Cover letter do’s and absolute don’ts

First impressions are very often the most lasting impressions so it is vital to get your cover letter right for your prospective employer.

The cover letter is the trailer, and your CV is the movie.” Professor Bill Sullivan

Professor Bill Sullivan, an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, has written a blog post about cover letters which resonates with many early career researchers. Bill sets out the structure of your cover letter with do’s and don’ts in each section. At the end of this post we also give you three open access links to example cover letters and CVs. These pages have been put together by staff and alumni at the University of California and Cornell University in the USA and Vitae, a UK charity dedicated to active career learning and development for researchers.

The opening paragraph of your letter
Make sure that you address the person who is making the selection with their correct title and the reason you are writing to them. If it is a committee then it is acceptable to address the letter to the committee, but if there is an individual contact make sure you use their name. There is nothing more off putting than receiving a letter addressed “Dear Sir/Madam”, or “To Whom It May Concern,” your application could be dismissed as generic and untailored for the position.

Next state why you are writing to them, the position you are applying for and the position you currently hold. It is helpful to your prospective employer to know when you would be available to take up your new position. Also briefly mention why you would be a suitable candidate for the role, but this is something that you will expand on in your next paragraph.

Second paragraph
Here is where you really need to ensure that you tailor your letter for the role. You may well have a template letter set up for all of your post doc applications. However, if you do not customise your letter for each role you will portray yourself as lazy and insincere. So ensure that you do the background research on your prospective new team, department and institution, as well as the project. Do be aware that in flattering your potential new colleagues too much, you may come across as light on talent or productivity.

This is the place where you can demonstrate to your prospective employer that you are both resourceful and thoughtful. Remember that they are hiring a future colleague. It is also here where you need to strike a balance with what you will bring to the role and what you can gain from the role.

Third paragraph
Here is where you should highlight your key achievements from your CV. Such as your most important paper, a grant or fellowship, or other notable honours (an award-winning presentation at a conference, for example). This is also where you would mention any experience in training others.

Closing paragraph
End your cover letter with the same professionalism you used at the opening. In the links to the sample cover letters there are several ways that you can sign off, dependent on the type of role you are applying for, and who you apply to, an individual or committee.

Format
• All this should fit onto a single page, at a push one and a half pages
• Use plain email stationary free of distracting backgrounds or pictures
• The font size should be 12-point maximum
• Choose a plain font such as Arial or Helvetica, definitely not Comic Sans
• Don’t use colour
• DO NOT USE ALL CAPS
• Ensure that there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes
• Avoid slang and attempts at humour
• Do not end your sentences with an exclamation point!

Click here for the full post.

Examples
Brilliant resources for example letters for faculty and postdoctoral positions.

University of California, USA
Cornell University, USA
Vitae, UK

Diana Hayes

A key part of the founding team, Diana is achievement-oriented, forward-thinking and strategic in creating a high-yielding network of interested academics, universities and related associations. Her research and content have created genuine engagement amongst both candidates and employers resulting in a network of 250,000 academics. Diana’s experience is in sales, marketing, event management and business development.


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