Issues in Graduate Education

Going on the Job Market? Some Dos and Don'ts for an Effective C.V. and Cover Letter

Laura York, March 2006

The following tips for crafting an effective c.v. and cover letter were gathered from comments made by the expert faculty and public history panelists Marla R. Miller (Univ. of Massachusetts at Amherst), David Allen Harvey (New Coll. of Florida), and Teofilo Ruiz (UCLA) as well as by other participants in the "How Can I Improve My C.V. for the Job Market?" workshop at the 2006 AHA annual meeting in Philadelphia.

Your cover letter and c.v. (or résumé) form the most important component of your academic or public history job application. The c.v. describes your experience, accomplishments, and training, while the cover letter describes your interest in the position and your potential contributions to the program and institution.

When you're crafting your application materials, put yourself in the shoes of the people who will read them—the single reviewer or search committee member. They're people like you, with many competing demands on their time, who need to identify a few viable candidates out of 50, 100, 200, or more applicants, each of whom has similar qualifications. Typical c.v.'s are four or five pages, yet would you have time to scan more than the first page or two before making an initial decision on the candidate's suitability? Probably not. So present your credentials and unique qualifications clearly, succinctly, and in descending order of importance. Tailor your c.v. to each position, just as you tailor your cover letter. There's no set format for order, sections, or length of the "right" c.v., but there are ways to help your c.v. stand the "quick scan" test.

Before You Write Your C.V.

Do your research first. What is the institution's mission? How big are the school and the department? How many students, how many faculty? What areas do the faculty specialize in? What courses do they offer? What gaps do you see in their regional or chronological coverage that you could fill? What challenges is the museum facing at present, and what audiences is it hoping to serve? What have the institution's most recent exhibitions been? What kinds of projects has the agency tackled most recently?

Do remember that no matter what type or size of institution they work at, employers are trying to fill a specific position, seeking not only an instructor, interpreter, curator, fundraiser, or researcher but a colleague who will be a good fit. Don't take any rejection personally. It's all about the match between their needs and your skills.

Do think about the size and needs of the institution, department, or program. Small institutions are likely to value versatility, while larger institutions are likely to look for specialization.
Don't send more materials than what is requested.

Don't assume that because teaching institutions don't have doctoral programs, they aren't interested in hiring faculty who do interesting research; or that research institutions don't care about a candidate's teaching skills. The distinction between the two types is blurry at best, so emphasize both research and teaching.

Do understand the difference between a c.v. and a résumé. A résumé is a 1-2 page summary of your professional skills, experience, and education; a c.v. summarizes your educational and academic backgrounds as well as teaching and research experience, publications, presentations, awards, honors, affiliations, and other details. Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it's worth noting when a potential employer requests the former rather than the latter. For public history positions, Do consider adding a short "Profile" section to the top of the c.v. that summarizes your major qualifications in three to five bulleted points (such as "five years of experience managing staff," "extensive experience in nonprofit fundraising").

Do make certain you are true match for the job. Don't apply for public history positions if you don't yet have relevant work or volunteer experience; just having coursework in a field is not sufficient for most positions. Don't apply for a teaching position in African history if it was only your third examination field.

Crafting the C.V.

The order of a typical c.v.'s sections is: education, teaching experience and teaching fields, research fields and publications, honors and awards, professional service, languages, non-academic professional experience, and references.

Do remember that your c.v. and cover letter may get only a few moments of the reader's time, and be sure to put your education, teaching, and research on the first page.

Don't send the same c.v. for every position. Put the most relevant information first. For a teaching college, emphasize your teaching competencies by placing that section directly below your education section. For a university, put your dissertation topic and related research areas directly below education. For work in museums, historic sites, or preservation agencies, foreground the skills and experiences most closely related to the position advertised, with phrases that indicate how they are relevant.

Do list significant nonacademic job or other experiences at the end of the c.v. List skills developed in those jobs that will translate into academia, such as personnel or budget management. Don't leave years since your BA unaccounted for.

Don't include personal information such as social security number, age, marital or parental status, or hobbies. Save relevant personal information for the cover letter.

Don't be shy about marketing your skills and experience—that is the purpose of the c.v.. But don't bluff, spin, misrepresent, or oversell your qualifications, and don't make any claim that you can't provide evidence for.

The Education Section

Do list your dissertation title, dissertation chair, and committee members.

Do list your examination fields. These are helpful in determining your teaching competencies.

If You Have a Research and Publications Section

Do list all scholarly publications, including works under consideration by a journal or press, and book reviews.

Do clearly indicate each item's status: published, in press, and under consideration. Make a subsection for each status, or make subsections for different types of publications, in descending order of importance: monographs, peer-reviewed articles, other articles, encyclopedia entries, book reviews.

Do list items in reverse chronological order within the subsections to emphasize your most recent accomplishments.

Do list significant unpublished research (e.g., research papers, articles in progress) separately after publications.

If You Have a Teaching Experience and Competencies Section

Do list your teaching competencies—regions, periods, and methodologies in which you have graduate training or teaching experience. Stress any competencies not currently offered by the department.

Don't list teaching fields that are not part of your examination fields, graduate coursework, or teaching experience unless you have other evidence of mastery.

Don't mix teaching assistantships with classes for which you were the primary instructor. Separate these into subsections.

Do include something about your teaching approach or philosophy when describing courses taught.

If You Have a Professional Experience and Competencies Section

Don't simply list projects or jobs completed, but do characterize the kind of work you did. Clearly indicate your level of responsibility in the organization and specify your major duties; list projects and dates as well as one or two summary bullets (e.g., "coordinated and conducted oral history interviews," "participated on five-person exhibit team to develop core content").

Do show your ability to work collaboratively. Convey experiences that helped you cultivate communication skills, the ability to see others' perspectives, and the capacity to work productively as part of a team.

Do emphasize research, presentation, technology, and public speaking skills.

Do look for ways to harness all of the skills and experiences you bring to the position, even if at first glance they seem unrelated. For instance, think about ways that the skills you've gained from other jobs in other fields, or from volunteer work—supervising staff, handling budgets, organizing events, etc.—enhance your credentials for the position at hand.

Other sections

Do include any language skills and three professional references near the end of the c.v.

Do list your memberships in relevant professional associations.

Do include professional and academic service, whether with professional associations, at the department, institution, state, or national level. Did you help organize a colloquium? Serve on a committee? Volunteer with the history student association? Train new TAs? Serve on a board? Include it.

Ordering and Formatting the C.V.

Do remember that presentation counts, more than you might think. Do leave lots of white space.

Do proofread and proofread again and be consistent in formatting, using short lines, bullet points, etc.

Do consider legibility. Don't leave long blocks of text. Don't use fancy or colored fonts, icons, or other decorative touches.

Don't use a word processing c.v. template.

Writing Your Cover Letter

Do remember that the cover letter and c.v. work in tandem—the cover letter shows the qualitative, the c.v. the quantitative. The cover letter should convince the readers that you are the best fit for their needs, and that they are the best fit for your needs.

Do keep your cover letter short (no more than two pages, single-spaced with 12-point font).

Do use your institution's letterhead if possible.

Do devote a different paragraph to each point. Regardless of the type of position, Do explicitly address your reasons for applying, the specific skills and assets you will bring, and why you are a good match for their needs. For academic positions, devote one paragraph each to the four standard components of a cover letter:

  • why you want the position
  • what your research is about and why it is important
  • what your teaching experience and philosophy are your personal interest in living in that area

Do emphasize your unique qualifications. Most applicants will have similar credentials and experience—so stress unusual or particularly strong preparation or skills that will set you apart from other applicants.

Don't apologize for or play down your dissertation or research. Sell yourself and your work—play up your contributions to scholarship, your novel methods, and your findings.

Do explain why you want that particular position—why the size, location, and mission of the department and institution will suit you personally. Don't be sycophantic. Don't let the reader think you're only applying because you need a job.

Don't ignore personal and lifestyle issues. Employers know they are hiring someone with a family life, personal interests, possibly a spouse and children, etc., and want someone who will be happy in the new environment. For example, don't leave the reader wondering how a San Diego native will last a Minnesota winter. Explain that you're eager to live in a colder climate because your passion (besides history) is snowboarding.

Don't apologize for a "nontraditional career path." The term is losing its meaning anyway in today's job market. If this is your second career, describe your previous experience as a path that will make you a unique contributor to the employer's goals.

Don't say what you don't want to do (advise students, lead tours, teach surveys, etc.). Keep the tone professional and positive. Emphasize your potential contributions.

And finally…

Do try to see every application, c.v. or résumé, cover letter, and interview as a learning opportunity. Invest time and thought into every application and use that experience to your advantage in the next application. Learn from your mistakes; be open to unexpected opportunities; and lastly, always market yourself without apology or hesitation. Remember, they'll be lucky to get you!

—Laura York is a PhD candidate in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles.