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?
With 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.