Writing the Ph.D. Cover Letter

It always comes down to old-fashioned letter-writing.

Ph.D. students in political science, international relations, and other social sciences dread writing cover letters for their job applications. As part of a panel in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst political science department, I put together some notes about what to do in assembling these. This is aimed at Ph.D. students (ABDs) and very recent graduates.

Here’s the key takeaways:

  • The goal of the cover letter is to move you from “reject” to “consider”
  • A great cover letter can’t save a weak application, but a weak cover letter could sabotage a strong application
  • You must demonstrate your fit for the position (a function of, first, the job ad and, second, the institution type)

The goal of the cover letter

In the entirety of your application, the cover letter is your only chance to tell an overarching narrative about yourself and why you fit the job.

  • Other parts of the application will let you discuss e.g. teaching and research trajectories, but those do not add up to a complete package about yourself for this job.
  • The narrative needs to be exciting, compelling, and demonstrate how you fit the needs of the institution and the position
  • When the search committee does their initial reviews, members will spend less than five minutes per packet. Your cover letter and CV (sometimes only the CV!) will get attention in this round. The search committee’s task is to cut an overwhelming number of applicants into a manageable number. They are looking for reasons to ding you, not to save you—there are more than enough fish in the pond. Demonstrate in the cover letter that you merit further consideration in later rounds of deliberation.

The structure of the cover letter

The structure is a very simple formula:

  • Begin with a quick introduction of yourself and list the job to which you are applying. State your qualifications in summary.
  • Describe your major research project (which will normally be your presentation). Now is not the time to be humble, but don’t bore anyone. Just stick to the highlights and remember that at least one member of the search committee won’t be in your field (much less your specialty). Make sure to mention publications or publication plans.
  • Describe your next or secondary research project.
  • Talk about your relevant teaching experience. Describe two or three courses you have taught or could teach, including one introductory course, one seminar, and (if relevant) one graduate seminar.
  • Customize your letter to the needs of the department and college. Show you know where you’re applying and why. Make sure to list the college name correctly.

Keep this all to two pages, but go no smaller than 11-point text.

The limits of the cover letter

The cover letter isn’t magic. It can’t make up for flaws or gaps in the rest of your application.

  • If you don’t have publications (or credible evidence of forthcoming publications) at a research-oriented job, you will not be in contention regardless of how good your cover letter is
  • If you don’t have teaching experience (not including TA work), the bulk of institutions will disregard you (if you’re competitive for a job at Harvard, you can disregard this; but if you’re competitive for a job at Harvard, you aren’t reading this anyway)
  • The goal of the cover letter is, minimally, to make sure that the hiring committee knows that you have research potential, teaching experience, and the ability to Google their institution and department. Maximally (and this should be your goal), it’s to make them excited about your bold new research (or teaching) contributions

Mass-customizing your research letter

  • The cover letter should reflect institutional type. For teaching-focused positions, go heavier on teaching experience and competence; for research-oriented positions (including top SLACs), stress research potential and evidence of research success. Some people think that you should adjust the order of the teaching and research sections of the letter to reflect institutional priorities; others disagree. Whichever you choose, you should spend
  • The cover letter should address the specific requirements of the job ad. If they are an R1 but need someone to cover Introduction to Basket-Weaving, make sure you mention the Intro to Basket Weaving. If they are a liberal-arts college and need a college debate coach, talk about your debate coaching skills. Remember: they’re looking for reasons to cut you, not to love you, so you need to show you meet their qualifications.
  • Customize your cover letter just enough so that it’s not cookie-cutter, but don’t spend too much time on this. People talk about spending hours and days customizing these things; just spend enough time to know what the department is doing and suggest some possible connections you could make within the department and to relevant centers and similar non-departmental organizations on campus.
  • PROOFREAD YOUR COVER LETTER. HAVE A FRIEND PROOFREAD IT. PAY SOMEONE TO PROOFREAD IT. THEN PROOFREAD IT AGAIN.