Over at his blog 'Digressions&Impressions' today, Eric Schliesser writes of his experience reading cover letters on a hiring committee:
What I have learned from reading 400 cover letters is how at the start of their careers (most of the applicants fit this category), few people are capable of characterizing their own research to professional peers. (The previous sentence is compatible with the thought that these letters are not an unbiased sample.) By this I mean that almost nobody conveys what is distinctive about their research. By 'distinctive' I mean, what's the key insight, trick, or contribution one is using (e.g., applying and refining the PSR to problems of inter-generational justice) or central research program (e.g., using formal features of Scotus's philosophy of mind to develop new accounts of political representation).
...notice (a) that you don't need to limit yourself to a single sentence; one can easily use a paragraph or two to characterize one's research if it conveys distinctive quality of one's would-be-contribution. In addition, (b) there is a world of difference between superficiality and succinctness (e.g., any good Haiku). And if one is worried about overselling, one can always qualify one's' distinctive contribution in various ways.
Now, one may think that a research statement is the proper site of conveying the distinctness of one's research agenda/project or contribution. Fair enough. But (i) not all application processes demand a separate research statement. And (ii) what I have said about cover letters is also true of a research statement. I can't tell you how many of the presentations of people's research are nearly indistinguishable from each other, stringing together key buzz words about a field (even characterizing the field in homogeneous ways) without saying anything about what's so special about their contribution.
In the comments section, a reader Chris Brooke also helpfully writes:
When my wife wrote a brief guide to writing a good cover letter in 2014, she had a similar thought:
*** For research, talk about what you’ve done, what you are going to do next, and, crucially, why it is all both interesting and important. Keep the ‘so what?’ question absolutely central: why does your research matter? How is it going to change the way that other people think about, research and teach...
Having served on hiring committees as well, these points seem to me exactly right. The real tricks, though, are (A) making the novelty of your research come across clearly and succinctly to non-specialists, while also (B) not coming off cloying or arrogant. These are difficult things to do, and many cover letters run afoul of one or the other (viz. either being too impenetrable for a non-specialist, or coming off as hyperbolic). As I explained here, the best way to present one's research--both in a cover-letter and in a research statement--is not to go into excruciating detail or wax poetic about how "groundbreaking" your research is, but instead simply describe in the simplest, most down-to-earth, descriptive/neutral terms precisely what your project is, what is original about it, and where you intend to take it in the future (something hiring committees also care about, as it is important to show that your research program has "legs", or long-term potential for development).
Anyway, I encourage readers to read Schliesser's post. I think it's very helpful!