By Alice Kelly, Ph.D.
Alice Kelly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. She completed her PhD in English at Cambridge in 2014, with a year as a Fox Fellow at Yale, and before that she studied at Sussex, Reed College (Portland, Oregon), and Oxford. She has taught English and History in the US and the UK. Having applied for academic jobs on both sides of the pond, she understands the challenges and opportunities of being on the transatlantic academic job market. Alongside her academic research on twentieth century literature and culture, she advocates healthy writing practices. At Oxford she founded the TORCH Academic Writing Group, which she has written about in Times Higher Education.
KK: This is Part III of Alice’s 4-Part series on the UK job application process, which I requested after meeting Alice at Oxford and hearing her take on the job market there.
Her first post in the series – the big picture
Her second post in the series – the REF
So you’ve decided to apply for a job in the UK – great work! Now comes the part where you sit down and draft the cover letter.
The cover letter is, by and large, the most important document in your dossier. (On that note, do not use the word “dossier” in the UK – no one will know what you are talking about). If a separate research statement is required, you may be able to shorten and simplify your cover letter a bit, but it is still the most important document in pulling together the different strands of your application and more broadly, your academic profile and identity. This is the place where you will summarise what your scholarship and publications have focused on to date, your current and future research, your teaching experience, your academic administrative experience, and sometimes your experience of public engagement, i.e. communicating your research to the general public. The key thing to remember is that the cover letter is where the focus is on the benefits and contribution you can make to them [esteemed university seeking an applicant], rather than what interests you about working there.
Next, let’s play word swap. If you have used any of the following words, delete them immediately and insert my version instead:
US v. UK translation:
UK: We use “thesis” and “dissertation” in the UK to refer to doctoral dissertations, so don’t assume that someone is talking about a Masters degree if they refer to their thesis
UK: Only to be used by academics holding Professorships or named Chairs. Everyone else is “Dr.”
UK: Term (apart from a handful of universities, including Bath, Leeds and St Andrews, which operate on a semester system)
Freshmen, Sophomores, etc
UK: First-years, Second-years, etc.
It’s not going to tank your application to use any of the American words, but some translation demonstrates a familiarity with the UK academic scene, and your reader isn’t going to stumble over an out-of-context word. Check the spelling in your letter with either a British spellcheck or a British person too.
Other words/terms to deliberately use in the Cover Letter (with some knowledge of what they mean – see my second blog): “public engagement”, “outward-facing” (about yourself as an academic), “interdisciplinary” (as long as your research actually has genuinely interdisciplinary elements)
Other words/phrases to deliberately avoid (much like the US): “passion”, “groundbreaking”, “pathbreaking”, “outstanding”, “shed new light on”, “At your institution I am interested in.”
A word on length: Although there is a strict limit in the US on length (2 pages max. for any self-respecting applicant), in the UK a 2.5 page letter is acceptable, as long as you are not rambling and every sentence in your cover letter is necessary and useful. If you can use letterhead, do so. If you can’t, it is not the end of the world.
Now we’ve sorted out language and length, let’s think about structure. Like most other types of academic writing, a cover letter has a formula – and you can therefore write your letter in a paint-by-numbers type of way. Below I’ve provided a paragraph-by-paragraph guide of what needs to go into the cover letter. Some of this is the same as the American cover letter, but some is different.
As for the US cover letter (see The Professor Is In, Ch. 22), the letter should begin with the date (left justified), then a line break, then the postal address of the recipient, then a line break, then “Dear Professor [X] and Members of the Committee.”
PARAGRAPH 1: This should begin “I am writing to apply for the position of [X] ” or some such similar statement. Then state as concisely as possible who you are, what stage you are, your PhD dissertation/research expertise, and what makes you a particularly good candidate for this job (this might be your extensive research experience in the area advertised, the match of your research with their departmental interests/theme that year, your years of experience teaching in a similar institution, etc.). For example,
“I would bring to [insert name of institution] my high impact research trajectory focusing on [X], my proven track record of communicating my research to academic and more popular audiences, and my wide experience of teaching in a number of universities. My research specialisms, alongside my public engagement and organization skills [or whatever the application names as key skills], would allow me to make a valuable contribution to [X].”
In the opening sentence, you’ve established that you’re a REF-able candidate with an interest in public engagement and demonstrable teaching experience, as well as hopefully being an organized colleague.
PARAGRAPH 2: The second paragraph details your research expertise in depth, e.g. gives a detailed summary of your dissertation and book project, including intended publication date and what stage you are at with the manuscript. Remember that some UK positions are a means to improve a university’s REF submission, so high-quality research that you will actually publish before 2020 will be looked on favorably. The most important thing I have learned is that the second and third paragraphs shouldn’t just state what you research, but what your research project does in terms of contributing to the discipline, and the nature of your wider scholarly project. This paragraph should therefore include:
- The scope of your research (topic, timeframe, research materials used – people sometimes forget the obvious bits)
- What your dissertation/book project argues
- How it develops/reassesses/interrupts/perceives the end of your academic field as you know it
- When you plan to submit the dissertation, or the book manuscript to a publisher (and in which case, do you already have a contract)
PARAGRAPH 3: If you are at the stage of thinking about your second project, discuss it here – including in as brief terms as possible the answers to all the bullet points in paragraph 2 (scope, etc). If not, use this paragraph to give a summary of your publications to date (your “outputs” in REF terms), and discuss what you’re working on alongside your dissertation/monograph, and any other exciting scholarly ventures you’re currently involved in. What is key to, and different about, your scholarly profile? For example, beyond my monograph I’m interested in public scholarship, so my third paragraph begins: “My expertise in First World War culture is demonstrated through my recent publications and podcasts for both scholarly and public audiences, which restore neglected and previously unknown First World War documents and demonstrate my ability to build research impact outside the academy.” Give some examples and then bring the paragraph back to how your research profile can be of benefit to their university/department.
PARAGRAPH 4: This is a summary of your teaching, highlighting the experience most relevant to the position you’re applying to. Give as much detail as possible. The key here is to be specific – what courses did you teach, where, when and to how many students, and in what teaching mode (lectures, seminars, tutorials, etc). How will your particular teaching experience and expertise be useful to their department?
There is usually no separate teaching philosophy document required in the UK – and frankly, trying to include an American style teaching philosophy would get your letter binned (sorry, put in the trash). Karen has already taught us to get rid of the weepy teaching statement, and in the UK I’m sorry to say that any teaching statement is considered pretty weepy (stiff upper lip and all that). You can communicate your “passion”, if you must, for teaching through specific examples of exercises that worked really well with students in this paragraph. You may be asked about these examples in an interview, so don’t make them up.
PARAGRAPH 5: In this paragraph you show that you have actually read the application and done some homework on the department. How would you teach the classes they ask you to teach in the application, and if appropriate, what else could you offer at their institution? This should be specific with course titles and one or two sentence outlines of courses. Finish the paragraph with any ideas you have for collaboration with other department members, which of their research strands your work would complement and develop, etc. Find this out via some serious reading of their department website.
PARAGRAPH 6: The final paragraph is usually where you demonstrate your relevant teaching administration, organizational and pastoral experience, but it can also be where you show that you fulfill their ‘desirable’ criteria (you should have already show your competency in their ‘essential criteria’ by this point in this letter). This might include conferences or seminar series you have organized, participation in academic steering committees, any interesting projects you have spearheaded or overseen – and most importantly, how you would use this experience in your new position at [X].
Complete the letter with a dignified and concise sign-off:
“I would be happy to expand on any of the above in interview. I look forward to hearing from you.
[Signature – electronic is okay]
[Typed Name and Current Position]”
Don’t tell them to expect letters from your esteemed referees, or ask them to call you if they require any further information. They won’t.
In terms of order, received wisdom says that you should reorder your cover letter according to which type of job you are applying for, i.e. for a teaching job, you should reorder your letter to put your teaching paragraphs above your research paragraphs. The jury is out for me on this one. Given the REF and the pressure to publish in the UK, even teaching-heavy jobs will require you to maintain a serious research profile. You can reorder your paragraphs if you like, or you can foreground your research to demonstrate your authority as a scholar before you move onto teaching. I think either will work, as long as you make it clear in the opening paragraph that you know what type of job this is and prioritise your relevant skills accordingly in your summary sentence at the end of that paragraph.
To Do: Draft your cover letter according to instructions above and send to a friend who knows their stuff. Then edit and redraft and edit and redraft until it is a winning cover letter.
Until next time, when I will discuss interviews and campus visits.