Cover letter advice

How do you write a cover letter in applying for a full-time faculty job? This blog entry is a complement to my advice on crafting the curriculum vitae, and was originally a twitter thread in May 2021, responding to two colleagues from the University of North Carolina.

Like a vitae, a cover letter is purpose-built, and it has THREE purposes, two open purposes and one secret. But to get to the secret, you have to satisfy the open purposes.

Purpose #1: Demonstrate you absolutely meet the minimum job requirements, and as many of the preferred requirements as you really do.1 Don’t assume that the search committee will hunt for everything in your vitae. If there are three minimum requirements, those are the topics of the second, third, and fourth paragraphs (after the opening). Explicitly. E.g., if the first job requirement is PhD in hand by the starting date in X or a related field, your second paragraph begins, “I will defend my dissertation in February 2022 (‘[the title of your dissertation]’) and will graduate in May with a PhD in Complexification Studies.”

This is the (potentially) painful part: you must craft your 2nd, 3rd, etc. paragraphs for every job, to match the job requirements as listed — search committees often have checklists, in the same order as listed in the job posting. Time-saving suggestion: have a scratch document on hand where you build a bunch of these short paragraphs and plop them in the needed order. Most positions will have similar wording, and you won’t really need to do much tinkering.

Preferred qualifications: here, you can build a few different versions of your teaching and scholarship bona fides, but think carefully about who you really are. You’re likely to build different versions based on (a) the disciplinary/field lean of the position and (b) the apparent weighting of teaching/research in the job. Workshop this with your advisor and other mentors. If you can be explicit and use the wording of the preferred qualifications to show how you meet several of them, do so.

So that’s purpose #1: meeting those requirements. On to purpose #2: telling them who you are substantively.

“What, Sherman — didn’t I just do that in showing how I met the required/preferred qualifications?” No, you didn’t. You showed you could pigeonhole yourself. Good job! But that won’t land you the job. To get a job, you not only need to meet the requirements, you have to be a flesh-and-blood human being other people want to be around.

In a cover letter.

That means showing your passion in some way. So think carefully about what excites you in scholarship and teaching. That has to show through. I hope you’ve had mentors who’ve pushed you to answer the “so what??” question about your dissertation. That goes in the cover letter. If you can, extend that beyond the dissertation: What’s your scholarly trajectory, and why should we care about the questions you’re going to continue to ask?

And now the question no one has probably asked you: So what… about your teaching? You have to go through the same introspection about your scholarship for your teaching — what is essential for your students to learn, and why should I care about that vision??

Finally (for this second purpose), who have you made care about your work in some way, and where have you cared about the work of others? Many colleges of education prize collaboration. Show how you’ve done this already. If you do this right, members of the search committee will understand not only your research but why it matters, and why your approach to teaching matters, and who matters to you in practice.

So that’s the second purpose: to show who you are. And now we get to the third, secret purpose of the cover letter. Desperately wanting to know?

That desperation is the core of the secret purpose of a cover letter: why should the search committee be desperate to persuade the dean to bring you in for an interview (and then to hire you)? There are some candidates who shine through in ways that are difficult to capture, and while there are some obvious cases — “Hi, I’m an NAEd dissertation fellow, have won teaching awards, have patents & R packages…” — those obvious standouts are only a very few of the very good candidates. And there are many very good candidates. Sit on this and think about it and talk with friends and mentors. What makes you special, and how can you let that show in the awkward format of a cover letter?

Again: be true to yourself. Think carefully about what people like about you and your work, and figure out how to convey that in between all the bits that say “yes I meet the required qualifications,” on the one hand, and “this is why you should care” in research paragraphs. By the way, this academic-persona piece is what I worried about when going up for full, and asked peers to read my narrative and answer one question: “Is this who you know as Sherman?” That’s a good reality check for any document about yourself.

Separate statements? When I sent a draft of this entry to a doctoral student, they asked about separate statements addressing teaching, research, diversity, etc., statements that some committees require. This is not exactly about the cover letter, but it is useful to think of them as extensions: separate statements should ideally be expansions of what would be smaller passages in a cover letter. So if you mention teaching experiences in your letter, you would expand on those experiences in a teaching-philosophy statement.

Separate statements are most powerful when they speak of demonstrated experiences rather than abstract ideals. Not a teaching statement about constructivist philosophy but a statement about how you’ve helped students craft their own understandings in actual courses, and discussions of assignments or other structures for that. Not a research statement about wanting to be in the National Academy of Education or get an AERA Early Career Award but a research statement about what drives your research questions, and how your dissertation fits into the arc of projects that your readers will need to imagine after finishing the statement. Diversity statements are especially sensitive to this abstract-versus-accomplishment distinction. If I am a 50something white man and I bloviate about what made me realize my advantage as a cishet white dude, a search committee will collectively roll its eyes and move on to the candidate who explained what they have actually done. (Or I hope they will!)

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Notes

  1. For many search committees, and all at public institutions, the minimum truly is the minimum–if they judge that you fail to meet one of them, you are out of the running. []