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I just finished crafting an application's cover letter for a particular lab (if it matters, area of research can be broadly classified as computational social sciences). The situation is that they have several postdoctoral positions and I feel that I am a pretty good fit for either one of them (how modest ;-).

However, I think that it makes absolutely no sense to send three separate cover letters for each of the positions, as 1) they are affiliated with the same lab (and, even, one of co-PIs is the same for all of them); 2) the positions share a lot of subject domain areas (I, actually, expressed this point directly in my cover letter - I hope it will not be considered offensive or otherwise inappropriate).

Therefore, my two related questions are:

  • Would it be appropriate to submit a single application with a single cover letter to those positions, based on my points above, even though they are advertised separately?

  • Is it acceptable that my cover letter (that single one) is almost two pages long (including all appropriate vertical spacing and 12pt font size - trying to be gentle with the readers' vision)?

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    Can you not email someone and ask whether they'd prefer one application or three? – avid Jun 15 '15 at 19:41
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I don't think you can assume that one application is okay. I can certainly imagine situations where the lab would want a separate application for each position. Maybe they are going to be reviewed by different people or committees. Maybe they have complicated HR procedures that you don't know about. Maybe when reviewing applications for position X, they want to see an application that specifically addresses your qualifications for that particular position, and doesn't mention other things that are only relevant to position Y.

So the safest course of action would simply be to ask.

Dear Professor MMM,

My name is NNN, and I am a graduate student at UUU, working with professor SSS. I see that your lab has some postdoc positions open; I believe that I could be a good fit for any of the positions XXX, YYY, ZZZ. (Briefly explain why.) Would you prefer that I send a separate application for each position, or a single application addressing my qualifications for all three?

This could also get you other useful information, such as "I think you would be a better candidate for XXX; for the YYY postdoc we are specifically looking for someone with expertise in BBB."

  • Thank you for your answer - definitely useful (+1). While, as I mentioned, all three positions share significant areas of subject domain as well as a co-PI, I agree with you (and others - thank you, @avid) that asking is most likely the safest choice. So, I will send an e-mail, asking for clarification on that. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 15 '15 at 20:02
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At my university, you would have to apply separately to each position as listed in our job application system. That's just how the site works. I think it would be fine to use the same cover letter text and CV for all the positions as long as you spell out in the letter that you have applied for all of them and why you think you are qualified for each of them, which it sounds like you have done. I think the extra length is probably also fine given the circumstances, but some people are more sensitive to convention on this. There's a tradeoff between offending people's eyes with smaller fonts and narrower margins and offending their sensibilities that cover letters must be one page and one page only. If you can edit it down a bit, you might be better off, but I wouldn't sweat it too much.

  • The cover letter hopefully isn't going to an HR pod-person. If so, the extra length will make no difference under the circumstances! – aeismail Jun 15 '15 at 15:31
  • Nice answer (+1) - appreciate your advice. One aspect about application process (sorry, I forgot to mention it in my question) that might have changed your advice on that is the following. Separate applications indeed make sense, when a website processes them automatically. However, in this particular case, applications materials are requested to be sent via e-mail to the same address. Hence, my point on submitting separate applications making no sense IMHO. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 15 '15 at 15:32
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    @AleksandrBlekh, agreed, but I wanted to make a more generic answer here. If you are just emailing in your application, make it abundantly clear in your cover letter that you are applying for all the openings. Either way, I think you're covered. – Bill Barth Jun 15 '15 at 15:46
  • @aeismail, you are probably right, but I have seen professors and other hiring managers display pod-person behavior before. – Bill Barth Jun 15 '15 at 15:47

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