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
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!