Cover Letters - Academic

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The cover letter to your application package for an academic position is your opportunity to introduce yourself as a scholar, as a teacher, and as a potential colleague. It will contain descriptions of your dissertation research, teaching experience, publications, future research interests, and potentially, the ways you could contribute to the academic life of the department and institution. You should tailor your cover letter to the position for which you are applying. This means, of course, that before you start writing, you should find out as much as you can about the hiring process, the position, the institution, the department, and the curriculum. You should always include a cover letter when sending your curriculum vitae and/or a fuller application package.

Content & Structure

An academic cover letter should include the following:

  • your return address, phone number, and email
  • the search committee chair's name and address (it can also be addressed to the 'Search Committee' if you don't have the Chair's name)
  • the date
  • reference to the position for which you are applying (typically this a reference number or title designation)
  • greeting, introduction, body, and conclusion; and, of course, your signature. 
Unlike a typical one-page business letter, the academic cover letter can be two pages or longer. However, it (together with your dissertation and any publications) is a critical example of how well you write - how clearly and economically you express ideas and concepts. Take time to carefully craft this letter as it is your introduction to the Search Committee.

There are general components that should be included in any academic cover letter, though the order in which they appear may differ slightly depending on the position for which you are applying. For example, if you are applying for a research-oriented position, begin by discussing your dissertation and research. If you are seeking a teaching-intensive job, you may wish to open with a review of your teaching experience.

Introduction

The introductory paragraph should follow the format of a standard cover letter. It should introduce yourself briefly and indicate the position for which you are applying. 

Dissertation Research 

You candidacy will be evaluated in part on an evaluation of the quality of your research (i.e. its breadth and scope, whether or not it seems publishable, your ability to articulate the relevance and significance of your topic, etc.). As a consequence, it is extremely important to provide Search Committees with a clear sense of your research objectives, methodology, findings, and significance. Include the title, a clear description of the project, and any pertinent background information. Try to keep your descriptions brief and focused. Do not assume your reader has the equivalent of your technical background. Write at a level you would use with a sophisticated and intelligent, but not technically equivalent, audience. If sections of the dissertation have been published, if you have a book contract, or if you have presented sections of the dissertation at conferences, mention that here. Also be sure to mention any grants or awards you have received to help you complete your research. If possible, try to relate your research to the research and/or pedagogical needs of the institution, and also mention the potential directions your research could take in the future.

Teaching Experience

In this paragraph discuss your teaching experience and, briefly, your philosophy of teaching (in the event the application calls for a Teaching Philosophy Statement, this will be provided separately). Mention the types of courses you are able to teach (lectures, seminars), the titles of some of the courses you have taught, and your title in that latter role (adjunct, teaching assistant, lecturer). When discussing your teaching background, be specific: Did you create a new syllabus or did you use an existing curriculum? What type(s) of course(s) did you teach (i.e. large lecture, small discussion seminar)? How many students/sections did you teach? Did you hold office hours? Prepare exams?  Grade papers?  Guest lecture? For the Search Committee to assess what you're capable of handling in terms of teaching content and load, they need a clear sense of the kind of teaching experience you've had.

Scholarship

You will also be evaluated on your potential as a productive scholar over a period of time. This is, of course, a function of many variables - your research area, your skills, your diligence and energy, your ability to attract research funding, the popularity of your field, Use this paragraph to discuss other, future research projects and courses you have or will develop that are specific to your research and to this particular department's needs. Candidates will also be evaluated on their potential to be an active member of the academic community - both at the institution and in the wider disciplinary community. This will be a function, in part, of your engagement with your current department and with the wider community of scholars. It will also be a function of any related professional experience you have at the university (i.e. academic administration), which you may choose to discuss here as well.

Conclusion

In concluding, thank the Search Committee for their review and strongly reaffirm your interest in the position. You may also include the names of your recommendation writers and further indicate that your dossier will be forwarded under separate cover. Finally, don't forget to sign the letter.

General Tips

  • Tailor your letter to the specific institution and department to which you are applying. Visit the department's website or request a course catalog so that you are familiar with the course offerings and any special programs. Also visit the university's general website for information you may be able to incorporate into your letter.
  • Ideally, your letter should be addressed to a specific individual, by name. Be sure to use his/her correct title. When in doubt about titles or spellings it is perfectly acceptable to address your letter "Dear Search Committee Chair."
  • Ask your advisor and, if possible, a junior faculty member or peer who has been on the market recently to read your letter.
  • For additional advice not mentioned here, please refer back to the general Cover Letter page.

Additional Resources

  • The Academic Job Search Handbook and The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career (both available in CCE Resource Center).