Addressing A Cover Letter To A Search Committee Recommendation

Below is a general template for use when crafting a cover letter for academic teaching positions. Before getting started, you will also want to review the academic cover letter samples.

Optional – include header (similar to your resume and other supporting documents)

[Mailing date]

[Search committee mailing info, including department and address]

[Dear Professor _____________________, or Dear Search Committee Chair and Members:]

[Paragraph 1: simple introduction.]

     I am writing to apply for the position of [official title] announced in the XXX [e.g., Chronicle of Higher Education]. I am completing a Ph.D. in XX from the [department name] at the University of California, Davis. I will defend my dissertation, "[dissertation title]” and expect to graduate in [month]. OR: I am finishing the first year of my postdoc with XX [your PI's name or in the lab of XX], where I am working on X, Y, and Z [briefly describe, but leave the bulk of the research description for the below sections].

[Paragraph 2: principal research area(s) and dissertation - this paragraph along with paragraph 3 would follow the introduction when applying for a faculty or teaching position within a R1 university emphasizing the research over the teaching. For Liberal Arts Colleges and State Universities, research and teaching paragraphs should be somewhat balanced in length. For teaching-only Community Colleges, a research statement might be included towards the bottom of the cover letter, but only in the context of staying on top of the discipline in order to perform more effectively as a teacher. ]

     My principal research area is X [area here], with a focus on [focus area(s)]. [3-4 sentence summary of dissertation here]. I've used X method/technique/approach to explore W and Z.

[Paragraph 3: other research areas, contributions, and future directions - this paragraph would be included for R1, Liberal Arts College or State University.]

     My immediate research priority is to expand this manuscript into a book. I will direct future research toward [1-2 sentences on next project]. [Add additional sentences on your broader research agenda, how you would apply this to your new institution].

[Paragraph 4: teaching experience and interests - this paragraph would follow the 1st paragraph when applying to a State University.]

     During my [number] years at X [campus], I have taught [identify what you have taught, particularly as it relates to the institution you are applying]. [Add 2 or so sentences on any pedagogical training, innovative approaches you have taken in the classroom, technology you've used, areas you are particularly interested in exploring, and/or specific new class or seminars you would like to teach at their institution].

[Paragraph 5: closing.]

     I have enclosed my CV, a writing sample, and a teaching philosophy state [or whatever they ask for…]. Three faculty recommendations will be mailed under separate cover [or by Interfolio, a dossier service]. I will attend the XX conference in [city] this year, and I can always be reached by phone or email. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

[your signature]
[your email] – include if you don’t use a header
[your phone number] – include if you don’t use a header

A couple of notes:

  • The tone of the cover letter should be that of a potential colleague. It should showcase your knowledge, contribution to the discipline. The cover letter should be used to outline your academic accomplishments and to share a five year vision for where you are heading into the future.
  • You want to present the perspective of an independent researcher and teacher, not simply a list the coursework and tasks you've completed as a graduate student or postdoc.
  • Note that you do not have to separate your dissertation and other research interests (i.e. paragraphs 2 and 3).
  • Understand the different missions of the institutions for which you are applying.

Adapted from a template provided by Robert P. Newcomb, Ph.D., Department of Spanish & Portuguese, UC Davis

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  22 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including the template for a job cover letter, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.

In my 15 years as a faculty member I served on approximately 11 search committees. Some of these search committees I chaired. These committees brought in ten new assistant professors into my departments.

Estimating that each search brought in an average of 200 applications (a conservative estimate for a field like Anthropology, a generous estimate for a much smaller field like East Asian Languages and Literatures), that means I read approximately 2200 job applications.

I’ve also read the cover letters of my own students, and a passel of Ph.D. students who came to me for advice, as well as a large number of clients since opening The Professor is In (as of July 2014 let’s say 1000).

So let’s say I’ve read (3200) job cover letters. Of those (3200) job cover letters, it is safe to say that (3000) sucked. Sucked badly. Sucked epically. Sucked the way Cakewrecks cakes suck.

What’s up with that?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here’s what’s up with that.

Advisers don’t teach their grad students how to write cover letters. They send them out pathetically, humiliatingly ill-informed.

It is, in my opinion, a criminal degree of neglect.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`

I am on a mission to get Ph.D. students, in the social sciences and humanities especially, to stop sending out worthless, embarrassing, self-sabotaging job cover letters.

I am infuriated that close colleagues of mine in the top programs in the country–think Ivy Leagues–routinely allow their Ph.D.s to send out job letters to departments across the country–to potential colleagues and peers and reviewers across the country– that make those Ph.D.s look ill-trained, unqualified, and un-hireable.

How do I know that? Again, because I was on the hiring committees that received the letters from those Ph.D.s, the students I knew well, had met at conferences, and recognized as the students of my friends and colleagues at prestigious departments in the field.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So, anyone reading this now, here is why your cover letter sucks, and what you need to do to fix it.

1. It Is Too Long. And 1a. It’s Not on Letterhead. And 1b. It must follow proper letter norms of etiquette

Your letter must be on letterhead if you have a current academic affiliation of any kind. This is not negotiable. It has come to my attention that some departments are denying their graduate students access to letterhead. This is unacceptable, and any act is justified in response. You may steal the letterhead. You may Photoshop the letterhead. Do what you must, but send all professional letters of every kind on the letterhead of the department with which you affiliated.

If you do not have an affiliation because you finished your Ph.D. and have no academic employment at all, including adjuncting, then you must submit without letterhead (although a very sober, understated, and proper personal letterhead can sometimes be a nice touch).  You may not use letterhead to which you’re not entitled.  That is unethical, and it is also stupid, because your readers are smart, and they notice.

Your letter must be two pages max. No longer. Do not argue with me. If you are arguing with me, you are wrong. It must be two pages max.

It must be 12 point (ok, *maybe* 11.5) font, and have a minimum of 3/4″ margins.

It must follow normal letter etiquette, which means that it will include the date (fully written out) just under the letterhead, then a space, then the full snail mail address of the person/committee to whom the letter is being sent just below the date, left justified, and then a space, and then the address:  “Dear Professor XXXX/Members of the Search Committee:” Then it will have another space, and commence: “I am writing in application to the advertised position in XXX at the University of XXXX.  Etc. Etc.”  Nothing in this heading material may be left out.  Similarly, nothing beyond this may be added in, including any kind of memo heading or title such as “Re: position in XXX.”  LETTERS DO NOT HAVE TITLES! 

Why must it be these things? I will tell you. Because the care you show in the norms and forms of proper letter etiquette represent you as a fully adult, functioning professional.  It demonstrates that you are a full-fledged member of the tribe, and not an embarrassing wanna-be.

And the length?  Because the faculty members on the committee reviewing your letters are tired, distracted, irritated, and rushed. They will give your cover letter 5 minutes. They will not hunt for your main point, they will not squint, they will not strain their eyes, they will not pore over it.

Serve up your brilliance, your achievements, and your delightful collegial personality loud and clear, in legible large font, and a considerate quantity of verbiage. You are respecting your future colleagues’ time and eyesight, and believe me, they notice.

Do I hear whining, that you “can’t possibly say all you need to” in 2 pages? Tough. Do you want a job or don’t you? Do it.

2. You Are Telling, Not Showing.

All academics in the world, by virtue of being academics, require evidence to accept a proposition. Even the wooiest humanists have to be persuaded with some form of evidence that a claim is valid.

Your letter must include evidence. Empty claims like “I am passionate about teaching,” or “I care deeply about students,” or “I am an enthusiastic colleague” contain no evidence whatsoever. They can be made by anyone, and provide no means of proof. They are worthless verbiage.

Show, don’t tell: Instead of “I am passionate about teaching,” you must write, “I used new technologies to create innovative small group discussion opportunities in my large introductory classes, technologies that were later adopted by my colleagues in the department.” Or, “I worked one on one with students on individual research projects leading to published articles. Several students later nominated me for our campus’s “Best Undergraduate Teacher” award, which I won in 2011.”

Get it? Don’t waste our time with unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable claims.

3. You Drone On and On About Your Dissertation

We actually don’t care about your dissertation. Seriously, we don’t. Your dissertation is in the past. It’s in the past even if you’re actually still writing it. It’s what you did *as a student*, and we’re not hiring a student. We’re hiring a colleague…. 

4. Your Teaching Paragraph is All Drippy and Pathetic

5. You Present Yourself as a Student, Not a Colleague

6. You Don’t Specify Publication Plans

7. You Don’t Have a Second Research Project

8. You Didn’t Do Your Homework

9. You’re Disorganized and Rambling

10. You Didn’t Tailor

For the rest of this post, please see Chapter 22 of my book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job.

 

Posted inBad Advisors and Good Mentors, How To Write Academic Job Cover Letters, Landing Your Tenure Track Job, Major Job Market Mistakes, Stop.Acting.Like.A.Grad.Student, Strategizing Your Success in AcademiaTaggedacademic job cover letter, academic job market help, academic job search help, applying for academic jobs, applying for professor job, applying for university job, getting a tenure track job, getting faculty job, higher education job, how to fix your cover letter, how to get a professor job, how to get a tenure track job, how to write a job cover letter, tenure track job cover letter, the academic job search, what do search committees look for, why can't I get a tenure track jobpermalink

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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