Job Market Prep: The Cover Letter

It’s job market season, which means lots of stress…and lots of confusion. When I was an ABD, I found that one of the most frustrating parts of applying for jobs was the mystery that shrouded the application process–in particular, how to compose the application materials. You will find no mention whatsoever in any academic job ad that the words “cover letter” mean something fundamentally (and excruciatingly) different than they do in just about any other context, and yet your adherence to these informal norms is precisely what search committees will use to thin out their applicant pools. This is appalling–because knowing these informal rules has little to do with how brilliant, competent, or rigorous you are as a researcher, and a whole lot to do with how your PhD program has “professionalized” you. Ew.

So here’s a dose of myth-busting–my own take on the academic cover letter. Note: this is geared at R1 institutions that emphasize teaching. I’m absolutely aware that this is a small, and shrinking, sliver of the job market for academics. Nevertheless, there’s no reason that if you want to play this game, you shouldn’t have all the tools in your toolbox to go for it. Second note: I’m certainly not the only academic who wants to throw their hat into the “how to win at academia” ring, and there are many ways to go about writing a coherent cover letter. But having read hundreds of job applications across two different institutions, I find myself continually surprised when job candidates still make rookie mistakes that can easily be addressed…so I’m knowingly reinventing the wheel in the hopes to contribute even just a little bit to making the job market more about merit and less about the rules of professionalization. Here it goes.

Your cover letter should be a two-page, single-spaced document that introduces you to search committees. Your dissertation—assuming you are ABD—should be the centerpiece of this document. You want to dazzle the committee with your methodological prowess, your clarity of theoretical thought, and your downright, just-plain-interesting findings. You also want to be sure to highlight CV gems—awards, press, publication placements in top journals. However, the cover letter is not your opportunity to simply present your CV in narrative prose; instead, you should be giving the committee a sense of who you are as an intellectual and what kinds of questions fascinate you. In other words, you want to create a trajectory, spelling out where you are (the dissertation and its place in your intellectual growth), where you’ve been (your master’s paper and any other publications/projects leading up to the dissertation), and where you are going (future plans for the dissertation, future projects, as well as your future with the department you are seeking to join). This trajectory is key because it assures the committee not only that you have the intellectual chops to get hired but that you have the skills to develop the intellectual chops to get tenure. Here’s one possible outline:

Paragraph 1: Introduce yourself, your methods, and your areas. The latter should map onto recognized subfields within sociology or criminology. Explain the core thread that links up your research—and keeps you up at night. It might be very hard to get this in a pithy, succinct statement, but that’s all the more reason to get this clarity upfront in your opening statement.

Paragraph 2: Introduce your dissertation, including your methods, your core question, and your case. Set up the reader to be amazed by your sociological prowess but also by the intrinsic intrigue of what you are studying.

Paragraph 3: Flesh out the key contributions of your dissertation, recognizing that a) you need to link these up to existing debates/subfields so that your sociological contribution is clear; b) you must make sure that people outside of these subfields can still appreciate what you are contributing; and c) you need to deliver what you promise—e.g., if you are applying for a job in the sociology of race and start your cover letter by recognizing this as one of your key subfields, you absolutely must highlight this contribution. If you have already published out of the dissertation and/or received recognition for it, be sure to integrate that seamlessly into this paragraph.

Paragraph 4: Map out your intellectual history. This is your chance to tell the story of how the different pieces of your CV fit together. Does your dissertation represent an extension of your Master’s paper? Did it grow out of questions you wanted to address in the Master’s paper but couldn’t answer without more immersive qualitative methods? Is it yet another way to cut at a gnawing question that you’ve addressed in different projects? You need to help the committee see the links across your work so that they know they are hiring not a project but a person—a person capable of executing projects and having a ‘tenure-able’ trajectory post-hire. You want to make sure to point out where you’ve placed peer-reviewed articles and/or any awards and recognition you’ve received.

Paragraph 5: By this point in the letter, you’ll probably be on your second page—and you’ll want to mention teaching. Your teaching paragraph is critical for signaling that you can pull off the balance of teaching and research required for you to survive the pre-tenure years at your new institution. Your teaching paragraph must communicate a) a very brief and pithy statement summarizing your overall teaching philosophy, b) the connection between teaching and your research, c) the courses you have already prepared, d) the courses you are ready to teach, and e) your approach to mentoring grad and undergrad students. Note: you should include at least one “service” course—methods, theory, intro to sociology.

Paragraph 6: You’ll want one last substantive paragraph—a short one, no doubt—that shows that you’ve actually thought about what it would be like to work in the department you want to join. You might reference faculty specialties or institutes on campus, and as you do so, you should succinctly explain both how you’d benefit and contribute to the campus culture. This is a great opportunity to mention your future research—and how this department would provide an ideal place to pursue it. Depending on how much space you have and how much you can say about your future research trajectory, you can split this off into a separate paragraph. But don’t get ahead of yourself—your first priority should be to publish out of your dissertation (and turning it into a book, if that’s your bag), and you should very clearly state that in your letter, detailing how and where you plan to publish.

Paragraph 7: This is the farewell paragraph—one that alerts the reader to the other material on the way and provides a short closing. Don’t dwell on this.

Obviously, this is just an outline—you don’t need to adhere to it strictly, or at all. But it does give you a sense of the ground you need to cover. And note: if you are applying to a teaching-oriented position, for example, you’ll want to flip the letter so that teaching, rather than research, applies. But the basic ideas still apply. Good luck, everyone.

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