Your first introduction to a prospective employer will be your letter of application; the second is the curriculum vitae (CV). First impressions are important, so take the time to polish the impression you’ll offer in the letter and CV.
First lesson about the job search: not all jobs are the same; not all departments are alike. You’ll want different versions of your application letter for different positions and institutions; and you’ll want to make additional slight adjustments to suit the letter to the particular details of the job you’re applying for. Generally, Duke Literature graduates will have two basic application letters for literature-oriented positions: one for research institutions and one for liberal arts institutions.
The key difference in these letters typically concerns the order of information, with dissertation coming first for research institutions and teaching being foregrounded for those specializing in the liberal arts experience.
Many students will also have a third letter geared toward interdisciplinary positions, whether in identity studies (Latino Studies, Women’s Studies, African American Studies, American Studies, etc), film and media programs, or other humanities hybrids (such as science and literature or even Interdisciplinary Studies at those institutions that have such a configuration).
As you begin drafting your letter, establish different prototypes along these lines, with clear rhetorical investments in the kind of position and institution. Doing so will make the actual work of sending out your materials in the fall much easier. But before you drop anything in the mail, make sure you read the job announcements carefully, surf the web to find out information about departments that interest you, and consciously consider how your letter might speak directly to the advertised position. Choose the proper prototype and adjust your letter to reflect your knowledge of the position advertised, the departmental context, and the kind of institution. You don’t want to misaddress the recipient, misname the school, or mistake the position you’re applying for. That’s a quick route to the thanks-but-no-thanks pile.
As you begin to draft your letter, consider the practical and rhetorical situations the search committees at these institutions face: they will be reading (ever more quickly as the process goes on) hundreds of application letters. They will be seeking to reduce those many to a manageable few: something like two dozen dossier requests each. And they’ll be further winnowing that number for interviews and campus visits.
Two principles will operate to help them shrink the pool of applicants. First, they will exclude anything which seems unconventional or bizarre (and that’s why you shouldn’t be clever or cute) and, second, they will include anything that is attractively distinctive, potentially helpful—as long as it poses no obvious liability. The successful letter of application will differentiate you from the pack, but not in such a way as to make you seem risky or a bad fit. This is not easy to accomplish—but the closer you can come to it, the better your chances are for moving to the next level of their search.
Keep the letter clean: brief, direct, to the point. One and a half to two pages is the typical length. Never go over two pages. That’s a signal that you are overwinded and self-impressed. Remember: whatever else your good virtues and professional promise, they are looking for literature teachers, so be sure your grammar and mechanics are flawless. And don’t simply trust computer spell-checkers: review the text carefully yourself—and have someone else do it.
However good your CV, your letter is the first really personal opportunity you have to make a strong and distinctive impression, so your style here is vital. This is where you can step out from the mountain of applications. But resist the inclination to be clever and "creative," the abiding vice of the humanist! Instead, rely on conveying your interest in the job, your excitement about your dissertation (and future professional labors), and the clearness of your writing—not necessarily in that order. And do all this without beginning every sentence with “I” or depending on concessive constructions (“while... although….”). State your case without apology, self-deprecation, pleading, or begging. Or inflation. You want to project personal confidence and professional competence.
Your opening paragraph should declare your status at Duke, both in regard to your progress toward your degree and your current teaching situation, if you have one. If you aren’t teaching, don’t raise the subject here.
Having expressed your interest in this particular job by being sensitive to the particulars, use the rest of the letter to let them know why they should be interested in you. At the application stage of the process, this primarily means your dissertation and your teaching experience, so be as clear and direct as you can on these subjects.
You should explain your dissertation—its point, methodology, distinctiveness—without going on at length. You may want to append a separate abstract, but in the body of your letter, your dissertation’s value (to you and to the world) should be succinctly stated. One paragraph will handle it—the material covered, the approach, the rationale. Does it relate easily to other work you have done? Exactly how much have you in fact finished? If you are quite far along (or finished), you should mention publication plans (a book; separate articles) and any definite future work arising from what you have already completed. If you have work already published or accepted for publication, say so concisely: this will also appear on your CV, so avoid lengthy repetition.
Describe your teaching, being specific and highlighting strong points of your training and experience at Duke: the range of courses taught, your independent responsibility in designing courses, your work with different kinds/levels of students. You might even have some good student evaluations to talk about here, but don’t be effusive about them (that’s another besetting sin of the application letter form).
There are other virtues in your preparation, and other considerations that may make you the right candidate to be looked at more closely and interviewed—and offered the position. Don’t ignore them, but don’t avoid the basics, either. Mention any particularly noteworthy professional activities you’ve been involved in, but since presumably all these will be detailed in your CV, don’t go on at length. Highlight anything that seems particularly relevant to the advertised position; leave the rest to be listed in the CV.