by Stephen Gordon* *completed PhD in 2013 and has held numerous postdoctoral positions and student support roles; worked as an Advisor in the University of Manchester Careers Service since 2016
Writing covering letters for academic positions can be a tricky business. The structure and format of such documents are quite different from the template used for non-academic job applications. The content of such letters is often determined by what type of position you are applying for – teaching roles will naturally require a demonstration of a different set of skills than jobs aimed solely at research. Even the term ‘covering letter’ is somewhat imprecise, and does not cover the wide variety of ways in which employers want you to present your data. Most university job sites will demand a separate document to be uploaded alongside an academic CV (or at least a text box where you can copy and paste your statement); others, however, will require you to answer a series of questions based directly on the essential job criteria, with the option (not always guaranteed) of uploading an additional justification letter. With this in mind, it is not feasible to simply create a template document and substitute the name of the university and job title every time a new position comes along. Each covering letter must be tailored to a specific job. There are, however, certain rules that apply to all types of application.
One of the biggest differences between academic and non-academic covering letters is the length of the statement. Whether uploaded directly or copy/pasted into a text box, a two-page document is the target length to aim for. Anything longer and you run the risk of alienating the recruitment panel. If the online application consists of a series of set questions, the length of your answers should reflect the relative importance of the criterion. As a general rule the questions are often listed in a hierarchy of importance. The first question may ask you to ‘demonstrate research expertise in an area that complement and enhance the department’s research strategy’, which would require two or three substantial paragraphs to truly make your case. By contrast, one of the later questions may ask you to ‘demonstrate your ability to prioritise workloads in order to meet deadlines’; here, a single (relevant!) example is probably sufficient. Just like an exam, remember to answer the question and not simply go off on an unrelated tangent.
Academic job adverts can contain a daunting number of criteria in the person specification. Trying to address everything within two pages can seem like a thankless task. While some of the points can be answered in the CV and other parts of the application form (e.g. most forms give ample space in the ‘previous work experience section’ to discuss the relevant skills you’ve accrued in the past), the covering letter/personal statement ideally needs to include the following items:
- Research interests and expertise: Give a brief overview of your research experiences, areas of interest, and details of any outputs, such as publications, current projects, and intentions for future projects and grant capture (i.e. show the recruitment panel that you are working through a definitive plan of action and have a potential to be REF-able)
- Teaching Background: As well demonstrating your experiences of delivering seminars and lectures (and, perhaps, curricula design), provide evidence of any pastoral responsibilities you may have had – e.g. mentoring, careers advice – through which you can highlight your commitment to improving the student experience. A choice quote or two from the National Student Survey feedback would not go amiss here.
- Why you will be a good fit for the department? For fixed-term lecturing positions (e.g. maternity cover), look through the course list and make explicit connections between the content of the modules you’ll be leading and your own research and teaching expertise. Highlighting the potential for collaboration with departmental colleagues is a requisite for long term roles. More widely, does the school possess resources that are integral to your overall research strategy? Is there a particularly relevant archive, heritage institution, or industrial partner located in the vicinity of the university? If so, provide details.
- Additional Skills and Expertise: Ideally, the final section should be reserved for demonstrating some of the more amorphous skills listed on the job description, including public engagement experiences, conference or seminar organisation, working in teams (e.g. acting as research assistant for your PhD supervisor), and membership of relevant professional organisations. In some respects the final section should be a ‘mopping up’ exercise to address any significant information gaps.
In my experience of being shortlisted for interviews, academic covering letters/statements can eschew the formatting used in non-academic applications, especially if the data is going to be copied into a text box. That is, you don’t need to include the sender’s or recipient’s address, nor the date of composition. For letters uploaded as a two-page document, there is the option of keeping the salutation (‘Dear Sir/Madam’) and the sign off and signature (‘yours faithfully, Stephen’), but bear in mind that such formalities reduce the available space. Other formatting tricks include expanding the margins of the Word document from ‘normal’ to ‘narrow’, playing with the line spacing (e.g. use 6pt rather that 10pt between the lines), and using a smaller font. By this I don’t mean using font size 10 (best stick with size 11 or 12) but choosing, say, Times New Roman or Calibri over Arial or Verdana. The ultimate aim, of course, is to maximise the amount of information that appears on the page whilst ensuring the document is as professional-looking as possible.
These, then, have just been a few small tips to help you along. At the end of this day it’s about finding the right balance between content, format, and structure.