Academic Cover Letters
When you're applying for a faculty position with a college or university, the cover letter is your first chance to make a strong impression as a promising researcher and teacher. Below you'll find some strategies for presenting your qualifications effectively in an academic context.
Distinctions between Academic and Business Cover Letters
A cover letter for an academic job has a function similar to one for a business job, but the content differs significantly in quantity and kind. While the general advice for business cover letters—such as tailoring your letter for the specific job and selling your strengths—still applies, a cover letter for an academic position should be long enough to highlight in some detail your accomplishments during your graduate education in research, teaching, departmental service, and so on. The typical letter is thus usually one and a half to two pages long, but not more than two—roughly five to eight paragraphs.
The First Paragraph
In the opening of your letter you need to convey some basic information, such as what specific position you are applying for (using the title given in the job notice) and where you learned of the opening. Since a cover letter is a kind of persuasive writing (persuading a hiring committee to include you on a list of candidates for further review), the first paragraph of your letter should also make the initial claim as to why you are a strong candidate for the position.
Tailoring for Your Audience
In an academic context knowing your audience means reading the job notice carefully and knowing the type of institution to which you are applying. Most graduate students have studied a broad range of material within their discipline before specializing in a narrow field for the dissertation project. Since it is rare to find a job notice specifying your exact qualifications, you need to emphasize those aspects of your graduate training that seem particularly relevant to the position advertised.
- Job notice: If you've written a political science dissertation on populism in early twentieth-century US national politics, you probably won't respond to a notice seeking a specialist in international politics during the Cold War. But you may wish to apply for a position teaching twentieth-century US political parties and movements. In this case you would want to stress the relevance of your dissertation to the broad context of twentieth-century US politics, even though the study focuses narrowly on the pre-World War I period. You might also highlight courses taken, presentations given, or other evidence of your expertise that corresponds to the job notice.
- Type of institution: Often the job notice will provide a brief description of the college or university, indicating such factors as size, ownership (public, private), affiliation (religious, nonsectarian), geography (urban, suburban, rural), and so on. These factors will influence the kind of information emphasized in your letter. For example, for a job at a small liberal arts college that focuses on undergraduate teaching, you would emphasize your teaching experience and pedagogical philosophy early in the letter before mentioning your dissertation. On the other hand, for a job at a large research university you would provide at least one detailed paragraph describing your dissertation early in the letter, even indicating your plans for future research, before mentioning your teaching and other experience.
If you're still working on your dissertation, you should mention somewhere in the letter when you expect to be awarded the Ph.D., even being as specific as to mention how many chapters have been completed and accepted, how many are in draft version, and what your schedule for completion is. Last-paragraph tips include the following:
- Mention your contact information, including a phone number where you can be reached if you will be away during a holiday break.
- If you will be attending an upcoming major professional conference in your field, such as the MLA convention for language and literature professionals, indicate that you will be available for an interview there. Be sure to mention that you are available for telephone or campus-visit interviews as well.
- If you have some special connection to the school, type of institution, or region, such as having attended the school as an undergraduate or having grown up in the area, you may wish to mention that information briefly at some point.
- Mention your willingness to forward upon request additional materials such as writing samples, teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation.
Job seekers at Purdue University may find value in the Purdue Career Wiki.
Below is a general template for use when crafting a cover letter for academic teaching positions. Before getting started, you will also want to review the academic cover letter samples.
Optional – include header (similar to your resume and other supporting documents)
[Search committee mailing info, including department and address]
[Dear Professor _____________________, or Dear Search Committee Chair and Members:]
[Paragraph 1: simple introduction.]
I am writing to apply for the position of [official title] announced in the XXX [e.g., Chronicle of Higher Education]. I am completing a Ph.D. in XX from the [department name] at the University of California, Davis. I will defend my dissertation, "[dissertation title]” and expect to graduate in [month]. OR: I am finishing the first year of my postdoc with XX [your PI's name or in the lab of XX], where I am working on X, Y, and Z [briefly describe, but leave the bulk of the research description for the below sections].
[Paragraph 2: principal research area(s) and dissertation - this paragraph along with paragraph 3 would follow the introduction when applying for a faculty or teaching position within a R1 university emphasizing the research over the teaching. For Liberal Arts Colleges and State Universities, research and teaching paragraphs should be somewhat balanced in length. For teaching-only Community Colleges, a research statement might be included towards the bottom of the cover letter, but only in the context of staying on top of the discipline in order to perform more effectively as a teacher. ]
My principal research area is X [area here], with a focus on [focus area(s)]. [3-4 sentence summary of dissertation here]. I've used X method/technique/approach to explore W and Z.
[Paragraph 3: other research areas, contributions, and future directions - this paragraph would be included for R1, Liberal Arts College or State University.]
My immediate research priority is to expand this manuscript into a book. I will direct future research toward [1-2 sentences on next project]. [Add additional sentences on your broader research agenda, how you would apply this to your new institution].
[Paragraph 4: teaching experience and interests - this paragraph would follow the 1st paragraph when applying to a State University.]
During my [number] years at X [campus], I have taught [identify what you have taught, particularly as it relates to the institution you are applying]. [Add 2 or so sentences on any pedagogical training, innovative approaches you have taken in the classroom, technology you've used, areas you are particularly interested in exploring, and/or specific new class or seminars you would like to teach at their institution].
[Paragraph 5: closing.]
I have enclosed my CV, a writing sample, and a teaching philosophy state [or whatever they ask for…]. Three faculty recommendations will be mailed under separate cover [or by Interfolio, a dossier service]. I will attend the XX conference in [city] this year, and I can always be reached by phone or email. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.
[your email] – include if you don’t use a header
[your phone number] – include if you don’t use a header
A couple of notes:
- The tone of the cover letter should be that of a potential colleague. It should showcase your knowledge, contribution to the discipline. The cover letter should be used to outline your academic accomplishments and to share a five year vision for where you are heading into the future.
- You want to present the perspective of an independent researcher and teacher, not simply a list the coursework and tasks you've completed as a graduate student or postdoc.
- Note that you do not have to separate your dissertation and other research interests (i.e. paragraphs 2 and 3).
- Understand the different missions of the institutions for which you are applying.
Adapted from a template provided by Robert P. Newcomb, Ph.D., Department of Spanish & Portuguese, UC Davis