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Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

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Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby Dave Jensen » Sat Jan 26, 2013 2:56 pm

Here's a quote from a current piece of writing on the ScienceCareers.org magazine section. I'd love to hear what you think about this. It's funny, and I think that's really the intent. But the point it makes could really throw a lot of people off track. What's your opinion? Are cover letters valuable or just a toss-away as this describes?

I don't know who decided all resumes need a cover letter. Half of the cover letters I've read simply put the resume into paragraph format, and the other half just said, "See attached." To me, the cover letter is like the little sock an umbrella comes in: It makes the umbrella look slightly nicer before you open it, but the umbrella itself is doing the real work. Also, you'll probably lose the umbrella sock at some point, and you'll notice no deleterious effect on your life.


Sure, many cover letters qualify as true umbrella socks. The "Dear Sir or Madam" letters, the "See the enclosed CV" letters, and so on. On the other hand, perhaps its because of this general low-level impression of cover letters that the really good ones can stand out. That's why they are valuable. When well-written, and directed to a particular individual, they are read and not quickly scanned as is the CV. They can make a difference. They can take a point that is buried in the middle of your technical jargon on the CV and illuminate the real-life impact that this skill or experience brings to the table.

Don't give up on cover letters.

Dave
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"I know Dad, but why isn't it ever unfair in my favor?”
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby PG » Sat Jan 26, 2013 3:52 pm

I always read the cover letter first and think that it should be used as an important document. It gives you the opportunity to tell why you want the position you are applying for, highlight what you can add to the new organization and clarify essential skills or interests.

I agree that cover letters saying please see the attached CV are pointless but these are usually combined with a generic CV that is not adapted for the actual position which is normally is a sure way of getting a no thank you as a reply to the application.

Almost as bad as a short e-mail saying "please see my profile at Linkedin"
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby R.S.D. » Sun Jan 27, 2013 10:59 am

I agree and disagree. A cover letter can be a great tool to connect with the potential employer/job, but it's usefulness depends on the type of job being searched for.

For example, I'm a PI and I've been looking to hire a postdoc. I only want to hire people who actually care about training and working in my field - the cover letter is the place for people to explain their interests to me. Nothing is more off-putting to me than a generic cover letter. I have no interest in hiring people who can't be bothering to at least write a couple of sentences explaining their interest in my lab or in the field. Also, another off-putting thing people do is copy sentences word-for-word from my lab website - lazy - like I can't recognize my own writing - I'll never hire someone who does this. In fact, so far, the only people I've interviewed wrote great cover letters/email letters emphasizing their interest in the field, how their expertise would be useful in my lab, and how their experience in my lab would fit into their career goals - in fact, I just decided last week to hire someone who got my attention with a great cover letter.

That said, cover letters are over-rated when it comes to searching for a faculty position. While a great cover letter will not hurt you, it might not help much. This is because networking is what really works for finding a faculty position.
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby Dave Jensen » Sun Jan 27, 2013 2:00 pm

Thanks for your excellent post RSD.

I've taken the liberty of launching a new thread using part of it. Hope you'll participate,

Dave
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"I know Dad, but why isn't it ever unfair in my favor?”
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby Ana » Mon Jan 28, 2013 2:24 am

Great post RSD.

When I read the original article I was also surprised about the author comments. I’ve always read the cover letters when I was in academia and now in industry, and as RSD explained so well they are very important. I agree, don’t give up on (good) cover letters!
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby P. Lues » Mon Jan 28, 2013 4:30 am

I am in the midst of a job search now and I always have a cover letter (most places require them anyways). But I think as the others said, that' where I can show them my interest in the company/lab and the field (maybe tell them what I know about the company and their research). Also tell them why I am a good match for this position. I've learned over time to cut to the chase and get to the bottom of what I'm trying to say. I used to ramble a lot in my cover letters but I am now managing to cut it down to one third of a page and I still say everything I need to say. I'm getting interviews so it seems to be working.
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby Jim Austin » Fri Feb 01, 2013 5:02 pm

Hello all. I edited that story by Adam Ruben so I thought I would comment.

Dave is right of course: It was intended to be funny. But I don't doubt the advice reflects Adam's own experiences reviewing applications. What I suspect this means is that few if any of the applications he reviewed included successful, effective cover letters. So: If you can't do something good with it, leave it off. And most people in that batch didn't do much right, it sounds like.

I like cover letters, for reasons already described. And I remember that when I was applying for jobs, I took great care with my cover letters, viewing them as my chance to let people know what was special about me--to "frame" my application. I'm pretty sure I've written that somewhere on the Science Careers site.

There's a good lesson in this: Opinions vary. Not every person reviewing applications expects the same thing. For one thing, they're not always experienced professionals. There's also an intimation that if you're part of a cohort of applicants, you may be judged right alongside them by the standards the cohort sets, whether you deserve it or not. Maybe you had a brilliant cover letter--but by the time he got to your application, Adam had stopped reading cover letters, since the first 37 were a waste of his time.

Best to all.

Jim Austin, Editor
Science Careers
http://www.sciencecareers.org
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby Jim Austin » Fri Feb 01, 2013 5:06 pm

P.S. Here's a link to the story:

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/ca ... t.a1300007

It really is funny.

Jim
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby Chris » Fri Feb 01, 2013 5:51 pm

RSD, while a good cover letter won't save an otherwise sub-par faculty application, a poor one can sink even a strong application. Last time we were hiring, we ruled out a few candidates (who were very strong on paper) because it was clear from their cover letter that they had not spent any time thinking about the mission of our college and how they could fit in.
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Re: Avoiding Cover Letters -- Good or Bad Advice?

Postby S. Lin » Sun Feb 03, 2013 1:22 pm

Following up on Chris' post, a well-written cover letter can absolutely increase your chances of getting an interview (personal experience, non-academic position). I view cover letters as ideal opportunities to show off your written communication skills, and in the current email-intense environment, being able to write succinctly and professionally is crucial.

Of course, the other pieces of your application must be in place -- but a quality cover letter is (and should remain) far from obsolete.
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