Whether you’re applying for extra-academic jobs, postdoctoral fellowships, or tenure-track positions, the cover letter is an important part of the job application. Your resume or CV provides a snapshot of what you’ve been up to in your career, but it leaves out all of the context and nuance needed to understand your career trajectory. Even the pieces that someone could put together from different sections of your resume or CV aren’t necessarily clear, such as that the “gap” in your employment was when you were getting another degree. The cover letter is where you get to fill in the holes and explain how the pieces fit together. It’s your chance to control the narrative and tell readers how to interpret the story that your resume or CV tells.
I do this in my own cover letters because my B.S., M.P.A., and Ph.D. are arguably disconnected. I majored in Environmental Science and Policy in undergrad with a concentration in Land Use (in the Geography department), a minor in African American Studies, and a certificate in French. Ten years later, I finished an M.P.A. and then went onto complete a Ph.D. in Sociology. At face value, I look scattered and unfocused. What’s masked there is my common interests across the three programs. I was first introduced to the gentrification literature and spatial data analysis in undergrad, which carried onto my M.P.A. in my focus on urban policy and finally my Ph.D. where I wrote a dissertation about gentrification. In a cover letter, I can explain my path to find an intellectual home for understanding how place contributes to inequality, as well as how I build on my training in Geography (B.S.), Policy (M.P.A.), and Sociology (Ph.D.) in my research agenda to directly address that my CV could be interpreted as “Zawadi is scattered.”
You might have a part of your resume or CV that raises questions that you want to address directly like I do, but more commonly, you’ll need to address why the job you’re applying for is the next job in your career trajectory. This is something that all cover letters to all types of employers should do, but there are specific cases where you may need to address concerns about whether you “really want” the job you’re applying to, particularly if you have a Ph.D. or are coming out of a Ph.D. program. I’ve heard this commonly about liberal arts jobs (e.g., do they really want to work in a teaching focused institution?) and for extra-academic jobs that are more removed from research and teaching (e.g., do they really want to not be doing research or not teaching?). It’s easy for folks to make assumptions when they read your CV about what you want based on things like that you’ve published in peer-review journals, gotten a degree from a research institution, won grants or fellowships, or taught multiple courses. In this case, you can control the narrative by pointing to the experiences that made you really want to take this direction.
Instead of answering the kinds of questions I posed as hypotheticals directly, you should show the reviewers how your prior experiences actually make the job you’re applying to the job you want as the next step in your career. Maybe it was an amazing teaching experience or experience mentoring undergraduates you had that made you really want to work at an undergraduate focused institution. Maybe it was a classroom experience you had as an undergraduate that you aim to replicate or avoid for other students. Maybe it was the experience of writing a public facing piece and getting to dialogue with people outside of academia. Maybe it was the experience of learning to program in R and the power that the program provides to work with so many different kinds of data. Whatever it is, connect the goal (THAT job) to other parts of your resume or CV to show the reviewers how you’ve already begun to pursue that direction.
People make assumptions as they read job applications to help narrow the pool. You can control the narrative and avoid some of those assumptions in your cover letter. Asking alumni from your program for feedback and advice, or people you’ve done informational interviews with from the kind of jobs that you want to apply to can help you identify what those areas are where folks might make assumptions.