Academic Cover Letters
What is this handout about.
The long list of application materials required for many academic teaching jobs can be daunting. This handout will help you tackle one of the most important components: the cover letter or letter of interest. Here you will learn about writing and revising cover letters for academic teaching jobs in the United States of America.
What is an academic cover letter?
An academic cover letter describes your experiences and interest as a candidate for a specific position. It introduces you to the hiring committee and demonstrates how your academic background fits with the description of the position.
What do cover letters for academic teaching jobs typically contain?
At their most basic level, academic cover letters accomplish three things: one, they express your interest in the job; two, they provide a brief synopsis of your research and teaching; and three, they summarize your past experiences and achievements to illustrate your competence for the job. For early-career scholars, cover letters are typically no more than two pages (up to four pages for senior scholars). Occasionally, a third page may make sense for an early-career scholar if the application does not require a separate teaching statement and/or research statement. Digital versions of cover letters often contain hyperlinks to your CV or portfolio page. For some fields, cover letters may also include examples of your work, including music, popular articles, and other multimedia related to your research, service, or teaching available online. Typically, letters appear on departmental or university letterhead and include your signature. Above all, a strong cover letter presents your accomplishments and your familiarity with the institution and with the position.
How should I prepare to write my academic cover letter?
Like all writing, composing a cover letter is a process. The process may be as short as a few hours or as long as several weeks, but at the end the letter should present you as a strong candidate for the job. The following section has tips and questions for thinking through each stage of this writing process. You don’t need to answer all of these questions to write the letter; they are meant to help you brainstorm ideas.
Before you begin writing your cover letter, consider researching the institution, the department, and the student population. Incorporating all three aspects in your letter will help convey your interest in the position.
Get to know the institution. When crafting your cover letter, be aware of the type of institution to which you are applying. Knowing how the institution presents itself can help you tailor your letter and make it more specific.
- Where is the institution located?
- Is it on a quarter-system or semester-system?
- What type of institution is it? Is it an R1? Is it an R2? Is it a liberal arts college? Is it an HBCU? Is it a community college? A private high school?
- What is the institution’s culture? Is it teaching-focused or research-focused? Does it privilege experiential learning? Does it value faculty involvement outside the classroom? Is it affiliated with a specific religious tradition?
- Does it have any specific institutional commitments?
- How does the institution advocate for involvement in its local community?
- What are the professional development opportunities for new and junior faculty?
Learn about the department. Knowing the specific culture and needs of the department can help you reach your audience: the department members who will be reading your documents and vetting you as a candidate.
- Who is on the search committee? Who is the search committee chair?
- What is the official name of the department?
- Which different subfields make up the department?
- Is it a dual appointment or a position in a dual department?
- How does the department participate in specific types of student outreach?
- Does the department have graduate students? Does it offer a terminal Master’s degree, Ph.D., or both? How large are the cohorts? How are they funded?
- Does the department encourage or engage in interdisciplinary work?
- Does the majority of the department favor certain theoretical or methodological approaches?
- Does the department have partnerships with local institutions? If so, which ones?
- Is the department attempting to fill a specific vacancy, or is it an entirely new position?
- What are the typical course offerings in the department? Which courses might you be expected to teach? What courses might you be able to provide that are not currently available?
Consider the students. The search committee will often consider how you approach instructing and mentoring the student body. Sometimes committees will even reserve a position for a student or solicit student feedback on a candidate:
- What populations constitute the majority of the undergraduate population?
- Have there been any shifts in the student population recently?
- Do students largely come from in-state or out-of-state?
- Is there an international student population? If so, from which countries?
- Is the university recruiting students from traditionally underrepresented populations?
- Are students particularly active on campus? If so, how?
Many answers to these questions can be found both in the job description and on the institution’s website. If possible, consider contacting someone you know at the institution to ask about the culture directly. You can also use the institution’s course catalog, recruitment materials, alumni magazine, and other materials to get answers to these questions. The key is to understand the sort of institution to which you are applying, its immediate needs, and its future trajectory.
Remember, there is a resource that can help you with all three aspects—people. Reach out to your advisor, committee members, faculty mentors, and other contacts for insight into the prospective department’s culture and faculty. They might even help you revise your letter based on their expertise. Think of your job search as an opportunity to cultivate these relationships.
After you have done some initial research, think about how your experiences have prepared you for the job and identify the ones that seem the most relevant. Consider your previous research, internships, graduate teaching, and summer experiences. Here are some topics and questions to get you started thinking about what you might include.
Research Experiences. Consider how your research has prepared you for an academic career. Since the letter is a relatively short document, select examples of your research that really highlight who you are as a scholar, the direction you see your work going, and how your scholarship will contribute to the institution’s research community.
- What are your current research interests?
- What topics would you like to examine in the future?
- How have you pursued those research interests?
- Have you traveled for your research?
- Have you published any of your research? Have you presented it at a conference, symposium, or elsewhere?
- Have you worked or collaborated with scholars at different institutions on projects? If so, what did these collaborations produce?
- Have you made your research accessible to your local community?
- Have you received funding or merit-based fellowships for your research?
- What other research contributions have you made? This may include opinion articles, book chapters, or participating as a journal reviewer.
- How do your research interests relate to those of other faculty in the department or fill a gap?
Teaching Experience. Think about any teaching experience you may have. Perhaps you led recitations as a teaching assistant, taught your own course, or guest lectured. Pick a few experiences to discuss in your letter that demonstrate something about your teaching style or your interest in teaching.
- What courses are you interested in teaching for the department? What courses have you taught that discussed similar topics or themes?
- What new courses can you imagine offering the department that align with their aim and mission?
- Have you used specific strategies that were helpful in your instruction?
- What sort of resources do you typically use in the classroom?
- Do you have anecdotes that demonstrate your teaching style?
- What is your teaching philosophy?
- When have you successfully navigated a difficult concept or topic in the classroom, and what did you learn?
- What other opportunities could you provide to students?
Internships/Summer/Other Experiences. Brainstorm a list of any conferences, colloquiums, and workshops you have attended, as well as any ways you have served your department, university, or local community. This section will highlight how you participate in your university and scholarly community. Here are some examples of things you might discuss:
- Professional development opportunities you may have pursued over the summer or during your studies
- International travel for research or presentations
- Any research you’ve done in a non-academic setting
- Presentations at conferences
- Participation in symposia, reading groups, working groups, etc.
- Internships in which you may have implemented your research or practical skills related to your discipline
- Participation in community engagement projects
- Participation in or leadership of any scholarly and/or university organizations
In answering these questions, create a list of the experiences that you think best reflect you as a scholar and teacher. In choosing which experiences to highlight, consider your audience and what they would find valuable or relevant. Taking the time to really think about your reader will help you present yourself as an applicant well-qualified for the position.
Writing a draft
Remember that the job letter is an opportunity to introduce yourself and your accomplishments and to communicate why you would be a good fit for the position. Typically, search committees will want to know whether you are a capable job candidate, familiar with the institution, and a great future addition to the department’s faculty. As such, be aware of how the letter’s structure and content reflect your preparedness for the position.
The structure of your cover letter should reflect the typical standards for letter writing in the country in which the position is located (the list below reflects the standards for US letter writing). This usually includes a salutation, body, and closing, as well as proper contact information. If you are affiliated with a department, institution, or organization, the letter should be on letterhead.
- Use a simple, readable font in a standard size, such as 10-12pt. Some examples of fonts that may be conventional in your field include Ariel, Garamond, Times New Roman, and Verdana, among other similar fonts.
- Do not indent paragraphs.
- Separate all paragraphs by a line and justify them to the left.
- Make sure that any included hyperlinks work.
- Include your signature in the closing.
Before you send in your letter, make sure you proofread and look for formatting mistakes. You’ll read more about proofreading and revising later in this handout!
The second most important aspect of your letter is its content. Since the letter is the first chance to provide an in-depth introduction, it should expand on who you are as a scholar and possible faculty member. Below are some elements to consider including when composing your letter.
Identify the position you are applying to and introduce yourself. Traditionally, the first sentence of a job letter includes the full name of the position and where you discovered the job posting. This is also the place to introduce yourself and describe why you are applying for this position. Since the goal of a job letter is to persuade the search committee to include you on the list of candidates for further review, you may want to include an initial claim as to why you are a strong candidate for the position. Some questions you might consider:
- What is your current status (ABD, assistant professor, post-doc, etc.)?
- If you are ABD, have you defended your dissertation? If not, when will you defend?
- Why are you interested in this position?
- Why are you a strong candidate for this position?
Describe your research experience and interests. For research-centered positions, such as positions at R1 or other types of research-centered universities, include information about your research experience and current work early in the letter. For many applicants, current work will be the dissertation project. If this is the case, some suggest calling your “dissertation research” your “current project” or “work,” as this may help you present yourself as an emerging scholar rather than a graduate student. Some questions about your research that you might consider:
- What research experiences have you had?
- What does your current project investigate?
- What are some of the important methods you applied?
- Have you collaborated with others in your research?
- Have you acquired specific skills that will be useful for the future?
- Have you received special funding? If so, what kind?
- Has your research received any accolades or rewards?
- What does your current project contribute to the field?
- Where have you presented your research?
- Have you published your research? If so, where? Or are you working on publishing your work?
- How does your current project fit the job description?
Present your plans for future research. This section presents your research agenda and usually includes a description of your plans for future projects and research publications. Detailing your future research demonstrates to the search committee that you’ve thought about a research trajectory and can work independently. If you are applying to a teaching-intensive position, you may want to minimize this section and/or consider including a sentence or two on how this research connects to undergraduate and/or graduate research opportunities. Some questions to get you started:
- What is your next research project/s?
- How does this connect to your current and past work?
- What major theories/methods will you use?
- How will this project contribute to the field?
- Where do you see your specialty area or subfield going in the next ten years and how does your research contribute to or reflect this?
- Will you be collaborating with anyone? If so, with whom?
- How will this future project encourage academic discourse?
- Do you already have funding? If so, from whom? If not, what plans do you have for obtaining funding?
- How does your future research expand upon the department’s strengths while simultaneously diversifying the university’s research portfolio? (For example, does your future research involve emerging research fields, state-of-the-art technologies, or novel applications?)
Describe your teaching experience and highlight teaching strategies. This section allows you to describe your teaching philosophy and how you apply this philosophy in your classroom. Start by briefly addressing your teaching goals and values. Here, you can provide specific examples of your teaching methods by describing activities and projects you assign students. Try to link your teaching and research together. For example, if you research the rise of feminism in the 19th century, consider how you bring either the methodology or the content of your research into the classroom. For a teaching-centered institution, such as a small liberal arts college or community college, you may want to emphasize your teaching more than your research. If you do not have any teaching experience, you could describe a training, mentoring, or coaching situation that was similar to teaching and how you would apply what you learned in a classroom.
- What is your teaching philosophy? How is your philosophy a good fit for the department in which you are applying to work?
- What sort of teaching strategies do you use in the classroom?
- What is your teaching style? Do you lecture? Do you emphasize discussion? Do you use specific forms of interactive learning?
- What courses have you taught?
- What departmental courses are you prepared to teach?
- Will you be able to fill in any gaps in the departmental course offerings?
- What important teaching and/or mentoring experiences have you had?
- How would you describe yourself in the classroom?
- What type of feedback have you gotten from students?
- Have you received any awards or recognition for your teaching?
Talk about your service work. Service is often an important component of an academic job description. This can include things like serving on committees or funding panels, providing reviews, and doing community outreach. The cover letter gives you an opportunity to explain how you have involved yourself in university life outside the classroom. For instance, you could include descriptions of volunteer work, participation in initiatives, or your role in professional organizations. This section should demonstrate ways in which you have served your department, university, and/or scholarly community. Here are some additional examples you could discuss:
- Participating in graduate student or junior faculty governance
- Sitting on committees, departmental or university-wide
- Partnerships with other university offices or departments
- Participating in community-partnerships
- Participating in public scholarship initiatives
- Founding or participating in any university initiatives or programs
- Creating extra-curricular resources or presentations
Present yourself as a future faculty member. This section demonstrates who you will be as a colleague. It gives you the opportunity to explain how you will collaborate with faculty members with similar interests; take part in departmental and/or institution wide initiatives or centers; and participate in departmental service. This shows your familiarity with the role of faculty outside the classroom and your ability to add to the departmental and/or institutional strengths or fill in any gaps.
- What excites you about this job?
- What faculty would you like to collaborate with and why? (This answer may be slightly tricky. See the section on name dropping below.)
- Are there any partnerships in the university or outside of it that you wish to participate in?
- Are there any centers associated with the university or in the community that you want to be involved in?
- Are there faculty initiatives that you are passionate about?
- Do you have experience collaborating across various departments or within your own department?
- In what areas will you be able to contribute?
- Why would you make an excellent addition to the faculty at this institution?
Compose a strong closing. This short section should acknowledge that you have sent in all other application documents and include a brief thank you for the reader’s time and/or consideration. It should also state your willingness to forward additional materials and indicate what you would like to see as next steps (e.g., a statement that you look forward to speaking with the search committee). End with a professional closing such as “Sincerely” or “Kind Regards” followed by your full name.
If you are finding it difficult to write the different sections of your cover letter, consider composing the other academic job application documents (the research statement, teaching philosophy, and diversity statement) first and then summarizing them in your job letter.
Different kinds of letters may be required for different types of jobs. For example, some jobs may focus on research. In this case, emphasize your research experiences and current project/s. Other jobs may be more focused on teaching. In this case, highlight your teaching background and skills. Below are two models for how you could change your letter’s organization based on the job description and the institution. The models offer a guide for you to consider how changing the order of information and the amount of space dedicated to a particular topic changes the emphasis of the letter.
Research-Based Position Job Letter Example:
Teaching-based position job letter example:.
Remember your first draft does not have to be your last. Try to get feedback from different readers, especially if it is one of your first applications. It is not uncommon to go through several stages of revisions. Check out the Writing Center’s handout on editing and proofreading and video on proofreading to help with this last stage of writing.
Using the word dissertation. Some search committee members may see the word “dissertation” as a red flag that an applicant is too focused on their role as a graduate student rather than as a prospective faculty member. It may be advantageous, then, to describe your dissertation as current research, a current research project, current work, or some other phrase that demonstrates you are aware that your dissertation is the beginning of a larger scholarly career.
Too much jargon. While you may be writing to a specific department, people on the search committee might be unfamiliar with the details of your subfield. In fact, many committees have at least one member from outside their department. Use terminology that can easily be understood by non-experts. If you want to use a specific term that is crucial to your research, then you should define it. Aim for clarity for your reader, which may mean simplification in lieu of complete precision.
Overselling yourself. While your job letter should sell you as a great candidate, saying so (e.g., “I’m the ideal candidate”) in your letter may come off to some search committee members as presumptuous. Remember that although you have an idea about the type of colleague a department is searching for, ultimately you do not know exactly what they want. Try to avoid phrases or sentences where you state you are the ideal or the only candidate right for the position.
Paying too much attention to the job description. Job descriptions are the result of a lot of debate and compromise. If you have skills or research interests outside the job description, consider including them in your letter. It may be that your extra research interests; your outside skills; and/or your extracurricular involvements make you an attractive candidate. For example, if you are a Latin Americanist who also happens to be well-versed in the Spanish Revolution, it could be worth mentioning the expanse of your research interests because a department might find you could fill in other gaps in the curriculum or add an additional or complementary perspective to the department.
Improper sendoff. The closing of your letter is just as important as the beginning. The end of the letter should reflect the professionalism of the document. There should be a thank-you and the word sincerely or a formal equivalent. Remember, it is the very last place in your letter where you present yourself as a capable future colleague.
Small oversights. Make sure to proofread your letter not just for grammar but also for content. For example, if you use material from another letter, make sure you do not include the names of another school, department, or unassociated faculty! Or, if the school is in Chicago, make sure you do not accidentally reference it as located in the Twin Cities.
Name dropping. You rarely know the internal politics of the department or institution to which you are applying. So be cautious about the names you insert in your cover letters. You do not want to unintentionally insert yourself into a departmental squabble or add fire to an interdepartmental conflict. Instead, focus on the actions you will undertake and the initiatives you are passionate about.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Ball, Cheryl E. 2013. “Understanding Cover Letters.” Inside Higher Ed , November 3, 2013. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/11/04/essay-cover-letter-academic-jobs .
Borchardt, John. 2014. “Writing a Winning Cover Letter.” Science Magazine , August 6, 2014. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2014/08/writing-winning-cover-letter# .
Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education. n.d. “Basic Classification Description.” Accessed November 1, 2020. https://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/classification_descriptions/basic.php .
Helmreich, William. 2013. “Your First Academic Job.” Inside Higher Ed , June 17, 2013. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/06/17/essay-how-land-first-academic-job .
Kelsky, Karen. 2013. “How To Write a Journal Article Submission Cover Letter.” The Professor Is In (blog), April 26, 2013. https://theprofessorisin.com/2013/04/26/how-to-write-a-journal-article-submission-cover-letter/ .
Tomaska, Lubomir, and Josef Nosek. 2008. “Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Cover Letter to Accompany a Job Application for an Academic Position.” PLoS Computational Biology 14(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006132 .
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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.
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Cover letters for faculty job applications
The cover letter serves as an introduction to your application package and answers the following questions: Who are you? When will you defend your dissertation (if you’re currently ABD)? Why are you interested in applying for this assistant professor position? Why are you interested in this institution? What is your dissertation research about? What are your research plans? What kind of teaching experience do you have? How will you contribute to our department and institution? Why is the school a good fit for you and vice versa? A strong cover letter will be tailored to the institution to which you’re applying. For the humanities and social sciences, it is typically two to three pages long, and for STEM fields, it is typically one to two pages but will vary depending on the specific discipline.
The purpose of a cover letter
Sometimes called a “ letter of intent ” or “ letter of interest “, a cover letter is an introduction to the rest of your job application materials. The purpose of a cover letter is to quickly summarize why you are applying to an organization or for a particular position, and what skills and knowledge you bring that make you the most suitable candidate for that position. The cover letter is often the first impression that a prospective employer will have of you, especially if they do not know you, or have not heard about you from their network of contacts. First impressions count, and so getting your cover letter right is a critical step in your job application process. Like all your job application materials, it may take time and focus to write your cover letters well. You will likely have several drafts before you come up with a final version that clearly articulates your skills and your understanding of the employer and the job requirements.
While your CV briefly states your skills, knowledge, experience, and (most importantly) what you have achieved using your abilities, the cover letter gives you an opportunity to create a narrative that shows the path you have taken in your career or education, emphasizing the skills you’ve used along the way, and explaining why the position you are applying to is the next desirable step on this path.
Timeline: Getting Started with your Cover Letter
Step 1: The first step to writing a good cover letter is to first have a good CV. Your cover letter expands upon some of the information you include within these documents, and describes the role you have played in achieving your academic goals (i.e., showing how your experiences have made you the best candidate for the position).
Step 2: The next step is to find an open position that interests you. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all cover letter, as each should be tailored to each job you apply to, but there will certainly be parts of the letter that will stay much the same, and be appropriate for multiple jobs. A 1-3 page cover letter might be the norm when applying for a tenure-track, faculty position, but you need to check with your own department to find out what the norms are in your field.
Step 3: Go through the job ad and carefully note all of the requirements and skills the employer is looking for. Based on your background research of the employer and the people you have spoken to who know about this employer (whether a business or a university department), try to identify the two or three most important skills that the employer is looking for. You should then try to create a cover letter that illustrates that you have these skills and have used them effectively.
When applying for faculty positions, especially those that involve both teaching and research, you will be expected to spend some time in your cover letter talking about your research and goals, as well as your teaching – even though you may have covered these in more detail in your research statement and teaching philosophy documents. How much time you need to spend talking about teaching and research will depend on the nature of the position and your field of study. For some humanities and social sciences applications, you will not be asked for a separate research statement, and this information will need to be integrated into the cover letter. Cover letters for scientific positions will generally be shorter as more (but not all) of the information about research will be covered in the research statement. Academic letters also need to cover everything that non-academic cover letters address, however, because you need to show that you are not only a good academic, but that you are a good person to work with who is committed to working at that particular institution. Make sure that you address the requirements of the position as stated in the job ad. Speak to faculty in your department to get a sense of what is expected in cover letters used in faculty job applications for your discipline. See if any faculty you know have been involved in search committees, and find out what they looked for in cover letters.
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How to Write a Successful Cover Letter
Victoria Reyes offers some dos and don'ts for those who are new on the academic job market.
Sociologist Andrew Whitehead started a Twitter thread some months ago detailing his take on various stages of the academic job market. For the cover letter, he gave excellent advice . He suggested among other things, keeping it at a suggested length (one and a half to two pages) and avoiding jargon. He also stressed the importance of strong lead sentences, using the cover letter to highlight and point to other parts of your application, and controlling the narrative you want to tell .
Others have also written about writing a cover letter. Cheryl E. Ball, for example, provides excellent advice and a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown . Indeed, a simple Google search on “how to write an academic cover letter” brings back 49,600 results if the clause is in quotations, and 526 million results without quotations.
I want to build on the foundational advice of those before me and provide additional insight into the purpose of a cover letter, tips for writing a successful one and what to avoid in it. At the very least, I find having multiple perspectives, styles of writing and exposure to different ways of thinking about the same topic to be useful.
This essay draws on an invited prep talk on how to write a cover letter that I gave at the 2019 American Sociological Association’s annual meeting and on my own experience as a job applicant and as a faculty member on search committees. It’s meant to be helpful for those new on the job market, as the following advice may seem obvious to those who have been in academe for a while.
The first thing that Ph.D. students need to remember about the academic cover letter is its purpose: to introduce who you are as a scholar, what you would bring to the department as a potential colleague and how you fit the requirements listed in the advertisement. The cover letter may be the first thing search committee members see, alongside the CV, so you want to make sure that it captures their attention in a good way.
Here are some tips that I hope you’ll find helpful.
Don’t assume knowledge on the part of the reader. Don’t presuppose that faculty members are reading your application holistically, or that if you mentioned something in a research statement, you won’t have to repeat it in the cover letter. As Whitehead suggests, you should walk your reader through the narrative you want to tell of who you are as a scholar. For example, what is it you study? Are you a scholar of globalization? Social movements? Race? What is the overarching question your research addresses? Even if the content of your publications covers particular topics, and it seems obvious to you who you are as a scholar, you need to specify in your cover letter what it is you study. Take the lead in shaping the narrative of you who are. If you don’t, others will.
Another aspect of not assuming knowledge on the part of the reader means that you need to be explicit, stating what you think is obvious -- because what is obvious to you is not always obvious to the reader. For example, although your dissertation may use qualitative methods, you may be able to teach undergraduate statistics. But you decide not to say in your cover letter that you are able to teach that class because you assume that anyone who has a Ph.D. in sociology could do so. However, that assumption would be incorrect, and the search committee will not know that you can, and want, to teach undergrad statistics unless you say that explicitly in your cover letter and teaching statement.
Tailor your letter. As others, like Karen Kelsky, have written , do your research on the institution and department behind the ad. Take care to understand and communicate how you fit with a given department and how you and your work connect to departmental activities and communities across the college or university. That means elaborating on your approach to teaching for a liberal arts college, for example, and demonstrating what your publications and research can specifically bring to a research university.
Tailoring your letter also means tailoring it to the job ad, remembering to be as explicit as you can about how you fit the listed requirements. If the job ad states that the position is for someone who studies religion, for example, say you study religion. Additionally, show how your broader research agenda ties to religion in some way. My department is currently hiring in organizations and institutions, and successful applicants clearly state they are scholars that study these areas. More important, the most successful applicants demonstrate that they are primarily interested in expanding theoretical knowledge about organizations and institutions more generally, rather than being theoretically interested in a different topic that happens to take place within an organization.
Something I didn’t realize until I was on the faculty side of hiring is that the areas of specialization asked for in the ad, other than those few open hires that call for anyone in any specialization to apply, are often tied to holes in the curriculum. So, for instance, at my institution, an applicant who demonstrates a teaching record related to organizations and institutions is the strongest, while a desire to teach -- with no prior record -- is slightly less ideal but still a potentially strong applicant. Someone who does not explicitly state their experience or their desire to teach in organizations and institutions is not as strong a candidate. The search committee only knows what you write down in your materials, so be sure to mention the obvious!
Write as a potential colleague rather than as a graduate student. When you write about your research, focus on your arguments and contributions rather than simply describing the details of your specific study. That demonstrates you’ve shifted to being a producer of knowledge who knows how your research fits into the broader field. Another way to write as a potential colleague, rather than as a graduate student, is to discuss how you see yourself fitting into, and contributing to, the department, college and university. That means doing your homework and seeing what centers and institutions are on the campus, as well as any workshops, symposia or other events that occur in your department and how you could contribute or add to those ventures. This involves a transition to seeing yourself as someone who is a useful resource that brings something to the academic table.
Write fact-based statements that highlight your accomplishments, including publications, awards, fellowships and teaching. It is not bragging or self-promotion to say that you’ve received an award or fellowship. It’s a statement of fact. For example, saying that you’ve won a teaching or mentoring award is evidence of excellence in teaching or mentoring. That is different than adjective-filled comments that talk about your “passion for teaching,” for example. Fact-based statements that highlight your accomplishments show , rather than tell, the reader of your commitment. Of course, you could still say you are passionate about teaching. Just follow it up with a sentence that provides concrete evidence or data that supports your claim -- such as a teaching award.
Be clear and concise. Write short, declarative sentences. Do not write long, complicated sentences, as your point may get lost in the details.
Here are a few things to avoid when writing a cover letter.
Excessive detail. Don’t try to describe each and every paper you’ve written in the cover letter. Instead, highlight one or two given papers and discuss their arguments and significance. Also, don’t give a detailed description of how your paper fits into the existing literature. That is appropriate for an article but not a cover letter, because it takes up too much space that could be better used to highlight your own accomplishments rather than others’ arguments. To be sure, you can gesture to how it fits into the existing literature, but limit it to just a short sentence or two. You should not write a whole paragraph on the intricacies of the subfield.
Jargon. Similar to what Verena Hutter and Kelsky write, be sure to avoid jargon and clichés . Remember that members of the search committee are likely not in your subfield. Translating your research for a general audience means getting rid of the jargon, or at the very least, defining the jargon you use. While each subfield’s jargon differs, think about whether a certain concept or word is familiar to an educated lay audience. If not, then it is important to try to explain your work without using the jargon.
For example, if you are dedicated to feminist praxis, talk about your commitment to both feminism and putting theory in action in lay terms, and/or define what you mean by “feminist praxis” -- particularly if you are applying to a department other than gender studies or related subfields. That said, avoiding jargon means knowing your audience, as it depends on the discipline and subfield. For example, writing that you are committed to feminist praxis may not be jargon in a gender studies department. In contrast, writing that you are committed to having students discover their “sociological imagination” may be jargon for gender studies but is a taken-for-granted concept across subfields within sociology.
Hyperbole. As previously mentioned, stick to fact-based statements that highlight your accomplishments. Remember you are probably competing with hundreds of applicants, many of whom have competitive records and accomplishments. So saying something such as “I am uniquely qualified to fill the position” is very likely to be untrue.
The three things to avoid that I mention above are common mistakes that signal someone who is still positioning themselves as a grad student, not a colleague, and thus, someone who may not be ready for a faculty job. That is a tricky but extremely important transition to make. It requires walking a delicate line between drawing on and acknowledging the work that senior scholars have done in the field and being confident enough to know you have something to contribute.
Victoria Reyes is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of Global Borderlands: Fantasy, Violence, and Empire in Subic Bay, Philippines (Stanford University Press, 2019) .
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How to Write an Academic Cover Letter With Examples
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Target your cover letter, cover letter format.
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Requred Job Application Materials
Submitting your application.
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.
Kelly Miller / The Balance
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.
Address as many of the preferred qualifications as possible.
Give concrete examples to support your assertions about your strengths.
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.
If you possess traditionally valued areas of expertise that are not already represented by the current faculty, make sure to point those strengths out in your cover letter. It's important to 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 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.
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.
Academic Cover Letter Example
You can use this sample as a model to write an academic cover letter. Download the template (compatible with Google Docs and Word Online), or read the text version below.
Academic Cover Letter Example #1 (Text Version)
Robin Applicant 123 Main Street, Anytown, CA 12345 555-555.5555 firstname.lastname@example.org
April 5, 2021
Dr. Sylvia Lee Chair, English Department Search Committee Acme College 123 Business Rd. Charlotte, NC 28213
Dear Dr. Sylvia Lee,
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 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 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 of 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 on creating a classroom environment that accommodates the needs of my 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 particular 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.
Robin Applicant (hard copy letter)
Academic Cover Letter Example #2 (Text Version)
Betty Applicant 567 North Street, Boston, MA 02108 555-555.555 email@example.com
Dr. Robert Smith Chair, Department of Biology Acme University 123 Business Rd. Business City, NY 54321
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 March 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 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 or anywhere else at your convenience. Thank you so much for your consideration; I look forward to hearing from you.
Betty Applicant (hard copy letter)
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.
You may be required to provide references with your application, so be prepared to submit a list of references. The institution may also request transcripts, teaching evaluations, and writing samples.
Send only what is requested. There's no need to include information that the institution hasn't ask for.
However, you can offer to provide additional materials like writing samples, syllabi, and letters of recommendation in the last paragraph of your letter.
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 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.
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Cover letter for a faculty position
Criteria for success.
- Demonstrate scientific accomplishments and scholastic achievement.
- Clearly define the vision and impact of your future research program.
- Differentiate yourself from colleagues, e.g. your advisors and other faculty candidates.
- Establish what your niche will be in the department.
- Clearly display excitement and passion.
- Keep the cover letter to 1 to 2 pages . The optional second page may contain a list of publications/presentations or a list of references.
The faculty cover letter, as with cover letters for other positions , is the first part of your application to be read by the Faculty Search Committee. Therefore, the primary purpose of a faculty cover letter is to summarize your application by connecting your Research and Teaching Statements, CV, and references.
Analyze your audience
Knowing what the Faculty Search Committee is looking for will help you tailor your application.
Searches for new hires may focus on specific research areas ( e.g. nanomaterials, systems engineering, therapeutic science, renewable energy). In this case, you should customize your application to highlight your work in the specified research area.
Alternatively, departments may concentrate solely on the best candidates regardless of pre-selected scientific disciplines, in which case you have more flexibility in how you present yourself.
In addition, academic employment opportunities differ based on whether positions are tenure-tracked or require teaching, and the type of institution (university, medical school, research institute). Research the responsibilities associated with each of these positions, and include only information relevant to the specific position – don’t waste valuable space on irrelevant experiences.
Structure of a Cover Letter
- Critical contact information: name, degree, current position, email, and phone number
- Your professional profile or webpage ( e.g. LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Academia.edu)
- Date, department, and university name and address .
- Salutation – “Dear [Faculty Search Committee / Department Head],”
- Brief introduction – Display excitement. State specific terms related to the faculty position, department and university. For example, if you are applying to a “cluster” hire that includes faculty across multiple departments, such as Systems and Synthetic Biology , then state this directly. State the position for which you are applying ( i.e. tenure-track appointment, assistant faculty position).
- Strong opening statement – Declare your targeted research areas. Establish the foundation on which you will base your research. Emphasize novel interfaces and applications within your proposed research.
- Scientific achievements – Summarize successes highlighted in your CV that demonstrate the breadth and depth of scientific expertise. Demonstrate your productivity, as well as key scientific or technical strengths, with supporting details.
- Motivation & impact – State areas of expertise and indicate specific aims of your future research program. Clearly describe how these aims align with current research initiatives in the department or university.
- Teaching & mentorship – Highlight your experience in the classroom and as a research mentor, and service in the profession or community.
- Wrap-up – “Additional documents are enclosed. Please feel free to contact me if supplemental information is required.”
- Follow-up & thank you – Be clear that you expect to hear back (e.g. “I look forward to your reply”). Thank the committee for their time and consideration.
- Closure – Maintain professionalism. “Sincerely,” “Best regards,” and “Kindest regards” are appropriate closing phrases. Include your electronic signature.
Advocate for yourself
The faculty cover letter emphasizes your past and present academic career, while promoting your future potential. For many of us, exuding confidence in an open letter of introduction is challenging, but you have to believe in yourself before you can convince others to believe in you.
State your pedigree
In academia, the institutions and departments you have attended and the advisors for whom you have worked do matter. State this information in Scientific Achievements . Inform your audience if you have co-taught classes with distinguished professors in Teaching & Mentorship or emphasize existing collaborations in the Motivation & Impact section.
Quantify your productivity
Academia identifies scientific contributions by the following conventions: number of publications, quality, and impact. In addition to research articles, noteworthy contributions may also include opinion articles, book chapters, or your role as a journal reviewer. Emphasize alternative sources of scientific communication (and funding) such as distinguished merit-based fellowships.
Engineering students are likely to be co-authors of patents; state this information.
Describe your future potential
Beyond reiterating your past accomplishments, you must also show that you are prepared to handle the future challenges of being a Principal Investigator. By far, the most difficult paragraph to write in the faculty cover letter focuses on the Motivation & Impact of your future research program. Clearly articulate the vision of your future research program and describe how your leadership will facilitate an environment of scientific and teaching excellence. Demonstrate expert understanding of your field, and confidently state your qualifications as a leader in research, an educator, and a citizen of the university.
Define your niche
Your application will be one out of hundreds. You must differentiate yourself and your research program from other candidates, as well as previous or current advisor(s). Ask yourself what you will do that is unique compared to any of your past or future colleagues. How will you fit uniquely into the department — what is your niche?
The Motivation & impact section provides an opportunity to concisely define your niche. State specific aims of your proposed research that expand upon the department’s core strengths while simultaneously diversifying the university’s research portfolio ( e.g. emerging research fields, state-of-the art technologies, novel applications). Carefully consider research centers, core facilities, affiliated institutes or medical centers at the university. In many cases, campus- or state-wide research initiatives may complement your research program.
Finally, take advantage of any experiences you’ve had outside of academia. Have you previously worked in industry or consulted? Would these former and future relationships lead to additional funding for your lab? If so, suggest more unusual avenues of additional funding. It may no longer suffice to focus primarily on traditional grants sponsored by government agencies. Think of creative alternatives and diversify your future financial portfolio. This, in turn, differentiates your research program from colleagues.
Finally, you will more than likely apply to multiple departments and universities. Therefore, modify your niche for every application!
Make important information concise and identifiable
Again, your application is one out of hundreds. Helping the Faculty Search Committee easily identify important information in your cover letter will only improve your chances of moving forward in the hiring process. A faculty cover letter should not exceed 1 page , so you must present your qualifications to the Faculty Search Committee in a concise manner.
Maximize impact of words. Use verbs that illustrate impact (“led,” “developed,” “innovated”) over verbs that make you sound passive (“participated”). Aim for verbs that are more specific to the actual contribution you made.
Minimize redundancy and wordiness. For every sentence, challenge yourself to remove as many words as possible without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Use keywords. Keywords cited by grant-funding agencies, easily recognizable by any faculty member, should be included in relevant sections of your faculty cover letter. Using field-specific vocabulary may demonstrate your understanding of the field and the department’s needs, but be aware that Faculty Search Committees with mixed expertise may require simpler vocabulary and/or explanations accessible to a broader audience.
Maintain abundant white space. In terms of formatting, inclusion of white space is easy on the eye while providing a precise transition from one section to the next.
Crafting your faculty application is a process that will continue indefinitely.
- Devote time to your faculty application, working in consistent increments over the course of weeks not days.
- Take time to brainstorm, reflect, write, edit, critique, and revise accordingly.
- Seek guidance in terms of technical content, emphasis of soft skills, as well as grammatical improvements and aesthetics from colleagues and friends.
Above all else, remember that the faculty application is a creative process. Enjoy it!
This content was adapted from from an article originally created by the MIT Biological Engineering Communication Lab .
Resources and Annotated Examples
Annotated example 1.
Example Faculty Cover Letter 887 KB
Annotated Example 2
Example Faculty CV 85 KB
Address to the individual named in the job posting, or with “Dear Members of the. Search Committee.” • The cover letter is a writing sample.
An academic cover letter describes your experiences and interest as a candidate for a specific position. It introduces you to the hiring committee and
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
The purpose of a cover letter is to quickly summarize why you are applying to an organization or for a particular position, and what skills and knowledge you
1. Read the job posting thoroughly · 2. Format the page · 3. Organize your ideas · 4. Review your teaching experience · 5. Discuss your research and
The first thing that Ph.D. students need to remember about the academic cover letter is its purpose: to introduce who you are as a scholar, what
Your cover letter should be written in the same basic format as a business cover letter. An academic cover letter is typically two pages
non-academic audience is crucial. This ebook focuses on cover letters for roles in Academia and addresses: • When to send a cover letter.
Some disciplines have a very specific format, so be sure to work with your department to align your cover letter with disciplinary standards. Avoid overly
Structure of a Cover Letter · Letterhead · Date, department, and university name and address. · Salutation – “Dear [Faculty Search Committee / Department Head],”