A slightly different type of post today. I'm about to take part of a careers day at work, which got me thinking about scientists who are just starting out on their research journey. This post is mainly about genetics research, but the pointers are relevant to all types of science (and jobs in general, I'd imagine).
If you're wanting to work in genetics or molecular biology and not heading for the post-doctoral route, then the Research Assistant or Research Technician option offers a wide and rewarding career path in many different roles.
Most RA positions will require a Bachelors degree as a minimum, but many applicants have a Masters degree as well.
Where to start?
One of the main problems with any career is getting on the ladder to start with. You may come out of university with a good BSc grade or an MSc, but guess what? So does everyone else you're up against. Everyone wants applicants with experience, but how can you get that if no one will employ you to start with?
I'll let you into a secret. If you have well laid out CV and a good cover letter, then many employers will be willing to overlook a lack of direct experience when they choose who to interview, especially for the more junior roles. You might not instantly get the salary you dreamed of, and you might even be offered a lower training grade, but it's a start and it gets you through the door. I've interviewed many people solely on the quality of their application rather than their history, and some of my best RAs started with very little work experience outside of their degree.
Competition can be fierce, however, especially in the current economy. I recently advertised a position in my lab and got 191 applicants. The initial pass to remove anyone ineligible got that down to 67, and a further pass got it down to 18. From all those candidates, we chose 5 people to interview.
I've been employing RAs in various roles for well over a decade now and I've read hundreds of CVs and cover letters, ranging from the awful to the awesome and everything in between.
So, how can you make sure that you make that vital shortlist? Here are my five tips to help you make an impact!
1. Target your application
Nothing makes an employer groan like a generic cover letter and CV that could be for any job. We want to know why you want this job. If the role requires tissue culture experience, then make sure you mention it somewhere (even if it's to say "I learned the theory during my course"). You don't need to re-write the whole thing each time, just tweak around the edges and make sure it answers the questions in the advert.
2. Be succinct and accurate
The people choosing the shortlist of applicants for the job will, most likely, have a stack of CVs and a limited amount of time to get through them all. So, make sure you don't waste their time with waffle or unnecessary details.
If your CV is over two pages (not including any publications) then it's too long. If you have a long list of technical skills, just include the ones relevant to the job you've applied for. Also, try to limit your cover letter to less than a page - we don't need to know your entire life story or the exact details on every experiment you performed. Focus on what the employer is looking for, and how your skills match that.
A major plus point is to check is the formatting and spelling in your application. Scientific research requires a high level of attention to detail. If it seems that you can't be bothered to proofread your own CV, then how can anyone trust you to perform an experiment or record the results properly? I can't emphasise enough how important this is - if an employer has to choose who to interview from a pool of ten applicants with very similar qualifications and experience, finding out you'd suddenly changed your font size halfway through a sentence will make a difference.
3. Don't over-egg the pudding
The application process is your first chance to show yourself off and what you can do, but don't go overboard and over-hype your achievements.
Just because you did something in your MSc project, don't refer to yourself as an expert in it. I've been doing PCRs for over twenty years now and I wouldn't consider myself an expert in that by a long shot.
Also, saying things like 'this makes me the ideal candidate' makes you sound like you're auditioning for The Apprentice and is likely to put the employer on the defensive (it does me, anyway). Let them come to that decision themselves.
4. Be enthusiastic and demonstrate some knowledge
You'd be amazed how important this is. If you don't have any direct work experience yet, then just being enthusiastic in your application will go a long way.
Showing why you are interested is also a very good idea. If you're applying for a job in malaria research, for example, you could mention how important it is to human health. Throw in a bit of info from a recent paper you've seen (even better if came from the group you want to join) to show you've read around the subject.
Again, there's no need to go over the top and write reams of information; just a couple of sentences will be enough to give a flavour, and show that you bothered to do some homework.
All this feeds back into Tip 1 - properly targeting your application.
5. What can you bring to the role?
When I used to work in Cambridge, I lost count how many times people answered the question "why do you want this job?" with "I want to work for Cambridge University, it would be good for my career." That's great, but all I heard was I'll be looking for a different job as soon as I've started this one.
There's a high probability that your first job in science won't be the ideal dream one for you. It's a way to gain experience and after a while you'll want to move on. Employers know this (especially if it's a fixed term contract) but they will want to at least break even on their investment in you. Training someone up from scratch can take a lot of time and effort, so if someone gives the impression they won't stay more than a few months then it's not worth hiring them. Make sure this doesn't come through in your application; it'll most likely go straight into the 'reject' pile, especially if you are slightly overqualified for the role as advertised.
But back to the main point. When you're top of your field, you can dictate what you want from your employers. When you're starting out, you need to persuade them why they should hire you. What do you have to offer them? If you're a fresh graduate then it may be all you have is a desire to learn and a willingness to work hard. Did you demonstrate that during your final year project or MSc research?
Again, target your application to the job that's advertised.
Hopefully this information will help you on your journey to a career in scientific research. Remember, the best an application can do is get you an interview, and surviving that requires a whole different set of tips which I'll talk about another day!
Ed Ryder is a Senior Scientific Manager currently working in the UK. He started his career over twenty years ago, volunteering at a local research trust before getting a job there as a technician, doing a PhD and working his way up.