Tips for job applicants: your cover letter is too vague and long

What do you study? I simply want a few words first off that tell me what you do. You would not believe the number of letters that give me paragraphs on everything ecological, evolutionary, bioinformatic, transformative, and biodiverse and yet don’t tell me what you do. I have to turn to the publications where I will discover that all your publications are on unicorns and all you have done on them is Fst.

I do not spend longer on longer cover letters. I simply read them less carefully. It is only fair. If the cover letter is a single side of one page, I will read every word, feeling happy the whole time.

What should you put there? Well, there are a lot of ways to structure it, but one of my own wonderful people hits it perfectly.

First say you are applying for the job and name it. We might have two open positions (we don’t, actually). Say where you are now and where you have been.

Second tell us what you do. You study this, this, and this conceptual area, using this organism, these techniques and approaches. For example, I am interested in the adaptive significance and sexual selection of horns, something I study in unicorns using developmental, genomic, and behavioral approaches.

Third, tell us two or three really cool things you have figured out each in a sentence or two. I won’t give you a unicorn example. You are getting tired of unicorns.

You could mention the future direction your research will go, in a sentence.

Mention teaching and advising enthusiastically, preferably by telling us what you have taught, whom you have mentored, and some things you might teach, though we are likely to have our own ideas on this, so indicate you are flexible.

Tell us who will be writing your letters and give their emails.

Close with some general enthusiasm about this position. Make sure you get the right university.

You can do this in 350 words or fewer. Please. But if you didn’t, I won’t consciously count it against you. I understand you are still learning. Wait for a later post on exactly how I read a file.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to Tips for job applicants: your cover letter is too vague and long

  1. Pingback: Useful links related to tenure track job searches in ecology | Dynamic Ecology

  2. Pingback: How do you get an academic job in biology? | Sociobiology

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