I can’t possibly say everything I need to in the two pages that you advocate as the proper length for a cover letter. I think search-committee members want a longer and more detailed explanation of my profile.
You are free to believe that if you wish; it’s your funeral. I can only repeat what I know to be true in most cases: Search-committee members are exhausted and distracted, and the happiest moment of their lives—at least when they’re dealing with initial review of 200 to 1,000 applications for a single open position—is when they can toss one of them onto the reject pile. What they want, truly want, is to reject you. Because it means they can go to bed. If you don't make your case—conclusively, factually and with evidence—by the end of page one of the job letter, you're going down.
Don’t believe me? Read this comment from a current search-committee member on a recent Professor Is In Facebook discussion about fonts:
"I wish job candidates would think of it this way. I'm the faculty member reading your file. 1. I'm 45. 2. I wear reading glasses. 3. I have 200 files to read. 4. It's 10 p.m., I've worked a 12-hour day, my kid has just thrown up, and if I don't do laundry tonight, I'm not going to have clean underwear tomorrow. 5. So if you don't make this in a font that I can read without straining, you're toast!"
Do not, reading this, fetishize your font. You can use any professional-looking font, as long as it is in a legible 11- or 12-point size. The point here is that all of the elements of appearance, organization, content, and tone of every job document must serve up the facts of your case easily, clearly, and with no strain to the reader.
Search-committee members come to love you later, far later, in the search process. At the point of initial review, they kind of hate you, in a generalized way, and would just as soon see you fail. This isn't personal. It comes from the downsizing of the academy and the increasingly stressful conditions of work under neoliberalism.
I realize you may have scant sympathy to spare for the travails of the tenured. But many of them are operating under significant strains. Never forget that their task is to get from a pile of 500 (let's say) to a pile of 25 (the long short list, let’s say), most likely late at night after a day of teaching, and class prep, and bullshit meetings, and getting the kid to daycare and home from daycare, and fed, and bathed, and played with, and dinner made, and the kitchen cleaned, and the kid in bed, and laundry folded, and the partner who was supposed to fold the laundry but didn’t snarked at, and grading finished. The operations of search committees may seem like a black box to candidates, but they are actually human processes conducted by real human beings with stressed-out lives.
Just like consumers need brands to be condensed to simple and easy-to-assimilate 30-second messages, search-committee members need your profile to be predigested into easily comprehensible messaging that proves your qualifications. They will probably deny this if you were to ask them point blank, because it might seem insulting to search committees. But it isn’t. They’re only human, and you forget that at your peril.
I’ve been asked to do a book review for a major journal in my field. It seems like an easy publication for my CV. Should I do it?
If you are an advanced ABD graduate student or a new Ph.D., you should approach book reviews with extreme caution. They do not count as “publications” for the purposes of the job search or tenure. They do demonstrate, to a small degree, your engagement with your discipline. Therefore, it is fine to have perhaps two to three book reviews on your record. Beyond that, they are a mistake.
I regularly encounter clients who have written 10 or 15 book reviews (sometimes even more) in what seems to be the mistaken belief that this strengthens their CV and proves productivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. What an excessive amount of book reviews shows is that the candidate does not understand the real nature of academic productivity, and the centrality of the peer-reviewed publication to academic credentialing.
Book reviews, let me repeat, do not count as publications for the purposes of the job market. They are a kind of “service,” and show that you have a certain position in the field to have been asked, which will be duly noted. But please be aware that book-review editors are often desperate to find any warm-blooded entity willing to write the review (having already been turned down by others more senior than you), and don’t necessarily have a very stringent set of standards governing who is asked.
Book reviews also undergo no review process. Therefore they do not distinguish you in terms of your research record, and will not aid you in gaining access to the short list for a job.
Karen Kelsky is a career consultant who runs the website The Professor Is In. She’s been a tenured professor at two public universities (Oregon and Illinois) and has advised many undergraduate and graduate students, as well as mentored junior faculty. She answers reader questions as a contributor to Vitae.