ECH Careers: The application letter

1 October 2014

Most applications require an accompanying letter; even if it is not specified, it is worth sending one (this is the one exception to the rule stated under Application Materials about not sending anything not requested). A good application letter will go a long way to making your application stand out from the pile.The letter’s purpose is to convey your significant achievements, your suitability for the post and your commitment to it.

  • If a length has been specified, keep to it. If not, two A4 pages is a good rule of thumb. Less is more here – you need to be able to convey the main features of your profile to make the committee interested in you.  Then they can go to the CV for the detail.
  • Achievements: if you already have a book published, or a book contract, or an article in Past and Present, then so much the better:  of course you should draw attention to it. But remember that achievements should also be thought about more broadly, e.g. contributions of your PhD research to the field; methodological or theoretical problems with which you believe you have successfully grappled; your self-definition as a historian, which can then lead into the next paragraph on your suitability for the post.
  • Suitability: Ask yourself, if I were on the hiring committee, why would I appoint myself to the job? Remember that many applicants will have strong CVs: what can make you stand out is evidence that you have thought carefully about the role and what you can bring to it.  If the advertised post is in your field, then the case for your suitability may seem clear, but bear in mind that at least some members of the recruitment committee are likely to be from a different field of history or a different discipline, and there may also be senior university managers there. You will have to convince the non-specialists as well as the specialists that you are someone who can make a valuable contribution to the department and to its broader context of the faculty/school and the wider university.
  • If the post is more broadly defined, as is increasingly common, e.g. History since 1850; Global History; Early Modern History, you will have to do even more background research in order to make a convincing case for your particular suitability. You will either be bringing something completely new, e.g. a historian of India in a department that does not have one, or you will be helping to consolidate an existing strength. There is little point in applying to a department which already employs someone whose interests are very close to yours, but complementarity and the possibility of establishing a concentration of specialists can be attractive. You cannot second-guess what the recruitment panel will be looking for and they may well not have any fixed ideas: the important thing is to make a persuasive case.
  • If you have experience from outside academia, for example in library or archive management, IT, administration and/or research in other organisations, think about how that experience translates into skills that you can bring to an academic post in History. Universities often greatly value people with experience elsewhere, but it’s important to show that you have thought hard about how you will adapt to an academic role.
  • Commitment: it is not enough to state your commitment, because everyone will do that – you need to show it by providing evidence that you have done your research about the department/university. Mention names of people whose intellectual interests match yours (not necessarily in the same field, but it could be through theoretical or methodological approach and/or scope for comparative discussion).
  • Write the letter as well as you can. It should be clear, precise and elegant.