How to Write an Academic Cover Letter With Examples
When you are applying for a faculty position at a college or university, your cover letter will differ significantly from the standard business cover letter.
Your cover letter may be reviewed by Human Resources department staff to determine if you meet the basic qualifications for the job. If it does, it will be forwarded to a search committee comprised mostly of faculty members and academic deans.
These individuals will be accustomed to reading more lengthy academic cover letters and resumes or curriculum vitae (CV) than would be customary in the business world. They will also often be more interested in the philosophical foundations for your work than the typical business recruiter.
Tips for Writing an Academic Cover Letter
Your initial challenge will be to pass through the Human Resources screening. Review each of the required qualifications included in the job announcement and compose statements containing evidence that you possess as many of the skills, credentials, knowledge and experiences listed as possible. Also address as many of the preferred qualifications as possible. Give concrete examples to support your assertions about your strengths.
Be Prepared for Faculty Review
Your faculty reviewers will typically have an interest in your philosophy and approach to teaching and research within your discipline.
They will also be evaluating how your background fits with the type of institution where they work.
Research the faculty in your target department to assess their orientation and expertise. Emphasize points of intersection between your philosophy and the prevalent departmental philosophy.
Target Your Letter
If you possess traditionally valued areas of expertise which are not already represented by the current faculty, make sure to point those strengths out in your cover letter.
Tailor your letter to the orientation of the college and adjust the mix of emphasis on teaching and research based on the expectations in that setting.
Colleges will typically want to hire new faculty who are passionate about their current research and not resting on past research credits. Describe a current project with some detail and express an enthusiasm for continuing such work. Try to do the same with any evolving teaching interests.
Highlight any grants and funding you have received to undertake your research activities. Incorporate any awards or recognition which you have received for your teaching or research activities. Some text should also be devoted to other contributions to the college communities where you worked such as committee work, advising and collaborations with other departments.
Cover Letter Format
Your cover letter should be written in the same basic format as a business cover letter. An academic cover letter is typically two pages compared to a single page for non-academic letters.
Here’s an example of the appropriate format for a cover letter and guidelines for formatting your letters.
Job Application Materials
It’s important to submit all your application materials in the format requested by the college or university.
You may be asked to email, mail or apply online via the institution’s applicant tracking system.
Send only what is requested. There's no need to include information that the institution hasn't requested. However, you can offer to provide additional materials like writing samples, syllabi and letters of recommendation in the last paragraph of your letter.
Submitting Your Application
Follow the instructions in the job posting for submitting your application. It should specify what format the college wants to receive.
Here are some examples of what you may be asked to include with your cover letter and resume or CV:
- A cover letter, CV/resume, and contact information for three references.
- A cover letter (PDF format) of interest clearly indicating your qualifications and reason for application, Curriculum Vitae (PDF format), and a minimum of three professional references, including phone and email contact information.
- A letter of interest, a Curriculum Vitae, a teaching vision statement, a research vision statement that specifically indicates how you would interact with or collaborate with other department faculty, and three references.
- A cover letter, CV/resume, and contact information for three references. Please upload these as ONE document in RTF, DOC or PDF format.
Academic Cover Letter Example #1
Dr. Firstname Lastname
Chair, English Department Search Committee
Charlotte, NC, 28213
Dear Dr. Firstname Lastname,
I am writing to apply for the position of assistant professor of English with an emphasis in nineteenth-century American literature that you advertised in the February 20XX MLA Job Information List. I am a Dean’s Fellow and Ph.D. candidate at XYZ University, currently revising the final chapter of my dissertation, and expecting to graduate in May 20XX. I am confident that my teaching experience and my research interests make me an ideal candidate for your open position.
Over the past five years, I have taught a variety English courses. I have taught a number of American literature survey courses, as well as writing courses, including technical writing and first-year writing. I have extensive experience working with ESL students, as well as students with a variety of learning disabilities, including dyslexia and dysgraphia, and disabilities like ADD and ADHD. I pride myself in creating a classroom environment that accommodates the needs of my individual students while still promoting a high level of critical thought and writing skills. Some of my most satisfying experiences as a teacher have come from helping struggling students to grasp difficult concepts, through a combination of individual conferences, class activities, and group discussion. I know I would thrive as a teacher in your college, due to your belief in small classroom size and individualized support for students.
Not only does my teaching experience suit the needs of your school and department, but my research interests also fit perfectly with your description of the ideal candidate. My dissertation project, “Ferns and Leaves: Nineteenth-Century Female Authorial Space,” examines the rise and development of American female authors in the 1840s and 1850s, with a particular focus on patterns of magazine publication. I argue that, rather than being submissive to the requirements of the editor or publisher, female authors in fact developed a more transparently reciprocal relationship between themselves and their readers than previously has been assumed. I apply recent print-culture and book-history theory to my readings of novels, magazine articles, letters, and diary entries by various female authors, with a particularly focus on Sara Willis (known by her pseudonym Fanny Fern). I plan to develop my dissertation into a book manuscript, and continue to research the role of female writers in antebellum magazine culture, with a particular focus on the rise and influence of female magazine editors on literary culture.
My research interests have both shaped and been shaped by my recent teaching experiences. Last spring, I developed and taught a course on the history of print culture in America. I combined readings on theory and literature that addressed issues of print with visits to local historical museums and archives. My students conducted in-depth studies on particular texts (magazines, newspapers, novels) for their final papers. I believe my interdisciplinary teaching style, particularly my emphasis on material culture, would fit in well with the interdisciplinary nature of your English department.
I am therefore confident that my teaching experience, my skill in working with ESL and LD students, and my research interests all make me an excellent candidate for the assistant professor of English position at ABC College. I have attached my curriculum vitae and the two requested sample publications. I would be happy to send you any additional materials such as letters of reference, teaching evaluations, and past and proposed course syllabi. I will be available to meet with you at either the MLA or C19 conference, or anywhere else at your convenience. Thank you so much for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.
Your Signature (hard copy letter)
Your City, State, Zip Code
Your Phone Number
Academic Cover Letter Example #2
Dr. Firstname Lastname
Chair, Department of Biology
City, state, zip code
Dear Dr. Smith,
I am writing to apply for the position of Assistant Professor of Biology with a focus on molecular biology at XYZ University, as advertised in the February 20XX issue of Science. I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of XYZ in the Department of Molecular Biology, working under the advisement of Professor Linda Smith. I am confident that my research interests and teaching experience make me an ideal candidate for your open position.
My current research project, which is an expansion on my dissertation, “[insert title here],” involves [insert research project here]. I have published my dissertation findings in Science Journal and am in the processing of doing the same with my findings from my current research. The laboratory resources at XYZ University would enable me to expand my research to include [insert further research plans here] and seek further publication.
Beyond my successes as a researcher (including five published papers and my current paper in process), I have had extensive experience teaching a variety of biology courses. As a graduate student at Science University, I served as a teaching assistant and guest lecturer for both biology and chemistry introductory courses, and won the university award for outstanding teacher’s assistant. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of ABC, I have had the opportunity to teach Introduction to Biology as well as a graduate-level course, Historicizing Molecular Biology. In every class, I strive to include a blend of readings, media, lab work and discussion in order to actively engage students with the material. I would love the opportunity to bring my award-winning lesson planning and teaching skills to your biology department.
I am confident that my research interests and experience combined with my teaching skills make me an excellent candidate for the Assistant Professor of Biology position at XYZ University. I have attached my curriculum vitae, three recommendations and the two requested sample publications. I would be happy to send you any additional materials such as teaching evaluations or past and proposed course syllabi. I will be available to meet with you at the ASBMB conference in April or anywhere else at your convenience. Thank you so much for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.
City, state, zip code
More Cover Letter Examples: Cover Letter Samples
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The classic counterpart to a CV, cover letters are standard in almost all job applications. Academic cover letters are typically allowed to be longer than in other sectors, but this latitude comes with its own pitfalls. For one, many cover letters are written as if they were simply a retelling in full sentences of everything on the CV. But this makes no sense. Selectors will have skimmed through your CV already, and they don't want to re-read it in prose form.
Instead, approach your cover letter as a short essay. It needs to present a coherent, evidence-based response to one question above all: why would you be an excellent hire for this position?
1) Start with a clear identity
Consider this sentence: "My research interests include Thomas Mann, German modernist literature, the body, the senses, Freudian psychoanalysis, queer theory and performativity, poststructuralism, and Derridean deconstruction." In my experience, this type of sentence is all too common. Who is this person? What do they really do? If I'm asking myself these questions after more than a few lines of your cover letter, then you've already fallen into the trap of being beige and forgettable.
To get shortlisted, you need to stand out. So, let's start as we mean to go on. Your opening paragraph should answer the following questions: What is your current job and affiliation? What's your research field, and what's your main contribution to it? What makes you most suitable for this post?
2) Evidence, evidence, evidence
It's generally accepted that, in job applications, we need to 'sell' ourselves, but how to do this can be a source of real anxiety. Where's the line between assertiveness, modesty and arrogance? The best way to guard against self-aggrandisement or self-abnegation is to focus on evidence. For example, "I am internationally recognised as an expert in my field" is arrogant, because you are making a bold claim and asking me to trust your account of yourself. By contrast, "I was invited to deliver a keynote talk at [top international conference]" is tangible and verifiable.
If you can produce facts and figures to strengthen your evidence, then your letter will have even more impact, for example "I created three protocols which improved reliability by N%. These protocols are now embedded in my group's experiments and are also being used by ABC". Remember that your readers need you to be distinctive and memorable.
Never cite the job description back at the selectors. If they have asked for excellent communication skills, you're going to need to do better than merely including the sentence "I have excellent communication skills." What is your evidence for this claim?
3) It's not an encyclopaedia
Because everything you say must be supported with evidence, you can't include everything. I find that many people are prone to an encyclopaedic fervour in their cover letters: they slavishly address each line of the job description, mention every single side project which they have on the go, every book chapter and review article they've ever written, and so on. Letters like this just end up being plaintive, excessively tedious, and ineffective.
Instead, show that you can distinguish your key achievements (eg. top publications, grants won, invited talks) from the purely nice-to-have stuff (eg. seminar series organised, review articles, edited collections). Put your highlights and best evidence in the letter – leave the rest to the CV.
4) Think holistically
There's no need to try to make each application document do all the work for you. That leads to repetitiveness. Let them work together holistically. If there's a research proposal, why agonise over a lengthy paraphrase of the proposal in the cover letter? If there's a teaching statement, why write three more teaching paragraphs in your letter as well? Give me a quick snapshot and signpost where the rest of the information can be found, for example: "My next project will achieve X by doing Y. Further details, including funding and publication plans related to the project, are included in my research proposal."
5) Two sides are more than enough
There is no reason why your cover letter should need to go beyond two sides. In fact, I've seen plenty of people get shortlisted for fellowships and lectureships using a cover letter that fitted on to a single side of A4. It can be done – without shrinking the font and reducing the margins, neither of which, I'm sorry to break it to you, is an acceptable ruse. Besides, please have some sympathy for your readers: they have jobs to do and lives to lead; they will appreciate pith.
6) Writing about your research: why, not what
In almost every conceivable kind of academic application, fellowships included, it's very high risk to write about your research in such a way that it can only be understood by an expert in your field. It's far safer to pitch your letter so that it's comprehensible to a broader readership. You need to show a draft of your letter to at least one person who, as a minimum requirement, is outside your immediate group or department. Do they understand your research? Crucially, do they understand its significance? Before the selectors can care about the details of what you do, you have to hook their interest with why you do it.
Bad: "I work on the lived experiences of LGB people in contemporary Britain [why?]. I look particularly at secondary school children [why?], and I use mixed methods to describe their experiences of homophobic bullying [vague]. My PhD is the first full-length study of this topic [so what?]."
Better: "In recent years, significant progress has been made towards equality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people living in Britain. However, young people aged 11-19 who self-identify as LGB are more likely to experience verbal and physical bullying, and they are at significantly greater risk of self-harm and suicide. In my dissertation, I conduct an ethnographic study of a large metropolitan secondary school, in order to identify the factors which lead to homophobic bullying, as well as policies and initiatives which LGB young people find effective in dealing with it."
7) Mind the gap
Be aware that "nobody has studied this topic before" is a very weak justification for a project. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but academia does not. Does it even matter that no previous scholarship exists on this precise topic? Perhaps it never merited all that money and time. What are we unable to do because of this gap? What have we been getting wrong until now? What will we be able to do differently once your project has filled this void?
8) Writing about teaching: avoid list-making
Avoid the temptation of list-making here, too. You don't need to itemise each course you have taught, because I've already read this on your CV, and there's no need to detail every module you would teach at the new department. Similarly, you don't need to quote extensively from student feedback in order to show that you're a great teacher; this smacks of desperation.
A few examples of relevant teaching and the names of some courses you would be prepared to teach will suffice. You should also give me an insight into your philosophy of teaching. What do students get out of your courses? What strategies do you use in your teaching, and why are they effective?
9) Be specific about the department
When explaining why you want to join the department, look out for well-intentioned but empty statements which could apply to pretty much any higher education institution in the world. For example, "I would be delighted to join the department of X, with its world-leading research and teaching, and I see this as the perfect place to develop my career." This won't do.
Deploy your research skills, use the internet judiciously, and identify some specifics. Are there initiatives in the department to which you could contribute, e.g. research clusters, seminar series, outreach events? What about potential collaborators (remembering to say what's in it for them)? What about interdisciplinary links to other departments in the institution?
10) Be yourself
It often feels like slim pickings when you're job hunting, and many people feel compelled to apply for pretty much any role which comes up in their area, even if it's not a great fit. But you still need to make the most of who you are, rather than refashioning yourself into an approximation of what you think the selectors want.
If you have a strong track record in quantitative research and you've spotted a job in a department leaning more towards qualitative methods, you might still decide to apply, but there's no point in trying to sell yourself as what you're not. They'll see through it, and you'll have downplayed your genuine successes for no reason.
Instead, make a case for why your achievements should be of interest to the department, for example by demonstrating how statistics would complement their qualitative work. At the end of the day, the best way to get shortlisted is to highlight bona fide achievements that are distinctive to you.
Steve Joy is careers adviser for research staff in the arts, humanities, and social sciences at the University of Cambridge – follow him on Twitter @EarlyCareerBlog
Do you have any tips to add? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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