A cover letter is an important tool to use when applying for a job because it:
- Introduces you to the prospective employer
- Highlights your enthusiasm for the position
- Describes your specific skills and qualifications for the job or internship, and clearly explains why you are a good fit
- Confirms your availability to start a new position
You should always include a cover letter when applying for a job unless you are specifically told not to by the employer. We recommend that you write a cover letter (aka letter of intent) after you have drafted and tailored your resume or curriculum vitae (CV) for a particular job description. For academic faculty and teaching positions, see cover letter instructions in Masters, Ph.D.'s and Postdocs section. When applying online and limited to uploading one document, you can create a single PDF document that includes both your resume and cover letter.
What to Include in a Cover Letter
Use the cover letter template and planner to get started. When drafting your cover letter, keep the following DO’s and DON’Ts in mind:
- Limit the cover letter to one page if possible, unless applying to academic faculty, teaching or research positions.
- Use the same font and formatting in the cover letter as you use in your resume.
- You might also want to use the same header in both a cover letter and resume. See header formatting examples.
- If providing a printed copy, use the same type of paper for both your cover letter and resume. Resume paper can be purchased at the UC Davis Bookstore or at an office supply store.
- Many tech companies prefer the cover letter not be attached, but uploaded as text in an email with the resume attached.
- Use formal, professional language in a cover letter. This is true when sending your cover letter as text in an email (above point).
- Personalize each cover letter to the specific position you are applying to.
- Address your cover letter to a specific person or the hiring manager whenever possible. If you don’t know their name, use one of the following examples:
- "Dear Hiring Manager,"
- "Dear [insert department here] Hiring Team,"
- "Dear Recruiter, "
- “Dear Search Committee Chair and Committee Members:” (used for academic teaching positions)
- "To Whom It May Concern: " Note, this last one uses a “:” not a “,”
- Check for typos, proper grammar and accuracy.
- Use spellcheck, but do not rely on it to catch all errors.
- Have multiple people review your application materials.
- Make an appointment with an ICC adviser to review your application materials before you apply.
- Unless told explicitly not to, you should always include a cover letter in your application.
- Don’t use text abbreviations or emoticons if you are using email.
- Don’t be too wordy or write just to fill the entire page.
- Don’t submit a generic “one size fits all” cover letter; tailor your cover letter to fit each position. Thus, none of your cover letters will be exactly the same, though a lot of content will be similar in each.
- Don’t repeat or summarize your resume in your cover letter. Instead, focus the cover letter on your enthusiasm for the job, excitement about working with that organization, to highlight unique skills that make you qualified for the position and a good fit for the employer.
- Don’t overuse adjectives or superlatives, especially subjective ones (e.g. “You are the best company in the world” or “I am the most hardworking student intern you will ever meet.”).
- Quantify when possible. "I've helped organize three club events, including two successful initiatives attended by 25 people" is a better descriptor then "I've helped organize several club events, including a couple successful initiatives attended by many people."
- Don’t exaggerate your skills or experience.
- Don’t use UC Davis letterhead, logo, or UC seal in your cover letter. [NOTE: For graduate students and postdocs, some departments allow use of department letterhead for tenure-track faculty applications. Check with your department before using.]
In most cases a postdoctoral researcher position is a short-term mentored position with a strong research focus, although the specifics can vary widely. While postdocs are common in the sciences and engineering, postdoctoral opportunities also exist in the humanities and social sciences. Because a postdoc is a training step, keeping your entire career plan in focus is crucial as you make this decision.
Types of Postdocs
Postdoc opportunities can be found at a variety of institutions, including major research universities, primarily undergraduate colleges, national labs, industry, nonprofits, and government.
Why do you want a postdoc?
The first step to finding the right postdoc is to understand your long-term career goals. Thinking about the following questions can help you focus on finding a postdoc that is well suited for your needs:
- Do you want to work at a teaching-intensive institution or a major research center?
- Are you planning to look for a job in industry or with the government?
- What research questions are you interested in pursuing?
- Are there additional skills you would like to develop during your postdoc?
While the postdoc can be an opportunity to transition to a related field, be realistic about the amount of time it will take to be productive in the new field.
Finding Postdoctoral Opportunities
After you have assessed your needs and desires, start formulating a list of potential mentors.
- Think about authors of interesting papers or people you have met at conferences.
- Seek advice from your adviser, other faculty, students, and postdocs.
- Investigate programs for specialized postdocs (such as teaching intensive).
Most postdoc positions are not advertised widely, so talk to your personal contacts, such as advisers and colleagues. Postdoc positions may be posted in discipline-specific publications or websites, on a centralized page at a university, or on the website of an individual researcher.
Learn where job postings can be found in your field. Keep in mind that there are many different titles for these positions, so don’t search only for “postdoc.”
Narrow down the list by doing more research:
- Is there evidence that this principle investigator (PI) provides good mentoring opportunities?
- Consider the career stage the PI is in or is entering and what that means in terms of your training (e.g., the PI’s availability and responsiveness). This may differ by discipline.
- Where are the former postdocs after ten years?
- What are the active research areas?
It is also a good idea to identify more than one PI you could potentially work with in case unforeseen circumstances lead to a necessary change in mentorship.
Also take into consideration how postdocs in your field are compensated. Will your salary come from the department or from a grant? This may also help you narrow down your list of possibilities. Federal agencies and private foundations are very transparent about projects they have funded. Here are a couple tools that can help explore opportunities that are already funded:
There are also specific postdoctoral grants (e.g. NIH F Kiosk) that could help you be a more competitive candidate. Being familiar with the grant process and funding landscape can also be helpful in your future career. Here are a few tools to help you find individual funding:
The Application Process
The postdoc application process is not standardized. In some cases, especially in industry and national labs, the application process is formalized with an official job posting and list of required application materials. In other cases the candidate might send an unsolicited application to a principal investigator. Discuss these options with your adviser and other faculty to determine what approaches and application materials are appropriate for your field.
A tip for unsolicited emails is to be direct in the subject line and state exactly what you want (e.g. “Seeking postdoc position from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign”).
In all cases, it is important to know how you are a good fit and be able to clearly articulate how you will contribute. The most common application materials are an updated CV, which has been tailored for postdoc positions, a statement of research interests, and a strong cover letter that explains your interest in and fit for the position. You will also need to ask people to serve as references.
Interviewing processes vary widely and often include a visit to the research group where the postdoctoral candidate will most likely:
- Meet with the principal investigator
- Present a research seminar
- Meet with current members of the research group
Be sure to prepare for the interview by becoming familiar with the research in the group. This interviewing process is an important opportunity to ask questions and learn about the dynamics of the research group, department, and community. Former postdocs can also provide helpful insights.
This is also an opportunity for you to assess whether or not this opportunity is a good fit for you. It is a good idea to be up front about any specific goals you may have (such as teaching) and you can have an open and honest discussion about the expectations of this role.
Here are some questions to consider:
- How much freedom do postdocs have in pursuing research projects? How will the direction of research be decided?
- What types of funding are available and will you participate in grant writing?
- What is the potential for publishing and attending conferences?
- If financial support is coming from the PI, how long is this support guaranteed? Is this subject to a grant renewal? Will there be sufficient funds to support the research?
- What career development opportunities are available, such as teaching?
- How does the PI mentor the postdocs? How much time does the PI spend with postdocs? Where do the postdocs go after leaving the group?
Optimizing Your Postdoctoral Experience
The principle investigator is aware that this is a temporary position, and you should clearly articulate what you hope to accomplish during this position and what your future career plans are.
- Be focused on your research and professional development goals.
- Regular, clear communication with your PI is very important.
- Maintain and develop your personal contacts by keeping in touch with colleagues.