Academic cover letters - 3 questions that need an answer

Posted in: Academic Career, Advice, Applications, For PhDs

As the season is approaching when I spend a lot of time giving feedback on cover letters for academic (lectureship) positions, I wanted to share some quick thoughts on the main things you need to cover and how to craft a cover letter that creates impact for all the right reasons.

In an academic cover letter you're aiming to address three main questions:

1. Why them? 

This tends to be the weakest part of the academic cover letters I read. You need to address very clearly and specifically why you want to work at that Department/research group/university rather than at any other. This takes careful research and ideally an informal conversation with the recruiting manager (usually the Head of Department); this will often give you more insights into what they are looking for from the post and what the Department's focus and priorities are than you'll get from the job description.

Look carefully at the Department's areas of research interest (and their research strategy if they have one) and consider how this lines up with yours. Think about who you could collaborate with (it's fine to name names in your cover letter) and articulate why this is the right place for you to do the research you want to do (e.g. what reputation do they have in this research field, what connections do they have with other research groups or external partners that could be useful to you, are there other groups in the University you could collaborate with, do they have the equipment and facilities you need to do your research? ) Has the Department/research group recently published papers that relate to the work you do? You also need to research their courses and think about why you want to teach these (and you could could consider factors like teaching styles, course structures and any ways in which they want to develop their curriculum) here too. Top tip: make sure you mention both research and teaching as most academic positions will cover both. You could also look at the Department and University's standing in the Research Excellence Framework, Teaching Excellence Framework, and Knowledge Exchange Framework

In terms of researching the University, you could look at their overall strategy and any separate research or education/teaching and learning strategies - these will often be open-access on their website - and think about how these align with aspects of your own research and teaching and how you can help them achieve their aims. Make explicit connections between what they do and why this interests you: 'I see from the University's research strategy that you intend to increase your research commercialisation activities. I plan to commercialise aspect x of my current research'; 'I can contribute to your aim to focus on transformative research through my plans to focus on ...'

2. Why you? 

In some ways it's not helpful to separate out these two questions, as ideally whenever you say something about your current work and what you've achieved, you should be linking it back to them and how you can add value in the job. 'Why you' is all about showing them that you have the skills, experience, knowledge, background and - crucially for an academic post - future potential - they're looking for. You need to provide specific, concrete examples to show how you meet the criteria on the person specification. This doesn't mean repeating all of the information in your CV; you might draw attention to the most relevant highlights, and potentially provide more context. For example, you might pick out one or two publications and talk about your contribution to the research and  the contribution the research has made to the wider field (see a previous post on how to do this).

I do think it makes sense to provide a summary of your current research, and again, the emphasis here should be not just on what you've done but the difference you've made to your research field and the difference your research could make to them. Have you developed new techniques, provided a new perspective or established a collaboration that you could take forward into the new role? Remember to use active verbs that emphasise your actions and contribution. Remember too that as a researcher, the networks you could bring with academic and other partners are a key part of what you have to offer.

It's crucial to give them some idea of the direction you want to take your research in in the future. Give them an indication of what you want to be known for as a researcher, projects you intend to work on, potential funding sources, and how your research fits with their priorities and the priorities of funders. If you're asked for a separate research plan - and this is fairly common - you'll go into detail on all of this here - but your cover letter should still summarise your future research plans and - you've guessed it - how those plans will add value to them.

When talking about your teaching, you may not need to list all of the courses you've taught, as this list will be in your CV, but you could highlight any particularly relevant aspects and summarise the breadth of your teaching experience. You also need to convince them that you're an effective teacher; give examples of methodologies you've used and ways of approaching particular courses and say how you know these have been effective (e.g. student feedback). Talk about how your teaching experience links explicitly to them; show you've researched their courses and tell them how you could contribute. You might also provide a few statements that summarise how you've developed a particular skills across the breadth of your experience, for example, 'I have developed the ability to explain my research to a range of audience both through engagement with interdisciplinary research teams and through contributing to numerous outreach activities and science festivals.'

Talk about any active contributions you've made to your current Department - such as involvement with open days, organising research seminars and journal clubs, public engagement or committees - what Head of Department wouldn't welcome someone who is willing to get stuck in and contribute?

'Why you' is also about stating explicitly why you've applied to this particular job and not another one - identify specific aspects of the job (e.g. their research and teaching focus) that appeal to you.

3. Why now?

There's a third potential question that a recruiting Head of Department may have in their minds - why is this right role for you right now, as this particular point in your career? How can you convince them that you're ready - and willing - to establish your own independent research career, lead a research group, and take on the full demands of a lectureship position? This doesn't mean you should worry about things you haven't done yet, such as convening full lecture courses - Heads of Departments know that that experience is hard to get without having held a lectureship position - but it does mean showing a willingness to take on new challenges, make your own decisions and engage with every aspect of the role. It also means highlighting your future plans and ambitions and talking about ways you've already established yourself as a future research leader, such as demonstrating independence within your current project, evidence of securing research funding (including small pots), any leadership roles within yur university and wider field, and how you've established your own networks.

In terms of structure, keep your cover letter to sides as far as possible. It may make sense to organise your statement according to research, teaching, and other activities such as outreach or industrial engagement. Make sure that you get their attention early; your introudction should include a specific, in-a-nutshell statement about how your motivations, interests and plans are a perfect for for them and this role.



Posted in: Academic Career, Advice, Applications, For PhDs


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