Does cold-calling ever work?

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What are your thoughts on cold-calling a university or a department that does not have a posted job opening? Is this ever done? What if you are an alum (undergrad)? Do people ever send a letter and CV to a dean, for example, and would that kind of behavior ever lead to being considered for an appointment?

I get asked this a lot, and my answer is always the same. If you are at the start of your career, cold-calling a department is extremely unlikely to produce a tenure-track or full-time job. I want to say “never,” but I’m stopping at “extremely unlikely” — because, I, too, have to wonder: Has this ever worked out for anyone who tried it?

In fact, what I’d like to do with this question is ask for reader comments and stories. Have you heard of a cold-call producing a tenure-track position for anyone in the past 5 or 10 years? (Recent examples only, please. The conditions of the academic job market have deteriorated so rapidly during that period that only up-to-date accounts will have any meaning.)

Because this is such a common question, and because it seems like one that requires a broader and more encompassing view of the whole academic realm than any one person can command (even me!), a crowdsourced set of responses would be very valuable. Certainly if I hear a number of stories that contradict my advice, I’ll gladly revise my view.

But until that happens, my advice remains: If you cold-call a department to offer your services, you may well be considered but only for an adjunct position to fill an urgent teaching need. If adjunct work is your goal, then by all means, contact the department. If you are geographically limited, and need immediate teaching experience and/or income, and don’t care if it’s on an adjunct or permanent basis, then cold-calling all the departments in your area is exactly what you should be doing. By cold-calling, I really mean cold-emailing, and I’d urge you to take great care in the email you compose for that purpose, as well as any documents you append, such as your CV or teaching statement.

This kind of email should be composed using the following template (please vary your own sentence structure from the sample below; remember this column has a wide readership!):

  • Salutation
  • Paragraph 1: I am writing to inquire about the possibility of an opportunity to teach in the department of X. I have a Ph.D. in Y from the University of Z. I am currently …; my work focuses on …; I have experience teaching XX and YY.
  • Paragraph 2: All of my teaching emphasizes X. In courses such as Y and Z, I bring an XX perspective, so that students learn YY. For example, in the course …; in these ways students learn … . My methods have been effective; my evaluations average X out of Z. I won the XX Teaching Award in 2015.
  • Paragraph 3: I would be prepared to teach courses such as X, Y, and Z [list course names at the hiring institution or general ones offered by most departments in the field]. In addition, I can develop courses such as A, B, and C.
  • Paragraph 4: My research focuses on X. My dissertation, (list title), examines Y. I investigated XX and YY, and concluded ZZ. The research intervenes in the field of A by showing … . It has been published in several articles in the Journal of B, Journal of C, and Journal of D, and I’m currently at work on a monograph proposal for the University of E Press.
  • Paragraph 5: I am happy to share any additional information you might need. My CV is attached. Thank you for your consideration.
  • Name

Don’t make this a long email. All of the above should fit into about three-quarters of a page if written out in letter (rather than email) format. No department head has time to read more than that for a cold-call inquiry.

Now let me reiterate: The above email will likely yield nothing. If it yields any work, it will be a last-minute adjunct opportunity. I do not believe it will motivate anyone to suddenly unearth a tenure-track position for you.

There is one caveat: If you are a senior scholar, with a wide reputation and renown in your field, then the conditions of your job search may be quite different. In that situation, a casual line to some department head about your “availability” for a job offer might indeed cause the department to spring into action. That is the academic star system, and it’s how and why the leading lights seem to be perennially hopping about among the constellation of elite institutions. Often those hires originate from behind-the-scenes conversations rather than a formal posting of a job ad.

But for any senior scholars reading this who have responded to posted job ads, don’t despair. There are many legitimate ads for senior professorships that follow standard hiring procedures. I have participated in such searches, and I now coach tenured and full professor clients in responding to job ads. If you have seen an ad, you can trust that it is likely a sincere and legitimate search process. I’m only saying that in addition to the posted searches, there are also hiring arrangements that emerge from quiet, informal conversations.

This is my view of the matter at the present moment. But I would be very interested to see what the crowd has to say. Care to share your experience? Please comment below.

Author Bio: Karen Kelsky is a career consultant who runs the website The Professor Is In. She’s been a tenured professor at two public universities (Oregon and Illinois) and has advised many undergraduate and graduate students, as well as mentored junior faculty.

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