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Academic Job Cover Letter Uk

The classic counterpart to a CV, cover letters are standard in almost all job applications. Academic cover letters are typically allowed to be longer than in other sectors, but this latitude comes with its own pitfalls. For one, many cover letters are written as if they were simply a retelling in full sentences of everything on the CV. But this makes no sense. Selectors will have skimmed through your CV already, and they don't want to re-read it in prose form.

Instead, approach your cover letter as a short essay. It needs to present a coherent, evidence-based response to one question above all: why would you be an excellent hire for this position?

1) Start with a clear identity

Consider this sentence: "My research interests include Thomas Mann, German modernist literature, the body, the senses, Freudian psychoanalysis, queer theory and performativity, poststructuralism, and Derridean deconstruction." In my experience, this type of sentence is all too common. Who is this person? What do they really do? If I'm asking myself these questions after more than a few lines of your cover letter, then you've already fallen into the trap of being beige and forgettable.

To get shortlisted, you need to stand out. So, let's start as we mean to go on. Your opening paragraph should answer the following questions: What is your current job and affiliation? What's your research field, and what's your main contribution to it? What makes you most suitable for this post?

2) Evidence, evidence, evidence

It's generally accepted that, in job applications, we need to 'sell' ourselves, but how to do this can be a source of real anxiety. Where's the line between assertiveness, modesty and arrogance? The best way to guard against self-aggrandisement or self-abnegation is to focus on evidence. For example, "I am internationally recognised as an expert in my field" is arrogant, because you are making a bold claim and asking me to trust your account of yourself. By contrast, "I was invited to deliver a keynote talk at [top international conference]" is tangible and verifiable.

If you can produce facts and figures to strengthen your evidence, then your letter will have even more impact, for example "I created three protocols which improved reliability by N%. These protocols are now embedded in my group's experiments and are also being used by ABC". Remember that your readers need you to be distinctive and memorable.

Never cite the job description back at the selectors. If they have asked for excellent communication skills, you're going to need to do better than merely including the sentence "I have excellent communication skills." What is your evidence for this claim?

3) It's not an encyclopaedia

Because everything you say must be supported with evidence, you can't include everything. I find that many people are prone to an encyclopaedic fervour in their cover letters: they slavishly address each line of the job description, mention every single side project which they have on the go, every book chapter and review article they've ever written, and so on. Letters like this just end up being plaintive, excessively tedious, and ineffective.

Instead, show that you can distinguish your key achievements (eg. top publications, grants won, invited talks) from the purely nice-to-have stuff (eg. seminar series organised, review articles, edited collections). Put your highlights and best evidence in the letter – leave the rest to the CV.

4) Think holistically

There's no need to try to make each application document do all the work for you. That leads to repetitiveness. Let them work together holistically. If there's a research proposal, why agonise over a lengthy paraphrase of the proposal in the cover letter? If there's a teaching statement, why write three more teaching paragraphs in your letter as well? Give me a quick snapshot and signpost where the rest of the information can be found, for example: "My next project will achieve X by doing Y. Further details, including funding and publication plans related to the project, are included in my research proposal."

5) Two sides are more than enough

There is no reason why your cover letter should need to go beyond two sides. In fact, I've seen plenty of people get shortlisted for fellowships and lectureships using a cover letter that fitted on to a single side of A4. It can be done – without shrinking the font and reducing the margins, neither of which, I'm sorry to break it to you, is an acceptable ruse. Besides, please have some sympathy for your readers: they have jobs to do and lives to lead; they will appreciate pith.

6) Writing about your research: why, not what

In almost every conceivable kind of academic application, fellowships included, it's very high risk to write about your research in such a way that it can only be understood by an expert in your field. It's far safer to pitch your letter so that it's comprehensible to a broader readership. You need to show a draft of your letter to at least one person who, as a minimum requirement, is outside your immediate group or department. Do they understand your research? Crucially, do they understand its significance? Before the selectors can care about the details of what you do, you have to hook their interest with why you do it.

Bad: "I work on the lived experiences of LGB people in contemporary Britain [why?]. I look particularly at secondary school children [why?], and I use mixed methods to describe their experiences of homophobic bullying [vague]. My PhD is the first full-length study of this topic [so what?]."

Better: "In recent years, significant progress has been made towards equality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people living in Britain. However, young people aged 11-19 who self-identify as LGB are more likely to experience verbal and physical bullying, and they are at significantly greater risk of self-harm and suicide. In my dissertation, I conduct an ethnographic study of a large metropolitan secondary school, in order to identify the factors which lead to homophobic bullying, as well as policies and initiatives which LGB young people find effective in dealing with it."

7) Mind the gap

Be aware that "nobody has studied this topic before" is a very weak justification for a project. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but academia does not. Does it even matter that no previous scholarship exists on this precise topic? Perhaps it never merited all that money and time. What are we unable to do because of this gap? What have we been getting wrong until now? What will we be able to do differently once your project has filled this void?

8) Writing about teaching: avoid list-making

Avoid the temptation of list-making here, too. You don't need to itemise each course you have taught, because I've already read this on your CV, and there's no need to detail every module you would teach at the new department. Similarly, you don't need to quote extensively from student feedback in order to show that you're a great teacher; this smacks of desperation.

A few examples of relevant teaching and the names of some courses you would be prepared to teach will suffice. You should also give me an insight into your philosophy of teaching. What do students get out of your courses? What strategies do you use in your teaching, and why are they effective?

9) Be specific about the department

When explaining why you want to join the department, look out for well-intentioned but empty statements which could apply to pretty much any higher education institution in the world. For example, "I would be delighted to join the department of X, with its world-leading research and teaching, and I see this as the perfect place to develop my career." This won't do.

Deploy your research skills, use the internet judiciously, and identify some specifics. Are there initiatives in the department to which you could contribute, e.g. research clusters, seminar series, outreach events? What about potential collaborators (remembering to say what's in it for them)? What about interdisciplinary links to other departments in the institution?

10) Be yourself

It often feels like slim pickings when you're job hunting, and many people feel compelled to apply for pretty much any role which comes up in their area, even if it's not a great fit. But you still need to make the most of who you are, rather than refashioning yourself into an approximation of what you think the selectors want.

If you have a strong track record in quantitative research and you've spotted a job in a department leaning more towards qualitative methods, you might still decide to apply, but there's no point in trying to sell yourself as what you're not. They'll see through it, and you'll have downplayed your genuine successes for no reason.

Instead, make a case for why your achievements should be of interest to the department, for example by demonstrating how statistics would complement their qualitative work. At the end of the day, the best way to get shortlisted is to highlight bona fide achievements that are distinctive to you.

Steve Joy is careers adviser for research staff in the arts, humanities, and social sciences at the University of Cambridge – follow him on Twitter @EarlyCareerBlog

Do you have any tips to add? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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By Alice Kelly, Ph.D.

Alice Kelly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. Her academic training has been in the UK and the US. She completed her PhD in English at Cambridge in 2014, with a year as a Fox Fellow at Yale, and before that she studied at Sussex, Reed College (Portland, Oregon), and Oxford. She has taught English and History in the US and the UK. Having applied for academic jobs on both sides of the pond, she understands the challenges and opportunities of being on the transatlantic academic job market. Alongside her academic research on twentieth century literature and culture, she advocates healthy writing practices. At Oxford she founded the TORCH Academic Writing Group, which she has written about in Times Higher Education.



Note from Karen:  I met Alice during Kellee’s and my visit to Oxford in Spring 2017. We really hit it off, and I was impressed with her energetic, no-nonsense, and clear-eyed sense of the UK academic job market.  I could tell right away that she’d be a wonderful resource for TPII readers and clients looking for jobs there.  I requested a series of blog posts, and she has kindly obliged with a four-part series. She will also be serving as an informal consultant on the UK job market.  Please welcome Alice, and please do send along your questions!


Part One: The Lay of the Land: Your Guide to British Universities and Jobs

Tired of getting nowhere on the US job market? Interested in applying abroad? As the job market looks increasingly diminished in the US (and if your personal circumstances and lifestyle permit), you may be broadening your search to include our fair isle.

Then, dear reader, look no further than here for this new series on applying for academic jobs in the UK. Think of this as a British version of Karen’s post “Why Your Cover Letter Sucks,” primarily aimed at doctoral students and early career researchers in the humanities in the US – but UK applicants may also find it useful. Although we technically speak the same language, in academic terms we don’t always match up.

Like other modes of writing, job applications have a set formula. I’m writing this series because I believe that we could be doing much more, especially in the British system, to train our graduate students in how to write them well and with the least possible stress. My own 70+ applications on both sides of the Atlantic (with separate letters and CVs for each country), plus giving talks on this topic and reading numerous cover letters for applicants on both sides of the pond, have given me some hard-won experience. I may not know everything that works, but I definitely know what doesn’t.

This series will teach you how to navigate the different types of universities in the UK, the types of jobs you might apply to, and the schedule of applications; the current academic landscape, primarily the unknown, utterly unquantifiable impact of Brexit and the opposing total quantification of publications through the REF; the language, length and structure of UK cover letters; and the interview and the multiple forms it might take.

So without further ado…

First of all, if you’re going to be applying for a job in the UK, you as a candidate need to understand the different types of universities in the UK and their particular cultures and preoccupations. In a nutshell, there are four key types:

Ancient universities, founded before 1600: Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. Likely to have small class sizes, particularly Oxbridge (a hybrid term for both universities), which have tutorials (Oxford) and supervisions (Cambridge) with one to four students. Incidentally, these points hold true for Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, as well.

Red brick universities, founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in industrial cities: including Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield. There are also other universities founded between 1900-1963, including Cardiff, Leicester, Nottingham and Reading.

Plate glass universities, founded mostly in the 1960s on self-contained campuses: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick, York. Sometimes this list is extended to included existing institutions which became universities in this period, such as Aston, Bath, Salford and Strathclyde.

Post-1992, mostly former polytechnics and central institutions: These institutions were mostly given university status through the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, and include Anglia Ruskin, De Montfort, Oxford Brookes, Greenwich, and Nottingham Trent. These universities may require lower entry grades.

There are a lot of other universities – these are just a few of many.

Another grouping you may come across is the Russell Group, a group of twenty-four public research universities, which joined together in 1994 to represent its members’ interests to the government. These universities receive two-thirds of all research grant funding in the United Kingdom and are generally regarded very highly. There are also particular types of university, such as the Open University, which is a distance-learning university, or Buckingham University, one of the UK’s five private universities (most other UK universities are government-funded). There are also UK satellite campuses of American universities, most in London (including Boston University, Central University of Iowa, Florida State, Georgetown, James Madison, NYU, Pepperdine, Syracuse, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Yale) and some elsewhere (Middlebury College in Oxford, Harlaxton College in Grantham, Luther College in Nottingham and Randolph College in Reading).

You might be thinking: how does knowing the types of British universities help me on the job market? Well, you have to be familiar with the lay of the land and the particular focus of each type of university and which students it may attract. How will your research and teaching fit in this university? What are the class sizes and how will your courses serve its students? What’s the availability of funding and how will it enable or restrict your research and teaching?

Next, what are the types of jobs you might be applying for? (FYI – in the US, a ‘job’ typically means a tenure-track job, but in the UK we use it more loosely to mean short-term posts, postdocs and teaching fellowships, as well as permanent lectureships):

Postdoctoral and Research Fellowships: These come in many shapes and sizes and vary from one to five-year contracts. They are usually themed or based as part of an existing research project team. Like American postdocs, these are research focused and usually involve little or no teaching. At Oxbridge, postdocs are called Junior Research Fellowships (as well as postdocs) and are based at particular colleges, and may be themed or completely open. If you’re a UK citizen, you can also apply for prestigious fellowships through national funding councils such as British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowships and Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowships, which are held in conjunction with an institution.

Research Assistantships: Useful if you’re a UK citizen and need a short-term post to tide you over before you get a longer-term post (and you’re interested in the work). Due to short-contracts and funding constraints, they’re probably unlikely to hire an overseas candidate, although it depends on each particular project.

Teaching Fellowships: Usually a year, although can be longer or shorter. In American terms, these are a bit like Visiting Assistant Professor positions. At Oxbridge, these posts are usually called College Teaching Posts, as opposed to permanent/long-term Faculty/Departmental Lectureships. Can provide useful teaching experience, especially if you’re a newly minted PhD looking for experience. However, these posts can sometimes be exploitative and have been criticized as hiring fresh blood in order to free up more senior academics from their teaching qualifications to write more REF outputs (see my second post coming up, for more on the REF – and Dr. Karen posts links to writing on the REF periodically on the Facebook Page). Watch out for weird-length contracts – I’ve applied for 7-month and 10-month contract positions, which can make finding accommodation difficult.

Lectureships: Our equivalent of tenure-track assistant professorships. In book-fields in the humanities, most applicants will have either published a monograph based on their dissertation, or have a book on the way, before getting one of these prized positions. Although these posts do not advertise themselves as being permanent, they are typically just that. They come with full research, teaching and service requirements. Lecturers are referred to as “Dr.”, not “Professor.” (In the UK, “Professor” denotes a position of seniority, whereas in the US it is used colloquially for all lecturers, regardless of rank).

Applying for more senior positions (Senior Lectureships, Readerships, Professorships) will come later. Hold your horses.

To complicate things further, some British universities (such as Exeter, Reading, Warwick and Kingston) have taken on the American terms for academic ranks, using the term “Associate Professor” instead of “Reader.” Oxford has got rid of the term “Reader” altogether, and only hires at Associate Professor level, not Assistant.

One significant difference between the two systems, however, is the schedule of applications. In the US everything depends on the disciplinary job lists coming out August-September, whereas in the UK jobs are posted throughout the academic year. There are pros and cons of this system: in the UK, jobs can still appear late in the academic year (May/June) for a September start, and the turnaround time from application to interview to offer is much faster than the US system. But it can mean that you may not know whether or not you will have a job in the next academic year until the summer.

To Do: Subscribe to daily/weekly jobs posting from either jobs.ac.uk or Times Higher Education Uni Jobs to give yourself a familiarity with the types of jobs being advertised. Subscribing to either rather than both should adequately cover your back, as the same jobs are posted to both. To find out about JRFs in Oxbridge, look up the vacancies sections in the Cambridge Reporter or the Oxford Gazette (old school, I know), or more simply check the Postdocs Wiki where they are usually posted – just remember to check that you have the right year.

So that gives you a brief introduction to the types of universities and jobs you might apply to. In my next blog, I’ll discuss the current landscape of the British academy.



Posted inInternational Perspectives, Landing Your Tenure Track Job, Major Job Market Mistakes, Strategizing Your Success in Academiapermalink

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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