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VI. Branding Your Cover Letter for the Academic Job Market

Aug 20, 2017 by Dr Sally

Whereas the CV is not explicitly branded nor tailored for a specific position, the Research and Teaching Statements are clearly branded and somewhat tailored for the job description. The Cover Letter is the most important document because it conveys the coherence of your branded application package and must be carefully crafted to the specifics of the job description.

The goals of the cover letter you send for a faculty position are to:

  • get the attention of the job search committee members so that they are compelled to read through your application documents,
  • articulate a coherent picture of your record of scholarship and your potential, and
  • prompt the committee to form the logical conclusion that it will be worthwhile to interview you for the position.

The cover letter is the place where you bring together your accomplishments listed in your CV and your identity as a researcher and a teacher to convey a coherent academic brand. Your brand woven throughout your cover letter gives your readers a memorable impression of you, shapes how they read your other materials, and helps them determine how well you fit the position and the needs of the department.

Introduction

Your introduction does not need to be more than three or four brief sentences. Limit yourself to a statement of the position to which you are applying, a succinct overview of your brand, and why your qualifications make you a good fit for the job. You should rewrite the introduction for each job you apply for.

Research and Scholarship

Depending on the position you are applying for, you may move next to a discussion of your research, or you may start with the teaching paragraph(s). As we emphasized in previous blogs, audience awareness is critical to the success of your documents. Schools hold different values and possess different missions. Your cover letter should respond to what the school emphasizes as most important. In a paragraph, discuss your current research in about five to six sentences and your next research project in a sentence or two. Then succinctly describe the contribution of your research to the field. This paragraph should focus on the big takeaways from your research statement. Use the language and phrasing you have already developed in your research statement. The documents need to echo, but not repeat, each other, so that your main ideas and your academic brand reach your audience.

Publications

Refer to specific publications that you have published along with those that you are currently working on. You have already furnished a list of your publications on your CV. This is the opportunity to link these publications to your research agenda, indicate your plans for future publications, and demonstrate your ability to meet the requirements for tenure in the position you are applying for. If you do not yet have anything published, indicate the journal articles or book manuscript you are working on along with the target journal or press and your timeline.

Teaching and Advising

Briefly discuss your teaching, drawing upon your teaching statement. Mention the courses you look forward to teaching and developing, but do not simply list courses you have taught or repeat information that is on your CV. Indicate what you are qualified to teach and provide an overview of your teaching methods. You may want to refer to your teaching evaluation summaries, but only use numerical summaries. If you have experience advising students, provide the specifics.

Service

The purpose of a paragraph on your service activities is to demonstrate that you will be a good colleague. Professional service in your department such as helping to organize a symposium, sitting on the executive committee in your graduate association, or functioning as a graduate student representative for a regional or national academic organization demonstrate to job search committee members that you are willing to help keep the wheels of your department and university moving. No one expects newly minted PhDs to have the experience a professor would on a department curriculum subcommittee. It is not only the specific experience committee members are looking for. They are looking for a spirit of openness to carrying your share of departmental service needs.

Fit

As a conclusion, point out how you “fit” the position that was posted. Fit should be relational as well as logistical. Show the committee that you have thought about how you will fit into the departmental culture. If your brand overlaps in a significant or meaningful way with the university's mission statement, mention this in the last paragraph. State the ways that your research and/or teaching overlap with the mission, pointing your readers toward your research and/or teaching statement where you explain the fit more thoroughly. If the mission is not a natural fit, consider pointing to a person in the department whose work yours would complement.

Thank the committee for their consideration. Even though they have your contact information on your CV, tell them you can be reached at a particular phone number and email address. Resist the urge to explain again that you would appreciate an interview, or that you like their school a great deal. The cover letter conclusion functions most efficiently when it confidently focuses on why you fit this job position.

Other Guidelines

  • Begin the letter with “Dear Search Committee Members.” Do not use the outdated “Dear Sir or Madam.”
  • Keep your cover letter to two pages. One page or one and a half pages is even better. This is the norm for academic job applications.
  • Avoid subjective phrases such as “I feel I am a good fit for this position because…” “I think I will be an effective teacher because…” or “I believe my research is important because….” Use active voice and active, assertive verbs, such as “My research analyzes….”
  • Choose a traditional serif font such as Times New Roman, 12 pt., and use it in all your job documents. Part of your brand is a consistent visual design.
  • Use 1-inch margins on all sides and single spacing.
  • Use letterhead.

The cover letter is the introduction to your official job application materials. The next three blogs in the series discuss the unofficial materials that search committees have at their fingertips. A quick online search will yield a wealth of information about you. How can you ensure that what appears online represents the brand that you wish to convey?

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