Academic Cover Letters
When you're applying for a faculty position with a college or university, the cover letter is your first chance to make a strong impression as a promising researcher and teacher. Below you'll find some strategies for presenting your qualifications effectively in an academic context.
Distinctions between Academic and Business Cover Letters
A cover letter for an academic job has a function similar to one for a business job, but the content differs significantly in quantity and kind. While the general advice for business cover letters—such as tailoring your letter for the specific job and selling your strengths—still applies, a cover letter for an academic position should be long enough to highlight in some detail your accomplishments during your graduate education in research, teaching, departmental service, and so on. The typical letter is thus usually one and a half to two pages long, but not more than two—roughly five to eight paragraphs.
The First Paragraph
In the opening of your letter you need to convey some basic information, such as what specific position you are applying for (using the title given in the job notice) and where you learned of the opening. Since a cover letter is a kind of persuasive writing (persuading a hiring committee to include you on a list of candidates for further review), the first paragraph of your letter should also make the initial claim as to why you are a strong candidate for the position.
Tailoring for Your Audience
In an academic context knowing your audience means reading the job notice carefully and knowing the type of institution to which you are applying. Most graduate students have studied a broad range of material within their discipline before specializing in a narrow field for the dissertation project. Since it is rare to find a job notice specifying your exact qualifications, you need to emphasize those aspects of your graduate training that seem particularly relevant to the position advertised.
- Job notice: If you've written a political science dissertation on populism in early twentieth-century US national politics, you probably won't respond to a notice seeking a specialist in international politics during the Cold War. But you may wish to apply for a position teaching twentieth-century US political parties and movements. In this case you would want to stress the relevance of your dissertation to the broad context of twentieth-century US politics, even though the study focuses narrowly on the pre-World War I period. You might also highlight courses taken, presentations given, or other evidence of your expertise that corresponds to the job notice.
- Type of institution: Often the job notice will provide a brief description of the college or university, indicating such factors as size, ownership (public, private), affiliation (religious, nonsectarian), geography (urban, suburban, rural), and so on. These factors will influence the kind of information emphasized in your letter. For example, for a job at a small liberal arts college that focuses on undergraduate teaching, you would emphasize your teaching experience and pedagogical philosophy early in the letter before mentioning your dissertation. On the other hand, for a job at a large research university you would provide at least one detailed paragraph describing your dissertation early in the letter, even indicating your plans for future research, before mentioning your teaching and other experience.
If you're still working on your dissertation, you should mention somewhere in the letter when you expect to be awarded the Ph.D., even being as specific as to mention how many chapters have been completed and accepted, how many are in draft version, and what your schedule for completion is. Last-paragraph tips include the following:
- Mention your contact information, including a phone number where you can be reached if you will be away during a holiday break.
- If you will be attending an upcoming major professional conference in your field, such as the MLA convention for language and literature professionals, indicate that you will be available for an interview there. Be sure to mention that you are available for telephone or campus-visit interviews as well.
- If you have some special connection to the school, type of institution, or region, such as having attended the school as an undergraduate or having grown up in the area, you may wish to mention that information briefly at some point.
- Mention your willingness to forward upon request additional materials such as writing samples, teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation.
Job seekers at Purdue University may find value in the Purdue Career Wiki.
How To Write a Cover Letter for a Research Paper
The cover letter written to accompany a research paper when it is submitted for publication in a scientific or academic journal offers an unparalleled opportunity to persuade a busy editor that the manuscript merits serious consideration, fits the journal’s publishing agenda and is worthy of peer review. Accordingly, cover letters are notoriously difficult to write well, and many concerns and priorities must be juggled to achieve a professional and effective letter.
It is always wise to begin by consulting the journal’s guidelines for authors. Any instructions relevant to cover letters and their content should be followed with precision. You may be asked to state that the research is original, that it complies with the journal’s ethical standards, that all authors have approved the manuscript, that there are no conflicts of interest and that every trace of authorial identity has been removed from the manuscript in preparation for blind review. It is also common to confirm that the paper has not been submitted or published elsewhere. If part of the research has already been presented or published, explain this carefully, highlighting what is new in the manuscript you are submitting. Even if information of this kind is not requested in a cover letter, it is usually helpful to provide it.
Information about potential reviewers for your paper can be a little trickier. If your field of study is extremely small or highly specialised, such a list might prove particularly helpful for the editor, but it is generally best to mention experts by name only if the journal requests this either in its guidelines or via personal contact. If you are providing a list of possible reviewers, be sure to make your decisions on ethical intellectual grounds and not to include anyone for whom there may be a conflict of interest –a co-author, for instance, or close colleague would be inappropriate. Avoiding specific names while describing with precision the type of knowledge and expertise required to assess your research adequately can be a diplomatic alternative.
Your cover letter should certainly describe your manuscript and publishing intentions clearly. Open with the fact that you are submitting your research paper for publication in the journal, and be sure to provide the titles of both your paper and the journal. Then you can briefly describe your topic and its background, your research questions and methods, and your findings and conclusions as well as the gaps they fill in current knowledge or the practices they may affect. The primary goal is to convince the editor that your research is necessary, your findings important and your paper of interest to readers of the journal who will ultimately cite your work. Since a cover letter should be fairly short (a single traditional page is ideal), you will need to be selective as well as concise and choose information that successfully highlights the unique strengths and significance of your research. A sincere and objective assessment of your work and its meaning will be more effective than unsubstantiated exaggeration and grandiose claims.
Thinking from the perspective of the journal editor can be most helpful. Widen your view beyond imagining what publication in the journal will mean to you and your career by recognising that the relationship between author and publisher is a symbiotic one. Try to focus on how your paper fits the journal’s aims and scope. Why did you decide to send your writing to that particular journal? How does your work relate to articles it has already published, especially in recent months and years? Why would your research be of interest to the journal’s readers? How might they make use of your methods, results and conclusions? Familiarising yourself with the journal, its publications, its aims and its scope will help you prioritise and phrase key descriptions of your work.
Ensure that you write your cover letter with extreme care and then proofread, edit and revise your prose until it is polished to perfection. It is essential that you communicate with the utmost clarity and that your letter promises the editor an equally well-written paper, so errors in language, awkward wording and logical ambiguities must be avoided at all cost. Jargon should also be avoided, and elements such as discipline-specific terminology and unusual abbreviations and acronyms are best if used sparingly and carefully defined, keeping in mind that the journal editor may not share your specialisation. The format of a traditional business letter will enable a tidy presentation of the current date, your name, title and contact information as well as the name, title and contact information of the editor. Be sure to use a proper salutation such as ‘Dear Dr Smith,’ to maintain a polite professionalism throughout your letter and to express gratitude for the editor’s consideration before formally signing off.
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