Those 12 Sentences: Evaluating Cover Letter Advice

Many of you have undoubtedly seen the blog post by Philip N. Howard that has been circulating around the internet for the past couple of weeks, called A Dozen Sentences That Should Appear in Your Academic Cover Letter.  It was originally published on the University of Washington Graduate College Mentor Memo site, and was later reprinted in Inside Higher Ed.

Many readers sent me the link to ask for my reaction.  This post is my response.

First off, I’m pleased that anyone is providing hands-on advice of this kind.  This information is so desperately needed, and I’ve been operating in such a vacuum for so long, that I’m very glad to see that somebody, anybody, is actually trying to provide concrete and specific job market advice.

That is not to say that I agree with everything Philip Howard writes.  I will comment on each of the twelve sentences in turn.

1. I would like to be considered for the position of [title copied from job ad] in [exact department name from job ad] at the [exact institution name from job ad]. I am an advanced doctoral candidate in [your department].

Yes, indeed, except that this sentence contains feeling-talk (I would like) that job candidates routinely overuse. I would recommend, “I am writing in application to the position…”  While “I would like” is not a problem in isolation, added to the rest of the feeling-talk that Howard recommends in later sentences, it becomes a bit excessive.  The bottom line about feelings in job letters is that candidates always think that their strong feelings are the key to getting jobs, and if they just communicate their “passion” and “excitement,” and “eagerness,” that will surely get them hired. Remember that you and 250/500/750 other people are all trying to pitch the same passion, eagerness and excitement, and it’s old before you even start.  Actually, what gets you hired is SHOWING, rather than telling, that you have pursued an energetic course of research, publication and teaching, without recourse to cheap emotion words.

2. My doctoral project is a study of [cocktail party description]. Much of the research on this topic suggests that [characterize the literature as woefully inadequate]. But I [demonstrate, reveal, discover] that contrary to received wisdom, [your punch line].

Yes indeed.

3. To complete this research I have spent [X years] doing [fieldwork/lab work/archival work/statistical analysis]. I have traveled to [these cities or libraries], interviewed [X number of experts], created [original datasets/original compositions/original artwork].

Howard elaborates:  “This sentence should be followed by a paragraph with the story of your research process. Overwhelm the committee with the volume of artifacts you’ve studied, people you’ve talked to, time you have dedicated or places you’ve been.”

The sentence itself is indeed essential. Search committees need to know what you examined.  However, never, ever, EVER “overwhelm” a search committee with information, and good god don’t write a “story” of your research “process”!!  9 out of 10 job candidates believes that their dissertation is SO fascinating, SO compelling, SO urgent, SO earth-shattering that they would gladly overwhelm every person they meet with endless quantities of minutiae about it, AND the endless tale of how they discovered this, and then turned to that, and then developed an interest in this (see below), and then were “fortunate enough to have the opportunity to” do that…etc. etc. ad nauseum.  Ain’t nobody got time for that. Deliver this information crisply, factually, in no more than 2 sentences.

4. I have completed [X] of [Y] chapters of my dissertation, and I have included two substantive chapters as part of my writing sample.

This is ok, although telling them what chapters you have finished in the dissertation is less important than telling them a concrete defense date in the first sentence, in my view.  Talk is cheap, but a defense date doesn’t lie.

5. I have well-developed drafts of several other chapters, and expect to defend in [month, year]. OR Having defended in [month, year], I plan to [turn it into a book-length manuscript for a major scholarly press/select key chapters for publication in disciplinary journals].

Howard elaborates: “If any of your committee members are unwilling to commit to even a season of the year for your defense date, or you don’t have two substantive chapters to submit to the hiring committee, it’s too early for you to be on the academic job market.”

He is absolutely right about plans for publication. He is mostly right about the too early to go on the market, except that sometimes it is good to go on the market early to get your worst mistakes out of the way while your still have a cushion of time, affiliation, and, we presume, support.

6. Although my primary area of research is [disciplinary keyword here], I have additional expertise in [another disciplinary keyword here] and am eager to teach in both areas. I have [taught/served as a teaching assistant] in courses about [A, B and C]. In the next few years, I hope to develop courses in [X and Y].

Of course you must describe teaching competencies, but don’t do it with vague claims and emotion-talk.  Eager?  Hope?  How does that help us?  Again, 250 other people will resting their cases on exactly the same feelings. Give us facts and specifics instead.

7. For the most part, my approach to research is through [social science or humanistic method keyword here], and I would be interested in developing a methods class on this approach to research.

All candidates need to be prepared to teach both specialized classes related to their research, and bread-and-butter classes such as Intro, Methods, and Theory.  Thus, he is correct that you should be able to discuss a methods class. However, again, he reverts to feeling-talk (“I would be interested”).  Candidates overuse the word interest almost as much as they overuse the words passion and excited, and are often already so self-involved that their letters devolve into an endless vortex of “I am interested in xxxx, and I have an additional interest in yyy, and I would be interested in teaching zzzz, and I have a great interest in the work of pppp and my interests in qqqq coincide…..”  It’s an addiction. I have a whole post on it called, “Nobody Cares What You Are Interested In.” By which I mean, don’t TELL search committees that you’re interested in this or that. SHOW them you’re interested with specifics.

8. Although I have been focused on my graduate research for several years, I have been actively involved in conversations with [scholars in the department you are applying to, or scholars at other universities/professional associations/conferences/other disciplines].

What?  How do conversations help anything?  Talk is cheap, and anybody can converse, particularly a grad student, about his dissertation. That does not distinguish you.

Howard elaborates, “This can be the one paragraph about service, highlighting conferences you’ve attended, workshops you’ve organized, and other ways you’ve supported your discipline.”

The key here is conferences. Those are peer-reviewed and your attendance at them will set your record apart.  Never hang your hat on service.

9. In the next few years, I hope to be able to investigate [reasonably related problems or questions].

Everybody needs a second project.  However, please don’t articulate it in vague aspirational feeling language like “hope.”  Are you really that unsure?  That doesn’t inspire confidence.  And while we’re on the subject, don’t try, attempt, endeavor, or seek, either.  Read my post: Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Try.

10. I am interested in this post for a variety of reasons: [something about the character of the department/university/community/city].

This is tailoring, and it’s essential.

11. Because of my graduate training, my doctoral research, and my teaching [experience/interests], I am uniquely qualified for this job.

Oh good god.  Really?  Uniquely qualified?  Did your mom tell you that?

When a search committee reads 250 letters that each say the applicant is “uniquely qualified” (which, by the way, they do already as it is, even without his post telling them to), those words are emptied of meaning. They constitute pitiful, desperate rhetoric. Connect your achievements and record with the position without recourse to wheedling claims.

12. In the next few months, I will be attending [conference A] and [conference B]. If you or your colleagues are also planning to attend, I would be happy to meet for an informal conversation.

To my eye this also reads as desperate.  The academic job search is a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” situation. If they want you, they’ll ask.

Howard finishes:

Shoot for two and a half pages of content: less than that and you might not seem like an advanced doctoral candidate well -immersed in a project; more than that and committee members may stop reading.

No, two pages is plenty.  He is opening many doors here, through the constant emotion and interest talk, for excessive and self-involved verbiage.  Good editing and a focus on the facts rather than feelings easily keep letters within two pages.

As you write, drop in the names of granting agencies that have supported you, or the journals that are publishing or reviewing your work.

Yes

Ideally several faculty members will write letters on your behalf. If possible, at least one letter-writer can come from a university other than yours. Hiring committees love reference letters on different university letterheads; it shows that you have social capital beyond your home department.

100% agreed. I have a blog post on this subject–“Why You Need a Recommender From Outside Your Department.”

Address your letter to the person heading the search or the department head. A greeting such as “Dear Committee Members” shows you haven’t done enough research. Ask a friend to proofread your document for grammar and spelling.

For sure.

Finally, follow up with the department. Hiring committees do not always tell candidates whether they are on the shortlist. If you finish another dissertation chapter, or get an article published, a few weeks after submitting your letter, submit an update by email and ask that this example be added to your file and where the committee is in the hiring process.

Follow up with additional information like this, yes. However, don’t follow up to querulously ask if you’ve been short-listed, etc. Candidates are always asking me when they should do that.  Don’t do that.  Again: “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”


Comments

Those 12 Sentences: Evaluating Cover Letter Advice — 29 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post! As a teacher of writing, I will add that this “although” business drives me crazy. Having more than one interest is not a contradiction! Just as you do not need to say, “I have a daughter BUT I have a son,” you do not need these crazy “although” clauses. There is nothing wrong with “and” or “also”!!!!!*

    *As a teacher of writing, I strongly recommend using abundant exclamation points rather than capitals to indicate emotion.

      • No; the CAPS are a good thing for drawing our attentions. Personally your CAPS help me to note where the problem is or what you are drawing attention to. Sometimes it is hard to follow a DIY blog post so for these purposes, please let’s break the writing rules.

        Thank you for all the information. You and your team and all contributors are doing academia a great service.

        Sincerely,
        Afua

  2. As far as recommendations go, what happens for those in practice disciplines (nursing, medicine, social work, etc.), who are expected either to teach clinical courses or to continue practicing as part of their faculty work? Is a non-academic reference appropriate, in addition to the usual academic references?

  3. I read the “12 sentences” piece and thought, Hmm, I’ll suspend judgment until I hear what Dr. Karen has to say. So glad you responded to this!

    How are we supposed to know who is on the search committee if–as I think you recently wrote about on Vitae–we’re not to call the department during the application process?

      • I believe the question is how we should know to whom to address the letter – which is long before being invited to campus. Job advertisements in my field rarely include the name of a search committee chair, and applications are submitted through the school’s online job portal – so, again, no chance of finding out who is actually reading this stuff.
        Should I nonetheless use the name of the department chair? That seems odd to me, though I admit I don’t care for the “To the Members of the Search Committee” address either.
        Thanks for your advice!

  4. It continues to amaze me how much emotion words, soft-peddling and “telling” are tolerated and even encouraged (in this case by the writer of the piece being analyzed!) in graduate school/academic circles (I am in the process of recovery myself). Like many other practices, such light-stepping would be a laughable in other sectors. Can you imagine reading a business cover letter: “I am uniquely equipped for this position and I would hope to be able to assist with the launch of xxx project..” What? “I possess the skills and knowledge to launch xxx based on 5 years experience and the previous successful execution of xxx project at my previous company”. Great, you’re hired! When/how did the academy, where research is done to demonstrate a point, come to reward and teach such drivel?

  5. Dr. Karen,

    This “12 sentences” piece is the first I have seen where the advice is to make your cover letter longer than a page (and honestly, 2 1/2 seems crazy to me…); I have only ever seen “keep it to one page, keep it to one page, keep it to one page.”

    Personally, I’ve never been able to keep it to one page: my cover letters have always been somewhere between 1 1/2 and 2 pages (including the addresses in the headings). Should I be concerned about a cover letter that is longer than one page?

    Thank you for your time.

    • Academic cover letters should be 1.5-2 pages, unless you’re in a field where there is some firm convention otherwise. The only such field I know that has such a convention is Philosophy, and then only some of the time, and it’s optional.

  6. Thank you Karen for this post and for all your others. A quick question regarding follow-up: If you tell the search committee you are defending on date x (which is soon in my case), then is it appropriate to reach out to them afterward and let them know it was successful or is this assumed?

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  9. Great advice but all this advice is written from someone with perfect experience and the perfect/matching background. Most questions arise from not exactly fitting the mold. Perfect candidates aren’t on the Internet searching for help.

    My question involves references. Upon logging in to apply for a position, it asked for three references (not letters). My autfill said “upon request” since the instructions indicated I was ONLY to upload a CV and Teaching Statement and nothing else until requested at a later time. I assumed I could go back and add. When I clicked the next day, it would not let me update with my three references so now it says “upon request.” I am assuming, but don’t know for certain, that this is the HR form at the university and doesn’t go to the department. Now I wonder if I need to call or somehow supply them. Is there a chance I could be eliminated just based on that? I can’t upload it as a seperate document because in bold on the instructions it indicated to “ONLY” upload two documents. Please advise,

    • Perhaps you committee chair can provide guidance? That person may even know someone at the hiring university. Also, no doubt your univ. has had hiring committees, maybe the chair of the last committee is still at your univ.

  10. My “great advice” perfect candidate comment was directed at the original letter! Thanks to Karen and her website it helps all of us “non perfect” ones!

  11. Just love your straight forward no nonsense, tell it like it is advice. Makes me smile and I take it to heart. Thanks.

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  13. Great piece Karen!

    Good question: If a TT position is announced in a research-intensive university, but they only request in the application a letter of interest and a CV (No research statement is required). Would you still submit a research statement letter or would you just include in the letter of interest more details about your current and future research (maybe making the letter little longer ~3 pages)?

  14. Hi Karen, thanks for this! I have a question that baffles me, though probably ppl out there have experience in it… how does one write a teaching job cover letter, if the job is unspecified? I talked to a department chair yesterday, and out of the blue he told me to send him my cv because they might need a teacher for next year, but he doesn’t yet know what courses. so here i am, wondering how to start the letter – I am applying for the position of teacher at department X? how would you do it? (i don’t want to miss this opportunity – deep inside i think i don’t believe there is actually something in it, though he offered this himself, i did not talk to him about the possibility of teaching – we were just talking about teaching in general, at a post-lecture outing and, frankly, i didn’t even know who he was, but still – i’d like to give it a shot, even if it’s just sessional teaching).

    • You can write a one page letter applying for potential openings as instructor in the department. Sketch the courses on the books that you can teach. Mention your research only in a few lines that indicate your areas of particular expertise.

  15. Though your resume is really an important thing, a cover letter can make or break your working career. Before having an interview, your application will have to impress the recruiter or hiring manager, so perfecting your cover letter is a key to earning a face-to-face meet. Try your best to show that you care about the company and how you want to help it grow. Try to avoid using too much “I,” and instead show how you can be a helpful addition to the company, not in general. It’s so good of you mentioning some examples of a cover letter and explaining each every detail of it. This is a very helpful thing for people especially for those who wants to apply for a job in Invisume. It’s a company that could help you find a job that matches your skills and abilities.

  16. I’m a scientist, not a humanities person, so I graduated with some peer-reviewed papers. Is it still relevant to mention congress attendance?

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