Criteria for Success
- Demonstrate scientific accomplishments and scholastic achievement.
- Clearly define the vision and impact of your future research program.
- Differentiate yourself from colleagues, e.g. your advisors and other faculty candidates.
- Establish what your niche will be in the department.
- Clearly display excitement and passion.
- Keep the cover letter to 1 to 2 pages. The optional second page may contain a list of publications/presentations or a list of references.
The faculty cover letter, as with cover letters for other positions, is the first part of your application to be read by the Faculty Search Committee. Therefore, the primary purpose of a faculty cover letter is to summarize your application by connecting your Research and Teaching Statements, CV, and references.
Analyze your audience
Knowing what the Faculty Search Committee is looking for will help you tailor your application.
Searches for new hires may focus on specific research areas (e.g. nanomaterials, systems engineering, therapeutic science, renewable energy). In this case, you should customize your application to highlight your work in the specified research area.
Alternatively, departments may concentrate solely on the best candidates regardless of pre-selected scientific disciplines, in which case you have more flexibility in how you present yourself.
In addition, academic employment opportunities differ based on whether positions are tenure-tracked or require teaching, and the type of institution (university, medical school, research institute). Research the responsibilities associated with each of these positions, and include only information relevant to the specific position – don’t waste valuable space on irrelevant experiences.
Structure of a Cover Letter
- Critical contact information: name, degree, current position, email, and phone number
- Your professional profile or webpage (e.g. LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Academia.edu)
- Date, department, and university name and address.
- Salutation – “Dear [Faculty Search Committee / Department Head],”
- Brief introduction – Display excitement. State specific terms related to the faculty position, department and university. For example, if you are applying to a “cluster” hire that includes faculty across multiple departments, such as Systems and Synthetic Biology, then state this directly. State the position for which you are applying (i.e. tenure-track appointment, assistant faculty position).
- Strong opening statement – Declare your targeted research areas. Establish the foundation on which you will base your research. Emphasize novel interfaces and applications within your proposed research.
- Scientific achievements – Summarize successes highlighted in your CV that demonstrate the breadth and depth of scientific expertise. Demonstrate your productivity, as well as key scientific or technical strengths, with supporting details.
- Motivation & impact – State areas of expertise and indicate specific aims of your future research program. Clearly describe how these aims align with current research initiatives in the department or university.
- Teaching & mentorship – Highlight your experience in the classroom and as a research mentor, and service in the profession or community.
- Wrap-up – “Additional documents are enclosed. Please feel free to contact me if supplemental information is required.”
- Follow-up & thank you – Be clear that you expect to hear back (e.g. “I look forward to your reply”). Thank the committee for their time and consideration.
- Closure – Maintain professionalism. “Sincerely,” “Best regards,” and “Kindest regards” are appropriate closing phrases. Include your electronic signature.
Advocate for yourself
The Faculty cover letter emphasizes your past and present academic career, while promoting your future potential. For many of us, exuding confidence in an open letter of introduction is challenging, but you have to believe in yourself before you can convince others to believe in you.
State your pedigree
In academia, the institutions and departments you have attended and the advisors for whom you have worked do matter. State this information in Scientific achievements. Inform your audience if you have co-taught classes with distinguished professors in Teaching & mentorship or emphasize existing collaborations in the Motivation & impact section.
Quantify your productivity
Academia identifies scientific contributions by the following conventions: number of publications, quality, and impact. In addition to research articles, noteworthy contributions may also include opinion articles, book chapters, or your role as a journal reviewer. Emphasize alternative sources of scientific communication (and funding) such as distinguished merit-based fellowships.
Engineering students are likely to be co-authors of patents; state this information.
Describe your future potential
Beyond reiterating your past accomplishments, you must also show that you are prepared to handle the future challenges of being a Principal Investigator. By far, the most difficult paragraph to write in the Faculty cover letter focuses on the Motivation & Impact of your future research program. Clearly articulate the vision of your future research program and describe how your leadership will facilitate an environment of scientific and teaching excellence. Demonstrate expert understanding of your field, and confidently state your qualifications as a leader in research, an educator, and a citizen of the university.
Define your niche
Your application will be one out of hundreds. You must differentiate yourself and your research program from other candidates, as well as previous or current advisor(s). Ask yourself what you will do that is unique compared to any of your past or future colleagues. How will you fit uniquely into the department — what is your niche?
The Motivation & impact section provides an opportunity to concisely define your niche. State specific aims of your proposed research that expand upon the department’s core strengths, while simultaneously diversifying the university’s research portfolio (e.g. emerging research fields, state-of-the art technologies, novel applications). Carefully consider research centers, core facilities, affiliated institutes or medical centers at the university. In many cases, campus- or state-wide research initiatives may complement your research program.
Finally, take advantage of any experiences you’ve had outside of academia. Have you previously worked in industry or consulted? Would these former and future relationships lead to additional funding for your lab? If so, suggest more unusual avenues of additional funding. It may no longer suffice to focus primarily on traditional grants sponsored by government agencies. Think of creative alternatives and diversify your future financial portfolio. This, in turn, differentiates your research program from colleagues.
Finally, you will more than likely apply to multiple departments and universities. Therefore, modify your niche for every application!
Make important information concise and identifiable
Again, your application is one out of hundreds. Helping the Faculty Search Committee easily identify important information in your cover letter will only improve your chances of moving forward in the hiring process. A Faculty cover letter should not exceed 1 page, so you must present your qualifications to the Faculty Search Committee in a concise manner.
Maximize impact of words. Use verbs that illustrate impact (“led,” “developed,” “innovated”) over verbs that make you sound passive (“participated”). Aim for verbs that are more specific to the actual contribution you made.
Minimize redundancy and wordiness. For every sentence, challenge yourself to remove as many words as possible without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Use keywords. Keywords cited by grant-funding agencies, easily recognizable by any faculty member, should be included in relevant sections of your Faculty Cover Letter. Field-specific vocabulary demonstrates your understanding of the field and the department’s needs, but be aware that Faculty Search Committees with mixed expertise may require simpler vocabulary and/or explanations accessible to a broader audience.
Maintain abundant white space. In terms of formatting, inclusion of “white space” is easy on the eye while providing a precise transition from one section to the next.
Crafting your faculty application is a process that will continue indefinitely.
- Devote time to your faculty application, working in consistent increments over the course of weeks not days.
- Take time to brainstorm, reflect, write, edit, critique, and revise accordingly.
- Seek guidance in terms of technical content, emphasis of soft skills, as well as grammatical improvements and aesthetics from colleagues and friends.
Above all else, remember that the faculty application is a creative process. Enjoy it!
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 will likely 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” 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!
Larissa Walker is currently director of the Forensic Science program and a faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX. Although her Ph.D. is in microbiology, she has published interdisciplinary research in the areas of environmental engineering, metagenomics, and natural product discovery. She is passionate about helping her students make unexpected and productive connections between diverse disciplines so they can become better “outside-the-box” thinkers. Her own non-traditional career path has included positions as a middle school teacher, science writer, and lab manager and is proof that it’s never too late to discover and achieve one’s dream career.
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