The Intro Paragraph is Your GPS Locator

Co-authored with TPII editor, Verena Hutter

Karen and Verena

Almost every section of the CL has its own intricacies and pitfalls. The tailoring para for example can easily become a place where self-aggrandizing and desperation meet (“I’ll be a great asset to you, and I’ll name my first-born after you, just give me the job”). Likewise, the teaching para easily becomes a list of where you’ve taught, instead of what and how you teach, plus hackneyed invocations of obvious influences (Paulo Freire is a person, not a teaching goal). And while most people can talk A LOT about their research, presenting it in a compact and digestible way to the SC can be challenging. There’s no way around it, writing a good CL is hard.

There is one para however, that is fairly straightforward: the introduction. Yet, many clients, chomping at the bit and excited to get their materials in order, overdo it.

They cram their greatest accomplishments in there right away: The dissertation topic, awards they have won, what reviewers said about their books, all the places they have taught at, and of course, that they would be an ideal candidate.

I know that there are advisers out there that tell their students to see the intro para as kind of  “best-of” so to speak, a “teaser” as I have heard someone say.  Nein. Nyet. Non. No search committee wants to be teased; they want to skim your complete record without any kind of “hard sell.” And a desperately pleading intro paragraph is exactly that: a hard sell.

Imagine the following: you’re at a party, and someone introduces themselves to you. And then they hold forth in a monologue on who they are, all the places they’ve worked at, the awards and prizes they have won, what they are planning to do, what others have said about them…. How does this make you feel? Do you want to stick around? Or flee?

Imagine instead a good introduction; you learn a few tidbits, and you think: “Oh, ok, tell me more…”

So here’s how to write an intro:

Dear NAME OF THE CHAIR and Members of the Search Committee (and variations thereof)

“I am writing to apply to the advertised position of Assistant Professor in XX. I have a Ph.D. in XXX/I am completing a Ph.D. in XXX and will be defending my dissertation on XX, 2018.  Currently I am a….   My research focuses on XX and YY.”

That’s it. Really. The last sentence serves as segue into your research paragraph (a crisp, concise, factual paragraph that outlines your topic, methods, theory, findings, conclusion and funding, in about 5-6 sentences).

The intro is like a business card. Unless your name is “Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons” (in which case I give you permission to disregard everything in this post), your card will not give too much info; it will just situate you.

I always say that the intro paragraph to the CL is your GPS locator. The SC needs to know where you are and where you came from, and that’s about it.

The job letter can get complicated, so allow yourself simplicity at the beginning.

–> If you want more help on the cover letter, check out Art of the Cover Letter, our digital program that walks you through all 9 paragraphs of an academic cover letter, with posts, worksheets, models, and video instruction by me, Dr. Karen. It produces amazing results.

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The Intro Paragraph is Your GPS Locator — 22 Comments

  1. For postdocs in basic science research (99% bench work experience), hoping to find a position with lots of teaching responsibilities, is it ok to mention adjunct teaching experience in the introductory paragraph?

    • don’t frame it as ‘adjunct’ teaching, just mention your teaching foci/expertise/experience. Read chapter 10 of my book (the latter half of that chapter), or the blog post, Teaching: Not When and Where but What and How.

  2. Regarding that last line, “My research focuses on XX or YY.” How about for positions at teaching-centric schools or NTT positions like FT lecturer (or language coordinator, like the posting that recently accrued some fame, but optimistically a legitimate coordinator posting) where research isn’t a criteria for evaluation?

      • I realized after submitting that the answer to my question seems rather obvious, that of course it should be tailored to the focus of the position. Does that mean that any reference to research would be omitted, i.e. no mention of the title of the dissertation, just the field of study (PhD in XXX) and right to teaching?

        Oh, and a further clarification, if I may… is the reference to teaching more appropriate if it is practical (i.e. teaching experience, courses taught) or philosophical (like a 1-sentence summary of the teaching statement)?

        • If it’s truly a teaching-ONLY job, ie a US one year lectureship or adjunct position, then stick exclusively to teaching. But if it’s an aspirational SLAC, and elite SLAC, an R2, etc., then you might want to skim both res. and teaching in one sentence or at most two. Teaching will focus on the content areas, not on names of courses or institutions where taught.

  3. What do you think of adding a brief ‘tailoring’ sentence at the end of the intro paragraph? As in something like “I share the department’s mission of X and am interested in bringing my knowledge of and experience in subject X to the program”? Or is it really better to leave this for later in the letter?

    • If we wanted you to write that we would have said so. So the answer is; no. That is exactly the kind of language we’re telling you NOT TO WRITE.

  4. Thank you for your response; I didn’t think you were referring to expressing specific interest in the school in the intro paragraph, but rather to listing professional accomplishments/experience.

    My way of thinking was that maybe an intro without this read too much like a generic “Dear University X” letter, but I assume search committees do not think of it this way.

    • The main issue with your sentence is that it squanders your most valuable letter real estate because the very fact that you’re sending in the application SHOWS that you are interested in “bringing your expertise, etc. etc.” So it’s a classic case of overwriting, telling not showing, and burying the usable content in redundant verbiage.

  5. Hello, just wondering: if I am currently in a postdoc with a book forthcoming (2018) should I include the “I have a Ph.D. in xxxxxxxxx”, in the first paragraph or should this be incorporated further down. Similarly, would I relegate doctoral research to a mention in the second para and rather focus on the book and new project? Many thanks!

    • Yes, everybody keeps the “I have a phd in” in the first para! No matter the stage. The switch over to current research happens whenever your diss research is TRULY finished, in terms of the publishing arc, and you have moved completely on to the next project in terms of actually existing publishing, funding and conferneces. If you have no pubs, funding or confs for the next project, it’s not ready to be your lead research in a letter. It’s ok to have the first book/diss research be the lead research even after the book is under contract, and even after the book is published, if that stioll represents your main focus and source of pubs. (remember to shift your writing about that project to being “my first book examines…” rather than “my diss examines…”)

      The point is, you don’t want your actual publication record to be shunted to page two, while you devote page one to a project that has NO published outcomes yet. Again: it is ok to lead with the diss/first book research for a number of years, if that is the source of your main record of productivity.

  6. I teach at three different campuses (R1,SLAC, and a CC) and am also engaged by a local museum (education & curatorial). I never know how to approach the first paragraph because my GPS is not in one place. Do I pick one? I don’t want to misrepresent myself by emphasizing one, but not the other; however, I am aware I need to tailor my experience to the particular position. I have official titles at each of my institutions (Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History; Adjunct Assistant Professor of Asian Studies; Museum Educator) but is there a way to make this more streamlined? Could I say something like, “My primary affiliation is with XYZ college [the one most similar to the job call] where I serve as TITLE, while also being engaged by the ABC Museum as …”? Any guidance would be appreciated!

  7. Thank you so much for that useful information.I am currently pursuing masters and want to apply for the post of phd and for that I need to write a cover letter.So, could you please guide me.

  8. I do not currently have an institutional affiliation. My postdoc ran out as I gave birth to my second child, and being home for a year (while still publishing an article in that same time), I am not sure what to write in the introductory paragraph. I also did not adjunct during that time. Should I just not mention it?

      • What about those who, despite having a Ph.D. in-hand, currently have a position in K-12 to survive the pandemic? Is it helpful or hurtful to include that position in the cover letter, considering it will appear on the CV, anyway?

  9. Would this advice still pertain if one is adjuncting? I am adjuncting in a field distant from the position I am applying for and am tempted to just drop the “I am currently..” sentence.

  10. Pingback: Revisiting the Cover Letter: Research and Contribution | The Professor Is In

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