Friday, 4 November 2016

Structuring an academic cover letter

Dr Steve Joy

This autumn, the Early Career Blog is undergoing various changes, not least in the colour & choice of font. Whilst we make further changes, I am expanding & updating for 2016 some of the most popular posts – starting with this advice on structuring a cover letter for academic jobs. Below is a skeleton structure for a two-page cover letter, suitable for lectureships & similar positions in the UK as well as at research-intensive universities overseas. If you’re applying to a research-only job, then you could simply omit the two teaching paragraphs.

You will notice that I suggest not following the standard advice that you should have one 'fit' paragraph, usually the last, in which you say something about the particular job you're applying for. Empathise with the busy academics who will be reading your letter – that is, skimming it in a brisk 30-60 seconds. Don’t make them wait all the way until the end to find out whether you have anything specific to say about the actual job that's on offer. My advice is that your letter should consistently refer back to the specific role & what makes you uniquely suited to it, like a thread that runs throughout the whole document.

I concede that academic job descriptions contain many, many elements, and I agree that there is a lot to say. But two pages are enough. There’s no excuse just to drone on for page after page, retelling every single research activity to which you've ever been even remotely connected, every course you’ve ever taught, every student committee you’ve sat on... It’s essential that you prioritise: not just because everyone appreciates brevity, but also because judging what information is needed in order to present a coherent argument is a key academic skill. Don’t undermine yourself by waffling.

This structure isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for you to clone, and I encourage you to adapt it. But when you do, I urge you to keep in mind the relative proportions here. Note, for example, the balance between recounting past achievements & pointing forward to what you intend to do. Looking ahead, outlining your plans for the future, is the one thing that your CV can’t do, so don’t squander the opportunity which a cover letter provides to show that you have a vision for where you’re headed. Never forget that panels are always assessing your potential to be successful in the years to come.

Suggested structure – one paragraph per item:

1. Opening
Be sure to cover: (i) Which position are you applying for? (ii) What is your current job & affiliation? (iii) What’s your research field, and what’s your main contribution to it? What links your various research projects – what’s the overarching trajectory? (iv) What’s your headline, e.g. what makes you most suitable for this post? What is unique about you? What do you most want to draw to the committee’s attention?

Under no circumstances should you have any phrase along the lines of “My excellent research track record, extensive teaching experience, and administrative skills make me a strong candidate for this position.” It’s a really boring cliché, and it’s not distinguishing you in any way. After all, what you’ve really said is “Look, I have the minimum requirements you’ve specified for this post.” So does everyone else.

2. Your PhD
Switch to past tense as appropriate. Tell the story of research on this topic and how you fit with it. What is your field? What is the state of existing research on your topic, i.e. what has previously been unknown / unproven / problematic, etc? What is your research question, and what is your approach to it? What does the dissertation conclude, and why is that a useful contribution to debates in your field? What publications are coming out of the PhD?

3. Postdoctoral research
Present or past tense as appropriate. Use a similar structure to para 2. What do you do? Why is this topic important? Why is now the right time to do this research? Why are you the best researcher to carry it out? Include publication plans arising from this research. In what ways is this research useful / relevant to your prospective employer?

4. Future research programme
Optional – e.g. if you are currently a postdoc. What do you propose to do next, including plans for publications, specific funding plans, collaborations? Crucially, why should this particular department be interested in your future research programme? And if, by now, you have multiple research projects behind you, what links them? What’s your overarching programme / research trajectory, and why might your prospective employer get value from it?

Remember that panels are looking for you to have a coherent vision – ideas and the attributes required to implement them – with a view to passing your probation, successfully contributing to the REF, securing tenure, etc.

5. Your teaching to date
What is your approach to teaching? What have you taught? This should not be simply a tedious list of course titles, which your reader will already have picked up from the CV. Group the teaching together, e.g. by theme or year group. Think about what is distinctive in your teaching specialism, methodology, etc. What makes you a good teacher?

A polemical note on evidence: my advice is not to use one or two selected quotes where students have said glowing things about you – everybody knows that you have capriciously selected the best ones. What quantitative evidence do you have? Consider: students’ results, sign-up for optional courses, requests to re-run/expand what you have done before, student satisfaction data, etc. I agree that none of these data could really be called objective evidence & there is a lot to criticise in the mania for measuring everything within academia these days, but when we’re talking about job documents, we’re in double-bind. You can’t refuse to answer the reasonable question whether you’re a good teacher because the measures currently available to us are problematic. And quantifiable evidence of success does read better than anecdotes from a few favoured students.

6. Future teaching
What could you teach at your prospective department? Be careful not to suggest booting a long-standing member of staff off their cherished final-year research-led module. Think about what you're proposing & where the department's needs are likely to be.

If you are proposing a new course, it has to be more than intellectually interesting. Say what's in it for the students – how will it contribute to their studies more broadly, and how will it serve them in the future (e.g. if they don’t stay on for a Masters or PhD)?

7. Other aspects of the role
Apart from your research / teaching, what would you bring to the post? To the group? The department? The university? What about public engagement, service, admin, pastoral duties, etc? One small but concrete, well-judged suggestion is all that you really need here.

This is your last chance to hook the panel’s interest with your vision for the role & for what you want to achieve in the coming years, so don’t finish on a limp, throwaway comment about your commitment to administration.

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