Writing the Ph.D. Cover Letter

It always comes down to old-fashioned letter-writing.

Ph.D. students in political science, international relations, and other social sciences dread writing cover letters for their job applications. As part of a panel in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst political science department, I put together some notes about what to do in assembling these. This is aimed at Ph.D. students (ABDs) and very recent graduates.

Here’s the key takeaways:

  • The goal of the cover letter is to move you from “reject” to “consider”
  • A great cover letter can’t save a weak application, but a weak cover letter could sabotage a strong application
  • You must demonstrate your fit for the position (a function of, first, the job ad and, second, the institution type)

The goal of the cover letter

In the entirety of your application, the cover letter is your only chance to tell an overarching narrative about yourself and why you fit the job.

  • Other parts of the application will let you discuss e.g. teaching and research trajectories, but those do not add up to a complete package about yourself for this job.
  • The narrative needs to be exciting, compelling, and demonstrate how you fit the needs of the institution and the position
  • When the search committee does their initial reviews, members will spend less than five minutes per packet. Your cover letter and CV (sometimes only the CV!) will get attention in this round. The search committee’s task is to cut an overwhelming number of applicants into a manageable number. They are looking for reasons to ding you, not to save you—there are more than enough fish in the pond. Demonstrate in the cover letter that you merit further consideration in later rounds of deliberation.

The structure of the cover letter

The structure is a very simple formula:

  • Begin with a quick introduction of yourself and list the job to which you are applying. State your qualifications in summary.
  • Describe your major research project (which will normally be your presentation). Now is not the time to be humble, but don’t bore anyone. Just stick to the highlights and remember that at least one member of the search committee won’t be in your field (much less your specialty). Make sure to mention publications or publication plans.
  • Describe your next or secondary research project.
  • Talk about your relevant teaching experience. Describe two or three courses you have taught or could teach, including one introductory course, one seminar, and (if relevant) one graduate seminar.
  • Customize your letter to the needs of the department and college. Show you know where you’re applying and why. Make sure to list the college name correctly.

Keep this all to two pages, but go no smaller than 11-point text.

The limits of the cover letter

The cover letter isn’t magic. It can’t make up for flaws or gaps in the rest of your application.

  • If you don’t have publications (or credible evidence of forthcoming publications) at a research-oriented job, you will not be in contention regardless of how good your cover letter is
  • If you don’t have teaching experience (not including TA work), the bulk of institutions will disregard you (if you’re competitive for a job at Harvard, you can disregard this; but if you’re competitive for a job at Harvard, you aren’t reading this anyway)
  • The goal of the cover letter is, minimally, to make sure that the hiring committee knows that you have research potential, teaching experience, and the ability to Google their institution and department. Maximally (and this should be your goal), it’s to make them excited about your bold new research (or teaching) contributions

Mass-customizing your research letter

  • The cover letter should reflect institutional type. For teaching-focused positions, go heavier on teaching experience and competence; for research-oriented positions (including top SLACs), stress research potential and evidence of research success. Some people think that you should adjust the order of the teaching and research sections of the letter to reflect institutional priorities; others disagree. Whichever you choose, you should spend
  • The cover letter should address the specific requirements of the job ad. If they are an R1 but need someone to cover Introduction to Basket-Weaving, make sure you mention the Intro to Basket Weaving. If they are a liberal-arts college and need a college debate coach, talk about your debate coaching skills. Remember: they’re looking for reasons to cut you, not to love you, so you need to show you meet their qualifications.
  • Customize your cover letter just enough so that it’s not cookie-cutter, but don’t spend too much time on this. People talk about spending hours and days customizing these things; just spend enough time to know what the department is doing and suggest some possible connections you could make within the department and to relevant centers and similar non-departmental organizations on campus.
  • PROOFREAD YOUR COVER LETTER. HAVE A FRIEND PROOFREAD IT. PAY SOMEONE TO PROOFREAD IT. THEN PROOFREAD IT AGAIN.

Student Reading Presentations

From time to time, college instructors assign students to lead a discussion about readings in class. What do instructors want from this?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. After a decade of assigning and grading these assignments, I have some clear expectations. This guide should be useful for students in political science, sociology, anthropology, history, literature (especially literature criticism), and any discipline in college in which professors ask students to take part in leading course discussions.

Your presentation is about the reading

One reason instructors assign presentations is to make sure that at least someone in the class has actually done the reading. It’s a terrible feeling (and a waste of a lot of money!) to try to run a class where only a couple of students know what’s going on. So the first principle is to make sure that you clearly summarize and explain the reading. That means, in particular, that you

  • identify the thesis or argument of the piece (in your own words, ideally)
  • describe the contours of the author’s argument
  • explain the supporting evidence the author provides
People meeting and talking
A representative, multiracial, gender-balanced group of people wearing earth tones and engaging in PMC banter

Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading

Yet the assignment is rarely that students should just offer a summary of the reading. Instead, you should seek to connect and to critique the reading.

The first way to succeed here is to connect the reading to the theme of the class and to what the class has done so far. How can you make clear the connections between this reading and the course? You could try to explain how the reading advances particular themes or arguments, and whether it offers illustrations of particular concepts or particularly compelling pieces of evidence. The piece could also be trying to rebut or refute the larger arguments of the class, and in that case you should make that clear. If you’re very lucky, then the piece directly takes on another reading, and in that case you should make that very clear.

The next way you can succeed is by offering a critique of whether the author has actually succeeded in their goal. Did they make a persuasive argument? Does their evidence actually support their theme? Could they have anticipated objections to their argument? Are there obvious rebuttals or flaws that they should have done more to guard against? Make these points clear — and then go on to consider whether there are subtle issues or arguments that could have been addressed.

I want to be clear that you’re not just looking for a knockout blow here. You’re also looking for the hundred-dollar-bills on the sidewalk–the points the author could have made but didn’t that would have strengthened their argument.

The next level is to address whether what the author couldn’t have known (such as subsequent events or more recent discoveries) have strengthened or undermined the author’s argument. A brilliant piece about how countries will never go to war because the costs of war are too high may be persuasive and airtight–but if an author wrote it in 1913, a year before the First World War, well, there may have been some holes in it.

The advanced move here is to show how a seemingly obvious refutation or contradiction wasn’t, by the way–for example, the costs of the First World War were inordinately high, and it was in some ways the belief of national leaders that the costs would be low (or lower the earlier war came) that shaped their behavior, which is a more complex point than just saying “hurr-durr world war”.

Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading, and really it’s about what it means for the class

The final big step you should try to accomplish is to bring both the author’s argument and your critique back to the goals of the class. This is the masterful move your professor most wants to see: what’s the bottom line for the class? What do you think that the piece brings to the discussion, either as a positive or negative example or both? Being able to display your ability to talk about the strengths and limitations of a reading, and to relate both sides of that balance sheet to the goals of the course, is the real mark of someone who has “done the reading”–and it’s a lot more than just offering a rote summary.

The real goal here, after all, is to spark a good class discussion that everyone can benefit from. You want an opportunity to open up discussion rather than closing it off, and offering your thoughts (especially your strong thoughts!) can be a great way to do that. Identifying clear areas in which there’s still room for debate can also help the course.

Organizing a 5-minute presentation

So how should you organize a five-minute presentation?

Ideally, 30 seconds or show should lay out your summary: X piece says this, it’s supported by that, and it relates to our discussions about the other thing. It has these strengths and flaws, and it means this big takeaway for us. Then spend about one or two minutes each on the summary and the connections/critique to build out your points. Finally, spend the remainder of the time (at least 30 seconds, but more ideally 60) making your original argument that you already previewed.

The Sixth Risk is Boredom

Every chapter of Michael Lewis’s The Sixth Risk, as it sounds to somebody who had heard of the federal government before November 2016.

John “Curley” Stooge was an unprepossessing man–White, middle-aged, and graying at the edges. As I nibbled on a pastry in the kitchen of his modest 3,000-square foot McMansion, I listened to him tell his totally relatable story. “As a freshman at MIT, I’d wanted to do something normal, like become a nuclear engineer,” Stooge said. “Then, out of the blue, I was picked to become an astronaut. It was a change from what I’d wanted to do, but I thought it could still be a challenge.”

It would be a challenge. An “astronaut” is a federal employee who travels to space on behalf of an obscure agency called the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” If you’ve never heard of it, it might surprise you to learn that NASA has run many complex projects, including Skylab and even once putting men on the Moon. They even returned them safely to Earth! Of course, NASA has had some problems, like when they commissioned the most dangerous passenger vehicle ever launched, but that was because of Republican dreams of privatizing space. Besides that, however, the space agency’s record of manned space flight has been meaningful and successful in vague ways that cannot be quantified.

“After being an astronaut, I decided to give back to the country,” Stooge said. He spent a few years in the private sector making an absolute metric ton of money–literally: he ran a gold mine in South Africa and was paid in bullion–before being named Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense in Charge of Space Warfare. “It came as a total surprise,” Stooge reflected. “I’d only given the Obama campaign several hundred thousand dollars and written three New York Times columns praising his plan to give SpaceX control of Mons Olympus, so when the call came I was politely shocked.”

In his new post, Stooge learned a real appreciation for the ways of government. “I didn’t know much about the civilian side of the defense side of the government,” Stooge said. “But the people there were really smarter than I’d expected. It turns out that even non-astronauts with fewer than two Ph.D.s can breathe through their nostrils, mostly.”

Stooge oversaw large and obscure projects of the federal governments, like the launching of “artificial satellites” that contributed to a “global positioning system”. Not many people have heard of GPS, but it’s used to tell Google Maps how to get to your nearest Williams-Sonoma or Crate and Barrel. It’s just one of the ways that Pentagon spending affects our daily lives–yet another reason why literally any deviation from the status quo must be resisted.

“I really enjoyed the work,” Stooge said. But everything changed on Election Day 2016. “We’d never thought that anyone but a perfectly liberal technocrat could win an election in a democracy,” Stooge said. He and his staff continued work on the Tantalus Kill-a-Tron 3000, a project that would give the American president the power to kill anyone anywhere instantly by the press of a button or a typo. “This was important work,” Stooge explained. “We’d wondered at drinks after late nights perfecting the Kill-a-Tron if it could ever be misused, but who ever thought that power might lead to corruption?”

The incoming Trump administration took weeks to learn basic facts about the Defense Department, like the fact that the “Pentagon” is a five-sided building that houses its leadership or that there were different parts of the military. “The ‘landing team’ was just six guys, all named ‘Chip’ and all from Jared’s real-estate firm,” Stooge recalled. “They showed up to be briefed, but ten minutes in they were asking questions like ‘wait, we don’t have a Space Force?’ and ‘so are we winning this war in Afghanistan or not?'”

Now an unemployed former official who works part-time as a vice president of Lockheed Martin, Stooge has adjusted to losing his government salary. But he worries about the Trump administration. What’s the biggest risk of the Trump administration, I ask him. He looks at me as if I’m slow. “The fact that the president can launch a nuclear war at any time for any reason,” he replies, slowly.

He can? I ask.

“Yes.”

I didn’t know that.

“You also didn’t know what GPS was,” he replies.

Okay, point taken. Before November 2016, I’d never really thought about the federal government, but over the course of reporting this book I’d come to learn that all those people in government buildings did things, all the time, mostly, and that at least a half-dozen of them were important. It stood to reason that the president and Department of Defense also mattered.

For some reason, I had earlier decided that I would just ask questions of former officials in this manner, often going on for pages and pages, just recapitulating things that should have been obvious to anyone who’d heard of “food stamps” or “the National Weather Service.”So what’s the second-most worrisome thing about the Trump administration? I asked.

“Definitely the Kill-a-Tron 3000.”

Yeah, that sounded pretty worrisome to me, too. If only someone had been paying attention before giving the government to a failed New York real-estate buffoon, we might have had a discussion about the wisdom of building such a project. But it was too late for recriminations. I had to leave for drinks with someone who had once worked at a little-known government body called the “Federal Reserve.”

Thoughts on Teaching at the End of the World

Stock image of podcast technology

This past semester, I worked with 23 Honors students at UMASS Amherst on a course modestly entitled “The Politics of the End of the World.” In that course, students explored different ways in which the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities had approached ends of the world caused or threatened by disease, nuclear warfare, environmental change, and cultural processes. The students concluded the term by working in groups to prepare podcasts on how various societies in Massachusetts had approached the same ends.

This class was an evolution of an earlier version of the course, which was a one-credit-hour special topics class offered two years ago. Reworking that readings and seminar course into the new, four-credit-hour version formed my project during a year as a Lilly teaching fellow. That UMASS program gave me a year’s worth of seminars, and a course buyout, during which I could refine my understanding of the end of the world and of how to teach at a college level. I want to reflect on why I structured the course as I did and how I would reform that structure in the future.

My vision for the course was a simple one: having students learn by creating. Given that the study of the end of the world as a theoretical concept remains in its infancy, I could not teach the students by having them become acolytes to some dead scribbler or even by introducing them to the work of a community of scholars. Rather, I knew that we would have to knit together disparate communities whose work touched on a common theme, but who did not yet know themselves to be participating in a common endeavor. Moreover, even had such a project existed, I would have still wanted to have the students engage with the subject by creating their own knowledge, rather than copying and repeating someone else’s theories or descriptions.

The choice of a podcast as a final project followed naturally from that vision. Requiring students to create a podcast combined all the advantages of an open canvas with the additional benefit that numerous examples exist showing how to structure such a work. Like a traditional research paper, it would allow students to pose and explore a new argument; unlike those dreary assignments, a podcast—simply by being novel—would spur students to work with more creative (but no less rigorous ways) of performing analyses.

The technical challenge of producing podcasts rather than entering text into a word processor also put the project in a sweet spot. Because podcasts can incorporate interviews, sound effects, music, and other editing, they reflect the mediated information environment in which people, including students, actually exist better than do purely textual assignments. Furthermore, the very complexity of creating such a document provided a structure that would encourage (and all but require) students to master project planning, a division of labor, and creative ways to deliver their message. Yet podcasts remain far less complex than visual media, like an online video or a television program. Every technical challenge inherent in a podcast remains in a visual project but compounded by more complex challenges of shot framing, lighting, and acting. Such challenges can overshadow the goal of creating an argument, rather than a spectacle. A podcast, then, would produce the right mix of complication and simplicity that would help students break out of the 8.5” x 11” box within which so much undergraduate education is crafted to fit.

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Representation and Symbolism in International Relations (or Vlad the Film Critic)

We shouldn’t become so inured to the routines of great-power press conferences that we dismiss what seem like trivial or pointless throwaways. For instance, during a press availability at last weekend’s G-20 summit in Argentina, Russian President Vladimir Putin made time to talk about subjects ranging from the Ukrainian naval incident to Russian luxury cars and the recent Hollywood film Hunter Killer.

Here’s Putin talking about the Aurus Senat, his personally modified state car (the Russian version of the American Cadillac-badged The Beast):

Reporter: And a short second question, please. Your car, Aurus, the Russian-manufactured Aurus, has driven so far away from home for the first time and reached this continent; there is a big commotion around it, with local residents taking pictures with it near the hotel. You have been using this vehicle for several months. How do you like the car? I assume you were not always a passenger, but actually drove it? How do you like it? What do you like about it? What don’t you like? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I never drove the limo version, only the smaller car. Very good car, I like it. And I am not the only one – some of our Arab friends like it too. They are already expressing a desire to buy it. Therefore, I think we can do this, I don’t see any problems. This is a capsule, a fairly well assembled car and very comfortable.

Trivial, right? And next to Putin’s discussion of Ukraine, Russo-British relations, and the Kremlin’s line on why Trump won’t talk to him, sure. But on the other hand, Putin doesn’t dismiss the question out of hand (and is it too paranoid to think it’s a plant, or at least a welcome opportunity to discuss it?). And certainly RT found time to promote the car as a part of its coverage of the G-20 summit, stressing how it had impressed the international audience there. So let’s not dismiss the idea that Putin took a few seconds out of his busy day to talk about his car. Presidential time is valuable and it’s unlikely that serious and strategic presidents simply say things without at least some goal in mind.

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Star Trek: TOS (Terms of Service)

USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A Recently, we activated an Amazon Echo. My attitude toward smart speakers can be divided into two eras:

Before Echo: Why would anyone want a privacy-destroying box in their home? Why should Jeff Bezos know everything about how my house is laid out? Is the point of late capitalism really letting me have modest conveniences in exchange for better advertisements?

After Echo: Exchanging my privacy for the modest convenience of playing Barenaked Ladies through a voice command is the absolute pinnacle of late capitalism, and Jeff Bezos should probably just buy the presidency already.

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Today in Yak-Shaving

(What is “yak shaving“?)

I needed to add plots to a final draft of an article that my co-author had just finished revising. Most of the plots were pre-made but two of them were new–just minor changes to existing work.

Normally, I would fire up my laptop to do this. That’s where I do most of my work in R. But earlier this morning I had installed a new battery on the mid-2012 MacBook Pro workhorse, and that meant it has to go through a power calibration cycle, so it was unavailable for service.

I turned instead to the small auxiliary laptop I use for presentations. I adjusted the code. Then I went to run it …

… and the small auxiliary laptop didn’t have the new package I use for this project now.

I downloaded it…but it didn’t run on the version of R installed on that machine.

I updated R…and then had to re-install all of the packages. Including packages to load older versions of other packages that work better than the current version.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Office decided that everything needed to be updated.

All of this led the computer to crash. But at least I have new versions of all the tools that I need to start the one simple line of code….

So if you ever wonder “but how did that take so long?” remember: it’s the yak’s fault.

Academics write well enough, actually

The most intimidating sight in the world: the empty page

The complaint is perennial: Why can’t academics write well? I’m not going to tag any particular examples of essays plying these waters; their numbers are so vast that the genre has become as stale and repetitive as it accuses scholars of being. Finding myself waiting for a server migration to complete before I can do real work, however, let me essay a response.

The Presumption: That Academics Can’t Write

The standard form of the complaint fits into one of a few categories:

  • Academic prose is dense. The standard exposition of this complaint involves putting some poor humanities or social-science professor in the stocks and mocking how inscrutable their prose is.
  • Academic writing is boring. Although often confused for the complaint that “academic prose is dense”, boredom and density form distinct branches of this family tree. Dense prose must of necessity be boring, but spritely prose about a topic that readers find dull will produce boring effects as well. Similarly, the leadenness of academic prose may result not from any bad sentence taken individually but from the plodding insistence on adding details, citations, and counterarguments, until the weight of all these straws breaks the reader’s back.
  • Academic writing is structured poorly. This more sophisticated critique begins with the observation that scholarly monographs and articles are not structured to be welcoming to outsiders. Sometimes, renegades from the academy will profess to reveal the secrets of the temple–that academics don’t read the entirety of every book they cite. They will point out that, unlike bestselling nonfiction texts, many scholarly books are designed to be read nonlinearly or in pieces. The failure of academic writing is thus linked to the failure of academic reading.
  • Academic writing concerns itself with trivial topics. I hesitate to mention this, since it is not, strictly, a complaint about writing but a complaint about scholarship. Yet the two sets of complaints are so tightly correlated that I must mention them together, as frequently the argument holds that academic writing is bad because those boffins are wasting their time writing about the history of the s

The Second Axiom: That Academic Writing Is Distinctively Bad

None of these complaints would matter if it were not for the assumption–sometimes unstated, sometimes spotlighted–that academic prose is distinctly bad. The comparison sets are usually drawn from journalism, good-selling texts written by academic (and that does exist), and from high-profile authors of nonfiction unburdened by academic affiliations.

One senses occasionally a desire on the part of the author to turn the red pen that some professor wielded against a sophomore essay back against authority in these complaints. Who doesn’t yearn to undermine the teacher? The number of complaints about the distinct badness of academic prose penned by scholars themselves means that this complaint has deeper foundations than a lust for vengeance.

Most Bad Academic Prose Is Bad For Good Reasons

One cannot defend the indefensible, and so I begin by disclaiming any intent to do so. I admit that most academic prose is bad; long habituation to academic writing has sharpened my ability to distill meaning from bad writing but it has not improved the taste.

Some academic writing is bad for bad reasons, too. Professors have to publish to keep their jobs; graduate students have to publish to get a job; and not a few veterans of the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s learned that outfitting banalities in the latest jargon could camouflage their intellectual weaknesses. So I will not defend them, either.

Most bad academic prose, however, is bad for good reasons. Among them:

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Everyone Is Misreading Burke’s View of Parties

So what are political parties?

Burke’s definition of party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed” is frequently cited (and disparaged) as idealistic. Commager (1950, 309), for instance, preferred “a body of men—and women—organized to get control of the machinery of government.” Dismissing Burke as ignorant of pragmatism in politics requires an overly hasty judgment or a poor reading of the text, however, especially given that in the same paragraph Burke scorns “the speculative philosopher” who seeks to mark “the proper ends of Government” in favor of “the politician, who is the philosopher in action”. Burke’s politicians form their “connexion” to “to put the men who hold their opinions into such a condition as may enable them to carry their common plans into execution, with all the power and authority of the State.”[1] And this entailed a common duty among a party’s members to fight for power and organize each other:

They are bound to give to their own party the preference in all things; and by no means, for private considerations, to accept any offers of power in which the whole body is not included; nor to suffer themselves to be led, or to be controuled, or to be over-balanced, in office or in council, by those who contradict the very fundamental principles on which their party is formed, and even those upon which every fair connexion must stand.

A close reading will show that Burke’s full definition of party as aiming to control “the power and authority of the State” is a definition far closer to Commager’s than he realized. But Burke had already gone beyond Commager in defining the relationship of policy to the party. “Principle”, as Burke employs the term, resembles a party platform aimed rather than some airy and abstract philosophy. Indeed, Burke explicitly recognizes the importance of solidarity and the temptations that might break it (“to accept any offers of power in which the bole body is not included”) and those that would lead to the solidifying of one faction against another (“the preference in all things”)—a more active and experienced concept.

Burke’s view on parties is even closer to that of the “UCLA school” (Bawn et al. 2012, 579), although they also commit the same misreading of Burke as did Commager. Bawn et al argue, contra Commager and even more Aldrich (1995), that politicians are not the center of parties. Instead, as for Burke’s partisans, politicians are the instruments through which “policy demanders” contest for the policy outcomes they desire: “interest groups and activists form coalitions to nominate and elect politicians committed to their common program.” If we remember that for Burke, “politician” was a more general category than “officeholder” or “candidate” and described those who gathered together to “put the men who hold their opinions” into influence in order to execute a common program, then it becomes apparent that the two definitions resemble each other much more than has been recognized. They are not, however, identical: Bawn et al differ profoundly from Burke in their view of the precedence of party and ideology. Whereas Burke believed that politicians gathered along preexisting divisions over “great leading general principles in Government”, Bawn et al describe a process of endogenous ideological formation in which the coming-together of interest groups produces a partisan goal (573-575).