Cover letter for a professor position

My education didn’t teach me how the academic hiring process works.  I spent years sending out sh*t applications, until one day a close friend described the process from the hiring side.  Not only could I see what I had been doing wrong, but I saw how to fix it.  If you are a PhD student or Postdoc who is still struggling with the process, my hope is that reading this will help you a lot.

I’m including 4 cover letters at the bottom (scroll to bold red text) — 3 went out last fall, and the 4th is quite old and put there to show how truly bad my applications were.


One of my personal shortcomings is the ability to sell myself and my abilities. I am an accomplished scientific researcher who genuinely connects with students, but answering Are you better than him/her? initiates a lot of internal stress — I wouldn’t want to be judged by someone who doesn’t know me so I can’t do that to someone else. Everyone has their skillsets and virtues, and mine are unique just like everyone else’s. Unfortunately, the first phase of the job application process is all about judging someone by what is within that stack of paper.

My job search therefore sucked horribly for 3 years and I didn’t know why. Then one afternoon my perspective totally shifted.

Straight talk

A close friend and I were enjoying a few beers, and he asked where I was applying for positions. I told him, and in that approach that got him tenure in 4 years and then department chair, he paused, measuring his response. Our discussions were normally quite fluid and conversational, so I prepared myself for the shark bite that was coming.

This is our dialog, as best as I remember it two years later.

Pro: First, you need to be applying for more positions [4 didn’t seem acceptable]. Just because they make you an offer doesn’t mean you have to take it, but applying for jobs is a skilled exercise, and ideally you would have some practice before ‘the big game.’   

Lee: I get it, but those applications take me forever, so I’m hoping that by really focusing on a few that I would actually take, I can streamline the process.

Pro: Yeah, you would think that, but a lot of those R1 [research-focused universities] positions already have a favorite before they are even published.  Besides, you’ve been in this R1 game for a while now — do these people seem happy? 

[insert the respective pause for my colleagues and advisors who have suffered through heart attacks, divorces, kid custody battles, and what sometimes seems like bi-polar behavior]

Pro: I’ve probably been involved with 10 hires in the last 18 months… but if you want to hear it, we will need more beer. 

[I invested $8 towards an inebriated enlightening education]

Pro: After the Dean agrees to a new hire, the mix of bubbly volunteers and strong-armed members of the hiring committee meet to list out the Requirements.  A copy-paste version of the listing circulates via email for a few weeks of posturing and undertones, and is eventually published online (links to job sites). Everything then goes silent. 3 days before the deadline, the applications flood in. After the closing date, more pleading applications trickle in.

A few weeks later, a quick meeting of the hiring committee then sorts the enormous pile of printed applications into about 5 piles (~5 committee members). At the state schools, a typical listing generates about 80-100 applications, slightly less at small liberal arts colleges, and +300 at the headliner R1 schools. Each committee member then carries the box of applications back to their office, where they are incorporated into the frenzy of scientific papers, used coffee cups, and well-creased open books that help define each hardworking professor.

This all occurs at the end of the fall semester, so while this is ‘professional service’ it is also just more work. It gets lumped in with needy grad students, planning my research agenda over Christmas break, and generally just all the normal duties of an overworked underpaid professor. So, while I’m sometimes curious to read the applications in the box, they naturally collect some dust before I get to them.

Now pay attention because this is one of those important points that goes on all the time but you will never hear anywhere. About 90 minutes before the committee is actually scheduled to meet in the conference room, most committee member secretly locks their door and plows through the applications, quickly sorting them into ‘fat chance’ and ‘maybe.’ This reading frenzy is generally interrupted by a phone call and a persistent grad student at the door, with the 5 minutes before the meeting spent resorting the 13 maybes to 5 that might actually work. This 2nd level of sorting typically entails scanning beyond the cover letter. With 2 outliers and 3 more that need a re-read during the committee meeting, the order is set.

My process is a little different. I scan the stack of applications first, doing a similar sorting the maybes or no. I then rank them, but also keeping in mind what classes they could teach and how their research could strengthen the department

Lee: I’ve never thought of it from the hiring committee side. It almost seems like if you want to hack the process, you need to nail that front page of the cover letter.

Pro: Yes, you are sort of correct, but keep that point in mind.  Getting back to the process, getting a Top 5 is pretty easy, and while the different committee members may argue about the order, from the applicant perspective, you are just working to get the phone call.  We also all recognize that these top candidates aren’t just applying for this job, so the likelihood of actually getting them is a lot lower than a #25 candidate.  This is why you may wait 4-5 months before you get a rejection letter, as if we don’t find a candidate for the position, the Dean may put the money somewhere else the next year.  We often hold the top 25 until a formal offer is accepted. 

Anyway, we usually call about 10, so a bit of jostling happens to balance the male:female, veterans, racial backgrounds, but you need to make it very easy for a hiring committee to figure out that you either belong in the top 10 or in the reject pile.

Lee: Huh? 

Pro: You want to represent yourself honestly. The Research Statement and Teaching Statement — they aren’t binding, but they will be discussed, and even on a phone call, you can tell if the person stands behind those ideas or if they stole them from the internet. In a program with some energy, climate modeling, remote sensing, sustainability, interdisciplinary work — they will love you from the beginning. A smaller liberal arts school may not like you though — you haven’t taught much and you won’t be able to push your research agenda like you have been doing… they want someone who can teach 3 or 4 classes a semester and you aren’t that guy right now. You could do it, but on paper, you will get beaten out by the 28 year olds with recent TA experience. 

Lee: [after a few sips] OK, you have a point with the number of applications, I didn’t expect them to already have a candidate but of course they do. 

Pro: Your 7 years in Europe also hurts you. You have all these international collaborations, but you aren’t generally on the scientific radar in the U.S. — those R1 schools are serious about people they know, and Max Planck is across a big pond.    

Lee: So how do I nail the cover letter?

Pro: You need to use the cover letter to make it easy! The committee has a checklist of those Requirements, so make it easy to move you to the next round or nuke you.  Also remember that while that Requirement list seems solid, it was a collective decision from 4 months ago and a lot may have changed. 

Lee: Man, I feel like an idiot.  No wonder I haven’t been getting many calls. 

Pro: If people get the chance to talk with you, they will either love you or hate you.  Remember that when we [a university] hires someone, the investment is pretty large, so we hope they will stay for 20 years.  In the end, the job application determines if you are qualified, the phone interview is a bit about how you think, and the on-site interview is about what it would be like to run into the coffee machine or serve on committeee with you. 

[Pro bought for the rest of the night, as he could see that I was pondering all those missed opportunities]

The take home message…

The hiring committee is overworked just like you, so by making their job easy, everybody wins. I now interpret both the applicant->call and applicant->recycle as wins. The phone call is a great opportunity to address some of their concerns and ask a few questions, but the prep time involved is immense and they will inevitably all fall during the same week. In the applicant->recycle, I want to make it easy for the hiring committee to determine that I’m not the right fit, which allows me to focus my time and effort on possibilities that may actually materialize.

After spending a lot of time considering what Pro said and attending a day-long seminar about the process, this is how I do it.

What do you bring to the position [not what the position provides to you]…

  • WHY: Give the search committee a quick but informative picture of your background and interests relevant to the job (check out 2:30 at Simon Sinek )
  • WHAT: Show don’t tell — a bulleted list can be shorter and cleaner than linking multiple sentences along a storyline
  • How:
    • Paragraph 1: Dear [specific person], I write to apply for the ___ position at ___
    • Paragraph 2: Talk about your work, forget the chronology, forget that you are a PhD student or postdoc (they need to see as a colleague and equal), focus on the mission of the department
    • Paragraph 3: Teaching experience, and/or courses you are prepared to teach
    • Paragraph 4: What you are offering them (e. why are you attracted to this department)
    • The rest: Explicitly address each Required and Preferred Qualification from the job listing — this makes it easy for the committee member to ‘check’ those relevant boxes

What I don’t think you should ever do…

  • Misspell anyone’s name — how would you respond if someone did this to you on the first line?
  • Worry about the structural flow of the paragraphs and their transitions
  • Include a picture, birthdate, and nationality for US applications (commonplace in Europe)
  • put it on official letterhead (somewhat personal opinion) — you are representing yourself, not the university in this case

My real examples…

I’m including 3 different real examples of applications I sent out last fall (2016) and one from several years ago.  Example 1 resulted in an on-site interview, which erupted near the end and clarified that it wasn’t the right fit for either of us.  Example 2 was my annual hail mary to Canada, which would be an incredible opportunity and I think I would fit in quite well, but as I’m not Canadian its basically impossible at the Asst. Prof. level (tenured staff may be different).  Example 3 is very similar to Example 1, and I spent a lot of time on it, but it yielded nothing. Example 4 is one from years ago — humbling to see all the text and PhD talk (you want to be seen as a colleague, not a student), but also good to baseline how I wrote a cover letter a few years ago.

The first 3 examples were selected because of their similarities and differences.  What works for one application or committee might not work at all for another. Being rejected at any stage in the process hurts every time. Sure, I tell myself things like it’s their loss but I still need an hour of quiet time to come out of it. I sincerely think I would be a great professor, leveraging all the great professors I’ve had in the past and combining it with my sharp researcher’s brain, but it hasn’t worked out for me so far. I think it will.

Example 1: Asst. Professor at a smaller liberal arts college, so Master’s program but no PhD program

Result: phone call, on-site interview

My opinion today: should be more focused and shorter

[address]

December 1, 2016

Dear Dr. X and members of the search committee,

My name is Lee Miller and I am applying for the Assistant Professor position within the Department of X at X University.

I was overjoyed to see this posting, as I’ve been a big fan of the Institute for XXXX since its early days with XXX, and commend the commitment of XXX to use state money to permanently fund the Institute.  My research experience in renewable energy and dedication to for undergraduate education closely corresponds to the requirements in your announcement.  I am presently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, and was previously a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, where I also completed my PhD in Earth Sciences (i.e. Geowissenschaften) at the University of Hamburg in affiliation with the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. I believe my expertise in wind and solar power, atmospheric science, global and regional climate modelling, and data analysis would be well-suited to expand the expertise you already have within the XXX and broader XXX community. In particular, I would like to collaborate with XXX, XXX, XXX, XXX, and XXX. [maybe not wise to mention people specifically here, as unlikely that exact hiring committee member is reading it]

Simply, I hope we have a lot to discuss. I also recognize your need to assess and filter these applications, so below you will find a bulleted response to each of your Required and Preferred Qualifications.

Required Qualifications

PhD (by 09/15/17) in energy studies, environmental science, engineering, or a field related to energy technology and policy

  • PhD in Geowissenschaften (Earth Sciences) from the University of Hamburg (Germany) in 2011

Teaching and scholarship interests and experience aligned with the XXX’s mission statement [seems like too much here, but it is their mission statement so…]

  • Teaching — system-level thinking, with a focus on developing their intuitive understanding on a topic, and then using technical and analytical skills to deeply explore these first assumptions
    • enable personal relevance to the topic for each student
    • continually exercise and refine skillsets which will be useful forever (g. technical=MS Excel from Engineering or Economics; back-of-envelope estimates from Physics; presentation skills from Oral Communications; writing skills from English or Literature)
  • Professionally very interested in understanding how energy, water, and food can all become sustainable, and my research is finding very strong connections between them, as well as to climate
    • estimating the theoretical and practical limits of wind and solar power technologies has been my research topic for years, which has now evolved into understanding the mechanisms by which renewable technologies introduce climate differences, which leads to other open questions about food and water differences and the confounding factors introduced by climate change

Evidence of the ability to maintain a relevant program of scholarly activity

  • Presently strong U.S. and international collaborations in Renewable Energy, Atmospheric Science, Physics, Engineering, and Ecology are expected to continue at a slightly lower intensity
  • My genuine curiosity and openness to learn from these experts and new ones has allowed me to maintain close relationships from more than a decade ago (g. Pacific Northwest National Lab)
  • I would expect that the scientific importance of understanding renewable energy and associated climate differences will only grow more prominent into the future

Demonstrated potential for effective teaching in energy technology, policy and related topics

  • Previously taught thermodynamics to global climate modelers from various disciplines; renewable energy limits and feedbacks from a climate perspective to Earth Science majors
  • Experience in both academia and industry, knowledge across various research techniques (modeling, remote sensing, GIS), my international exposure (research stays in Germany, United Arab Emirates, France, United Kingdom), and rural upbringing gives me a special perspective that I use to connect with students

Ability to work effectively with diverse students and colleagues

  • Taught a block class at Heritage University (Toppenish, WA), which then evolved into 2 students becoming my summer interns — this was my first exposure to the challenges and concerns of Latino and Native American students and colleagues
  • Living in Germany for 7 years added multiple horizons to my level of appreciation for diversity
    • ~50% of all students, academics, and scientists I interacted with on a daily basis were not from Germany or the U.S.
  • View diversity of all types as a personal challenge that I need to routinely re-evaluate

Excellent written and verbal communication skills

  • Writing: publishing my controversial papers in high-profile journals required an entirely new level of polish and scientific clarity, which was then revisited through various rounds of reviews — my writing could always be improved, but it presently at a very high level [too personal]
  • Communication: the scientific agreement on my research topic is quickly shifting in my favor, but required me to be much more clear and concise than colleagues before me — excellent presentation and personal communication skills resulted, but are also always improving

Preferred Qualifications

Relevant expertise in energy system technology, policy and planning [too much here]

  • Energy system technology: expertise in surface-based wind power and solar PV technologies
  • Policy: developing; my recent projects have found that wind power introduces substantial climate differences, not only within the wind farm (e. Texas, Oklahoma) but also >500 km from the nearest wind farm (i.e. Georgia) – these yet unpublished results have initiated discussions with several experts in government and public policy here at Harvard
  • Planning: actively researching the practicality of individual state plans for renewable energy; understanding the difficulties in moving electricity from where it could be generated from a renewable source (e. hydro, wind, solar) to a location that can utilize the electricity (relates to ISO and RTO boundaries, HVDC and HVAC practicalities); understanding the type of power generation different types of renewable energy can offset (e.g. baseload vs. peak power) and the associated GHG emissions and types of fossil-fuel generators they would be offsetting; how our demand for power and electricity could be shifted temporally via physical storage (e.g. pumped hydro storage, batteries) and with smart-grid use (e.g. charging electric cars at night when wind generation is high but demand is typically low)

Recent, relevant experience in the technical and policy dimensions of energy system

  • Several published papers in the last 5 years discussing the challenge of using renewable energy as the sole source of power in the future, primarily focused on modeled results from wind power and observations from solar farms — both aspects have applicability to technical and policy dimensions in the future
    • just started a project that shows electricity generation rates from about 150 wind farms and about 100 solar PV farms, exploring their large-scale applicability and temporal variations

A record of research in the energy field in academia, government or industry [all true, but when is it boasting, distancing those who spend most of their time teaching rather than doing research?]

  • In the last 12 months, I have published 2 papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on wind power and climate, as well as 2 eLetters in Science regarding wind and solar power technologies
  • most near-term submission is an invited piece for Science‘s Policy Forum

Evidence of ability to develop and externally-funded research program

  • secured funding for several $50-250K projects while a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • reviewed 2 different NSF proposals in the last 6 months, which provides me with a unique perspective on how the proposal review process at NSF works, and the components of winning and rejected proposals

Relevant experience teaching interdisciplinary course(s)

  • Previously taught thermodynamics to global climate modelers for various disciplines; renewable energy limits and feedbacks from a climate perspective to Earth Science majors, and remote sensing to Environmental Science majors (see CV, Teaching Experience)
  • My personal view is that society’s relationship with energy now and into the future requires an interdisciplinary approach — it isn’t solely climate modeling, economics, physics, meteorology, land-atmosphere interactions, or all within human control — this point should be reinforced throughout any energy-related course

Overview

I am very attracted to the interdisciplinary strengths of the XXX, and met several welcoming and interesting professors last time I interviewed there. I think my varied background and expertise could help you grow your capabilities and contributions at XXX.

Thank you for considering my application.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

[inserted a graphic of my signature here]

Example 2 — Asst. Professor at a large research university in Canada.  Previous experience suggests that at the Asst. level, Canadian universities are almost exclusively going to hire Canadians.  I therefore applied, but spent much less time on this application.

Result: (Feb. 6): The Search Committee has completed its initial deliberations on the applications received, and I regret to inform you that your application was not selected for further consideration. We found that the quality of the applications was truly superb; regrettably, there were many strong candidates that we were unable to short list.”

[address]

November 18, 2016

Dear Dr. XXXX and members of the search committee,

My name is Lee Miller and I am applying for the Assistant Professor position in XXXX at XXX.

I was extremely happy to learn of the opening in the XXX Department, as my research and teaching experience correspond closely to the requirements described in your announcement. I received my PhD in Geowissenschaften (Earth Science) from the University of Hamburg (Germany), and am currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. I believe my research interests in sustainability, climatology, geospatial data analysis, and remote sensing would fit well within your department. In particular, I hope to be able to collaborate with XXXX, XXXX, XXXX, and XXX.

My primary work focuses on renewable energy, using regional and global atmospheric models to estimate the electricity generation rates and associated climate differences of large-scale wind and solar power.  In the last 12 months, this work is described in 2 publications in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2 eLetters in Science, and in the near-future an encouraged piece for Science‘s Policy Forum. In the future, I would like to push this research to smaller-scales, while also gaining more insight via modelling and remote sensing observations to understand the spatial and temporal dynamics of the climate differences renewable technologies like wind power might introduce.

I realize that Canada, with hydropower already contributing ~60% of net electricity generation and 1/6 of primary energy demand, already has a comparatively clean energy supply. I have also watching how climate change and energy have played a dominant role in the Liberal’s first year.  Could renewable technologies be implemented in the remote First Nation and Inuit communities, with this knowledge then transferred to other developing nations and remote island communities? I would hope so, and I have the technical skills to pursue such a project. This is also an illustration of how I plan projects, combining various skillsets (I have experience in all your teaching topics of digital terrain analysis, remote sensing, geospatial data visualization, citizen science, and spatial statistics) towards a project that I think is intriguing and worthwhile to me, and would be interesting and informative in the classroom.

Specific to my teaching experience, I have taught 2 block courses (one on renewable energy, one on remote sensing), been an invited guest lecturer (renewable energy), and taught the last 10 weeks of a biogeography course. I have also given numerous scientific presentations to a variety of specialized and public audiences. I feel comfortable teaching, both within my specific focus area of renewable energy, but also in the wide range of physical geography courses at the introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels. I would also welcome the opportunity to develop new courses according to the department needs, especially application-type classes that utilize geospatial data and/or modelling to help inform sustainability. I especially enjoy mentoring students over longer periods of time, and have done this extensively by advising students through a 3-6 month internship project, as well as serving on undergraduate and graduate advisory committees.

I am very attracted to the interdisciplinary strengths of the XXX Department, as well as the wealth of academic experts right there at XXX.  I believe my interdisciplinary background and research agenda equip me to contribute to both The XXX Master Plan as well as enhance the capabilities of the XXXX Department.  Becoming an Assistant Professor at XX would provide me with the platform to really make a positive difference in our collective future, while also fostering a vibrant environment for the study of geography.

Thank you for considering my application.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Lee Miller

Example 3 — Asst. Professor at a large research university in the US. Once upon a time I applied for a postdoc there and never heard anything. Two years ago, I applied for a different Asst. Prof. position in the same department and heard nothing. 

Result: (April 14): We received applications from many qualified applicants for this position.  We would like to inform you that your application was reviewed thoroughly and the search committee was impressed with your scientific accomplishments.  However, the applicant pool for this position proved to be highly competitive, and your application is unfortunately not among those selected for further consideration.”

[address]

November 23, 2016

Dear Dr. XXX and members of the search committee,

My name is Lee Miller and I am applying for the Assistant Professor position in XXX within the XXXX at XXX.

I was overjoyed to see this posting, as my research and teaching experience corresponds very well with the requirements in your announcement.  I’m presently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, and was previously a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, where I also completed my PhD in Geowissenschaften (Earth Science) via the University of Hamburg and the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. I believe my research interests in atmospheric science, weather and climate, sustainability, geospatial and big data analysis, and various remote sensing technologies are well-suited to the Climate Science Option, XXX, and at XX. In particular, I would like to collaborate with X, X, X, X, and X.

My primary work focuses on understanding the limits of using solar and wind power to generate electricity, as well as understanding how their introduction to the climate system could cause climate differences of their own. In the last 12 months, this work is described in 2 publications in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2 eLetters in Science, and in the near-term an encouraged piece for Science‘s Policy Forum.

At X, I would endeavour to develop relationships with local wind farm and hydroelectric operators.  I would want to build a win-win flow of information, while also be highly engaging and relevant to students (not only in fields like renewable energy, but also ecology, wildlife management, computer science).

The opportunity to utilize data from the local Solar by Degrees to teach about weather, climate, and their variability is also intriguing, as is learning more about the possibilities of a student-led renewable project securing funding from the Sustainable Energy Revolving Loan Fund (SERLF).

Hopefully you now have a first impression of what XXX and I could do together.  To help facilitate a conversation, I’ve specifically addressed your Required Qualifications and Preferred Qualifications in bullet form below.

Required qualifications:

[Ph.D. in atmospheric science, oceanography, or a closely related field by the start of employment]

  • PhD in Geowissenschaften (Earth Sciences) from the University of Hamburg (Germany) in 2011

[Demonstrated ability or potential for teaching excellence and commitment to student success in the undergraduate and graduate programs of the College of XXX]

  • Teaching (to me) represents the most substantive way for me to help shape a long-term future that extends well beyond my lifetime
  • Very cognizant of the need for teaching in a way that fosters student engagement, allows them to find and explore the personal relevance of the topic, and help them develop the soft and hard skills that will allow them to surpass their career goals (see Teaching Philosophy)

[Demonstrated ability or potential for developing and teaching courses in climate science, basic meteorology, and atmospheric physics at an undergraduate level]

  • Previously taught 2 block classes (Thermodynamics of the Earth System, Applications in Remote Sensing), as well as serving as an invited lecturer
  • Extensive knowledge of climate, atmospheric physics, and meteorology (as this is my research focus) in my pursuit of estimating electricity generation rates of wind and solar power, as well as the possible climate differences they introduce
  • Would utilize the ‘hands-on’ and project focused classes of the Climate Science Option to inspire students regarding weather, climate, and its underlying mechanisms
    • Climate Data Analysis
    • Climate Modeling
    • Internships (maybe with my old colleagues at Pacific Northwest National Lab)

[Demonstrated ability or potential for mentoring undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-doctoral scholars]

  • 5 extremely rewarding graduate student experiences come to mind, with each requiring something different from me (past and current listed under my CV’s Teaching and Mentoring Experience), as well as being at different educational stages
  • I found longer student relationships to be extremely rewarding, while also challenging, as I tried to balance ‘what I want’ with what I thought would motivate and benefit the student

[A commitment to educational equity in a multicultural setting and to advancing the participation of diverse groups and supporting diverse perspectives]

  • Living in Germany for 7 years added multiple horizons to my appreciation for cultural diversity
    • about half of all students, academics, and scientists I interacted with on a daily basis were not from Germany or the U.S.
    • changed my personal view of the world and its people forever
  • Previously I would have thought that a diverse group setting meant skills, but I would now broaden this to instead mean a diverse group would add perspectives to an idea or topic which intellectually stimulates and benefits all group members who are open to listening

[Commitment to advancing and equalizing student success across different demographic groups] – my response seems too philosophical

  • Success to me indicates a personal rather than public value judgement (e. Is Elon Musk successful, assuming he aspired to be a violinist?), and I would appreciate the opportunity to first ask the student where they would like to ‘go’ and help them along this individualized path
  • I would also expect (but don’t know) that different demographic groups enter a program like XXX with different levels of focus or uncertainty regarding their 2- to 5-year horizon, as well as possibly representing different attributes (g. younger = better programmer; older = better time management)
  • My job as a professor is to help all these students, regardless of their demographic group, and support them on their personalized path

[A strong scholarly potential demonstrated by a record of peer-reviewed publications and a clearly defined research agenda commensurate with academic rank]

  • My research is focused on climate rather than the engineering when estimating the electricity generation rates and associated climate differences of renewable technologies like wind and solar
  • 2 publications in the last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on wind power and climate
  • 2 publications as eLetters in the last 6 months in Science regarding the electricity generation limits of wind and solar power technologies, with results from observations and models

[Commitment and ability to effectively communicate in the classroom]

  • I have given numerous invited talks to technical and general scientific audiences (see CV’s Presentations) and have refined how to give an understandable and intriguing presentation
  • Engage the students immediately with what they want to learn from the class, how much time commitment this class will require, as well as a mid-term check-in on 2 things they like and don’t like about the class so far — I always want to be learning how to be better

Preferred qualifications:

[One year or more of teaching experience]

  • No, my total time in front of a classroom is probably about 80 hours

[Demonstrated record of successful interdisciplinary collaborations]

  • My research topic is extremely interdisciplinary, and I have been quite successful at engaging specialists from very different fields (biogeochemistry, physics, boundary layer meteorology, atmospheric science, engineering, and economics) — I welcome their contributions and perspectives to this highly unexplored topic
  • My work at the Marine Sciences Lab of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory was extremely rewarding because it was so interdisciplinary — I was hired there to infuse remote sensing and GIS into the toolkits of researchers doing aquatic and nearshore ecology, fish population assessments, hydrology, and shallow water modeling

[Demonstrated ability for establishing an atmospheric science research program supported by extramural funding]

  • I sincerely think my work regarding the generation limits and associated climate differences will soon be a highly appreciated topic for scientific research
  • Historically secured project funding for several $50-250K projects while a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Reviewed two >$1M NSF proposals in the last 6 months, which provides me with a unique perspective on how the proposal review process works, and the components of winning and rejected proposals; both were well within my research topic
    • Separate discussions with the NSF Program Director of Physical and Dynamic Meteorology and Smart and Connected Communities clarified that my present need for more than 3 months of salary was problematic, but he would be very happy to see a proposal from me as soon as I have a University position

[Commitment and ability to effectively communicate in public settings]

  • Strong presentation skills, diverse background (logger, sailor, dishwasher, groundskeeper) enables me to connect and communicate with almost anyone
  • Appreciate the public concern and confusion regarding regional vs. global climate change, and would like to work at addressing this
  • Recognize that the public partly funds XXX positions, and welcome the ability to contribute to the local and regional community

Overview:

By writing the cover letter this non-traditional way, hopefully I was able to clearly show how I meet nearly all of your qualifications, while also adding more insight as to what it would be like to have me as a colleague. I would enjoy learning more about the longer-term trajectory for the Climate Sciences Option, as well as research opportunities both inside XX and within other departments at X.  I think my background and interests would benefit from by the expertise on the XXX campus, while also providing a unique new topic area within the XXX Undergraduate and Graduate Programs.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Lee Miller 

Example 4 — This is my very first application, Asst. Professor at a large research university in Canada. In contrast to the others, I’m pasting it exactly as I sent it in. The writing seems ok, but way too much text and storyline.  One point that may be unclear is why I bring up meeting my wife in Canada. This was dangerous, but worth the risk in my opinion to highlight that I truly do love the area, have firsthand knowledge (remember that I’m applying from Germany), and would actually stay in the area if given the chance.   

Result: a rejection email arrived months later

[address]

November 1, 2013

Dear Dr. Smith,

I am writing in application to the advertised Assistant Professor position in the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria.  I’ve always loved Victoria, as that is where I met and dated my now-wife (UVic Psychology), often surfed to the west, and enjoyed many Swiftsure racing events.  Currently, I’m a Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, where for the last 5 years, I’ve been incorporating renewable technologies into our understanding of the future Earth System.  Before this, I spent 7 years as a Remote Sensing and GIS Scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Marine Sciences Lab in Sequim, WA.

My current research focuses on how surface-atmosphere interactions respond to the introduction of such technologies as low- or high-altitude wind power or photovoltaic panels.  Understanding these dynamic interactions enables one to estimate the maximum energy potential of a technology given an initial climatic forcing, but furthermore begins to describe how these interactions alter the system, such as changes in surface temperature and/or evaporation and convective precipitation rates.

When I began this work 5 years ago, it was extremely controversial within the scientific community.  In closed-door meetings and confidential emails, many respected climate scientists fully agreed with my results.  Their issue was more fundamental, as I was fueling an additional rift between the public and science, “…when global warming should be our foremost research topic.”  Having spent years within the shroud of national security work at the national laboratory, and potentially having read too many B. Fuller, T. Hardin, and A. Lovins books, I had enormous concerns and optimism for the human-future, which fueled my passion for my shift in research topics and the utmost need for early-on transparency to the public instead.

More recently, in the last 2 years, I’ve made great advancements in my writing and presentation skills, techniques, and overall system understanding.  Part of this is the result of incorporating my ideas into a new high-resolution regional model (WRF), and part of this is the result of extremely worthwhile collaborations with experts from a variety of fields (atmos. science, applied physics, public policy, ecology).  Together, we have some very new ideas on how the surface-atmosphere interactions may be altered (or not) specific to the technology and its geographic placement (examples in the Research Statement).  Additionally, several other researchers have recently noted similar limits to renewables and associated climatic consequences using both interactive climate models and Remote Sensing, which is quickly shifting such research from peripheral to cutting-edge.

Specific to Canada, I’m quite confident saying that wind farms decrease the downwind velocity in a localized region, and thereby the surface momentum flux.  What would happen if a large-wind farm were deployed in Southern Alberta, directly within the area of high wind erosion risk (http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex10315)?  Modeling in Kansas (US) with minimal (0.6 MW/km2) turbine placement shows surface momentum flux decreases of > 30%.  Counter to this potentially useful dynamic would be that the increase in vertically entrained air is typically drier, which would cause more agricultural stress or erosion?  As a BC example, I can see that the offshore or nearshore wind power potential is quite promising (http://www.windatlas.ca/en/EU_50m_national.pdf), but how might the dynamics of onshore or offshore wind turbines influence this ecologically sensitive downwind region?  Do the long-term energy benefits counter such impacts?  This is well-beyond my expertise, but I think we all see how interdisciplinary and thereby ‘Geography’ such questions are.

I recognize that the prevalence of larger-scale wind and solar farms in BC is currently limited to a wind farm in Peace River and a wind farm in Tumbler Ridge.  I see this as an opportunity rather than an immediate hindrance, as sites do exist in the US to learn from, but ideally Canada could apply a more broad human-physical environment type ‘system thinking’ to the challenge of economic growth and sustainability than has been performed before.  Constrained to your department, such ‘system thinking’ might require the interactive expertise of researchers like Dr. Darimont, Dr. Niemann, Dr. Walker, and Dr. Dearden (to name a few) all working together on different aspects of the same question.

My preference for such a ‘system approach’ would also be reflected in my teaching methods.  Tasked with teaching introductory remote sensing, I might begin with student papers and presentations on the Pine Bark Beetle’s history in Canada, then perform an unsupervised classification on a MODIS multi-temporal stack and/or a NDVI temporal series from the GIMMS group, reference to currently known maps over time, incorporate climate reanalysis to the data stack or GIS slope/aspects, etc, performing a field survey of the various results, and finally qualitatively (quantitatively for graduate students) extending our understanding to the future climate projections.  Such a project could also be transformed into a focus on GIS and field data acquisition, the influence of pedology/biodiversity/hydrology/climate, or correlations and trend analysis.

In taking such an approach at the undergraduate level, I would want to illustrate that numerous tools and methods exist and are often valid, but iterative research techniques and failures are necessary to further our understanding of the extremely complex Earth System.  Thus far, nearly all of my student interactions have either been conducted by way of block courses, guest lectures, interns, or serving as a longer-term research advisor for Masters and PhD students.  This pitfall is not for my lack of initiative, but rather founded in the clear German distinction between Dr. and Professor and the fact that all undergraduate classes here in Jena are taught exclusively in German.  As such, I have yet to really develop a relationship with students where we are both learning and challenging one another, yet I’m extremely excited about taking such a bold and exciting step forward.  My interdisciplinary research experience, open friendly personality, and overwhelming passion to learn and entertain new ideas with others will certainly translate to the classroom and your Geography Department.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you,

Lee Miller

One Reply to “Cover letter for a professor position”

  1. With thanks! Valuable information!

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