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

 

“I’m a scientist! [Don’t] Get me out of here!”

Do you experience procrastination when it comes to making decisions about your next career move? Are you avoiding doing anything practical about addressing your future career? Perhaps you are even feeling fearful of the prospect of moving out of academia.

If this is the case, rest assured that you are not alone. It is well recognised in the careers advisory business that the process of decision making and career transition tends to be a ‘slow burner’. People need time to come to terms with the prospect of leaving a job which, to all intents and purposes, has become their identity.

How many of you have responded to questions like: “What do you do?” or “Tell me about yourself” with “I’m a scientist” or “I’m a researcher”? Many former researchers still include their scientific background or refer to it years after they have moved on to non-research careers. In fact, I even do it myself to some degree, retaining part of my former biologist identity through working for a biological organisation and focussing on research bioscientists as my major client group.

slow burnerFor those researchers who regard the prospect of moving out of academia stressful, and even unimaginable, I came across the following career theory recently, which may be helpful in demonstrating recognised processes that we all go through when faced with the prospect of taking on a new career and, by association, a new career identity. The theory of identity development, proposed by James Marcia in 1996, describes how our commitment to a new identity can influence our motivation to explore and accept new career possibilities. Although his theory is aimed at adolescents choosing their initial careers, it is relevant to researchers who, in moving out of academia, will need to accept a changed career identity and start to come to terms with a new work role. Marcia identified four stages in this process where we move from low commitment through to high commitment and how this ultimately results in identity achievement so that we are motivated to explore new career options (see Figure).

On a scale of 1 – 10, how committed are you to your identity as an academic research scientist? To what extent are you investigating other career options? How ready are you to make a transition into a new career or work environment? What could you do to ease the process? Professional careers advisers, like myself, can help individuals to reflect on and manage their careers (whilst helping each other with our own careers too!). But it is a gradual process – a slow burner. So if you’re currently procrastinating and hesitating about your next career move, take heart in the knowledge that your actions (or lack of them) is normal behaviour in this situation. However, take heed of the fact that even if your commitment is low, exploring and addressing your career in one way or another, thinking about and testing out new possibilities as well as seeking support should help to start to ease you through the process.

Related content: The skilled researcher ; Mind your career

 

How to stand out in a crowded (academic) world

glassonA few things have come my way this Summer to prompt me to focus this month’s blog on how to make a positive impression when applying for an academic research post or PhD studentship. First, I received a message from a PhD graduate in India, asking me for advice on how to apply for a post in the UK. Secondly, I attended a session at the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB)’s main meeting in Prague, entitled ‘Meet the Academics’, where a panel of professors gave early career researchers an insight into what they look for in applicants. Finally, Julie Gould from Naturejobs published a podcast in which she interviewed Chemistry Nobel Prize winners on their views about what makes a good impression on them, when they are looking for researchers to join their research groups.

Unlike many graduate jobs, which seek candidates who can demonstrate excellent team working, organisational and communication skills, research posts and PhD studentships require an emphasis on a rather different set of capabilities. Academic research is highly specific and demands a high level of concentration and dedication to an on-going question or conundrum. Therefore, academics looking for new people to join their research group, as a postdoc or PhD student, want to see evidence of focus, dedication and a particular passion for getting to the root and essence of a singular problem.

A strong publication record is still a vital component of the assessment process but, as Prof Patrick Hussey (Durham University, UK) revealed during the SEB Meeting session, it’s important not to judge candidates mainly on their papers: “What I look for is personality and enthusiasm”, he said and this was backed up by Prof Craig Franklin (Queensland University, Australia) who advised candidates to make the most of covering letters to express their ideas and creativity and to ‘sell themselves’.

In her podcast, Julie Gould’s questions produced some very valuable advice from Professors Martin Chalfie (University of Columbia), Venki Ramakrishnan (Laboratory of Molecular biology, Cambridge) and Arieh Warshel (University of Southern California), summarised here:

Don’t just send in your CV, relying on your references to speak for you – you need to take charge of your application. Make sure you provide a good reason why you have chosen a particular research group; research what your target lab is doing and read up about their work. Convey to the research group leader what you want to do and express your own ideas. Demonstrate how the lab’s infrastructure and profile will fit with what you want to do. It’s not just about scientific knowledge, it’s to do with you demonstrating motivation and an interest in solving hard problems. You have to show you can take your own initiative and ‘stand on your own two feet’.

And what about the future? During the session at the SEB Meeting, one delegate posed the question, “When is the right time for a researcher to apply for their first tenured academic position?”, to which Prof John Love (Exeter University, UK) advised: “You get a kind of itchy feeling that you want to do something more”, he said. “But one of the difficult things about the transition is realising that you are no longer working just for yourself and your development – now you have to work for other people and your students, to develop their careers and ideas. You may have to let go of certain things…it’s a real growing up process”.

Finally, although an ability to communicate and present yourself and your science is vital nowadays, don’t be tempted to oversell yourself in your application. Be authentic and realistic – remember, whatever you say in your CV, may need to be defended or expanded upon at interview.

The invisible delegate – how to be at a conference without being there!

#plantbiology15 is coming to an end after a fabulous week of sessions, talks, workshops and social events. For thoseScreenshot 2015-07-26 01.27.08 of you who use Twitter, you’ll know that I’m referring to a conference (actually, it was the American Society of Plant Biologists Meeting 2015, which took place in Minneapolis). For those of you who are not signed up to Twitter, you probably guessed it was a conference, but you won’t be privy to the ‘parallel universe’ that exists during conferences and meetings these days.

The reason I attended the meeting was to run a career workshop and take part in other areas of a very extensive conference side programme. My workshop was well attended, with 80 PhD students and postdoctoral researcher delegates who heard about a latest survey of plant scientist career destinations, then took part in a SWOT analysis of a plant science researcher and finally practised their communication and networking skills in readiness for the main conference. With my two co-presenters, Ian Street and Molly Hanlon, being enthusiastic advocates of social media, our delegates were very much encouraged to join Twitter and start making the most of this social media tool straightaway. Many of them did and are now following us (and vice versa).

With its community of ‘Tweeters’ posting soundbites from speakers’ talks, this alternative side of conferences also provides delegates with practical information, colourful photos and useful links to additional data. Even the occasional video and joke is posted from time to time. I say these tweets add an extra dimension for the delegates attending conferences, but for those not able to attend, it acts as a remote window into a conference, building up a story of the whole event (usually turned into a ‘storifed’ post-meeting super-tweet). Often you can see tweets on the conference hashtag# from non-delegates back in the lab saying how jealous they are of those attending, since the tweets usually paint a colourful picture of the meeting highlights, both serious and social. That said, they are usually appreciative of the nuggets of information being disseminated to the Twitter community from the session talks and posters.

Of course, the other side of the new ‘Twittersphere’ to bear in mind is that if you are speaking at a meeting (or even dancing at the final party!), your words and actions may be being broadcast to a wider audience, so be careful not to say or do anything you might not want to ‘go public’.

Well, another session is about to start so I’d better get off now so I can start tweeting about it. If you’re still in doubt about trying out Twitter, please refer to the picture opposite, which I saw when visiting a fellow collelife bginsague in Sweden and which was the final slide of my career workshop at #plantbiology15.

PS. My Twitter handle is @Bioscicareer if you want to follow me.

 

The Skilled Researcher

Last week, I ran a career workshop at a research institute in the lovely city of Vienna. The participants were doctoral students keen to find out about the kinds of careers they could consider after their PhD. I asked them to come up with a list of careers where a PhD is (1) essential; (2) optional; and (3) not required.

It’s interesting that whenever and wherever I do this workshop exercise, participants usually come up with very few job options in each of these categories. This is partly because there are very few professions in category 1, where a PhD is essential (mainly research jobs), which restricts the number of jobs on the list. For categories 2 and 3, although there are far more jobs where a PhD is either optional or non-essential, doctoral students and researchers usually find it harder to think of examples. This is not surprising, since they are working in research, usually focussed on research-related careers and also have limited interaction with people in non-academic careers.

My own list below illustrates this point, i.e. it has a small number of professions at the top, where a PhD is essential, with many more choices appearing towards the bottom of the list, where a PhD is not required. Clearly the list is very limited, but it reflects the more popular career choices, which tend to be science-related.

list of jobs

Finding out about the range and types of non-academic careers available is one thing, making yourself a ‘marketable commodity’ of value to potential employers to these professions is quite another. For those jobs at the top of my list that require a PhD, associated academic research skills are a must, i.e. excellent laboratory skills, knowledge of biological systems, analytical and interpretative skills, not to mention writing, publishing, acquiring funding, teaching, supervising, etc. However, as you move down the list, away from the research and technical fields and more towards the PhD-optional type jobs, these kinds of specific research activities become more valuable in demonstrating personal and transferable skills, rather than to show knowledge of the latest gene for controlling drought tolerance in an obscure weed or the intimate goings-on in yeast.

The good news for PhD students and researchers is that you will have acquired plenty of these skills during the course of your research and, even if you can see skill gaps, there are usually opportunities to fill them by applying for summer schools and courses, getting involved in extra-research activities or even doing an internship. In this way, you can add to the repertoire of skills and capabilities required for particular professions (read job specifications to find out what’s on the menu) and also promote them in your CV (that’s another story!).

In my career workshop in Vienna, the PhD students audited all their work activities and then allocated them into skill groups. They were surprised by the number of skills they had acquired through their research work, and found it useful to compare with their peers. If you look at the range of work activities in the figure below, you’ll see tasks such as, ‘sharing expertise’, ‘planning experiments’ and ‘trouble-shooting’. Of course, these activities, and all of the others too, involve doing a whole lot more than these simple words on a sticky note can express. Breaking them down into further sub-tasks conveys a much more accurate picture of the skilled researcher: building relationships and collaborations, liaising with colleagues, explaining complex concepts, determining problems and using creative solutions to overcome them, investigating resources and designing new protocols. To name but a few!

skills2

You can do this exercise individually. Brainstorm all the work activities you do in your PhD or postdoctoral research, as well as associated activities and even personal interests if they are of relevance. You can then allocate these into skill groups such as those shown here. If your university is a member of Vitae, you can also make use of their learning log, the Researcher Development Framework, to help guide you in your personal and professional development.

As a skilled researcher, you have many career options to consider, and the skills you’re enjoying using right now will provide clues to the kinds of jobs which may be of interest to you. Use this knowledge to research potential careers, promote the information strategically in your applications and then be prepared to talk about it at interview.

 

 

 

Don’t plead for your career, take the lead !

Reprinted from the Society for Experimental Biology bulletin, March 2015

Universities present a unique working environment. Those primarily concerned with the business of research, measure their success on the basis of their academic achievements, which include peer-reviewed research papers, research income, student results and graduate destinations. In recent times, universities have started to be considered as global businesses, competing to attract international student ‘customers’, focussing on enterprise and generating patents, outsourcing teaching and other ‘services’ whilst paying serious attention to global and national rankings.  

Mert Toker http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-784093p1.html

Within this environment, a multitude of research groups operate semi-independently, each led by a group leader who acquires most of his/her research funding from external grants, won or lost under conditions of fierce competition with others in their field.  In addition to writing research grants and papers, managing their research group, collaborating strategically, and maintaining and promoting their prominence in their field of expertise, university-based group leaders usually have a teaching load and administrative duties.

Contrary to these tenured institutionally-funded positions, the majority of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students working within these research groups, have a fixed-term contract or period of study, and are funded by national or international grants, scientific charities and other external funding bodies. Many researchers seek the ‘Holy Grail’ of the tenured position, but with few posts available compared with huge numbers of contract researchers, most will end up leaving academia.  

Much has been written on the subject, and many organisations and professionals are in the business of helping researchers to take charge of their careers. Support comes in the shape of workshops and one-to-one guidance, dissemination of studies and surveys about labour market trends and researcher alumni, and the publication of case studies, resources and further information. However, no matter how much career support is on offer, the most important action researchers can do themselves is to take the lead in managing their careers. Relying on supervisors alone to find more money puts researchers in a precarious position, perpetuating uncertainty and the feeling of a lack of control over their careers. Even if a supervisor has a researcher’s best interest at heart, renewing their contract may well be out of their hands in the end. More succinctly quoted on the NPA (the US National Postdoctoral Association) website, “Only you can be in control of your career, and nobody cares more than you about your future”. Peter S. Fiske, Putting your Degree to Work.

The Royal Society in the UK recently published a set of guidelines entitled Doctoral students’ career expectations – principles and responsibilities and Vitae (a UK organisation supporting the careers of researchers) has a series of career development booklets for researchers on subjects such as leadership and creativity. These publications offer invaluable advice to PhD students and researchers to encourage and empower them to take a lead on their career. With very few PhD graduates likely to secure an academic post in the long run (ranging from 3.5% to 10% depending on which surveys you refer to), and less than 1% making it to professor, those who decide to embark on an academic research track will need to think strategically if they are to achieve tenure. Meanwhile, with the majority of researchers entering non-academic careers, preparing and planning for this transition, even if only mentally, should be mandatory.

Leadership involves taking a strategic approach, not only at the personal level, but also considering the context in which you are working. Knowing the politics, rules and culture of your working environment can be a real asset, making you aware of what you need to do to fulfil the requirements for progression. Having an insight into the bigger picture can offer advantages, for example, making strategic collaborations, being aware of funding opportunities, identifying what is needed for a high quality publication or making a timely transition to a fulfilling non-academic career.

You can take the lead in many aspects of your life, whether it’s co-ordinating a small project, supervising a student, chairing a session or meeting, organising an event, or planning and designing your experiments. However, whatever you decide to do, whether you want to stay in academia or move to a non-academic career, aim to take a proactive lead in your own career!

Related content: Mind your career!

 
 

Working in industry – Scientific Services

Many science researchers say they would like a job working in industry, but which type of job do they mean? As part of my book, Career planning for research bioscientists, published in 2012, I interviewed 20 former postdocs, many of whom had left academia to work in industry. I wanted to show readers some examples of non-academic jobs, so they could compare them and decide which might be best suited to their particular skills and interests.

One former postdoc I interviewed was Petra, a scientific adviser working in a protein interaction services company. She gave an account of her role and, more interestingly, demonstrated a very creative way of finding jobs and making useful contacts.

The job
“In my role as scientific adviser for customer projects I am primarily office-based and offer advice to our customers face-to-face, over the phone and by email on the best strategic approaches to take for their protein-protein interaction projects. Customers are based in industry, government or academia conducting basic or applied research ranging from plant science through to cancer science. Working in a small team of 3 – 4 people we discuss results, interpret data and relay information between our lab technicians and research scientists. I handle between 30 – 50 projects at any one time which are at different levels and stages of progression. Therefore, it is essential to be organised and to remain calm under pressure as well as being able to multitask.”

Transitioning into industry
“Following my PhD in Molecular Biochemistry on the technical development of protein-protein interactions in Lausanne, I knew I wanted to continue on to a postdoctoral position. In Switzerland you can apply for a one-year fellowship when you complete your PhD so I contacted one of our research collaborators in Paris. I knew he was hiring postdocs to run his proteomics operation and I wanted to change to the more applied end of my field. Although this was not my specific area of expertise I convinced the group at interview and during my presentation that I would be able to contribute fully to their research programme. The project extended a further year during which time I decided I wanted to move into industry as I was not confident that the academic set-up would suit me.  I applied for a number of jobs by targeting company websites – some were advertising posts and others I wrote to speculatively (in this case I looked up the company on PubMed Central to see who was publishing and I directed my CV to the last author who is, by convention, the lead scientist). Although my applications yielded no results to start with, some months later at the end of my postdoc, I received a phone call from one of the companies who was starting to hire but not in research, in the service sector. I had not thought of this side of business but, in fact, it turned out to be exactly right for me. Having made a presentation and been interviewed (in a very similar way to my postdoc interview) I was offered the job and started two weeks’ later.”
What’s different about the job from working in academic research?
“Your work is never finished in service jobs like mine as there are always projects in various stages of completion. However, you no longer have to experience experiments that go wrong! In addition, you don’t have ownership of projects as you work in a team and are providing a service rather than conducting new research. It’s fun having different things to do and I enjoy the variety and versatility of my job. I have contact with lots of people and also attend 3 – 4 conferences per year to promote the company to delegates. The hours are more regular although I do put in longer hours from time to time if required. It’s interesting that having once been afraid of leaving the lab I am not missing it at all. In any case, even if you pursue an academic career you are nearly always bound to leave the lab eventually as you progress.”
Unlike scientific careers in research institutes and universities, where the majority of posts are research-centred, industry provides a whole range of roles for scientists. Depending on your skills, interests and personality, you will find different jobs more interesting than others. Look at job descriptions and see what matches you best. Review what you do and what you enjoy in your research and this will give you clues to where you might want to go next.
Further information:

Mind your career!


“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.”
W.H Davies

More and more these days, we seem to spend our time rushing around, heads down immersed in work, going from one deadline to another. Stress is a fundamental cause of ill-health, so it’s important to stop sometimes, have a breather and take some time to reflect. Call it what you will – mindfulness, meditation, self-awareness, active consciousness – I do believe there is substance to this philosophy of life and that it also underpins effective personal career management and planning.
This was confirmed to me in a pilot workshop on leadership, which I attended at the start of the year. It was an intensive two days, aimed at postdoctoral researchers, and delivered by Steve Hutchinson and Paul Toombs on behalf of the researcher support organisation, Vitae. One of the major take-home messages from the event was that self-awareness is the most important quality of good leaders and superior performers. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, being aware of your preferred way of doing things, your values, your priorities and those of your organisation, as well as the political landscape within which you operate are the ‘keys’ to unlocking success and enhancing performance. Furthermore, self-awareness and being mindful of your interests, skills and personality can help you to make informed choices about your career, making the transition to your next post less stressful.
You can by more mindful in no time at all. Ask yourself some of the following questions:
Ø  What am I enjoying at the moment and why?
Ø  What’s been my best idea lately?
Ø  What do I find difficult and challenging at the moment?
Ø  What could I do to immediately improve my present situation?
Ø  What are my medium- and long-term term goals?
Ø  How can I strengthen my career as it stands currently and in the future?
Ø  Who could help me with that (internal/external)?
Ø  How do I relax my brain and body and what can I do to improve this area of my life?
If you’re currently feeling stressed about something – maybe you’re stuck on a problem, your experiments aren’t working, you’re having difficulty with your supervisor, you’re anxious about giving a talk, writing your thesis or thinking about your next career move – rather than expending lots of negative energy worrying about your situation or procrastinating, why not do something positive? Step outside yourself and take an objective perspective. This is what Deepak Chopra talks about in his recent book “Self power”. He says there are three levels of awareness (I have added in his words in quotations):
1.       “Contracted awareness” – this is where many of us find ourselves: we become “defensive, wary and fearful” in the face of our problems.
2.       “Expanded awareness “– this is when our “vision extends beyond the conflict, giving more clarity”, so that we start to look at our problems objectively and approach them with confidence.
3.       “Pure awareness” – “this is the level where no problems exist. Every challenge is a creative opportunity….. All that matters is how open we are to the answers being presented.”
Essentially, expanding awareness is about self-coaching, where you try to find solutions through reflection and mindfulness. It’s not always easy to do this and, as with trying to improve your physical well-being such as posture, weight and fitness, your mind-set quickly slumps back to its old ways. There are books which can help to keep you on track and professional careers advisers and coaches can also support you in the process.  Another way is to find a mentor or a supportive friend or colleague with whom to share your thoughts and find ways forward. Whatever you think will work best for you, why not give it a go? It could be the most productive experiment you ever tried.
Related content: Knowing me, knowing you
Related content: Career services and support

Letter to the Christmas recruiter

This month’s blog has been written by Bérénice Kimpe, ABG L’intelli’agence, a colleague of mine who is based in Paris. We’re visiting the University of Lyon this week to deliver a career workshop, demonstrating the differences between German, French and UK CVs. I hope you’ll enjoy her seasonal advice on writing a covering letter with your job applications.

Do you remember the weeks before Christmas when you were a child? The excitement looking through the toys catalogue, writing your wish list for Father Christmas? The list was accompanied by a letter, explaining how good you had been during the year, and that you really were worth all the toys your heart desired. Now, years later, Father Christmas has changed into a recruiter, and your letter into an application letter.


Before writing to Father Christmas as a child, you needed to decide what you were wishing for. You had two options: choose from the toys displayed in a catalogue, or choose from the toys your little friends already owned. Nowadays, you choose from the job offers you might have found on a job board, or from amongst professions you have learnt about during encounters with professionals.


When writing the letter, your objective was to convince Father Christmas to bring you what you yearned for. Your letter was divided into three parts: first you showed interest for the old man in red, and expressed your admiration for taking up the challenge every year; then you told him about yourself and how good you’d been during the year, and finally you suggested a meeting, so that he wouldn’t miss your stocking on the chimney.

Your motivation letter has the same structure: it’s not completely egocentric, but it must show your interest in the company in question. Talk about the company as well as the position for which you’re applying. It’s up to you to explain what stood out in your eyes: Why this position? Why in this company and not another? Your answers can be about activities, responsibilities, values, (work) environment, upcoming challenges or how it fits your career plan. In short, why do you want this job? This is also the part, which will help you to structure the rest of the letter.

In the following section, you’ll show your assets, and explain why you’re the best candidate when it comes to skills and motivation. It’s no use going through all your professional experiences (that’s the job of the resume!). Only mention specific experiences, which allow you to illustrate the exact skills being sought by the recruiter. Always ask yourself the following question: “How can I prove that I really have this skill?”


Finally, think of making your motivation, enthusiasm and dynamism stand out using the right communication style. Use short, active and positive sentences! And, to wrap up your letter, finish on a positive note saying you look forward to hearing from the employer or suggesting discussing your profile and the position in more detail.


Just as when you wrote a new letter to Father Christmas every year, write a new letter for every job application. Consider asking someone to look it over before you send it off. Maybe Father Christmas tolerates spelling errors; the recruiter won’t!

 

Signs of the times

I’ve been struggling this month to think of a subject to write about for my blog, so I thought I’d settle on an observation I’ve made about PhD students and postdocs, which I think will be of interest.

Increasingly, I’ve noticed a rise in the number of workshops and blogs, which focus on the importance for researchers to engage with social media. In fact, I’m even taking part in a Google Hangout on this very subject on Thursday this week (27 November 2014) as part of the #Vitaehangoutseries. I, myself, have written on the topic previously, encouraging early career researchers and PhD students to get a presence on Researchgate or LinkedIn, write a blog or sign up for Twitter, depending on their career ambitions (see related content at the end of this blog). Social media is not for everyone, although I have noticed more hands going up nowadays, when I ask workshop participants if they are using social media for professional purposes. It can be time-consuming, so it’s important to take care not to spend too much time, or even become addicted to, checking accounts and messages.

However, aside from this relatively new way to raise one’s profile, some researchers are missing more straightforward and traditional methods to promote themselves and make themselves more accessible to others, e.g. their peers, prospective employers and collaborators. In comparison to the emails I receive from academics, those from PhD students and postdoctoral researchers rarely append a ‘signature’. That is, a formal title, with address and any other form of contact after they sign off at the end of their message. For example, my email signature is:

Sarah Blackford, BSc, MA CIEGHE
Head of Education & Public Affairs
Society for Experimental Biology
Bailrigg House
Lancaster LA1 4YE, UK
https://www.linkedin.com/pub/sarah-blackford/10/b72/968
+44 1524 594850

Your email  signature makes  you visible to anyone who wants to get in contact again and, should your email become redundant, your linkedin profile or other links are still there.
Another more traditional method of promoting yourself is using the humble business card. Although generally unfashionable in the research world, business cards are becoming more widely used at scientific meetings, especially in the US, so I recommend you have a set printed – it’s quite cheap to do these days. You can hand them out when you make a connection with someone, or even put them in a pouch attached to your conference poster for people to take away with them when you’re not there. I was recently at the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) Meeting where a company called Quartzy.com had even printed out complimentary sets for poster presenters.
If this all sounds too superficial and cynical to you, remember that networking is not false or insincere, it’s simply about communication. Make it easy for people to find you and you may be the person they choose to invite to give a talk, headhunt for a job, collaborate with or nominate for an award.
And talking of cards, now that I’ve done my November blog, time to get on with writing my Christmas cards!