Publication Date

December 1, 2004

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

AHA Topic

Career Paths

Two of the most important items in your academic job search arsenal are the cover letter and the curriculum vitae (c.v.). Composing these documents for the first time can be a perplexing but important task. First impressions are crucial. In today’s tight academic job market, hiring committees may receive more than 100 applications for a single position. Poorly prepared or unimpressive materials offer the easiest means of shrinking the candidate pool. To get some ideas about how to craft an effective application, I spoke with three search committee veterans from a range of institutions. Drawing on their experience with hiring new faculty, this article offers advice to first-time job seekers about preparing a cover letter and the c.v.

First, the basics: Remember that the purpose of the cover letter and the c.v. is to persuade an academic search committee to invite you to an interview. You want to explain why you are right for this particular job.

Preparing a job application is a two-step process. First you need to gather information about yourself, then you need to target your skills to the institution to which you are applying.

Before you begin, therefore, take time to think about your academic credentials, skills, and relevant experience. Write down jobs, internships, and teaching assistantships, gathering dates and specific duties for each. Make a list of awards, grants, or honors, as well as any publications or paper presentations. Make a list of the courses you’ve taught with a brief description, and gather course outlines or syllabi you’ve used. Write down fields of specialization and course work. Set down some thoughts about where your dissertation fits in the scholarly field and what makes your research unique and interesting. Make a list of references and contact information. Compiling all this information before you start will spare you from long pauses staring at a blank screen.

Second, when applying for a teaching position, the more you know about the institution and department the better. Is it a large research university, or a liberal arts college? Does the institution grant doctoral, master’s, or bachelor’s degrees? What does the student body look like in terms of diversity and background? Do a little background research to find out the focus and needs of the target department. Look into the research interests and publications of the faculty members. Check department web sites, college catalogs, and syllabi to find out what books are used and the kinds of classes offered. Try to determine which classes the candidate will be expected to teach. The job ad itself may provide the most specific information. Think about how your own skills and research interests could complement those of the target department.


The Cover Letter

The cover letter is the most crucial document in the application. According to Steve Hochstadt, chair of the history department at Bates College, the cover letter creates a “context, a mood, a lens” through which the rest of the application documents will be read.1 It offers the opportunity not only to describe your qualifications as a scholar, but also to demonstrate your skills as a writer. All too often it is your first and only chance to connect with harried search committees. What information should you include in this all-important document? How should it be structured?

Writing a cover letter is more art than science, but there are some basic rules. The cover letter should be no longer than two pages and should consist of three to five paragraphs. James Smither of Grand Valley State University holds that one page can be too “thin” to convey the full sense of your scholarly credentials, while more than two pages can be distracting. Judith Ewell of the College of William and Mary recommends presenting yourself as a colleague rather than a “newly minted” PhD. Craft the letter to the job. Make it personal by addressing it to the committee chair. Be specific about what attracts you to the particular position at the particular institution. Play to your strengths and interests, while keeping the needs of the target department in mind. The aim is to explain why you want the position and describe the teaching and research experiences that make you a compelling candidate.

Include basic information in a brief opening paragraph. Explain why you are writing (to apply for the position), how you learned of the position (your adviser, AHA job listing, etc.) ,what your educational status is (ABD, recently graduated), and a brief summary of why you are right for this position. If you have a personal connection to the target department through your adviser or other academic contact, mention it.

Richard Immerman of Temple University said that search committee members look for two things when considering a candidate: scholarly qualifications and teaching ability. They want to know right off if you are a specialist in the field advertised and if your teaching experience fits their requirements. You should address these issues early. Emphasize your key contribution to the field and try to make your research sound interesting. Highlight your teaching experience and what specialized courses you can teach. Mention any core survey courses you can teach as well.

Describe your dissertation briefly but avoid a long, content-focused discussion. The committee will be more interested in your contribution to the historiography than in the details of where you conducted research. Refer to your dissertation as a “manuscript” and outline a timeframe for publication. Indicate whether you plan to break it up into articles or publish it as a book. The committee is looking for an indication that your work can be published, not a synopsis.

What if the dissertation is not finished? Professor Ewell offered some advice on how to handle the ABD situation. Don’t be vague or overly optimistic, such as, “I’m working on the dissertation and expect to be finished in May,” or “I have one chapter completed and expect to have 11 more by next month.” Be honest and specific about how much you have completed, your schedule for finishing, and when you plan to defend. Ask your adviser to address the situation in the reference letter.

It is good to remember that the cover letter must be tailored to the target institution. The needs of a regional university, for example, will be slightly different from those of a research institution. Here the committee will be less interested in your ability to teach exotic, narrowly focused courses and more in your ability to teach broad surveys. While teaching may be of greater concern, the committee will be interested your potential as a scholar as well. Likewise, non tenure-track positions require an adjustment in emphasis. When hiring for a one-year position, the committee is more interested in your fields of competence and teaching experience than in your scholarly potential. Use the concluding paragraph to reiterate your interest in the position and thank the committee for considering your application. Name the materials included with the application (Enclosed please find a c.v., references, dissertation synopsis, etc. . . .) and those that will arrive separately (reference letters, transcripts). Offer information about how you can best be contacted and when you will be available for an interview.

Finally, spare no effort to ensure the cover letter contains the finest prose you can muster. Poorly written letters generate little enthusiasm. According to Smither, a well-written letter can mean the difference between getting the committee’s attention and getting a rejection letter. Since it may be one of the most important letters you will ever write, be sure to take the time to do your best.

The Curriculum Vitae

The c.v. is the preferred method of presenting qualifications for academic employment. Whereas a résumé is typically limited to two pages, a c.v. can grow with your career, providing space for additional publications and honors. The c.v. should provide a clear and concise summation of your experience, skills, and qualifications. It should include such basics as your name, contact information, education, and experience, as well as more extensive information relevant for a career as an academic historian. Think of your c.v. and cover letter as complementary. Use the c.v. to fill gaps and clarify issues touched on in your cover letter. There is no need to be too modest, but do not exaggerate. In listing publications, for example, scrupulously follow the section on credentials in the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.

As with the cover letter, crafting a c.v. is a matter of placement and emphasis. Don’t bury your teaching experience at the bottom. List courses you can teach along with a brief description. Make your dissertation stand out, and list your adviser and committee members. Unless you have a book or major article to your credit, Immerman recommends pushing your publications to the rear. Particularly if you are a junior scholar, the search committee will be more interested in your teaching experience and publishing potential than minor publications. Likewise, place conference presentations behind more relevant credentials. Be sure to include all pertinent qualifications, but arrange them with the concerns of the hiring committee in mind. Whenever possible, tailor your c.v. for each position, emphasizing credentials most relevant to the particular institution, but prepare a “standard” c.v. as well, to hand out at professional conferences and meetings. As for the length, Ewell suggests keeping it down to two pages, especially in the early stages of your career.

There is no “standard” c.v.; a variety of layouts and formats are possible. Your c.v. should reflect your own individual voice, experience, and interests. While there is no set design, categories like the following are typical:

  • Personal details
  • Education
  • Dissertation topic
  • Teaching experience
  • Areas of specialization
  • Professional experience
  • Relevant course work
  • Teaching interests
  • Research interests
  • Professional affiliations
  • Presentations
  • Honors, awards, and distinctions
  • Scholarships or fellowships
  • Publications
  • Unpublished manuscripts
  • Professional activities
  • Editorial activities
  • Experience abroad
  • Research interest
  • Languages
  • Research experience
  • References

Other Considerations

Send only the materials asked for in the job announcement and get them in early. Committees may begin putting together a short list of candidates early in the process. You don’t want to cross the additional hurdle of convincing the committee to replace an early application with yours.

Reference letters are important. The best option is to ask your referees, especially your adviser, to write a letter specifically targeted to the institution. Since you have to be careful about wearing out your welcome, you may want to limit these requests. Discuss the matter with your referees. Set up a credential file with your career services office containing standard letters of reference, transcripts, etc., and be sure to keep it current. According to Immerman, reference letters frequently lack sufficient information about teaching experience. Try to find referees who can speak positively about your teaching abilities.

Be careful to avoid the appearance of universal competence. While teaching experience is a good thing, presenting yourself as someone who can teach “anything” might turn the committee off. Be particularly careful if you have had a series of one-year positions where you taught courses outside of your field. Having an unusual break in your training might raise a flag as well. If you switched universities late in your studies, for example, you should offer some clarification. Aberrations probably won’t pose a problem unless they go unexplained.

Format and Quality

Don’t use the job application as an opportunity to express yourself with exquisite fonts or colorful paper. Stick with a conservative font like “Times New Roman.” Always use standard white or ivory 8.5 x 11 inch paper and keep your character size above 11 points. Reduce underlining, italics, and boldface to a minimum. Whenever possible, use a laser printer for best print quality.

Final Considerations

Once you have a draft, proofread, proofread, proofread! Typographical errors and misspellings are fatal. Avoid being remembered as the person who wrote, “Thank you for reviewing my application. I look forward to hearing from you shorty.” Be sure to ask someone to read your materials closely. If you’re sending out several applications, double check to make sure each letter corresponds to the institution to which it is addressed. Circulating your c.v. to advisers gives them a chance to check for mistakes and a handy reference for answering questions from search committee members should they call.

One last word of advice: it’s never too soon to begin thinking about your cover letter and c.v. You may have to go through several drafts before reaching the level of quality necessary for a job application. The goal is to provide the hiring committee with a compelling representation of your scholarly qualifications and fitness for the job. If you make a convincing presentation, the search committee may let you make your case in person.


  1. Steve Hochstadt, “Graduate Student Forum: The Convincing Cover Letter,” Perspectives (September 2003). []

Carl Ashley recently received his PhD in European history from the Catholic University of America. He wishes to thank Professors James Smither, Richard Immerman, and Judith Ewell for their assistance with this article.

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