advice

How to Write an Academic Cover Letter

 

 

Here’s a guest post from the very smart Lai-Tze Fan! It’s academic job season. Her advice on writing a cover letter is SO GOOD. Without further ado…

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Recently, I’ve offered to look over the cover letters of a few people applying to professor positions. The academic cover letter is a unique genre, and getting it right is as hard as the first time you wrote a grant proposal. It is your brief chance to show a search committee what you have to offer–including your existing/future research, your teaching methods, and that you’d be a great colleague. The cover letter is less finicky than the grant proposal (hurray, no citations!), but needs to be both cleaner and even more persuasive.

We all know the precarious futures of young academics, as well as the struggles faced by those who have been on the job market for six months or six years. I don’t judge anyone for going into alt-ac or leaving academia all together; some of the smartest people in my PhD cohort chose not to finish the degree, preferring other paths that I’m sure make them happy, and I am happy for them.

For those who want to stay, I’d like to offer suggestions based on my own experiences, noting that different disciplines may have fine-tuned requirements that I haven’t acknowledged here or even differing advice. As I will state at the end, I welcome additional tips that others in the community have to add. Please post them below!

Some background information: I’ve been lucky and am extremely grateful to have had interviews every season and back-to-back tenure-track jobs. I am not guaranteeing anything– these are just observations I’ve made in applying to nearly thirty jobs (some research-focused and some teaching-focused), serving on search committees, and editing dozens of cover letters for others.

I realize the length of the list is daunting. Think of it this way: after the job season, you’ll have written maybe half a dozen varieties of research- and teaching-focused letters. Let’s say you are an artist: maybe one letter highlights creative practice, one highlights curriculum building, one is suited for a fine arts department, one for social science, and one for the humanities. You now have templates that can be recycled and tweaked for most future job applications, but the first time is usually the hardest.

A lot of these suggestions you may already know. I hope the list may be useful, but whether or not it is, please offer your own advice to other scholars giving the job market a shot. I myself focus on helping young scholars, including women and non-binary people, and especially those of colour like me.

These suggestions aren’t necessarily in order, but I’ve also organized them in a way that, if you prefer, can be followed step-by-step.

Note on terminology: I was trained in Canada, so some of my terminology will reflect this. Other countries and systems have their preferred terms for “tenure” (such as “substantiation”), graduate students (“postgrads”), and various levels of teaching positions (“lecturer” in Canada vs. the UK). Please keep these variations in mind for your own job-seeking needs.

Throughout this document, the word “department” is used, but may also refer to specialized programs, research labs, centres, etc. to which you may be applying.

BEFORE YOU START

The #1 rule

Do not waste the search committee’s time. Don’t give them extra work or extra pages, don’t submit something that is incomplete, and don’t mislead them with confusing information.

Optional: Crack down on social media

The world of academia is small. Scholars that are associated or in close contact with any departments to which you apply shouldn’t be able to see questionable photos on your Instagram or read unprofessional posts on Facebook. Please don’t think that I am suggesting that friends who are academics do not care about who you are; nor would I ever advocate for faculty members to share others’ private information (we have witnessed these breaches of privacy and everyone gets upset). What I refer to is a scholar’s conflict of interest that might put them in a professional bind; maybe they’d even like to help you out, but they may excluded from important conversations because they are a bit too close to a job candidate.

Again, this is up to you! But if you are interested in limiting social media, then you could, for instance, place select people on private/acquaintance lists, have separate personal accounts, or even temporarily deactivate. If you haven’t done this yet, that’s ok: start now and limit visibility on previous posts that are questionable. What counts as sharing too much information you can decide for yourself, but as a rule of thumb, do not publicly criticize your current department and students, nor the department to which you’re applying or its faculty members. You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are also entitled to protect them.

ONTO THE LETTER

2.5 pages max

The cover letter should be 2.5 pages max, even with a signature at the bottom and your school logo/letterhead at the top (if you are currently affiliated with a school, then do use their logo and make it small). The signature adds a personalized touch.

Do your homework

Following the rule of not wasting the search committee’s time, take the time to learn what this department is about. Go online and explore their website, perhaps for 30 minutes per university. Familiarize yourself with their and the university’s research/mission statements. Do they offer their students/graduate students professionalized degrees–which means they want practical and culturally engaged work? Do they offer a more conservative or more experimental approach to their course offerings and/or graduate programs?–or is it a mix? Which faculty members do similar research to yours and in what ways do you offer something different (just figure this out, but never state in the cover letter why you are different from Professor X or Y)? What does their curriculum look like?

Other questions to consider, but which you may not want to address in your cover letter: Are they interested in collectively answering a problem–such as lowering the carbon footprint or greater representation for Indigenous students, cultures, and histories? Are they Hispanic serving? Is there a high number of international students? Is their student body composed of many “first-generation students” (this means something specific in the USA compared to Canada)?

The gist is: find out what they care about and what they’re dedicated to demonstrating to their current/prospective students, and make sure you explicitly state how your research, teaching, and/or service may share some of the same concerns. From what others have said, this method has never failed in making me stand out as a serious candidate in cover letters, Skype interviews, and campus interviews: learn about their goals and respect who they are; write them a letter that is unique to them; do not waste anyone’s time, including your own.

Optional: Write it as a story

While very few scholars have focused all of their work around a central interest, your task is to find a central interest or concern that can encompass many (not necessarily all; do not force it) of your work. The effect of the storytelling cover letter is that it can make you look focused and consistent, and the bonus is that central interests are often expressed in very simple and recognizable academic language: “I work on the representation of LGBTQ+ communities”; “I work on people’s relationship with food”; “I work on youths’ relationship with social media.”

Examples would be helpful, so I’ll plug them in when I can. My own cover letters have noted my interest in many media forms, including photography, print texts, and computational media. My method of tying these together is to state that “I work on storytelling in and across media,” which allows me to include traditional and experimental modes of storytelling. Not only does this narrative justify why some of my publications are on literature and some are on smart phone apps, it also makes it easier for committees to trace my career trajectory from being a literary scholar to a media scholar.

This overarching narrative allows the committee to follow an explicit argument, which many cover letters do not have. Cohesion is key here, so that everything seems to have its place. That does not mean the narrative is even accurate, but it’s the effect you’re going for.

Organize for easy/fast reading

It helps to organize sections so that they’re easy to skim. If you like, you can use headers such as “Background”/”Education,” “Research,” “Teaching,” and “Service” (call them whatever). What I cannot stress enough, however, is to start every section with one overarching sentence that summarizes the rest of the section. The sentence should take a structure like this (let’s say it’s the Research section): “My research focuses on [central concern] through a, b, and c,” where a, b, and c are your main qualities/interests in each area. The rest of the paragraph is up to you, as long as it covers a, b, and c–preferably in order.

The rule of thumb is to imagine that your reader will only read each header and the overarching sentence. What do they need to know? When you’re editing the cover letter, see if a stranger can figure out what you work on and teach just by skimming the letter.

Note: I’ve seen many cover letters that discuss educational background with research or that don’t have a service section at all. My advice here is to appeal to the department to which you’re applying: for example, if they clearly pride themselves on service or community engagement, then do not leave out a Service section!

THE CONTENT

Read the job call

Unless a general description has been used, a lot of what the committee wants you to speak to in detail–especially in your cover letter–is already in the job call, thus revealing exactly what you should focus on. The call will often state what position the job is trying to fill: sexuality studies? Critical race studies? If the job call includes a long list of desired expertise, the first two or three are the main foci, and the rest are perks that you can choose to mention as desired.

Based on these listed expertise, mention in every section you offer (research, teaching, etc.) how you approach these area(s) with specific examples–and here, it is again beneficial to take a look at the existing curriculum. What concentrations do the department or their programs offer?

What’s the difference among cover letters for research jobs, teaching jobs, and contract jobs?

This is possibly the most common question. Unfortunately, research positions, teaching positions, and short-term/contract positions each require unique content. I will try to be specific, but do have a look at the job call and use your judgement to figure out what kind of requirements are asked of you; tailor the cover letter to suit.

First, know the difference. A quick Google search may be enough to tell you if a university is research or teaching intensive; on Wikipedia, my institution is listed as “a public research university.” Then have a look at the website of the department/program/centre to which you’re applying and read for what their undergraduate and graduate programs offer potential students: are they intent on professionalization and internships? Do they stress being trained in critical theory? Very quickly you will figure out what kind of department you’re dealing with. That said, the job call may reflect this or may deviate slightly. For additional information, also see the item “include a summary of your teaching philosophy” below.

Note: if you’re applying to an American university, you can check out their research/teaching classification according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (where, for instance, PhDs are only granted by “R” or “Research”-level universities).

If you are applying to a research-heavy position, the Research section of your letter should take precedence. Make sure you present a comprehensive research pipeline (academic speak for “your next books/projects”) that shows, regardless of whether you are finishing your dissertation or you’ve been on the market for five years, that you can hold your own as a serious researcher. You’re publishing in refereed journals; you’re collaborating as befits your discipline (and maybe it doesn’t); you are applying or at least planning to apply for research grants. Make yourself look like you’re full of research ideas, full of energy, full of action. For more on this, see the item below entitled “present yourself as a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony.”

Note: If your dissertation or another book-length (research or creative) project is being edited or submitted for publication, say so, and also state which presses you will or intend to submit it to.

If you are applying to a teaching-heavy position with some research (such as some 1- and 3-year positions, including limited-term appointments and visiting assistant professorships), the teaching section of your cover letter should use the same amount of space as the research section. It is vital that you do not present yourself as foremost a researcher, but as equally researcher and teacher, or perhaps as a research-minded teacher. Ideally, you will present yourself as someone whose research interests have shaped your exciting pedagogical methods. Here, the “write it as a story” method of cover letter writing is effective, especially in communicating an earnest account of how your research and teaching are intertwined. Make sure that your Teaching Dossier, if requested, offers concrete examples of your experiences. I know many disapprove of sharing free sample syllabi in job applications; how many you choose to share is ultimately up to you, but if you want to do it, then include syllabi for classes you’ve previously taught (if applicable) and mock syllabi that suit the needs of the department to which you’re applying.

If you are applying to a teaching-only position (including full-time, part-time, and contract lectureships and limited-term appointments), your research statement may be no more than a paragraph to explain your background and maybe to offer context to your teaching interests. Simply put, unless a teaching-heavy job call notes that there are some research expectations, this position involves little to no research. Therefore, it is extremely crucial that you do not present yourself as a researcher or even as a teacher who is interested in making the jump to a more research heavy position in the future. Focus on sharing your teaching experiences, especially if you’ve ever worked as a writing instructor, a tutor, a mentor, a course designer, a translator, or if you’ve instructed in other languages, education systems, or countries. Mention any relevant pedagogical training you’ve had that may be an asset. The advice above about including sample syllabi holds; in fact, in many cases, job calls may ask for it

Jobs asking for curriculum and program development

If the job call notes that the successful applicant will develop a new program (graduate, undergraduate, certificate), then speak to your experiences especially in teaching and service in designing courses/capstone projects in this field, developing curriculum changes, and/or participating in meetings and committees where such changes have been made. Following the section above, it may be beneficial to include sample syllabi to show the depth or breadth of your design and development capabilities.

The interdisciplarian

The presentation of oneself as interdisciplinary without seeming “watered down” is a common concern for young scholars who did or are doing PhDs that are interdisciplinary, non-specific, and non-traditional. I would spend no more than two lines making an argument for this, though, as everyone is ultimately interdisciplinary: a full-time faculty member cannot be a one-trick pony who produces one major project. If successful in acquiring a tenure-track position, you would be expected to juggle research, courses, service, and student projects/theses/dissertations from a variety of fields, so interdisciplinarity means flexibility. In your cover letter (and also in potential interviews), do not apologize for your diverse background. Do try to highlight which one (or two) areas in your interdisciplinary work most strongly match the job call, proposing it as an asset that you have all this under your belt–and more! The key is to avoid looking unfocused. Instead, foreground your high aptitude in select areas.

There are a few ways to present interdisciplinary research. You could briefly speak to how your expertise in X, Y, and Z areas allows you to–or, how it is even necessary to–address the current state of [your central interest/concern]. Or, structure this sentence backwards: the current state of [your central interest/concern] requires that your dissertation bring together X, Y, and Z areas.

If you’d like to explicitly state the value of connecting multiple disciplines for your research, have a look at the argument you made in your dissertation literature review that brings together these various fields. The literature review might argue what the connection is, as well as how your approach is unique in bringing these together; however, the cover letter is not the place to persuade the search committee of this novelty. Instead, the cover letter should get to the gist of the results/payoff: summarize, in plain language, what the disciplinary connections bring to your research or how they advance the project.

I’m certain that others have more advice about how to present oneself as an interdisciplinary scholar; please do share your thoughts if you’re comfortable.

Avoid too many details

What a search committee wants to glean from the cover letter is who you are as a general package, not about the contributions of every article you’ve published/submitted and the details of every class you’ve taught. If they want details, they will go to your CV, so only mention major milestones/accomplishments that contribute to an overall argument/story/focus in your cover letter. Lists are your friend. Use plain language and curriculum-esque categories that anyone on the committee, regardless of their expertise, would understand. For example, if you work on fashion in Jane Austen novels, you could say that you draw from literary studies, gender studies, and consumer culture–three areas that are general enough for you to riff off of, discussing how you’ve extended one or more of these to related or future research projects.

If the application calls for a separate Research Statement, Teaching Dossier, or otherwise, then leave these sections (Research, Teaching) short and sweet in the cover letter (again, lists are your friend!), followed by “For more information, please see the attached [STATEMENT].” This means that these sections of your cover letter need to be impactful enough for the search committee to get an idea of what you do and to be eager to look at the separate attachment. If you’re working on a new book or project, give a one-liner on what it’s about or what it’s called, then let the separate statement say the rest.

Note: Unless stated otherwise, Teaching Dossiers should be 20 pages, give or take a few pages. Be strategic in what you choose to include, shaping the Dossier around the job and therefore not including every teaching evaluation or sample syllabus you possess. Pick syllabi that most strongly reflect the department’s current curriculum as well as the general areas they are seeking to fill in their job call. For teaching evaluations, all you need is an average of the scores or the average score of each question. You can always say that originals (evaluations, letters of recommendation, etc., are available upon request).

You’re a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony

You are no longer or soon will no longer be a graduate student. Do not present your dissertation as the only research project in your cover letter; do not treat it as your magnum opus. Instead, extend the dissertation and any other side projects/publications you’ve worked on by explaining how they have led to your current and next research questions or projects. One of the biggest mistakes I see in cover letters for research-based jobs is when an applicant doesn’t list their three- and five-year research plans, which is one thing a research-based institution will ask about if you get a first-stage and campus interview. So let them know early: what is the next book or project going to be? Also mention any grants or projects you’re excited to get up and running.

If you’ve picked the “write it as a story” approach, you could present your research plans as the next step in the story after the dissertation, mentioning in 1-2 sentences the way your next book/project answers questions or extends issues raised by your original interests. Everything comes tied together this way.

Taking this one from Prof. Jennifer Harris at U Waterloo (thanks, Jennifer!): If you’re a scholar who focuses on a single author, “you need to work harder to prove your interests extend beyond that author. Don’t spend all your time [explaining] how innovative your approach to that author–show that this inflects your understanding more broadly.”

Be clear when listing publications and accomplishments

Use numbers to save room and create quick effect. You currently have: X refereed journal articles, X forthcoming, X submitted for consideration; X book chapters, X forthcoming, X submitted; and so forth. Unless it’s a book, you’ve won an award, or there’s a very important co-author, there’s no need to name most or any of the publications; that’s what your CV is for. If you’re comfortable, you can also mention that you have X institutional, association, national, and/or international grants/scholarships won, for a total of $X.

Do not try to “trick” the committee with fancy numbers or misleading organization. A common way this is occurs is when scholars state in their cover letters or CVs that they have “7 publications” when they actually have 2 refereed journal articles, 3 non-refereed journal articles, and 2 book chapters. If you’ve done this by mistake, change it, as unclear organization or formatting makes it difficult for the committee to break down your contributions. And yes, it does matter: for every 1 kind committee member who takes time to look up these individual publications, 9 may toss out the application.

Name dropping may be a waste of space

Don’t make the letter about other scholars you’ve worked with, because the committee is potentially interested in you. Talk about you. There’s a small exception to this: if you’ve worked with a person who is very important to the field that the job call is seeking, it may be worth to quickly mention the collaboration. What I’m critiquing is name dropping to excess or mentioning names that won’t mean much to some members of a (likely interdisciplinary) committee. Don’t waste space with this.

On the subject of name dropping, do not mention members of the faculty that you’d like to work with or who you are inspired by (this is more likely something to do during a campus interview if you and a faculty member are getting along, but even then, avoid being overly presumptuous). It is possible for you to engage with or collaborate with some of these people if you get the job, but until you are successful, you cannot know about internal politics in the department. I don’t mean to be unkind, but naming current faculty who interest you is actually a tip for graduate school applications; doing so in an academic cover letter might suggest that you still think of yourself as a student instead of as a potential colleague.

Include a summary of your teaching philosophy

Unless the job call is completely administrative, the cover letter should have a teaching section. The length of the section will vary depending on what the position is looking for, but even if a separate teaching dossier is requested, your cover letter should still state what kind of teacher you are.

In plain language, include a brief summary of your teaching philosophy that is founded on your interests and experiences. For instance, following the “write it as a story” technique, I say that my research on digital devices has led me to think about the ubiquity of popular media for today’s undergraduate student; therefore, I train students to think about digital cultures and technologies both in the classroom and in their lives, aiming to extend their critical thinking to everyday situations.

Back to stating what kind of teacher you are. Ideally, you are the kind of teacher who fits easily into a department’s existing curriculum (and if requested in the job call, also their future plans). It is not helpful nor your place to propose reinventing their wheel; instead, state your teaching areas/interests so that they complement the department’s offerings and concentrations. If you are applying to a department that is slightly different from or more specific than your training, shift the language into their court. For example, if you did your PhD in media studies in a social science department and are applying for a media studies position in a humanities department, words such as “communication,” “policy,” and “technology” can be replaced with “rhetoric,” “system,” and “media.”

Finally, ask others to read it over

It doesn’t hurt to exchange letters and get the insight of others. (:

 

There is a comment section below. Please add your own tips and suggestions, including anything you think I’ve missed!

Lai-Tze Fan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo, conducting research in the Critical Media Lab. She is also an Associate Editor and Director of Communications of electronic book review. For more information, visit https://laitzefan.com

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