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Writing a cover letter – PhD students leaving academia.

Applying for roles outside of academia after your PhD is already a tricky task. In addition to writing a good CV, you also need a complimentary cover letter. This post discusses how to make a great first impression with a cover letter.

When applying for roles outside of academia as you approach the end of your PhD it’s important to nail down all the aspects related to the recruitment process. These aspects include networking, having an up to date LinkedIn profile, a well written CV, and of course a well written cover letter. In this instance a cover letter is an accompanying document to your CV. Your CV should provide a brief and succinct overview of your transferable skills and competencies as to why you’re fit for the role. In essence, a cover letter is no different as it seeks to expand on your CV whilst providing more explicit context on how you fit the role.

When writing a cover letter, the core message is to make the employer believe that you’re the best candidate. Here, you want to spend some time looking through the job specification to identify the key things that a successful candidate would have. Sometimes job adverts have a ‘the ideal candidate would be’ section – make sure you highlight or identify what it is they’re looking for. The next step is to construct your cover letter in accordance to these sections. Of course, you’ll need to first introduce yourself. Addressing the cover letter to the right person (use a specific name) is always a great way to make an impression – if you’re unsure who this is, try to find out in advance, otherwise opt for a more general approach.

Within the first paragraph you want to demonstrate how and why you are applying. This is a great place to mention a referral if you’ve had one, discuss the company’s values and how they align with your values, talk highly of their mission and why you’re also passionate about this. If the role specifies certain competencies, emphasise that you believe to possess the majority of the skills needed. When mentioning the skills and values, be sure to mention them explicitly – sometimes cover letters and CV’s get screened via computers or automated processes, using buzz words that the programmes have been told to look out for is likely to help.

If they’re screened by a person, still use them as the recruiter will often be comparing your cover letter to the role. Approach it like an exam, use the words the examiner is looking for to give yourself a better chance. An important point here is to not spend too long on your opening paragraph – you do not want to leave the reader thinking ‘get to the point’. In some ways it’s quite similar to writing an abstract to a publication or your thesis, except on this occasion you are the paper. Thus, keep is brief, succinct, and attempt to provide an overview more than anything.

The spotlight is on you…

The next stage for writing a cover letter is to talk about your skills in a specific context. Going back to the point about finding the ‘ideal candidate competencies’ outlined on the job specification, you want to discuss yourself in relation to these competencies. For example, if the ideal candidate will have excellent problem-solving skills, make sure you have a paragraph or a few sentences about problem-solving. This is where you can demonstrate some real-world examples of your problem-solving skills in your cover letter. Of course, your CV will have problem solving as a key skill – every PhD student acquires this. However, use the cover letter as an opportunity to show when and how you’ve used problem solving in your previous roles/PhD career. Give it context. Try to think about this carefully. You want to use examples that are as close to the job advert as possible. If you are applying for a data focused role, use a problem-solving example that is in a data context.

If the role is requiring a lot of writing skills, demonstrate problem-solving in the context of publishing, or writing. The more relevant the better. If you find it quite difficult to think of a relevant context – that’s okay. Still talk about your problem-solving abilities, but then make it explicit how this can be applied and transferred to the current role. For instance, you might not have demonstrated problem-solving when it comes to being published, but you’ve demonstrated problem-solving skills elsewhere. Therefore, you know what it’s like to have to think of solutions and approach situations that you might not be familiar with. For more examples of this check out these examples from Harvard PhD students.

You want to follow this framework throughout your cover letter. You typically want to hyper focus on 3 or 4 key skills that are essential to the role at hand. If you have more skills that are relevant, be sure to not overload the reader. Remember, you want to keep it relatively brief, informative, but also detailed. If you’re doing a cover letter right, you should find it hard to keep the word count down. As you begin to understand how to do this it might be quite difficult to work out which skills to emphasise. Remember – your recruiter is looking for the ‘ideal candidate’ and so you should prioritise the ones that are most important to them, not necessarily the skills you’re best at. You’re trying to sell yourself, find out what the buyer wants and give it to them. After you’ve spoken about your skills you want to hit home and re-emphasise that you’re great for the advertised position. Your closing paragraph will likely be a short one, maybe 2 or 3 sentences. You do not need to reiterate everything you said specifically, but it helps to tie this all together. A phrase such as:

based on the skills demonstrated above, I believe that I represent the ideal candidate for the role of “job title” at “Company name”.

Assertive, direct and succinct endings to a cover letter help bring it to a natural end. This way you’re able to end the cover letter without leaving the reader questioning what you will talk about next, but you’re also not ending it too abruptly where they might feel a bit unsure of what your point was.

Don’t make it a cliffhanger.

As you’ll be emphasising 3 or 4 skills in your cover letter, you’ll want to be mindful of how you structure this document. You’ll have your opening paragraph that’s relatively short, the more detailed (yet still succinct) section about the skills that apply, and then your closing paragraph. If you do not paragraph or break this up correctly it can feel extremely overwhelming for the reader. Be sure to break it up with white space, make it easy on the eye, you want to entice people in and paint a great picture of yourself, but at the same time you do not want to scare them off because you’ve written something bigger than your thesis.

Best practice is to keep your cover letter to just one page. However, there’s a small caveat. If the role your applying for places a word limit on your cover letter, take this into consideration. Some applications state ‘no longer than 4 pages’ in which case a one-page cover letter is likely to be too short. Think of it like this. If a word/page limit has been stated, it typically means other candidates (i.e. your competition) submit cover letters to this length. If everyone is submitted 3-page cover letters when you’ve gone for 1 page, it’s quite probable that you’ve undersold yourself relative to others. This is probably one of the worst things to do. Again, if you do end up submitting a longer cover letter be sure to paragraph well, maybe use a bigger line spacing. You do not want your cover letter to look too heavy where the recruiter just doesn’t bother reading it!

The last and final point to make about writing a cover letter is to keep it relatively informal. Do not use jargon and do not overcomplicate things. Use more informal, or a casual writing style. Not only are you trying to demonstrate your skills here, but you also want to convey that you’re a team player, you’re likeable, and that you’ve got good social skills. Remember, you want them to enjoy reading your cover letter almost as much as you want them to be convinced by your application. Easier the cover letter is to read the increased likelihood they are to read it to the end, or even read it again!

Once you’ve nailed a good CV, a cover letter and optimised your LinkedIn profile, be ready for the interview process. Much of this is the same as how you present yourself with your CV or cover letter, but you should always go into an interview prepared!


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