Academic Cover Letters
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.
Job seekers at Purdue University may find value in the Purdue Career Wiki.
- Your name should be in bold 14- or 16-point font.
- Your address and other contact information should be in normal 12-point font.
- The font of your letterhead does not need to be Arial or Times New Roman, like the rest of your letter, but it should be professional looking and easy to read. The most important thing to remember is to include up-to-date information so that you make it easy for the employer to contact you.
- You may want to include an extra line under the letterhead to create visual appeal and to separate the letterhead from the rest of the letter.
- From here on out, use 12-point Arial or Times New Roman throughout the entire letter, set your margins to one inch, and use single spacing. Be sure your font is black, and if you're printing your letter out, use standard-sized paper (8 1/2” by 11”).
Address the recipient. Be sure to refer to the recipient by his or her proper title (Mrs., Mr., Dr., etc.). If you’re not sure who the recipient is, write, “To Whom It May Concern:” or “Dear Sir or Madam”; however, it is always best to address a cover letter to a real person to make it look like you’re not sending form letters.
- You don't necessarily need to include how you became aware of the position unless it was through a mutual contact or recruiting program—in which case you should make the most of the connection.
- If you are writing a letter of interest (also known as a prospecting or inquiry letter) in which you are asking about positions that might be available, specify why you are interested in working for the employer.
- Make your qualifications jump out at the reader by researching the company to which you are applying for a job and tailoring your letter accordingly. This will also be useful if you get an interview. Some questions to keep in mind as you write are
- What is the employer's mission? What do they promote as the one thing that sets them apart from their competitors?
- What kind of customer base does the employer have? Who is their target audience?
- What is the company's history? Who founded it? How has the business evolved? What are the main highlights of the company's performance over the past few years?
Include a positive statement or question in the final paragraph that will motivate the employer to contact you. Make this closing paragraph between two and four sentences. Direct the employer to your enclosed resume and make sure you specify that you're available for an interview. Finish off by thanking the recruiter for their time and consideration, and welcome them to get in touch with you to continue the conversation.
Write an appropriate closing. It’s a good idea to thank the reader for his or her time. After that, write “Sincerely,” “Respectfully,” or “Regards,” leave several spaces, and print your name.
Add your signature. If you will be submitting your cover letter digitally, it’s a good idea to scan and add your signature, write it in with a digital writing pad, or make a digital signature stamp with appropriate software.
Make a notation of the enclosures. If you enclose something, such as a resume, with a letter, you should indicate that the letter contains enclosures by making the notation “Enclosure” or “Enclosures” at the bottom of the letter.