The purpose of a cover letter
Sometimes called a "letter of intent" or "letter of interest", a cover letter is an introduction to the rest of your job application materials (e.g., resume/CV, research statement, teaching philosophy, writing samples, etc.). The purpose of a cover letter is to quickly summarize why you are applying to an organization or for a particular position, and what skills and knowledge you bring that make you the most suitable candidate for that position. The cover letter is often the first impression that a prospective employer will have of you, especially if they do not know you, or have not heard about you from their network of contacts. First impressions count, and so getting your cover letter right is a critical step in your job application process. Like all your job application materials, it may take time and focus to write your cover letters well. You will likely have several drafts before you come up with a final version that clearly articulates your skills and your understanding of the employer and the job requirements.
While your CV or resume briefly states your skills, knowledge, experience, and (most importantly) what you have achieved using your abilities, the cover letter gives you an opportunity to create a narrative that shows the path you have taken in your career or education, emphasizing the skills you've used along the way, and explaining why the position you are applying to is the next desirable step on this path. To find out more about the structure of the cover letter, you can see some examples here. Also, it is important to know that there are some differences between cover letters written for faculty positions and those written for non-faculty positions. You can review some of the key differences of cover letters for faculty positions here. For a detailed discussion of academic cover letters, as well as many sample letters provided by successful applicants, see "The Academic Job Search Handbook", available to Penn doctoral students and postdocs for $10 at Career Services.
When you start the process of looking for job opportunities, you will probably read through lots of job advertisements. You will notice that most of the ads for both faculty positions and non-faculty jobs ask for a cover letter of some sort. The exception to this might be when you apply for some jobs through an employer's online job application system, where they may ask you to upload your letter as a document, cut and paste the contents of your letter into specific fields, or they may not ask for a letter at all. For most jobs, and whenever you are submitting a formal application, cover letters are usually expected - even if a letter is not requested in the job ad itself.
Cover Letter Etiquette
You might be tempted to send the same version of your cover letter to multiple employers, especially if you are applying for similar types of positions. Don't. It can be fairly obvious to an employer when they receive a stock letter, and this will make a bad first impression. Tailor your letter to the employer and to the specific job. This may require you to do some background research on the employer's website, or talk to someone you know (or don't yet know) who already works there. Use this information to explain why you want to work at that particular place, doing that particular job. It takes time, but it is worth it. You'll probably have more luck with three tailored cover letters than with 30 stock letters sent out to 30 different employers. Your cover letter will be read by someone as part of a formal job application, so make certain that it is free of spelling mistakes, grammar issues, and typos.
When Not to Use Cover Letters
There are some occasions during the job search process where cover letters might not be used. During career fairs, you would typically only hand out your resume to employers (and a 1-page resume is ideal). Employers want to be able to quickly scan your resume for the key points, and you should be able to verbally communicate some of the ideas that a letter might contain (for example, why this company interests you).
Other Uses for Cover Letters
Here are some occasions, in addition to applying to job announcements, when writing a cover letter can help you in a job search:
When trying to find out if an organization or university is likely to have any openings
To offer services teaching as an adjunct when no position has been advertised
When seeking internship opportunities
When writing to ask for an informal appointment with someone at an organization that interests you
Timeline: Getting Started with your Cover Letter
The first step to writing a good cover letter is to first have a good CV or resume. For information on putting these documents together, click here. Your cover letter expands upon some of the information you include within these documents, and describes the role you have played in achieving your academic or non-academic goals (i.e., showing how your experiences have made you the best candidate for the position).
The next step is to find an open position that interests you, or at least the type of job to which you want to apply. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all cover letter, as each should be tailored to each job you apply to, but there will certainly be parts of the letter that will stay much the same, and be appropriate for multiple jobs. This might mean changing some of the key words in the letter, so that you are describing your experience in the employer's language (using some of their keywords), not your own.
Go through the job ad and carefully note all of the requirements and skills the employer is looking for. Based on your background research of the employer and the people you have spoken to who know about this employer (whether a business or a university department), try to identify the two or three most important skills that the employer is looking for. You should then try to create a cover letter that illustrates that you have these skills and have used them effectively. See the anatomy of a cover letter for more information.
Use some of the samples and resources we have provided to create a draft version of your cover letter, and then make an appointment with us here at Career Services so that we can review your draft and provide suggestions.
Cover letter samples
The best place to start when putting together an effective letter is the job ad itself. This ad really contains all the most important information you need to write your letter. Start off by going through the job description and requirements and highlighting the important key words. Employers have spent a long time choosing which words to include in the ad, and they are all important. Look for technical terms used, specific research or teaching areas required for faculty positions, and the more general transferable skills that might be identified.
Examples of key requirements from actual job ads that should be addressed in your application materials
Familiarity with military certification programs such as Mil-Hdbk-516
Previous experience with control algorithms is required
Demonstrated track record of IND applications and product approvals
Demonstrated record of, or commitment to, scholarly achievement and excellence
Able to teach neuroscience courses, and courses in developmental psychology, statistics, and research methods
Ability to work effectively with faculty, staff and students with diverse backgrounds
Significant auditing, review and/or financial statement preparation experience required
Experience with supervisory and financial management responsibility of a regulatory affairs department
Demonstrated skills in complex reasoning, risk management, risk benefit and cost benefit assessments
A proven ability to work in cross functional networks
Solid proficiencies in written and verbal communication
Ability to manage multiple conflicting priorities and varied concurrent tasks
Your cover letter will be stronger if it addresses these requirements and the job duties. Ensure that you talk about your experiences in the language used by the employer, echoing their words in descriptions you use to illustrate your skills. Write out a list of the keywords that you highlighted from the job ad, and then next to each of these words, write a brief statement that illustrates the fact that you have this skill/ability/knowledge using a specific example. You may not have an experience for all of the requirements, but the more you think about what you have achieved, the more likely it is that you will find something relevant to talk about. When you have all of this information, then you can begin to structure it within the format of a formal cover letter. Some organizations are increasingly using software to scan job application materials for keywords relevant to the advertised position (which they've included in the job ad). The more keywords you can integrate into your materials, the more likely it is that your application will be given a closer look.
Here is a general template for a cover letter:
The opening paragraph should explain why you are writing, giving your specific employment interest. Mention how you found out about the position. If it was advertised, refer to the website or resource in which you saw it. If a contact told you about it, say so. It is also helpful to include an overall summary of the key skills, knowledge areas, or experiences that you are bring to this role right here in the first paragraph. If you start off with these very specific conclusions that confidently state that you have what the employer is looking for, then the reader will also have a lot of confidence that your letter and CV/resume is worth reading. The next paragraphs will then expand on and illustrate what you are summarizing in this first paragraph.
The middle paragraph(s) should summarize the aspects of your background which will interest the employer. The more information you have about the organization and its needs, the better. Likely you will want to mention your graduate program or degree, or current position, such as a postdoc. Discuss your qualifications in terms of the contributions you can make. While you should not repeat your CV or resume verbatim, don't hesitate to refer to the most important information discussed in it. Ideally, both your cover letter and your CV/resume would be able to stand alone. It is not necessary to describe yourself in superlatives. Rather than saying, "I can make a uniquely valuable contribution to your organization," give the employer enough relevant, targeted information to allow the reader to reach that conclusion independently. Be specific and credible.
The closing paragraph should explain why the position and the particular organization is attractive to you, and should hopefully pave the way for the interview. You may ask for an appointment, or suggest that you will call the employer soon. You can also offer to send any additional information, restate your contact details, and state that you look forward to hearing from them.
Academic and non-academic cover letters differ in style and their length. While a 2-3 page cover letter might be the norm when applying for an English, tenure-track, faculty position (you need to check with your own department to find out what the norms are), this type of lengthy letter would not make a good impression for a consulting firm. Check out these cover letter samples for ideas about how to format your letters, and to see how others have illustrated their skills and achievements. Remember, these are examples only, and every cover letter will be slightly different to reflect your own individuality.
Anatomy of a Cover Letter
If you are looking for more insight into what to include in your cover letter, and how to tailor what you are saying to each employer, then take a look at the "anatomy of a cover letter" for a strategic perspective on what to write and why. This resource provides a paragraph-by-paragraph explanation of a real cover letter used in a job application that explains why the author provided certain information about skills and experiences in the letter based on the specific job ad, the position and background information about the organization.
Academic cover letters
When applying for faculty positions, especially those that involve both teaching and research, you will be expected to spend some time in your cover letter talking about your research and goals, as well as your teaching - even though you may have covered these in more detail in your research statement and teaching philosophy documents. How much time you need to spend talking about teaching and research will depend on the nature of the position and your field of study. For some humanities and social sciences applications, you will not be asked for a separate research statement, and this information will need to be integrated into the cover letter. Cover letter for scientific positions will generally be shorter as more (but not all) of the information about research will be covered in the research statement. Academic letters also need to cover everything that non-academic cover letters address, however, because you need to show that you are not only a good academic, but that you are a good person to work with who is committed to working at that particular institution. Make sure that you address the requirements of the position as stated in the job ad. Speak to faculty in your department to get a sense of what is expected in cover letters used in faculty job applications for your discipline. See if any faculty you know have been involved in search committees, and find out what they looked for in cover letters. See the list of cover letter resources below for additional information.
A brief note about emailing cover letters
Make sure your attachments are clearly titled, for example: RJSmith-resume.pdf or RJSmith-coverletter. If you add the employer name into the file name (e.g., RJSmith-PfizerResume), make certain you change the file name before sending this document to another employer!
- Wetfeet's "Insider's Guides" to cover letters and resumes will walk you through what you need to do to write an effective cover letter for business and other non-academic positions. Visit our online subscriptions page to access these resources and see more great examples.
- You will find all you need to know about the process of applying for academic jobs in the Academic Job Search Handbook, with great examples of actual application materials used to get faculty positions.
- Spend some time exploring the career advice pages of Science Careers, NatureJobs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education/Vitae for more advice on cover letters (Tip: use the search function on these websites to find useful resources, since new material is added frequently).
- When you have a draft version of a cover letter for a non-faculty job, use the Cover Letter Checklist to review it, and see if you can identify areas where you need more work, or where you would like help from a career advisor during a one-on-one appointment.
- Make sure you search through articles on the Career Services blog "Penn & Beyond." You will find plenty of useful information, and new posts are added frequently.
- There are other types of letters you might use during your job search (e.g., thank you letters, letters to set up informational interviews and letters accepting or declining an offered position). Click here for examples of these types of correspondence.
How Career Services Can Help
You can make an appointment with a career advisor at any time, but you'll find it more helpful if you have already prepared a draft version of your cover letter (and/or other job search materials) that you want us to critique. To make an appointment, call 215 898 7530 during normal business hours, or use Handshaketo schedule appointments online at any time. You can also drop in for walk-ins, but since these slots are only 15 minutes long, it might not be possible to get a complete review of all of your materials during this time.
Take a look at our career programming schedules through Handshake to identify workshops or panel discussions that are helpful. Take every opportunity to network with faculty or company representatives who visit the campus to speak at these programs. Remember, the more you know about a company or organization and what they do, the easier it is to write an effective cover letter.
For the next few months I will be posting the “best of the best” Professor is in blog posts on the job market, for the benefit of all those girding their loins for the 2013-2014 market. Today’s post was originally published in 2011.
It has come to my attention that many junior people do not have a clear picture in their minds of the requirements of a postdoc application.
Some treat it too much like the job application. And some treat it too differently from the job application. The fact is, it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s quite different from a job application…..and yet many of the same principles apply.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the postdoc application is requiring a cover letter, a 4 page research proposal, a description of a proposed course, and a brief statement articulating how you will participate in the scholarly community of the campus. While not all postdocs will require this exact set of documents, by discussing these here, we can address the major requirements, expectations, and potential pitfalls of the typical postdoc application effort. I will take them in order.
This cover letter will be very similar to your job cover letter as explained in this post. It will contain the standard set of paragraphs to start: introduction, dissertation, dissertation import, publications. In all of this first part, the relevance of your work to the stated mission of the postdoc will be emphasized clearly. This requires carefully tailoring the cover letter materials. It’s difficult but it must be done. If your topic is Mexican women immigrant workers, then for a gender postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing gender relations at home or abroad; for a globalization postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing labor mobility globally; for a Latin American Studies postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects new economic circumstances in Mexico. This tailoring requires an original recasting or reframing of your work to meet the mission of the postdoc! Failure to do this reframing means failure to get the postdoc.
After the discussion of research, the postdoc app letter will specifically discuss the plan of work for the postdoc year–ie, month by month, what new research and revisions will be made.
It will then include a very brief discussion of teaching experience (much shorter than for a regular job cover letter), followed by a discussion of the proposed class required by the postdoc, and how the proposed class will also advance the mission of the postdoc.
Lastly, in place of the typical tailoring paragraph, the letter will conclude with a brief paragraph explaining how the research and writing time of the postdoc will be used, how the scholarly community on campus will advance the project, and how the candidate will participate in said scholarly community. The letter will be no more than 2 pages long.
The principle in operation here—and the one that too many applicants don’t seem to grasp—is that the campus is funding this expensive postdoc not so some random academic can come and sit in an office and write for a year, but rather, to “buy” the energy, contributions, and participation of an additional world-class scholar to their campus community for the period of that year. The postdoc, dear readers, is not meant to serve YOU. Rather, you are meant to serve the postdoc. That means, that in every document, you articulate how you will PARTICIPATE in campus/departmental scholarly life. You do this, however, as in all professional documents, without flattering, pandering, or begging. Rather, you identify faculty on campus with whom you would collaborate, and initiatives and programs on campus that are likely to house interdisciplinary conversations and debates to which your project relates, and you articulate clearly your interest in engaging with them in substantive ways.
4-Page Research Proposal
This research proposal looks very much like a grant application, and Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template will serve you well here, at least for the opening paragraphs. As in all research proposals you will want to open by proving the importance and urgency of your topic. Following the standard Dr. Karen template, you will construct the Proposal As Hero Narrative, with yourself in the role of Hero.
You may follow the Foolproof Grant Template all the way through to the point where it breaks off into things like budget and methodology. In place of those sections, you will focus entirely on timeline. The point of a postdoc research proposal is to, first, articulate an important and significant project, and second, articulate a coherent and feasible plan of work. It is this second element that most applicants fail to grasp.
Remember: the postdoc is not there to serve you, you are there to serve the postdoc. What does that mean? It means that the postdoc wants to see publications result from your time there. The postdoc wants to be mentioned in the acknowledgments of your book. The postdoc wants to be in the line, in the footnote, “this research was supported by generous funding from xxxxx.” The postdoc committee is going to judge the applications based on how likely it is that the applicant is going to efficiently and effectively use the time on campus to complete a specified set of publications. You will impress them when you include a month-by-month timeline/plan of work that shows explicitly what new archival/etc. research you will conduct, and when, what book chapters you will complete, and when, and what journal articles you will finish and submit, and when.
You will conclude this document with a strong and expansive conclusion that clearly shows how the postdoc year will play into your larger scholarly and career trajectory as a world-class scholar. Why? Because the postdoc wants to get part of the fame and glory that attaches to you as you move ahead in the world.
Postdocs are in the business of supporting the next generation of leaders in the scholarly world. To the extent that you represent yourself as a leader, you will do well. To the extent that you represent yourself as a little lost sheep desperately looking for a chance to get out of teaching for a year while you try and figure out what your book is about, you will do poorly. Be aware that the vast majority of postdoc applications are written by the latter.
Proposed Class Description
A point of vast confusion among postdoc applicants seems to be how to pitch the required class. Many applicants do not clearly grasp the difference between the postdoc and an adjunct. As such, the class they propose is one that is adjunct-level. Basically, applicants too often envision a course that is generic and basic. This is a mistake.
Postdocs are very expensive. If a campus wanted a generic and basic course, it would hire a cheap adjunct. There are many available. Instead, however, they are advertising for a postdoc. That means, they want a highly specialized course, that reflects the postdoc’s unique and distinctive scholarly program. The class can’t be absurdly specialized, of course. If the applicant’s specialization is the emerging gay male community in Jakarta, the course cannot be “Emerging Gay Male Communities in Jakarta.” Too narrow. Neither should it be “Introduction to Indonesia,” or “Gender and Sexuality.” Too broad. Rather, it should be pitched somewhere around, “Global Sexualities,” or “Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia,” or “Queer Globalizations.” The final choice for how to pitch the course will hinge on the climate of the department and the campus, and the postdoc mission itself—if it’s an Asian area studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize SE Asia, if it’s a gender postdoc, then you’d prioritize Global Sexualities, if it’s a transnational studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize Queer Globalizations. Get it? The tailoring happens here.
Statement of Participation in Campus Community
Here’s what the postdoc committee does not want: someone who arrives, walks into their allotted office, and is never seen again for the rest of the year. Here’s what they do want: someone who arrives and dives into the scholarly work of the department and the campus community. A postdoc is (should be) exempted from all service work on campus. However, the postdoc should make herself visible as an involved and interested departmental member. She should show up for brown bags and talks, symposia and conferences, and coffee and lunch with colleagues. In this statement, you articulate your orientation in that direction. Identify programs and initiatives in the department and on campus, by name, and discuss how you anticipate participating. Mention two or three faculty members by name, and how you look forward to engaging with them.
In all things, however, do NOT fall back into graduate student habits. You are NOT on campus to “learn from” or “study with” the scholars there. Rather, you ARE one of the scholars there. They may well learn from you. The proper stance here is that of a colleague who brings her own dynamic field of expertise to the campus, and who looks forward to energetic and innovative interactions with the colleagues there.
In sum, remember that, no matter how much you need that postdoc to get your book written, the postdoc is not there to serve you. You are there to serve the postdoc, but as a first-rank, world-class scholar and specialist in your field whose work speaks directly—DIRECTLY—to the mission of the postdoc. By virtue of your energy and brilliance, you cause the postdoc committee to pick you, out of all the competitors, to spend the year on their campus, sharing your work, and augmenting their teaching and intellectual profile and advancing their scholarly cause. Remember, make them want you.
Posted inLanding Your Tenure Track Job, Postdoc Issues, Strategizing Your Success in Academia, Teaching and Research Statements, Tenure--How To Get ItTaggedapplying for postdoctoral fellowship, how to apply for postdocs, writing a postdoc applicationpermalink
About KarenI am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.
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