Pitfalls of the Publication Para

By Verena Hutter and Karen Kelsky

Karen and Verena

We continue in our series on the elements of the cover letter….  Scroll back over the last couple months to find the previous posts on self-introduction, content and contribution paragraphs!

The heavy lifting is behind you. Now you need to talk about your publications, conference presentations and pending publication plans: past, present, future. Very often, however, this becomes a return to desperate cramming. You mention everything you’ve ever done, every presentation, every book review and entry for your knitting-circle’s newsletter. The result is that you’re ruining the beautiful, structured, professional impression that you’ve just made in your content and contribution para. Often, we also see sentences like “I have 49 publications on the topic!”. That tells us very little. We don’t know about the quality of the 49 publications – ie, the type of each publication (conference proceeding? book review? book chapter? or peer reviewed journal publication?) and the rank/status/impact factor (depending on your field) of its location.

So, you’ve established your professional persona and your platform in the content and contribution paras. The publication para is the one where you provide the proof. You show them that you understand what kind of publications you need to have, and have planned, so that they can give you tenure in five years’ time.

Do not start with “parts of my dissertation have been published” or “My article xxx, based on chapter 4 of my dissertation….”- it makes you look like a graduate student. It is understood that parts of your dissertations have been turned into publications. Also, it takes up a lot of space. Just describe the publications without reference to the dissertation they once were.

Mention the most important of your publications first: here the peer-review article ranks supreme.  Avoid phrases like “top tier journal”, “leading journal” or “highly ranked journal”. The SC is comprised of people who have been longer in the profession than you have. It is safe to assume that they know the leading journals in your field. Also, we would hope that you don’t publish in the National Enquirer (Teen Vogue may be another matter though!).

If the title already says what your article is about, don’t bother giving us a run-down of the content. We don’t need “My article “novels of Thomas Mann” looks at novels of Thomas Mann”. If it’s not as clear cut, make it one snappy clause, or at most one sentence, per article.  You can mention up to about 5 articles in this paragraph; beyond that, it becomes laundry-list-ish.  So just focus on the highlights, if you’re the motivated individual who has more than 5.

If you have an article under review somewhere, mention it in the letter. In some fields, it’s common to name the journal, in others (such as philosophy), it’s not. Know the convention of your field.

If you’re in a book field, and most of TPII’s clients in the humanities and humanistic social sciences are in a book field, tell us about your book plans, and be specific as well as realistic. If you’re telling the SC that you will have your manuscript finished three months after your graduation and send it off to <prestigious university press in your field>, you may get a tired, mild smile out of them before your letter is put to the side. Revising a dissertation for publication is a lot of work (and there is plenty of literature out there on how to do it), and the days of sending in unsolicited manuscripts are over. Most academic presses explicitly tell you to not do that on their websites. Instead, tell them when you will send in your proposal and to which publishers, name two or three. Do your research- know which presses publish in your field (the status of the press matters!) and where your work would fit in. Often I get asked “What if they reject me, and I will publish with someone else?” Cover letters are not contracts written in blood. If it’s tenure time, and you have done your work, published your book with a decent press in your field, nobody will pull out your cover letter, scream “gotcha!” and deny you tenure on the grounds that you’ve gone with another publisher than initially targeted.

I have made it clear how I feel about book chapters in edited volumes or editing volumes (read chapter 16 in the book, and don’t publish in edited volumes, and don’t EDIT VOLUMES, until you are tenured). If my advice has come too late, and you have no other publications, it’s fine to mention the book chapter in your publication para, but don’t try to pass it off as an article. Some edited volumes are in fact peer-reviewed, but your contribution is still not an article.  Book reviews and so on do not merit mention in a cover letter. This is why I tell you not to do more than a 2-3 while you are seeking employment.

Conferences and presentations: If you’ve presented at one of the big conferences in your field, great, mention this here. Do however not name drop who was on your panel, who thought your presentation was “most promising” etc, how dynamic the discussion was, and other subjective, braggy (and desperate sounding) claims. If you’ve submitted an abstract or a panel suggestion, but haven’t received word from the organizers yet, simply say that you’re planning to present your work at the conference.

A lot of clients feel insecure about what they’ve published, where they have published or what they should have published. At this point, it is what it is- look forward, make a plan, and start hacking away at it. So no matter what, if you have a relatively thin publication record, and that’s normal for a new Ph.D., do take a sentence or two to indicate planned publications, so that they can see that you have a promising trajectory.


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