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Academic Phd Cover Letter

Academic Cover Letters for Statistical Science Faculty Positions

Academic job cover letters are field-specific, and many online resources are geared toward the humanities and wet lab sciences. I've had quite a few trainees ask me for advice on writing (bio)statistics cover letters.

Here are my thoughts, but I also always encourage trainees to seek out samples from their peers who were successful on the job market. Additionally, it is a good idea to have a faculty mentor read all of your materials, including your cover letter. 

General Comments

For many search committees, the most important piece of your application is your CV.  Therefore, while your cover letter should be professional and free of typos, don't overthink it.

Length of one page for fresh PhDs and postdocs.

I generally do not think it's a good idea to name specific faculty you'd plan to collaborate with in your letter. You're unlikely to be familiar with department dynamics, and are more likely to accidentally demonstrate your lack of knowledge (e.g., naming a research inactive faculty member) than help yourself. Some faculty also think this makes candidates look too much like they are still graduate students and not an independent investigator.

It does not matter if your cover letter is on letterhead.

Structure

These are my suggestions for cover letter structure at research-intensive universities.

Paragraph 1: Tell what job you are applying for (they may have multiple hires that year), your current position and advisor if applicable, plus where you got your doctoral training and with whom, if you're not currently a doctoral student. Summary sentence about your work and why you'd fit into their department.

Paragraph 2: Describe briefly some of your key research projects. What did you do that was important to the field? Did it contribute to a substantive area as well?

Paragraph 3: Have you won national awards, impressive university citations, or had unique honors? Mention those here. Brought in grant funding? Also here.

Paragraph 4: Briefly summarize teaching experience. Might be only 1-2 sentences. If the position does not have a teaching component you may decide to leave this out.

Paragraph 5: Short closing paragraph. Potentially list who will be sending reference letters.

If you are applying to teaching-focused institutions, paragraph 2 will instead highlight your teaching and pedagogical accomplishments. Study each university to see how much their faculty emphasize research, and thus, how much your cover letter should focus on research. You also may want to link how you will involve undergraduate students in your research.

RELATED:Academic CVs for Statistical Science Faculty Positions

Originally Posted: September 8, 2015

There's plenty of examples on the Web of the basic format a cover letter should take. There's a good template here on page 23 from Harvard. (Make sure to do it in TeX if applying for a math or comp. sci. PhD.)

Otherwise, my own personal advice ...

What not to do

The most common mistake I have found in cover letters is that they are too generic. Either they could have been written by anyone ("I have a keen interest in science. I was always curious as a ...") or could have been written for any programme ("I want to do a PhD as I believe I would be well-suited to a career in academia ..."). Keep such generic sentences to a minimum: the more of these a cover letter has, the more impersonal and unremarkable it is, and the more it leaves the suspicion that the same cover letter has been recycled for multiple applications and/or by multiple students.

Also, avoid hyperbole ("I am the best candidate for this position because ..."). You cannot know that you are the best candidate. This is an academic application, not an industrial one.

What to do

Make your cover letter personal, remarkable (i.e., stands out from other cover letters), specific to you and specific to the position at hand. Be enthusiastic. Be specific. Show that you've put thought into the position and why you are applying.

Relate your specific skill sets and previous experience to the programme you are applying for. Relate the content of specific aspects of your CV to the programme:

"During my masters, I enjoyed working on the topic of A, which relates to your programme [in this way]"

"I worked three summers at company B, where I gained experience in topic C ..."

"I visited your university in March last year and was impressed by ..."

"I read paper entitled 'D' published by your group at 'E' and was interested in ..."

"I recently published a paper 'F', which I believe compliments work by 'G' in your department on 'H' ..."

... and so forth.

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