How to Write a Cover Letter for the Faculty Job Search

By Anders Wallace

Photo by Aaron Burden

Writing a cover letter for the faculty job search can be a stressful experience. Having some general principles in mind can ease that stress and streamline the process of writing your letter. Depending on what field of study or specialization you’re in–and depending on what departments and programs you might be applying to–there is a range of appropriate letters you could write. Taking a broad perspective, this blog post will provide tips and explain what should be included.

Tips and Considerations for Writing an Effective Cover Letter

Be mindful of formatting

A general rule-of-thumb is that your letter should be no longer than two pages, but preferably longer than 1.5 pages—too much white space is unhelpful. Write in single-spaced formatting, with one-inch paragraph margins, and a commonly accepted font in your field (no comic sans). Write your letter on institutional letterhead, if possible!

Pay attention to language

Remember to strike a professional tone. Write your letter in a language that is formal but not excessively jargon-filled or abstract. Depending on the institution to which you’re applying, you may very well be addressing readers who are not specialists in your topic or sub-field.

Tailor your document

You should tailor your letter to the specific qualities and requirements of the institution you’re applying to. Read over the job ad and highlight the aspects of your experiences that match the most.

Items to Include in Your Cover Letter

An introduction paragraph

In your introduction paragraph, state what job you are applying for, and where you found the ad. Mention your current status (ABD? PhD?), your institution and department affiliation, and the date of your defense (be specific and definitive about the date; also, be sure that you and your advisor are on the same page, or they may cite a different date in their recommendation letter). Write a couple sentences about why you are applying for the job–show honesty and enthusiasm!

A synopsis of your dissertation

You’ll want to mention your research topic, research question, and research process (including methods or field-sites, if applicable), as well as your conclusions and findings. Think about hooking your reader: provide something unexpected, a surprising contrast, or a puzzle or question that drives your work. Be sure, also, to point to the broader impact that your research has for your academic discipline and for society at-large.

A description of your future research plans

Especially if you’re applying for a position at a research institution, it’s important that you mention what future research projects you envision that will advance the profile of the institution and advance you to tenure candidacy, including your intention to apply for grants and publish research findings (if applicable). You don’t necessarily have to outline a complete research plan; rather, you can point to publications (including books and articles) that you intend to develop based on research you’ve already completed or plan to do. You can also point to lines of inquiry that stem from other areas of your professional output, including conference presentations, conferences or panels you’ve planned or organized, and affiliated research projects or faculty collaborations that you’ve played a part in. Highlight threads of continuity that show how your future work is an extension of the expertise you’ve already cultivated through your dissertation project.

A summary of your teaching experience and philosophy

In a paragraph or so, summarize your teaching philosophy and show how you bring those ideas to life by using your own classroom as an example. If you don’t have much teaching experience or if your ideas have evolved since then, discuss what experiences have shaped your new outlook and how you would apply your philosophy in the future. You may also want to mention ideas for classes that you would like to teach; or, alternately, address how you would teach classes that are specifically mentioned as requirements in the job ad.

An explanation of your contribution to service

You want to demonstrate that you’re friendly, collegial, and willing to do your part in any service work or administrative tasks. This is especially important if you’re applying to smaller institutions where service work—including mentoring, advising and committee work—is an important part of the job. Talk about any committees you served on in graduate school or any roles you played in student organizations. If possible, discuss how your service work is relevant to the search committee’s specific interests as stated in the job ad.

A conclusion paragraph

In the conclusion paragraph, restate your enthusiasm for the position. If there’s space, you may want to provide a summary of logistical points: when the reader can expect your letters of recommendation to arrive (or list the names of your faculty recommenders); when the reader can expect your supplementary materials to arrive (or whether they’re included together with the cover letter); the URL for your website or online portfolio, if you have one; as well as your availability for an interview, and your best personal contact information if needed.

Some Selected References:

Ball, Cheryl. (2013). “Understanding Cover Letters” Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from on 10/1/2016.