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Cover letters for faculty job applications
The cover letter serves as an introduction to your application package and answers the following questions: Who are you? When will you defend your dissertation (if you’re currently ABD)? Why are you interested in applying for this assistant professor position? Why are you interested in this institution? What is your dissertation research about? What are your research plans? What kind of teaching experience do you have? How will you contribute to our department and institution? Why is the school a good fit for you and vice versa? A strong cover letter will be tailored to the institution to which you’re applying. For the humanities and social sciences, it is typically two to three pages long, and for STEM fields, it is typically one to two pages but will vary depending on the specific discipline.
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. 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 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.
Timeline: Getting Started with your Cover Letter
Step 1: The first step to writing a good cover letter is to first have a good CV. 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 goals (i.e., showing how your experiences have made you the best candidate for the position).
Step 2: The next step is to find an open position that interests you. 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. A 1-3 page cover letter might be the norm when applying for a tenure-track, faculty position, but you need to check with your own department to find out what the norms are in your field.
Step 3: 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.
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 letters 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.
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Academic Cover Letters
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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.
Internship and Career Center
Cover letter template for academic faculty and teaching positions.
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)
[Mailing date] [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. Sincerely, [your signature] [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
Cover letter for a faculty position
Criteria for success.
- Demonstrate scientific accomplishments and scholastic achievement.
- Clearly define the vision and impact of your future research program.
- Differentiate yourself from colleagues, e.g. your advisors and other faculty candidates.
- Establish what your niche will be in the department.
- Clearly display excitement and passion.
- Keep the cover letter to 1 to 2 pages . The optional second page may contain a list of publications/presentations or a list of references.
The faculty cover letter, as with cover letters for other positions , is the first part of your application to be read by the Faculty Search Committee. Therefore, the primary purpose of a faculty cover letter is to summarize your application by connecting your Research and Teaching Statements, CV, and references.
Analyze your audience
Knowing what the Faculty Search Committee is looking for will help you tailor your application.
Searches for new hires may focus on specific research areas ( e.g. nanomaterials, systems engineering, therapeutic science, renewable energy). In this case, you should customize your application to highlight your work in the specified research area.
Alternatively, departments may concentrate solely on the best candidates regardless of pre-selected scientific disciplines, in which case you have more flexibility in how you present yourself.
In addition, academic employment opportunities differ based on whether positions are tenure-tracked or require teaching, and the type of institution (university, medical school, research institute). Research the responsibilities associated with each of these positions, and include only information relevant to the specific position – don’t waste valuable space on irrelevant experiences.
Structure of a Cover Letter
- Critical contact information: name, degree, current position, email, and phone number
- Your professional profile or webpage ( e.g. LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Academia.edu)
- Date, department, and university name and address .
- Salutation – “Dear [Faculty Search Committee / Department Head],”
- Brief introduction – Display excitement. State specific terms related to the faculty position, department and university. For example, if you are applying to a “cluster” hire that includes faculty across multiple departments, such as Systems and Synthetic Biology , then state this directly. State the position for which you are applying ( i.e. tenure-track appointment, assistant faculty position).
- Strong opening statement – Declare your targeted research areas. Establish the foundation on which you will base your research. Emphasize novel interfaces and applications within your proposed research.
- Scientific achievements – Summarize successes highlighted in your CV that demonstrate the breadth and depth of scientific expertise. Demonstrate your productivity, as well as key scientific or technical strengths, with supporting details.
- Motivation & impact – State areas of expertise and indicate specific aims of your future research program. Clearly describe how these aims align with current research initiatives in the department or university.
- Teaching & mentorship – Highlight your experience in the classroom and as a research mentor, and service in the profession or community.
- Wrap-up – “Additional documents are enclosed. Please feel free to contact me if supplemental information is required.”
- Follow-up & thank you – Be clear that you expect to hear back (e.g. “I look forward to your reply”). Thank the committee for their time and consideration.
- Closure – Maintain professionalism. “Sincerely,” “Best regards,” and “Kindest regards” are appropriate closing phrases. Include your electronic signature.
Advocate for yourself
The faculty cover letter emphasizes your past and present academic career, while promoting your future potential. For many of us, exuding confidence in an open letter of introduction is challenging, but you have to believe in yourself before you can convince others to believe in you.
State your pedigree
In academia, the institutions and departments you have attended and the advisors for whom you have worked do matter. State this information in Scientific Achievements . Inform your audience if you have co-taught classes with distinguished professors in Teaching & Mentorship or emphasize existing collaborations in the Motivation & Impact section.
Quantify your productivity
Academia identifies scientific contributions by the following conventions: number of publications, quality, and impact. In addition to research articles, noteworthy contributions may also include opinion articles, book chapters, or your role as a journal reviewer. Emphasize alternative sources of scientific communication (and funding) such as distinguished merit-based fellowships.
Engineering students are likely to be co-authors of patents; state this information.
Describe your future potential
Beyond reiterating your past accomplishments, you must also show that you are prepared to handle the future challenges of being a Principal Investigator. By far, the most difficult paragraph to write in the faculty cover letter focuses on the Motivation & Impact of your future research program. Clearly articulate the vision of your future research program and describe how your leadership will facilitate an environment of scientific and teaching excellence. Demonstrate expert understanding of your field, and confidently state your qualifications as a leader in research, an educator, and a citizen of the university.
Define your niche
Your application will be one out of hundreds. You must differentiate yourself and your research program from other candidates, as well as previous or current advisor(s). Ask yourself what you will do that is unique compared to any of your past or future colleagues. How will you fit uniquely into the department — what is your niche?
The Motivation & impact section provides an opportunity to concisely define your niche. State specific aims of your proposed research that expand upon the department’s core strengths while simultaneously diversifying the university’s research portfolio ( e.g. emerging research fields, state-of-the art technologies, novel applications). Carefully consider research centers, core facilities, affiliated institutes or medical centers at the university. In many cases, campus- or state-wide research initiatives may complement your research program.
Finally, take advantage of any experiences you’ve had outside of academia. Have you previously worked in industry or consulted? Would these former and future relationships lead to additional funding for your lab? If so, suggest more unusual avenues of additional funding. It may no longer suffice to focus primarily on traditional grants sponsored by government agencies. Think of creative alternatives and diversify your future financial portfolio. This, in turn, differentiates your research program from colleagues.
Finally, you will more than likely apply to multiple departments and universities. Therefore, modify your niche for every application!
Make important information concise and identifiable
Again, your application is one out of hundreds. Helping the Faculty Search Committee easily identify important information in your cover letter will only improve your chances of moving forward in the hiring process. A faculty cover letter should not exceed 1 page , so you must present your qualifications to the Faculty Search Committee in a concise manner.
Maximize impact of words. Use verbs that illustrate impact (“led,” “developed,” “innovated”) over verbs that make you sound passive (“participated”). Aim for verbs that are more specific to the actual contribution you made.
Minimize redundancy and wordiness. For every sentence, challenge yourself to remove as many words as possible without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Use keywords. Keywords cited by grant-funding agencies, easily recognizable by any faculty member, should be included in relevant sections of your faculty cover letter. Using field-specific vocabulary may demonstrate your understanding of the field and the department’s needs, but be aware that Faculty Search Committees with mixed expertise may require simpler vocabulary and/or explanations accessible to a broader audience.
Maintain abundant white space. In terms of formatting, inclusion of white space is easy on the eye while providing a precise transition from one section to the next.
Crafting your faculty application is a process that will continue indefinitely.
- Devote time to your faculty application, working in consistent increments over the course of weeks not days.
- Take time to brainstorm, reflect, write, edit, critique, and revise accordingly.
- Seek guidance in terms of technical content, emphasis of soft skills, as well as grammatical improvements and aesthetics from colleagues and friends.
Above all else, remember that the faculty application is a creative process. Enjoy it!
This content was adapted from from an article originally created by the MIT Biological Engineering Communication Lab .
Resources and Annotated Examples
Annotated example 1.
Example Faculty Cover Letter 887 KB
Annotated Example 2
Example Faculty CV 85 KB