Most fellowship and grant applications require a research proposal and personal statement; few ask you to write a cover letter. Still, there are some dissertation and postdoctoral fellowship applications where knowing how to write a strong cover letter can come in handy (take the Consortium for Faculty Diversity Dissertation Fellowship, for example).
Because these types of letters are within the genre of grant applications, here are some tips for structuring academic cover letters:
First and foremost, always carefully read and follow the application guidelines. If a funder requires a one-page cover letter, then do not exceed one page. If there are no specific guidelines, a maximum of two pages is generally the rule of thumb. I also suggest writing your cover letter on letterhead (if you are a Rutgers graduate student, you can find appropriate letterhead here).
Begin your cover letter by introducing yourself. Your first paragraph should clearly state who you are (including what stage of your doctoral program you’re in), what you are applying for, and your research/teaching interests.
Use the next few paragraphs to talk about your research and teaching qualifications. Typically, you should discuss your research before your teaching experiences. However, this may be reversed if you are applying for a position that emphasizes teaching over research. (Always refer to the funder guidelines and fellowship description before beginning your application!).
Your paragraph(s) on research should begin with a short description of your dissertation – including any sources of funding. Briefly describe the methods used and any preliminary findings. Most importantly, emphasize the major contributions of your dissertation and how it makes you a good candidate for the specific fellowship for which you are applying. Go on to describe any other projects you have completed as a graduate student, showing the common thread throughout your research interests.
Your next paragraph(s) should demonstrate your approach to teaching. Tell reviewers what classes you’ve taught and state your general teaching philosophy. For instance, are you an advocate of active learning? Do you employ a teacher-scholar model in your classroom? It is also important to back these claims up with evidence from your own teaching experiences. What types of active learning techniques do you use? How have you incorporated your research into your teaching? Don’t just tell reviewers what your teaching goals are – show how you’ve worked to achieve them.
Wrap your cover letter up by letting reviewers know why you are interested in this specific fellowship. A cover letter should always be tailored to the institution or award for which you are applying. Why are you the best candidate for this specific position? How does this fellowship align with your own interests and career goals?
Your final paragraph should be brief and clearly state the other materials you will be submitting in your application, including any letters of recommendation. End with a simple, “Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.” I typically recommend closing with “Sincerely,” and including a signature along with your name – but that is, of course, up to you.
Remember that the purpose of a cover letter is to briefly expand upon the qualifications listed on your CV, and, most importantly, demonstrate to the reviewer why you are the best candidate for this fellowship. For more personalized feedback on your cover letter, schedule a proposal review appointment with a GradFund fellowship advisor!