Ph.D. Job Searches: Preparing Application Materials

Letters of Application

The plural is used here because you will likely produce multiple versions of your application letter to send to different types of institutions or for different jobs. This letter, which should be no more than two pages, is one of the most important documents you will ever write. You should expect to pour over these two pages more than any other two pages you have ever drafted.

The audience for this letter will be the search committee and department of the institution to which you are applying. Though they share some broad common disciplinary interests and training, this is actually a very diverse audience, from Anglo Saxonists to compositionists to poets to Joyce scholars. Thus avoid jargon or overly specialized theoretical terms.

Use department letterhead for your letter of application.

While your writing style should be direct, lucid, engaging, and make crystal clear what is interesting and important about your research and teaching, there is little room for deviation from a basic format of this letter. Here is that format for positions that are primarily interested in your potential as a scholar:

First paragraph: A very brief paragraph that indicates that you are applying for the position advertised in the MLA JIL (or elsewhere). State your particular qualifications for the job, the general areas of your research or expertise. Indicate whether you have your Ph.D. yet or when you expect to (“I have/will have my Ph.D. in...”)—ideally you should be able to say you will have your degree before the position appointment begins. You can indicate here or in the next paragraph who your dissertation advisor and readers are.

Second paragraph: A description of your dissertation for non-specialists that describes how your project makes an intervention in your field. Provide the title of your dissertation here (or in the first paragraph) and succinctly describe not only its topic but how it contributes to the scholarly conversation on that topic. In other words, briefly explain the stakes of your work with regard to the scholarly conversation in which you are participating. Then provide a brief overview of your entire dissertation. You could make a one-sentence synopsis of each chapter or provide a more general outline of the argument your dissertation makes. Name specific authors and in some cases texts that you discuss. Use the present tense and active voice (“I argue...”). If necessary, to avoid a monster paragraph, this paragraph could be divided into two: one a brief polemical statement on the intervention your project makes, the second a summary of the entire dissertation.

Third paragraph: A brief description of broader research interests, such as plans for a post-dissertation project or a description of recent or forthcoming publications.

Fourth paragraph: Description of teaching experience and pedagogical approach. Things to emphasize here might include your range of experiences, any teaching awards or recognitions, and/or ways you have been innovative in teaching. Be specific, but not anecdotal. For instance, rather than just saying you use peer review techniques in a writing class, briefly explain how you use these techniques in an innovative way to accomplish a specific goal (you don’t want this paragraph to sound like it could have been written by just about anyone). You can explicitly link your research and teaching interests, perhaps as a transition at the start of the paragraph, but this is not imperative. In fact, some sense that you are capable of teaching more than your dissertation topic is probably a strength. Here you can also list future courses you would like to teach and courses from a specific school’s online catalog that you would be qualified to teach, including graduate courses. You can also close this paragraph by mentioning that you have a teaching portfolio with sample syllabi and teaching evaluations that you can send on request.

Fifth paragraph (optional): Here you can describe any relevant administrative experience for the position, explaining your approach. Or you can highlight relevant service that you have conducted as a graduate student. But do more than simply repeat your CV.

Sixth paragraph: A brief closing paragraph should say that you will attend MLA and are available for interviews there. You should also indicate how you can be reached, especially over the winter break when most schools will contact candidates for MLA interviews. Provide a phone number and an email address. Indicate here what requested materials are enclosed in the envelope and what they can expect to receive from the University at Albany’s Career Development Office. If not yet requested, indicate that you can send a writing sample.

Alternate Versions:

Several Chronicle of Higher Education editorials indicate that institutions that “emphasize teaching” are often dismayed to receive letters that follow the above format because this format emphasizes research over teaching and seems to indicate the candidate is not serious about finding employment at their small liberal arts college, community college, or satellite state school. But how to distinguish an institution that “emphasizes teaching” from a research institution is sometimes difficult, especially as more and more institutions require scholarly research and publication for tenure. Some clues to look for: Does the department have a graduate program? Is the teaching load 4 courses per semester or more? Does the job ad contain language indicating an emphasis on teaching over scholarship? If you are confident you are applying to an institution that emphasizes undergraduate teaching, you should make your teaching paragraph the second paragraph of your application letter, and you should consider expanding it to discuss how your teaching practices would make a good fit with the specific institution’s goals (check out their website). Some such schools, especially if they are far away, will want evidence up front that you are interested and appropriate for their job. In addition to moving the teaching paragraph up, you might edit down the dissertation paragraph, or retool it to emphasize how your dissertation influences your teaching.

If applying for an administrative position, move that paragraph up to the second paragraph and expand it.

The Curriculum Vitae

Many of you will already have put together your CV for fellowship or other purposes. If that is so, it’s important to update and revise it for this occasion. The idea is to summarize your academic career and accomplishments in outline form. Order items in each category so that the most recent things come first, the least recent at the end. You can also rearrange items in your CV to tailor your CV for particular jobs, highlighting what might be most relevant for the job in the first few categories beyond your personal information. Do not “pad” your CV by listing one item in multiple categories, going into excessive detail (unlike a resume, you should not list your various “duties”), or including items irrelevant to your academic career.

CVs usually contain the following information:

  • Name.
  • Professional and Personal contact info, including email.
  • Education: Dates, degrees and institutions. Put Ph.D. expected from University at Albany Month Year (unless you have it already).
  • Dissertation: The title of your dissertation and the committee. A mini abstract here is unnecessary—your précis and application letter already cover this.
  • Awards and Fellowships: List any and all.
  • Publications: List all academic publications, including work under consideration. If you have none, still list work under consideration. (Candidates should submit work for publication before going on the market.) Unless you have several publications, don’t separate out reviews from articles. This can come later in your career.
  • Conference Activity: List all papers you’ve delivered and panels you’ve chaired by title, venue, and date. If you’re precocious enough to have delivered full-blown lectures already, list by title, place and date.
  • Teaching areas of interest and competence: List in descending order your major fields of teaching interest: e.g. African American Literature, Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Victorian Literature, Women’s Studies.
  • Courses Taught: List the courses you have taught in descending order by chronology. Give title and date; you might also briefly describe the course content in a sentence.
  • Professional or administrative experience.
  • Other related work experiences: such as working as a technical writer or editor.
  • Other related service: such as working as a tutor.
  • Languages: Indicate degree of fluency.
  • Professional Affiliation (optional): Name any professional associations you belong to: e.g. MLA, ASECS, NASSR, Society for the Study of Narrative, etc.
  • Graduate Courses (optional): By title and instructor.
  • References: The name, title, and contact information of the people who have written letters for your dossier. Also indicate that the references can be obtained through the CDC, and provide the CDC contact information.


The précis, or dissertation abstract, describes in more detailed and expansive language the nature and structure of your dissertation. You state the topic and argument of the dissertation and then offer a chapter-by-chapter summary of its contents, listing the authors and texts and describing what you have to say about them. You need to be up front about the stakes of your argument and its place within a professional conversation. You need to be clear about the logic of your argument. Your précis should ideally fit on two pages (generally speaking, concision is a virtue in job application materials—edit like you have never edited before to avoid wordiness).

One challenge will be to find new words to say many of the things you’ve already said in the cover letter. You should not repeat language from the cover letter. This is an opportunity to explain your project in another, slightly more expansive way. Get in the habit of speaking and writing about your project in a variety of manners or from a variety of angles.

The first paragraph should give a brief overview of your entire dissertation and indicate its relationship to existing scholarship. Stress here the originality of your contribution to the scholarly conversation. Then proceed to give a paragraph for each separate chapter, breaking down the argument and listing the texts. Avoid repetition. Do not simply say “In the first chapter... In the second chapter...” Try to add some sinew to the connective tissue of your dissertation. Each chapter-paragraph should begin with a sentence referring back to the previous chapter-paragraph or to the dissertation as a whole. You can use bold to highlight the titles of individual chapters. The abstract should flow without seeming stilted. Aim to say what you said rather than that you said it. Avoid jargon; briefly explain those specialized terms or concepts you feel you must use. Use the present tense and active voice to say what each chapter argues. End with one final paragraph that moves from the concrete to the abstract. Tie together the various chapters into a sense of where the conclusion has led you. Try to make the dissertation sound important but not arrogant. Here as elsewhere the tone should strike a balance between confidence and modesty.

Teaching Portfolio

A few search committees will request such a portfolio or packet of teaching materials (sometimes with the phrase “evidence of teaching effectiveness”). Even if never requested, you should bring some copies of your teaching portfolio to your MLA interviews so that you can whip out some sample syllabi when asked about teaching and leave a copy with each search committee. Typically a teaching portfolio includes the following in an organized, easy to browse (tabs between sections are nice) but lightweight folder:

  • A Statement of Teaching Philosophy: This 1-2 page statement explains your approach to teaching literature and writing in some detail. If you can, anchor your approach in recognized pedagogies and pedagogical schools or explain the theories or research that inform your teaching (you can name scholars and theorists as long as you briefly explain their approaches as well). Describe successful assignments and what you have actually done in the classroom. Students should play a role in this statement—what are your goals for working with them and how do you seek to accomplish these goals, what impressive work have your students produced with your guidance? Be concrete. You should sound innovative while still committed to tradition, principled yet flexible.
  • Sample syllabi: Especially for courses you have designed.
  • Sample assignments: For papers, exams, in-class group work, etc.
  • Teaching evaluations: The new SIRF numerical summaries, if you have them. Also include some copies of student discursive evaluations (available from the English Department secretarial staff). You could include comments from one entire class and/or a few comments from several courses you have taught.