Post Ac: Best Practice for Cover Letters

Another in our “Best-Of-Postac” series, showcasing our splendid team of postac coaches who can work with you, and the advice they’ve provided over the years to the blog. In our COVID19 higher ed collapse, finding new income streams outside the academy is absolutely urgent.

Today I am sharing a post by Dr. Darcy Hannibal. In this post she breaks down best practices for a cover letter for a job outside the academy.

Dr. Darcy Hannibal

Darcy Hannibal is a biological anthropologist working in data analytics and data science. Her non-traditional career path, post-PhD, started with a continuation of the data consulting work she began while in graduate school, followed by a staff job as a data analyst and laboratory manager at the University of California Davis. She then worked as an Assistant Project Scientist in the Department of Population Health & Reproduction at the University of California Davis. As of September 2018, Darcy works as the Principal Analyst of Student Success in the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis at UC Davis. During her time as a Lab Manager and Project Scientist, she managed primate behavioral research projects, which included recruiting, hiring, and supervising laboratory staff. In addition to mentoring the staff on their career goals and development, resumes, and cover letters, she reviewed hundreds of job applications and conducted interviews as a prospective supervisor. Darcy has seen the mistakes PhDs make when applying for non-academic jobs and she can help you avoid them. Find Darcy at:  @DarcyHannibal and Linkedin:

Darcy’s Consulting Philosophy:

Our academic training, hobbies, and other experiences provide us with skills that can translate to non-academic jobs, but it takes some preparation to re-orient yourself, learn how to describe your skills in a compelling way, and become a contender for these jobs. Your plan B is someone else’s plan A, so you need a B-game brought up to an A-game level. The best cover letters, resumes, and interviews come from a combination of succinctly presenting who you are as a professional and doing your homework to find out what and who are behind the job ad. Your best shot at filling a position for a job you would love, is to fine tune your application materials and interviewing skills to make you an obvious top choice. Some clients I work already have a lead on a potential job and just need job application material and interview services. If that is true for you, then jumping right into those services is fine. Many clients, however, need assistance with building a job search strategy and for those clients a 50-minute consult is needed before working on job documents. Although good job documents are essential, few prospective employers will look at them if you don’t have a sound job search strategy. In the initial 50-minute consult, we will go over work history and interests, what path you envision for your career going forward, areas where your job materials need improvement, the importance of building a professional network and how to do that, where to find potential jobs, how to pitch yourself for the jobs you want, services you may want going forward, and any other specific concerns you may have. For clients interested in a career in analytics, I provide specific guidance on their analytical skills and translating these for non-academic jobs. Working with you on your next step forward will be a rewarding and fun venture for both of us!


In this post, The Post-Ac’s Guide to the Cover Letter, Darcy writes:

“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.”

Find the complete post here:

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About Karen Kelsky

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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