resume to an earth science department. And note how I'm supposed to forward his resume to the right people.

And I e-mailed back:

Let me be brutally blunt here. You think Green Bay, Wisconsin is in "the DC metropolitan area," then you mailed an IT resume to an earth science department, then you expect ME to forward it to whomever might be interested. This is a veritable encyclopedia of all the practices that the job hunting advice books tell people to avoid. Who knows how many potentially receptive employers have written you off because of your scattergun mailing and demonstrated lack of understanding of the job market? You can hear it from someone like me who is in no position to harm your job prospects, or you can hear it (more likely not hear it) from a potential employer who is put off.

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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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