How to tailor your resume for non-academic jobs

by Gertrude Nonterah PhD | Mar 1, 2023

how to tailor your resume for non-academic jobs

“ Tailor your resume and cover letter for the job you want. “

You’ve heard this career advice two hundred million times.

But what in the world does that mean?!

(Permit me to take this side journey before we continue. I am almost forty years old and I still don’t get the point of cover letters. If I have submitted a resume that discusses my skills, what’s the point? I feel it’s like taking two showers within ten minutes of each other when you never even got an opportunity to sweat or get dirty. Anyway, I just wanted to make the rant. Although I focus on resumes in this post, the concepts apply to cover letters too. Moving on.)

Let’s talk about how to tailor your resume for the non-academic jobs you want.

1 – Examine job posts for the kind of role you want…carefully

If you’ve followed me for a while, then you have probably heard me say to read job descriptions carefully. Let me repeat this one more time: you absolutely, positively, need to read the job descriptions of the kinds of roles you want carefully in order to tailor your resume and cover letter for that job.

Now, this can seem tedious because you’re in a rush to apply for these jobs and land something. And the more jobs you apply for the better your chances will be of getting one, right?

A more efficient use of your time would be to have a recruiter who picks up your resume say, “Wow, this person is really who we are looking for.”

“Dr. Gee, does this mean I will have to write a new resume for each job I apply to?”

No. And if you follow along for the rest of the post, I will tell you how you can write one resume that may only need five minutes of tweaking each time you apply for a new role.

The first step here would be to settle on the job type you want to apply for. So let’s say you want to apply for a regulatory medical writer role .

What you are going to do is to use a job search platform like LinkedIn or Indeed to search for that kind of role. Before you do this, open up a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet.

Read 5-10 job descriptions for regulatory writer roles. There are bound to be differences. But take note of the similarities. Do all or most of those job descriptions mention “clinical study reports”? Add that to the Word doc or spreadsheet. How about understanding GMP practices? Add that to the list too.

Read every job description and add all those similar skills and responsibilities to your list.

I recommend going this path in order to be thorough.

But if you’d like to use AI to make a quick shortlist, check out this LinkedIn post I made on the subject.

Estimated time investment : 30-60 minutes.

2 – Identify your transferable skills

In the video embedded below, I share some of the common transferable skills we gain as PhDs as we go through our education.

Those transferable skills might include:

  • Communication
  • Data analysis
  • Problem-solving

You might also be familiar with a particular research methodology. Or perhaps you used a particular software or instrument during your studies and became very good at using it. It’s time to sit down and take stock of all the skills and knowledge you have, and how those apply to the type of role you want.

And so, going back to my medical writer example, you might recognize that you could parlay the fact that you wrote not just academic papers but also standard operating procedures for experiments in your neuroscience lab to prove that you might be able to write clinical study protocols in a medical writer role. Don’t just expect your future to be impressed that you have multiple publications though! Yes, you achieved that but now you need to demonstrate how you will use that writing skill in a regulatory writer role. I talk more about this below.

In some instances, you might have to do some self-learning to get yourself up to speed with some of the items you’ve listed that you don’t know so you at least have base knowledge. I find that even having base knowledge is helpful when you go into an interview rather than not knowing anything at all.

Estimated time investment: 30 minutes

3 – Write your resume

It is time to take what you’ve learned from the first two steps and use it to bake a delicious resume.

When it comes to writing non-academic resumes, I always recommend the following two rules.

Keep it concise.

In academia, it is common to have a four- to ten-page curriculum vitae, depending on your long string of achievements within the academy. Academia values that.

And I made the mistake of applying for non-academic jobs with my academic resume.

Don’t attend the School of Hard Knocks like me.

Things changed significantly when I started writing one to two-page resumes. So keep it concise. Cut what needs to be cut and focus on how your skills make you the candidate for the job. I talk about this in the next point.

Highlight skills. Not achievements

I want to harp on this point because I have had people message me and say, “Dr. Gee, but I have all these accomplishments in academia. I could learn this job quickly. Why is nobody paying attention to me?”

Ah. I feel your pain. I spun that wheel myself.

Here’s the thing:

Generally, non-academic employers are interested in seeing how you’ve applied your skills and knowledge in real-world settings. Be specific and use data and examples to demonstrate your impact.

Here’s an example based on a recent resume review I did:

The first line of the job this person wanted to apply for said the ideal person for this role would, “apply mathematical models of human perception to support research protocols in coordination with researchers, principal investigators, and engineering staff.”

The person’s resume was a standard impressive academic resume.

And nowhere on their resume did they address how their skills and knowledge would help them do the above. Don’t assume that the recruiter will make the link between your education and what they are looking for. Make it glaringly clear that your skills and knowledge make you the ideal candidate for the role.

Weave the words and what you’ve learned about this type of role in steps one and two into your resume writing. If they mention “mathematical models” or, “GMP practices” or “collaboration” in the job description, sprinkle those words (meaningfully) into your resume like a fine sweetener.

When you read a job description, think of each of the requirements as a question “can you do this?’ Your resume (and cover letter) should then answer and say, “yes I can do that.”

And now you know how to tailor your resume for non-academic jobs

Now that you know how to tailor your resume for non-academic jobs, go forth and prosper.

Comment below and let me know if this post was helpful or if you have follow up questions.


Very helpful as always!

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The Cover Letter

The “berkeley” factor, introduction, closing/enclosures.

The reception your cover letter will receive is more varied and unpredictable than the other elements of your application packet. Some readers, especially at large research universities, will skip it entirely, and focus instead on more direct indicators of your academic achievements and potential: the CV, letters, and writing sample. Most often, however, your cover letter works in tandem with your CV, and represents your best opportunity to communicate directly with your target audience prior to an interview.

The cover letter should not simply repeat the information contained in the CV; rather it should elaborate and frame the aspects of your academic training and background that you want search committee members to have uppermost in their minds as they consider your candidacy. At a minimum, it should contain a clear statement of your research and teaching interests, and how your qualifications match the requirements of the job description. Many disciplines have their own conventions and protocols for application materials including the cover letter. Be sure to show a draft of your letter to your chair or the department’s placement advisor.

There is no perfect or even preferred style of cover letter save that tone should be that of a confident professional. Departments aren’t interested in hiring graduate students (they already have enough of those). They are looking for serious scholars/teachers who will make interesting, congenial, and productive colleagues. While it is probably not a good use of your time to tailor your letter for each opening, you will probably need at least two base versions that emphasize different elements (You would not want to use the same cover letter to apply to Oberlin as UC Irvine). You may want to customize the letters for the three to five jobs most attractive to you.

Your cover letter should not exceed a page and a half or two at the most. No one will read a four-page letter, and your apparent inability to communicate your credentials in a concise manner is not to your advantage. Every line of your letter should serve a demonstrable purpose. Some people have gotten excellent jobs with a brief, boilerplate letter containing no more than a short intro, a paragraph on their research, and a couple of sentences on their teaching. Others use letters that discuss in very specific terms how they, their research, and their teaching would “fit” within the existing department and institutional setting. The choice of style is up to you, and should reflect what makes you feel most comfortable and most positive about your credentials.

There are, however, circumstances where a longer, more annotated version is more likely to be helpful. The issues you should take into account when making this decision are:

  • The size of the department/institution
  • The extent to which your research is mainstream and its significance readily apparent
  • The extent to which your qualifications diverge from those mentioned in the job ad
  • The extent to which the institution to which you are applying differs from UC Berkeley and the relative importance of teaching versus research
  • Unusual circumstances or career paths

Size matters. The larger the department, the less detailed your letter needs to be. If there are already six people working in your sub-field, they can assess and translate the significance of your work to others in the department. If, however, you will be the only history of science person or the only physical anthropologist in the department, the search committee and others will likely need more help from you to understand the import of your work. Remember, if they are searching for your specialty they are understaffed in your area, and even if there is more than one person in your sub-field she/he may be on leave or otherwise uninvolved in the search.

Similarly, smaller departments are more likely to be concerned than larger ones about the specific courses you are prepared to teach. If there are certain core courses your position needs to cover, make it unambiguously clear that you are prepared to do so even if you haven’t taught them already.

As a rule of thumb, the more your profile diverges from the specifics of the job description (or the norm, such that it exists), the more likely you will want to say more about why you are nonetheless a strong candidate. By doing so you can turn a question mark into an advantage. Highlight your strengths, and if you have time perform a little research on the department (see below) so you can explain how you would add to the department in ways that they might otherwise not have considered. Job descriptions are not always etched in stone. Share your list of college/university openings (along with the names of search committee chairs) with your faculty. If they know someone in the department, they may feel comfortable reaching out, either to give you an added plug, or learn more about where their colleague believes the department is headed and what they’re looking for in an ideal candidate. They may well be willing to sacrifice a course in an area that the ad specified in order to get the extra teaching experience or innovative research that you have to offer, but only if you give them the opportunity and explain what they’d get in return.

If you’ve taken an unusually long time to finish because you spent three years learning a new language in order to prepare for two years of original research or some other factor that enriches what you have to offer as a teacher or a scholar, let them know about it. Learning a new language, for example, is an indicator of your commitment to serious scholarship. Think of a way to put a positive valence on an aspect of your CV that you believe is likely to raise questions or doubts.

As hard as it may be for not-yet-employed-but-soon-to-be academics like yourselves to believe, there are some individuals and departments that are intimidated by you and your institutional pedigree. There are many fine schools and departments that are convinced that every Berkeley graduate student and postdoc is only interested in a position at Harvard, Princeton, or (hold your nose) Stanford. If it is a small liberal arts college, they may also assume that you view teaching and advising undergraduates strictly as a necessary evil. Ergo, why interview someone who will either look down their nose at us, and/or desert us for greener pastures as soon as their third book has been published and Yale comes calling. They often don’t seem to realize that many Berkeley graduate students and postdocs are sincerely interested in a wide range of academic settings for a variety of reasons (personal and professional), and, perhaps more to the point, Yale rarely “comes calling.” An even greater burden of proof exists if a quick scan of your CV reveals that all of your experience in higher education has occurred in a large, elite, research-oriented setting. How can you overcome this potential obstacle especially if you’re very interested in a school that you have reason to believe may be suspicious of Berkeley PhDs?

It’s probably not advisable to write in a cover letter that they shouldn’t be intimidated by lil’ old you (i.e., “I’m really not very good; in fact, my advisor says I’m her worst graduate student in twenty years.”), but there are ways to indicate a sincere interest in their department. One means is to do a little research, and briefly discuss how you might fit into the department and the institutional community-at-large. There are numerous articles written by faculty about the search process that state explicitly the positive impact it can have on their impression of a candidate to see evidence that he/she has taken the time to learn something about them. Researching a department and its associated programs/research centers has never been easier.

A second way to address fears of imminent flight is to provide evidence of ties to the area, the university, or lifestyle. If you are from the Midwest, have family nearby, or even if you just spent an enjoyable summer there, add a line about it and your desire to return to your cover letter for Purdue or Wayne State. If you did your undergraduate work at a similar type of institution, draw their attention to that link. Don’t assume that they will notice where you got your BA on your CV, and make the connection.

If you are applying to small, liberal arts colleges, don’t just list the courses you’ve taught with a line of boilerplate about how important you take your teaching responsibilities to be. These days, a good, small college has a list price of about $35,000-$75,000 a year, and close contact with people like you is one of their key selling points to parents and potential students. You are expected to be more than a lecturer, and your ability to convey your recognition of that fact and a sincere interest in working closely with students matters. Advising, participating in non-academic activities, watching your students grow and mature inside the classroom and out (and having an influence on that process) can be among the most rewarding aspects of the profession. If you value these broader elements of being a professor, let them know. In particular, if your own experience has been limited to large universities, think about describing an episode where you had a positive impact on the development of a student and the satisfaction you derived from helping him or her. At many small colleges, and large universities (including Berkeley) as well, one of the most significant pedagogical trends is fostering greater student involvement in faculty research. If you can articulate how this might occur for you and their students in a brief but thoughtful manner, it can alleviate some of the concerns occasioned by your Berkeley background.

Your letter typically will have four segments: the introduction, research, teaching, and the closing.

Be sure to identify the position you are applying for by rank and sub-field in the first sentence or two. It is not uncommon for departments to be engaged in more than one search in a given year, and large departments may have more than one in your sub-field. If it is an open rank position and you are applying as an assistant professor, in most cases you and your record of accomplishments will not be directly compared with those of more experienced candidates applying for it at the associate or full professor level. Rather, applicants are assessed based on where they are in their career path, and you have every chance of successfully competing against them.

In addition to identifying the job for which you are applying, the first paragraph serves as an introduction – your “speed dating” commercial: what are the three broad aspects of your background that you want to be clear in their mind as they make the decision whether or not to devote more time and attention to your application?

The first aspect is that you come from Berkeley, and hence one of the strongest programs in your discipline (e.g., I am in the final stages of completing my dissertation at UC Berkeley). The other two aspects that you can briefly highlight are those elements that you believe represent your strongest qualifications for the position and that, potentially, differentiate you from other candidates in the pool. For example, if the ad specifies that they are looking for someone whose research is interdisciplinary and who will strengthen a new research center focused on conservation biology, let them know in this initial paragraph that you fit the bill. Conversely, if you are applying to a small liberal arts college and you attended a similar type of institution as an undergrad, point that out here.

Ask yourself what are the three things I want a search committee member to know about me before she/he decides whether or not my file stays in the active pile, and describe them briefly in this first paragraph. Briefly; you will have space to elaborate more fully in the paragraphs below. Here, you just want to catch their attention and provide them with cause to pay closer attention to the text that follows.

If you’ve finished, mention it up front. If not, state when you expect to file – no later than the June before you would start the position. Many readers will view your optimistic prediction with a skeptical eye, and anything you can say that makes the claim appear more credible (e.g., “I have written and my chair has reviewed four of the six chapters.”) can help mitigate their concerns. You can put such a statement in the introduction or wait until you discuss the dissertation itself.

If your discipline holds its annual meeting in the summer or early fall (i.e., before application deadlines) and you had an excellent conference interview, make reference to it in the cover letter including the names of the faculty with whom you spoke. By the time people actually start to read files, months may have passed and even the strongest of impressions can fade. But they can be rehabilitated and revived, especially if you can remind them of a specific strength, ability, or issue that seemed particularly salient during the interview.

Unless you are applying to a school that cares only about your teaching (increasingly rare), a description of your research generally follows next. The challenge here is not simply to describe your research, but to frame it in terms of your sub-field and discipline. The search committee hasn’t lived, eaten and breathed Post-Edwardian Hermeneutics for the past five years the way you have. And they haven’t been there every step of the torturous process like your friends and significant others. So forgive them for not immediately recognizing your research at first blush for the path-breaking work that it is.

Departments want to know that in hiring you, they are adding someone who will make a future contribution to the discipline and enhance the reputation of the department. However, they are often ill-equipped to understand exactly how that will be true in your particular case. Many disciplines are sufficiently broad that leading or cutting-edge research in one sub-field is barely intelligible to those in others. In addition, when you become a candidate for the short list, your file will be read by department members outside your specialty, and, oftentimes later on in the process, by individuals outside your discipline as well. You need to describe the forest in which your tree resides, and explain why it matters in terms of the broader trends and issues within your discipline. Obviously, if your work is focused on one of the classic conundrums of your field, much less in the way of providing perspective is necessary than if you are addressing an emergent issue or employing an unconventional approach.

If your research is particularly novel or cutting-edge, any markers of broader acceptance by other, more established scholars or scholarly organs in your field can ameliorate possible concerns about its relevance and potential importance. In discussing your work, note the recognition it has received in the form of competitive grants, awards, publications in refereed journals, and/or presentations at major conferences.

It is also important to mention where you expect your research to go after the completion of your dissertation and the publications that will flow from it. They, especially at research-oriented institutions, want to know at least in broad terms where you expect to go from here. They want to see evidence of a scholarly agenda that extends beyond the dissertation or postdoc project. You don’t need to have pages written or titles blocked out, but you need to tell them in a paragraph, (two at the most) about what questions intrigue you, and how you expect to go about finding the answers to them. These questions for future research may have been generated by the findings of your dissertation, unusual data uncovered during your fieldwork, or interesting side issues that you were forced to put off in order to keep your dissertation taut and focused. Think twice about mentioning future projects that appear entirely unrelated to your current work. Departments will want you to be firmly established in one area before you go off into another.

The relative importance of teaching versus research is a continuous and not a discrete variable. Even schools that emphasize teaching in their job listing will generally want evidence of scholarly engagement and publishing potential. It is a very competitive market for undergrad and grad students out there, and virtually all institutions are under pressure to sell themselves via the quality of their faculty to the limited number of good students in the applicant pool. A good marker for the relative importance of teaching versus research is the teaching load. An institution with a 3-2 teaching load (a total of five courses taught per two-semester year) will expect more in the way of and value research more highly than one with a 3-3 load.

If you work in a capital-intensive area, mention your track record of gaining grants and other sources of external funding.

In a similar fashion, the more the institution you are applying to diverges from Berkeley and the more your profile differs from the job description, the more expansive you should be in talking about your teaching and what you have to offer their students. If you have won a teaching award at Berkeley, don’t make them wait until they read your CV to discover that fact.

For letters sent to large universities where you will be expected to teach large lecture courses and graduate seminars, little is needed except to convey that you have the necessary experience and/or background. Since the dominant pedagogical style is the same as that found at Berkeley, it will be assumed that you will be able to do the same for them. Still, rather than list off a series of courses you are prepared to teach (which should be included in an Areas of Teaching Interests section of your CV), devote a couple of sentences to demonstrating in qualitative terms how you are thoughtful and effective in your teaching. Instead of just stating: “I want all of my students to be able to utilize the concepts in class to better understand the world around them (not untrue, but still a cliche).” Provide a concrete illustration: for example in an intro to sociology class, I had my students observe X and Y in downtown SF and draw inferences about Z.

If you have TA’d some of the courses that (based on the job description) you would be expected to offer, let them know. If you have not had that opportunity, but your fields and research fall within the domain of the job description, you may want to add a line about how well prepared you are to teach such courses based on your training and research.

If your profile does not correspond exactly to the description found in the job announcement, but you believe that you could nonetheless teach the required courses, explain the basis for your confidence. What strength would you bring to the department that would more than make up for your “otherness”? Departments may decide that they don’t “need” another conventional European historian if you can convince them that you can handle the core courses and offer something new that they don’t currently cover as well. In this case especially, think about doing some research so you can speak in more specific terms about how you would fit into and enhance the department’s offerings. Help them visualize how you would strengthen them as a department.

Small colleges will want to know that you are able to teach on a more intimate basis and are prepared to take the time to do it well. If you give them three generic lines about how “important” you consider your teaching responsibilities, don’t expect much of a positive response. Spend a couple of paragraphs describing your teaching experience and philosophy, and how you would take advantage of the opportunity to create your own courses.

If you’ve had the opportunity to design and teach your own course, tell them, briefly, how you went about it and the choices you made. Don’t just say you’re a good teacher, show them why. Look over your teaching evaluations and pick out one or two consistent strengths to highlight. Drawing on your experience, talk about how you engage students and enhance their skills (especially writing) and intellectual development.

For good, small colleges, the quality of the teaching offered to students is their stock-in- trade. Even the most research-oriented, small colleges take teaching undergraduates very seriously. You need to demonstrate that you take it seriously as well, and can talk about it using more than vague generalities and shop-worn cliches.

Wrap it up quickly. If you are going to be traveling for any significant portion of the job search season, be sure to let them know how they can contact you (email, cell phone etc.).

Before closing, include a sentence where you list the materials you have enclosed (e.g., CV, dissertation abstract, transcripts, teaching statement/portfolio, writing samples, etc.) and are having sent separately (letters of recommendation). You will often be assembling multiple packets at the same time (as in midnight October 14th, midnight November 14th, etc.) for jobs that ask for different combinations of enclosures. In addition to telling them what they should have received, it serves as a handy list for you to check before metaphorically “sealing the envelope.”

Should you send a writing sample, even if they haven’t asked for one? Unless the norm in your discipline is to never send more than they ask for, and you feel the sample represents you and your work to your advantage, by all means send it. That way it’s in the file should someone become interested in you and want to read more.

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Tips for a successful cover letter for non-academic jobs

If you are looking for information on academic cover letters (e.g. to apply for a professorship), please watch the webinar with Prof. Dr. iur. Hubert Detmer from the German University Association . Such cover letters are very different from those for non-academic positions.

In the meantime, some companies or organizations no longer require a cover letter, but only a CV or answers to predefined questions or work samples. However, if the “usual” documents are required, a cover letter is included.

A cover letter should always be customized, but there are some general tips you can follow.

In general: Make it as easy as possible for the addressee!

When companies or organizations post a job, they want to solve a problem – there is a lack of someone who can bring expertise, manpower, and creativity, which are urgently needed. Be that solution! Moreover, it will not be the only cover letter and yours should arouse interest quickly and at a low level. This is what you can do:

Form & wording: Clear and authentic

  • Limit yourself to one page – but pay attention to paragraphs, margins, and spacing – don’t squeeze two pages of text into one.
  • Include your contact info and, if applicable, your LinkedIn/Xing profile and/or website.
  • Ideally, matches the layout to the CV.
  • Include the job title/reference number in the subject line.
  • Use verbs, verbs, verbs, and as crisp sentences as possible.
  • Avoid empty phrases (see introduction) – write what you want to say.
  • Have someone proofread.

Entry: Something different for a change

  • Never, never, never start with “I hereby apply for…” – that should already be clear.
  • Instead, make a connection between you and the company or organization – why are you applying there and not somewhere else? Do you like the values and the product, have you ever had contact with a program, service, etc.?
  • Be confident about your scientific background, even if it is not a research-related position. Therefore, avoid phrases like “ my DFG application was not approved ” and write, for example, “ I take great pleasure in solving complex problems – a skill I can excel at … excellent at .”

Main part: keywords and evidence

  • Match your wording to the keywords in the RFP or the wording of the organization (check their website) and then prove that you have experience in these areas.
  • For example, you can start with, “Here’s what you can expect from me:” and pair the three or four most important requirements (the first ones in the job ad) with the experience that matches them – if you bring anything else special to the table that might be interesting for the job, touch on that briefly as well, or touch on an idea that might be relevant to the job.

Conclusion: Confident and complete

  • Specify here if, for example, salary requirements, start dates, etc. are required.
  • Salary information: Find out beforehand on platforms such as kununu, ask your network, or, in the case of jobs in the public or non-profit sector, lean towards the TVöD.
  • Avoid subjunctives in the closing formula – instead of “I would be pleased to hear from you,” for example, you can write “ I look forward to hearing from you. I would be happy to discuss in a personal meeting how I can assist you with…. support.”
If you need assistance with your custom cover letter, we’re happy to help.

Den GSO-Newsletter abonnieren:

  • Your Job Search
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Cover Letter Best Practices

A cover letter introduces you to a potential employer and should accompany your résumé, unless the employer requests otherwise. If there is an option to include a cover letter, we always recommend doing so. While a résumé provides a summary of your relevant skills, experiences, and achievements, a cover letter allows you to develop a narrative for your career, demonstrating the skills you have honed, and articulating your enthusiasm for the role.

If you think of your résumé as a map to a new city that the hiring manager has not visited before, the cover letter would be the guidebook. It will not cover everything on the map, but it will highlight the most relevant stops along the way and provide additional context. Cover letters and résumés work together and should be in conversation with the job posting.

  • Strong Cover Letters
  • Anatomy of a Cover Letter
  • Give a clear indication of the skills and experiences that make the applicant a good fit. Your cover letter should translate how your experiences have developed both technical and non-technical skills necessary for the role.
  • Provide evidence of the skills in action. Show, do not tell—provide concrete examples that craft a compelling narrative.
  • Make an explicit connection between applicant and job. A cover letter should articulate your understanding of the organization you are applying to and how you fit in.

Use a business-letter format and stick to one page of 3-5 paragraphs. Like a résumé, each cover letter you write should be tailored to the specific position and employer to align with the organization’s culture and the requirements of the role.

  • Use the same header on both your cover letter and résumé for a cohesive and polished look.
  • When available, include the name, title, company, and address of the person you are writing.
  • If you do not know the recruiter or hiring manager’s name, address your letter to “Recruiting Team” or “Hiring Manager.” Avoid using “To whom it may concern.”
  • Use the opening paragraph to introduce yourself. State why you are writing and how you learned about the position. If someone referred you or you have established a contact through networking, include the person’s name and affiliation with the employer.
  • The first paragraph should also articulate what you know about the organization and what draws you to a role. Be sure to review the job posting and carefully research the company to identify the most important skills to highlight as well as why you want to join the team. Conveying genuine enthusiasm is essential! It is often helpful to conclude the opening paragraph with a clear assertion of your skills, much like a thesis statement for your cover letter. This last sentence also helps structure your body paragraphs.
  • The body paragraphs should emphasize and elaborate on your strongest qualifications and key relevant experiences. Address qualifications specified in the job description and give concrete examples of when you have demonstrated the skills the employer is seeking. Do not repeat all the content from your résumé; instead, select 2-3 experiences that showcase the positive impact of your relevant skills.
  • The final paragraph reiterates what draws you to the organization and the skillsets and experiences you bring to the table. You should also use the closing paragraph to express thanks for consideration and to request an opportunity to discuss the position.
  • If you are using the header from your résumé, do not repeat your contact information in the signature.

Once you have a draft, get feedback! Graduate students can make career advising appointments at NCA through Handshake to receive individualized feedback from our dedicated PhD advisers on application materials. They can also pop into our virtual drop-in hours for quick questions. Postdoctoral fellows can contact the  Office of Postdoctoral Affairs for feedback on their materials. The Graduate Writing Place is another wonderful resource for both grad students and postdocs, and their fellows provide feedback on academic and non-academic application materials.

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Academic Cover Letters

What is this handout about.

The long list of application materials required for many academic teaching jobs can be daunting. This handout will help you tackle one of the most important components: the cover letter or letter of interest. Here you will learn about writing and revising cover letters for academic teaching jobs in the United States of America.

What is an academic cover letter?

An academic cover letter describes your experiences and interest as a candidate for a specific position. It introduces you to the hiring committee and demonstrates how your academic background fits with the description of the position.

What do cover letters for academic teaching jobs typically contain?

At their most basic level, academic cover letters accomplish three things: one, they express your interest in the job; two, they provide a brief synopsis of your research and teaching; and three, they summarize your past experiences and achievements to illustrate your competence for the job. For early-career scholars, cover letters are typically no more than two pages (up to four pages for senior scholars). Occasionally, a third page may make sense for an early-career scholar if the application does not require a separate teaching statement and/or research statement. Digital versions of cover letters often contain hyperlinks to your CV or portfolio page. For some fields, cover letters may also include examples of your work, including music, popular articles, and other multimedia related to your research, service, or teaching available online. Typically, letters appear on departmental or university letterhead and include your signature. Above all, a strong cover letter presents your accomplishments and your familiarity with the institution and with the position.

How should I prepare to write my academic cover letter?

Like all writing, composing a cover letter is a process. The process may be as short as a few hours or as long as several weeks, but at the end the letter should present you as a strong candidate for the job. The following section has tips and questions for thinking through each stage of this writing process. You don’t need to answer all of these questions to write the letter; they are meant to help you brainstorm ideas.

Before you begin writing your cover letter, consider researching the institution, the department, and the student population. Incorporating all three aspects in your letter will help convey your interest in the position.

Get to know the institution. When crafting your cover letter, be aware of the type of institution to which you are applying. Knowing how the institution presents itself can help you tailor your letter and make it more specific.

  • Where is the institution located?
  • Is it on a quarter-system or semester-system?
  • What type of institution is it? Is it an R1? Is it an R2? Is it a liberal arts college? Is it an HBCU? Is it a community college? A private high school?
  • What is the institution’s culture? Is it teaching-focused or research-focused? Does it privilege experiential learning? Does it value faculty involvement outside the classroom? Is it affiliated with a specific religious tradition?
  • Does it have any specific institutional commitments?
  • How does the institution advocate for involvement in its local community?
  • What are the professional development opportunities for new and junior faculty?

Learn about the department. Knowing the specific culture and needs of the department can help you reach your audience: the department members who will be reading your documents and vetting you as a candidate.

  • Who is on the search committee? Who is the search committee chair?
  • What is the official name of the department?
  • Which different subfields make up the department?
  • Is it a dual appointment or a position in a dual department?
  • How does the department participate in specific types of student outreach?
  • Does the department have graduate students? Does it offer a terminal Master’s degree, Ph.D., or both? How large are the cohorts? How are they funded?
  • Does the department encourage or engage in interdisciplinary work?
  • Does the majority of the department favor certain theoretical or methodological approaches?
  • Does the department have partnerships with local institutions? If so, which ones?
  • Is the department attempting to fill a specific vacancy, or is it an entirely new position?
  • What are the typical course offerings in the department? Which courses might you be expected to teach? What courses might you be able to provide that are not currently available?

Consider the students. The search committee will often consider how you approach instructing and mentoring the student body. Sometimes committees will even reserve a position for a student or solicit student feedback on a candidate:

  • What populations constitute the majority of the undergraduate population?
  • Have there been any shifts in the student population recently?
  • Do students largely come from in-state or out-of-state?
  • Is there an international student population? If so, from which countries?
  • Is the university recruiting students from traditionally underrepresented populations?
  • Are students particularly active on campus? If so, how?

Many answers to these questions can be found both in the job description and on the institution’s website. If possible, consider contacting someone you know at the institution to ask about the culture directly. You can also use the institution’s course catalog, recruitment materials, alumni magazine, and other materials to get answers to these questions. The key is to understand the sort of institution to which you are applying, its immediate needs, and its future trajectory.

Remember, there is a resource that can help you with all three aspects—people. Reach out to your advisor, committee members, faculty mentors, and other contacts for insight into the prospective department’s culture and faculty. They might even help you revise your letter based on their expertise. Think of your job search as an opportunity to cultivate these relationships.

After you have done some initial research, think about how your experiences have prepared you for the job and identify the ones that seem the most relevant. Consider your previous research, internships, graduate teaching, and summer experiences. Here are some topics and questions to get you started thinking about what you might include.

Research Experiences. Consider how your research has prepared you for an academic career. Since the letter is a relatively short document, select examples of your research that really highlight who you are as a scholar, the direction you see your work going, and how your scholarship will contribute to the institution’s research community.

  • What are your current research interests?
  • What topics would you like to examine in the future?
  • How have you pursued those research interests?
  • Have you traveled for your research?
  • Have you published any of your research? Have you presented it at a conference, symposium, or elsewhere?
  • Have you worked or collaborated with scholars at different institutions on projects? If so, what did these collaborations produce?
  • Have you made your research accessible to your local community?
  • Have you received funding or merit-based fellowships for your research?
  • What other research contributions have you made? This may include opinion articles, book chapters, or participating as a journal reviewer.
  • How do your research interests relate to those of other faculty in the department or fill a gap?

Teaching Experience. Think about any teaching experience you may have. Perhaps you led recitations as a teaching assistant, taught your own course, or guest lectured. Pick a few experiences to discuss in your letter that demonstrate something about your teaching style or your interest in teaching.

  • What courses are you interested in teaching for the department? What courses have you taught that discussed similar topics or themes?
  • What new courses can you imagine offering the department that align with their aim and mission?
  • Have you used specific strategies that were helpful in your instruction?
  • What sort of resources do you typically use in the classroom?
  • Do you have anecdotes that demonstrate your teaching style?
  • What is your teaching philosophy?
  • When have you successfully navigated a difficult concept or topic in the classroom, and what did you learn?
  • What other opportunities could you provide to students?

Internships/Summer/Other Experiences. Brainstorm a list of any conferences, colloquiums, and workshops you have attended, as well as any ways you have served your department, university, or local community. This section will highlight how you participate in your university and scholarly community. Here are some examples of things you might discuss:

  • Professional development opportunities you may have pursued over the summer or during your studies
  • International travel for research or presentations
  • Any research you’ve done in a non-academic setting
  • Presentations at conferences
  • Participation in symposia, reading groups, working groups, etc.
  • Internships in which you may have implemented your research or practical skills related to your discipline
  • Participation in community engagement projects
  • Participation in or leadership of any scholarly and/or university organizations

In answering these questions, create a list of the experiences that you think best reflect you as a scholar and teacher. In choosing which experiences to highlight, consider your audience and what they would find valuable or relevant. Taking the time to really think about your reader will help you present yourself as an applicant well-qualified for the position.

Writing a draft

Remember that the job letter is an opportunity to introduce yourself and your accomplishments and to communicate why you would be a good fit for the position. Typically, search committees will want to know whether you are a capable job candidate, familiar with the institution, and a great future addition to the department’s faculty. As such, be aware of how the letter’s structure and content reflect your preparedness for the position.

The structure of your cover letter should reflect the typical standards for letter writing in the country in which the position is located (the list below reflects the standards for US letter writing). This usually includes a salutation, body, and closing, as well as proper contact information. If you are affiliated with a department, institution, or organization, the letter should be on letterhead.

  • Use a simple, readable font in a standard size, such as 10-12pt. Some examples of fonts that may be conventional in your field include Arial, Garamond, Times New Roman, and Verdana, among other similar fonts.
  • Do not indent paragraphs.
  • Separate all paragraphs by a line and justify them to the left.
  • Make sure that any included hyperlinks work.
  • Include your signature in the closing.

Before you send in your letter, make sure you proofread and look for formatting mistakes. You’ll read more about proofreading and revising later in this handout!

The second most important aspect of your letter is its content. Since the letter is the first chance to provide an in-depth introduction, it should expand on who you are as a scholar and possible faculty member. Below are some elements to consider including when composing your letter.

Identify the position you are applying to and introduce yourself. Traditionally, the first sentence of a job letter includes the full name of the position and where you discovered the job posting. This is also the place to introduce yourself and describe why you are applying for this position. Since the goal of a job letter is to persuade the search committee to include you on the list of candidates for further review, you may want to include an initial claim as to why you are a strong candidate for the position. Some questions you might consider:

  • What is your current status (ABD, assistant professor, post-doc, etc.)?
  • If you are ABD, have you defended your dissertation? If not, when will you defend?
  • Why are you interested in this position?
  • Why are you a strong candidate for this position?

Describe your research experience and interests. For research-centered positions, such as positions at R1 or other types of research-centered universities, include information about your research experience and current work early in the letter. For many applicants, current work will be the dissertation project. If this is the case, some suggest calling your “dissertation research” your “current project” or “work,” as this may help you present yourself as an emerging scholar rather than a graduate student. Some questions about your research that you might consider:

  • What research experiences have you had?
  • What does your current project investigate?
  • What are some of the important methods you applied?
  • Have you collaborated with others in your research?
  • Have you acquired specific skills that will be useful for the future?
  • Have you received special funding? If so, what kind?
  • Has your research received any accolades or rewards?
  • What does your current project contribute to the field?
  • Where have you presented your research?
  • Have you published your research? If so, where? Or are you working on publishing your work?
  • How does your current project fit the job description?

Present your plans for future research. This section presents your research agenda and usually includes a description of your plans for future projects and research publications. Detailing your future research demonstrates to the search committee that you’ve thought about a research trajectory and can work independently. If you are applying to a teaching-intensive position, you may want to minimize this section and/or consider including a sentence or two on how this research connects to undergraduate and/or graduate research opportunities. Some questions to get you started:

  • What is your next research project/s?
  • How does this connect to your current and past work?
  • What major theories/methods will you use?
  • How will this project contribute to the field?
  • Where do you see your specialty area or subfield going in the next ten years and how does your research contribute to or reflect this?
  • Will you be collaborating with anyone? If so, with whom?
  • How will this future project encourage academic discourse?
  • Do you already have funding? If so, from whom? If not, what plans do you have for obtaining funding?
  • How does your future research expand upon the department’s strengths while simultaneously diversifying the university’s research portfolio? (For example, does your future research involve emerging research fields, state-of-the-art technologies, or novel applications?)

Describe your teaching experience and highlight teaching strategies. This section allows you to describe your teaching philosophy and how you apply this philosophy in your classroom. Start by briefly addressing your teaching goals and values. Here, you can provide specific examples of your teaching methods by describing activities and projects you assign students. Try to link your teaching and research together. For example, if you research the rise of feminism in the 19th century, consider how you bring either the methodology or the content of your research into the classroom. For a teaching-centered institution, such as a small liberal arts college or community college, you may want to emphasize your teaching more than your research. If you do not have any teaching experience, you could describe a training, mentoring, or coaching situation that was similar to teaching and how you would apply what you learned in a classroom.

  • What is your teaching philosophy? How is your philosophy a good fit for the department in which you are applying to work?
  • What sort of teaching strategies do you use in the classroom?
  • What is your teaching style? Do you lecture? Do you emphasize discussion? Do you use specific forms of interactive learning?
  • What courses have you taught?
  • What departmental courses are you prepared to teach?
  • Will you be able to fill in any gaps in the departmental course offerings?
  • What important teaching and/or mentoring experiences have you had?
  • How would you describe yourself in the classroom?
  • What type of feedback have you gotten from students?
  • Have you received any awards or recognition for your teaching?

Talk about your service work. Service is often an important component of an academic job description. This can include things like serving on committees or funding panels, providing reviews, and doing community outreach. The cover letter gives you an opportunity to explain how you have involved yourself in university life outside the classroom. For instance, you could include descriptions of volunteer work, participation in initiatives, or your role in professional organizations. This section should demonstrate ways in which you have served your department, university, and/or scholarly community. Here are some additional examples you could discuss:

  • Participating in graduate student or junior faculty governance
  • Sitting on committees, departmental or university-wide
  • Partnerships with other university offices or departments
  • Participating in community-partnerships
  • Participating in public scholarship initiatives
  • Founding or participating in any university initiatives or programs
  • Creating extra-curricular resources or presentations

Present yourself as a future faculty member. This section demonstrates who you will be as a colleague. It gives you the opportunity to explain how you will collaborate with faculty members with similar interests; take part in departmental and/or institution wide initiatives or centers; and participate in departmental service. This shows your familiarity with the role of faculty outside the classroom and your ability to add to the departmental and/or institutional strengths or fill in any gaps.

  • What excites you about this job?
  • What faculty would you like to collaborate with and why? (This answer may be slightly tricky. See the section on name dropping below.)
  • Are there any partnerships in the university or outside of it that you wish to participate in?
  • Are there any centers associated with the university or in the community that you want to be involved in?
  • Are there faculty initiatives that you are passionate about?
  • Do you have experience collaborating across various departments or within your own department?
  • In what areas will you be able to contribute?
  • Why would you make an excellent addition to the faculty at this institution?

Compose a strong closing. This short section should acknowledge that you have sent in all other application documents and include a brief thank you for the reader’s time and/or consideration. It should also state your willingness to forward additional materials and indicate what you would like to see as next steps (e.g., a statement that you look forward to speaking with the search committee). End with a professional closing such as “Sincerely” or “Kind Regards” followed by your full name.

If you are finding it difficult to write the different sections of your cover letter, consider composing the other academic job application documents (the research statement, teaching philosophy, and diversity statement) first and then summarizing them in your job letter.

Different kinds of letters may be required for different types of jobs. For example, some jobs may focus on research. In this case, emphasize your research experiences and current project/s. Other jobs may be more focused on teaching. In this case, highlight your teaching background and skills. Below are two models for how you could change your letter’s organization based on the job description and the institution. The models offer a guide for you to consider how changing the order of information and the amount of space dedicated to a particular topic changes the emphasis of the letter.

Research-Based Position Job Letter Example:

Date: Month Day, Year

Search Committee Chair’s First and Last Name, Graduate Degree
Full Department Name
Name of Institution
Department Address

Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. Search Committee Chair’s last name and/or Search Committee Members:

Paragraph 1 [3-5 Sentences]: Identify the position you are applying for. Introduce yourself to the committee and your research interests. Connect your interests to the department and describe what makes you interested in becoming part of this departmental community.

Paragraph 2 [3-5 Sentences]: Briefly explain your research to date. Consider mentioning your research questions, methods, key findings, as well as where and when you published and/or presented this work.

Paragraph 3 [4-5 Sentences]: Elaborate on your current research project. Consider mentioning your most prestigious funding awards for this project. Explain your key findings in more detail.

Paragraph 4 [3-5 Sentences]: Introduce your future research plans and goals. Point out the intellectual merit and/or broader impacts of this future work.

Paragraph 5 [3-5 Sentences]: Briefly discuss your teaching experience and strategies. Provide examples of teaching strategies or an anecdote highlighting your teaching effectiveness. You may also want to introduce your philosophy on diversity in an academic setting.

Paragraph 6 [2-3 Sentences]: Make a connection between your work and the department to which you are applying. Include how you will participate in the intellectual life of the department both inside and outside the classroom. Provide concrete examples of how you will be a hard-working and collaborative colleague.

Paragraph 7 [1-2 Sentences]: A thank you for the search committee’s time and consideration.


Your Name
Credentials and Position
Institution/Affiliation Name

Teaching-Based Position Job Letter Example:

Date: Month Day, Year

Search Committee Chair’s First and Last Name, Graduate Degree
Full Department Name
Name of Institution
Department Address

Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. Search Committee Chair’s last name and/or Search Committee Members:

Paragraph 1 [3-5 Sentences]: Identify the position you are applying for. Introduce yourself to the committee and your research interests. Connect your interests to the department and describe what makes you interested in becoming part of this departmental community.

Paragraph 2 [3-5 Sentences]: Briefly discuss your teaching experience and pedagogical commitments. Provide examples of teaching strategies or an anecdote highlighting your teaching effectiveness. You may also want to introduce your philosophy on diversity in an academic setting.

Paragraph 3 [3-4 Sentences]: Provide a discussion of how you involved yourself with students or the broader university community outside of the traditional classroom setting. Discuss how those interactions influenced your teaching.

Paragraph 4 [2-3 Sentences]: Briefly explain your current research interests to date and how it relates to your teaching. State your research questions, methods, and key findings or arguments. Point out the intellectual merit and/or broader impacts of this future work.

Paragraph 5 [3-5 Sentences]: Highlight when and where your research was published and/or presented this work or any forthcoming publications. Mention any prestigious funding or awards. Introduce your future research plans and goals.

Paragraph 6 [2-3 Sentences]: Make a connection between your work and the department to which you are applying. Include how you will participate in the intellectual life of the department both inside and outside the classroom. Provide concrete examples of how you will be a hard-working and collaborative colleague.

Paragraph 7 [1-2 Sentences]: A thank you for the search committee’s time and consideration.


Your Name
Credentials and Position
Institution/Affiliation Name

Remember your first draft does not have to be your last. Try to get feedback from different readers, especially if it is one of your first applications. It is not uncommon to go through several stages of revisions. Check out the Writing Center’s handout on editing and proofreading and video on proofreading to help with this last stage of writing.

Potential pitfalls

Using the word dissertation. Some search committee members may see the word “dissertation” as a red flag that an applicant is too focused on their role as a graduate student rather than as a prospective faculty member. It may be advantageous, then, to describe your dissertation as current research, a current research project, current work, or some other phrase that demonstrates you are aware that your dissertation is the beginning of a larger scholarly career.

Too much jargon. While you may be writing to a specific department, people on the search committee might be unfamiliar with the details of your subfield. In fact, many committees have at least one member from outside their department. Use terminology that can easily be understood by non-experts. If you want to use a specific term that is crucial to your research, then you should define it. Aim for clarity for your reader, which may mean simplification in lieu of complete precision.

Overselling yourself. While your job letter should sell you as a great candidate, saying so (e.g., “I’m the ideal candidate”) in your letter may come off to some search committee members as presumptuous. Remember that although you have an idea about the type of colleague a department is searching for, ultimately you do not know exactly what they want. Try to avoid phrases or sentences where you state you are the ideal or the only candidate right for the position.

Paying too much attention to the job description. Job descriptions are the result of a lot of debate and compromise. If you have skills or research interests outside the job description, consider including them in your letter. It may be that your extra research interests; your outside skills; and/or your extracurricular involvements make you an attractive candidate. For example, if you are a Latin Americanist who also happens to be well-versed in the Spanish Revolution, it could be worth mentioning the expanse of your research interests because a department might find you could fill in other gaps in the curriculum or add an additional or complementary perspective to the department.

Improper sendoff. The closing of your letter is just as important as the beginning. The end of the letter should reflect the professionalism of the document. There should be a thank-you and the word sincerely or a formal equivalent. Remember, it is the very last place in your letter where you present yourself as a capable future colleague.

Small oversights. Make sure to proofread your letter not just for grammar but also for content. For example, if you use material from another letter, make sure you do not include the names of another school, department, or unassociated faculty! Or, if the school is in Chicago, make sure you do not accidentally reference it as located in the Twin Cities.

Name dropping. You rarely know the internal politics of the department or institution to which you are applying. So be cautious about the names you insert in your cover letters. You do not want to unintentionally insert yourself into a departmental squabble or add fire to an interdepartmental conflict. Instead, focus on the actions you will undertake and the initiatives you are passionate about.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Ball, Cheryl E. 2013. “Understanding Cover Letters.” Inside Higher Ed , November 3, 2013. .

Borchardt, John. 2014. “Writing a Winning Cover Letter.” Science Magazine , August 6, 2014. .

Helmreich, William. 2013. “Your First Academic Job.” Inside Higher Ed , June 17, 2013. .

Kelsky, Karen. 2013. “How To Write a Journal Article Submission Cover Letter.” The Professor Is In (blog), April 26, 2013. .

Tomaska, Lubomir, and Josef Nosek. 2008. “Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Cover Letter to Accompany a Job Application for an Academic Position.” PLoS Computational Biology 14(5). .

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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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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How to Write a Cover Letter for Academic Jobs

cover letter for academic jobs

The purpose of your cover letter

The power of the cover letter in making an effective job application should never be underestimated. A good cover letter will grab the employer’s attention and make them want to read your CV. The purpose of your cover letter and CV together is to whet the employer’s appetite, to establish you as a serious contender for the post and to persuade the recruiter that you are worth an interview.

The cover letter exists to:

  • Demonstrate your enthusiasm for the post, based on the research you have done about the role and the institution
  • Explain your rationale for applying and how the role fits with your career plans
  • Answer the question “Why should we hire you?” by demonstrating how you meet the key criteria for the post and what sets you apart from other candidates
  • Provide evidence of your written communication and language skills, including the ability to be clear, succinct and articulate. This is especially important for teaching roles as the ability to communicate the nature and impact of your academic work to a non-academic audience is crucial.

This article focuses on cover letters for roles in Academia and addresses:

When to send a cover letter

  • What format to use
  • How to tailor it to a particular role
  • Marketing yourself in the cover letter
  • The dos and don’ts of cover letter writing
  • An example ‘before’ and ‘after’ cover letter with detailed explanations of the improvements made
  • A checklist for you to ensure your cover letter is as effective as possible.

You should always send a cover letter with your CV unless you are expressly asked not to. The only exception is if you are posting your CV on a database/with an agency where it will be seen by numerous employers, in which case a Profile on the CV itself is helpful.

Even if you have explained your motivation for applying on the application form, it is still worth sending a separate cover letter. This is because the cover letter gives you another opportunity to market yourself and can strengthen your chances.

The format of a cover letter

For jobs in academia, the length of the cover letter will depend on the seniority of the post. In any event, you should ensure the letter is no longer than two pages; one and a half pages is better still. In order to make an impact, and to prove that you can explain ideas fluently and clearly, the letter needs to be succinct. This is not the place to give in-depth detail about your research and academic interests; remember that the letter may be read by non-academics too, such as staff from Human Resources. You can always give further details of your academic and research activities on your CV or in an Appendix to your CV.

Keep paragraphs short and your typeface clear (a font size of 11 or 12 is recommended) as the employer’s attention span will be brief.

It is traditional to write the cover letter in paragraph format, and this is the format we have used for our example letter, although some candidates choose to use bullet points and/or bold to highlight key points.

The order of paragraphs is not critical, but the following is recommended:

  • Address and salutation: Address the letter to a named person i.e. the Head of Department.
  • First paragraph: An introduction, explaining which post you are applying for, how you heard about it, and some brief background on who you are e.g. in terms of your research interests and academic background.
  • Middle section: Evidence of your academic career in terms of your research interests and achievements as well as teaching and administrative experience. Also mention your future research plans. The balance between research, teaching and administration will depend on the nature of the institution and department’s work.
  • Final section: Explain what attracts you to this role in this institution and department and how the role fits in to your career plans.
  • Concluding paragraph: A conclusion summarising what makes you suitable for the job and a statement expressing interest in an interview.

Tailoring your letter

The best way to tailor your letter effectively is to:

Do your research

Your cover letter needs to show what a great match you are for the job. The job and person specification will only give you so much. In order to understand the job context, how your own research interests will fit into the department’s academic offering, what the recruiters are really looking for and how the department and job might develop in future you need to make your own enquiries.

This could include:

Online research

For example: into the University and Department’s academic programmes, it’s research and student profile, the research interests of key staff and so on. There is much information available publicly (for example, the institution’s and department’s external websites, the department’s latest research ranking, academic forums and even Good University Guides). For external  appointments, you may be limited to what is available publicly so do use your networks to access these.

Discussion with the Head of Department

Most recruiters are only too happy to answer questions about the job from potential applicants beforehand. This can also help you get your ‘name in the frame’ early. Just ensure that your  questions are well researched and be warned that the conversation might turn into an informal interview. You should reflect on why the department should hire you, and refine your ‘elevator pitch’ before arranging the call.

Conversations with other academics in the department and institution

You can also speak to people who previously worked there, who have worked with key staff in the department at some point in their career, as well as support staff. This will give you a better idea of the culture of the institution and the work of the department. For internal roles, you can use your internal networks to find these people. For external roles, you might ask the Head of  Department to put you in touch with other staff – or use your networks to see who knows someone in the right department and institution.

The depth of your research will show in your application and can really distinguish serious applicants from the rest of the pack. It’s also great preparation for the interview stage.

Be selective

The best way to tailor your letter is to pick out only the top three or four criteria for the post and focus your evidence on these. If the employer is convinced you have the right credentials,  experience and skills for the areas that matter most, the chances are that they will invite you to interview. Your CV and your interview can cover the rest.

Remember to include your skills outside research

Whilst the focus of your cover letter may be about communicating the relevance and depth of your academic experience, don’t forget to give evidence of those softer skills which may also be relevant to the job. These are likely to be outlined in the person specification and may include supervising PhD students, writing funding bids, managing other staff and project planning.

Marketing yourself effectively

Before you write your letter, you need to be clear on what your Unique Selling Points are for the role in relation to the key job criteria.

Think about what will differentiate you from the competition. Consider who else might apply, internally and externally, and what they might offer. Consider what makes you stand out from them. This might include:

  • Greater depth of expertise in this field or a higher research profile than other likely applicants
  • A particular blend of experiences which give you a unique perspective (e.g. international experience, having worked in both academia and industry, or having held posts in more than one academic discipline)
  • Specific achievements in your current and previous roles
  • A passion for and commitment to this area of research or working for this institution (e.g. perhaps you completed your PhD there)
  • Well developed research or funding networks which could prove helpful in the job
  • Or anything else you think might make the stand out in a way which is relevant to the role.

Tips for success

  • Put your most convincing evidence first. You need to make an impact in the first few sentences. Talk about your current or most relevant job first
  • Focus on achievements in your current and previous roles rather than merely your responsibilities (publications, new courses developed, funding awards won and so on). Quantify these wherever possible
  • Illustrate your achievements with brief but specific examples, explaining why these are relevant to this role. You can refer the employer to the CV for more detail
  • Concentrate on the areas which differentiate you from the competition rather than the basic job criteria
  • Demonstrate how well you have researched the role and the job context when explaining your career motivation
  • Explain your rationale if you are seeking a career change or sideways move
  • Be succinct. Ask someone to go through it with you and edit out any wordy sentences and redundant words. Some academic institutions offer a confidential careers advice service to staff members through their University Careers Service
  • End on a note of enthusiasm and anticipation.
  • Try to summarise your CV or give too much detail – you need to be selective about the points that you highlight
  • Make unsubstantiated statements about relevant skills and experience without giving examples
  • Send the same or a similar letter to more than one employer. Never ‘cut and paste’ as employers will suspect a lack of research and career focus
  • Make generalised statements about why you want to work for the institution (e.g. referring to ‘a top 50 global institution’ or ‘a department with a high reputation’)
  • Use jargon specific to your employer or profession which the employer might not understand
  • Focus on what the employer can do for you – it’s more about what you can do for the employer.

Example cover letter – with comments

cover letter for non academic job

Example cover letter – improved version

cover letter for non academic job

Cover letter checklist

Before you send off your letter, use our final checklist to ensure your letter is as strong as possible.

  • Done your homework so that you are clear about what the employer wants?
  • Given clear evidence of how you meet the most important criteria of the job?
  • Kept it to two pages or less?
  • Put your most important evidence in the first half of the letter?
  • Explained your academic interests clearly in a way that non-academics could understand?
  • Asked a friend to proof read it and ensure the language is succinct and clear?
  • Addressed it to the right person?
  • Given a convincing explanation of why you want the job?
  • Ended with a summary of why you would be perfect for this role?

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Lisa Carr is a careers consultant and coach who works with a range of public and private organisations including the University of Warwick and Warwick Business School, where she coaches Executive MBAs. She began her career as an HR manager in the energy industry and spent a number of years lecturing for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. After qualifying as a Careers Guidance practitioner she has worked with a wide range of clients from undergraduates through to senior academics and company directors.

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The Humanities PhD Project

The Humanities PhD Project


Category: Cover Letters

Um career center resume and cover letter tips for phd students.

cover letter for non academic job

A new resource for PhDs from UM’s Career Center includes worksheets that can help identify transferable skills and construct narratives that make the skills developed during a doctorate legible to employers. The packet also provides “brief introductions that explain various application materials, reflection tools that can help … articulate your experience, examples of application materials, and, core…

Resumes and Cover Letters for PhD Students

cover letter for non academic job

This resource for creating cover letters and resumes developed by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences Office of Career Services includes answers to FAQs about preparing resumes and cover letters, a useful word bank for describing various career experiences, nine examples of resumes tailored to particular interests or career trajectories, and sample cover letters.

Expert Advice on Entering the Non-Academic Workforce

cover letter for non academic job

  Anne Krook is a former UM professor who now works as a professional consultant and trains graduate and students and postdocs seeking non-academic employment. Her website contains numerous free resources to help you get started in your search and advice on cover letters, interviews, and more.

Crafting a Successful Cover Letter

cover letter for non academic job

This Inside Higher Ed article offers great advice on things to consider and common mistakes to avoid when composing cover letters for academic positions.

The Post-Ac’s Guide to the Cover Letter

cover letter for non academic job

This post offers a no-nonsense guide to writing a cover letter as a PhD applying for a non-academic job. It discusses how to target your language to fit the job posting, as well as common mistakes people make when moving from academia to other fields.

Handbook for a Non-Academic Job Search

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University of California Irvine has a handbook with advice on non-academic career exploration, cover letters, and sample resumes from PhDs in various disciplines. The handbook—a downloadable PDF—contains worksheets that help students articulate their goals and skills and move towards finding a career that best suits their interests and strengths.  

  • Cover Letter For Non Academic Job

"I am writing to express my strong interest in the [Job Title] position at [Company Name], as advertised on [Where You Found the Job Posting]. With a background in [Relevant Skills or Industry], I am confident that my experience and expertise make me an ideal candidate to contribute to your team's success. Whether you're seeking an experienced professional, a recent graduate eager to begin a career, someone transitioning from a different field, or an executive leader, I am excited about the opportunity to bring my unique skills, values, and passion to [Company Name]. Your commitment to [Company Value or Initiative] aligns perfectly with my personal and professional goals, and I am enthusiastic about the potential to make a meaningful impact at [Company Name]. Enclosed is my resume, which provides a more detailed overview of my qualifications, and I am eager to discuss how I can be a valuable asset to your organization."

Template General Cover Letter

[Your Name] [Your Address] [City, State, ZIP Code] [Your Email Address] [Your Phone Number] [Today's Date]

[Employer's Name] [Company Name] [Company Address] [City, State, ZIP Code]

Dear [Employer's Name],

I am writing to express my strong interest in the [Job Title] position at [Company Name], as advertised on [Where You Found the Job Posting]. With [Number] years of experience in [Relevant Skill/Industry], I am confident in my ability to contribute to your team's success.

In my previous role at [Previous Company], I [Briefly Describe an Achievement or Responsibility That Relates to the New Position]. My accomplishments include [Mention Key Achievements], which resulted in [Tangible Outcomes or Improvements]. I am excited about the opportunity to bring my skills in [Key Skills] to [Company Name] and contribute to the achievement of [Company's Specific Goal or Mission].

What truly excites me about [Company Name] is [Highlight a Company Specific Feature or Value]. I am impressed by your dedication to [Company Value or Initiative] and believe my background aligns perfectly with your needs. I am eager to be part of your team and help [Company Name] [Reiterate Company's Goal or Vision].

Enclosed is my resume, which provides additional details about my qualifications. I look forward to the opportunity to discuss how my experience and skills can benefit [Company Name]. Please feel free to contact me at [Your Phone Number] or via email at [Your Email Address] to schedule a conversation.

Thank you for considering my application. I am excited about the potential to contribute to [Company Name]'s continued success and growth.

[Your Name]

Template Entry-Level Cover Letter

I am writing to apply for the [Job Title] position at [Company Name], as advertised on [Where You Found the Job Posting]. As a recent graduate with a degree in [Your Degree], I am enthusiastic about the opportunity to begin my career at [Company Name].

During my academic journey, I developed a strong foundation in [Relevant Skills] and honed my ability to [Describe a Relevant Skill or Experience]. My coursework and internship experience at [Relevant Internship] have prepared me for the challenges and responsibilities of the [Job Title] role.

I am drawn to [Company Name] because of [Company Specific Feature or Value]. Your commitment to [Company Value or Initiative] aligns with my personal values, and I am eager to contribute to [Company Name]'s mission. I am a quick learner, highly motivated, and I thrive in collaborative team environments.

Enclosed, you will find my resume, which provides more details about my education and experiences. I welcome the opportunity to discuss how my skills and enthusiasm can make a positive impact at [Company Name]. Please contact me at [Your Phone Number] or via email at [Your Email Address] to arrange a conversation.

Thank you for considering my application. I look forward to the possibility of joining [Company Name] and contributing to its success.

Template Career Change Cover Letter

I am excited to apply for the [Job Title] position at [Company Name], as advertised on [Where You Found the Job Posting]. With a background in [Your Previous Field] and a strong desire to transition into the [Target Industry], I believe I can bring a fresh perspective to your team.

Throughout my [Number] years of experience in [Previous Field], I have developed valuable skills such as [Transferable Skills], which are directly transferable to the [Job Title] role. I have always been a quick learner and a problem solver, and I am confident in my ability to adapt to the unique challenges of the [Target Industry].

What sets [Company Name] apart for me is [Highlight a Company Specific Feature or Value]. Your commitment to [Company Value or Initiative] resonates with my career goals, and I am eager to contribute to your organization's success.

I have attached my resume, which provides additional information about my background and experiences. I am enthusiastic about the potential to discuss how my skills and passion for [Target Industry] can be a valuable asset to [Company Name]. Please feel free to contact me at [Your Phone Number] or via email at [Your Email Address] to set up a meeting.

Thank you for considering my application. I look forward to the possibility of joining [Company Name] and making a meaningful impact.

Template Executive Cover Letter

I am writing to express my strong interest in the [Job Title] position at [Company Name], as advertised on [Where You Found the Job Posting]. With a track record of success in [Your Previous Role or Industry], I am excited about the opportunity to bring my executive leadership and strategic expertise to [Company Name].

In my previous role as [Your Previous Position] at [Previous Company], I achieved [Highlight Key Achievements or Milestones], which had a substantial impact on the company's growth and profitability. I am known for my ability to [Emphasize a Key Skill or Quality] and am confident that my experience aligns perfectly with the requirements of the [Job Title] role at [Company Name].

I am impressed by [Company Name]'s commitment to [Company Value or Initiative], and I believe my skills and experiences can play a pivotal role in driving your organization toward even greater success. I am a results-driven professional who thrives in high-pressure environments and has a proven track record of delivering on strategic objectives.

Enclosed is my resume, which provides a comprehensive overview of my background and achievements. I am eager to discuss how my executive leadership can contribute to [Company Name]'s continued growth. Please do not hesitate to contact me at [Your Phone Number] or via email at [Your Email Address] to arrange a conversation.

Thank you for considering my application. I look forward to the opportunity to join [Company Name] and make a significant impact as a member of your team.

We are delighted to extend our professional proofreading and writing services to cater to all your business and professional requirements, absolutely free of charge. Should you need any email, letter, or application templates, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at Kindly leave a comment stating your request, and we will ensure to provide the necessary template at the earliest.

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Writing effective cover letters for non-academic jobs

Career & Tools

This May 10 workshop will explore important techniques that will help you expertly craft and strategically target your cover letter so you can get over the first application hurdle and on to an interview!

cover letter for non academic job

Writing Effective Cover Letters for Non-Academic Jobs Tuesday, May 10, 1:30-2:30 p.m. SRB 2154 Please RSVP here

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Cover Letter Resources

Cover letters introduce your story and create a first impression for employers. They link your resume to the position, showcasing your knowledge of the organization and highlighting relevant skills. Start by researching the organization, considering what intrigues you and what you have to offer.




Quick formatting tips.

Your cover letter should include 3-4 paragraphs with the following information:

  • The main purpose of the first paragraph is to introduce yourself and tell why you are writing. You want to grab the employer’s attention: why you are interested in this position and/or why this organization. Use your community: if someone has referred you to the organization (a current employee, friend, family member) include his or her name in the first sentence.
  • Tell the employer your story: describe your qualifications for the type of position you seek using specific examples from academic, work, volunteer, and/or co-curricular experiences. Connect your accomplishments, skills and knowledge directly to the type of position, organization and/or field. Avoid repeating facts outlined on your resume by focusing on key concepts.
  • Summarize or give a final statement of interest/qualifications. Thank the employer for his/her time and consideration. Plan to follow up with the employer with a phone call or email.

Need help getting started?

Answer some of these questions to help you consider what you want to say in each paragraph.

  • Paragraph 1: Why are you interested in this position/this organization? What in the posting made you say “I’ve got to apply!”?
  • Paragraphs 2-3: What 2-3 experiences connect your skills to those listed in the position? What made you say “I can do that!”?
  • Paragraph 4: What final point do you want to make?


Using AI for cover letters offers benefits like saving time, providing writing guidance, tailoring content to specific jobs, and ensuring grammar and style correctness. AI boosts consistency, boosts confidence, and reduces writer's block, giving you a competitive edge in the job market. Remember, while AI helps, personalization and creativity remain important for a successful cover letter.

Check out these resources 

  • ChatGPT, AI, and the Job Search

Looking for a little help to get you started typing up your cover letter? Consider using  Lettersmith : an online tool developed by U-M's Center for Academic Innovation to help you get started with a checklist of what to include and example letters.

Log into Lettersmith and click "Join Template". Use code OCLAL835 to join the University Career Center's template.

  • Use LinkedIn/Facebook and the organization’s website to gather information for your cover letter. Focus on skills and attributes the employer is seeking in applicants. Discuss these skills in the body of your cover letter.
  • Try to find the name of the person you want to read the letter.  It demonstrates a higher level of investment and enthusiasm for the position.  If you can't find a name use a title (eg: Internship Coordinator, Human Resources Director)
  • Cover letters also showcase your writing abilities. Therefore, it is imperative that your cover letters be error-free and grammatically sound. Avoid beginning every sentence with an “I” statement.
  • Underline the verbs in the job posting to identify key skills.
  • Avoid cover letter clichés (e.g. ...make me an outstanding candidate).

For more cover letter tips check out these websites:

  • Cover Letter Examples for Students and Recent Graduates
  • 11 Essential Cover Letter Tips
  • Font:  10 to 12 point, in the same font as your resume.
  • Paper:  The same as your resume — a quality bond.
  • Margins:  1 or 1.25 inches.
  • Layout:  Left justified, beginning no more than 2 inches from the top.
  • Style:  Positive language, confident but not imposing, concise with supporting detail, written in active verb voice.
  • E-mail:  Use body of e-mail as cover letter starting with salutation.

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  • Career Advice

Understanding Cover Letters

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Recently, on a listserv in my field known for being welcoming to outsiders and newcomers but also for being rife with discussions that quickly turn ridiculous, a thread on cover letters followed the usual pattern: A new grad student asks what seems to be an innocuous question, a few professors offer semi-helpful responses without getting too sucked into the time-sink, the rogue academic contributes some tongue-in-cheek humor, a few more grad students take the jokes seriously and panic, the list erupts in false information and rumors. (See, e.g., the incident in writing studies that will henceforth be known as Godwin's Eternal Bedbugs).

The job application letter, or the cover letter, is the most important part of your application. It’s the first thing a search committee member sees. Typically, a search committee member will read your materials in the following order: cover letter, C.V., letters of recommendation, writing sample or other additional materials. Depending on the individual committee member and how large the candidate pool is, your materials may get as long as 30 minutes or as short as 5 minutes. Less if it’s obvious from your cover letter that you’re absolutely not qualified for the job ( see “Fit” column ). If you are a fit for the job ad’s basic qualifications, it’s not unusual for readers to spend the most time on your cover letter, as it should be the narrative that explains the rest of your materials and, frankly, your academic life.

This document is, next to the teaching philosophy (fodder for another column), the most difficult for students to write because it sums up, usually before the student has finished their degree, their Ph.D. trajectory and so it is like writing a proposal for employment. You have to pretend (if you’re not already defended, or close to it) that you know exactly how your research will turn out and be able to state it confidently and articulately to a group of non-experts. I say non-experts because, unless you’re applying to a research-intensive university or a school that has a Ph.D. program in your exact area of study, and that has an extremely large faculty of experts in and around your field already, you’re more likely to be applying to a college where you’re intended to be one of a handful, or maybe the only one in your field who will research in your specific area. In those cases, it’s unlikely that the search committee will comprise researchers who understand your confined set of academic jargon. This does not mean you should dumb things down, but that you should fully explain yourself, defining any specific terms you need to use and giving examples from your research and teaching.

The academic cover letter generally follows very strict genre conventions. It should be no more than two pages, but definitely more than one and a half. No glaring amounts of white space, because this means you don’t have enough qualifications to talk about yourself.

The tone of the letter is crucial. It must be thoroughly formal and professional; remember that you are speaking as a potential colleague, not as a (desperate) graduate student. Your cover letter should not repeat items from your C.V. without including some context for their inclusion here. While it’s true that few faculty will read all of your documents with care, just listing items to repeat them in multiple locations doesn’t tell the search committee why these C.V. lines are important to your own research and teaching trajectories, nor why these items should matter for the position at hand. This is why your cover letter should narrate your experiences and persuade the committee that your qualifications meet the needs of the job qualifications posted.

Two pages is a short amount of space to work within, which is another reason why this genre is difficult for students to write successfully. Most Ph.D. students I’ve worked with over the years write at least seven drafts of their letter before it is workable. And then they often write another three or four drafts to perfect it for one job.

I recommend students pick out a "dream" job posting early on (or from the previous year, perhaps) and write their letter toward that job. Doing this will get you in the right frame of mind to convince a committee that you’re the right person for the job, and then you will have a standard draft to work from and create alternate cover letters for each job you apply to. And you must tailor each cover letter to fit each job ad, which is why being on the market is so damned time-consuming. (In case no one has told you yet, you will not -- no matter how good a student and researcher you are -- have time to work on your dissertation while you’re on the job market. I’ve never met a student who isn’t so totally distracted by the job search that they can refocus on their dissertations in between sending letters out.)

Job letters typically follow a five-paragraph format, with the order of paragraphs switched depending upon the focus of the department (research or teaching):

1. The Introduction

The tradition for including the full name and position number, if there is one, and location where you discovered the job posting feels odd, but it’s a standard opening line to your letter. Also in this paragraph, you should state what your current status is (ABD, defending in April, assistant professor, etc.). If you have not finished your degree yet, be very specific about when you defend (not will defend: be more definitive than that) and make sure your adviser agrees with you, or she might write a different timeline in her letter of recommendation, which will make the search committee assume you have unrealistic expectations. It’s also common to include a sentence or two about why you are applying for this particular position. Sometimes these statements can come across as empty. Don’t BS, and don’t write it just to have filler; be honest and sincere. For instance, a colleague wanting to make the switch from a tenure-track position at an R2 (teaching-intensive institution with some Ph.D. programs) to a tenure-track position at an all-male, teaching-intensive SLAC (small liberal arts college) explained why -- in terms of leadership-based teaching that was part of the school’s mission -- in her introductory paragraph.

2. The Dissertation Paragraph

This is one of the hardest paragraphs to write for most students, because (at least in my field) it’s typical that people go on the job market before they’ve finished their dissertations. Many students start crafting their cover letters at the same time they start writing their dissertations, so they have a really hard time writing in the future abstract. But once students are able to craft their dissertation paragraph, I’ve found that it actually clarifies their understanding of their own dissertations and helps them move forward. So I’d recommend starting your draft by writing this paragraph. One paragraph should be enough, and it can be structured similarly to the organization of your whole dissertation: one sentence for each chapter, roughly. In four to six sentences you must show what your dissertation contributes to your field of research -- the “So what?” factor -- by explaining how it is situated within your field’s disciplinary conversations (but you don’t have to cite scholarship), why your topic is important and necessary, and what your outcomes are.

If methodologies and methods are an important part of your research and field, include them. If archival or corpus-based work is an important part of your research, name them. People from outside your specialty will be reading this description, so don’t assume everyone on the planet has read Frankenstein and would know why you’re writing yet another dissertation about it. Make sure you emphasize the aspects of the dissertation that fit the particular job ad. Finally, in some fields it is acceptable to include an added, longer (one- or two-page) dissertation abstract with your materials. With the increased use of online submission websites for job ads, which mandate what you can upload, I suspect we will begin to see less and less of this inclusion from job candidates. Do yourself a favor and make your diss paragraph awesome so you don’t have to include another document.

3. Related/Future Research

This paragraph is often about your research agenda; that is, what articles or books you have plans to work on after the dissertation is completed. Students early in their dissertation writing often panic at the thought of having to plan out their research trajectory for the next six years, but if you want a job with any research involved, you will need to have some idea of how you will get tenure, and the research agenda is that document. Indeed, you might start this paragraph as a separate research agenda document and then summarize it in your cover letter. Research-intensive schools may ask for the separate, longer document, which should include names of projects, brief outlines, journals or presses or funding agencies they will be submitted to, and your work plan for completing them before tenure.

If you’re stuck thinking of what your future projects might be, consider all of the threads of interesting or related findings you discovered as part of your diss research; each one of those might become an article or, if several are related, your next book or research project. Finally, other things you might mention in this paragraph -- as they relate to the job ad -- include previous articles you’ve published, grants you’ve received, and conference presentations you’ve given. The purpose of this paragraph is to show that you have a coherent research trajectory and that you are productive. It is most useful for applying to research-intensive universities, to convince them that you can work independently and will get tenure. If you’re applying to a teaching-intensive university, consider making this paragraph about undergraduate research, if you have any involvement (or want to) in that area of mentoring.

4. Teaching Paragraph(s)

This paragraph seems to be the most difficult for students to write, and I think it’s because it is such an unusual academic genre. Unless you’re applying for a research-only position that you are absolutely sure includes zero teaching, you’re going to have to include this paragraph, so start practicing. Like the dissertation paragraph, I recommend students start by writing a full, two-page teaching philosophy (coming soon to a column near you!) and then summarizing it in your cover letter. This paragraph — you can have one or two — typically begins by explaining your teaching philosophy in one or two sentences. If your teaching relates to your research, definitely make that connection here. Then you give a broad overview of how you bring your teaching philosophy to your classrooms. This might include discussing what teaching values and learning goals you use in your classes.

For instance, my teaching philosophy is called an editorial pedagogy, so I need to define this term, relate it to my research in digital publishing, explain that my goal is to professionalize students as designers and editors (given the kinds of classes I teach), and say that I do this by mentoring them through in-progress feedback on their client-based projects. This is a very short example. Yours might be 1-2 sentences longer, but hopefully it gives you a sense of the big-picture nature of these opening sentences. After that introduction, get specific. Tell the search committee the name of a class you’ve taught using this pedagogical approach, what the assignments are (and/or texts you assigned), and how you set students up to achieve the learning outcomes of the assignment. Make sure that you relate this description back to how it enacts your teaching philosophy.

If you haven’t yet taught but that’s part of the job you’re applying for, suggest that this is the way you’d like to approach teaching and, perhaps, describe a training or mentoring situation that was similar to teaching and what you learned (as a potential teacher) from it.

Include a second paragraph only if the job ad lists a bunch of different classes you might teach and two kinds are different enough from each other than you need to describe your approach in each.

Some advisers recommend students include information about the kinds of courses you hope to teach in the future, pulled from the course catalog of the institution you’re applying to. I have mixed feelings about this because, like the “Here’s why I’m applying to your department” sentence of the introductory paragraph, it can come across as cloying. So approach the “Here’s what I can teach” section with care, and if you have two teaching paragraphs already, they’ll get the idea without your help, unless what they want you to teach is not adequately represented by the kinds of classes you’ve described. In which case, make that connection for them by showing how what you’ve taught relates to what they’d want you to teach. In addition, for teaching-focused colleges, this paragraph will go before your dissertation paragraph, and you will have two paragraphs on teaching, to show your dedication to it and to undergraduate mentoring or advising. Talk specifically about any examples you may have advising undergraduates in teaching, clubs, etc.

5. Service Paragraph

Some folks' strategy here is to list all their service work, to show what a good colleague they can be. The point of this paragraph is to show that you are a hard-working, collaborative colleague, not just some holier-than-thou star who will only sit in her office and never contribute to the department. But listing all your service is for your C.V. This paragraph should be about giving a story to your service work so that the work you highlight here portrays your service as connected to your research and teaching and contributes to the department or field.

Service work will be especially important to teaching-intensive colleges where the faculties are smaller (and thus have to pitch in more to departmental administration) and where undergraduate student mentoring and advising is expected. As with all paragraphs in this letter, make sure you draw on key words from the job ad itself (but not in an obnoxious way) to persuade the committee that you’re the right fit for the job. Keep in mind that if you’re applying to alt-ac jobs or other types of administrative positions such as a program director, this paragraph may actually go after the introductory paragraph and will be much lengthier. In that case, it should include your specific qualifications for running the program, what your vision is for it over the next five (or 10) years, and (if a required part of the job) how you plan to creatively finance it.

6. Conclusion.

Because you’re not done yet. This paragraph, though, is rather perfunctory. You’re simply telling the committee how your dossier (your letters of recommendation, C.V., writing sample, and any other job materials) will arrive, if separate from your cover letter.

Or include your web address, if you have an online portfolio. If the job doesn’t require recommendation letters up front, you can list who your recommenders are, but it’s not required. In some fields, it is expected that you indicate your availability and contact information for an interview. But that’s about it. Do not, under any circumstances, make it seem like they’re doing you a favor and that you have nothing to give in return.

Other quick T\tips:

  • Do your research on each college, but don’t go overboard. Thirty minutes is enough research. I spend two to three hours writing each cover letter, but I’m fairly slow.
  • Use letterhead from your current institution, if you’re allowed. If not, use a memo or letter template in your word-processing program.
  • Many people follow the formatting of a business letter and include the receiver’s address at the top. I don’t, and I don’t think it’s ever been counted against me. But ask around in your field. You might could use that extra six lines of space.
  • Don’t push the margins out farther than one inch, and don’t use a typeface smaller than 11 point. Single space. Readability is as important as quality.

These conventions differ depending on what field you are in, so while a national, cover-your-bases advice column like this can serve as a starting point, you’re still going to have to do some research into how people in your field write cover letters (and organize their C.V.s, etc.), and -- most obviously -- review drafts of your letter with your adviser. One of the best pieces of advice I got my first time on the job market was from a faculty member outside my disciplinary specialty, whom I had asked to read a draft of my cover letter. She was notorious for being rather to-the-point, so I was expecting some harsh criticism, even though I’d already revised the letter a dozen times. I made an appointment to meet with her; she read the letter and simply said to me: It sounds like you’re a graduate student who wants a job, not a colleague who wants to join their faculty. It was the perfect bit of advice I needed to rewrite the cover letter yet again and frame my work as one of a future colleague rather than as an immature graduate student not yet finished with her Ph.D. It is that mindset that a cover letter needs to have to be convincing. Have multiple faculty members, including those outside your specialty, read a final draft, and then expect to revise more.

Not everyone will have excellent advice, but the more that advice begins to resonate across readers, the more you should pay attention to it and make some corrections. Because if your cover letter bombs on the market, no one will ever get past that to see how awesome your C.V. or writing sample is. You have roughly 30 seconds to sell someone on your entire academic career, so make it count.

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