When you apply for postdocs and other types of jobs, you typically need to submit a curriculum vitae and a cover letter as part of your application package. This session will teach you strategies to assemble an effective application package geared towards getting the position that you want.
A typical application package for academic and/or research positions requires two things: a curriculum vitae (CV) and a cover letter. These documents tell your potential employer what you have done (e.g., academic training and professional skills), and why you have done it (e.g., interests). Moreover, they will help you demonstrate why you’re a great match for a job. But, how do you even start drafting these documents? Start by thinking about the specific items (e.g., skills, experiences) that you would like to highlight in your application. While the general structure of the CV and cover letter are the same, you should tailor these documents to highlight the aspects of your portfolio that are most relevant to the specific job (postdoc or otherwise) that you are applying for. This session will provide you with tips and strategies to help you construct an effective CV and cover letter.
Constructing your CV:
A CV is requested at almost every stage of an academic career, and yet, we aren’t usually taught how to write it. Whether you already have a CV or have never drafted one, it helps to take a step back and think about the main purpose of the CV.
Tailor your CV for the position. A CV is designed to help principal investigators (PIs) or hiring managers understand the academic training and professional skills of prospective candidates so they can assess if they meet the requirements of a specific job. That’s why a CV should be geared towards a specific job. Sometimes we forget how crucial this last point is, and if we apply to multiple positions in a short period of time, it can be challenging to create many different applications. But ultimately, your CV should demonstrate how well your career experiences fulfill the qualifications for the job that you are applying for. It can be a lot of work to create many different versions of your CV (and cover letter), but in the end, it is worth it.
Breadth, depth, and impact. Although you may feel obliged to write every single detail of what you have done, it’s better to be direct, specific, and concise in your CV. Its goal is to convey your most important accomplishments effectively. Your potential employer may be reviewing dozens of applications at once or just skimming through your application package. You want to make sure that they don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and that it is easy for them to get a good sense of who you are and what you have done. For each item in your CV describe the breadth (e.g., name of the project), the depth (e.g., your responsibilities in it), and the impact (e.g, discovery, publications). If the item’s breadth, depth or impact does not help communicate your fit for the position, consider not including it.
Use formatting to emphasize key elements. You need to think about how you can strategically format your CV to highlight important elements (see Figure 2.1). Aside from making sure that the size and general format of the CV are readable, you can also use CAPITALIZATION, underlining, and bolding to emphasize different components of your CV. To help you prioritize the elements of your CV that you want to “pop” for the reader, look at your CV as if YOU were the person hiring for this position.
Use action verbs. When describing your accomplishments, use action verbs to show your contributions and impact.
Get feedback and advice from your mentors. Send people in your mentoring network a description of the position you are applying for, your CV, and cover letter, and ask them for feedback, particularly about the fit of your materials for the position.
Cover letter: Answering the why question
Your CV conveys how your skills and background are ideal for a particular job. However, it doesn’t answer an important question: Why are you interested in the position? That’s the role of the cover letter: to highlight and explain how your interests and experiences make you a great fit for the job. Explaining this is particularly important when you’re trying to switch fields, or when the connection between your skills and experiences and the requirements of a job isn’t obvious from just reading your CV.
The cover letter is also an opportunity to highlight your most relevant accomplishments and explain how these make you a great candidate. You can use the cover letter to thoughtfully discuss why you want to join the lab, and what made this opportunity stand out to you. A compelling cover letter should not feel general; rather it should be customized for each lab or position you’re applying to.
There will be core elements to all of your cover letters (see Figure 2.2). However, you should customize each one to demonstrate you have done your homework to learn about your potential employer (e.g., the specific research the lab does) and how you will fit in or add value to what they do. The more specific information you can give about the lab and how your interests align with the particular job, the better.
As you start working on your CV and cover letter, you may feel intimidated and not know where to start. If you have a severe case of writer’s block, take a blank piece of paper and start with an outline. Review and add one piece of information to the document every day until you’re able to complete it. It’s not about perfection, but progress.
Activities (Exercises and Self-Reflection):
Naledi Saul is the Director of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She holds a Master’s of Public Management degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Spelman College. Prior to UCSF, Naledi was an Assistant Dean of Students and Assistant… Continue Reading