So, as you probably know if you are actually still reading this very intermittent blog, I resigned my tenure-track job in history and am looking for jobs in university administration (discussed under the transition category), and while I meant to blog the job search process more than I have, I have lately been thinking about writing job letters, as this summer has really been my first intensive attempt to find another job.

I tweeted that tailoring for non-academic job applications takes more time than tailoring academic cover letters, and Jo Van Every (academic career coach) responded that maybe the academic ones should have taken more time to tailor. But here’s how I see it.

A history professor is a pretty defined job. They want research, teaching, and service. Cover letters follow a standard formula:

  • introduce self
  • dissertation paragraph
  • teaching paragraph
  • what I could do for your school paragraph

That’s the standard format. It may not be the best, but it is what committees expect. My first year on the market I applied to 15 schools (6 conference interviews, if I remember correctly, although that seems very high, maybe I actually sent out more than 15 applications; 1 campus visit), my second year 46 schools (7 conference interviews; 3 campus visits).

I was applying in three fields, so I described my dissertation slightly differently for each one. My teaching paragraph didn’t particularly change, because I only had a certain amount of teaching experience, and all schools pretend to be student-centered even if they really don’t care. I had about 8 different hypothetical courses that I could teach, each described in a different sentence. But once I had established those base elements, it took me about an hour to study the job description (usually about a half-page, pretty entirely focused on specific research/teaching fields), research the website of the history department and make sure I wasn’t offering things they already had, determine which standard pieces needed to be included, copy and paste, and print out the cover letter.

By contrast, tailoring for academic administration jobs requires a lot more tweaking and even writing from scratch. I’ve only sent about six or seven applications, but even jobs that all fall into the same broad category—say, advising—don’t really allow me to re-use base elements.

Academic administration job descriptions are about one and a half pages. They are not interested in three items—teaching, research, service—but in thirteen (or more. I just picked thirteen for the alliteration with three). It’s rarely the same thirteen—some advising jobs also want me to update the website, some want me to supervise other advisors, some even want me to have research experience. Descriptions are often oblique about how they prioritize those thirteen. And researching the positions is trickier—websites often don’t include staff profiles that would give me a sense of the existing personnel.

My skills-based resume lists six areas of expertise:

  • Advising
  • Undergraduate Research
  • Diversity
  • Admissions
  • International Focus
  • Interdisciplinary Focus

and six skill sets:

  • Project Management
  • Instruction & Public Speaking
  • Grant Writing & Evaluation
  • Research & Data Analysis
  • Publicity & Events
  • Current Technologies

It took me a while to get those twelve categories and the supporting bullet points right, but I think they are pretty solid now. But even so, for every application, I reorder my resume to put the things they’ve mentioned toward the top.

For every letter, I reconsider how I’m going to tell the story of the things I’ve done that correlate to what they want. Here’s an example. I worked on my department’s web redesign. Sometimes I discuss that as a story about team leadership and project management, sometimes it’s about ability to communicate with the public, sometimes it’s about being tech-savvy. And I might need to do equivalent transformations for any of those twelve categories above.

Depends on what the job description says. And it’s really different every time.

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