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.

January 22, 2020
 
 
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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.

Bio

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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