How to Write a Winning Cover Letter for Academic Roles

Oliver Drake

Oliver is recruitment specialist who specialise in recruiting to academic, research and university administration roles. Oliver has gained, over 20 year resourcing for the higher education in the UK and worldwide.

Preparing an exceptional Cover Letter is often the first step to getting invited for an interview for an academic position. In fact, the Cover Letter is your chance to stand out amongst many other candidates applying for the same role, so it is well-worth investing your time in getting it right. If you want to learn how to prepare a winning Cover Letter for academic roles, check out this example Cover Letter of John Smith who successfully applied for a Senior Lecturer in Business position. John’s Cover Letter along with the advice below will help you understand how you can prepare an outstanding Cover Letter that really makes your experience stand out.

STEP 1: Impress your prospective employer with your introduction

You only get one chance to introduce yourself to your prospective employer in the first paragraph of your Cover Letter. The way you do it will determine whether they will continue reading your Cover Letter or move your application to the “Rejected” pile. There are three things that an outstanding first paragraph of a Cover Letter must do: explain how your learned about the job, provide basic information about your experience, and briefly state why you want to work for your prospective employer.

How you learned about the job

By stating the various ways in which you researched the position you show your enthusiasm for the role to your prospective employer. These can include reading through the job description, analysing the website materials, researching the university in various rankings and the press as well as speaking directly to one or more members of the department. For example, John mentioned in his CV that he not only read the job description posted on the recruitment site but also spoke with the academic staff from the School of Business at the University of London, where he sent in his application:

It has recently come to my attention that your School of Business is currently recruiting for a Senior Lecturer position. I have been following the work of your department and have spoken to your academic staff in the past. Based on the information they shared as well as the details included in the job description you posted, I believe that my expertise in the field as well as my teaching skills could be an asset to the University of London.

Basic information about your experience

The first paragraph is also a great place to sell your experience to your prospective employer and gain their attention. Your Cover Letter will be accompanied by your CV, so there is no need to mention here every single detail about your work history. But you should definitely include in the first paragraph a highlight of the most relevant pieces of information. As you will see below, John mentioned in this part of his Cover Letter that he has 4+ years of experience in university lecturing, that he was awarded several research grants, and that he has published extensively in academic journals in the past:

I have over 4 years of lecturing experience in business-related subjects from the University of Leeds. During that time I have received several research grants to expand my expertise, including the UK Research and Innovation Grant 2019 (£20,000), the UK Department for Business Research Grant 2018 (£10,000) and the Business and Innovation Research Fund 2018 (£5,000). I have also published extensively in academic journals such as the Journal of Management and Entrepreneurship, the Journal of Business Research and the Journal of Business Ethics.

Why you want to work for your prospective employer

In the last part of the first paragraph you should explain briefly why you are drawn to this specific role and why you would like to work for this particular employer. Here you can call on the information you researched online or obtained when speaking with the academic staff of your prospective employer. You should mention at least two to three factors which are very specific to the role you are applying for and cannot be mistaken for generic information that could apply to several different roles. For example, John mentioned in his Cover Letter that his prospective employer – the University of London – is a renowned academic institution, that the University’s School of Business has a very demanding academic environment as well as that the lecturers at the School engage in frequent collaboration:

I was attracted to the role which you offer for several reasons. Firstly, it has been my career goal to relocate to London and work for one of the top universities in the city. The University of London is one of the most renowned academic institutions in the United Kingdom and I would be proud to contribute to the high standard of your work. After speaking with some of the staff members from your School of Business I understand that the academics are required to handle extensive teaching duties while at the same time contributing to the research and publication outputs of the School. I find this type of demanding academic environment very stimulating. I have also learned by talking to one of your staff members that the teaching team are frequently asked to collaborate on delivering new modules. I am very keen to share my professional experience with colleagues and work closely together as part of a team.

This part of your Cover Letter is also a very good place to address anything which your prospective employer could potentially see as a disadvantage. For example, John prevented his prospective employer from raising doubts about his application for a job in London while being based in Leeds by explaining in the second sentence of the above extract that it has always been his career goal to relocate to London.

STEP 2: Assure them that you can take on the responsibilities

Once you have gained the interest of your prospective employer in the first paragraph of your Cover Letter, your job in the second paragraph is to show them that you read the job advert thoroughly and believe that your experience prepared you well for taking on the responsibilities listed in the advert. The responsibilities listed in the advert for the position that John applied for were as follows: Designing curriculum content and materials for selected modules, Delivering lectures and running module assessments, Providing assignment feedback and assisting students in their learning process, and Supervising less experienced colleagues in running seminars and tutorials. You will see below that in the second paragraph of his Cover Letter John mentioned each of those responsibilities and provided examples of how his previous experience prepared him for taking on the new role. Now, you might have heard of the STAR technique for answering interview questions, which asks you to explain a specific situation, task, activity and result that show you are competent to deal with certain types of situations. Your task here is similar. The only difference is that you will have to include a much shorter version of the STAR approach in relation to each responsibility mentioned in the job description. Let’s call it the “Responsibility-Evidence” approach. Here are some examples included by John in this section of his Cover Letter.

Responsibility 1: Designing curriculum content and materials for selected modules

In order to demonstrate his ability to take on the first responsibility of designing curriculum content and materials for selected modules John called on his experience from his previous position as a Lecturer at the University of Leeds:

For example, your job description specifies that the candidate who will be offered the position will have to effectively design curriculum content and materials for selected modules. As part of my previous lecturing appointment at the University of Leeds I have independently designed the syllabus, teaching materials and assessments of courses delivered at undergraduate and Master’s levels. I would be excited to use my skills at the University of London to develop any modules that are within my areas of expertise, as well as to assist in the development of modules by my colleagues.

By explaining exactly what types of courses John designed in the past and at what level (undergraduate and Master’s) he gave his prospective employer a good understanding of what he is capable of in terms of module design.

Responsibility 2: Providing assignment feedback and assisting students in their learning process

John showed to his prospective employer that he can take on the second responsibility of providing assignment feedback and assisting students in their learning process by – again – mentioning the experience he gained in his previous position:

According to the job description which you posted, as part of my role at the University of London I would be required to provide assignment feedback and assist students in their learning process. At the University of Leeds I was regularly required to coach students in their learning process during seminars and individual sessions by providing formative and summative feedback. I would be excited to use my supportive and gentle approach to assist your students with proceeding smoothly through their courses.

John emphasised that because he was regularly required to provide formative and summative assignment feedback he developed a “supportive and gentle” approach to dealing with students, which he could use as a Senior Lecturer at the School of Business. This showed to his prospective employer that he is used to coping with student enquiries and requests for more support and feedback, and will be able to do so effectively.

STEP 3: Show them that you have the right attitude

Similar to the second paragraph of your Cover Letter, in the third paragraph you will need to present some evidence of why you are the perfect candidate for the role. This time you will not be addressing the responsibilities of the role but rather the approach/attitude required for the role, as described in the job advert. For each characteristic you will need to provide evidence of why you believe you have that specific characteristic. Let’s call it the “Characteristic-Evidence” approach. For example, when applying for the Senior Lecturer in Business role John had to prove in his Cover Letter that he is: Sociable and able to build industry connections, Collaborative and able to work well as part of a team, Organised and able to meet deadlines, as well as Able to regularly share his research outputs in a professional manner at academic conferences. Here are some examples of how John managed to demonstrate these characteristics based on his previous experience:

Characteristic 1: Sociable and able to build industry connections

John chose the perfect example to show that he is social and able to build industry connections. He recalled his Secretary positions at Institute of Business Management and Research and the Academy of Management, explaining that due to those positions he is in regular contact with professionals, entrepreneurs and business owners:

For instance, you specified that you are looking for a person who is sociable and can build industry connections outside of academia. Throughout my career I have been serving as the Secretary of the Institute of Business Management and Research and the Academy of Management. Both positions regularly enable me to network extensively with professionals, entrepreneurs and business owners. I would be more than happy to represent the University of London while networking in the future.

By mentioning that he was offered positions of authority in industry-run organisations related to business John provided the best proof to his prospective employer that he is indeed sociable and able to make connections with industry professionals easily.

Characteristic 2: Organised and able to meet deadlines

Staying organised and being able to meet deadlines was another characteristic listed in the job advert of the Senior Lecturer in Business position for which John applied. John mentioned in his Cover Letter that he relied on those skills when heading a recent research project funded by the UK Research and Innovation Grant and then described the success of the project, i.e. it was delivered on time, by consistently achieving the set goals:

As per your requirements for the position, I am also able to meet deadlines and stay organised – skills which I relied on when heading several externally-funded research projects. In particular, as part of my most recent project funded by the UK Research and Innovation Grant 2019 I had to regularly achieve the set goals and report on them to the grant donors, while coordinating the work of two Research Assistants hired for the project. The final outcome was delivered on time and I was praised by the grant donors for consistently meeting the deadlines. I would love to use my organisation skills as a member of your School of Business.

By choosing a specific project to call upon John made it easier for his prospective employer to imagine how he works and in what circumstances he can meet deadlines and stay organised. Such an approach is much more convincing than simply stating that you are organised and able to meet deadlines on a regular basis without providing specific evidence. This rule applies to discussing all characteristics in your Cover Letter. The more specific you are about projects and situations in which you demonstrated a particular characteristic, the more likely you are to land yourself an interview.

 

Further resources:

Michael Harrison, How to Get Hired: An Insider’s Guide to Applications, Interviews and Getting the Job of Your Dreams (Independently Published, 2018)

John Lees, How to Get a Job You Love 2019 (McGraw-Hill Education, 2018)

Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job (Three Rivers Press, 2015)

Sarah Shearman, Five ways to get your CV and cover letter noticed (The Guardian, 1 June 2017): https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2017/jun/01/five-ways-to-get-your-cv-and-cover-letter-noticed

Johanna Greeson, From PhD to Professor: Advice for Landing Your First Academic Position (THE MUSE, 2020): https://www.themuse.com/advice/from-phd-to-professor-advice-for-landing-your-first-academic-position

Rogier Creemers, A Machiavellian guide to getting ahead in academia (Times Higher Education, 21 December 2017): https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/machiavellian-guide-getting-ahead-academia

Hannah Alpert-Abrams, How to apply for academic jobs in 2020 (Medium, 21 May 2020): https://medium.com/@halperta/how-to-apply-for-academic-jobs-in-2020-e4fac699b20b

Jack Kelly, How To Really Read A Job Description Advertisement (Forbes, 18 March 2018): https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2018/05/14/how-to-really-read-a-job-description-advertisement/#570538d5f4ff

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