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Cover Letter For Postdoc Job


For the next few months I will be posting the “best of the best” Professor is in blog posts on the job market, for the benefit of all those girding their loins for the 2013-2014 market.  Today’s post was originally published in 2011.



It has come to my attention that many junior people do not have a clear picture in their minds of the requirements of a postdoc application.

Some treat it too much like the job application. And some treat it too differently from the job application. The fact is, it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s quite different from a job application…..and yet many of the same principles apply.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the postdoc application is requiring a cover letter, a 4 page research proposal, a description of a proposed course, and a brief statement articulating how you will participate in the scholarly community of the campus. While not all postdocs will require this exact set of documents, by discussing these here, we can address the major requirements, expectations, and potential pitfalls of the typical postdoc application effort. I will take them in order.

Cover Letter

This cover letter will be very similar to your job cover letter as explained in this post. It will contain the standard set of paragraphs to start: introduction, dissertation, dissertation import, publications.  In all of this first part, the relevance of your work to the stated mission of the postdoc will be emphasized clearly.  This requires carefully tailoring the cover letter materials. It’s difficult but it must be done.  If your topic is Mexican women immigrant workers, then for a gender postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing gender relations at home or abroad; for a globalization postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing labor mobility globally; for a Latin American Studies postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects new economic circumstances in Mexico.  This tailoring requires an original recasting or reframing of your work to meet the mission of the postdoc!  Failure to do this reframing means failure to get the postdoc.

After the discussion of research, the postdoc app letter will specifically discuss the plan of work for the postdoc year–ie, month by month, what new research and revisions will be made.

It will then include a very brief discussion of teaching experience (much shorter than for a regular job cover letter), followed by a discussion of the proposed class required by the postdoc, and how the proposed class will also advance the mission of the postdoc.

Lastly, in place of the typical tailoring paragraph, the letter will conclude with a brief paragraph explaining how the research and writing time of the postdoc will be used, how the scholarly community on campus will advance the project, and how the candidate will participate in said scholarly community.  The letter will be no more than 2 pages long.

The principle in operation here—and the one that too many applicants don’t seem to grasp—is that the campus is funding this expensive postdoc not so some random academic can come and sit in an office and write for a year, but rather, to “buy” the energy, contributions, and participation of an additional world-class scholar to their campus community for the period of that year. The postdoc, dear readers, is not meant to serve YOU. Rather, you are meant to serve the postdoc. That means, that in every document, you articulate how you will PARTICIPATE in campus/departmental scholarly life. You do this, however, as in all professional documents, without flattering, pandering, or begging. Rather, you identify faculty on campus with whom you would collaborate, and initiatives and programs on campus that are likely to house interdisciplinary conversations and debates to which your project relates, and you articulate clearly your interest in engaging with them in substantive ways.

4-Page Research Proposal

This research proposal looks very much like a grant application, and Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template will serve you well here, at least for the opening paragraphs. As in all research proposals you will want to open by proving the importance and urgency of your topic. Following the standard Dr. Karen template, you will construct the Proposal As Hero Narrative, with yourself in the role of Hero.

You may follow the Foolproof Grant Template all the way through to the point where it breaks off into things like budget and methodology. In place of those sections, you will focus entirely on timeline. The point of a postdoc research proposal is to, first, articulate an important and significant project, and second, articulate a coherent and feasible plan of work. It is this second element that most applicants fail to grasp.

Remember: the postdoc is not there to serve you, you are there to serve the postdoc. What does that mean? It means that the postdoc wants to see publications result from your time there. The postdoc wants to be mentioned in the acknowledgments of your book. The postdoc wants to be in the line, in the footnote, “this research was supported by generous funding from xxxxx.” The postdoc committee is going to judge the applications based on how likely it is that the applicant is going to efficiently and effectively use the time on campus to complete a specified set of publications. You will impress them when you include a month-by-month timeline/plan of work that shows explicitly what new archival/etc. research you will conduct, and when, what book chapters you will complete, and when, and what journal articles you will finish and submit, and when.

You will conclude this document with a strong and expansive conclusion that clearly shows how the postdoc year will play into your larger scholarly and career trajectory as a world-class scholar. Why? Because the postdoc wants to get part of the fame and glory that attaches to you as you move ahead in the world.

Postdocs are in the business of supporting the next generation of leaders in the scholarly world. To the extent that you represent yourself as a leader, you will do well. To the extent that you represent yourself as a little lost sheep desperately looking for a chance to get out of teaching for a year while you try and figure out what your book is about, you will do poorly. Be aware that the vast majority of postdoc applications are written by the latter.

Proposed Class Description

A point of vast confusion among postdoc applicants seems to be how to pitch the required class. Many applicants do not clearly grasp the difference between the postdoc and an adjunct. As such, the class they propose is one that is adjunct-level. Basically, applicants too often envision a course that is generic and basic. This is a mistake.

Postdocs are very expensive. If a campus wanted a generic and basic course, it would hire a cheap adjunct. There are many available. Instead, however, they are advertising for a postdoc. That means, they want a highly specialized course, that reflects the postdoc’s unique and distinctive scholarly program. The class can’t be absurdly specialized, of course. If the applicant’s specialization is the emerging gay male community in Jakarta, the course cannot be “Emerging Gay Male Communities in Jakarta.” Too narrow. Neither should it be “Introduction to Indonesia,” or “Gender and Sexuality.” Too broad. Rather, it should be pitched somewhere around, “Global Sexualities,” or “Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia,” or “Queer Globalizations.” The final choice for how to pitch the course will hinge on the climate of the department and the campus, and the postdoc mission itself—if it’s an Asian area studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize SE Asia, if it’s a gender postdoc, then you’d prioritize Global Sexualities, if it’s a transnational studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize Queer Globalizations. Get it? The tailoring happens here.

Statement of Participation in Campus Community

Here’s what the postdoc committee does not want: someone who arrives, walks into their allotted office, and is never seen again for the rest of the year. Here’s what they do want: someone who arrives and dives into the scholarly work of the department and the campus community. A postdoc is (should be) exempted from all service work on campus. However, the postdoc should make herself visible as an involved and interested departmental member. She should show up for brown bags and talks, symposia and conferences, and coffee and lunch with colleagues. In this statement, you articulate your orientation in that direction. Identify programs and initiatives in the department and on campus, by name, and discuss how you anticipate participating. Mention two or three faculty members by name, and how you look forward to engaging with them.

In all things, however, do NOT fall back into graduate student habits. You are NOT on campus to “learn from” or “study with” the scholars there. Rather, you ARE one of the scholars there. They may well learn from you. The proper stance here is that of a colleague who brings her own dynamic field of expertise to the campus, and who looks forward to energetic and innovative interactions with the colleagues there.

In sum, remember that, no matter how much you need that postdoc to get your book written, the postdoc is not there to serve you. You are there to serve the postdoc, but as a first-rank, world-class scholar and specialist in your field whose work speaks directly—DIRECTLY—to the mission of the postdoc. By virtue of your energy and brilliance, you cause the postdoc committee to pick you, out of all the competitors, to spend the year on their campus, sharing your work, and augmenting their teaching and intellectual profile and advancing their scholarly cause. Remember, make them want you.

Posted inLanding Your Tenure Track Job, Postdoc Issues, Strategizing Your Success in Academia, Teaching and Research Statements, Tenure--How To Get ItTaggedapplying for postdoctoral fellowship, how to apply for postdocs, writing a postdoc applicationpermalink

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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Securing a postdoc position is fiercely competitive. Research carried out by Vitae, which supports the development of researchers, suggests that only 23% of doctoral graduates find employment as research staff in higher education, while 14% work as lecturers. In some subject areas, the figures are even more bleak: for arts and humanities subjects, only 14% secured a research position.

If you are one of the many hopefuls applying for a vacancy, how can you maximise your chances of standing out? We ask principal investigators and careers advisers for their advice.

Get advice from your PhD supervisor

When I talk to students individually I sometimes find they are a little reticent about asking their supervisor’s advice on becoming an academic. I don’t know if it’s because they’re concerned that their supervisor might not think they’re good enough, or because they think they will put them off it. But you need to talk to your supervisor and other academic colleagues – otherwise they won’t know what you want to do, and they won’t be able to help. (Clare Jones, senior careers adviser for research staff and postgraduate research students, University of Nottingham)

Start building your networks early

There’s a lot of research in the job market about the effectiveness of being known to people before applying to interviews – not just in academia but generally. It’s very effective in terms of maximising your chances. You might not find a formal postdoc position, but there might be an opportunity for collaborative work. Identify the areas – or research topics – that you are interested in, as well as the academics in that field. Go to conferences and see if you can visit the lab or group. (Janet Metcalfe, chair and head of Vitae)

Finding funding

If someone approaches a group looking for a postdoc the response they might get is: “We’re interested in you but we don’t have any funding – if you can find some then you can come here.” If this is the case, most universities subscribe to Research Professional, a big database of funding opportunities. The institution itself might also have some idea of local funding you could apply for. (Elizabeth Simmonds, careers adviser for postdocs in physical sciences and technology, Cambridge University)

Be cautious about firing off out-of-the-blue emails

If a candidate contacts me to do a postdoctorate with their own funding I look for compatibility with my own specialisation or expertise. I want to feel sure that I will be able to contribute to and support the person in their career. I would be alert to someone contacting me with an out-of-the-blue request or application ie someone who seems to be looking for anyone rather than having carefully explored the possible senior academics in their field. I would expect them to show some knowledge of what I actually do. I would not accept anyone who was drawn by the status of the institution only. (Pia Christensen, professor of anthropology and childhood studies, University of Leeds)

Look for opportunities outside your specialism

In engineering, one of the mistakes people make is they look for jobs in exactly the same area that their PhD is in. They’re shooting themselves in the foot because once you’ve solved a problem as part of your PhD, it’s fixed – that same problem won’t exist anymore. Instead, you need to think about transferable skills and how these could apply to a wider range of opportunities. (Alan Arokiam, senior lecturer in engineering management, University of Greenwich)

Look worldwide

You should be mobile and willing to move – I have done so a couple of times in my career. This is a problem for some postdocs, especially if they have a partner who wants to stay in a long-term position elsewhere, but it is worth looking at opportunities abroad. (Dominik Fleitmann, professor of palaeoclimatology and archaeology, University of Reading)

Consider opportunities for a portfolio career

There are many routes into academia, and there are people who find ways of keeping a foot in academia while doing work outside as well. This is especially common in the arts and humanities where you may have a portfolio career which includes a few teaching opportunities, or some short-term research work together with some consultancy or a part-time job in another sector. (Janet Metcalfe)

Leaving academia? How to sell yourself to new employers

Try working as a researcher for a company

Some people are reluctant to join industry, but those working as a researcher for a company may well have better opportunities than those working for a university – they have access to the latest equipment and technology. It doesn’t matter where you work, what’s most important is the quality of your research and the quality of your publications. You can publish papers while working in a university or for a company. (Alan Arokiam)

If you don’t meet the essential requirements, don’t apply

Applying when you don’t meet the essential requirements is a waste of time. It also has reputation costs. If you get a number of applications that is not huge, you will tend to remember names from one time to the next. It doesn’t make a good impression to receive the application of someone a second time if you still remember that this person applied for another job for which he or she was not suitable at all. It sends a signal that they are not attentive to detail, which is something highly valued in academic jobs. (Laura Morales, professor in comparative politics, University of Leicester)

Academic CVs: 10 irritating mistakes

If there is a formal application process, read the guidance

The number of people who don’t read – and therefore don’t answer – the questions that we’ve set as part of the application process is unbelievable. That’s the most common factor for rejections. If you’re applying for a position it’s really important to read the questions and guidance in detail. (Ken Emond, head of research awards, British Academy)

Avoid excessive jargon

We ask applicants for our award to write a proposal – a common failing with that is candidates use unexplained jargon and therefore do not write clearly about what they can achieve. Similarly, many do not ask a friend, colleague or family - someone who is not a specialist in their area – to do a simple sense check and make sure that the application conveys the information that it is supposed to. All of our awards are judged by a much broader panel who are not necessarily going to experts in the individual field of the candidate. (Ken Emond)

The cover letter should entice the recruiter to the CV

The cover letter needs to really cover the punch lines that will make you an attractive candidate for the job, given the requirements. It should entice the recruiter to pay attention to the CV. Very few candidates draft cover letters in this way, and they view it as a trivial accompanying note that says little more than “here is my CV attached, I’m great for this job”. This a big and common mistake. (Laura Morales)

Academic cover letters: 10 top tips

Always tailor your application

You must take the time to tailor your application to the principal investigator and his or her research. Generic letters are easy to spot, especially when people cut and paste the exact words from the advertisement and don’t even bother to match the font. Tailoring your cover letter takes longer to do, but it will surely shorten your search in the long run if you do it right. Convince the principal investigator that because you have done (insert specific skills here), you will be able to do (insert what the principal investigator is looking for the postdoc to do). (William Sullivan, professor of pharmacology and toxicology, microbiology and Immunology, Indiana University School of Medicine)

Put yourself in the principal investigator’s shoes

A postdoc is really employed to deliver the specific outcomes that have been promised to the funders. They’re trusted to get on with things and be proactive. Therefore the applicant should convince the people selecting that they will be able to deliver. Once in the job there will be time to do other things of course, but the cover letter should be focused on the essential requirements of the job and showing that they can work independently. (Gert Westermann, professor of psychology, University of Lancaster)

Show that you’re a team player

I look for someone with at least some understanding of and willingness to work as part of a team, who demonstrates respect towards the contribution and achievements of other colleagues, both senior and junior. As someone who works ethnographically, the postdoc applicant needs to convince me that they have stamina and openness to take on sometimes difficult and tiring fieldwork and who can respond to different and demanding situations. (Pia Christensen)

First impressions count

At interview, I would like to see passion for the subject and that they are highly motivated. I wonder if I should say this, but you often make your decision within perhaps one or two minutes. My former PhD supervisor gave me fairly good advice – if after two or three minutes you feel something is not right with the candidate, then imagine you have to work with this person for the next two or three years. First impressions matter. (Dominik Fleitmann)

Talk about something other than your PhD

One of the things that irritates academic colleagues is when applicants spend half of their cover letter talking about their PhD. Obviously it’s fine if they’re using the PhD to show how they will meet the requirements of the postdoc, but they have to be looking forward to the research project in question. (Clare Jones)

How to shine in an academic interview

Make sure you are able to work well with your prospective boss

Ask advice from people around you and visit groups to get a sense of what the principal investigator is like. The thing about academia is that it’s a very small community and your boss can have a big influence on how successful you are while working for them and in getting subsequent positions. You have to be very comfortable with that person and happy that the group will help you get what you want to get out of the postdoc. (Elizabeth Simmonds)

Think carefully about whether you want to stay in academia

If you have an opportunity to stay on and do a postdoc, it’s very easy to be flattered by that and to stay on without thinking about the longterm options or consequences. Generally, the longer you stay in a postdoc position, the harder it is for you to move into other sectors. You need to think about how you can keep your options open for other occupations – only a very small proportion of doctoral graduates will end up in a longterm academic career. (Janet Metcalfe)

  • Do you have any tips to add? Share your advice in the comments section below.

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