Fluid Career Dynamics

What do the following have in common?

Collaboration and conferences, access to technology, flexibility, mobility, creativity and problem solving, project management, networking, peer-to-peer discussions, having intellectual freedom, working in an international environment and learning something new every day.



These are just a few of the opportunities identified by PhD students and researchers during my recent career planning workshops, all considered to be ways to help improve their job prospects and move their careers forward. We were taking a positive look at ways to navigate the rather fluid career path of today’s academic research scientist. Unlike the career path of their older supervisors and other academics in their department, modern-day students and postdocs are sailing their careers in much more choppy and unpredictable waters. Competition amongst fixed-term contract researchers is high, with very few permanent islands of academic career stability. This is where capitalising on personal strengths, as well as identifying and creating opportunities, will help you to steer a course towards a more sustainable career destination.

Having career insecurity is not the domain of academic researchers alone. Many other occupations experience the same precarious employment conditions; even ‘permanent’ posts are not permanent. The good news for PhD students and researchers is that they have a unique set of skills and opportunities which can hold them in good stead for keeping themselves as employable as possible. Aptitude and talent is not necessarily the issue for scientists, it’s being aware of these attributes and appreciating how they can be transferred into other career sectors, as well as making progress towards an academic career.

Employers love scientists: Having a can-do attitude, being unafraid of technology and new developments, as well as problem solving and initiating new ways of doing things are all highly attractive to companies and businesses, who are operating in a global and fast-paced world market. Keeping ahead of their competitors is crucial and they rely on innovative and enterprising staff to demonstrate creativity and entrepreneurship as well as flexibility and a willingness to learn.

Collaboration and conferences, working in an international environment and having the opportunity to work in different countries also provide academic researchers with fantastic opportunities to demonstrate cooperation and multi-national and cultural experience. Having an international outlook, being able to communicate with a wide range of people and generally broadening your horizons go a long way to ‘going a long way’ in your career.

So, as science researchers look to your current strengths and consider how you can expand on them by taking as many opportunities to develop, learn and progress as possible. Look back over the past year and ensure that you are always doing new things and building on your experiences. In this way you are more likely to be able to sail your career in a favourable direction.

10 ways to find your next job

I recall it was a friend who found my first job for me, when she alerted me to a research post she’d seen advertised in The Guardian newspaper. Three years later, I changed jobs into scientific publishing, having applied for a few posts, which had been advertised in the New Scientist. That was over 20 years ago before the days of the internet and social media, but also in the days when there was less competition for jobs. I’m sure not many people scour hard copy magazines and other publications when looking for a job nowadays, preferring instead to search their websites. Old fashioned networking is still the best way to secure a new job – with (anecdotally) less than 30% of jobs being advertised this is not surprising – but face-to-face encounters are not so necessary when the world can be accessed at the touch of a few keyboard buttons.

The job market has changed over my working lifetime and continues to evolve. Technology, economics, social and political pressures drive these changes; the pharmaceutical industry is a classic example of a sector which used to employ huge numbers of employees in all areas of its business, including research, manufacturing and production, human resources, clinical trials and communications. Not only has it been moving its core manufacturing and production into Asia in recent decades, it has also broken up its business and now outsources many of its needs to specialised smaller companies such as contract research organisations (CROs), recruitment companies and medical communications. This makes it harder to find jobs in these areas since smaller companies are less well known and don’t recruit new employees on a large scale.

So how can you make sure you can gain access to the widest range of opportunities available to you according to your career interests? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Investigate websites and recruitment agencies which are advertising in the career sector you are targeting. For example, specific academic job sites such as www.jobs.ac.uk, www.academics.com, http://www.intelliagence.fr and www.postdocjobs.com advertise postdoctoral and tenured academic posts, whilst lists of companies and jobs in industry can be found on dedicated sites such as www.pharmiweb.com, contract research organisations, www.kellyservices.com, www.environmentjobs.com and www.earthworks-jobs.com.
  2. Don’t rely on keywords and RSS feeds to find a job as these will limit your search. Similar jobs can have very different titles these days, even postdoctoral research posts, so be more creative or you could be missing out on dozens of opportunities.
  3. Subscribe to discussions lists. Not only do they post useful information from members, they advertise jobs too. For example, I’m signed up to a science communication list.
  4. Use your network. People are work, work is people – it is people who will either directly or indirectly open doors to your next job. You are surrounded by a network of people who, in turn are connected to others. All these people could help you with your transition by passing on information about possible openings, advising or mentoring you, directly employing you, recommending you, and so on. Don’t limit your network to your immediate work colleagues, but consider those you have worked with in the past, as well as friends, family and others – who knows what gems of wisdom, inside information or contacts they may have to help you on your way.
  5. USE SOCIAL MEDIA. You can expand your network exponentially by engaging with social media for professional purposes. Use Researchgate if you are aiming for an academic career and/or LinkedIn for company jobs. Twitter is invaluable for keeping in touch with other professionals and finding out about latest interest stories, as well as job opportunities. Twitter is also great for conferences.
  6. Join one or more learned societies. These charitable organisations provide benefits to researchers and students, such as reduced registration to conferences, travel grants, competitions, a newsletter, networking and mentoring opportunities, even the chance to get directly involved in their activities.
  7. Make the most of conferences: Unless you use these events to ensure you get some face-to-face contact with people, you are wasting an amazing opportunity. Look at the programme before you go, target people you want to speak to, try to get into the spotlight by presenting a paper, talk to exhibitors (many of whom have a PhD and moved into industry).
  8. Expand your horizons by finding out about opportunities available in other countries. If you are mobile and happy to move abroad make use of websites such as Euraxess which will help you to make the move. This service is available in all countries across Europe and they also advertise jobs. Other organisations and websites exist for  jobs outside of Europe, for example Contact Singapore and Australia.
  9. Take a wider interest in your field: read around the subject through broader interest publications, social media networks and learned societies. Get involved in outreach activities with the public or schools, write a blog or set up a departmental journal club. Establish closer links with people in industry with whom you are collaborating or those nearby within the university campus or on a nearby science park.
  10. Write speculatively to potential employers, or those working in the industry which you want to move into, either enquiring about future job opportunities or to ask for information. Try to set up a visit or phone/Skype call. Don’t ask for a job directly, be more subtle and ask if you can have 10 minutes of their time to ask about the research group/core business, are there likely to be positions coming up in the near future. If you are changing careers ask about their own career path, for example, how they make the transition out of academia, do they have any advice for you.

The strategy you take for your next career transition will depend on you, your experience, ambitions and many other factors so there is no one solution to the best action to take. Hopefully the 10 suggestions above will give you a good starting point.


Are you a leading researcher?

You may not realise it, but PhD students and early career researchers often take a leading role and are the star performers during the creative production of “academic research”. Taking command of the stage and your audience can mean quite literally that when you get the chance to present your work at conferences and meetings; you are in the limelight, leading the script and influencing your listeners. Similarly, when you write and publish a paper – or any piece of writing for that matter – you are at the forefront, reporting on your results, offering your interpretation and giving your perspective.


Recently, I ran a career workshop on “Leading and managing your career” at a scientific meeting held in Prague in which the PhD student and early career researcher participants identified their own leadership attributes and activities – see their results in the instagram showing personal disposition at the centre connected to people- and project-centred activities. You can probably offer your own examples to add in to the mix.

Leadership is a team activity, with the leader playing their role, whilst others take on theirs. Your position as leader is likely to be a temporary situation so make the most of any opportunities when they arise. You may be managing and supervising students, mentoring them and taking responsibility for the success of their dissertation. You may have some teaching duties alongside your research, where students are looking to you for inspiration, encouragement and other attributes which constitute that of a leader. Meanwhile, you will most likely be taking advice and instruction from your supervisor and working within your research group in a variety of ways depending on the situation: Belbin identifies nine distinctive team roles; you might be the ideas person, the specialist or the implementer at various times during the course of research post or PhD studentship.

No matter how minor or short-lived an experience of leadership might be, it adds to your personal profile and demonstrates your growing professionalism and expertise, as you develop. Depending on your particular situation, you will have differing opportunities to take the lead within or outside of your research role. Volunteering to get involved in activities such as meetings, sports, social events and departmental committees, for example, can help you to enhance your leadership profile and enrich your CV, especially if you are aiming for a non-academic career.

Related content: Don’t plead for your career, take the lead

Principal ways to become a Principal Investigator

christine helen foyerHow likely are you to become a research group leader or principal investigator (PI)? This was a question posed by Christine Foyer, professor of plant biology at Leeds University, UK, during the Women in Science lunch at the FESPB/EPSO conference in Prague this week. As this year’s invited speaker, Christine related her career story to an audience of 40 delegates, describing her route to becoming a PI as being quite haphazard, with little strategic planning involved: “I spent eight years as a postdoc”, she said, “until the money ran out, and I became unemployed for six months. During this time I considered all opportunities that came my way; I had a family to support and so I looked for a permanent job that would ensure my family security”. Whilst, fortunately, this led to Christine securing an excellent permanent position at INRA, France, which led on to a string of leadership positions, she admits that , these days, competition for permanent academic posts is much tougher and it’s very useful to know what is required if you’re hoping to “make it to the top”.

On this note, Christine referred to a study by van Dijk, Manor and Carey (Current Biology, 2014), who carried out a quantitative analysis to predict who is most likely to become a PI. They found that success in academia is predictable and depends on three main metrics: (1) number of publications, (2) the impact factor of the journal and (3) the number of papers that receive more citations than average for the journal in which they are published. However, two other qualitative factors figure in the equation: the academic institution and the scientist’s gender also play a significant role in the academic hiring process.

For those who keep up to date with women in science issues, this latter factor won’t come as much of a surprise. The low number of female PIs is a controversial issue and, although policies and practices are attempting to address the imbalance, it remains the case that men are more likely to be hired as a PI than women, even when they have the same publication record. Furthermore, the authors suggest that, currently, journal impact factor and academic pedigree are rewarded over the quality of publications, which may dis-incentivise the communication of findings, collaboration and interdisciplinary collaborations.

van Dijk et al developed a model to calculate your likelihood of becoming a Principal Investigator: www.pipredictor.com, and for those whose score doesn’t look very promising, there are lights at the end of the tunnel: the authors advise that those researchers who take longer than seven years to become a PI have more citations per paper than those who become PIs more quickly, suggesting that scientists who publish more important papers in low impact journals can still become PIs, but that this route takes more time.

Christine concluded her highly engaging talk by adding some further recommendations to improve your current academic profile: get a good mentor (whether within or outside of your institution), who will give you helpful advice and support you – they can be invaluable for raising your awareness and confidence levels; arrange research visits and collaborate with scientists at more prestigious institutions – this will help to raise your academic value; learn to write well – have a vision of the story you want to tell and fill in the detail later; finally, and most importantly of all, keep things in perspective, stay positive and don’t take criticism personally – after all, it’s only a job!


What does it mean to be a PhD student or researcher in career terms? Are you aware of your strengths? What are the skills and aptitudes you have acquired to offer your next employer? Conversely, do you know where your weaknesses lie? How could you improve your situation? Perhaps a strength in one career sector, such as being highly specialised, could be considered a weakness in another. Are you aware of any opportunities available to help you to overcome your weaknesses or improve on your strengths? Perhaps there are factors beyond your control which threaten to scupper your chances of success or barriers which present challenges to you moving on in your career.

Recently, I’ve been using a new ‘tool’ in my career development workshops. The SWOT analysis is an assessment tool used by organisations to review their business and to determine strategies and decisions to take the company forward. However, I’ve found out that it can also be used very effectively at the personal level to help researchers to plan and manage their careers.

SWOT stands for: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Fundamentally, strengths and weaknesses relate to ‘internal issues’ and opportunities and threats relate to ‘external issues’. Once completed, the SWOT analysis can help individuals to determine what they need to do to accomplish their objectives, and what obstacles must be overcome or minimised to achieve desired results.

During the past few months I’ve been running this session with postdoctoral researchers and have summarised the results of their SWOT analyses of a postdoctoral researcher below:


You may have other examples to add to these lists but, as an individual exercise, why not try choosing 3 – 5 of the most relevant to you under each of the SWOT categories. It may help you to recognise and focus in on the positive aspects of your research experience (strengths and opportunities), as well as using these to overcome the weaknesses and threats. Interestingly, you can see from the grid that, for some, an opportunity is seen as a threat (e.g. travel), and a strength can also act as a weakness (e.g. being specialist/detailed).

Depending on your career goals and other personal factors, such as your values, personality and interests, your own SWOT analysis can help you to build a positive action plan, e.g. identifying which skills you need to develop further, exploring career development opportunities to enhance your employability and address personal weaknesses, taking action to overcome or minimise external negative issues, such as improving your network.

Related content: Self leadership

Note – apologies if you have already read this post – I’m re-posting this updated version, after it recently fell off my blog 🙂

SMALL companies, BIG opportunities

What’s it like to work in a small company? The majority of companies fall into the category of ‘small and medium sized enterprises’ (SMEs), so ignore them at your peril ! My previous blog gave three tips on how to find them, this time I’m highlighting the career of a Product and R&D Manager working in a small company based in Sweden. Copied from my careers book – which showcases 19 other career stories – you’ll see that flexible working practices, a creative attitude and a ‘flat’ management style make them an attractive option for many researchers: 

juggling girlWhen you work for a small company it is important to be flexible and to be able to take on a number of diverse roles to keep the company developing so it retains an advantage in the market. A small company faces greater risks than a larger one so a versatile attitude is essential. I was taken on in order to utilise my expert knowledge in plant science which I gained during the course of my research. Although I have many roles to play within the company it is communicating with researchers as well as coming up with new ideas and being able to see them through to a final product which I enjoy most.

When my postdoctoral position was coming to an end I applied for a research grant which was rejected and I knew this was a turning point in my career; I made a conscious decision to leave research and move into industry. It seemed an easy decision at the time – I had started to become slightly frustrated with research and was thinking of a career where I could still use my plant science training but where I would see more immediate and tangible results with obvious utility and application. I wrote around 10 – 12 companies to find out what they were doing as part of my job search. As it happened my current company was considering employing an expert to help develop the company so my email arrived with perfect timing and I was offered a job which has since become my own, i.e. I have been able to steer the job and take ownership of it. 

Many people consider small companies to be a bit risky and target large ones instead. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with working in a large company, it doesn’t suit everyone and may feel restrictive to some. For me, I like autonomy and being able to see my ideas right through to the end product. I also like the close-knit team in which I work and the sense that we are ‘all in it together’. My advice to those thinking about small companies would be to search out those with around 5 – 30 employees, preferably with a forward-thinking boss. If you do approach companies in the way I did, my advice is to come at it from the side rather than head-on; that is, enquire about the work of the company which gives you more scope for an opening rather than asking for a job directly which could be turned down flat with no room to negotiate further.

Also, don’t be afraid to show who you really are when you approach companies or when you attend interview. If you aren’t your genuine self and pretend, for example, to be knowledgeable or capable of everything you may come across as being false. The important thing is to have the right can-do attitude which will instil confidence into a company director who will be relying on your input far more than a company of thousands.

Generally speaking, small companies cannot afford to employ people who can’t be adaptable and turn their hand to a range of tasks. That’s not to say you would be expected to be able to do anything and everything; I would not be able to programme a computer but I can offer extra input in marketing and advertising, others may be able to assist with the technical or financial side, for example. Dedication and commitment is crucial!

Related content:

Less is more

Working in industry – Scientific Services

Less is more ….

… where companies are concerned. With the break-up of many large pharma industries into smaller contract research organisations (CROs) and an increasing number of specialist industries, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) represent a major source of jobs in the science sector. So, if you are considering moving out of academia and into industry, you will be severely limiting your job search if you ignore these guys. But how do you track down these less well- known companies to find out what they do or to make an enquiry or application? Here are three ways:

Screenshot 2016-03-31 09.38.46

  1. If you search “Biotechnology”, as I did, on LinkedIn (see image), you’ll see that there are a lot more small companies ‘out there’ than large ones. LinkedIn is a great place to do your research: You can investigate industries which are relevant to your field of interest and discover the type of work they do, services they provide or products they make. You can track down some of the people who work for these companies and, from there, find out their backgrounds and even make a polite approach. If you are keen to target a particular location, you can refine your LinkedIn search and even add in your own institution to try to pull out any research alumni, who are now working in companies of interest to you. They might be more likely to help you if they see a connection between you.
  2. Another way to find small companies in the science sector is to identify science/research parks, where lots of small companies are located. A comprehensive directory of science parks in Europe is listed on the UNESCO website and you can see a worldwide list on Wikipedia. Don’t only rely on these two lists as I noticed that some parks are missing from them. A search on Google may help to fill any gaps if you can’t see anything in your preferred location.
  3. Finally, try signing up with a recruitment agency which specialises in the biosciences. Many companies make use of these agencies nowadays to help them with their recruitment, especially at the initial stages, so you may be missing out if you don’t engage with them. If you build a good rapport with them they can be very helpful in finding suitable vacancies for you. Tina Persson, a former recruiter herself, has some useful advice on this subject, featured recently on the Naturejobs blog.

That’s all for now folks! I’ll follow my own advice and sign off with a shorter blog this month. I’ll leave you with links to a couple of previous blogs I have written on this subject and you can also take a look at my resources page.

Do I stay or do I go?

I’m a scientist [don’t] get me out of here!


Decisions Decisions

PhD career choice indicator_Page_2Career choice can sometimes be a real dilemma for PhD students and early career researchers. When you have spent most of your life in education and research in an educational or research institution, your horizons can sometimes be restricted to just a few limited career ideas. You may be wondering whether to pursue a career in academia or to consider other options. Even though you are in a professor-rich environment, competition for academic posts is very harsh nowadays, with vastly more temporary postdoctoral research posts compared with permanent university and research positions. Knowledge of the job market is usually limited within the confines of the academic research world, but so too is researchers’ awareness of their work preferences and which jobs might suit them.


The PhD Career Choice Indicator is designed to help you to navigate the job market and to start to formulate some preliminary career decisions. It won’t give you ‘the answer’ but it may provide clues about the types of jobs which might suit your interests and skills.

Background and theory

Based on John Holland’s Theory of Career Choice, first proposed almost 50 years ago, the PhD Career Choice Indicator makes use of his fundamental assumption: If people work in environments which are similar to their personality, allowing them to express themselves in terms of their skills and interests, they will have greater job satisfaction and be more successful. Holland categorised these personality types and environments into six groups:

REALISTIC – Practical, technical, systematic, applied, mechanistic

INVESTIGATIVE – Research, discovery, curiosity, interpretive, conceptual

ENTERPRISING – Inventive, resourceful, leadership, entrepreneurial, promotion

ARTISTIC – Creative, imagination, design, original, performance

SOCIAL – Supportive, instructive, advisory, cooperation, counselling

CONVENTIONAL – Administrative, management, organisation, executive

An ‘investigative type’ will be most suited to jobs in an investigative work environment, an ‘enterprising type’ to jobs in an enterprising environment, and so on.


The PhD Career Choice Indicator lists and categorises typical tasks which are likely to be carried out by bioscience researchers and students during the course of their research, from data collection and experimental design to outreach and writing papers; you may have other tasks to add to the list.

Using Holland’s theory and an associated generic career assessment instrument (Strong Interests Inventory), three top typologies can be identified and then mapped onto jobs in corresponding work environments. Note that the suggested jobs have been selected as they are closely or distantly related to the biosciences, however many researchers want to consider non-bioscience careers, in which case there are more generic career assessment instruments available that may help to expand horizons further.

Results and Conclusions

The PhD Career Choice Indicator has received very positive feedback during my workshops. Whether it will work individually on-line remains to be seen – I hope you will find it useful as a starting point in your career choice process. Why not give it a go and see for yourself. I would be interested to hear your views: sarahblackford16@gmail.com

Your future in your hands

New technology and big data helping small producers take on the big food suppliers, citizen-led medical healthcare and universities taking on the major global challenges – these are just three of the Top 10 predictions for 2016, published 2016 blogby innovation charity, NESTA.

If you had to make a similar list of predictions for 2016, but focussed on your career, what would be on it? What plans (big or small) do you have this year that could have a positive impact on your future? Maybe a Top 10 list is too much to compile in one go, so how about your Top 5 to start off with? Making plans doesn’t mean you have to stick to them, but it’s useful to have a flexible personal strategy. This will help you to keep in mind what you’d like to achieve for your career, as well as making progress with your research project.

Here are some example resolutions that came to my mind during this first week of 2016 (but note these ideas may be only partially relevant to your situation, so feel free to ignore and make your own list):

  1. My primary resolution for 2016 is to try to stop ‘faffing about’ and ensure that most days I’m being productive. It’s easy to get distracted with trivia or checking emails, so I aim to stay focussed on the things that matter and prioritise the most important tasks.
  2. Procrastination and putting things off affects most of us and can become an ever-present background distraction if not dealt with. For my part, I intend to sort out and paint my house this year, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. I plan to start small and eventually the whole house will be done (this is probably going to be a year-long project!). Clearing out your physical clutter can help clear your mind too (according to Feng Shui philosophy).
  3. Looking ahead to the coming year, it can be useful to break it down into months or weeks to give a more detailed picture of your short- and medium-term plans. Insert key immovable events (e.g. meetings, courses, events and even holidays) around which you can pencil in your everyday plans. A hardcopy or electronic diary can help you to view the year ahead and add in events as they crop up – I add in personal and social activities, which are all too easily overlooked such as departmental lectures, training, sport and even lunch dates.
  4. Consider your career strategy for the coming year – what can you be doing to enhance your employment prospects? Looking beyond your core research activities will help you to extend your professional profile. Is there a paper or grant proposal that needs writing? Are there events you could be getting involved with? What about useful courses you could attend to increase your knowledge or skills (some of which have grants and scholarships to attend). Take a look at my career calendar as some of the events may be of interest to you.
  5. Being part of relevant communities helps us to extend our knowledge and professional networks. I’m a member of quite a few different communities relevant to science, careers, women in science, education and science communication as these are central to my job. Think about building on your own current research community and expanding into others (research and non-research) that may be useful to you in the future. You can do this via personal and professional contacts, reaching out to people in professions of potential interest to you, joining social media networks, volunteering to run events, getting involved and interacting with others, communicating your work through publications, presentations and other platforms.`

So, to conclude my first blog of the year, I’ll leave you with this list and the promise of a second instalment in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, I’m off to put some dates in my diary and choose some paint for my house. Happy New Year to you all – may it be successful and productive!

Have you got your CV covered?

If you ask me what I think is one of the greatest challenges in the hunt for jobs these days, I would say “competition”. With many more PhD-qualified people ‘on the market’ and, with fewer permanent academic posts on offer, there’s a real need to skilfully market and sell yourself over and above this competition. That means not only competing against other researchers for lectureships and professorships, but also beating off the competition for non-academic jobs. Entering industry and other career sectors does not necessarily require a PhD for many of the jobs on offer, so how do you promote your experience and skills across this divide?

covering letterWith very little to go on, many employers have only the CV and covering letter to select the best candidates from an avalanche of applications. Whilst networking is a great way to get yourself noticed, it’s not always possible for all jobs so you will need to stand out from the crowd ‘on paper’ using a well-targeted and effective CV and covering letter. This is not easy; unlike in an interview, written words cannot make use of body language or tone of voice to get your message across. And whilst it’s important to structure CVs strategically so that they convey your information as powerfully as possible, it’s the covering letter which can be the ‘make or break’ of a successful application. This is where you can really show your enthusiasm and knowledge of the job, matching specific experience to the job role and person specification. It sounds straightforward but many people fail to use this opportunity to enhance their chances of making it to interview.

12 tips to improve your covering letter:

  1. The layout of the letter should be formal, even if it’s being sent via email. Place the name and address of the employer on the top left hand of the page, date underneath, followed by the job reference. “Dear Sir/madam,” letters should end “Yours faithfully”, but if you name the person (e.g. Dear Professor Jones), you should sign off with “Yours sincerely”. Sounds very picky but this attention to detail and formality shows respect and professionalism.
  2. Covering letters need only be one page long. Their aim is to convey knowledge of the employer/research group, to match key information from the CV with the job/role and to demonstrate your value and what you will contribute.
  3. Cut to the chase – get to the point straight away. Make every word count – don’t waffle about generic information which will be common to most of the applications, get your stand-out uniquely impressive skills and expertise into the first part of the letter.
  4. If you are applying for a research group, look at the website, read recent papers and refer to them in your covering letter. Link their work with what you are doing now and tell them what you can bring to the research group/faculty that builds on and develops the work further.
  5. For jobs outside of academia, research the organisation and ask yourself what it is that attracts you to work there (e.g. their work environment and culture, products, services, ethics, track record, reputation). Link your most relevant experience and transferable skills to the job role.
  6. Making applications is a matching exercise so underline three or four of the key essential requirements specified in the job and person descriptions and make sure you highlight your suitability in the covering letter. This should entice them to read your CV in more detail (and hopefully invite you to interview).
  7. Don’t put anything negative into the covering letter. If the job doesn’t specify a PhD, you don’t have to mention it in your covering letter if you think it may make you appear over-qualified. Instead you could say (e.g. for a data science job), “During the course of my research, I have developed excellent data management and analysis skills, using a wide range of statistical tools.” By the time the employer sees the level of your qualifications on your CV they should already have a positive opinion of you and be more open to offering you an interview.
  8. For speculative letters, the process is more difficult as you are trying to get the attention of a potential employer and you don’t have a job specification to work from. Generally speaking, don’t ask for a job directly as this can only result in a “yes/no” answer. Instead, talk about your knowledge and interest in the research group/organisation, set out your expertise and skills relevant to them, and how you want to develop and build your career further (again, in line with what they are doing). Mention politely whether there’s a convenient time to discuss their work in more depth and about future opportunities.
  9. End on a positive note, e.g. “I hope I have convinced you I have the skills and enthusiasm you require for this post and very much look forward to hearing from you.”
  10. The purpose of your covering letter is to introduce your CV so to ensure it is read first when you send it by email, convert it and your CV together into one pdf.
  11. Ask someone else to read the letter and then tell you what stood out to them. If they can’t remember or pick out the more relevant information, review what you’ve written and maybe reorganise it or make it even more superlative. This is no place for being modest, neutral or low key. What might seem to be ‘boasting’ will come across as genuine enthusiasm to the employer.
  12. Don’t be tempted to use the same CV and covering letter, even for similar posts, as it will be quite obvious to the employer – match and highlight the most relevant experience (employers always put their most important requirements first, so make sure these go into your covering letter). However, if after many applications, you receive no interview requests, review your CV and covering letter and, ideally, ask the opinion of a careers professional (or someone in the business you are applying to). Is it your applications that are letting you down or do you need to take further action such as improving on your skills, qualifications, portfolio, etc. or even re-considering your career plans.

Related content: CVs ; Slideshare presentation