Criteria for Success
- You demonstrate scientific accomplishments and scholastic achievement.
- You clearly define key aspects of your future research program.
- You differentiate yourself from colleagues, e.g., advisors, as well as other faculty candidates.
- You establish what your niche will be in the department.
- Your excitement and passion are clearly displayed.
- Critical contact information: name, degree, current position, email, and phone number
- Your professional profile or webpage (e.g., LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Academia.edu)
- Date, department, and university name and address
- Salutation – “Dear [Faculty Search Committee / Department Head],”
- Brief introduction – Display excitement. State specific terms related to the faculty position, department and university. For example, if you are applying to a “cluster” hire that includes faculty across multiple departments, such as Systems and Synthetic Biology, then state this directly. State the position you are applying for (i.e. tenure-track appointment, assistant faculty position).
- Strong opening statement – Declare succinctly your targeted research areas. Establish your foundation on which you will base your research. Emphasize novel interfaces and applications within your proposed research.
- Scientific achievements – Summarize successes highlighted in your CV that demonstrate the breadth and depth of scientific expertise. Demonstrate your productivity, as well as key scientific or technical strengths with supporting details.
- Motivation & impact – State areas of expertise and indicate specific aims of your future research program. Clearly describe how these aims align with current research initiatives in the department or university.
- Teaching & mentorship – Highlight your experience in the classroom and as a research mentor, and service in the profession or community.
- Wrap-up – “Additional documents are enclosed. Please feel free to contact me if supplemental information is required.”
- Follow-up & thank you – Be clear that you expect to hear back (e.g., I look forward to your reply). Thank the committee for their time and consideration.
- Closure – Maintain professionalism. Sincerely, Best regards, and Kindest regards are appropriate closing phrases. Include your electronic signature.
Identify Your Purpose
The faculty cover letter, as with cover letters for other positions, is the first part of your application to be read by the Faculty Search Committee. Your cover letter may be the only part anyone reads if the Search Committee doesn’t like what they see in your cover letter. Therefore, the primary purpose of a faculty cover letter is to capture attention and generate interest among members of the specific department (i.e. Faculty Search Committee) for which you are applying.
If you make it over this first hurdle, the cover letter should then serve as a letter of introduction. The faculty cover letter connects all other application material, such as the Research and Teaching Statements, CV, and References. Brainstorm approaches to reiterate important points and pivotal themes between these documents in a complementary and cohesive manner.
Analyze Your Audience
Knowing what your audience is looking for will help tailor your application.
Searches for new hires may focus on specific research areas (e.g., nanoscale nuclear materials, systems engineering, reactor neutronics, nuclear non-proliferation and detection). In this case, you should customize your application to highlight your work in the specified research area.
Alternatively, departments may concentrate solely on the best candidates regardless of pre-selected scientific disciplines, in which case you have more flexibility in how you present yourself.
In addition, academic employment opportunities differ based on whether positions are tenure-tracked or require teaching, and the type of institution (University, Research Institute, National-Lab affiliation). Understanding the responsibilities associated with each of these positions will allow you to include only information relevant to the specific position while not wasting valuable space on irrelevant information.
If the Faculty Search Committee selects you for an interview, keep in mind that your cover letter will be read by the Department Head (or Chair), College Dean, professors, and staff of multiple departments and colleges.
Advocate for yourself
The Faculty CL emphasizes your past and present academic career, while promoting your future potential. For many of us, exuding confidence in an open letter of introduction is challenging, but you have to believe in yourself before you can convince others to believe in you!
State your pedigree
In academia, the institutions and departments you have attended and the advisors for whom you have worked do matter. State this information in Scientific Achievements. Inform your audience if you have co-taught classes with distinguished professors in Teaching & Mentorship or emphasize existing collaborations in the Motivation & Impact section.
Quantify your productivity
Academia identifies scientific contributions by the following conventions: number of publications, quality, and impact. In addition to research articles, noteworthy contributions may also include opinion articles, book chapters, or your role as a journal reviewer. Emphasize alternative sources of scientific communication (and funding) such as distinguished merit-based fellowships. Engineering students are likely to be co-authors of patents; disclose this information.
Describe your future potential
Beyond reiterating your past accomplishments, you must also show you are prepared to handle the future challenges of being a Principal Investigator. By far, the most difficult paragraph to write in the faculty cover letter focuses on the Motivation & Impact of your future research program. Clearly articulate the vision of your future research program and describe how your leadership will facilitate an environment of scientific and teaching excellence. Demonstrate expert understanding of your field, and confidently state your qualifications as a leader in research, educator, and citizen of the university.
Define your niche
Your application will be one out of hundreds. It is crucial that you differentiate yourself and your research program from other candidates, as well as previous or current advisor(s). Ask yourself what you will do that is unique compared to any of your past or future colleagues. How you will uniquely fit into the department (i.e. your niche)?
The Motivation & Impact section provides an opportunity to concisely define your niche. State specific aims of your proposed research that expand upon the department’s core strengths, while simultaneously diversifying the university’s research portfolio (e.g., emerging research fields, state-of-the-art technologies, novel applications). Carefully consider research centers, core facilities, affiliated institutes or medical centers at the university. In many cases, campus- or state-wide research initiatives may complement your research program. Finally, consider “non-traditional experiences.” Have you previously worked in industry or consulted? Would these former and future relationships lead to additional funding for your lab? If so, suggest more provocative avenues of additional funding. It may no longer suffice to focus primarily on traditional grants sponsored by government agencies. Think of creative alternatives and diversify your future financial portfolio, which, in turn, differentiates your research program from colleagues.
Finally, you will more than likely apply to multiple departments and universities. Therefore, your niche will change for every application!
Make important information concise and identifiable
Again, your application is one of hundreds. Helping the Faculty Search Committee easily identify important information in your cover letter will only improve your chances of moving forward in the hiring process. A faculty cover letter should not exceed 1 page so you must present your qualifications to the Faculty Search Committee in a concise manner.
Maximize impact of words. When it’s accurate, use verbs that illustrate impact over verbs that make you sound passive. Aim for verbs that are more specific to the actual contribution you made. In addition, minimize redundancy and eliminate verbose sentence structure. For every sentence, challenge yourself to remove as many words as possible without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Use keywords. Consider your audience and context when using scientific jargon, as well as connotations and vernacular. Keywords cited by grant-funding agencies, easily recognizable by any faculty member, should be included in relevant sections of your faculty cover letter.
Maintain white space in abundance. In terms of formatting, inclusion of vast areas of white space is easy on the eye while providing a precise transition from one section to the next.
Crafting your faculty application is a process that will continue indefinitely.
- Devote time to your faculty application, and work in consistent increments over the course of weeks not days.
- Take time to brainstorm, reflect, write, edit, critique, and revise accordingly.
- Seek guidance in terms of technical content, emphasis of soft skills, as well as grammatical improvements and aesthetics from colleagues and friends.
Above all else, remember that the faculty application is a creative process. Enjoy it!
This content was adapted by the NSE Comm Lab from an article originally created by the Biological Engineering Communication Lab.