Poll on tailoring faculty job applications to the hiring institution, for faculty job applicants and search committee members

This excellent recent Small Pond Science post and subsequent comment thread (in which I participated) got me wondering about tailoring faculty job applications to the hiring institution. One can imagine three levels of customization (really, they’re three points on a gradient):

  • No customization at all. You have one “generic” cv, research statement, teaching statement, cover letter, etc. that you use for every application. Note that in practice this might be equivalent to the next level of customization below, if you only apply to one type of institution.
  • Customization to the type of institution. This is the level of customization I used, and that I advised in an old post. For instance, back when I was applying for assistant professor positions, I was applying to two very different types of institutions: research universities, and selective liberal arts colleges. I had different research statements, teaching statements, and cover letters for each type of institution. But I didn’t do any further customization except as necessary to respond to specifics of the job ad (e.g., if the ad said that the successful candidate would teach course X, I’d explain that I was qualified to teach course X). I got a dozen interviews, so clearly this approach can work, or at least it used to. But it’s not the only approach…
  • Customization to the specific institution. This is what Terry recommends. In the comments on his post he writes:

For example, in the teaching statement for Oberlin, a short paragraph about what you can teach and might be able to teach for their particular curriculum. Something like, “I am well qualified to teach Biology 128, 129, 250, 330, and I already have taught a General Biology course similar to Biology 104. I would be interested in developing new classes in Insect Biology or Biogeography, or perhaps Climate Change Ecology, if these courses would meet departmental needs.” And a research statement can make specific reference to field sites in the area or a field station run by the campus…I know in our search committee, it made a huge difference when the teaching statement showed that our candidates had actually read the courses that we offer (and noticed the ones we don’t), and remarked on which ones they can teach, the ones they wanted to teach, and how their expertise fits into our strengths and weaknesses.

Which is definitely different than what I used to do. For instance, my teaching statement used to say something like “I am qualified to teach courses in general biology, general ecology, biostatistics, and population and community ecology.” I figured that took less time to write than the more customized statement Terry suggests, but conveyed the same information.

But did it convey the same information? Maybe not! Ok, perhaps it conveyed the same information about what subjects I could teach. But arguably, my phrasing failed to convey the seriousness of my interest in the position–or even conveyed lack of serious interest. An application customized to the specific institution could be seen as an “honest signal” that the applicant is seriously interested in the position. And perhaps also as a sign that the applicant would take the job if offered, would stay for the long term rather than leaving in a year or two, and would “fit in” and do the job well.

On the other hand, is there such a thing as too much customization? Maybe! For instance, I think it looks a little odd for your research statement to propose detailed collaborative research projects with faculty at the hiring institution. Collaboration is a two-way street, so proposing a detailed collaboration with a total stranger seems forced to me. But I dunno, maybe some search committee members like to see that, perhaps as further evidence of the seriousness of your interest in the position.

It seems like this is something many applicants want advice on, and that different applicants receive contrasting advice. Which matters, because many people (including me) also advise applicants to apply widely. Which can take a lot more time if you’re heavily customizing every application.

So let’s crowdsource people’s experiences on this. Below the fold are two short polls about customization of faculty job applications. The first one is for people who’ve applied for faculty positions in ecology or allied fields in the past (whether or not you’re currently doing so or currently have a faculty position). The second one is for people who’ve sat on search committees for faculty positions in ecology or allied fields. If you fall into both categories, you can complete both polls. Both polls are totally anonymous; we can’t even see the IP addresses of the respondents.

Looking forward to your poll responses, and to your comments!

12 thoughts on “Poll on tailoring faculty job applications to the hiring institution, for faculty job applicants and search committee members

  1. I suspect that doing almost any level of customization would never take less than an hour… I’d say I spend more like 5+ hours by the time I’ve looked up facilities and field stations, looked at the expertise of everyone in the department to see where I’d fit, looked at the types of grants they get, read their course catalog, looked at the expectations of the graduate program etc. It’s a time investment for sure, but without knowing those things, I’m not sure how else you’d know that the job is a good enough fit to bother applying in the first place. This strategy seems to have been effective in getting interviews, and it certainly helps me feel more prepared when I’m at them.

    • “I suspect that doing almost any level of customization would never take less than an hour… ”

      Well, we’ll see what the poll respondents say! I suspect it really depends a lot on the degree of customization.

      “without knowing those things, I’m not sure how else you’d know that the job is a good enough fit to bother applying in the first place. ”

      I think that’s a very personal thing. Back when I was applying for jobs, I didn’t do anything like the level of detailed background research you do at the application stage (I saved it for the interview stage, if I got an interview). But yet, only once in my dozen interviews did I end up interviewing for a job that I only realized at the interview stage wasn’t a good fit for me (and that one wasn’t a good fit for me because of the city & surrounding area, it wasn’t to do with anything about the hiring institution). But that may reflect the fact that I was mostly only applying to institutions similar to those at which I had previous experience as a student and/or postdoc. Had I been applying to positions at other sorts of institutions, perhaps I would’ve needed to do more background research to avoid wasting my time applying for jobs I’d never take.

  2. As a student/post-doc, I got to see many hirings including application materials in several cases. The applicants who included the tailored information (your third choice) were always seen by the students as better candidates (at least until their in person interview) than the others. I think this was especially valued at the smaller or less prestigious schools because it showed the candidate wasn’t just including us as an afterthought but had put some work in.

    • ” I think this was especially valued at the smaller or less prestigious schools because it showed the candidate wasn’t just including us as an afterthought but had put some work in.”

      That’s something I’m curious about–whether search committee members at smaller and less well-known institutions are more likely to prize applications tailored to the individual institution. I suspect you’re right about this.

  3. When applying for faculty jobs, I first tried to list specific courses to show I was paying attention to their curriculum/needs, but I found it quite hard to tell what was actually being taught from school webpages. I was also nervous about accidentally proposing to take over (or compete with) someone’s pet course, so moved toward a less tailored approach in that part.

    • Me too. I ultimately gave up on listing courses. Often I would assume a course was already taught only to later find out that the person was retiring and I (or whoever got the job) was being hired to replace that person’s teaching load. Conversely, I would often a assume a course was not taught and then find out it was but not obvious on the web pages because it was a graduate course, a new course, parked in a department different than I expected.

      I eventually went with an inclusive description of courses I would feel strong about teaching.

      If I made it to a skype or on-campus interview, I could quickly find out what the actual expectations were and begin addressing those.

      • My impression from the comments on Terry’s post is that search committee members who want to see applicants listing specific courses they could teach/develop aren’t really looking for applicants to divine the department’s current or future teaching needs. At least, that’s not always what they’re looking for. Rather, in at least some cases they’re looking for a demonstration of the applicant’s seriousness of interest.

      • Well I would certainly say if the teaching requirements are spelled out in the job ad, then they should be specifically addressed. But otherwise my advice would be to go with generic list of courses and demonstration of ability to think about curriculum (e.g. a past story where you identified a curriculum need even if as a student).

  4. As a senior faculty member at liberal arts college, I can tell you that any applications to our Biology Department that are generic will not even make the first cut. We want applicants to explain why they are really interested in the mission of the college, and that they speak to what’s important to us and to the advantages of our location. We want specific examples of how they have tried to broaden participation in STEM and how this is reflected in their teaching. And definitely we would like to know how they might collaborate with us and reach out to the broader local scientific community.

    • “any applications to our Biology Department that are generic will not even make the first cut. ”

      Without wanting to give away too much of the poll results, and acknowledging that it’s a small sample size so far, this seems to be something that search committee members really vary on. Some see insufficient customization to the individual institution as fatal, like you do. Others–including others who prefer applications to be customized to the individual institution–say it’s an important consideration but not necessarily decisive, or that it’s merely one factor among many.

      So far, it’s actually rare for search committee members to say that they prefer applicants to identify specific faculty members with whom they’d see themselves collaborating. But again, the sample size so far is very small.

  5. A few thoughts. As a search committee member, I’m not _looking_ for the customization of an application to signal an interest in the position. And I definitely can take an application seriously if it’s not customized for our particular institution, as long as what they have to say shows that they’d be a good fit. However, customizing the application can increase your chance of being on the short list because it gives the search committee more information to go on. It’s not so much about honest signaling interest in a job as it is communicating a good fit. More specifics have the potential to demonstrate a better fit.

    While a search committee may not expect applicants to customize, the attention to specifics can still influence what stack an application goes into. For example, if a person says that they are qualified to teach genetics, what if the department has a lower division course and also an upper division course in molecular genetics? Are they saying they’re qualified to teach both, or just the lower division one? Or let’s say a department has a class that isn’t standard among all institutions (such as Experimental Design, or History of Biology, or Mycology), saying that you’d be ready to teach such classes can give you the leg up on people who don’t mention it.

    (I also think customizing an application around the other research in the department is double-edged. Saying that there are complimentary research interests that could lead to potential new projects is definitely a good thing, but building a research statement with the assumption that you’ll collaborate with someone with whom you don’t have a pre-existing relationship? That’s downright awkward, in my opinion.)

    • Thanks as always for your thoughts Terry. I think the poll results will be interesting and helpful. But I I think at least as helpful (in a complementary way) are detailed comments like yours and others we’ve had on this thread and on your recent post. Experienced people spelling out their thinking in detail. My poll only has a limited ability to capture and summarize the sorts of nuances you discuss.

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