How to write a cover letter
In the first call for post-docs in my lab, I realized that most applicants did not have a clear idea of what to write in a cover letter. My technicians and me read them all with great frustration. Retrospectively, this is not so surprising, given that nobody teaches you how to write a cover letter in the academia. Since it may be useful for the community, I am going to explain how I read a cover letter and what I would like to see there.
What is a cover letter for?
From the principal investigator’s perspective, a cover letter is to get some insight into your motivations.
Several candidates think that the cover letter is the place to argue why you should hire them. Others use it as a chance to translate their CV into English prose. None of those will lead you very far. All you need to do is give enough information about yourself to let the employer know whether you have the profile they are looking for. At the same time, you want to demonstrate a proactive attitude.
Before you write, ask yourself what drives you, why you started this career. Is that ambition? Curiosity? A particular question in the field? Moral values? It can be anything. Then show some interest in the lab you apply for. Check their website, or grab their recent papers and write something about them. This will show your enthusiasm for the lab.
It is very important to mention the work of your potential employer in the cover letter. In addition to flattering the reader, it will show that you are committed to the application. The best way to show yourself as proactive is to propose a project, an idea or a hypothesis related to their work and your expertise. Even if it is naive or not very well elaborated, this will catch the reader attention and make them want to hear more about it, which will increase your chances of obtaining an interview.
Below is a fictive cover letter, that I could have written for a post-doc application. It is far from perfect, but it contains the information I like to find in an application. I also comment the text here and there to explain my logic.
An example of cover letter
Dear Dr [insert name here],
My name is Guillaume Filion and I am finishing a post-doc in bio-informatics(1).
As you can read from my CV, I have a strong experience in the fields of(2) chromatin and statistics. During my PhD, I discovered two mammalian proteins that bind methyl-CpGs and set out to discover their functions. I then wanted to gain a more global understanding of epigenetic phenomena, which is why(3) I turned to the genome-wide study of chromatin during my post-doc. My work led me to propose a classification of Drosophila chromatin in five basic types, with different properties, highlighting several gaps in the current models of gene silencing.
In the future, I would like to study(4) the role and the mechanisms of silencing. I am very interested in the idea that chromatin might produce an expression signature to set up and sustain cell identity. From your published work on [insert theme here](5), I thought that your lab may be a great place to further study this hypothesis.
As you can also gather from my CV, I have worked and studied in different countries. I also gave University classes for three years and participated to several outreach events, including participation to scientific festivals and conception of a short scientific film. From this experience I acquired(6) a strong sense of adaptation, openness to other cultures and ease of communication.
I believe that my presence in your lab would be a great benefit to everyone. I am enthusiastic about the possibility of working together and I hope to hear from you very soon.
(1) Say immediately what stage of your career you are. This is particularly important if you apply to an open call, as you will compete with hundreds of applicants and readers will have very little time to read your letter.
(2) Tell your domain(s) of expertise. By the third sentence, the reader must know how much experience you have (this is the previous note) and what you are good at.
(3) Explain your choices. Do not hesitate to say what you like, what fascinates you. The reader will most likely be a scientist too, so genuine enthusiasm for your research will work better than career objectives.
(4) Say what you want to do next. This shows that you know where you are going.
(5) Show some interest for the lab. Check their website and their research lines. Mention this in your text along with some published work. Propose something, even if this is naive or preliminary.
(6) Interpret your CV. This may seem obvious, but you can use the end of the cover letter to explain how your experience demonstrates your other qualities.
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