What not to do in your cover letter

There is a persistent assumption in science that the results speak for themselves and that if we throw enough results at someone, we will increase the value of what we are bringing by showing how much we have and how important it is.

Unfortunately, this is a terrible way to get the attention of a journal editor, and yet it is something that so many people try to do with their cover letters.

 

Let’s explore this a bit using your own inbox.

Which of these emails are you more likely to read? Why are you more likely to read them? Most importantly, which are you more likely to respond to?

 

Email A:

Dear friend,

I am a Nigerian prince, and I need your help. If you do not immediately send money to this bank account (XXX), I cannot rescue my daughter, the princess, from prison camp. In exchange for your assistance, once she is free, you will be given a share of our fortunes in exchange for your help.

Thank you, friend.

Nigerian Prince

 

Email B:

Dear Professor,

I am a student from some University interested in attending your university for graduate school. Your university is really a great fit for me because I want to be able to do this type of science that you do, and it has been my lifelong dream to attend this university. I have worked very hard in undergraduate, achieving a nearly perfect GPA and great GRE scores, as well as taken these other classes that were not required, but highly relevant for graduate work. I was wondering if there were any available positions in your laboratory and if I could mention your name on my application.

Best,

Undergraduate student

 

Email C:

Dear Prof. Kaycie,

I am very excited about your research program, especially your studies on XXX, and your most recent published paper on this topic in this journal is a great example of how this type of research could be applied to YYY. It is interesting that you saw this result, as I would have expected it to be more of this type of mechanism.

I have been looking into applying to your University for my graduate studies and wondered if you would be open to discussing any possible research opportunities. I would be very interested in further exploring the topic presented in your more recent paper as well as your work on ZZZ, which would support my overall goal of achieving [these things].

Best wishes,

Undergraduate student

 

Ok, so Email A was thrown in there to see who is paying attention…and hopefully no one responds to it. We all know it’s a scam, we are never getting money, and we are unlikely to even open the email, let alone read to the end. It seems like an extreme example, but it is worth mentioning that one should try to avoid being scammy at all costs.

So what about Email B? This one is more personalized than Email A, and I would bet that most people would at least open that one. Would you read to the bottom, though? That likely depends on how busy you are at the time you get the email or how interested you are in a new graduate student. Most importantly – would you respond?

Now compare email B to email C. Email C is much more likely to catch attention and is much more likely to get a response. Why?

The student in email B barely mentions the professor of the lab they are applying to, reverting to talking about themselves exclusively. Their line of thinking is not uncommon – I need to give enough facts about myself for this professor to see that I am worthy of his time. I need to prove myself to him to get a response.

But is the professor going to respond to email B? Maybe. But also maybe not. If you are busy when you get Email B or not dying for a new student, what are you going to do? You are going to file this away in the back of your brain and think “I’ll get to this later.”

Why? There is no indication here that the student knows anything about the research lab they are writing to. There is no indication that they have an interest in this professor’s work or that they aren’t just mass emailing labs to see which ones respond. This email WILL NOT STAND OUT and WILL NOT GRAB AND HOLD YOUR ATTENTION.

The student in email C, though, talks almost exclusively about the research of the professor, then ties the professor’s research into their own goals at the very end of the document. It is obvious that this student read at least one of the professor’s papers and in enough depth to provide a few detailed comments. This is unlikely to be a student that is mass emailing professors at the university, as well, lending more credit to his application to this specific professor.

Will you respond to email C? If you were going to respond to any of the above emails, it is likely email C, and the reasons are obvious as to why. This email will interest you because it is about you. It will hold your attention, and you are more likely to respond right away or think of it more later to respond at a later time. Most importantly, you are more likely to look favorably on this student and their request.

 

So, why do we not apply these same tactics to writing a cover letter to a journal editor?

We want to write a cover letter than interests an editor, holds their attention, and merits both thought and a reasonable consideration of our work/request.

Unfortunately, too many cover letters resemble email B and not email C. ALMOST ALL cover letters talk exclusively about the research in the paper, and they almost all summarize results found in the body of the paper. Many cover letters are a solid two pages of detailed summaries and descriptions that are found in the paper.

That equates to the email B version of a cover letter. Is the editor going to read the whole thing? Maybe. Will they respond favorably and send it out to review? Also a big maybe.

And why? Now the editor has to dig through this cover letter to figure out if the senders work is a fit for the journal. It is also possible that they are just taking the same paper that was rejected from several other journals and resubmitting it here as another shot (mass emailing equivalent).

The ideal cover letter looks much more like email C. Did you notice one more big point in email C regarding the student’s credentials? You didn’t notice the credentials? That’s because the student didn’t discuss their credentials at all. And it didn’t matter.

Why? Because they showed that they know enough about the professor and the professors research that the credentials are not the first thing on the professor’s mind right now. Yes, credentials will eventually have to be evaluated, but this professor likely wants to hear what this student has to say.

Your cover letter should be exactly like that. Yes, your credentials will eventually matter, but not before you get the attention of the editor and intrigue them enough to want to dig in to your credentials (the science).

 

Therefore, the purpose of your cover letter, and the only purpose of your cover letter, is to get the editor to respond by opening your manuscript.

 

This means that the body of your cover letter should include (think email C):

  • an indication that you are familiar with the content that the journal typically publishes
  • a BRIEF, DIRECT description of where the field, which fits the journal, stands (1 paragraph MAX)
  • an issue or hole in the field (1 sentence)
  • how your research was designed to fill that hole (1 paragraph MAX,combined with research conclusions)
  • a BRIEF description of your research conclusions OR relevant techniques used. This is solely to indicate your suitability for their journal and what you write depends on the type of content they are seeking (1 paragraph MAX, combined with paragraph on research design)
  • an explanation of exactly why your content fits with what the journal typically offers (1 paragraph, combined with readership below)
  • an explanation of how/why your research will interest the readership of that journal (1 paragraph…yes really)

 

You cover letter should not include (think email B):

  • a listing of the results of the manuscript
  • any repetition of the introduction of your manuscript
  • listings of your past achievements
  • more than a page of text body

 

We’re going to dig deep into cover letters over the next few weeks, going into specifics and how to do the things we’ve discussed above. For the moment, though, keep email C in mind when crafting a cover letter and try to avoid the mistakes made in email B.

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