When applying for tenure-track faculty positions, applicants naturally focus on their CV, which represents their years of professional blood, sweat, and tears. However, don’t underestimate the importance of the cover letter when preparing your application package. As a faculty member who has chaired several search committees at both primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) and R1 universities, here are my tips for drafting a successful cover letter that will distinguish you from an endless sea of competitive applicants.
Complete All Other Pieces of the Application First
Like the abstract of a manuscript, your cover letter should be the last part of the application you complete. Updating your CV and writing your teaching and/or research philosophy prepares you to write the cover letter by:
- Reminding you of your accomplishments and experiences relevant to the position
- Helping you determine how best to present yourself to the search committee
- Investing you in the application process so you give your cover letter the time and attention it deserves
In short, your cover letter should tell the story of where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you want to go with the institution you’re applying to. That story will be much easier to write, if you review your academic history beforehand.
Start Strong and Finish Well
The first 2-3 sentences of your cover letter will likely determine if anyone reads the rest of it. If possible, greet the search committee chair by name, or address the committee as “Dear Colleagues.” The first sentence should include the title of the position to which you’re applying and lead into a brief statement of why you are an ideal candidate for the job.
Conclude the letter by thanking the committee for their time and consideration, and use a professional closing, such as “Sincerely” or “Best regards.” Don’t forget to include the letters of your terminal degree behind your name.
Highlight Your Relevant Achievements
Use concrete examples to support any claims you make in your cover letter, especially those directly related to the position’s requirements. Highlight specific accomplishments, such as publications in prestigious journals, notable leadership or service positions, and well-known fellowships.
Such examples should be used judiciously and only when they pertain to the position announcement. Resist the urge to give a laundry list of your achievements that reads more like a CV than a cover letter. Conversely, don’t end the letter prematurely without adequately making your case for an interview.
No one wants to read a form cover letter, so provide the search committee with a breath of fresh air to further stand out from other applicants by having a written cover letter. Feel free to get creative with the format and tone of your cover letter by using paragraph lead-ins, bullet points, and italic/boldface font when appropriate. This will help the search committee notice qualifications that may be easily overlooked amidst the hundreds of paragraphs they read in a single day.
Be authentic in your writing, not just in the accuracy of your statements, but in how you represent yourself. During faculty interviews, the cover letter is a catalyst that drives the conversations between the applicant and interviewers. An obvious disconnect between your cover letter and interview can raise suspicions about your integrity and remove you from consideration.
Show the Search Committee that You Fit the Job
Most tenure-track faculty position announcements elicit dozens, if not hundreds of applications. As a result, Human Resources offices and search committees find ways to screen applicants faster than an NIH grant review panel. To avoid the discard pile, pay special attention to the type of position and university to which you’re applying.
The expectations of PUIs and R1s don’t necessarily conflict, but your ability to meet them should be emphasized differently in your cover letter. For example, PUIs typically desire candidates with a stronger commitment to teaching and service, while R1 institutions usually place more emphasis on competitive publication records and the potential for securing extramural funding.
As chair of a search committee for a tenure-track Genetics position at a private liberal arts institution, I “triaged” over 90 applications. We wanted an outstanding mentor and teacher who would exemplify our mission of service since research was not a primary function of the position. One cover letter was 4 pages long that highlighted an impressive research background with DNA gel images. The applicant concluded the letter by stating he had no teaching experience but was looking forward to “trying it.” His experiences didn’t align with the position’s requirements so his application did not advance.
Present Yourself as an Invaluable Colleague
Many applicants may be qualified for the position, but not all of them will be a good fit for the department. The search committee needs to see you as a collaborative individual who can successfully integrate into the faculty dynamic already established within the department. Thus, you should research the department’s areas of interest so you can address specifically how you’ll contribute to their goals in tangible ways. You will likely notice unspoken expectations and attributes of the ideal candidate, such as teaching an unusually high number of introductory courses or a passion for working with students from underserved backgrounds, through browsing faculty webpages. By referencing these tacit (yet important!) characteristics in your cover letter in the context of your own interests and accomplishments, you can demonstrate your professional compatibility with the department beyond what is listed in your CV.
Focus on Your Strengths and Proactively Address Trouble Spots
Many applicants avoid discussing faculty application red flags, such as lack of teaching experience or a gap in relevant work history. These issues can be seen on your CV and will likely raise questions in the minds of the search committee. If you don’t anticipate and answer these questions in your cover letter, the committee may do it for you (and not in a favorable way!).
If you’re comfortable doing so, give the reason for a gap in work history, such as relocation for a spouse’s job. Emphasize your eagerness to return and contribute to the scientific community. If you’re changing careers, indicate your proficiency in areas that transcend occupations, including communication skills, project management, and effective collaboration.
If you lack formal teaching experience, instead describe your experience mentoring undergraduates in the lab, training new graduate students, or guest lecturing for a professor. Unless the position requires a minimum amount of formal teaching experience, these activities can often demonstrate your potential as an educator and commitment to mentorship well enough to earn you an interview.
Edit Twice and Submit Once
Consider using the following cover letter checklist before submitting your application:
- Proofread for typos, grammatical or spelling mistakes, and format issues
- Check that you are concise and that the cover letter is no more than 2 pages
- Verify that a proper greeting and closing are present
- Ask a faculty member to read your cover letter and incorporate his or her suggestions
- Fact check your CV and cover letter for consistency
- Ensure that specific references to the job description and your relevant qualifications are highlighted within your letter
Remember, the cover letter is an opportunity to tell the search committee your story in ways a CV never could, so make it an interesting one and celebrate the submission of (hopefully your last) job application!
Larissa Walker is currently director of the Forensic Science program and a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX. Although her Ph.D. is in microbiology, she has published interdisciplinary research in the areas of environmental engineering, metagenomics, and natural product discovery. She is passionate about helping her students make unexpected and productive connections between diverse disciplines so they can become better “outside-the-box” thinkers. Her own non-traditional career path has included positions as a middle school teacher, science writer, and lab manager and is proof that it’s never too late to discover and achieve one’s dream career.
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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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