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If I want to apply for a postdoctoral job, can I mention the name of my recommenders in my cover letter just to bolster my application, particularly when I am sure that the people who will read my application will know the recommenders personally? I know that they will actually read the recommendation letter themselves, but 1) I don't know how the selection process for postdocs actually works (particularly in Europe) and 2) I am afraid that one of my recommenders' letter might be a bit later than deadline. These are the reasons why I am thinking about it.

It will be great to have your opinion. Thanks.

Added by Theo JF: In your response, please clearly state your background and knowledge — have you served on postdoc hiring committees in US? in Europe? Certainly the advise that graduate students pass on to each other can be correct and valuable, but it's important to distinguish between "here's what I did and it seemed to work, and here's what my friend did" and "here's what I know from having reviewed three hundred applications, having spoken with twenty other committee members over the years, and having been involved with seven postdoc hires".

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At this rate, why not use your own name on this site? – Yemon Choi Mar 31 '13 at 1:26
Community Wiki, please. – Todd Trimble Mar 31 '13 at 2:01
There are some positions (I do not know of PostDoc strictly speaking but also for somehow entrance-level positions) where the official application material must not include letters of recommendation. In this case, you might be asking for trouble by mentioning them explicitly. In all other cases, I cannot see any problem or even much downside in doing so (in particular if done in the way Theo Johnson-Freyd says, that is to say, somewhat smoothly integerated in the letter). – user9072 Mar 31 '13 at 12:53
This would be a better fit for – Ben Crowell Mar 31 '13 at 14:22
@Ben: At least in the US, the correct answer to this question is fairly discipline-specific. We have MathJobs, and as Xuhan expressed below, it already handles most of the "what letters to expect"-type stuff. Many disciplines and departments, especially in the sciences, have adopted, which is based on MathJobs, but there is variance, and some disciplines are still in the transition. Some disciplines, especially in the humanities, don't use any standardization like this, and cover letters are vital. So I disagree that academia.SE is an obviously-better fit. – Theo Johnson-Freyd Mar 31 '13 at 20:56
up vote 11 down vote accepted

I have made my answer CW, because I believe the question should be.

My answer should carry very little weight, because I have never served on a postdoc committee: I am in my final months as a graduate student, and my experience is only as a (successful, thankfully) postdoc applicant in the US.

What I did, and have seen my friends do, is to include in my cover letter:

  1. my name, current position, and contact information;
  2. explicit mention of the position I am applying to in that application;
  3. a very short (two sentences) description of my research;
  4. names of two or three faculty at the institution I'm applying to who might be interested in my research
  5. a list of the materials included in my application.

In item 5. above, I would certainly include a sentence of the form "I have arranged for letters of recommendation from ...".

Some examples of successful (and a few non-successful) applications have been collated by the Secret Blogging Seminar, e.g., although a few of those links are no longer good.

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That's what I did too, except I had longer (short paragraph) description for each of research and teaching. – Michael Biro Mar 31 '13 at 2:43

The answer to your question is No. In fact, there is really no need for any of the info Theo is listing either. A university-specific cover letter is an outdated pre-technology concept which makes applying a chore. This is exactly what the technology is meant to change.

If you are using mathjobs, all your information is much better organized there, including your area(s), your bio and your reference writers. I feel you should enclose a letter with some impersonal polite standard boilerplate language "Dear colleagues, please consider my application...", unless the applicant's area is multidisciplinary or tricky to determine. In those few rare cases, a university specific letter is appropriate. But a 95% applicants can probably get away without that.

In any event, rather than spend time going over 50+ university websites accepting postdoc applications and personalizing your letters, you are better off improving your website, both organizing your teaching and research related materials, and perhaps making a separate job related section/page. Try to describe your research, link to your course pages, put up the .pdf files of your talk slides, etc. Then, if you want somebody you already know to pay special attention to your application, send this person a short personal email and include a link to your webpage. Just don't overdo it with emails.

UPDATE: As was correctly pointed out, I may have misread the question. My suggestions are on cover letters only to US postdoc positions which themselves use boilerplate language, such as "open in all areas of pure and applied mathematics", or "applicants in all fields are encouraged to apply". Postdoctoral positions in Europe have different rules, I understand.

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Yes, since MathJobs lists all recommenders who have sent or even will be sending (in an ideal world...) recommendation letters, and which ones have arrived or not, it is a complete waste of time provide this information in cover letters for applications through MathJobs. In over 10 years of reading postdoc job files, I never looked at a cover letter. The choice of "primary subject area" is much more important, as that affects who actually looks at your file (e.g., the subject area "[0] General Math" should be banished, as surely all it does is ensure career suicide). – user30379 Mar 31 '13 at 4:10
I strongly disagree with what you have written about the cover letter. Beyond having a reasonable number of publications, what I looked for in our search this year was an indication that the applicant fit our position, and the easiest place to see this was the one paragraph synopses of research and teaching in the cover letter. (The research and teaching statements are too long for a first screening.) Customization of cover letters clearly made a difference. Some relatively pure algebraists made a case for their involvement with applications in their cover letter that they did not in... – Alexander Woo Mar 31 '13 at 5:17
their research statement, which helped since we were hiring specifically in applied algebra. Some applicants also used part of their cover letter to convince us they were interested teaching our population of students; they couldn't do so in their teaching statement since that was used for a much broader range of types of schools. – Alexander Woo Mar 31 '13 at 5:21
It seems that he's interested in postdoc in Europe, and not many places in Europe use mathjobs. In fact, the postdoc market in Europe is quite different from the one in USA, as there are lots of grant-funded postdocs, tied up to particular topics, and relatively few equivalents to USA instructorships. – Dima Pasechnik Mar 31 '13 at 6:53
@Igor: The cover letter is where you get to tell the story of why you'd fit well into this particular job. (Or at least to show that you've read the advertisement.) That's what Alexander is talking about, I think. I didn't like jumping through that hoop when I was on the market, but ignoring it is not advised. I have heard of other schools using the cover letter as the basis for an early winnowing. – Russ Woodroofe Mar 31 '13 at 13:41

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