Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Cover Letters & the Scourge of Interests

Dr Steve Joy

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a postdoc applying for an academic position must have a long list of ‘research interests’. Or so it seems to me, because I have noticed this scourge an awful lot in recent months. That is, cover letters which begin with long lists of interests that are all-too-vanilla and unconvincing: “My research interests include Thomas Mann, German Modernist literature, psychoanalysis, queer theory and performativity, the senses, the body, chocolate ice cream, Western phonocentrism, and Barbra Streisand.” And consider for a moment the thought, called forth by the menacing presence of the verb ‘include’, that these nine interests are only a select list. Hydra-like, there's no cutting them back.

Admittedly, the above list is partly a joke (my attempts to work Barbra into my research never came off), but it mimics a type of phrase that I have very commonly found in the opening paragraph of researchers’ cover letters. And that's before we even get into the issue of people who identify themselves as having four or five  monographs 'in preparation' at once, as well as a slew of articles...

So why is a list of research interests bad? And what’s so wrong about having a breadth of interests? Taking that last question in reverse, here's the thing about interests: in an overcrowded job market such as academia, where individuals and institutions live or die by their research productivity, nobody can afford to care about your interests. What you're interested in is about the inner workings of your psyche; selection committees need to see evidence of your external, real-world achievements. Let's face it, your interests are not REF-able. The rhetoric needs shifting: emphasise what you have successfully done.

Second, what's wrong with breadth? What's wrong, you ask, with those endlessly proliferating interests presented in a list? My response is another question: how does a list of subjects or topics (often, I notice, with only cursory effort to explain how your work connects them) help you to present yourself as a world-class scholar in a particular field? The effect is dissipative. Candidates who enumerate half a dozen half-connected themes will invariably seem like jacks of all trades and masters of none. Certainly not masters of prioritisation. 

Linked to this is the question of whether the people receiving your letter will be able to get a sense of who you actually are. Can they understand you and what you can do? This isn't idle speculation. If they can't form a meaningful impression of you, how will they be able to decide whether you are the sort of candidate whom they would like to invite to interview, or whether you fit with the needs of their department? Make it easy for them because they lack the time, and very probably the motivation, for inference.

Instead, I would say that you need to be thinking identity and achievement. Something more along these lines: "My primary research focus is in the area of X, where I have shown Y, most recently in my monograph/article called Z." Not great poetry, I admit, but hopefully you get the idea. And whilst I am adamant that you should banish the phrase 'research interests' for the reasons stated above, I am willing to give a little ground on the breadth point. Remember that I am only talking here about your opening paragraph and about the need to present a clear scholarly identity at the outset of your letter. You can go on to demonstrate, in conjunction with the CV and your other application documents, just how wide-ranging and ecumenical are your research -- achievements.

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