Ah, the art of the Letter of Application.
Most of us could probably recount without too much trouble our research and teaching experience, and even lay down with some coherence a five-to-ten year plan for all the clever and elegant studies we intend to undertake. And our CV, well, really it speaks for itself. But we don't live in a simple meritocracy, do we? The facts alone are not enough--we need to Sell Ourselves, and for some reason this is really, really hard.
You already know how things went last year when I applied for a job at a Fancy Midwestern College, but what I didn't tell you is that the year before that, I applied for a job at a Fancy New England College. FNEC asked for a letter outlining my research experience and interests, and my letter looked like this:
Letter of Application for Dr Becca, Phd
Research Experience: My graduate thesis focused on blahblahblah. My current post-doctoral work examines blahblahblah (3 paragraphs)
Research Interests: I aim to manage my own laboratory where I will continue to address the issues of blahblahblah (2 paragraphs)
Of course, I heard nothing from FNEC, so when I was preparing the following year to apply to FMC I first sent the letter to my thesis advisor for a quick critique. She said, "I like the letter very much EXCEPT [her caps lock] you should say right in the beginning that you are an excellent and experienced teacher able to teach a range of courses in neuro and phys psych, and that your research would fit well at FMC, both in topic and in technique." Wait, I'm supposed to just come right out and say that I'm an excellent teacher and scientist? Shouldn't they just be able to tell how great I am from my CV and stuff? Won't they think I'm...well, an arrogant asshole??
But why are we so afraid of looking like assholes, when it should be obvious that anyone applying for any job anywhere would do best to show their prospective employer just how awesome they are? It makes me wonder if the nature of our profession fosters an unhealthy modesty in us. After all, most of our days are peppered with humbling experiences, be they terrible priority scores on grant applications or repeated rejections from journals (I have heard this happens to scientists sometimes). We're basically always being told how much we suck, not to mention that we're all probably harboring deep-seated insecurities from our childhoods when we had no friends and our moms forced us to go to the school dance. Just, you know, hypothetically speaking.
My thesis advisor is very wise. I took her advice and jumped right into that letter to FMC with a big old "I rock" (paraphrasing), and it totally worked because I got a phone interview, which I promptly bombed. But baby steps, you know?
As an aside, I'd like a bit of advice from those of you who are TT faculty: How much detail do I need to go into in my letter with respect to my research plans? Do they want to hear actual experiments, or just general issues I'm interested in, and techniques I plan on employing?
The Plight of the Post-Doc