Your CV cover letter is both an introduction and a sales pitch. “It should show what sets this individual apart from all others,” advises Jeffrey Stansbury, vice chair of the Department of Craniofacial Biology at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine in Aurora. Like any good sales pitch, your cover letter should motivate the customer to learn more about the product—in this case, you.
A good cover letter, like a good sales pitch, has several characteristics. First, like a good doctor, it does no harm: It avoids making a negative impression. Second, it demonstrates that the product suits the consumer's—your future employer's—specific needs. Third, it assures the customer that the quality of the product (you) is superb. Accomplishing all this is easier said than done. So how do you write a cover letter that will do you justice and earn an interview? First you need a plan.
If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.—Kenton Whitmire
“A successful candidate impresses the committee right off with the cover letter and makes the committee members actually want to dig through the CV and recommendation letters to pull out the details that start to validate the positive claims,” Stansbury says. “It also provides a glimpse into the applicant’s personality and gives some guidance as to whether or not they can communicate in an organized, effective way.”
One of the most important jobs of any good sales pitch is to avoid doing harm. Some cover letters inadvertently convey negative impressions of a candidate, especially if they “look sloppy or indicate an inability to communicate in English,” says H. Robert Horvitz, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine and has chaired search committees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “These things can kill someone's chances," adds Kenton Whitmire, chemistry professor and former chair of the chemistry department at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Horvitz adds that cover letters “should be neat and professional,” and should fit on one page. Whitmire would allow applicants a bit more room: The letter, he says, should be “no longer than one to two pages.” To keep it short, “the cover letter should not reproduce the information in the CV, publications list, or other documents provided," Whitmire says, "but it should be used as a vehicle to highlight those things that the candidate believes will make him or her a good match for the position at hand.”
An effective cover letter doesn't just emphasize your best qualities; it also shows how well those qualities are likely to mesh with the open position. “Applicants should begin by reading advertisements for faculty positions carefully and be sure that their background and goals are appropriate for the position in question. You lose credibility if you can't make a case that you fit the ad,” Whitmire says. “If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.”
“There's no excuse for not writing a cover letter that shows how your education, experience, and interests fit with what the institution is seeking,” warns Julia Miller Vick, coauthor of the Academic Job Search Handbook, which is now in its fourth edition. “Not doing this would reflect laziness,” Horvitz observes. At best, Vick adds, “a form letter or one that is generic doesn't accomplish much and leaves how the application is reviewed completely up to the reviewing committee." At worst, a generic cover letter can make you seem undesirable.
“While many people applying for academic positions tend to think that the review process is an evaluation of their previous work—how good is it?—the issue that is as important is the match," Whitmire says. "How will this person fit in here? The former is necessary, but the decision to interview will often be made upon research area or some other measure of fit to the department's needs at that moment in time.”
Begin by learning about the department in general and the open position in particular. Department websites are a good starting point, but don't stop there. Go beyond the public information, and seek a sense of perspective. “It is best if candidates speak with their advisers and mentors to get some feel for the institution where they wish to apply,” Whitmire suggests. Close senior colleagues can serve the same purpose. Read beyond the job ad, and figure out what they're really looking for.
Once you've got a fix on the institution, the department, and the open position, ask yourself what abilities or special qualities a candidate needs to excel in that position. Then determine which of your qualifications and accomplishments will particularly interest this department. Think about your research plans, past research accomplishments, special projects, and previous employment.
What evidence can you put forward that your background and plans prepare you well for this opening? How well do your research interests match those described in the advertisement? How well will they complement the work of the current faculty? How will your presence there make the department better? All this information will determine what to emphasize in your cover letter.
Writing the body of the letter
Your research accomplishments and plans should constitute the body of your cover letter for a research university position. At institutions where teaching is the primary emphasis, your primary focus should be your teaching experience, philosophy, and goals—and the suitability of your research program to a teaching-focused environment.
“An outline of plans for teaching and research needs to be specific to be meaningful,” Stansbury says. Focus on your most important two or three examples of proposed research projects and innovative teaching plans, such as developing novel courses. These examples should change from one cover letter to another, as you customize your letters for different jobs.
After the body of your cover letter has been drafted, you come to the most critical step: writing an attention-getting introduction. Salespeople call this "having a handle." Your handle is what you offer that makes you especially well qualified for a particular faculty opening. For example, summarizing how well your research interests match the ones the department advertised provides an effective letter opening.
The opening paragraph should be short but more than one sentence. After you've captured the reader's attention with the handle, clearly but briefly summarize your most important—and relevant—qualifications. Anything less than a sharp focus and your readers will quickly lose interest and move on to the next application.
Closing the letter
End your letter decisively. Don't let it meander to an indefinite or weak close. A decisive close projects an image of you as assertive, confident, and decisive. It never hurts to close by requesting an interview.
Make your cover letter an example of your best writing by editing it carefully. It must be easy to read. Focus and clarity of expression in your letter imply focus and clarity of thought—very desirable qualities in a faculty member.
Then return to the critical issue: whether your research interests, other qualifications, and personality meet the search committee’s requirements. Anything that doesn’t accentuate the match should be deleted ruthlessly.
Now, set your letter aside for a day or two before editing it again. The detachment you gain from this short break will help you see what you've written more clearly. Detachment makes it easier to determine whether your paragraphs flow smoothly from one to the next. The logic that seemed so obvious when you were writing may seem much less so a day or two later. Carefully review both your cover letter and your CV to be sure the information in them is perfectly consistent. Often, a committee won't bother to try to resolve any discrepancies they find; they'll just move on to the next application.
Finally, Whitmire advises, “be sure to have your cover letter reviewed by someone [who] can be trusted and who has experience. Often, getting a second opinion about how something sounds to the reader—i.e., what they got from reading the letter, not what you intended in writing it—can be very valuable.”
This article is an updated version of an article originally published on 10 March 2006.
More from Careers
John K. Borchardt
John K. Borchardt has a Ph.D. in chemistry. He is the author of the book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.
For the next few months I will be posting the “best of the best” Professor is in blog posts on the job market, for the benefit of all those girding their loins for the 2013-2014 market. Today’s post was originally published in 2011.
It has come to my attention that many junior people do not have a clear picture in their minds of the requirements of a postdoc application.
Some treat it too much like the job application. And some treat it too differently from the job application. The fact is, it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s quite different from a job application…..and yet many of the same principles apply.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the postdoc application is requiring a cover letter, a 4 page research proposal, a description of a proposed course, and a brief statement articulating how you will participate in the scholarly community of the campus. While not all postdocs will require this exact set of documents, by discussing these here, we can address the major requirements, expectations, and potential pitfalls of the typical postdoc application effort. I will take them in order.
This cover letter will be very similar to your job cover letter as explained in this post. It will contain the standard set of paragraphs to start: introduction, dissertation, dissertation import, publications. In all of this first part, the relevance of your work to the stated mission of the postdoc will be emphasized clearly. This requires carefully tailoring the cover letter materials. It’s difficult but it must be done. If your topic is Mexican women immigrant workers, then for a gender postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing gender relations at home or abroad; for a globalization postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing labor mobility globally; for a Latin American Studies postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects new economic circumstances in Mexico. This tailoring requires an original recasting or reframing of your work to meet the mission of the postdoc! Failure to do this reframing means failure to get the postdoc.
After the discussion of research, the postdoc app letter will specifically discuss the plan of work for the postdoc year–ie, month by month, what new research and revisions will be made.
It will then include a very brief discussion of teaching experience (much shorter than for a regular job cover letter), followed by a discussion of the proposed class required by the postdoc, and how the proposed class will also advance the mission of the postdoc.
Lastly, in place of the typical tailoring paragraph, the letter will conclude with a brief paragraph explaining how the research and writing time of the postdoc will be used, how the scholarly community on campus will advance the project, and how the candidate will participate in said scholarly community. The letter will be no more than 2 pages long.
The principle in operation here—and the one that too many applicants don’t seem to grasp—is that the campus is funding this expensive postdoc not so some random academic can come and sit in an office and write for a year, but rather, to “buy” the energy, contributions, and participation of an additional world-class scholar to their campus community for the period of that year. The postdoc, dear readers, is not meant to serve YOU. Rather, you are meant to serve the postdoc. That means, that in every document, you articulate how you will PARTICIPATE in campus/departmental scholarly life. You do this, however, as in all professional documents, without flattering, pandering, or begging. Rather, you identify faculty on campus with whom you would collaborate, and initiatives and programs on campus that are likely to house interdisciplinary conversations and debates to which your project relates, and you articulate clearly your interest in engaging with them in substantive ways.
4-Page Research Proposal
This research proposal looks very much like a grant application, and Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template will serve you well here, at least for the opening paragraphs. As in all research proposals you will want to open by proving the importance and urgency of your topic. Following the standard Dr. Karen template, you will construct the Proposal As Hero Narrative, with yourself in the role of Hero.
You may follow the Foolproof Grant Template all the way through to the point where it breaks off into things like budget and methodology. In place of those sections, you will focus entirely on timeline. The point of a postdoc research proposal is to, first, articulate an important and significant project, and second, articulate a coherent and feasible plan of work. It is this second element that most applicants fail to grasp.
Remember: the postdoc is not there to serve you, you are there to serve the postdoc. What does that mean? It means that the postdoc wants to see publications result from your time there. The postdoc wants to be mentioned in the acknowledgments of your book. The postdoc wants to be in the line, in the footnote, “this research was supported by generous funding from xxxxx.” The postdoc committee is going to judge the applications based on how likely it is that the applicant is going to efficiently and effectively use the time on campus to complete a specified set of publications. You will impress them when you include a month-by-month timeline/plan of work that shows explicitly what new archival/etc. research you will conduct, and when, what book chapters you will complete, and when, and what journal articles you will finish and submit, and when.
You will conclude this document with a strong and expansive conclusion that clearly shows how the postdoc year will play into your larger scholarly and career trajectory as a world-class scholar. Why? Because the postdoc wants to get part of the fame and glory that attaches to you as you move ahead in the world.
Postdocs are in the business of supporting the next generation of leaders in the scholarly world. To the extent that you represent yourself as a leader, you will do well. To the extent that you represent yourself as a little lost sheep desperately looking for a chance to get out of teaching for a year while you try and figure out what your book is about, you will do poorly. Be aware that the vast majority of postdoc applications are written by the latter.
Proposed Class Description
A point of vast confusion among postdoc applicants seems to be how to pitch the required class. Many applicants do not clearly grasp the difference between the postdoc and an adjunct. As such, the class they propose is one that is adjunct-level. Basically, applicants too often envision a course that is generic and basic. This is a mistake.
Postdocs are very expensive. If a campus wanted a generic and basic course, it would hire a cheap adjunct. There are many available. Instead, however, they are advertising for a postdoc. That means, they want a highly specialized course, that reflects the postdoc’s unique and distinctive scholarly program. The class can’t be absurdly specialized, of course. If the applicant’s specialization is the emerging gay male community in Jakarta, the course cannot be “Emerging Gay Male Communities in Jakarta.” Too narrow. Neither should it be “Introduction to Indonesia,” or “Gender and Sexuality.” Too broad. Rather, it should be pitched somewhere around, “Global Sexualities,” or “Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia,” or “Queer Globalizations.” The final choice for how to pitch the course will hinge on the climate of the department and the campus, and the postdoc mission itself—if it’s an Asian area studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize SE Asia, if it’s a gender postdoc, then you’d prioritize Global Sexualities, if it’s a transnational studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize Queer Globalizations. Get it? The tailoring happens here.
Statement of Participation in Campus Community
Here’s what the postdoc committee does not want: someone who arrives, walks into their allotted office, and is never seen again for the rest of the year. Here’s what they do want: someone who arrives and dives into the scholarly work of the department and the campus community. A postdoc is (should be) exempted from all service work on campus. However, the postdoc should make herself visible as an involved and interested departmental member. She should show up for brown bags and talks, symposia and conferences, and coffee and lunch with colleagues. In this statement, you articulate your orientation in that direction. Identify programs and initiatives in the department and on campus, by name, and discuss how you anticipate participating. Mention two or three faculty members by name, and how you look forward to engaging with them.
In all things, however, do NOT fall back into graduate student habits. You are NOT on campus to “learn from” or “study with” the scholars there. Rather, you ARE one of the scholars there. They may well learn from you. The proper stance here is that of a colleague who brings her own dynamic field of expertise to the campus, and who looks forward to energetic and innovative interactions with the colleagues there.
In sum, remember that, no matter how much you need that postdoc to get your book written, the postdoc is not there to serve you. You are there to serve the postdoc, but as a first-rank, world-class scholar and specialist in your field whose work speaks directly—DIRECTLY—to the mission of the postdoc. By virtue of your energy and brilliance, you cause the postdoc committee to pick you, out of all the competitors, to spend the year on their campus, sharing your work, and augmenting their teaching and intellectual profile and advancing their scholarly cause. Remember, make them want you.
Posted inLanding Your Tenure Track Job, Postdoc Issues, Strategizing Your Success in Academia, Teaching and Research Statements, Tenure--How To Get ItTaggedapplying for postdoctoral fellowship, how to apply for postdocs, writing a postdoc applicationpermalink
About KarenI am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.
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