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Friday, June 24, 2022

Go get that bread: Tips for navigating the job market

L. Sophie Gullino shares her secrets to securing your dream job without losing your head.

Applying for jobs can be daunting and stressful. Below you can find some bearings, ideas and starting points to help you to navigate this uncertain time. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it includes some useful tips stemming from my experience of applying for scientific jobs in academia and industry.

The golden rule: personalize your application  

It is tempting to prepare one CV and cover letter and spam it across all job applications. I get it, there are loads of jobs you want to apply to and writing a different cover letter for each one might seem like a complete waste of time. If you don’t really care about the job, just sending a generic cover letter and CV is understandable. But if you think you might be a good fit for the position and want to increase your chances, the way to make an employer notice you is to personalize both your cover letter and your CV.

How? Let’s begin with your cover letter. To start with, it’s okay  to have a generic introduction about your background, but make sure to not repeat line by line what you described in your CV. Instead, address one by one all the job specifications. Most jobs (especially academic) will have a list of essential and desirable job specifications. These can vary from very specific competences like “having a biochemistry degree” or “advanced experience with MATLAB” to very generic statements about “team-working” or “interpersonal abilities”. Make sure you address them all, even the more basic ones, ideally with real world examples. For instance, avoid saying “I am a great team-worker” (that doesn’t prove anything!), but list the aspect of your previous experience that helped you to develop such abilities. An example would be: “during that project I have worked in a team of 5 students and we were successful in… ”, or “during my internship I interacted with hospital patients daily, which was instrumental for developing my communicating skills.”

Now, the tricky part is being able to provide concrete examples without writing a very lengthy cover letter, so be as concise as possible. Usually, one page should be enough to convey the message without boring your future employer, even if I must admit my cover letters always end up being longer than that. After you have written a few cover letters you will find that similar specifications keep coming up, so you don’t actually have to rewrite the entire application from scratch.

At the end of your cover letter insert a paragraph – or at least a sentence – about the company you’re applying to. This is the chance to show off that you have researched the position and institution. Try avoiding generic statements and explain with as much originality as possible why you think this company would be a good fit for you and your future career, and what you could bring to their organisation.

Personalizing your CV might be less straightforward, but the general idea is to highlight the skills and experience that are relevant for the job at hand. This is particularly relevant if you are applying for multiple jobs. For example, if you’re applying to be a research assistant in a wet lab, it makes sense to highlight all your practical experience with molecular biology techniques, but a biomedical writing company will have less interest in knowing that you are great at performing PCR analysis. Make sure your CV reflects that.

Applying at the right time

I wanted to find a job as soon as possible (don’t we all?) and had loads of jobs I was keen on. However, by applying in a random order you might end up sending applications for positions that won’t open for months, and instead miss deadlines that are closing soon. Hence every time you find a job that could be of interest, it is important to check how long they are accepting applications for. There are usually two options:

  1. There is no mention of deadline, or there is a deadline but rolling applications are in place. This is the case for many industry jobs. The employers will check applications only until a suitable candidate is found, so don’t postpone applying!
  2. There is a set expiration date and no mention of how they will be checking applications. This is the case for most jobs in academia. In this case, I would save the ad in a list of  “positions to apply later” and prioritize applications to other jobs first. There is no benefit in applying sooner and you won’t hear back until after the expiry date anyways, so no rush in applying. 

Brief Interview tips

The application aims to show you meet all the requirements, but the goal is to get an interview. At the interview stage, you need to show that you are the best candidate and highlight what sets you apart from the rest.

Typical questions to keep in mind:

Why should they pick you over the other candidates? Tricky, I know. Spend some time thinking about this in advance!

Why do you want the job? Again, avoid generic answers. For example, you can think about specific features of the positions and how they match your interests and experience. This will also show that you did your homework and that you are familiar with the company.

Random situational questions that start with “Tell me about a time when…” (e.g. a time when you worked in a team, made a mistake, disagreed with your superior, had to overcome a challenge…). Think about some of these situations beforehand as it can be challenging to come up with an answer on the spot. Be as specific as possible and tell a story that is realistic but makes you look good overall. You can think about a few examples from a recent project you worked on and come up with a few answers around it. It’s useful to practice these with a friend!

Lastly, think about some questions you can ask the interviewers. Usually at the end of the interview they will ask you if you have any questions. This is your chance to figure out if the company is a good fit for you (hence you can ask legit questions you might have), but it can also be yet another opportunity to show off your knowledge of the company. Make sure you do not ask something that you could have found out by reading their website.

Apply, apply, apply!

Don’t be afraid of rejection. You will be rejected many times, sometimes even for that one job that you really wanted. But that’s okay, because applications and interviews are a great experience, and after every interview you will be a bit more prepared than before. Also, don’t be scared to shoot high. You want this very ambitious job but you fear you might not be good enough? Let the employers decide, don’t make the decision for them. When doubting if you are qualified or not just apply anyway!

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