Writing a Cover Letter for an Academic Job

Writing an academic job cover letter can be a stressful experience. You may not have finished your dissertation yet, and so you may feel anxiety or ‘imposter syndrome’ about projecting the conclusions of your work. In addition, the apprenticeship of graduate school and the years of preparation and training may paradoxically make you less confident about finally bridging the gap and becoming an Assistant Professor. A pervasive climate of structural vulnerability in universities doesn’t help.

It’s good to have some principles in mind that can ease stress and streamline the process of writing your letter. Depending on what field of study or specialization you’re in–and depending on what departments and programs you might be applying to–there is a range of appropriate letters you could write. Taking a broad perspective, here are some things you should include in your letter:

  • A cover letter is a genre unto itself, and tends to be formulaic. In terms of formatting, a general rule-of-thumb is that your letter should be no longer than two pages (but preferably longer than 1.5 pages—too much white space is unhelpful). Write in single-spaced formatting, with one-inch paragraph margins, and a commonly accepted font in your field (no comic sans).
  • Like any piece of crafted writing, your letter should have an introduction and a conclusion paragraph. In the beginning, it’s a good idea to state first what job you are applying for, and where you found the ad. Second, mention your current status (ABD? PhD?), your University and department affiliation, and the date of your defense (be specific and definitive about the date; also, be sure that you and your advisor are on the same page, or s/he may cite a different date in their recommendation letter). Also, write a few sentences about why you are applying for the job—show honesty and enthusiasm!
  • Provide a synopsis or abstract of your dissertation. Think about hooking your reader from your very opening line: provide something unexpected, a surprising contrast, or a puzzle or question that motivates you. You’ll want to mention your research topic and your research question, and it’s a good idea to mention your research process (including methods or field-sites, if applicable) as well as your conclusions and findings. Finally, point to the broader impact that your research has not just for your academic discipline, but for society at large. Remember that readers may not be specialists in your sub-field, so write in a way that is precise yet general enough to appeal to an educated member of the public (i.e. jargon-free as much as possible).
  • It’s a good idea to address your future and related research plans. Especially if you’re applying for a position at a research institution or tenure-track job, it’s important that you mention what research projects you envision that will advance the profile of the University and advance you to tenure candidacy, including your intention to apply for grants and publish research findings (if applicable). This doesn’t necessarily have to outline a complete research plan; rather, you can point to publications (including books and articles) that you intend to develop based on research you’ve already completed or plan to do. Also, you can point to lines of inquiry that stem from other areas of your professional output, including conference presentations, conferences or panels you’ve planned or organized, and affiliated research projects or faculty collaborations that you’ve played a part in. Highlight threads of continuity that show how your future work is an extension of the expertise you’ve already cultivated through your dissertation project.
  • Competitive candidates for jobs at public universities or liberal arts colleges would do well to discuss their teaching experience and teaching philosophy. To start, summarize your teaching philosophy in one or two sentences. Then, show how you bring those ideas alive in the classroom. You can give examples from class experiences you’ve had, examples of student mentorship, or how you’ve dealt with tricky situations in the past. If you don’t have much teaching experience or if your ideas have evolved since then, demonstrate what experiences have shaped your new outlook and how you would apply your philosophy through specific pedagogical principles. You may also want to mention ideas for classes that you would like to teach; or, alternately, address how you would teach classes that are specifically mentioned as requirements in the job ad.
  • It’s also a good idea to discuss any relevant experience in University service. You want to demonstrate that you’re friendly, collegial, and willing to do your part in any service work or administrative tasks without being aloof. This is especially important if you’re applying to smaller institutions where service work—including mentoring, advising and committee work—is an important part of the job. One quick solution is to take some bits of language that are used in the job advert and cite these in your service paragraph, as a way to focus your thoughts while writing and to show that your service work is relevant to the search committee’s specific interests. An even more effective way to do this is to search online for existing departments and faculty members at your target institution with whom you could see yourself collaborating, and to mention these by name in your letter as potential future collaborations.
  • In conclusion, restate your enthusiasm for the position. If there’s space, you may want to provide a summary of simple logistical points: when the reader can expect your letters of recommendation to arrive (or list the names of your faculty recommenders); when the reader can expect your supplementary materials to arrive (or whether they’re included together with the cover letter); the URL for your website or online portfolio, if you have one; as well as your availability for an interview, and your best personal contact information if needed.

Remember to strike a professional tone. Write your letter in a language that is formal but not excessively abstract or jargon-filled; depending on the University to which you’re applying, you may very well be addressing readers who are not specialists in your topic or sub-field. Write your letter on letterhead from your degree-granting University, if possible!

Also, remember that you should tailor your letter to the specific qualities and requirements of the institution you’re applying to. Your letter should never be just a list or summary of your accomplishments and achievements—that’s what your CV is for. Rather, the letter is about telling a story: animating your activities, highlighting the key set-pieces, and helping the reader understand and connect with your qualities as an individual: your passions, your motivations, your ability to care and take responsibility, and your ability to overcome challenges. As always, showing is better than telling (stay away from clichés and empty adjectives), but also don’t get trapped in writing a laundry-list of achievements.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that every academic discipline has slightly different conventions when it comes to cover letters. As a result, nothing can replace the benefit of seeing multiple examples of cover letters in your discipline, enough to get a feel for the patterns that more than one cover letter in your discipline have in common.

Further Resources:

Ball, Cheryl. (2013). “Understanding Cover Letters” Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/11/04/essay-cover-letter-academic-jobs on 10/1/2016.

The Professor Is In has a great advice column on the art of the academic cover letter.

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