Following up on some recent (and less recent) discussions on Twitter, I decided to share a few of my applications for academic positions. Although the tips here are specifically about the cover letters, for context I am also adding the CVs that I applied with at the time. Depending on the application, other documents may have been required as well.
I am sharing three applications from different periods of time:
- 2010 when applying for my PhD
- 2014 when applying for a postdoc
- 2016 when applying for a faculty position
These led to me at least getting an interview (see CV of Failures) and/or also getting the position. You can find them all in a single zip file here.
A bit of a disclaimer – I do NOT think these are the best examples out there at all, but I’m sharing these for transparency, as realistic examples. I also have to note that I have likely benefitted from applying to places “close by” in my network.
Cover letter structure
When I write letters – and I have tried these with the letters above, I try to use the following structure:
- General introduction of the letter – who am I, why am I applying
- My research background and how it fits the position
- Another thing that is special about me
- Summarize why it’s a good fit & plans for the future
Often this translates into a paragraph per bullet point, but as the examples show there is some flexibility there.
As much as possible, I try to address the person who is going to read the application, using their correct title. If you are not sure, I would go with “Dear committee” since that is the most inclusive version.
Above I have highlighted which parts I think are the most important. All of it is about personalizing your letter to the position. Researching the website of the lab, the long-term vision document of the university, etc., can give you a lot of information on what to write.
It is also important not to write too much – although I highlight a few things from my CV, I do not repeat everything in detail. And, I think it is good to write in a way that sounds natural to you. Although I think these are not the best letters at all, I do still find that I sound like myself, even though one of these is from 10 years ago! Note that I do NOT have an in-depth story of how motivated I am to solve a major scientific problem, because that is just not me.
Although I do not know it for a fact, I think my “another thing that is special about me” has helped my applications a lot. The exact contents have evolved over the years, but overall I think I tried to focus on activities that can be seen in a leadership context – from organizing student events to outreach on social media.
That’s all I have to say about my cover letters! I hope these documents are helpful – if you have any questions please leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter!
8 thoughts on “How I write cover letters”
Hi Veronika, it’s very cool (and brave!) of you to share your letters with the audience. You do you think that it’s a general trend that letters for senior academic positions should be longer than the letters for a junior position? I can clearly see this pattern here.
Thanks! I do not think it should be like that in general, my PhD letter is on the short side because I had no idea what I was doing.
Nice read @Veronika! I think it’s really cool you share your CV of failures.
How do I download these application letters? I don’t see any zipfile. Do I need to make an account at https://figshare.com/? ?
Thanks! I think it should work without an account. You need to scroll down a bit and there is a red Download button. The direct link to the files is https://ndownloader.figshare.com/files/24849965 , does that work?
Hi Veronika, now i found the zip file. Thanks a lot, I’m going to take a look.
Keep blogging, I like the way you write and your CV of successes is as impressive as your CV of failures 🙂
Thank you 😊💪hope to see you again soon!
Thanks for sharing this!! I was applying currently and these have good points that I can follow.
Glad it’s helpful, good luck!