All About You

We are spending a couple of weeks on job application cover letters and research statements.

The cover letter is a particular challenge: You have two pages to introduce yourself as a scholar and a teacher in such a compelling way that the reader wants to learn more. Some search committee members focus on the CV, others the cover letter—and often both—but together these two documents are what you can expect to be read by pretty much everyone. Whether the committee members read any further depends on those documents.

A good cover letter is direct, focused, and highlights the key information about you as a candidate. My research is about X compelling question, studied in this way, with these empirical and/or theoretical innovations. My broader agenda also includes Y. The research has been funded by Fancy External Grantor, and has already produced two papers, one published at Impressive Journal, and the other currently under review. I am prepared to teach in these areas. My teaching has these goals, which I achieve in these ways. I really want YOUR job, for these reasons. The end.

Most people find writing a research statement a little easier, since it’s describing your research, the thing you’ve been hyper-focused on for years now. A research statement is a good opportunity to pull back and describe yourself as a scholar in general terms; not just, here’s my period and approach, but what are the kinds of questions that are at the center of all of your research. In political science, that might be something like representation, justice, democratic performance, institutional design, or stability in the world order. This can be hard, as you’ve been in the weeds for so long. Don’t worry, the broad themes are brief, as you quickly pivot to, I explore these questions in this specific way, area, time period, and so on.

Some other general thoughts on both documents:

It’s all about you. Give yourself the agency in these documents. You study, gather, write, argue, describe, illuminate, explain, and show. Your dissertation is an inanimate object and is not capable of action. Neither is your project, article, chapter, or book. These documents are an argument for hiring YOU, so you should be center stage. “In this article, I argue” is much more compelling than “This article argues.” ACTIVE VOICE!

You are a scholar and a teacher. Speak in those terms, rather than as a student. This doesn’t mean that you pretend you aren’t currently a student (if you are), but you again emphasize what you have done. (This will work for your teaching statement too). “Bigshot invited me to write this paper with her” is a student. “Bigshot and I argue in our paper…” is a scholar. (The corollary is that you never describe collaborative work as yours alone, but I am going to assume that goes without saying).

You make a contribution. Remember, it is highly unlikely that everyone on the search committee will be in your field. Especially in the research statement, that paragraph+ about your dissertation should include at least one sentence that makes it clear what you are contributing—better data, an original reading or methodology, an answer to a persistent puzzle, an advance for this theory. This should be included as well, but shorter, for any other projects described.

You plan to. You definitely don’t “hope to.” This isn’t a contract. They will not revoke your job if all of your plans are not entirely successful. That said, you should be ready to discuss anything you describe as a plan or future research project. It certainly does not need to be complete, but you should have thought and done enough that you can describe the topic/puzzle, situate it in your field, and have some plans for how the research will be conducted.

Some resources for further reading:
Kelsky, Karen, “Nobody Cares What You’re Interested In.” The Professor Is In
Avoiding gender bias in reference writing.” University of Arizona Commission on the Status of
Long, Arianna (astronomer), Generating good letters of reference, Twitter Threadreader