3 Cover Letter Hacks That Get PhDs Hired
Contributing Author: Sarah Smith, PhD
As a PhD, I should have known better than to assume this about my industry job search.
I assumed it would be easy.
Somehow, I didn’t know any better.
I severely underestimated all the components that were involved.
Job hunting actually is a kind of job, but there was no rulebook for me to follow.
So I had to learn by trial and error – mostly error.
The most frustrating mistakes are the very small ones that could have been avoided, like a spelling mistake on your resume that you notice only after you’ve submitted it.
Or trolling job boards, only to find out that the position at your dream company closes that very same day.
For me, this sort of thing sets off my “panic mode” – as in, you have just a few hours to put together your resume and submit all the necessary documents.
I remember frantically pulling out resume version no. #27 from my computer.
But the most effort I put into my cover letter.
I actually enjoyed writing cover letters, as they were an excuse to list how many prestigious things I had done over the course of my academic career.
My future employers were going to be so impressed by what a diligent, accomplished academic I was.
My cover letter would prove to them that I was a master of the technical in my field of expertise, and they would want to interview me right away.
What actually happened was that I never heard back.
I can’t blame them – after all, my cover letter just bored them with a giant list of technical accomplishments.
I didn’t indicate that I possessed any real transferable skills.
That’s when I started to be more strategic with my job search.
I learned that every single part of the application/resume process is an opportunity.
You need to take these opportunities and use them to show employers that you have everything they want in a candidate.
Your PhD proves that you possess the required technical skills.
Now it’s all on you to show them you have the transferable skills too.
Your cover letter is one of the first places in which to demonstrate these skills, and therefore one of the most important.
Why PhDs Can’t Afford To Skip The Cover Letter
There is no denying the fact that cover letters are becoming less and less popular.
According to a survey in Jobvite, 55% of hiring managers say that while cover letters are not important in their job search process, they still recommend that you learn how to nail them.
With the advent of social media, recruiters and hiring managers can easily vet a candidate on LinkedIn without even looking at their resume.
But here’s the thing…
You never know exactly what the hiring manager wants to see, and it can be a huge misstep if you forget this.
In a recent survey of 1,500 recruiters and hiring managers by CareerBuilder, 29% of employers said they wanted a cover letter.
That is significant enough to include it.
In that same survey, 77% of employers indicated that they are most interested in knowing if the job candidate’s skills match what they are looking for.
Your cover letter should convince employers of precisely this – it is 1 more opportunity to prove your worth.
Use this opportunity to show the hiring manager that you have what it takes to do the job, and that you take the hiring process seriously.
3 Ways For PhDs To Communicate Essential Transferable Skills Using A Cover Letter
A cover letter is the hiring manager or recruiter’s first impression of you.
You need to be concise, and you need to make sure that key information clearly stands out.
Some basic, general layout rules include:
- Using a standard business layout (include the date, your address, and the address of the person you are sending it to)
- Limiting the length to 1 page
- Writing no more than 3 paragraphs
Let’s get past the obvious mistakes of spelling and grammatical errors.
If you are still doing this, then you are not worthy of the hiring manager’s time.
You are an intelligent and industry-ready PhD, so it’s time to take your job search to the next level.
Here are 3 important tips for writing a cover letter that clearly and effectively demonstrates your mastery of key transferable skills.
Use these methods if you want employers to take you seriously as soon as possible.
1. Demonstrate resourcefulness by finding out exactly whom you need to address.
Were you planning on beginning your cover letter with “To whom it may concern”?
If you write that phrase, here is how a hiring manager will read it:
“To whom it may concern,
I was too lazy to pinpoint the person to whom I should address this cover letter.
A Failed Job Candidate”
Don’t give the hiring manager an excuse to disqualify you from a position.
Show initiative and find out whom to address the cover letter to.
Locating this info will naturally imply that you are a resourceful candidate who is willing to work to acquire the right answer.
It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way in advertising the soft skills of resourcefulness and dedication.
If the name of the recruiter/hiring manager is not indicated in the job posting (and it rarely is), call the human resources department and ask.
Yes, that’s right – give HR a call from your phone.
It is the easiest and most immediate way to get a response.
You may have already built a relationship with the recruiter before applying to the role.
If that is the case, you can ask them who will see your resume first.
They will be impressed by your care and competence – you will have instantly made a good impression.
2. The first sentence of your cover letter should bring up your referral (this indicates smart networking and personal likeability).
There is no question about this: The most powerful thing in your cover letter is your referral.
You need to mention that referral in the first paragraph.
Before you apply for any position, you should be networking with employees at the company, building rapport, and gaining crucial insight into your desired role.
This is sometimes known as “playing the long game,” and it’s a winning strategy for PhDs who want a lucrative industry job.
And by mentioning a referral upfront in your cover letter, you are demonstrating soft skills from the social arena, like professionalism and the ability to get along with others.
In fact, not only do you get along with your referral – they like you well enough to actually put their reputation on the line for you.
In industry, that says a lot.
Now, you may come across a position at a new company and think it is better to apply than to let the opportunity pass you by.
By blindly applying without trying to reach out to at least 1 person, you are burning bridges.
Should you apply for work with this company a second time, they will have your previous application on file, and they will see that you did not even get past the resume screen.
You will just get rejected again.
So instead of working harder, work smarter and build connections within the company that you can leverage when a suitable position finally opens.
In a cover letter, your first sentence should read something like:
[Name of internal referral-giver] encouraged me to apply to position X at Company Y. I am writing in light of this and with great interest in the work being done at Company Y.
If you can get that referral, then demonstrate your networking skills in the opening of the cover letter, you will have a massively improved chance of getting an interview (as opposed to simply sending a cover letter without a referral).
3. Demonstrate a high level of research skill/comprehension by looking up the company and writing about it in your cover letter.
A new industry role in an arena like R&D or project management demands a very high level of comprehension.
That is, the ability to absorb information, process it, and take valuable action on the basis of that information – something PhDs are incredibly good at.
For example, you know how to pick up a complex paper, read it, break it down, understand it, and then apply it.
This high level of comprehension represents a soft skill that you need to highlight to potential employers.
In your cover letter, this can be demonstrated by researching the company, their mission, and what success would look like for someone in this role.
Find out how the company operates – what defines their methodology?
If you cannot find the answers online, reach out to employees at the company and arrange informational interviews.
Once you have done this, you can align your goals, values, and personal work processes to those of the organization.
Realize that the average person is not able to read, understand, and comprehend new information as quickly or as thoroughly as you.
Employee retention is one of the biggest challenges facing companies.
In fact, one third of new hires quit their job after 6 months.
The cost of employee turnover is high and it is extremely advantageous to have well-trained employees who are knowledgeable of the organizational structure and policies.
So by showing a company you have researched and understood the core of their business approach and inner workings, you are putting your expert comprehension skills on display.
They will be impressed that you did your homework – that you can “speak the language” of the company.
So remember never to skip the cover letter in your application. A cover letter represents a great opportunity to demonstrate your mastery of key transferable skills, and it will lead employers to take you seriously as soon as possible. Demonstrate resourcefulness by finding out exactly whom you need to address in your letter. Additionally, the first sentence of your cover letter should bring up your referral (this indicates smart networking and personal likeability). And you can demonstrate a high level of research skill/comprehension by looking up the company and writing about it in your cover letter.
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