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To the search committee

Two career development specialists offer their best advice on how to write an effective cover letter

by Lucky Kalsi and Maria Kapakos

To the search committee

As the first document to be read by a search committee, the academic cover letter plays a significant role in whether or not you will be invited for an academic interview. While the curriculum vitae includes all the relevant information about your qualifications and achievements, the cover letter links your interests and abilities to the position requirements in a more direct and personal way. A good academic cover letter is generally one and a half to two pages in length and should be tailored to showcase your understanding of the mission and focus of the hiring institution, department and position, and how your research, teaching and/or professional experiences and interests make you a suitable candidate for the role.

With the emphasis being on creating a cover letter that is unique and reflects your distinctive experiences and qualifications, it's important to include the following four key components in your letter:

The opening paragraph

This introductory paragraph should clearly and simply communicate to the reader the position you are applying for and how you learned about the position. If, for example, you discovered the position through a job posting, be sure to state the position title (and position number if specified) as it appears in the posting followed by the source of the posting (such as a university/department website or an advertisement in a journal). It is equally important to mention if you learned about the opening through a supervisor, faculty member or other contacts. This paragraph should also include a statement of your relevant experience and qualifications, the details of which will be discussed in the remainder of your letter. Finally, you may choose to briefly explain your interest in and motivation for applying to the position. Typically, this paragraph is no more than three-to-four sentences long.

Research experience

The opening paragraph is often followed by an elaboration of your thesis and research experience and its relevancy to the position. Begin by elaborating on the subject area, focus and major findings of your dissertation as well as an indication of its expected completion and related publications. If you have several years of relevant post-doctoral or other current research experience, you may choose to focus on this in addition to or instead of your dissertation. Provide a description that highlights aspects that are relevant to the position rather than a technical report of your thesis or research experience; a more detailed account can be provided in an abstract and/or research statement. Conclude this section by summarizing how your research experience is relevant to the position and the department. For positions that emphasize research work, it is important to demonstrate how your current research and future research plans link to the needs of the position and/or to the research direction of the department. To demonstrate the relevancy of your research experience for positions that require more teaching responsibilities, include a statement that links the pertinent themes and subject areas of your research to the curriculum topics and content of the courses being taught.

Teaching experience

If you are applying to a position that is primarily teaching-focused, you may decide to change the structure of your letter so that this section precedes the research experience component. A description of your teaching experience should highlight courses taught, level of responsibility and class sizes. You may also choose to describe your teaching style as well as any positive student and/or supervisor feedback (though the level of detail for these aspects may depend on whether you will be including a teaching dossier or a statement of teaching philosophy in your application). Conclude by demonstrating how your experience has prepared you for teaching responsibilities and for teaching specific courses identified in the position.

The concluding paragraph

The final paragraph of your letter provides a brief reiteration of your interest in and fit with the position. This is also an opportunity for you to capture specific aspects of the department and institution that appeal you, such as its mission statement and values, future departmental goals, and the campus environment. End your letter on a positive note by offering to provide any additional information that the committee may require as well as by indicating your interest in meeting with the committee for an interview.

Some exceptions

There are a few exceptions to the four-part format outlined above. If, for example, you have professional or industry experience that can further enhance your teaching approach and qualifications, this information can be incorporated into the teaching experience paragraph of your letter. Similarly, if your professional or industry experience is more research-based, and can be connected to the current research focus of the university/department or to your future research ideas, this experience can be woven into the research experience paragraph of your letter. If your professional or industry experience does not directly relate to the teaching or research requirements of the role, but enhances your overall qualifications, this information may be presented in a separate paragraph within your letter. If you're required to submit separate documents as part of your application package such as a research prospectus, a teaching dossier and/or a statement of research/teaching interests, the research and teaching paragraphs of your cover letter may not be as detailed and your letter will likely be shorter in length.

The academic cover letter is also considered a writing sample. In addition to ensuring that it is free of all grammatical and spelling errors, it is important to be aware of and follow the conventional practices that govern your divisional area as these conventions change within and across disciplines. For example, cover letters in the humanities and social sciences are typically longer, with a more descriptive focus on teaching and research qualifications than letters in the sciences where research experience and publications are typically emphasized more than teaching experience. It is recommended that you speak with your supervisor or committee members who will be able to guide you in the right direction and confirm discipline and divisional practices.

Many university career centres provide individual services and group workshops specifically for graduate students assisting them through all the stages of the academic work search process. Consider meeting with a career services professional experienced in working with graduate students to discuss your situation and to have your cover letter and curriculum vitae critiqued. As well, have someone in your department review your application package for content and accuracy before submitting it to the hiring institution.

Lucky Kalsi and Maria Kapakos are career counselors at the University of Toronto.

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