DH Cover Letters09 Oct 2019
Early this summer, we (authors Brandon and Amanda!) planned a post about job search materials, but finishing up the draft got delayed by several weeks. In the intervening time, a small Twitter debate on the subject of academic job advice occurred, and we ended up holding off this post for a few months while discussing how to do it well.
The debate in question: someone shared the job advice they generally give students on the academic job market, and folks responded with frustrations about the prescriptiveness, privilege, and goals of the academic job advice genre. Since then, we’ve also appreciated inspiring work being done on the topic by Hannah Alpert-Abrams. The Academic Job Market Support Network that she spearheads shares a lot of the spirit behind what we intended to do with our job search materials, so we’re taking this as an opportunity to revisit the post we had planned. We have both uploaded cover letters from our pasts to the AJMSN (Brandon’s letter here and Amanda’s letter here), and we talk a bit about our reasoning below. We’ll offer some general thoughts about job searches in digital humanities, and annotate each other’s cover letters. We thought the latter might be a useful exercise beyond just sharing them.
Slightly Better Job Advice, Take Two
Framing an academic job search exclusively in terms of handy tips undervalues the degree of luck that goes into any search. Do these things, such advice seems to suggest, and the just and right meritocracy will reward you with a job. But the academic job market is anything but just, and anything but a pure measure of merit1. The same is true, of course, for job markets beyond academia. Digital humanities job searches, be they for faculty positions or otherwise, suffer from the same issues. Internally we’ve had a lot of conversation about how to share job advice with our students. We’re frequently called upon to do so, and we want to do it well. So we thought it worth sharing a few of the things we try to consider below. Keep in mind, of course, that this is not an exhaustive list.
The academic job market is not identical with all job markets in academia. There is a range of different careers that engage in intellectual work, careers that might be called alt-ac (though there are good reasons for not using that term to describe them). Paths to these careers are often just as obscured as paths to professorships, and resources for how to navigate these types of job searches are scarce. Resources for finding and thinking about these kinds of careers are one of the key things we can provide students.
Students need our support. In particular, refusing to share resources about job searches, even if the act is well meaning, can reinforce privileged access to those same materials. Our initial reason for writing this post was that we noticed we were repeatedly sharing the same cover letters with folks looking for work. We found ourselves wondering how many other people at UVA or elsewhere might not know to ask for such resources.
Offers to aid in job searches, on and off the tenure track, are better when they go beyond lists of advice. In particular, we try to help folks think through backup plans and suggest talking with a career center as part of the conversation about how to seek positions in the digital humanities. We try to speak from our own experiences but also to recognize our own limitations as resources. We do not have all the answers, but we still might be able to help in some way.
Student support like this necessarily includes emotional labor. For us (the authors), this has proven unavoidable. In conversations we try to emphasize that the student is smart enough and good enough for this work, that the job market is not a reflection on them, and that our current jobs are the results of luck in a lottery system (where every time you win a lottery it makes winning future lotteries a bit more tipped in your favor…). The fact that we have jobs does not necessarily mean our advice will be helpful (CW for war: see e.g. Abraham Wald on survivorship bias2). In short, it is not enough to tell students that they need do X and Y in order to be successful. In the Lab we believe these conversations need to engage with the messy work of what the job search entails.
Advice about any job market should come with a frank discussion about all the factors involved in being offered a job (i.e. how many factors are out of candidates’ hands), and about the precarious nature of employment in the field that the particular position may or may not play into.
We’re not sure how we share our cover letters given this context, but it still seems worth doing; we’re going to continue advising the local students who work with us, and we’d like to help students who are elsewhere if we can. Some of the ways we try to make our advising do more good than harm include:
Thinking about intent vs. impact: job advice is often “well meaning”, but what matters is the environment it builds up or dismantles, who it tells is worthwhile as they already are vs. who it tells to change, who it empowers with information. Consider whether telling a student that you don’t judge them for XYZ, but that interviewers will, has the same impact as you judging them.
- Not posting job ads to the SLab Slack fellows channels (where they might be regular, unwanted reminders of job market stress to folks who aren’t even looking for work right now, or otherwise want to limit when they’re thinking about jobs). We’ve moved to including a list of interesting jobs to the end of our lab newsletter instead, where students can regularly choose to look at them if they choose.
- Moving to a public newsletter as a means of distributing these posts means that students can opt in without self-declaring themselves as on the job market, which allows for greater transparency about the process. It becomes less about knowing who you have to ask - anyone (even non-UVA people) can get access to that newsletter if they choose.
- Focusing our commentary not on “what others will expect” or “the right way to do things” (e.g. how to write the salutation), but instead on examples of how to best communicate one’s personal strengths via cover letter. In this way, we hope to keep the focus on the individual person and how they can take ownership of their own background rather than on how to please an anonymous committee (this can be a moving target).
- Leavening advice with affirmation of students as scholars and humans; helping them think about how to do what they value in life, even if they can’t do that as their main job. In short, academia has a way of encouraging people to think about their academic work and academic “merit” as deep reflections of their “worth” as a person. We try to reaffirm the fact that every person is worthwhile
Thoughts on some specific DH cover letters
Below, each of us shares the text of one of our cover letters for the other to annotate. The comments below reflect what we’ve tried to do when we have served on hiring committees and reviewed cover letters: avoid the stuff we feel we shouldn’t evaluate on, and what we do look for. Of course, these should be taken with a grain of salt. Our hope is that sharing the letters in this format will offer a bit more insight into how we think about DH job searches. It’s also worth noting that we each clearly read for different things. Similarly, other people serving on DH hiring committees might look for different things. We’ll focus on the hiring experience for:
- Brandon’s current role: Head of Student Programs at the University of Virginia Library’s Scholars’ Lab3
- Amanda’s previous role: tenure-track assistant professor and DH specialist at Purdue University Libraries4
While our comments below are about our cover letters, you might be interested in checking out other hiring and school info we’ve shared: Brandon’s job talk for his current role, Amanda’s job talks for her current role (with links to job talks shared by three other scholars as well!) and her previous faculty role; and Amanda’s doctoral defense talk, advice about defense talks, and literature/DH PhD exams list and advice. We’ve added the cover letters to an existing effort to gather and contextualize job materials led by Hannah Alpert-Abrams on Humanities Commons—check out their files page for other cover letters, various types of written statement, etc.
We started working at SLab on the same day and were not involved in the hiring of each other, so all comments are views from outside the search committee. You can check out the full cover letters on Humanities Commons, and reading them in full first might be useful: Brandon’s cover letter and Amanda’s cover letter. You might wish to compare these to how the job ads described these roles: Head of Graduate Programs and Digital Humanities Specialist Assistant or Associate Professor. In what follows, we intersperse inset text of our letters with short, bulleted lists of comments from the other person.
Brandon’s cover letter
Brandon’s cover letter, notes by Amanda
I am writing to apply for the position of Head of Graduate Programs in the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia. As an alumnus of both the Praxis Program and the Graduate Fellowship in Digital Humanities, I have a deep appreciation for the Scholars’ Lab’s commitment to experimental forms of collaborative, project-based pedagogy.
- If you have past experience or knowledge of what the place does, share that! You don’t have to have worked/learned at the place (as Brandon did at UVA) to speak to what specifically draws you there. E.g. maybe you’ve gotten a sense from their social media, a project or conference talk, or a blog post about what’s important to how the place works?
- Brandon shows awareness and mutual commitment to some of the lab’s values here; he shares this in a way that lets the search committee learn something about him (that he digs experimentation, collaboration), rather than something more abstract like “I would be honored to work at such a great place” that doesn’t give the committee info but does take up some of your limited space.
- Most of the cover letters I’ve seen use the first paragraph to deliver information that isn’t really new—this is my name, I’m not confused what position I’m applying for, I think I would be a good fit—so I like how he leads with a framing that does tell us more about him as a candidate.
I believe that my own extensive teaching record and my experiences as a digital humanities developer and project manager, all of which are shaped by my understanding of the Scholars’ Lab’s values, make me uniquely qualified for this position.
- There’s limited space to tell the search committee about yourself, so rather than make his cover letter repeat his CV, Brandon connects up items in his past that could help him successfully fill this role’s goals. Rather than using himself as a reference (e.g. “I am very good at x” or “I am xyz adjectives”), Brandon points out that the past roles listed on his CV are connected as different approaches in DH, suggesting he’s both learned skills from being in a variety of different roles, and can probably work in an informed way with colleagues in those roles.
- He again recognizes specifics about the lab—that through our staff charter, choices, etc. we try to be attentive to how our values shape our work. Some institutions make learning about how they do work difficult, unfortunately.
Student mentoring has been my first priority for the duration of my career.
- Brandon shares who he is as a professional and community member: articulating what matters to him, showing he understands what matters to this job, and going on to explicitly demonstrate how the two overlap.
I have taught a number of digital humanities workshops and classes, but I am proudest of my recent work as co-administrator of the Undergraduate Digital Humanities Fellows program at Washington and Lee University, where I currently serve as Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow. This initiative attempts to adapt the principles of the Praxis Program to a liberal arts context by allowing undergraduates to engage in collaborative research projects of their own design. I serve in both supervisory and technical roles in this program, and my daily tasks range from scoping student projects to teaching technical lessons on GitHub or programming concepts in PHP. During the past year, I have worked with humanities students to design and implement digital archives, editions, and storytelling projects through a combination of hands-on training and mentoring.
- The first half of this sentence (“I have taught a number of digital humanities workshops and classes”) could mean anything from teaching two small workshops ever, to multiple courses designed and taught himself—when hiring, readers may assume the lowest possible situation that your statement might mean, unless shown otherwise via specifics. Brandon helps us not need to guess—he doesn’t rehash his whole list of DHy skills here, but mentions a few in context in a way that suggests familiarity with other DH practices as well.
- Specific examples, including names of methods, tech, approaches showing familiarity. A good way to demonstrate knowledge of an area is to describe what daily work practices look like—specific tools or methods, what your involvement in a project specifically looked like.
I recognize that the vitality of a program depends upon a student community that extends beyond the bounds of the fellowship years, so I have created an outreach plan that builds our student network by having fellows visit other courses and mentor others as digital experts. This student community can – and should – contribute to life beyond the walls of the academy: this year I am piloting a program that sends our fellows to a local High School AP Computer Science class to collaborate on digital projects. Drawing on the lessons I learned during my own training, my efforts always aim to teach the person not the material. Helping students to find the confidence to speak, act, and sometimes fail productively in public in roles like these is as important to me as any temporary success afforded by a project.
- Brandon states some of his values and goals, then immediately identifies how he acted on these. This both backs up claimed values in his letter, and demonstrates experience reflecting on and iterating one’s practices to bring them into line with what you identify as important.
- There’s use in defining commonplace terms. Everyone knows what “teaching” means, right? But is this someone who cares about “filling young minds” and also mocks their current students on social media, vs. someone who sees students as colleagues, fellow scholars, humans? Brandon’s approach in this paragraph helps the reader see if we’re actually talking about the same thing when we say “teaching” (same for “research”, “scholarship”, “service”, etc.).
As a member of Washington and Lee’s digital humanities faculty committee, I have helped to develop the school’s digital humanities curriculum, which aims to provide students at all levels of expertise with an intellectual and practical understanding of innovative digital work. In particular, I have focused on collaborations that raise the skillsets of my colleagues as long-term investments in growing our resources. Working with Professor Sarah Horowitz and a student researcher on her interest in text analysis, for example, has led to both a co-taught class on digital history as well as a co-authored open access textbook. The book is, foremost, a pedagogical exploration, an attempt to write an accessible introduction to digital text analysis for complete newcomers. The writing of this textbook was also, in itself, a teaching exercise: the writing process required Professor Horowitz to learn version control and Markdown in addition to a number of text analysis techniques. These experiences were part of a larger experiment that I spearheaded in collaborative writing and publishing that has led to invitations for presentations and workshops at DLF and Bucknell Digital Scholarship with our Digital Humanities Librarian. As an experienced project manager and digital humanities developer, I also offer an advanced skillset to augment my teaching.
- Brandon shows how he invests in people around him, making the place he works better for colleagues in different roles (here: student, staff, faculty).
- When applying for a staff job from a doctoral and/or faculty background, it can be useful to demonstrate how those experiences don’t disadvantage you—i.e. you don’t understand what the staff position will be like. Brandon manages to both show the skills he learned from his past work experiences, while also aiming them at the kinds of work he’d be doing if hired.
- Brandon notes skills that might not be in the job ad, but are critical: collaboration, managing projects, a broad understanding of tech.
I served for several years as the project manager of NINES, and I have given invited talks on project development at the University of Michigan, SUNY New Paltz, the University of Central Florida, and the Center for Networked Information. I have consistently worked to supplement this supervisory experience with the skills necessary to implement projects myself. During my time at Washington and Lee, I have deployed and maintained three Rails applications, supervised Omeka customizations, and designed text analyses in Python, in addition to carrying out my own research in machine learning and sound studies. These skills will allow me not only to lead workshops on the technical aspects of digital humanities research, but also to supplement the resources of the Scholars’ Lab by providing technical support to fellows myself.
- It’s very good to share things you’re proud of! If you don’t highlight these, your search committee might never know about them. If you have trouble doing this, you might have friends or a supportive teacher who can help you remember experiences or decisions worth sharing here. Julia Evans has a good blog post about how to get comfortable talking about your strengths.
- Brandon does a good job pitching his achievements for this staff role—sharing the things faculty hiring committees value, like invited talks, but coupling those with tech skills and his broader learning from those experiences. He comes across as someone who wants to be in a staff job that’s heavy on mentoring, collaborating, experimenting, rather than someone treating this job as an alternative to another career goal.
I know first-hand how transformative the right interventions can be in the lives of graduate students. The Scholars’ Lab’s commitment to equipping students at all levels for both the kinds of careers that they will find and the intellectual provocations they can make in the digital age has shaped my own thinking, and it continues to inform all of my work. I see this position in the Scholars’ Lab as the perfect opportunity for me to help others learn as I once did, and to use my skills and experiences to extend the excellent work of the Scholars’ Lab’s fellowship programs. I look forward to discussing the great potential of the position with you.
- I like the wording in the final sentence—”great potential” reminds me that I’ve gotten a sense from this letter that this is someone who’s thought hard about the strategy and tactics of student-focused DH, who is ready to do good in this role.
Amanda’s cover letter
Amanda’s cover letter, notes by Brandon
Dear Purdue University Libraries team, I'm a digital humanist with an Information M.S. (University of Michigan), new Literature Ph.D. (University of Maryland), and over eight years as a professional DH web developer and public-focused DH scholar, working since 2009 in multiple staff roles at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). I write to apply for the Digital Humanities Specialist role.
- The first thing I notice is how Amanda structured her letter differently than how I typically do so. I tend to treat cover letters like essays, where the structure of the thing to come will be laid out in the final sentence of the first paragraph. Amanda leads with her experience here, which is likely to make sure her cover letter gets past an initial quick read.
- It’s perhaps also worth noting how wild and varied the paths often are for digital humanists. In this field maybe more than others it is not uncommon to tie together many seemingly disconnected life experiences into a narrative about yourself. The connections between library degrees, and PhD in English, and positions at a DH center all speak to each other in clear ways. But I can easily imagine a need to pull together a variety of different experiences that might not parse so easily for people. This seems fine to me. More on diverse life experiences below!
- Another thing that stands out here is that Amanda does not just point out what she has done - she points out different experiences from very different contexts. Research experience as a graduate student, library experience, and hands-on experiences. It’s helpful to think in these terms when presenting yourself to a search committee. It’s not just about the work you’ve done. It’s also about the kinds of contexts and audiences to which this work exposes you.
As an example of my work, my recent dissertation project is InfiniteUlysses.com—an interface that brings scholars, teachers, and readers of all backgrounds together in annotating and discussing a challenging book, personalizing the annotations displayed to any given reader by their backgrounds, interests, and needs. Infinite Ulysses achieved sizable impact for a literature dissertation, with over 13,000 unique visitors during its first month of open beta. The challenge of helping everyone feel empowered to participate in the humanities drives my research and project design.
- To underscore what Amanda says above - I usually tell people to make sure their letter is not an extension of their CV. When addressing things that appear in both, I usually try to make sure the things in the letter expand or provide context that you might not otherwise get in a CV. This text is great, because she expands on a project that might otherwise only get a line and not have the same impact.
- I also like how she takes the work and expands upon it to describe what she learned from it. That sort of self-reflection is something I usually look for in cover letters and try to represent in my own.
- Amanda’s accomplishments here and as articulated in the letter are impressive, but I often think it’s a matter of selling yourself regardless of whether or not you have done a lot, whether or not your blog has thousands of hits. Take the things you have done and use them as an opportunity to spin a story about yourself.
Successfully completing a non-monograph dissertation taught me how to champion others embarking on digital scholarship, both in educating their colleagues on their digital work, and in the practical aspects of project design, technical learning, and planning for the full life cycle of the project. I dealt with this last—DH long-term thinking and digital preservation—as MITH's Webmaster, auditing our two servers full of projects, files, and databases ranging back to 1999, and in my training and experience doing digital preservation work with MITH's early e-lit collection.
- Another thing I often look for - the letter is a space to offer reflections on your experience. I like that Amanda takes the experience with the dissertation and goes a step further to show what it means in the broader narrative of how she approaches people and her work. In other words - it answers the “so what?” question. These moments of reflection can also be a chance to connect yourself to the values of the institution and position for which you are applying.
- As a student, it can often feel like you have no experience. But you do! It’s just a matter of taking those experiences you do have and extrapolating to how they would apply to other circumstances. So in this case, Amanda does a great job of showing how working as a dissertation and webmaster apply to other circumstances and to the position for which she’s applying. I often tell students to think of it like roleplaying. If you were in the position, what experiences have you had that you could imagine helping you? Write about them. Sometimes trying to imagine yourself doing the work can help you think further about how to present yourself for the application.
- Lastly I would note that it’s important to consider the practical skills you gain from doing digital work as distinct from the research aspects of that work. To be sure, they’re both tightly joined in practice. But it’s all too easy to get to the end of a digital project on Victorian archives and think, “this has given me experience with Victorian research and digital archives.” But there is also a whole range of other “soft skills” that such work gives you experience in - project management, software development, project promotion, etc. These are all things you can have experience in and they are also things you can discuss critically! Reflections on these parts of the process are often of immense use to other scholar practitioners. Think of them as experiences but also as potential objects of scholarly inquiry.
My work has always been interdisciplinary in both topic and methodology. A few of my diverse past DH projects include: * Co-organizing the first digital humanities and games unconference (THATCamp Games) * Developer on the "Making DH More Open" team's Braille Wordpress plugin * Data visualization and topic modeling of Digital Humanities Quarterly to explore DH citation networks (recipient of the inaugural ACH Microgrant) * Team teaching and design of a DH course for UMD's Digital Cultures and Creativity undergrads * Librarian-aimed user testing and documentation for BitCurator's archival digital forensics tools I offer excellent communication, teaching, and presentation skills, and am especially deft at research use of social media (over 2,000 Twitter followers) and blogging (over 22,000 unique blog visitors to date). I’ve worked in a number of pertinent roles: as a librarian and digital archivist, university teacher and student, web developer, and DH center staff, as well as alongside others in these roles. This background gives me inside experience of the different needs and values of these important scholarly constituents. After working on interdisciplinary teams for six years at one of the world's top digital humanities research centers, I'm a skilled translator between tech and non-tech colleagues, and my research best thrives through collaboration.
- I think the reference to social media work here is useful. When I was hired at the Lab, they specifically cited my blogging and presence on Twitter as assets. You might not think about that kind of public outreach as tangible work, but it is! It’s often helpful to think about the value you bring to the institution beyond your research and teaching. This framing can be especially useful for positions beyond the tenure track in libraries or otherwise.
- One thing I notice about Amanda’s letter is that it really speaks to the diverse experiences she had when she applied to the position. That’s great! In academia I think we are sometimes challenged to think of ourselves as this coherent narrative where all roads lead to a single path. But, in practice, we have all sorts of experiences. And that broad background can be part of your narrative. We don’t all fit into neat boxes.
I'd love to discuss how my background in digital humanities service, training, research, and building would complement the Purdue University Libraries' learner-centered mission! Thank you for your time and consideration.
- Small point, but it’s often quite clear when a single cover letter has been sent out to multiple institutions with the name of one simply subbed for another. There are small ways to flag that you actually are applying for this specific position at this specific place, and this is an example of them. That’s to say, I like that Amanda doesn’t just say she is a good fit, she connects her experience to the mission of the institution in this last moment. It can be difficult to figure out what that mission is (in the Scholars’ Lab we have an explicit statement about our values), but you could get clues from events, projects, research, and similar initiatives undertaken by the institution. If they’re committing time and energy to it, they care about it.
- In terms of thinking about how to find out the character of an institution, specific events or projects can help. But there are often large, general questions you could ask about a place that could help you think about their mission. Is it a small liberal arts college or an R1 institution? Is this a DH center you would be hired into or a single position apart from a larger network of support? Is the position part of a library? Is the position hired for a particular grant or is it sourced on hard money? Are we talking about an institution of teaching? higher education? cultural heritage? What sort of audience / public does the institution tend to cater to? There are a number of large buckets like these that institutions tend to fall into. While each organization is unique, thinking about large categories like these can help provide clues to what this particular one is about.
The coiner of the word “meritocracy” intended it to ridicule the very ideas folks now use the term to convey. ↩
I remember seeing a tweet recently where someone connected the infamous image of the bullet hole locations on the surviving planes to listening to some kind of job advice selectively—maybe listening to folks who got hired about what not to ask during interviews? If you know who tweeted this and wouldn’t mind, please let me know so I can cite them (@literature_geek on Twitterfirstname.lastname@example.org). It’s important to record where ideas came from, even in smaller things like this post. ↩
Brandon’s title has been expanded over the course of his work here; at the time of hiring, it was “Head of Graduate Programs”. ↩
We thought this be more broadly useful to students than the cover letter for her current job, as that fits leaving a faculty role to direct a lab, rather than locating one’s first post-PhD job. ↩