Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks (and what you can do to fix it)

In my 15 years as a faculty member I served on approximately 11 search committees. Some of these search committees I chaired. These committees brought in ten new assistant professors into my departments.

Estimating that each search brought in an average of 200 applications (a conservative estimate for a field like Anthropology, a generous estimate for a much smaller field like East Asian Languages and Literatures), that means I read approximately 2200 job applications.

I’ve also read the cover letters of my own students, and a passel of Ph.D. students who came to me for advice, as well as a large number of clients since opening The Professor is In (as of July 2014 let’s say 1000).

So let’s say I’ve read (3200) job cover letters. Of those (3200) job cover letters, it is safe to say that (3000) sucked. Sucked badly. Sucked epically. Sucked the way Cakewrecks cakes suck.

What’s up with that?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here’s what’s up with that.

Advisers don’t teach their grad students how to write cover letters. They send them out pathetically, humiliatingly ill-informed.

It is, in my opinion, a criminal degree of neglect.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`

I am on a mission to get Ph.D. students, in the social sciences and humanities especially, to stop sending out worthless, embarrassing, self-sabotaging job cover letters.

I am infuriated that close colleagues of mine in the top programs in the country–think Ivy Leagues–routinely allow their Ph.D.s to send out job letters to departments across the country–to potential colleagues and peers and reviewers across the country– that make those Ph.D.s look ill-trained, unqualified, and un-hireable.

How do I know that? Again, because I was on the hiring committees that received the letters from those Ph.D.s, the students I knew well, had met at conferences, and recognized as the students of my friends and colleagues at prestigious departments in the field.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So, anyone reading this now, here is why your cover letter sucks, and what you need to do to fix it.

1. It Is Too Long. And 1a. It’s Not on Letterhead. And 1b. It must follow proper letter norms of etiquette

Your letter must be on letterhead if you have a current academic affiliation of any kind. This is not negotiable. It has come to my attention that some departments are denying their graduate students access to letterhead. This is unacceptable, and any act is justified in response. You may steal the letterhead. You may Photoshop the letterhead. Do what you must, but send all professional letters of every kind on the letterhead of the department with which you affiliated.

If you do not have an affiliation because you finished your Ph.D. and have no academic employment at all, including adjuncting, then you must submit without letterhead (although a very sober, understated, and proper personal letterhead can sometimes be a nice touch).  You may not use letterhead to which you’re not entitled.  That is unethical, and it is also stupid, because your readers are smart, and they notice.

Your letter must be two pages max. No longer. Do not argue with me. If you are arguing with me, you are wrong. It must be two pages max.

It must be 12 point (ok, *maybe* 11.5) font, and have a minimum of 3/4″ margins.

It must follow normal letter etiquette, which means that it will include the date (fully written out) just under the letterhead, then a space, then the full snail mail address of the person/committee to whom the letter is being sent just below the date, left justified, and then a space, and then the address:  “Dear Professor XXXX/Members of the Search Committee:” Then it will have another space, and commence: “I am writing in application to the advertised position in XXX at the University of XXXX.  Etc. Etc.”  Nothing in this heading material may be left out.  Similarly, nothing beyond this may be added in, including any kind of memo heading or title such as “Re: position in XXX.”  LETTERS DO NOT HAVE TITLES! 

Why must it be these things? I will tell you. Because the care you show in the norms and forms of proper letter etiquette represent you as a fully adult, functioning professional.  It demonstrates that you are a full-fledged member of the tribe, and not an embarrassing wanna-be.

And the length?  Because the faculty members on the committee reviewing your letters are tired, distracted, irritated, and rushed. They will give your cover letter 5 minutes. They will not hunt for your main point, they will not squint, they will not strain their eyes, they will not pore over it.

Serve up your brilliance, your achievements, and your delightful collegial personality loud and clear, in legible large font, and a considerate quantity of verbiage. You are respecting your future colleagues’ time and eyesight, and believe me, they notice.

Do I hear whining, that you “can’t possibly say all you need to” in 2 pages? Tough. Do you want a job or don’t you? Do it.

2. You Are Telling, Not Showing.

All academics in the world, by virtue of being academics, require evidence to accept a proposition. Even the wooiest humanists have to be persuaded with some form of evidence that a claim is valid.

Your letter must include evidence. Empty claims like “I am passionate about teaching,” or “I care deeply about students,” or “I am an enthusiastic colleague” contain no evidence whatsoever. They can be made by anyone, and provide no means of proof. They are worthless verbiage.

Show, don’t tell: Instead of “I am passionate about teaching,” you must write, “I used new technologies to create innovative small group discussion opportunities in my large introductory classes, technologies that were later adopted by my colleagues in the department.” Or, “I worked one on one with students on individual research projects leading to published articles. Several students later nominated me for our campus’s “Best Undergraduate Teacher” award, which I won in 2011.”

Get it? Don’t waste our time with unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable claims.

3. You Drone On and On About Your Dissertation

We actually don’t care about your dissertation. Seriously, we don’t. Your dissertation is in the past. It’s in the past even if you’re actually still writing it. It’s what you did *as a student*, and we’re not hiring a student. We’re hiring a colleague. We want to know about your dissertation only as it relates to identifiable past, present, and future faculty colleague achievements, i.e., debates and interventions in your fields, publications, conference talks, grants, teaching.

Package up your dissertation into an easily digestible paragraph.  Then, in a brief paragraph following, specify what major debates in your field/fields the dissertation intervenes in, and the nature of the intervention it makes.  We care less about the micro-details of the topic, than we do its intellectual or disciplinary import and significance.  Your goal here is to speak as a world-class scholar whose work is changing the face of/pushing the boundaries of/engaging the leading thinkers of a discipline.

From this discussion, move quickly to the conference papers and publications that came out of it, and the current and future publication plans that are forthcoming from it. Also how it inspires and motivates your teaching. See #4 below.

4. Your Teaching Paragraph is All Drippy and Pathetic

We don’t care that you “love” teaching. What we care about is that you are an effective teacher. We need evidence of that so give us some (see point 2 above). And more to the point, we want to know you are an inspired teacher. How do you show that? By showing us that “the same commitment to xxx that inspires my research also propels my work in the classroom. Here’s how….”

Like that sentence? You can use it. I give you permission. It’s been used by a bunch of Ph.D. students of my acquaintance, and it’s damned effective. Here it is again, “the same commitment to xxx that inspires my research also propels my work in the classroom. Here’s how….” [UPDATE 10/3/12:  Please stop using this sentence!  The readership of this blog has expanded to such a degree that the sentence is now becoming overused and resented.   You may keep the sentiment, but find your own words to express it.]

And then, give evidence. If you don’t have any, then start being a better teacher. If you’ve been fully funded without ever setting foot into a classroom (my own case, actually), seek out limited teaching opportunities at universities or colleges in your area. And craft a really persuasive teaching philosophy statement, with help from experienced teachers.

5. You Present Yourself as a Student, Not a Colleague

I’m restating #4 above, but more directly. We’re not hiring a student. We’re hiring a colleague. We want to hear you speak like a faculty member. Don’t know how? Fake it ’til you make it.

Don’t be humble. Don’t be a supplicant. Don’t be groveling. Be firm, confident, and forceful. Write in short, declarative sentences. Don’t make excuses. Don’t write about what you didn’t do, don’t know. You’re an expert in your field. Act like one.

Don’t EVER refer to faculty in the department to which you’re applying as “Professor so-and-so.” What are you, a grad student? In your paragraph about why you’re a good fit, write something to the effect, “I am excited about the prospect of teaching in the xxx department and would look forward to collaborating or co-teaching with faculty such as Smith and Wesson.”

6. You Don’t Specify Publication Plans

Clearly specify what publications are out, which ones are in press, which ones are in submission, and which ones are in manuscript stage, and where you intend to submit them. Do NOT expect the committee to locate this information on your c.v.

If you’re in a book field, mention the presses with whom you’re in discussions about your book. If you’re not in discussions with presses about your book, start that immediately. Set a timeline for the book, and an anticipated publication date well in advance of spring of your 5th year in the job.

7. You Don’t Have a Second Research Project

It doesn’t matter if you’re still dotting your i’s on your dissertation before submitting it, or haven’t even defended it yet, you still have to have a second major research/book project in sight, well thought out, funded if possible. This second project should arise organically out of the first, showing BOTH continuity of interest and specialization, but also vibrant new directions.

This shows that you are the real deal, a tenurable assistant professor.  Not a one-hit wonder, but someone who is going to keep up the work schedule through 6 years, tenure, and beyond.

They do NOT want to hire someone only to turn them down for tenure 6 years later. Show them you’ve got what it takes.

Here’s what you may not know: the second project is now required for a successful tenure case at many institutions. It may not have to be “out” in published form, but by the 5th year, when your file goes out to external reviewers, that second project has to be, at minimum, proposed, underway, funded, and have produced some high profile conference talks.

8. You Didn’t Do Your Homework

Show that you have researched the department, know the faculty, have read their work, appreciate their contributions, know the focus and specializations of their specific program.  If they specialize in Gender
Studies, and your project relates to Gender Studies, make that explicit. Mention one or two faculty members by name as potential collaborators. COLLABORATORS, mind you, NOT mentors. Refer to Point 5 above. You are now to be a faculty member, not a student.

9. You’re Disorganized and Rambling

Here’s how a job letter should read:

Para 1: Short self-intro; your current position; your Ph.D. granting institution, your general field and subfield and area of specialization.

Para 2: Your primary research project, briefly what, where, and how, and the achievements arising out of it such as publications, conference papers, panels, and grants.

Para 3: Your primary research project’s large contributions to the field and discipline as a whole—how it pushes boundaries, engages in dynamic new debates, and enlarges the discipline.

Para 4: Your publication plans.

Para 5: Your second project.

Para 6: Your teaching, as it ties in with all of the above.

Para 7: Your specific interest in the job and department to which you are applying, with specific programs, specializations, and faculty by name.

Para 8:  “I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you, signature”

10. You Didn’t Tailor.

You don’t have just one job letter template file. You have at least 8. Let’s take my own case—a cultural anthropologist of Japan with a focus on gender and transnationalism. I had the following letter template files ready to go:

1. General anthro job, research institution
2. General anthro job, teaching institution
3. Japan area studies job, research institution
4. Japan area studies job, teaching institution
5. Gender studies job, research institution
6. Gender Studies job, teaching institution
7. Transnational studies job, research institution
8. Transnational studies job, teaching institution

The difference between research and teaching institution jobs? The former emphasizes your research, the latter your teaching.

This list doesn’t even include the postdoc letters. And it doesn’t include the tailoring for EACH INDIVIDUAL JOB, which as I said above, must include mention of that department’s specific specializations, programs, and faculty.

Follow these ten rules, and you have a fighting chance of getting shortlisted.


Comments

Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks (and what you can do to fix it) — 209 Comments

  1. Thank you for this candid advice. My adviser and one of my more involved committee members have cautioned me against sounding too into myself or presumptuous, yet your advice here (and in other posts) is to clearly emphasize accomplishments. I’m not sure what to do. My adviser says, “Don’t use I too much. You don’t want to sound self-centered.” My committee member says, “Don’t mention people could work with by name. That could come off presumptuous, as if you expect to get the job.” My takeaway from your post is that I need to go work on my letter to create better balance. But, can you comment on where the line is between being truthful about accomplishments and what crosses into arrogant territory? My terror about sounding like a jerk has, I’m afraid, meant I’ve sent out some pretty vapid letters like the ones you described.

    • Christine, I get infuriated when I hear stories like this. You must emphasize your accomplishments. Who else will? Now, granted, it is not good writing to begin every sentence and every paragraph with “I.” But it is possible to write dynamic, effective sentences that showcase your specific (not vague) achievements, and that begin with a variety of words.

      And there are other writing tips to keep in mind. For ex, the active voice. Never, ever use the passive voice in a job letter. Things like this all combine to create a message of confidence and competence.

      This is gendered of course. I will go out on a limb now. I will say that I sincerely doubt that any “properly socialized” American woman can actually write a job letter that sounds arrogant. The fact is, women are so thoroughly socialized to downplay their achievements and minimize their opinions that, frankly, the letters that they write that they are sure are coming off as “arrogant braggadocio” in fact barely even register on the scale of minimally confident self presentation.

      You really ought to hire me. What you’ve said worries me.

  2. Brilliant advice. By far the best I’d seen. My placement director also told me not to make excuses in the cover letter. But what if one’s recent three-year employment history is spotty (even adjunct jobs are really hard to come by in my area)? How does one address this issue without sounding full of apologies and excuses.
    I’m also a woman academic and I agree wholeheartedly with your response above to Christine’s comment. My own cover letter gives an impression of a well-meaning very, very nice, very pleasant fresh PhD. A member of a search committee reading my letter will be prompted to visualize a smiling, head-tilted-to-the-side, baby-faced woman. Not that I tilt my head in real life, but my cover letter does. Switching out of this “pleasing” mindset is hard. And now, off I go to work on my cover letter…

    • Oh, ouch. Reject the head-tilting cover letter!

      Your placement director is right–no excuses. It’s hard to speak in generalities without having your letter to work with in front of me, but in general, you must always simply speak to what you HAVE done, and simply never mention what you HAVE NOT done. Period. End of story. It’ll be hard at first. But trust me, with practice, it gets easier.

      Now, I have a question for you. If I offered a kind of Job Letter Diagnostic service (in which people could send me their cover letters and I’d do a quick read and set of recommendations, with guaranteed 24 hour turnaround) for say a flat rate of $30 or so, do you think that would be of interest to you? And your friends and compatriots? I’m considering doing that for the fall job season. But I need some feedback first.

      • Hi Karen,

        I am an ABD, defending sometime in late December or early January. I would be all over an affordable Job Letter review as well. I suspect that left to my own devices, I would definitely come across as a head-tilter, too.

      • Please offer the kind of service you are talking about. The quick turn around/affordable. It would be super helpful. I am wondering if you might also address whether your template for teaching colleges, especially those that have research expectations, balances teaching and research. In your template there are 5 that essentially deal with research and 1 for teaching. What should the balance look like for a more balanced school?

        • it wouldn’t necessarily look that different in my view. Even teaching schools require evidence of your legitimacy as a scholar. I can imagine shifting the second project para to a para with some more detail on teaching…but that would be about it.

        • Oh and of course many advise that in a letter for a teaching school, the teaching para(s) go first. I’m of two minds about that, but it is certainly conventional to do so.

      • Please, please do this! There is a job posting for the job I have wanted for 6 years. I just saw the post a two weeks ago, they start reviewing Feb 1 and I’m STUCK on my cover letter and teaching statement. I have been unemployed (but a busy volunteer in my field for two years) and I will borrow money to get some help here.

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  6. Thanks for this great list, Karen. I’m going on the job market again, this time as a humanities postdoc with teaching responsibilities. I’ve been advised by my placement director not to list my publications in my cover letter so that I sound less like a grad student and more like a faculty member (since it goes without saying that they have published). I’ve also been told not to mention my TA experience in my teaching paragraph and to focus on the courses that I’m actually teaching this year. What do you think?

    • I totally agree on the TA thing; you should only mention the courses you’ve taught. Re pubs: don’t “list” them per se, but mention them organically–ie, something like, “this research produced two articles, one in Journal of XXX in 2009 and one in Journal of YYY in 2011. Two others are currently in submission at xxx and xxx.” Seriously, it’s never assumed that you’ve published—you must show them clearly, and display your capital–and high status pubs are the #1 example of capital– in the letter.

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  8. That’s great advice and many thanks for taking the time to write this. There are, however, a few points on which I tend to disagree. For instance point 7, the second book, is rather unrealistic. A student just finishing his dissertation will hardly have a second book project, let alone one that’s already funded. Also, point 5, I am not sure that all full professors will feel comfortable reading letters from fresh PhDs acting too presumptuous. There is a fine line there, and taking your advice in full might just get you on the wrong side. Finally, I wish I could see a two-page letter that includes your eight paragraphs, but just by looking at those themes I can tell that you are going to write something that has little substance and looks rather telegraphic.

    • This template uses more paragraphs than most models I have seen. Most seem to combine at least two of these research paragraphs. Anybody use this model?

      • I used this template (provided by a faculty member at my institution) for my job search (I’m in English Lit.). While it wasn’t until my second year on the market (still as a grad student) that I received my current job, I received a good number of interviews both years. Having read through candidate materials as a faculty member now, I heartily agree with Karen’s advice.

  9. I am so very, very happy to have found this advice. I will be going on the job market next year, and it’s great to hear some concrete tips for writing a cover letter. If you do offer a job letter review for $30, I will definitely use that service when the time comes and I will send my peers your way.

    Also, do you have advice for applying to jobs at community colleges? I am doubtful about the job prospects at a 4-year university, especially since I am in the humanities, and so I anticipate applying to a fair number of 2-year schools. However, I don’t know any professors who have ever worked in a 2-year college, so I don’t have anyone to give me advice about applying to one.

  10. I’ll add this in. I’m at a small baccalaureate granting university that primarily values teaching. We really don’t care about your dissertation. We care somewhat about your research and what you plan to do as far as scholarship (especially since we are in a rural location in a rural state and we want to know if you’ve thought about how you’ll accomplish your research in our very small location), but mostly we want to know about your teaching, how you’ll deal with our students, and how you’ll fit in at our university. Doing your homework on the institution matters. We notice when someone has done that, because all too often, searchers don’t. You may want to adjust the order of your letter to primarily highlight how you are going to teach.

    I just came to your blog via the Chronicle and I very much agree with you. I don’t advise graduates, but I do very much try to help with career counseling with my current students.

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  12. This is really great advise! Thank you.

    I’m currently in the midst of postdoc/job applications and have one lingering question. When the application requires no cover letter (like all of my postdocs – just research statement and cv), how do I use letterhead? On the research statement? Not at all? This is really the least of my concerns, but it is something to which I can get an easy answer!

    • oh wow, are you sure there is no letter at ALL? would you share the link to the postdoc? I’d like to look and see what such a RFP looks like.

      The short answer is: no letterhead. letterhead is a form of stationary, and only appropriate for letters. However, I’d still propose including some kind of brief cover letter, on letterhead, to accompany those documents, even if the letter only says “Enclosed please find my materials.”

      Ya gotta get the letterhead in there somehow!

  13. Thanks for this great advice! You started a debate among my grad student friends and I about the letterhead. I just finished my Ph.D. but I am still adjuncting (one class) for the university that I attended. Should I / can I use that letterhead? Some of my friends thought it was presumptuous unless you are full faculty or a postdoc. Can you explain a little more about why the letterhead is important? What does a letter without letterhead convey to the committee?
    Thanks again!

    • Letterhead is critical because it shows that SOMEBODY thought you were good enough to hire, so you already have an ** imprimatur of legitimacy**. This even applies for an adjuncting position. What you must NEVER be, if you can avoid it, is an un-affiliated monad on the market. The letterhead gives you a place and an identity and a legitimacy and a credibility that cannot be achieved in any other way.

      • If I may, I’d like to push you a little on the letterhead question. I received the same advice back when I was on the market in the mid 1990s, and I continued to see applications on letterhead when I reviewed applications for positions in the US as recently as 2008. My question though, is whether we **really** make the snap judgment to disregard an application on plain paper; if it’s properly written, the letter will show the applicant’s affiliation prominently in the first paragraph, as well as on the CV.

        If faced with a cover letter that is otherwise as you advise but not on letterhead and a cover letter that’s a mess but that is on letterhead, I would clearly choose the former rather than the latter, assuming that the two applicants were otherwise roughly equal.

        Do search committees **really** throw out good applications on the basis of not having letterhead?

        • I don’t think they throw them out, per se, but they form one snap judgment which then has to be overcome by the content. It’s far better to have the content framed and set off by its setting—ie, the letterhead

          Sure, excellent content not on letterhead can speak loudly and WILL overcome a terrible letter that is on letterhead.

          But that’s not usually the question. The question is, in this job market with 700 apps for one job, will an excellent letter not on letterhead prevail over an excellent letter on letterhead? And that’s the question that can’t be answered with confidence.

          My intensity about this question derives from how often candidates simply fail to use the letterhead to which they are entitled, thereby downgrading their materials, and adding an extra judgment to overcome.

          • I guess it’s a cultural difference (I’m Australian), but the concept of using a letterhead from your current workplace to secure another job seems pretty bizarre to me. I have reviewed nearly 500 applications over my 25 year academic career, including from the US, and apart from anything else, I’d be wondering how it legitimises anything or shows any affiliation above what’s included in the CV. Surely nobody hires anyone on the basis that they take their word for it because there’s a letterhead? Surely they’d, you know, check? It just smacks of someone with very little experience trying to tart up their application.

    • If you are legitimately still afffiliated to the Ph.D. university, then use that, as it’s generally higher status than the adjunct institution. If, however, you happened to score and adjunct job at a high status institution, then use the adjunct school letterhead.

  14. I have the same concerns as Elizabeth. My entire dissertation committee has advised me (I asked each separately) to NOT use the letterhead of the place where I am adjuncting, for it will look like I’m trying to inflate my position. I should say that they’ve been fabulous about all the points you say are major failings of many advisors and had much the same letter-writing advice as you except on this matter.

    • You need to use letterhead, and if the adjunct school is the only one you have, then you should use it. If you’re still legitimately affiliated with a Ph.D. granting institution, then that would be the appropriate choice in most cases.

  15. Dear Karen,
    Thank you so much for the thoughtful and constructive advice on preparing a postdoctoral application! Being at a large public university in light of recent budgetary cuts, the resources available to advanced graduate students in this regard are rather limited and the landscape has changed dramatically since my committee members were on the market. In putting together various dossiers I’ve noticed that a number of institutions are asking for ‘personal statements’ either in lieu of a cover letter or to supplement a separate more detailed statement of research interests. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how this differs from the cover letter you’ve outlined. Also, as I a minority woman I am applying for various fellowships requesting a nebulous ‘diversity statement’ and was hoping you might have some suggestions on how to tailor a professional statement that avoids the usual immigrant narrative cliches.

    Thanks!

    • Personal statements are tricky, because they have to link your past, your present, and your future together into a coherent whole that addresses your larger scholarly motivations and passions, but without getting drippy and emotional or pathetic. Basically you should think of the personal statement as depicting an arc, in very factual, evidence based ways, from an early inspiration in life through study in a discipline, to a body of scholarship you have produced, to an ultimate career goal….with an eye to how the postdoc will play into that arc in a concrete way.

      Re the diversity statement question—I’m not sure I understand it. Please elaborate or contact me directly by email at gettenure@gmail.com.

  16. Hi Karen,
    Thank you for the feedback on the personal statement! They are certainly trickier than a standard cover letter but becoming increasingly more common for postdocs. As for the diversity statement some fellowships ask that you specifically write something addressing diversity in your educational/ career trajectory and goals:
    From: http://www.ucop.edu/acadpersonnel/ppfp/uc_ppfp.html
    Education and Background Statement – 500-700 words describing your personal background and contributions to diversity and equal opportunity through your academic career
    While still others are simply fellowships to promote academic diversity among junior faculty and ask that you address your eligibility for a diversity fellowship:
    http://www.nyu.edu/diversity/academics.research/fellowship.html
    http://as.cornell.edu/academics/opportunities/diversity-fellowships/index.cfm
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to approach such a statement tactfully.

    Thanks!

  17. How do you suggest approaching a school that doesn’t have an opening? I’m ABD and would like to introduce myself in case an opening arises? Same rules apply? Or best to abbreviate?

    BTW – found your blog through The Chronicle of Higher Education. Great posts all around!

    Thank you,
    Milton Stokes

    • Generally, this is something that is Not Done. I would not encourage it. If you are determined to do it, then I’d reduce everything to one page, remove anything about future projects and sketch out your research much more briefly, focusing more on teaching.

      • I would like to hear more about why you don’t encourage contacting a school that doesn’t have an opening.

        I’ve done this type of thing during my entire professional career (non-academic). I am now finishing a PhD. I contacted a school that I would like to work at and that did not have an opening. I sent the chair of a particular program my CV and teaching philosophy. I arranged an informal meet-n-greet. Six months later, the chair contacts me and tells me that they have ‘created’ a tenure-track faculty position. This clearly worked for me.

        • Honestly, while this site is ‘helpful,’ I think it does more harm than good. It has offered a terrifically paranoid look at the job search process, and quite honestly: If there is anyone on the PLANET who cares about the technical aspects as much as this author claims to, they are not people I want to work for/with. It reeks of micro-management, and there are plenty of schools that are more open-minded in their approach to the academy.

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  19. If we shouldn’t address the letter to “Professor so-and-so”, do you suggest using “Dr.” instead?
    And doesn’t that sound more pandering?

    Thanks for the helpful advice.

    • ACK, NO!!!! You always *address* the letter to Professor/Dr. So-and-So!!!!! Good heavens. That’s just proper formal letter-writing etiquette. In general, Professor is better.

      No, what I’m talking about is in the body of the letter, when you write things like “I studied with xxxxx” or “I would look forward to collaborating with xxxx”—in those types of sentences, you always give the full name of the person, without a title of Prof. or Dr.

      • Thanks for the clarification.

        One more question: If the search committee chair is not named, is “Dear Search Committee Members” the appropriate opening?

        • Yes it is. Always do a bit of checking to see if you can find the search chair name. it adds class to your letter to have a name. But many searches (especially recently) do not specify anyone, and so more and more letters must be addressed to “Dear Members of the Search Committee” (I tend to prefer this form, but either is fine).

          • I have a related question. When I write cover letters, I always try to find one or two professors with whom I’d like to collaborate to mention specifically in the letter. How do I handle it when one of those professors is the committee chair, and I’ve addressed the letter to them? It feels weird/too informal to use “you,” but it also seems weird to mention their name without acknowledging that they are the committee chair (like I’ve forgotten who’s reading, or something). Advice?

  20. Great website, thanks! Though I have to say that faculty serving in search committees will have different opinions, and it is hard to say a perfect cover letter should be like this and like that. For example, our department head warned us that as grad. students we should not use the university’s letterhead whereas, that is a big miss for you.

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  23. Hi there! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the excellent work!

  24. At my RI institution you use letterhead for official business. Using it to apply for a job is not official business. At our last presidential search, none of the candidates used their institutional letterhead for their job documents.

    As someone on a search committee, if I saw someone using their university letterhead for personal reasons it would raise questions about their understanding of workplace etiquette.

    Karen’s advice is just that – hers. She doesn’t speak for all search committees.

  25. Quick question, again about letterhead: I teach part time at a college where I get the impression that receiving external mail would be quite odd. Do I use their letterhead even if I’m asking the search committee to mail materials to my home address?
    Thanks!

  26. Quick question about the second project paragraph: I am applying for a visiting assistant professor teaching position at a liberal arts college, should I replace the paragraph discussing my second project with another teaching paragraph or will the search committee still like to see that I have research plans?

    • good question. if it’s a one year visiting pos. then you can consider replacing the 2nd project with teaching. If it’s multi-year, then you’ll want to keep in the 2nd project. Another variable is the status of the institution. If it’s a very elite SLAC, then they’re hiring at levels equivalent to R1s, and the 2nd project para makes you competitive there. If it is anything but the most elite, then teaching should be more prioritized. It’s a delicate dance!

  27. I too have chaired a number of searches, and put students on the market as well. I teach a seminar on the job market as part of our PFF program. 9 of your 10 points are spot on… the tenth (actually the first) couldn’t be more wrong. Letterhead is reserved for use by members of the department. A graduate student is not a member of the department. When I receive cover letters from ABD’s on letterhead, I assume they have stolen it or used it without permission.

    • Your assumption would be wrong then. I hope you don’t rely on it to disqualify candidates. In the vast majority of depts in the United States grad students are expected to use the letterhead. If you are based somewhere other than the U.S. then that is a separate issue.

      • No, it’s not used to exclude candidates, but it’s also VERY uncommon. I’ve been on perhaps 40 searches over the years– faculty positions in my field and others as well as administrative positions, and I can only think of a handful of times when I’ve seen ANY candidate submit an application on their departmental letterhead, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen graduate students do it. Highly, highly inappropriate, and in some departments it would likely get the student in trouble, as they are flat out forbidden to use letterhead for any reason.

        • At my R-1 when I was a grad student, we were all handed packets of the University letterhead and envelopes to use for our job searches. In my field (literature), one rarely sees cover letters that aren’t on letterhead. Very rarely.

          I imagine this poster must be a very different field from mine.

        • Your departmental culture is apparently very different than mine, then. Our grad student website (managed by departmental staff) has files with the department’s letterhead, and we are explicitly encouraged to use it for our professional correspondence.

          And a serious “ouch” to “a graduate student is not a member of the department.” Really? Then how do you explain the presence of my profile on the department’s website?

          It’s occurring to me how much worse my grad school experience could have been.

    • “A graduate student is not a member of the department”? Ouch. If I were shopping for graduate programs, I would stay far, far away from any department that would not consider me, as a graduate student, to be a “member.” What are graduate students considered to be in your department, then? Nuisances?

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  29. In my R1 department, graduate students are emphatically members of the department. We expect them to represent themselves well in business correspondence, which means on our letterhead if it is on paper. It the professional responsibility of graduate students to apply for jobs as they get close to finishing. Thus doing so is official department business.

    I have to agree with Curiouser. Maybe students applying to graduate school should ask about a department’s letterhead policy to get an idea of how they will be regarded there. And maybe grad students who are considered “inappropriate” for applying for faculty positions on letterhead should be thankful for not getting that interview.

  30. I will be graduating this August and I am currently an instructor at a Technical College; so technically I can’t use my PhD University letterhead for October applications. Will the Technical College letterhead have the desired impact for an application in a R1 department, or will it be counter-productive?

    • well, it’s a choice between that letterhead and no letterhead…. it’s true the TC letterhead is not going to give you much boost, but i’d say use it anyway.

  31. I agree with Karen’s advice except for three issues:

    1. “Your letter must be on letterhead”. In fact, any academic from the UK would strongly challenge this view. An applicant is not required or expected to submit a ‘letterheaded’ cover letter unless employed by a relevant academic institution. Even if you are applying as an employee, the use of the university’s letterhead for personal ends may not be permissible, and it’s even counter-intuitive. Imagine a Warwick University lecturer/professor applying with a Warwick ‘letterheaded’ cover letter for a position at Cambridge University. However, a PhD graduate can support their application with a reference letter by a faculty staff.

    2. “Letters do not have titles”. I’m afraid; there are legitimate grounds where a main title and subtitles are required in cover letters. Some job briefs would state—applicants should identify the academic position, level, and subject expertise (for which they are applying) as heading on cover letters. For example, a job advert seeks a “lecturer, senior lecturer, professor or reader in Marketing”. In some instances, the recruiter is seeking for four candidates to fill those positions. It is sensible to identify clearly on the cover letter with a heading/title the position you are applying for: Lecturer? Senior Lecturer? Reader? Etc. And if more than two disciplines were identified on the job advert. State the discipline you are applying for. This makes it relatively easy for the recruiter to route your application to the relevant faculty or person.

    3. “Your letter must be two pages max”. In fact, this is not a rule unless otherwise stated by the recruiting organisation. I prefer a one-page cover letter. Sadly, this is not my experience with academic cover letters. Some recruiters would even state a minimum words-count of 2000 to 5000. Do you know why? They stress applicants should address all the person-specification competences (some range between 10-20). This is where sub-headings are useful.

    In fact, there’s a distinction between cover letters and application letters though both are often used to mean the same thing. Most academic job-supporting letters are application letters, not cover letters though the latter are letters of application, semantically. Cover letters are shorter, usually one-to-two pages long. Anything beyond that is a letter of application.

    Check http://www.jobs.ac.uk, the main portal for academic jobs in the UK. Browse through the job adverts, dig through some of the job briefs or packs, and see for yourself.

    Yet, this doesn’t take away the overall benefits of Karen’s advice. However, the one-size-fits-all tone of the advice is something to think about.

    • How is any of this relevant for applications to US institutions? I don’t see any indication of the fact that her advice is meant to be universally applicable. I bet in Japan they do thing even more different…

  32. This letterhead issue has me confused. I defended this May-does this mean that any job applications that I sent out prior to May 12 can have my university letterhead but any I send out after May 12 cannot? Or is there some sort of “6 month rule” especially in the market where it is not uncommon to be looking 6-12 months post graduation for a job? I feel like if I exclude any letterhead it looks as if I am just some failed “floater” with no affiliation.

    • as far as I know, there is no 6-month rule. you’re affiliated, or you aren’t. the summer would be a gray area, but once the next school year starts, no, you cannot use the phd institution letterhead. Unless, of course, you negotiate an unofficial unpaid affiliation. people do that.

  33. Hi Karen, I am sorry if I missed this, but shouldn’t there be a “service” paragraph tied in with research and teaching interests?

      • If you are saying there should be no service paragraph, I have to disagree. I am at a top-tier SLAC and service is everything. This is where applicants can highlight work in areas of race, gender and the like. Maybe service is less important if you are a grad student, but I have served on several Humanities hiring committees, and we do consider service, esp at a “self-governing” institution. Organizing a conference, working with an association, esp gender/race/sexuality, editing a journal, these are important “service” activities that speak to a candidate’s ability to contribute to the institution. Moreover, I can’t imagine a worse message to send for those applying to their 2nd job, since it might convey that the candidate contributed nothing to the institution at which they served. Committee work is a huge expectation at SLACs, so showing that you pulled your weight rather than left it for everyone else (usually women and people of color) why you holed up in your office doing your research does not bode well.

  34. Oh wow, okay. And what is the word on repeating verbiage from the research/teaching statements in the research/teaching paragraphs?

    • You can repeat about 1 short paragraph’s worth of verbiage in the two documents. Since the TS will be 1 page long (usually about 4 paras), that means about 1/4 of it can reappear in the letter.

  35. Been on the job market for over 2 years so will start applying to community colleges.
    do the same rules apply re: cove letters, with an emphasis on research?

    • Definitely not! The CC letter must emphasize teaching above all else, although research can certainly be mentioned. Please do read Rob Jenkins’ pieces in the Chronicle fo Higher Education for detailed and specific information on applying to Community Colleged.

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  37. Hi Karen,

    I found in the career service website at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign advising to write a one-page cover letter instead of a two-page for a social science position. Is this customary? or is it part of a recent trend? Would you advise that the shorter the better in any case?

    Thanks in advance!

    • oh good heavens, believe nothing from UIUC! But i digress. for sciences—real hard sciences–and alsothe field of philosophy, one page is the norm. Art history has some leanings in that direction. for all other fields, inc. social sciences, two pages is the standard.

  38. Hi Karen, In a job letter for a postdoc, should I include teaching at all? I would not mind teaching a small class but I do not want to scare away a potential job by saying I would take my time away from research. Thanks for your kindly advice!

  39. Hi Dr. Karen,
    I am applying to a position that ONLY accepts an emailed application. Not an online form with attached documents; they want only your cover letter, CV, and list of 3 recommenders attached to an email. What should the letter look like in this case (no letterhead)?

  40. Hi Karen,
    Do you find double side printing inappropriate for cover letters? My institution has high-quality paper with letter-head (25% cotton) but no blank paper of the same quality.

    • Interestingly enough, page two of a letter plus all other documents are always just on plain printer paper. I realize that may seem odd with page one of the letter being on letterhead, but nevertheless, that’s how it’s done. I don’t think there is anything wrong with double-side printing though–it’s just not all that common.

  41. I know this posting is a year old, but I’m in a quandary. I am doing an externally-funded research fellowship at a big uni in one city, but I am living on the other side of the country and teaching (for one term) at the school where I completed my PhD. I am now applying for a tenure-stream position that was just posted at my postdoc university. What letterhead should I use – the postdoc university or the PhD-granting uni at which I am now teaching? I think using the postdoc uni’s letterhead might not look so good, especially since I don’t live there and I just started the fellowship. On the other hand, using the PhD university’s letterhead when I’m just lecturing for one term would be weird too. Should I just make my own simple letterhead?

  42. Should you end your letter with a little personal information that is relevant to the job? Although I’m not Chinese for example, I grew up in China, which is why I’m applying to Chinese related jobs. I’m also a minority which job ads stress emphasizing. Where or how to put this stuff in especially if it’s not evident from my name?

  43. Hi Karen,

    I finished my PhD in Dec 2011 and joined as a post doc at a different Uni. Now I have come across this opportunity to apply for a tenure track position. But I am doing this without the knowledge of my post doc supervisor. I will be supplying references from my PhD supervisor and committee members. The reason for this simply because in case I do not get the job , my post doc would be a bit rocky and would miss out on the future opportunities that may come my way. So my question is how do I state my situation in the cover letter.

    Your help is highly appreciated .

    By the way , I have learnt a lot from your website. Thank-you for taking the onus of teaching and guiding.

    Kind Regards,

    Anch

  44. The idea of forbidding graduate students to use letterhead (or submitting ANY cover letter without it) baffles me; I’ve never heard of such a thing. Don’t departments want their students to get jobs? Perhaps this is discipline specific (I hope so.)

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  46. This is great. To pick what seems to be a crucial nit: in point 5 your stress NEVER to address potential colleagues as “Professor so-and-so,” and yet in point 1 you say the phrase “Dear Professor XXXX” should follow the date. Is this an oversight on your part? Or is there some difference between the use of “Professor” to address the search committee chair and references to other faculty in the department?

    Thanks,

    Randolph.

    • You must always use Professor so-and-so as a term of courtesy in the address and heading of a letter. This is because it is a title that belongs in this context. Professors use this title in letters to to each other as well, as a courtesy. However, when you are referring to faculty with whom you’d collaborate in the body of the letter, then they are referrred to only by their last name, or if you prefer, first and last names.

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  48. I really appreciate this list and most of it was a very helpful reminder. I’m not sure what to do about the letterhead, however. Most applications are digital (in some cases letters have to be pasted into an online form which removes formatting), and the university’s policy on letterhead says that graduate students are not to use official letterhead.

    Does it always look horribly unprofessional not to have the letter on letterhead, or do people understand there are different policies with respect to access? My university says only full time faculty are entitled to use it.

    • First, re the digital thing: that’s no excuse not to use letterhead! Many campuses have digital letterhead and at those that don’t, you can simply print your letter on letterhead and then scan as a pdf. But the other issue of access to letterhead: I tell people to lie, cheat, and steal to get it. But if all that fails, then sure, you can submit sans letterhead and you won’t be instantly disqualified because of it. Just make sure you have a decent subdued personal letterhead so that you’re not submitting on a blank white page, and that the letter itself shines.

  49. Dear Karen

    I am currently a researcher at an academic institute, and am applying for a position of assistant professor in University of Florida. Do you think I should use the letterhead of my current employer? Should I tell and get permission to use the letterhead? (I am NOT a student any more). Thank you!

  50. Dear Karen,

    Thank you for the advice! My another question is at the end, shall I use “Yours sincerely” or something else to conclude the cover letter?

  51. Thanks for this resource.

    I am not a grad student. I have been an adjunct instructor for a 5 years, at the same institution. A full-time position recently came up at another institution. Do I use letterhead from my current institution? My gut tells me no. Is my situation unique? Thanks!

    –Wes

  52. Hi Karen,
    I would like to apply for a postdoctoral position, and the required documents do not include a cover letter (explicitely). “Please send a single (!) PDF with CV including publications, a statement of research interests, and three references (…)”. I recall I read in one of your blogs or commentaries that one should include a cover letter even if not asked for. I am debating whether (A) sending a short letter introducing myself, what I do, and why I want to work in that lab, or (B) not sending any cover letter to avoid putting the researcher to read extra stuff that she/he has not asked for. Any advice would be greatly appreciate it.
    Carolina

    • Hi Karen,
      In reference to my previous question, I forgot to mention that I don’t want to look like I don’t know how to follow a simple instruction (but the application w/out cover letter may look incomplete…?).

      Thanks again for this very helpful website, it can be saved as a golden bookmark.

  53. Hi Karen,

    Thank you so very much for all of this advice, it’s invaluable.

    I am in an unual situation, in that I already hold a tenure-track position…however, I would like to apply for a post-doc position in teacher education at a different institution (I was hired ABD and just graduated with my Ph.D. this past May). Believe it or not, the post-doc pays more than I’m making now, and I would only be teaching 1/4 of the classes (2 a year vs. 8 here), which would give me much more time to concentrate on my research agenda for a couple of years. My question, of course, is about my cover letter. How much of your advice above would vary/change when applying for a post-doc after having worked as an Instructor/Assistant Professor for three years at a university? Because it is a post-doc in teacher education, should I highlight my research over my teaching/supervision or vice versa? I have way more teaching and supervisory experience (20 years of it at both the secondary and post-secondary levels) than I do research experience. I haven’t published anything yet, but I have presented at many conferences. Should I write about the research/articles/grants I’m working on even if I haven’t submitted anything yet? I have been told to NOT include “work in progress” on my CV unless it has been submitted and accepted for publication. Your advice however states that in the cover letter, one should write about written work in the manuscript stage and where you plan to submit it. I’m a little confused! Finally, I would like to somehow get across in the letter that more time for research is what attracted me to the position, but I don’t want them to think that I prefer research over teaching, or that I’m…well…just lazy!

    Thanks in advance for your help!

    • Julie, comments on the blog have increased to a level where I can no longer provide detailed individual responses here; if you’d like to work with me on this issue and the application, however, please do get in touch at gettenure@gmail.com. Karen

  54. Hi Karen,

    I enjoyed your post. If possible, please add the steps for a teaching/research position, as opposed to a research/teaching position. Thanks

  55. Hi, Karen,

    I’m an ABD in the fine arts (music composition), and so glad to have found your site! Any advice on what to do when research on the department and/or search committee members comes up scarce? I’m preparing to apply for an assistant professor position at a school whose department website is pretty bland, and the chair of the search does not keep his own website (the norm in my field), so I’m having difficulties finding anything beyond a brief bio. Is it overstepping to call the department in an effort to find out more about their program and/or faculty?

    Thanks.

  56. Karen-
    Forgive me if this was discussed within the replies and comments. I skimmed through, but didn’t find anything speaking to this.

    I have an MFA in dance and am just beginning my job application process. For much of the cover letter information, things are similar or the same as for a research-based position. I, however, am not published and won’t be doing research, at least not in the same sort of way. The positions I’m applying for are those is in search of faculty to both teach and make creative work (which I have done a great deal of but not all of it in academia, much of it as a self-produced artist). I assume I simply put this into the paragraph layout where published works and research projects are listed. The groundwork and funding for self-produced creative work is fairly different. Do I state a sentence or two about significant previous work and then about my upcoming work in the same way? (…listing grants for funding? … what about the fact that much of my work is funded through fundraisers? I’m sure this is not something to include.)

  57. THANK YOU!!! Although my comment follows none of your advice my cover letters will from now on! Bless you for sharing this very valuable information. You’re right, no one has the time to teach it and for first generation scholars it can be extremely difficult to find someone outside of your professors who would know how to help.

    Thanks again,
    Opal

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  60. Great advice – thank you! I am wondering, however, if you have more specific advice for cover letters when applying for sessional (adjunct?) positions, when the details about one’s research plans, etc. don’t apply. Thanks!

    • I have not written about that, and should. For now, it’s a mistake to jettison research completely in any job letter as it helps to distinguish and define you, but for an adjunct position, do put teaching first and expand it to two paras, and put research second and perhaps keep to one para; the “next project” para is not necessary. Other elements should remain the same; you still need to tailor even if you consider it an utterly pointless exercise.

      • Thanks! I do wonder what exactly you mean when you say “adjunct” – I take it that covers a range of positions. Here (Canada), we often apply to teach each separate course, including ones we’ve taught before at the same university, as a “sessional”. For example, just teaching one summer course. I would think the cover letter would be a bit simpler for an application to teach just one course vs. a position involving teaching multiple courses?

      • Hi Karen, Great stuff. On a similar note to the adjunct question above, might you have any advice for those of us looking to make the jump into administration? Clearly the emphases are different in the content of the letter, but do I frame the cover letter with tweeks to your guidance above or think of it more as a corporate job cover letter. For example, for an administration job, do I use letterhead?

  61. First, thank you for putting this out there. I am in a different field, but have been trying to find some guidance on the letter format/content – and I can already see several areas where I can make improvements. After three attempts on the market with limited success, I decided to overhaul all of my materials this year. I am looking for a assistant/advanced assistant professor position at a R1 institution, and I have one glaring problem.

    I have been out of school for 7 years now working in the private sector (research) – for personal reasons. I have been advised to include some explanation of why I did not go into academia right away – which I have not done because it does not seem relevant. I have been doing high level research with nationally recognized organizations, written countless grant applications (and gotten some), published (although not at the rate of an assistant professor), managed projects, and so on. My seven years of actual research (and some teaching) experience, in my opinion, make me a much better candidate than an ABD or even newly minted Ph.D. Yet I have been passed over countless times to folks with far less experience, because (as one insider told me) my dissertation date is ‘too old’.

    So my question is how do I overcome this? I can’t hide the fact that I graduated seven years ago. Should I explain that I went into the private sector for personal reasons? Or perhaps frame it as a really long extended post-doc to sharpen my research skills? As I gear up for another round of applications, I could really use some advice on how to address this unique problem. Any guidance would be appreciated. Thank you again for posting this list.

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  63. Hi Karen,

    For “Para 1″ you state “Short self-intro; your current position”. What if a person is currently not attached to any university and is not teaching at all, even as an adjunct? What should one state?

  64. Some of the questions were about how to link diss. research into 2nd par. of the cover letter; even after several years of post-doc or an adjunct position, when the diss. is somewhat “past.” Karen’s advice was to still mention briefly, but it should be organically related to the rest of the research. This was difficult but I think I managed to do it in one closing sentence of the par. “These projects each stemmed from technical achievements of my dissertation research, which demonstrated that ….[some research results which shared tech. and knowledge base as afore mentioned research].” I was super stoked about how to weave in this distant memory when I am so focused on the present & future, had to share.

  65. Hi,

    Thanks for the great advice! I am wondering your opinion on lifting key sentences from the research and/or teaching statement and putting them in the cover letter. Is it okay to repear if you have a really stellar overview sentence in one document and put it in the cover letter, or should each piece of writing be crafted completely individually so as to avoid reviewers thinking you are being repetitive as they read between documents?
    Thanks!

  66. Hi Karen,

    A quandary: for jobs which want the cover letter, teaching philosophy, research statement all rolled into one, does the 2 page limit still apply?

    My advisers say they essentially only see three-pagers submitted, and so they’re advising me to use a three page format.

    I know that you stress the importance of the 2-page format, and just wanted to check for when the research/teaching parts are not separate. Thanks again,
    DM

  67. Hi!
    Just a quick question: assuming you respond to a job announcement posted by recruitment@x-university.com or even jobs@x-corp.org, to whom the cover letter should be addressed? The structure of the organisation in not published, so you can´t gather info about the Human Resources department. The job you apply for can be located in various departments. Thank you!

  68. Karen, What about if I have a lot of professional experience that I think might be relevant to teaching. For example, curatorial work, should I mention this in my CL? If so, where would it be the most appropriate placement of such information? I believe that it will convey that beyond teaching and researching, I’m placing these ideas into practice through exhibitions and community education. Thanks!

  69. I have a question about the letterhead issue. Is it improper to use the letterhead of the institution where I currently adjunct if I am applying for a TT job at the very same institution? Thank you.
    [Please do not include my name or email. Thanks again.]

  70. Any thoughts on length when they ask for “a detailed cover letter” that includes “research and teaching interests”? 3 pages? Or still 2?

  71. Reading the article and comments makes me relive why I left academia! So obsessed with form and every little thing must be exactly as instructed, if not, they won’t consider you! In the corporate world people accept these little differences as long as it appears you can do your job. Interview process much more straight forward too. Particularly disturbing given that social science/humanities academics are supposed to be all about celebrating diversity and studying difference…

  72. Thank you for this. Question: I can see the value of a graduate student using letterhead, but isn’t in unethical to use the letterhead of your current employer if you are seeking a new employer?

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  74. Hi Karen,
    What a fantastic blog and service. My question is this: my university will not let graduate students have business cards with university letterhead. They say we are just ‘temporary’ so cannot have cards, never mind letterhead (it is locked up). What would you suggest? Its embarrassing to be asked for cards at conferences (i’m on the job market) and not having one. Thank you,
    Christine

  75. I’m currently in a one-year VAP position, struggling to write my cover letter for the TT position that is opening up at my current institution. Do you have any advice on how to tailor this letter, without sounding too familiar or too awkwardly formal? I’m required to submit separate teaching and research statements, as well.

  76. Thank you for the wonderfully informative Blog, Karen.

    I am in the last few months of my PhD and planning to apply to a 9-month lecturer position at a state university. Ideally, I would like to work in the position for 1-2 years and then move into a tenure-track position (preferably at the same university). Should I mention my research plans in my cover letter or application materials? Those plans are not very relevant to this particular position, although are quite relevant to my long-term plans for this specific university (which happens to be the university that granted my B.S. and M.S. degrees).

  77. Well meaning advice, but the snark is not warranted. As someone who has also served on search committees, let me say that (1) we start with the c.v. and only glance at the cover letter if we are already interested; (2) because we started with the c.v., we already know the information on the c.v., such as your degree granting institutions — we are looking at the cover letter for additional info; and (3) as long as the cover letter wasn’t written on an old napkin, we don’t care what it is written on. And no, it should not be on institutional letterhead. The purpose of letterhead is so that you can write on behalf of your institution in your official capacity. Your personal correspondence and affairs do not belong on institutional letterhead. You sending your job application on letterhead would be a signal that you don’t understand the difference — unless of course it is the decision of your school to find you a different job and you have been tasked with making that happen.

    • “[U]nless of course it is the decision of your school to find you a different job and you have been tasked with making that happen.”

      If you’re a graduating PhD student, that’s sort of the case, isn’t it?

    • This has been my impression, as well; that letterhead is used by current faculty to request review copies of textbooks, for outgoing offer letters, job openings, etc. i.e. official department business. Does one also use letterhead when tendering one’s resignation? If not, it seems a little weird to use it when asking to be considered for a position vacancy by another institution.

      In fact, I’ve never seen letterhead used for a cover letter to accompany a job application. I’ve only worked for 3 academic institutions, but have served on numerous hiring committees, and have seen institutional letterhead used for cover letters exactly zero times. To my eye it looks a. disloyal; b. as your Australian commenter suggested, as if one is trying to tart up a rather thin application packet; and c. redundant. The CV indicates *both* the current employer, *and* the duration of one’s tenure there — and of course the information would need to be verified independently, letterhead or no.

      This really could be generational. I am not extremely young by any means, but — maybe because I have worked in the private sector — I would find it jarring, were I to encounter institutional letterhead in a stack of applications.

  78. I have a quick question about your first point of advice. You say that snail-mail address is necessary, but with more and more applications being sent in online or over e-mail, often there won’t be any address in the posting. Should I look up the department and just assume that using the address on their website is appropriate, or leave it out, or…?

    Thanks much!

  79. Hey Karen,

    I wanted to get a brief clarification on your recommendation regarding length. Is your two page rule based on 12 pt font single spaced or 1.5 spacing? My cover letter follows your rules and comes in at 2.6 pages at 1.5 spacing. I wasn’t sure if I was write on the money or had an overly long cover letter.

    Thanks,
    Chris

  80. Hi, The information you have provided is very helpful indeed. I have a question though. I am applying for PhD’s and in one of the applications the University require a motivation statement on the topic and a motivation letter on why I want to do the PhD. How should I go about with these two letters? Will appreciate your advice. Thank you.

    Regards, Abeer

  81. Hi,
    I have a question of what makes it in and what doesn’t: should all of your major grants make it into the cover letter, or will the CV do some of that work? At this point I’m ABD & have an AAUW dissertation fellowship, a Javits, & a Fulbright (from the year between undergrad & grad school). The dissertation completion grant makes it in seamlessly enough, but I’ve never really figured out how to pull the other two in without interrupting the flow. On the other hand, if they’re really skimming I might be sabotaging myself by leaving out the strongest aspects of my case under the assumption they’ll read my CV. Thanks!

  82. Dear Karen,
    Does the letterhead rule apply to electronic submissions and submissions through Interfolio? If yes, how does one do it technically – should I print my cover letter on a letterhead, then scan and send it as an attachment? Also, I am now away from my institution (in a different state). Should I ask our departmental secretary to scan a letterhead and to email it to me?

  83. Dear Karen,
    this is a very informative post – the directness of your words is a plus and saves time (yours and ours), therefore I will try to do the same. :) This is NOT to have an “ad hoc” advice, but I would rather be interested if you had any experience on similar topics. My questions:

    1. Because of a research project (in a highly regarded research center), after my PhD I was away from teaching for two years (and in the meatime I graduated). Does it look bad to TT jobs? Should I aim at adjunct and TAs to “catch up”? Also, I might be able to get back to my Univ to get some TA teaching – is it bad looking (“look, he has no teaching therefore they took him back”). Of course in the meantime I would search for local depts for other adjuncts/TAs.

    2. As I apply I am living in France. I still have a US address but should I use the European one? Does it really matter?

    3. I am a European student, but I am a resident, and really willing to return to the US. Considering also point 2, is it worth to mention it in the letter (my visa status and my intentions) or it sounds “awkward” and not necessary/unprofessional?

    Thank you very much for all this info!

    All Best,

    G

    • I don’t know whether Karen would agree, but I think I can address questions 2 and 3.

      About having two addresses: I have a “permanent” address where I can always receive mail and a “current” address where I rent and spend most of my time, which changes once a couple of years or so (the two are in different states in the US), and I simply list both in my CV. I think you can use a similar approach if you want people to be able to contact you at either address.

      Mentioning the address explicitly in the letter, though, is perhaps unnecessary: what does that accomplish? If you’re applying for a job on another continent it is already clear that you’re willing to relocate.

      Mentioning immigration/residence status (if that’s what you mean by “Resident”) is helpful and important, so that they know that they don’t (or do) need to worry about visas and other such paperwork. For that just make sure to use the exact official phrase that identifies the status (e.g. “Permanent Resident,” “Resident Alien,” “Naturalized Citizen,” etc.) The short sentence describing the status can fit in well either in the introductory paragraph before you start going into the meat of the letter, or in a postscript.

      Again, Karen, if you disagree, please make it known.

      • Dear Y S,
        thanks so much for your reply (and Karen, any advise is of course highly appreciated, while I understand how hectic would be to follow up to the tons of comments you receive here…).

        The visa status comment does make a lot of sense to me, and the two-address option is a good idea. Right now the next future looks like “point 1″ will happen (i.e. I will teach at my alma mater for an year or so), after which I will go back on track. Fingers crossed! Thanks again!

  84. Any advice on cover letters (reorganizing the paragraphs? different content?) for community college positions that do not require you to do research and do not require a Ph.D.? I am currently at a 4 year institution and do have a Ph.D. but am moving for personal reasons.

  85. I think I just threw up in my mouth. I don’t have a PhD., I have a terminal degree (MFA). I’m a master of adunct at career colleges but desperate, that’s right, DESPERATE to get out of career college pigeon-holing/label and teach full time and put on big kid pants. My student evals and classroom observations are, to be candid, stellar. But is the non-PhD making me never get a single short-list email? Even though many positions I apply to require an MFA? My letter, I thought, was solid. Mortified, and crushed, three years later… only ONE state university … I made it three rounds. I was in the top two. They went with the other candidate. Devastating.

  86. Since there seems to be a serious divide regarding the letterhead question (looks like some people will throw out your application if you have it, others will throw it out if you don’t), what about trying to find out what the recommended practice of the university you’re applying to is, and going by that?

  87. Thanks so much Karen. I have a question regarding the letterhead. I am still enroll in the graduate program in one of the Ivy s, however, I am working full time in a not at all recognized liberal arts. Should I use the letterhead of the Ivy university or should I use my current employer’s letterhead?

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  90. I am in the process of preparing a blind mailing to universities in my area, especially those who do not have a guitar department. Since I am not affiliated with any major University, can I use my professional logo which is my name with a guitar as one of the letters in my name as part of my header – sized accordingly (with the appropriate contact info)? Or just use it on the large label of the envelope with my return address. The logo can be found when the reader pulls up my site.

  91. I appreciate your frankness…I know this post was not too recent, but hopefully you still check it. My question has to do with your suggestion to use university letterhead. This advice is in sharp contrast to what I’ve heard in the private sector. There if you are using your employer’s letterhead then it suggests that you are basically collecting pay for your job search. Obviously this is not good (even according to business ethics), hence my question. What if your Ph.D. granting institution is also your employer because you teach several classes there? Should you use university letterhead, or does the use of letterhead suggest that you are collecting income to search for work?

    Perhaps I’m looking into this one too deeply? I’ve always just used my name and contact info at the top of a letter. My guess is that if this isn’t good enough that I wouldn’t want to work with the faculty on the search committee. Then again, my kid is hungry and needs to eat.
    Thanks in advance.

    • This is a good, perennial question. In academia, in the US, it is generally considered normal to use your institutional letterhead. In the UK, and also among a small minority of US academics, letterhead is considered inappropriate. My sense is that the anti-letterhead position in the US –which again is a small minority — is somewhat generational, with its proponents mainly being on the older side. In all of my experience working with candidates, I’ve never encountered a problem with the use of letterhead, and I’ve received a great deal of confirmation that it is indeed expected.

      • Thank you. I received a call from 1 of 2 applications where I used university letterhead. I can’t be certain that it helped, but it didn’t seem to hurt. Although at this point I think university funding is the biggest barrier to entry.

        Mine could also be a special situation given I have access to it in order to write letters of recommendation for students on a regular basis. Of course I always ask them if they’re sure they wouldn’t prefer a letter from someone with a better title. Thanks.

  92. I am a teacher at XXX Public Schools and am applying for a job at the Curriculum Department, outside the classroom at the same XXX Public Schools organization. Do you recommend I use their letter-head? If so, is it OK to create my own digitally with their logo, etc…?

    Thanks!

    • I should also note having just read the above post, that my employer is in the UAE, any idea of the “norm” around here? On the hiring committee would sit a mix of Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis, Americans and locals… Thanks!

      Robert

  93. Regarding letterhead:
    I just graduated from my PhD institution, and have a one-year VAP lined up for the fall-spring (job recently offered/accepted, nothing signed). However, I plan to apply for a particular position for the following academic year (15-16) which has a deadline that is very, very soon–before I start the VAP! The VAP institution’s letterhead would “look” better, I think, because it advertizes my “employed” status, but can I use letterhead from a department before I have really started working there? Would it be strange to ask the secretary for it? Or should I stick with my old PhD institution’s letterhead (I’m sure they won’t mind)? Or use nothing?

  94. Regarding letterhead – For some strange historical reason, my lab is in a department whose name does not represent my field. I don’t want to disclose my actual situation, but it would be analogous to someone who studied human physiology being in the Department of Botany. If that person applied for a job advertisement looking for a mammalian physiologist with letterhead from the Department of Botany, I’m worried they would get sorted to the “no pile” without a second glance. In such a case, would you still be adamant that the cover letter must be on departmental letterhead?

  95. I began teaching public high school while finishing my dissertation, and have continued doing so afterwards while applying for academic jobs. The only letterhead I have access to is the one provided by my employer (the high school). It would seem better to not have any letterhead at all than to use a high school’s letterhead to apply for a college teaching position, but your blog entry has made me wonder. What are your thoughts on this? Thank you.

  96. Dear Karen, thank you for this amazing article. I have a specific question and I would appreciate if you could comment on that. My Ph.D., post-doc and current job institutions are all the same (rf. to my website). I am concerned that this would hurt my application. Do you have any advice on writing the cover letter for this situation?

  97. Thank you very much for this helpful advice. I have two questions regarding your post.

    1. I am currently finishing up my dissertation with a scheduled defense in November and I will be starting a postdoc position in January. I will be applying for tenure-track positions for next academic year (applications open now) and I’m wondering if it would help to mention that I will be working as a postdoc fellow for a year. If so, can my “second project” be the work I will be doing as a postdoc?

    2. I am a PhD student in the school of social welfare and I’m wondering how linking my research interest with practice experience be seen by R1 Universities. Would it help my case if I mention in the context of contribution to the field?

    Thank you.

  98. Dear Karen,

    Can I “cite” my articles in the cover letter?

    I refer to a text something like this:

    “I worked on the XXX topic and the outcomes are Mr. CV et al, 2014, and MR. cover letter and MR. CV, 2014.”

    • It’s not usually conventional to “cite” per se, but yes you definitely MENTION articles in the cover letter! Typically you just come out and write, “Based on this research I have 3 articles published or in press. The first, “title,” was published in Journal of XX in 2013. The second, “title,” is… and so on.

  99. Dear Karen,

    I keep following your work and your site is since quite a long time now a great point of reference for me. I have a similar question to an old unanswered comment though – I am currently VAP in College no. 1, but haven’t started yet really – classes will start in a week – and I want to apply to College no. 2, for a tenure-track search that will close in 2 weeks. Given the small time window (three weeks between my VAP and the closing date of the search) I have two simple questions, related to the fact that I will be just arrived to college No. 1:
    1. cover letter: should I use letterhead from college no. 1? Meaning, should I just go ahead and ask the dept admin for it a week into classes?
    2. references: after how long can I really ask a reference to colleagues at college no. 1? Would be a month in the semester acceptable (references for the job at college no. 2 will be asked later)? Should I better stick at my doctorate references instead?
    Thanks so much for all this work!
    GGG

  100. Dr. Karen,

    I am attempting to obtain digital files of the letterhead for electronic submission. Forgive me if my question has been answered, but I did not see it above:
    Should letterhead only be used on the first page of the cover letter or on all pages?

    Many thanks

  101. Dr. Karen,

    What are your thoughts on a “service paragraph” in the cover letter if space allows? As a graduate student and then as a VAP, I have volunteered for department assignments, etc., which I was under no obligation to do. Applying mainly to liberal-arts-type colleges, do you think this would enhance my appeal, or would these kinds of things be considered “par for the course,” and/or irrelevant?

    Many thanks.

    • My core principle: service will not get you a job. Corollaries: don’t do too much service,a nd don’t devote too much space to the service you did. A line or two at most, on truly impressive service, like a campus-wide diversity initiative. That’s about the extent of it, in my view.

  102. I’m curious – should I tailor my job letters according to the other documents that are also going to be in my application? For example, for one job I have a cover letter that has a more involved paragraph on the diss research because they don’t ask for anything else; another school asks for CV, research plan, teaching plan – so for that school would I have a more streamlined “cocktail-party” description of the diss research? thanks!

  103. Hi Dr. Karen,

    I teach part-time at a private university in Southeast Asia that has no international reputation. Do I use the letterhead from this university to write a cover letter?

    Thanks!

  104. Dear Karen, I must thank you for the work that you have done here on how to write a letter for the tenure-track position. I was wondering how I should frame the beginning of my application though, especially if I have actually finished or left a contracted teaching position in order to move to another country (Australia) for the sake of acknowledging residency, and plan to apply for a tenure-track job in an Asian country. Do I simply just leave it out, or state that I have finished my term as an associate professor in that former institution?

  105. Dear Karen- I have found your website and blog postings very helpful. I’m in the process of submitting post-doctoral applications and I just received a lovely email from my department that they will not issue letterhead or electronic letterhead “specifically for this purpose” [for applying for jobs that they will ultimately take credit for]. Don’t you love it!

    • Yep. Our institution won’t even issue electronic letterhead to the faculty for writing recommendation letters, because the digital files could “get out there” and be abused. Given that almost all job applications are done electronically, I wonder if the letterhead standard will begin to disappear.

  106. Hello Karen!
    I’m ABD and i’m writing my cover letters, research statement and the like. I have just come across a job offer where (only) a CV, one-page cover letter is asked (so no research and teaching statement). How am I supposed to reduce my current two-page letter (written by following your guidelines) to a one-page cover letter if I’m not expected to send any additional files where I explain research and teaching in more detail? Should I sum up para 2,3,4 to one single paragraph for instance?

  107. Hi Karen,

    Our professor is having us draft a cover letter, CV, etc. and practice “applying” to a position that is interesting to us. Really practical class even though I’m probably 2 years from doing this in real life. This post is really helpful as I’m crafting my cover. Thank you!

  108. I just graduated from a seminary with my Ph.D. in philosophy and church history. I currently work for a small career school full-time in the general education department while adjuncting at my seminary’s undergraduate institution and another online institution. Because I want to work at a college or university that has religious affiliations, would it be better to use letterhead from the college where I adjunct, or should I use letterhead from where I work full-time?

  109. In the first paragraph, if we list where we learned about the job (listserv, et cetera), what if a member of the hiring committee sent me the job announcement personally? Should I write the listserv that I saw the job listed on as well, or should I list that the committee member sent me the job listing?
    If the person told me about it, and I write in my letter that I read about the job on a listserv, might that be seen as snubbing the person?

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