What does my cover letter do for me?
Your cover letter can get you in the door, and maybe land you an interview for that dream job. If it’s written well. The cover letter is your opportunity to say to a prospective employer, “Look at how perfect I am for this position.”
I’ve spent years looking at candidate resumes, CVs, and cover letters for various positions supporting clients in science and technology program management. This includes technical subject matter experts with PhDs, retired military personnel, administrative assistants, project managers, and financial analysts. I’ve also gone through several rounds of job applications myself, when transitioning from an academic fellowship to the real world, and twice since then. In sitting on both sides, as an applicant and as a hiring manager, I’ve learned to translate science to English so that anyone reading my CV and cover letter knows exactly where my skills lie, regardless of his or her technical background, or lack thereof.
In writing a cover letter, I suggest that you adhere to the following principles:
Principle 1. Do not use the same generic cover letter for every position you apply to. As a hiring manager, I can tell you that it’s obvious when an applicant does so. And as a hiring manager, I generally dismiss applicants with generic cover letters. The cover letter should be specifically tailored for each position, demonstrating your interest and desire in that position. I cannot stress this first point enough. Use the position description as a template for your cover letter. Use the exact phrasing that is used in the position description.
Keep in mind that applications may go through the hands of several people before reaching the technical hiring manager. Particularly in larger organizations, it is likely that the first person to review an application is in Human Resources. And it is unlikely that staff members in HR will have technical expertise akin to your own. They will be looking for key words and phrases used in the position description. If your application checks all the boxes, it will move on to the next round.
Principle 2. This also means that you need to translate science to English. For example, if you’re fresh out of graduate school, you undoubtedly feel the need to include the title of your dissertation in your cover letter. After all, you worked really hard on it, right? Don’t do it. State that you have a PhD in (insert discipline here) and leave it at that. Do not use overly technical terms in the body of your cover letter. Your letter must be clear enough that a high school student would understand it. The easier you make it on the hiring manager, the better your shot of getting in the door.
Principle 3. Keep your cover letter to one page. You’ve already written a dissertation. No need to write another one.
Principle 4. Sign the cover letter with an actual pen. If you’re submitting your application online, scan in the signed document. Alternatively, you can scan and PDF your signature and insert it as an image on the signature line.
Principle 5. Be polite. Thank the hiring manager for the opportunity to apply. And make sure to provide contact information. Include your phone number, email, and any websites that are pertinent, including a link to your LinkedIn profile (but only if it’s complete and up to date).
Principle 6. Never write a negative statement. Statements such as “While I don’t have direct experience in X…” are a turn off. Turn this statement into, “I’m a fast-learner with an entrepreneurial spirit, and I look forward to expanding my current skill set.”
Finally, some online application processes only allow you to upload one document. If that’s the case, merge your cover letter and CV so that the first page is the cover letter, and submit the combined document.
Below, I have provided a mock position description, and a draft cover letter. In the cover letter, I have underlined the specific phrases from the position description that I used, to demonstrate how you can incorporate phrases from the position description into your letter. I hope this is helpful as you prepare for your next career move.
POSITION DESCRIPTION: ABC Corporation is looking for an Associate Technical Analyst to manage a portfolio of science and technology programs from concept development through prototype development. The analyst will work with a cross-functional team of scientists, technical development experts, FDA consultants, project managers, and financial analysts. The analyst will report to the Senior Program Officer.
REQUIREMENTS: The ideal candidate will have a PhD in a biological science, and at least 2 years of post-doctoral or other relevant experience. The candidate should have publications in reputable journals, and experience communicating data to technical and lay audiences. Project management is a plus. Ability to work individually or as part of team is desirable. The candidate should be a self-starter, organized, and detail-oriented. Knowledge of FDA regulations is also desired.
Please send cover letters and CVs to JDoe@ABCCorp.hr.org.
Dear Hiring Manager,
Thank you for the opportunity to apply for the position of Associate Technical Analyst with ABC Corporation. I believe I possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully execute the requirements of the position.
I have a PhD in Neuroscience from Any University Medical Center. Following my doctoral work, I was hired as a post-doctoral fellow by MEDDEV Inc., a medical devices company, and worked in the ‘In Vitro Diagnostics’ development group. Our group commercialized several devices that successfully navigated the FDA approval process, from concept through implementation. I was then promoted, and went on to acquire two years of project management experience as a project manager for MEDDEV Inc. In that time, I also earned my certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP).
I have 15 first-author publications in top-tier journals, and multiple supporting authorships. I have presented my team’s work at national and international conferences, and was invited to provide the keynote at the Young Investigator’s Award Symposium this year.
I have experience in both leadership and team roles, working with scientific teams, as well as cross-functional teams. I am a self-starter with an entrepreneurial spirit, highly detail-oriented, and extremely well-organized.
I believe my experience makes me a good fit for the position of Associate Technical Analyst, and am excited to expand my current skill set through opportunities for growth at ABC Corporation. Thank you, again, for the opportunity to apply. I look forward to hearing from you.
Typed Name, PhD, PMP