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Academic Cover Letters

(12 Posts)
PerpetualStudent Sat 14-Oct-17 07:11:44

Quick one, anyone got any views (from the applying or hiring perspective) on the best approach for academic cover letters?
Have read lots of advice on an academic forum about taking a systematic approach of using job criteria as headings and even bullet points to evidence how you meet the criteria.
On the other hand, this blog suggests a more narrative approach (and seems to avoid the issue of job criteria altogether!)

Any preferences on these two approaches?

Closetlibrarian Sat 14-Oct-17 22:14:53

I was shortlisted for the last two jobs I applied for, which I put down to changing my approach to my cover letter. My new approach was, amongst other things,
a) to clearly state my 'academic identity'
b) clearly state what my 4 submissions would be for the next REF and, briefly, my long-term research plans
c) clearly state how I would enhance the department's teaching offering. E.g. 'My expertise in X would compliment and enhance A's expertise in Y. My extensive experience teaching in area Z will build on the existing coverage in this area by B, C and D' etc.
So - not so much talking to the job description (although I did this to a certain extent), but speaking specifically to the department and also to me.
Having been on the other side (i.e. on hiring panels) you want a candidate to clearly lay out what they are able to do - in terms of teaching, research, admin) so that you don't have to read between the lines of their CV. And usually, if you, as an applicant, look closely at the profiles of the people who work in that department, you can work out where the gaps are and how you can fill them (or you can get this info from an insider, if you know someone who works there)

HouseholdWords Sun 15-Oct-17 09:39:24

In haste, but I've done a lot of selection committees from PDRAs to Teaching Fellows to professors.

I personally don't like the letter which uses the job criteria as sub-headings. It feels very clunky.

For a straightforward lectureship I want:
* your REF publications (please don't give them a grading, it feels rather false - we'll read your stuff & make up our minds)
* your research trajectory - feasible realistic plans for the next 5 years
* how this will be funded (I'm in the humanities, but external funding is important. Think beyond AHRC Research Fellowships)
* what you teach in specialist terms (but think beyond your navel)
* how you would contribute to our core teaching

Avoid too much bluster & rhetoric.
Don't inflate your CV - it puts me off big time!


HouseholdWords Sun 15-Oct-17 09:42:29

Oh, and make sure your CV and cover letter match

Make sure you indicate the status of publications - published, page length, where (peer-reviewed?) and so on

Make it clear and straightforward for your selectors to see what you've done. We may get 60 to 100 applications for one post. We are not going to decode a CV + letter. Make it clear.

And really, I'll say it again: don't inflate your CV if you're entry level. We are looking for appropriate activity for your career age. Don't call a book review a publication. It is, of course, but not in the way we need publications (REF).

JellyMouldJnr Sun 15-Oct-17 10:07:24

I would say that cover letters are to highlight the most relevant parts of your cv and show why you would be a good fit. It is good to use words from the selection criteria and state how you fit the criteria but assessors also like to see you can write well so not bullet points, but connected clearly written text.

geekaMaxima Sun 15-Oct-17 12:50:56

Just to add that some universities have a lengthy application form full of subheadings that ask you specifically about the criteria in the job description. For postdoc jobs, this form pretty much replaces a cover letter - I'll shortlist in the basis of the form and CV, and maybe skim the cover letters before I make the shortlist final and call for interview.

For L/SL posts, the form is still very important. If you don't clearly meet the criteria in the basis of the form, no one will bother reading your cover letter. We'll eventually read the letter alongside the CV to help shortlist for interview, but good candidates usually have us persuaded by the form.

PerpetualStudent Mon 16-Oct-17 17:28:11

Thanks for this! Some really useful advice. Probably should have mentioned it's not for a UK post, so no REF, but I'm guessing the same principle of high quality publications being a core selling point still stands?!
The idea of clearly expressing an academic identity and speaking directly to the department feels like good advice, writing in that voice helps me actually believe I'm the independent academic I'm trying to sell myself as!
I'm struggling slightly on being up front about funding streams and publishing pipelines for the country in question, would be so much easier for a U.K. vacancy! But that has at least made me reflect on how I might position myself as more internationally-facing in the future.
I would be fresh out of the PhD into this role, so I'm not holding my breath even for shortlisting - but hey, you got to be in it to win it!

Lifeofpies Mon 16-Oct-17 19:40:02

Going against the grain a bit, but I prefer applicants to spell thing out against criteria. Our uni (UK, RG) ask for cover letter and CV only, with no guidance on content. As we use the criteria for shortlisting, it makes it a quicker job when trawling through tonnes of applications (senior lecturer here, but mainly recruit research staff). Good luck Perpetual!

ManInTheMoonMarigold Tue 17-Oct-17 02:11:20

Like Lifeofpies we use criteria for shortlisting. HR makes us use a spreadsheet giving each candidate a score of 0, 1, 2 or 3 against each of the shortlisting criteria mentioned in the job spec. For some jobs, we will have over 50 candidates to score against 10+ criteria, so I also prefer people to spell things out clearly.

You don't have to use headings or bullet points, but for the system we use, you do need to be clear how you meet each of the criteria as we can't make assumptions or read between the lines. Someone scoring 3, 3, 3, 3, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0 (13 points) because they haven't addressed all the criteria could not be chosen for interview over someone who scored 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1 (18 points) even though the person with 3s might in reality be a stronger candidate. If we really like you, we might try to bring up the 1 to something higher, but there is nothing we can do with the 0s because the information is just not there.

user918273645 Tue 17-Oct-17 08:52:51

I think it is almost impossible to give OP a good answer without knowing research field and country.

In my own subject we couldn't care less about the cover letter. You will only be shortlisted if you are internationally leading in your research field i.e. most likely we already know your work.

Having sat on many appointments panels outside the UK, I would also say that unlike in the UK they simply don't have to use HR imposed scoring of criteria to shortlist - the shortlisting is done by academics on the basis of reading applications and recommendation letters. Again those with the strongest research reputation are likely to head the shortlist.

Presumably OP is not in a STEM subject such as mine though - because no fresh PhD would bother to apply for a permanent position in my subject. (Postdoc experience is always required, usually 5+ years to be competitive.)

fuffapster Thu 23-Nov-17 02:15:04

I read somewhere that cover letters are frequently very generic/boring (e.g. 'I am very excited about the opportunity to join your leading research institution...').

So the advice was to think more that you are writing an email, so as to keep the 'voice' a bit more lively

user1471134011 Sun 03-Dec-17 11:06:06

OP is not possible to ring HR directly and discuss the scoring framework (ie is it similar to that outlined above 2,2,2 etc)?

When I have interviewed candidates for posts (education but not academia) we used the criteria as a guide to selection but also as a framework for interview questions.

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