The Post-Ac’s Guide to the Cover Letter

by TPII Post-ac Coach Darcy Hannibal

Dr. Darcy Hannibal

Dr. Darcy Hannibal

A cover letter for a non-academic job is nothing like what you’d write for an academic job. It has to be less about you and more about what you can do for the employer. And short, very short. I previously wrote that resumes get a mean of 6 second review in the first cut. There are no similar studies for cover letters (although you’ll find lots of commentary on whether anyone even reads them), but I can tell you from experience it is much less during that first round of elimination. If you make it past the initial culling, your goal with the cover letter is to show them how you can help them and that you understand how to communicate professionally.

Many PhDs considering the post-ac route worry that they are over-qualified and that this will result in automatic elimination. That is rarely the reason for elimination (in fact some employers have explicit policies against it), but PhDs do have a reputation for being insufferably self-involved. If an employer has any misgivings about hiring someone with a PhD, they will see an unnecessarily long cover letter and resume as proof you don’t get that this isn’t a dissertation and that you probably will make meetings longer and more painful than they already are, drag projects out longer than needed to get the most complicated outcomes, etc. This is your opportunity to show them you don’t fit that stereotype.

The most important part of the cover letter is to do your homework. Find out as much as you can about the employer and the hiring supervisor, using their website, news articles, your professional network, etc. The job ad alone probably won’t tell you what you really need to know—what does the employer most want from this hire? The niche the employer really wants filled by a hire is probably narrower than what is in the job ad, but just in case they can’t find the perfect candidate, the net is cast wider. Often there is one or a few key skills or qualifications among the many listed that are most valued. Once you know what the specific need is, it should be the center of the cover letter. Tell them, briefly and generally, how you can help, demonstrating your abilities with a few key examples of your accomplishments.

Basic formatting

Same as in “The Post-Ac’s Guide to the Resume,” with the following additions:

Letterhead and watermarks. It is usually not appropriate to use the letterhead of the company with which you are currently employed, unless you’re a grad student or post-doc applying to, for example, an industry or government research job. If you use letterhead, make sure to turn the final version of the CL into a .pdf to make sure there are no formatting issues. If there is any chance your application materials will be fed through a computer program (applicant tracking system) to evaluate applicants, don’t use letterhead.

1 page with breaks between short paragraphs. There are a few exceptions to the 1 page limit (industry post-doc or other research and publication jobs), but shorter is better. Absolutely no “wall of text” anywhere. Keep sentences and paragraphs brief. Detailed descriptions of your dissertation and research will not help you. You want them to be able to pick out essential information in that brief scan. If you bog down your letter with unessential, repetitive, or overly-detailed information, no one will read it.

Approach

The best cover letters are customized to each job and employer. There two general approaches that are most compelling.

Problem focused. What can you do to meet a specific need or problem facing the employer? In the business world, the overused phrase for an unsolved problem or unmet need is “pain point.” If you can identify what “pain” they need soothed and make this central to your cover letter, it is very compelling and can be accomplished in half a page. Liz Ryan of the “The Human Workplace” doesn’t even call these cover letters—she calls them “pain letters” and if you can make this work, I recommend her method.

Connect Your Resume to the Job Ad. With this approach, think of the resume as the evidence and your cover letter as the interpretation or discussion of that evidence. Write sentences that explicitly and succinctly connect your skills and accomplishments to the employer’s needs and qualifications in the job ad. For example, say something like “Most recently, as a Post-Doctoral Researcher managing the laboratory of a newly hired professor, I set up the entire lab, including recruiting and supervising a team of lab assistants. In addition to overseeing regular laboratory procedures, I can recruit, train, and supervise laboratory staff at Happy Pills Pharma.” Or, “My success obtaining $##K through X granting institution gives me the experience to fund Eco-Cool Nonprofit’s projects.” You don’t need to cover every qualification listed in the job ad, and in fact to keep it to a page you probably can’t, but prioritize the most advanced, talent-dependent, hard-to-train, or rare qualifications.

The Elements

Emails. If you are instructed to submit an application via email, the email is your cover letter and the resume is the only attachment. For email only submissions, It is highly unlikely an applicant tracking system is being used. This tends to flip the order in which your documents are scanned (by a human eye)—the email is typically scanned first and the resume second. If you attach a separate cover letter, it may not even get opened, so make your point in the email.

The salutation. Find out who is the supervisor for this hire so you can address the letter to that person and contact them to learn more about the job.

The opening paragraph. Tell them very simply and succinctly: Who you are professionally, what you can do for them, why you are interested in the job and/or employer. If there is some recent event or success the employer had that you can incorporate into why you are interested in the job, this can be very compelling. Limit to 3-4 sentences at most.

The second paragraph. If you have identified either through your conversations with the hiring supervisor or a careful read of the job description what the most critical duty or qualification is for this hire, then make this the subject of the second paragraph. How will you meet this need?

Paragraphs 3, possibly 4. Point them to the evidence in your resume that you have the experience to get the major duties of the job done. If you can cover it in just one paragraph, then don’t add a fourth. If there are two broad areas (e.g., data analysis and reporting or grant writing and project implementation), then making each area the subject of the each paragraph is reasonable, but keep them short.

Closing paragraph. Keep this very short, 2-3 sentences. If you have nothing more to cover that wasn’t in the previous paragraphs, then simply say how it would be a pleasure to join their team and you look forward to learning more about the position and their organization. Close with “Sincerely,” (or similar) and then type your name. Do not print, sign, and scan—the employer needs to be able to do a keyword search on your letter and that is impossible with a signed and scanned letter. They don’t need your hand written signature.

A final word about choosing your words: Facts, not feelings or opinions.

Avoid saying things like: “I feel that I am highly qualified…,” “I am very enthusiastic about…” “I am a perfect fit for this job.” Everyone says this, yet most applicants have few, if any, qualifications for the job or a remarkable level of enthusiasm. Using these phrases make it sound as if all you have to offer is opinion and emotion, with no facts to back it up because you don’t even think you are qualified or interested enough for the job.

If you find yourself saying such nonsense, check that: 1) you have some skills and qualifications for the job somewhere in your life experience, and 2) that you have documented these in your resume. If so, you are probably letting impostor syndrome seep into your cover letter where it blocks you from saying anything meaningful.

The skills and expertise you gained while earning your PhD are invaluable, you just have to find a place to work that values what you have to offer.

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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