Academic cover letters
It’s also important to understand what will and won’t be acceptable to the organisation you’re hoping to join. Faced with a big pile of applications, an employer is looking for reasons to put most of them in the bin. If your application varies from the expected format or is difficult for the potential employer to understand you are giving them a reason to discard it - and all before they’ve had a chance to see that you’re perfect for the job!
Online advice on academic cover letters can be conflicting due to different expectations between disciplines and especially between countries: some examples are length of the letter, what it should include versus the CV/resume and type of supplementary documents to attach.
There are some things everyone seems to agree on and which are not specific to applications for academic positions. Key points include:
- The main purposes of your letter are to convey your enthusiasm, to make it clear why you’re a good fit for the position and why you want to work in that department or research group
- Tailor your letter to the position and employer. If you use the same letter for all applications it will probably be obvious, could give the appearance that you are not as keen as other candidates and is likely to be detrimental to your application. Remember that your covering letter might be the first thing that a potential employer reads
- Try to address your letter to a specific individual. Do a bit of digging if you don’t already know who the appropriate person is
- Rather than simply making assertions, give evidence to illustrate your strengths and your fit for the role
- Don’t repeat what can easily be seen on your CV/resume
- Get the tone right. Apart from being professional, the right tone can vary by culture so if you’re applying outside your home nation or your comfort zone, do some research. For example, what passes for a confident tone in one culture might appear to be arrogance in another
- Make sure you use correct spelling and grammar and have made no mistakes.
- If the application is by online form, send a cover letter in addition unless this is specifically prohibited. If the entire application must be submitted via the online form, look for ways to incorporate what you would otherwise include in a cover letter
- When sending your application by email, make sure that the titles of your email and of each attachment include your name and the title or reference for the position. Make it easy for your potential employer – they shouldn’t have to open your cover letter just to check who it’s from
- Your email might be forwarded directly to the person who’s making decisions about applications so make sure that the email itself is clear and professional. It’s also important to consider your email address, for example if you are currently using firstname.lastname@example.org don’t even think of using it – set up a new address with a more professional feel such as email@example.com
- Unless you possess a good knowledge of a national language for the country you’re applying to, write in English which is a working language in academia in many countries. In cases where English might not be widely spoken you could send both English and translated versions of your cover letter and other documents
- If you have a professional website, you could direct a potential employer to it for additional information about you, if it's relevant to the position.
Consider what your potential employer will expect from an application to ensure that you stand out in the right ways, not the wrong ways! If you’re not completely familiar with the culture and customs of the country or situation you’re applying to, seek specific advice. Universities, professional bodies and national careers services might offer information. There may be international expertise in your current institution’s advisory services or in your personal network but consider whether potential advisors also have specific knowledge of academic expectations.
Here are just a few examples of different expectations that might affect how you write your cover letter or put together your application as a whole:
- If you are applying for a position in China, remember that Chinese names are written surname first. Also, in Chinese culture humility is appreciated far more than arrogance. Language that may not seem arrogant in Western culture may appear so in China
- For many countries, in addition to a cover letter, CV/resume, statement of academic research interests and application form it’s usual to include a professional photograph. If it’s not usual, don’t include one. In other countries, including Germany, copies of educational certificates and written references may also be expected
- UK advice may positively encourage you to contact a potential employer - to discuss the position and the sort of person they’re looking for - as part of your research on the role. Taking the initiative, showing an interest and drawing yourself to their attention is seen as complementary to your written application. If you’re applying to a university or institute in the USA, while asking for basic information may be acceptable appearing to promote yourself outside of the defined application process can be frowned upon
- Be aware of variations in academic qualifications and job titles between countries and that some explanation from you may be necessary. For example Lecturer (level B) in Australia is equivalent to Assistant Professor in North American universities. If you are from France and have the Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches qualification, this might need further explanation if you are applying to work in a country where no similar qualification exists, such as the UK.
- Academic cover letters from the UK perspective. Article from jobs.ac.uk
- Ten top tips on writing academic cover letters from the Guardian (UK). Number 4 is ‘think holistically’ about your application
- Inside Higher Ed article which sees the cover letter as the most important part of your application (US perspective)
- This article on cover letters from Macquarie University Sydney has a section on applying for academic posts
- Charlotte Frost compares looking for an academic job in the US to looking in the UK. A noteable difference is the relatively long application process and standard timeframes in the US.
- UK templates from jobs.ac.uk for teaching focussed lectureship and senior lectureship posts. Their academic cover letters e-book also includes some example letters
- Examples from the University of California, San Francisco written by those applying for faculty and postdoctoral positions.
It’s impossible to say and probably in some cases no. However, in lots of cases your letter will be read or even prioritised so deciding not to bother is simply not worth it. If you do, that’s just the impression you could give – that you couldn’t be bothered.