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I am currently applying for tenure-track assistant professor jobs. One of the positions requires me to submit a cover letter, in addition to a CV, research statement, and teaching statement. (The application is online) I am thinking of writing the following:

October 1, 2014

Dear faculty committee

I wish to apply for the faculty position in the Department of Mathematics at Stanford University. Currently, I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley in the Department of Mathematics under the supervision of Dr. James Moriarty.

Enclosed are my curriculum vitae, teaching and research statements, and two research papers. Please do not hesitate to contact me if further information is needed.

Yours truly,
John Watson
Department of Mathematics
University of California at Berkeley
123 4th Street, Box 5678
Berkeley, CA 12345-6789
(123) 456-7890

  • What is the purpose of the cover letter? Is it just to indicate what are the documents included in the application? I ask this because most of the other positions for which I am applying don't require a cover letter.
  • Should I include a brief summary of my research interests and teaching experience, one paragraph each, in the cover letter?

Edit: In reality, I am not in the field of mathematics, nor am I a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley. The details in my cover letter are fictitious and meant only to illustrate the structure of the cover letter which I will write.

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    My sense is that cover letters have more impact for applications at smaller schools. I think the idea is to show that you are actively interested in the job posting (as opposed to just clicking a button). My guess is that if you sent that letter to a small teaching school in The Middle of Nowhere, USA, your application might be treated as spam. – David Hill Oct 9 '14 at 17:10
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I'm a mathematician, and I was at Berkeley. I wrote a cover letter similar to yours and got exactly one interview that year (it was 2010, but still). The only reason I got that interview was because a member of the committee thought very highly of one of my letter writers.

I would suggest you write brief paragraphs regarding teaching and research, and order these paragraphs depending on how you gauge the focus of the department.

I would take this as a basic template for the cover letter you are going to write. As you get ready to apply to a school, you should try to learn as much as you can about the department. Is there someone there you would like to collaborate with? Do they offer any courses you would really like to teach? Do they offer an REU that you could contribute to? You might also morph your research paragraph into a "student research" paragraph if that is what they are looking for.

Many of these departments won't look at the letter at all, but you don't know which. For the ones that do value it, you want to show them that you understand what they are doing and want to be a part of it.

  • What an interesting coincidence! As I clarified in my edit to my question, I am not a mathematician, nor am I at Berkeley. – I Like to Code Oct 10 '14 at 1:29
  • It is not clear to me that the number of interviews you got necessarily has anything to do with the way your cover letter looked. – Sasho Nikolov Oct 10 '14 at 4:01
  • Well sure, there was a lot going on that year. However, of the jobs that didn't get halted I'm pretty sure that some disregarded my application on the grounds that I showed no actual interest in the specific position. – David Hill Oct 10 '14 at 13:31
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I'll be honest about when I read packages (in chemistry). The first thing I look at is the CV. I also skim the cover letter. Then I read the recommendation letters and the research and teaching statements. Depending on the CV and recommendation letters, I may take more or less time on the research/teaching statements - if the candidate seems promising, I'm more thorough.

But if the cover letter is short, not tailored at least some to our department, contains obvious typos, etc. I'll get a bad impression.

Look, anyone applying to a tenure-track position has taken a lot of time to get to this point. You've secured a PhD, possibly gone through a postdoc position, and prepared the whole application.

Why spoil it with a lousy cover letter. Take some time, think up a paragraph or two about a particular department, consider what you might add, and let us know.

This tells me that the candidate is not just blindly sending out a gazillion applications.

I doubt everyone completely rewrites their cover letters for each application (I didn't). But I do want to see that someone has taken the time to carefully craft a paragraph or three about us and how they might fit.

Will we interview someone who seems stellar with a poor cover letter? Probably. But we also get ~100 applications for every opening, so why would you risk it?

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In my field, which is not mathematics, a cover letter is a critical component of the job application. I feel like I have seen questions/answers on AC.SE that suggest in some fields the cover letter is less important. In general, in my field research statements, while specific in what the research goals are, are generally not tailored to an individual department. The same goes for teaching statements. My field is interdisciplinary and if you are applying for a position in a medical school you may use a different research/teaching statement than if you are applying for a position in an engineering school or a science school, but for any given type of department/school you would likely use the same research and teaching statements. You might tailor a small portion of them to demonstrate how you would fit into a specific department and the university as a whole, but you would not write new statements for each department. The cover letter on the other hand is where you explain how you fit into the department and university and is essentially rewritten for every application.

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