How much should you customize your faculty job application for each position? (UPDATED)

Not all that much. You do need to do a bit of customization for each broad class of institutions to which you’re applying, but you don’t need to heavily customize your application for each individual institution. For details, read on.

UPDATE: See also this follow-up post, which includes poll data both on how applicants customize their faculty job applications, and how search committee members prefer those applications to be customized. In light of those data, I’d now slightly revise the advice below to recommend a bit more customization, especially for applications to places other than big research universities. So long as you don’t sacrifice number of applications; applying to fewer places in order to free up time to more heavily customize your applications is not a good trade-off.

Here’s how much customization I did, back when I was applying for faculty jobs regularly. I’ve been around a while and I’ve sat on search committees and spoken to colleagues, so I’m confident that what I did was, and remains, common in ecology. But please do chime in with your own comments.

I was applying to two types of institutions: research universities (mostly R1s and R2s), and selective liberal arts colleges. I used the same cv for both, but I had slightly different versions of the research and teaching statements and cover letter for each type of institution. I did little customization for individual institutions.

  • My teaching statement for liberal arts colleges didn’t talk about my approach to mentoring grad students, obviously. But it described my undergraduate teaching philosophy and experience in the same way. And I had one short paragraph that I customized for each institution, saying that I’d look forward to teaching courses in areas X, Y, and Z. That paragraph was mostly just based on what was in the job ad–if it said they wanted someone who could teach X, and I could teach X, I’d say that. Sometimes, for liberal arts colleges, I’d glance at their course offerings and if there were any obvious gaps I thought I could fill, I’d say so. For instance, if they didn’t have any stats or modeling courses, I’d suggest that I could develop one (carefully phrasing it so I didn’t imply any criticism of their existing course offerings).
  • My research statement was the same for both types of institutions, save that for liberal arts colleges I added an extra paragraph about how my main study system (protist microcosms) was well-suited to undergrad research and explaining how I’d run an undergrad-based research program. Sometimes, if I really did foresee collaborating with someone at the hiring institution, I’d add a sentence saying as much, but without any detail. I certainly didn’t spell out customized, institution-specific research plans for each institution to which I applied.
  • I applied for a few microbial ecology positions. For those, I customized my research university research statement a bit further, tweaking my future research plans to include some that sounded like actual microbial ecology (honestly, I doubt I was very convincing. I am not a microbial ecologist at heart and I’m sure it showed to search committees.)
  • The cover letter for liberal arts colleges had a paragraph highlighting my liberal arts background and how I’d look forward to giving back to liberal arts students as a teacher. That was to convey that I knew what was involved in a liberal arts faculty job, and didn’t just see a liberal arts job as a starter job.
  • Had I also been applying for teaching positions with no research expectation, I’d have come up with a second version of my cv with the sections reordered to put teaching-related sections before research-related ones. And I’d have included a paragraph in my cover letter explaining why I wanted a teaching position even though my cv showed I was research-focused. (Of course, had I been truly serious about getting a teaching position, I’d have had a different cv, because I’d have gone out of my way to acquire more pedagogical training and teaching experience, at the expense of my research if necessary.)
  • This level of customization did not take very much time, above and beyond the time required to prepare one application packet.

22 thoughts on “How much should you customize your faculty job application for each position? (UPDATED)

  1. I’m applying for faculty jobs right now and I found this very helpful. I was worried I wasn’t spending enough customizing my application packet for each job and this helped ease some of my fears.

  2. The unspoken subtext here is yesterday’s post. I wonder a little if one reason why some people seem so keen to save time by not applying for positions for which they think (incorrectly) that there’s a strong internal candidate is because they’re spending lots of extra time customizing their applications.

  3. As one on a liberal arts search committee now, I wish more applicants would do what you did. A surprising number of applications still seem to add teaching or discussion of teaching as an almost after thought. One thing that really makes an application stand out to me, but surprisingly few include, is a clear, explicit explanation for how their research is appropriate for a liberal arts environment (suitable for undergrad participation, can be done with less space, with heavier teaching loads, etc.) I wouldn’t expect the applicant to change the research statement, at least not the science in it, but I do wish more would include, in it or somewhere else, the point I made above. Another thing that is very rare, but makes a big impression with me, is if both the applicant and the applicants letter writer, explain that the applicant really does want a liberal arts college job. Often an application includes very little indication of this. Fairly quickly gets jettisoned to the “No” folder.

    • Thanks Andrew.

      The same advice of “explain why you want this job, given that your cv suggests you really want a different sort of job” also applies to teaching faculty positions at research unis. Here at Calgary, as at many research unis, we have some tenure-track faculty positions that have only teaching duties, no research duties (Calgary calls them “instructors”). If your cv looks like that of someone who really would rather have a research position, you’re not going to get an instructor job unless your other materials make the case that (i) you really do want a teaching position, (ii) understand what it involves (e.g., you recognize that you will not have time or resources to do even a bit of research on the side, except for pedagogical research), and (iii) would be good at it.

  4. I can only speak from experience. Prior to not doing “much customization” to my CV/resume relating to faculty positions- I must admit I had a tough time landing gigs. When I switched to creating an entirely new CV/resume for every gig I applied for, I had no issues finding a faculty position.

    Why, you ask? Well, I think the reasons are many. First off, if I am actually going to go through the torture of composing an entirely new CV/resume for each position I apply for, then I am going to be very picky about the gigs I go after. So (and this is a very realistic estimate) prior to making an entirely new CV/resume for each gig, I probably submitted around 300 applications before landing a gig. After, I never applied for more than three faculty positions before getting a gig.

    Think about it this way: If you are applying for a job that might be the last job you have before you retire (i.e., 20 or 30 year tenure)- then c’mon- put some thought into it already! Be selective and be sincere- and for God’s sake, then spend a little effort in trying to get the damned job. Review committees know when a person has taken the time to prepare, and when they haven’t.

    Make an impression.

    • I do think there’s a case to be made for putting some extra effort into tailoring your application for positions you really, really want.

      Having said that, I question whether the suggestion to only apply narrowly, and only with highly-tailored applications, is good advice for most people. It’s quite common for people to be offered positions they thought they were long shots for and didn’t necessarily consider their “ideal” positions–and then discover that they really like those positions. See here, for instance:

      • Oh- I agree that long-shots can happen. It happened to me once, and I hated the job… It could also be that as I advanced in my career, I became more picky because I had a track record. And with the track record, I didn’t need to cast a wide net.

      • Part of the point about “long shots” is that applicants typically aren’t able to judge which positions are “long shots” for them. In large part because applicants can’t tell who else will apply for any given position.

  5. I’ve sat on job committees as a graduate student and now a faculty member and one thing that applicants sometimes include as customization is “I want to be in X part of the country for personal reasons.” I’ve never seen it help and only seen it cause an application to be taken less seriously. This was for PhD-granting schools though and it may be different at other institutions.

    • In my admittedly-anecdotal experience, the applicant’s personal ties to the area may come up at the campus interview stage, at which point they might be seen by some members of the hiring institution as a point in the applicant’s favor. Because colleges and unis like to hire people whom they think are likely to stay long term, and avoid hiring people whom they worry will leave in a year. And because anyone who gets to the campus interview stage might well be hired, so little things like ties to the area start to come into play. A candidate’s ties to the area aren’t going to matter before the campus interview stage, I don’t think. And even at the campus interview stage, your ties to the area are only going to be one consideration among many, and probably not the most important one.

      It also depends on the nature of the ties. Having close family in the same city as the hiring institution is a tie to the city that might matter a bit at the campus interview stage. Having an uncle in the city, or close family in a different city in the same region of the country, or whatever, isn’t going to be seen as a serious “tie” in anyone’s mind, I don’t think.

      • I agree with Janna in that “ties” to a region, or just a strong preference to live there (nice climate, etc)- should be left out of a CV/resume. But I also agree with Jeremy that it is often a bonus for an applicant to voice these things in more casual settings. Very often faculty applicants are taken to dinners, luncheons, local attractions etc during a multi-day interview. I have found it useful to chat about non-professional items at these times- but I ALWAYS exclude them from formal interview proceedings.

        On the flip-side, I once found myself in the unenviable position of being offered a position BEFORE the interview was over. It was a five day event, and on the fourth day the dean took me aside and said “we’ve made up our minds- we want you. The job is yours for the taking.”

        Problem was, I did not want the job. Without naming the city out of respect, I found the place detestable. Horrible climate, rampant crime/ unemployment/ homelessness, few recreational options, etc. That night, there was a dinner with the full interview committee. Someone asked what I thought of their “lovely” city. I said, “It’s depressing as hell. I don’t know how any of you can tolerate it. I believe I’d slit my wrists were I condemned to live out my days here…”

        As you can imagine, their collective jaw hit the floor. The next morning I was informed the fifth day of the interview was cancelled, that my flight time had been changed and I needed to pack my bags, as the car and driver were waiting to take me to the airport…

        So yeah, I have found the sharing of non-professional information to be helpful in a variety of ways.

    • I have been on many search committees at PhD-granting institutions (high productivity) that are in specific types of geographic/population density areas. At these ~3-4 institutions, statement (usually oral and not written in the statement) about quality of life issues associated with the location/environment of the institution were a huge plus in the column for the candidate. The reason was that the location was a place that would either make a person ecstatic or miserable. Search committees generally look favorably on candidates that 1) really want THAT job, 2) will want to stay and 3) (probably most important) will be happy, productive, motivated colleagues that want invest in the department, institution and community long-term.

  6. Australia has this interesting document called “response to selection criteria” which is a series of questions you are expected to answer, each with 1-3 paragraphs or so. While there is a good amount of copy-paste you can do, this does make applying to a lot of places more challenging, as this document replaces the teaching and research statement. For US positions I had a quite different math department and ecology department version of my application.

  7. Great post! I just want to add that as an applicant, it is also important to customize the position for you. Having an itemized checklist of what you want for the job can save a lot of time and energy when it comes to job searching.

    • Glad you liked the post, thanks.

      Re: a checklist for what you want out of the job, I’d only add that you need to be very sure that what you consider a dealbreaker actually is a dealbreaker for you, meaning that you’d rather not have a TT job if that’s the cost of keeping to your dealbreakers. Statistically, the only good predictor of the number of interviews you get is the number of positions for which you apply: If your search is very geographically restricted, and/or you restrict your search to only certain kinds of institutions, there may well not be many positions for you to apply to. If you’re ok with that, great. But if you’re not, you should reconsider your priorities.

      Anecdotally, sometimes what people think is a dealbreaker for them turns out not to be. For instance, I know more than one colleague who really thought he wanted a research uni job, who now has a pure teaching job and is happy. And I didn’t know that my wife and I could be happy living in a big city, in another country, far from family, until we did all three for my postdoc and loved it. That experience taught me some things about myself I didn’t know.

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