Compelling Cover Letters for Tenure-Track Faculty Applications

Sept. 20, 2017

When applying for tenure-track faculty positions, applicants naturally focus on their CV, which represents their years of professional blood, sweat, and tears. However, don't underestimate the importance of the cover letter when preparing your application package. As a faculty member who has chaired several search committees at both primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) and R1 universities, here are my tips for drafting a successful cover letter that will distinguish you from an endless sea of competitive applicants.

Complete All Other Pieces of the Application First

Like the abstract of a manuscript, your cover letter should be the last part of the application you complete. Updating your CV and writing your teaching and/or research philosophy prepares you to write the cover letter by:

  • Reminding you of your accomplishments and experiences relevant to the position.
  • Helping you determine how best to present yourself to the search committee.
  • Investing you in the application process so you give your cover letter the time and attention it deserves.

In short, your cover letter should tell the story of where you've been, where you are now, and where you want to go with the institution you're applying to. That story will be much easier to write, if you review your academic history beforehand.

Start Strong and Finish Well

The first 2-3 sentences of your cover letter likely will determine if anyone reads the rest of it. If possible, greet the search committee chair by name, or address the committee as "Dear Colleagues." The first sentence should include the title of the position to which you're applying and lead into a brief statement of why you are an ideal candidate for the job.

Conclude the letter by thanking the committee for their time and consideration, and use a professional closing, such as "Sincerely" and/or "Best regards." Don't forget to include the letters of your terminal degree behind your name.

Highlight Your Relevant Achievements

Use concrete examples to support any claims you make in your cover letter, especially those directly related to the position's requirements. Highlight specific accomplishments, such as publications in prestigious journals, notable leadership or service positions, and well-known fellowships.

Such examples should be used judiciously and only when they pertain to the position announcement. Resist the urge to give a laundry list of your achievements that reads more like a CV than a cover letter. Conversely, don't end the letter prematurely without adequately making your case for an interview.

No one wants to read a form cover letter, so provide the search committee with a breath of fresh air to further stand out from other applicants by having a written cover letter. Feel free to get creative with the format and tone of your cover letter by using paragraph lead-ins, bullet points, and italic/boldface font when appropriate. This will help the search committee notice qualifications that may be easily overlooked amidst the hundreds of paragraphs they read in a single day.

Be authentic in your writing, not just in the accuracy of your statements, but in how you represent yourself. During faculty interviews, the cover letter is a catalyst that drives the conversations between the applicant and interviewers. An obvious disconnect between your cover letter and interview can raise suspicions about your integrity and remove you from consideration.

Show the Search Committee that You Fit the Job

Most tenure-track faculty position announcements elicit dozens, if not hundreds of applications. As a result, Human Resources offices and search committees find ways to screen applicants faster than an NIH grant review panel. To avoid the discard pile, pay special attention to the type of position and university to which you're applying.

The expectations of PUIs and R1s don't necessarily conflict, but your ability to meet them should be emphasized differently in your cover letter. For example, PUIs typically desire candidates with a stronger commitment to teaching and service, while R1 institutions usually place more emphasis on competitive publication records and the potential for securing extramural funding.

As chair of a search committee for a tenure-track Genetics position at a private liberal arts institution, I "triaged" over 90 applications.  We wanted an outstanding mentor and teacher who would exemplify our mission of service since research was not a primary function of the position. One cover letter was 4 pages long that highlighted an impressive research background with DNA gel images. The applicant concluded the letter by stating he had no teaching experience but was looking forward to "trying it." His experiences didn't align with the position's requirements so his application did not advance.

Present Yourself as an Invaluable Colleague

Many applicants may be qualified for the position, but not all of them will be a good fit for the department. The search committee needs to see you as a collaborative individual who can successfully integrate into the faculty dynamic already established within the department. Thus, you should research the department's areas of interest so you can address specifically how you'll contribute to their goals in tangible ways. You will likely notice unspoken expectations and attributes of the ideal candidate, such as teaching an unusually high number of introductory courses or a passion for working with students from underserved backgrounds, through browsing faculty webpages. By referencing these tacit (yet important!) characteristics in your cover letter in the context of your own interests and accomplishments, you can demonstrate your professional compatibility with the department beyond what is listed in your CV.

Focus on Your Strengths and Proactively Address Trouble Spots

Many applicants avoid discussing faculty application red flags, such as lack of teaching experience or a gap in relevant work history. These issues can be seen on your CV and will likely raise questions in the minds of the search committee. If you don't anticipate and answer these questions in your cover letter, the committee may do it for you (and not in a favorable way!).

If you're comfortable doing so, give the reason for a gap in work history, such as relocation for a spouse's job. Emphasize your eagerness to return and contribute to the scientific community. If you're changing careers, indicate your proficiency in areas that transcend occupations, including communication skills, project management, and effective collaboration.

If you lack formal teaching experience, instead describe your experience mentoring undergraduates in the lab, training new graduate students, or guest lecturing for a professor. Unless the position requires a minimum amount of formal teaching experience, these activities can often demonstrate your potential as an educator and commitment to mentorship well enough to earn you an interview.

Edit Twice and Submit Once

Consider using the following cover letter checklist before submitting your application:

  • Proofread for typos, grammatical or spelling mistakes, and format issues.
  • Check that you are concise and that the cover letter is no more than 2 pages.
  • Verify that a proper greeting and closing are present.
  • Ask a faculty member to read your cover letter and incorporate his or her suggestions.
  • Fact check your CV and cover letter for consistency.
  • Ensure that specific references to the job description and your relevant qualifications are highlighted within your letter.

Remember, the cover letter is an opportunity to tell the search committee your story in ways a CV never could, so make it an interesting one and celebrate the submission of (hopefully your last) job application!