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I'm currently a (physics) postdoc at a university. I'm currently applying for academic jobs (tenure-track research professor and postdoc positions) as well as jobs in national labs.

Question(s): Do I need to use my current university's letterhead for my cover letters? If it is optional, is it somehow better to use the official letterhead?

Note: This is similar to the post here. That post was specifically for someone who is currently a lecturer at a university, and the answers ranged from absolutely yes to absolutely no (with no clear consensus). Therefore, I I want to know if any of the specifics in my situation make a difference for this question (e.g. field = physics; I'm currently a postdoc which is expected to only be temporary; does academic appointment vs national lab job have different expectations etc…).

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    It would be interesting if anyone here has recently been on a search committee, and could say what percentage of the applications received were on letterhead. – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '15 at 15:34
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Yes you should use your current institution's letterhead. It is important to do so because much of academic hiring turns on prestige and snap judgments. Look professional, look serious, look affiliated with a prestigious place. Use the letterhead.

Edit in response to Nate Eldridge in the comments below:

First, letterhead is to be used in correspondence that constitutes official university business. If helping postdocs and PhD students obtain the positions for which the University has trained them doesn't constitute "official university business," I don't know what would. (Certainly I am instructed to send my undergraduates' letters of recommendation on official university letterhead.)

Second, consider two scenarios. Scenario 1, you apply for a position along with 99 other people. You put the cover letter on letterhead and the other 99 applicants don't. Scenario 2 is flipped, the 99 use letterhead and you don't. In both scenarios, you stick out, which is in general bad. However, they aren't equally bad. Scenario 1 is like showing up to a wedding in a Tux when everyone else is wearing suits. You're a little fancier than you need to be, but nobody's going to think you just weren't putting in care or effort in. Scenario 2, on the other hand, is like showing up to a wedding where everyone is wearing a suit in a shirt and flip flops; you look like you just didn't care what the convention was. So, even if both scenarios were equally likely, I'd still say err on the side of using the letterhead. However, it isn't the case that the scenarios are equally likely--the convention (at least in the US, I'll let others comment about the European or other conventions) is to use letterhead. I'll cite Karen Kelskey, the job market consultant, to corroborate this final point.

I'd hope that no department would allow a faculty who was daft enough to hold the use of letterhead against a candidate anywhere near a search committee.

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  • Does this advice apply for both academic and national lab job applications? – Punk_Physicist Nov 6 '15 at 20:07
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    I'd think it would apply in any situation where there is a large pool of initial applicants. in such cases, selection committees are typically looking for ways to discard applications. something subtle like prestige biases make it easier for your stuff to end up in the trash bin. how strong is that effect? I don't know. Still, best to simply exude professionalism at every opportunity. – user10636 Nov 6 '15 at 20:09
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    The problem with this answer is that, as we saw in the other question, there are people who believe that letterhead is only appropriate to use for official university business, and that job applications do not qualify. So if your application is read by such a person, the use of letterhead would exude unprofessionalism. As such, for your answer to be compelling, I think you should explain why you think that risk is outweighed by the benefits. – Nate Eldredge Nov 8 '15 at 15:31
  • @NateEldredge Thanks. I added some material, per your suggestion. – user10636 Nov 8 '15 at 20:45
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Need? No. I got a tenure track position from my postdoc without using letterhead.

It's definitely optional, but I'll leave the discussion of the merits of that option to others who have more insight from the other end of the process.

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I personally dislike applicants who deliver very formal letters, research statements, motivation descriptions and so on. There are people within academe who share my opinion, so be cautious.

It will be perfectly clear from your application where and which your current professional assignment is. This is not a function of the letterhead.

The bottom line, do what you like and concentrate your application on your actual achievements.

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