Cover letters aren’t essays, but it’s surprising how many applicants treat them as such.
Yes, letters need to be thoughtful, personable, and tailored to each individual job, but that doesn’t mean they need to be elaborate. Whether it’s because they’re used to writing lengthy analyses or because they are new to the nonacademic job market, grad students can be particularly susceptible to common letter writing traps. Too many PhDs make the mistakes of:
1. Explaining their research. In all honesty, most potential employers won’t care about the details of your research. Unless your field of study or research methodology is directly related to the nonacademic job you’re applying to, avoid writing about the details of your research. At this stage of the application process, employers will be reading your letter to learn more about your qualifications and interest, not to learn about how you used a neo-Marxist lens to better understand the production of coffee in the Paisa region of Colombia. Employers who are interested in your research can read more about it on your resume and ask you follow-up questions during the interviews.
2. Explaining their decisions to leave academia. The stress and mental anguish that often accompany the decision to seek alt-ac careers can sometime seep into cover letters–which may raise red flags to potential employers. Letter readers want to know why you want the job they’ve advertised, not why you don’t want someone else’s job. While most employers will be curious to learn why you’re not pursuing an academic career, save that topic of conversation for the interviews. Instead, keep your letter focused on your interest in and qualifications for the job at hand.
3. Elaborating on their educational experiences. Awards, papers, fellowships, publications, and degrees are the measurements of success in the academic world, and since most PhDs have spent the bulk of their adult lives in school, it’s natural that they might be tempted to include these achievements in their nonacademic cover letters. Unfortunately, the markers of academic success are generally not the best indicators of professional success outside the academy. So save the academic accolades for your resume, and use your letter to persuade potential employers that you have the skills and experience to get the job done.
4. Writing too much. Period. Humanities and social science PhDs tend to be wordy, which is exactly not what you want your letter to be. Remember that your letter will be one of several dozen (if not several hundred) that your potential employer will be reading, which means you’ll need to communicate your interest and qualifications quickly and succinctly. To do this, avoid overly complicated sentences and large blocks of text, and make sure that your main points aren’t buried in the middle of the letter. Keep paragraphs short and sweet, write clear topic sentences, and, if possible, use bullets to highlight your relevant skills and experience.