to whom it may concern

How should graduate students on the job market address cover letters when the ad does not specify a chair of the committee or any other contact person? I had someone pose a few possibilities and wasn’t sure what to say other than “NO!” to “To whom it may concern:”.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

15 thoughts on “to whom it may concern”

  1. This is a great question! I read in my job market books to address cover letters “Dear members of the search committee.” Would that work?

    And a related question for when you are given a specific faculty member to send materials to: I’ve read advice saying to address the cover letter to “Dr. Blah Blah Blah” AND I’ve read not to use “Dr.” but instead to use “Professor Blah Blah Blah” Which is the best bet? And then throughout the cover letter when you refer to other professors (letter writers, for example) is it best to use their full names with or without Dr. or Professor?


  2. I would guess that the Dr. vs. Professor issue is akin to the advice that women shouldn’t wear black to their job talk: it’s really important to a very few people, and almost everyone else has no idea why anyone would care.

    (I realize that’s not too helpful to applicants who want to appease those whom the rest of us find puzzling.)


  3. I resolve to consider candidates on the basis of diagnostic cues, rather than matters of etiquette, fashion, or other forms of noise.

    Now if I only knew what things predicted being a good colleague, teacher and knowledge-creator, I’ll be all set.


  4. I agree that the salutation is trivial, though I’d advise against “Hi Searchers.” I doubt that I consciously notice that line on the cover letters, and I’d like to think that others assign similarly little weight to such matters. But in one of our searches, the university provost refused to approve a candidate we wanted to interview because in the cover letter, the candidate had forgotten to change the name of the university and referred to us by the name of the school that he had sent the previous application to. Big deal, right. But the provost his included it in rationale for rejecting him. (The other points in the rationale were equally invalid.)


  5. About “Dr.” vs. “Professor” (in the U.S.): Depends on which is the higher-status form of address, which probably depends on what is relatively rare. At a university where there are plenty of PhDs around (e.g., lots of postdocs), professors are rarer than doctors, so “professor” is likely to be the higher-status form of address. At a school where some professors don’t have doctorates, then being a doctor is relatively rare and so “doctor” would probably be the higher-status form of address.

    Trivial? Sure. Worth caring deeply about? Nope. But no harm acknowledging someone’s relatively higher status in their local circumstance (just politeness, really). And if in doubt, “professor” would probably be the better form of address to use, as a tendency to use “doctor” might invite inferences suggesting low academic birth.


  6. “Dear Appointments Committee” or “Dear Search Committee” or, if the ad has the prof listed who is the chair, it could be, “Dear Professor Smith and members of the Appointments Committee”

    although now I am having capitalization anxiety. Would I really capitalize “appointments committee”? Like the clothes, this should be somethign no one notices.

    I will say the most important thing is a very concise and insightful statement of what you contribute to the discipline and your subfield. One problem I have seen repeatedly is that the advisors seem to have a good idea about where the student and her work is intellectually located but the candidate doesn’t.


  7. Polite search committees give you the name of a contact person. If they don’t, I think the Dear Appointments Committee or Dear Search Committee options are good.

    Some search committees sandbag you by having you mail the letters in care of a staff person who is not a professor. If you are really sly, you will spot this trick by checking their web site. But then I don’t know how to address the letter. If Sam Smith is a clerical staffer who opens and organizes mail, it can be jarring for the search committee to read Dear Professor Smith in the salutation. I don’t know whether it is polite to address the letter to the chair’s assistant — Dear Mr. Smith — making it clear that you are savvy enough to have done some homework, but seeming a little out of place describing your academic virtues to the wrong person, or better to address the search comittee: writing to Search Committee c/o Sam Smith, and then addressing the letter to Search Comm.

    It is rather a shame that there is not a gender-combined version of the old “Dear Sirs” that was the all-purpose polite formal address to persons unknown through 1970. The feminine form (Dear Madam) was never popular even in then due to unfortunate connotations, and the fact that we English speakers don’t know what the plural of Madam is (Mesdames? Madams?) was the final blow.


  8. Olderwoman nails it in the first sentence: they’ll often give you the name, and it not, a little searching around will almost always reveal it. A quick search on the PC Interwebs (a label some Dutch acquaintances use for the Internets) would almost certainly reveal that Sam is a clerical staffer.

    On the other hand, it wouldn’t be cool at all to be so clever that one comes across as a stalker.


  9. that one comes across as a stalker

    A stalker for checking out a dept Web site?

    Letter writers also have this problem, by the way. I often just say Dear Search Committee.


  10. Since we’re talking about job market, I have a question. Some people say that some universities start looking at applications and calling candidates before the deadline. How common is this? How early do candidates need to send their applications to be seriously considered for positions?


  11. as a former search chair, I would say that no matter how you address you letter, send your packet to the person/address provided in the ad. my department asked that packets be sent to “search committee chair” or some such. Some people figure out that was me and so sent their packet to me, using my name. I was out of town and the packets were put in my box, thus delaying their processing. this did not adversely affect anyone but if I had been gone longer it may have. also keep in mind that the whole committee reads the letter, not just the chair, so I like the idea of addressing your letter to the search committee, rather than “Professor” or “Dr” whomever.


  12. @10 I haven’t heard of anyone calling before the deadline, but people definitely look at files before that date. I usually recommend to my students that they send in their files quickly, but not carelessly. You can always send an update if a paper you had under review gets accepted or there is some other relevant change to your file.


  13. socfreak @10 et al: I would say don’t panic. At the “top 20” schools (of which there are maybe 40), there is an early frenzy to go after top candidates early, but most people get jobs later in the season. As one former student put it: First everyone with two ASR/AJS articles gets a lot of interviews; after those people (of whom there are usually no more than 4) are placed, everyone with one ASR/AJS gets interviewed. These “top” people get multiple offers, but they can only take one each. After they get placed, the market clears and everyone else starts getting action. The other source of really early action is a school that is trying to get someone much better than they could usually attract by interviewing early and demanding a quick decision. In short, while it may be an ego blow not to be among the six to ten most sought after people in the market, this does not spell doom. Lots of people get jobs at all kinds of departments between January and March.


  14. @13: Thank you olderwoman for the calming words of reason. The amount of panic already circulating about this year’s job market (i.e. socrumormill) feels like an energy-suck that isn’t going to help anyone get a job. Our market seems to be a long haul (with applications due mid-September, and interviews still being scheduled well into the spring term), so keeping some perspective on the whole thing can be hard–this helps.


  15. I haven’t heard of anyone calling before the deadline

    On the flipside, as a candidate, I’m pretty sure I called a place (that I was very interested in and where I ended up taking the job) before their deadline to say that if they didn’t move quickly, I would have to take another offer. This is something many candidates don’t realize: once you have an offer – especially from a similarly ranking place – it’s okay to let places of interest know. If anything, it’ll make you more desirable for that place to know that others have already made you an offer.


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