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!