Revisiting the Cover Letter: Research and Contribution

by Verena Hutter and Karen Kelsky

Karen and Verena

Now that we’ve talked about the intro paragraph of your cover letter, let’s move on to the next paras, the current research and contribution. In a research-oriented Cover Letter, this is going to be about your current project, which in most cases, is the dissertation. It’s what you’ve spent the last few years of your life thinking about, and it is what you’ve sacrificed your social life, your free time and your money for. Like it or not, a good part of your identity is wound up in this piece of writing. And so things get messy.

One of the things we see a lot is dissertation paras that are way, way, way, too long, when all we need is two paras: content and contribution.  Often, candidates get told by their advisers to be really detailed to showcase how special their project is. It may be special, but search committees still have only about 30 seconds to devote to it (out of about 1.5 minutes devoted to the letter as a whole). Search committees need to be able to quickly grasp what your project is about and whether it makes sense. So be short, sweet, and straight to the point.

Avoid Jargon. I don’t care how much you had to deploy it to sound legitimate in your insular and unbelievably pretentious graduate program.  Nobody wants it in a letter.  First off, faculty outside of 2-3 insular and unbelievably pretentious graduate programs absolutely loathe the jargon that those 2-3 programs produce.  Secondly, almost every search committee has an external committee member, and depending on who they are in the university hierarchy, they may be fairly powerful. You need this person on your side. How can they be your champion, if they don’t understand what you’re all about? At TPII, we often tell clients to imagine explaining their topic to an interested upper level undergraduate audience. You need to make your project legible to all of them.  If you think that level is too low, you have a fundamental misunderstanding of the conditions of the job search: no time, little energy.   If you are from Comp Lit, English, Ethnic Studies, or Women’s and Gender Studies, please attend to this warning, because I’m talking to most especially TO YOU.

Claim agency.  In the following sentences, the verbs are weak: “My project charts xxxx,” “My dissertation traces yyy,” “My book emphasizes the need to do zzz.” The verbs are not only vague, they also hide your identity as a researcher. During productivity Tuesdays, we talk a lot about the different ways to take agency back. This is one! When you talk about your work, use research action verbs: “analyze”, “compare”, “describe,” “conclude.” Stand by your work, and you won’t have to resort to grandiosity in the next para.

I have written about the difference between content and contribution before:

“In the first dissertation paragraph you talk about the content of your dissertation–main argument, methodology, findings.  In the second paragraph you talk about the contribution your particular argument/findings/approach makes to the larger field you are working in–what does it illuminate, what debates does it intervene in. You have to step back a scale, move away from the topic specifically, and instead use a wider optic to address its advancement of debates in the discipline as a whole.”

It’s essentially the question of how you fit into the academic landscape of your field. Now, because we’re academics, this often means that job candidates veer into one of two extremes: Grandiosity or impostor syndrome. If you’re telling me that the entire school of formal logics has made the same mistake, but that you, the hero of these pages, all alone,  have solved it, forgive me if I am skeptical. Likewise, if you spend the contribution para going on and on about what others didn’t do, or how everybody but you is a blithering idiot, you won’t make any friends. Of course, the other extreme is impostor syndrome, the candidate thinking that they’re not worthy and it’s only a matter of time until they are found out. These candidates often use phrases like “my project follows the tradition of BIG NAME IN MY FIELD and does something very similar.” If you’re not convinced of the contribution and importance of your work, why would you expect the SC to be? The contribution para is the “so what?” question. Why should we care?

I do get asked why on earth we should explain to people in our field how we fit in. Can’t they tell? Actually it doesn’t matter. They nede to hear YOU explain it, so that they know you’ll be able to win funding for the project, and that you’ll be able to show a classroom of undergraduates why it matters. The funding aspect is particularly important: If you show to an SC that you can efficiently communicate your work and its importance, they are more confident that you’ll get grants and funding further down the road.

Writing a solid research/dissertation para gets easier when you step back and remember William Germano’s words: You are not your dissertation. You are not your book. His advice goes hand in hand with what I write early on in the book, long before we’re talking about the nuts and bolts. In chapter 13, I explain that you need to cultivate a professional persona. You may want to talk endlessly about your research, but your “professional persona” will remember to limit the summary to five sentences, because your persona remembers that the job search is about providing actionable information quickly, within the real life time and energy constraints of the search committee. You may want to scream that seriously, you are the only one saving the planet (and if you’ve found the vaccine for HIV, you may), but instead your professional persona will calmly show your work’s importance with evidence and substance, not hysterical posturing, bragging, and grandiosity.

In the long run, cultivating a persona like this will save you from a lot of pain- as you will learn to not take everything that happens as a criticism of you the actual individual, but of your persona and your work. In the short term, it will help you write two fine research and contribution paras.

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