Skip to main content

This guest blog post comes from Dora Farkas, Ph.D. 

I remember spending countless hours during my last semester in graduate school looking for employment opportunities. I knew my graduate stipend would run out in a few months, and I would soon need to pay the bills including sky-high rents in the Boston area. As a newbie to the industrial job search, I made all the mistakes under the sun: I applied to countless jobs online, I submitted my standard CV to multiple positions, and (I know this is embarrassing) I did not write a cover letter unless the company required it. In retrospect, my schedule was so busy that I could not give job searching the time and attention it needed.

The last four months before graduation were highly action-packed. In fact, I was not even sure I would make it to graduation because there was so much that needed to be completed both in terms of writing and collecting more data. The one thing that I did right was that I attended meetings and I networked with professionals. While I did not get a job right after graduation, keeping in touch with these professionals helped me to land my industrial job later on.

Once I was in industry, my group hired several people and I got to experience first-hand what it was like to be on the other side of the table. As a first-time job seeker from academia it is tough to gauge what companies value. Well-known PI’s, long publication records, and academic honors do not guarantee you a job. What companies really care about is whether they can count on you to help them make a profit by helping to put a product or service on the market. 

1. Submit your CV through a friend or professional contact

There are hundreds of job banks, which are updated daily with open positions across all industries. It is tempting to submit your CV online to all jobs that are somewhat similar to your background and hope that by law of numbers at least one company will invite you for an interview. Submitting CV’s online is rarely successful works because companies are increasingly hiring through internal referrals. 

Hiring managers are usually high or mid-level managers who already have a full work-load, and they need to squeeze in the screening of job applicants into their busy schedules. If you were a hiring manager, would you look through hundreds of CV’s submitted online, or through the dozen (or half-dozen) that colleagues have sent you? Some jobs are not advertised, so it is essential that you keep in touch with professional contacts that would be able to give you a heads up for open positions. Keeping in touch can be as simple as sending them a follow-up email once in a while to thank them for their advice, see how their company is doing, or to share with them an interesting article from a professional journal. Hand-written thank-you cards and holiday greeting cards will also set you apart from other candidates. 

Job banks are useful for finding out which companies have open positions. Then, you can use Linkedin to find out which one of your contacts (or friends of your contacts) works at that company. Then, you can proceed to reach out to your contacts to see if they think the job would be a good fit, or if they would be willing to introduce you to a friend who works at that company. Most of my professional contacts (or alumni from my department) were very willing to forward my CV, as they know how tough it is to get through the door without a personal referral. 

2. If you apply through a recruiter have a list of companies you applied to in the last 12 months

After I sent my CV to job banks, I learned that applying online is not only futile, but it also destroys my chances of being represented by a recruiter. Recruiters have contacts throughout their industry, but if HR has your CV, they cannot represent you at that company even if it is for a different position. In other words, if you apply for position A at company X online, because it is sort of a good fit, then you have just lost your opportunity of being represented by a recruiter at company X for the next 12 months, even if more suitable positions come up.

Recruiters also cannot represent you if your CV was submitted by a friend. However, you have a higher chance of being interviewed if you were referred internally, than if you sent in your CV online. You can also reach out to your professional contacts periodically if you do not hear back from the hiring manager. PhD-level positions are frequently open for months. Sometimes they cancel them due to budgetary constraints (or change them to Master’s level positions) so even that info is useful.

If you reach out to a recruiter, the first question they will ask you is “Where have you already applied?” Be ready with a list of companies you have applied in the last 12 months. It would be a very uncomfortable situation, and could damage your relationship with a recruiter permanently, if they contacted a hiring manager on your behalf and found out that you had applied there in the last 12 months (either online or through a friend).

3. Tailor your CV to each company

There is a reason they say that applying for a job is a full-time job. If you send a cookie-cut CV and standard cover letter to each company, they will probably not get a second look. Remember that companies are not just looking for a smart person. Employers are looking for the person who is going to solve their problems, such as getting something done faster or cheaper. Going to an Ivy League School and being class president do not count for anything. You can be very smart, and be completely useless to a company if you do not have the right skills.

Read over each job description very thoroughly and emphasize the skills that each specific company is looking for. They look for specific laboratory skills (e.g. mass spectrometry), knowledge of certain software packages, or familiarity with foreign languages. Make your CV’s keyword rich, because they are frequently scanned by HR first, who are looking for certain types of skill-sets. Use the same keywords that are in the job description. For example, if they look for HPLC expertise, mention your experience with HPLC not liquid chromatography. An HR person, who does not have a scientific background, might not realize that you used a synonymous technical terms.

Also, make sure your CV and cover letter are free of spelling or grammatical mistakes. I cannot stress the importance of this. When you write a 150-200 page doctoral thesis, having missing comma’s or an occasional typo here or there will probably not jeopardize your chances of graduation. Companies are much less forgiving when it comes to reviewing your CV, and will think you are unprofessional if your submission has typos.

Perfectionism is especially important in your cover letter, where you might be tempted to modify a previous letter. If you leave in the other hiring manager or company’s name in the template, or mention skills relevant to a different position your chances of getting that job are very close to zero.  Remember that you are competing with dozens or maybe even 100 qualified candidates, and you need to put your best foot forward whenever possible.

4. Focus on the top 1/3 of your CV

Hiring managers who go through hundreds of CV’s will decide in the first 30 seconds whether it is worth going through your background in more detail. In fact, the top 1/3 of your CV is thought to be the most important for catching the hiring manager’s attention. What should you include in the top 1/3 of your CV to set yourself apart from the other candidates?

Contact information – be sure it is correct and you have a professional sounding email address. If you have a young child who regularly picks up your phone, list a cell number instead.

Career summary – this is more important for people who have 10+ years of experience. Graduate students with prior industry experience, and postdocs would certainly fall under this category. If your CV is just one page, you can omit this section or keep it very brief.

Core skill sets or competencies – are you the go-to person for anything?

First work experience – if you have no industry experience, list graduate school and any associated positions such as teaching assistant or undergraduate research.

The bottom line is that your CV is not about you – it is about why you would be an asset for a particular company. The top 1/3 of your CV needs to convince the hiring manager why they should keep reading to learn more about you.   

5. Avoid the fluff and give specific examples with metrics

Some students are tempted to overstate their experience. For example: “Significantly improved turnaround time…” or “Exceptional protein purification experience…” If you were the hiring manager would you hire someone who had such vague terms in their CV or someone who cited measurable accomplishments such as ” Reduced turnaround time for sample analysis from 2 weeks to 2 days, ” or “Implemented purification protocol to recover 90% of protein..”

Note that these last two examples have specific, measurable outcomes. Hiring managers want to know how driven you are to improve process, quality, or productivity so they know where your talents lie. When you work for a company you will also be asked to have specific goals for each year, and your performance review will evaluate how well you met those goals. In some ways you will need to justify each year why you are an asset to your company. It is good to start practicing using metrics to evaluate your productivity. When you apply for your second or third industry position,  you will also need to describe your prior experience in terms of specific and measurable outcomes.

The same principle is true for soft skills such as communication skills and teamwork. When you include cliché terms such as “Great team player” or  ”Fantastic oral and written communication skills” your CV is probably headed in the direction of the paper shredder. Even if your technical skills are so strong that you get invited for a phone or in-person interview, the hiring manager will probably ask for specific examples if team work and communication skills are essential for the job. If you want to highlight your soft skills, give specific examples that demonstrate those particular skills such as leading group meetings, presenting at conferences, leadership roles in graduate school or professional organizations, and publication record.

In general, any leadership experience that you have held in graduate school or professional societies will be a good example of teamwork as well as communication skills. 

6. Write a catchy cover letter

There are two schools of thought on writing a cover letter. Some career coaches advise not to write a cover letter, because hiring managers will only read your CV anyway.  I believe that the rationale behind this advice is that you cannot use a cover letter to save a poorly-written CV. You need to have a perfectly tailored CV, regardless of whether you attach a cover letter to your application.

There is another school of thought that favors the writing a cover letter to help you distinguish yourself from other candidates. While cover letters are not always required, most online job applications give you the opportunity to submit one with your application. Why am I referring to online job applications when I discouraged them in the very first point above? The reason is that many companies require you to apply online, even if you were referred internally. It is a standard procedure to make sure they have all of your information on file. If you write a cover letter, this is the place to submit it. If you are referred internally, your contact can also forward your cover letter along with CV to the hiring manager.

Cover letters can provide additional information to help you secure the job. Even if the job does not require it, it is expected that you went the extra mile to put together a well-structured cover letter. Hiring managers will probably only spend a few seconds on it, so your letter needs to be catchy:

Address the hiring manager by name if you know it (if you are referred internally you can find out from your contact, and HR can also tell you if they interview you first)

Grab your reader’s attention in the opening paragraph with an impressive accomplishment, which is relevant to this specific company

Include specific examples of your expertise, which are highly related to the skill sets they are looking for

Demonstrate that you are familiar with the company, their needs, and why you are the solution

Provide a brief summary at the end of your cover letter, including your contact information

7. Have a professional online presence

Employers want to know as much as possible about job candidates, and they will probably do background research on you through Google and social media. Here are some tips:

Participate in Linkedin discussions in your field. If the hiring manager connects with you on Linkedin, he/she will see what groups you are part of. You do not need to go overboard, but if you contribute to professional discussions it will be in your favor

Remove all unprofessional photos from Facebook. Family photos are acceptable, but anything involving alcohol or an illegal activity will jeopardize your employment. I had a friend who lost her professional license due to an unethical photo (that was supposed to be funny) on Facebook. That mistake cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Remove any comments you have made in the discussion forums that could jeopardize your employment.

If you have any hobbies (sports, arts, volunteering) be sure that they also cast you in the best light. Sometimes hobbies can be asset during the interview process because they set you apart from other candidates. In some cases, such as volunteering, a hobby can even provide you with leadership skills that will be valuable in your job.

In the event that you have a serious, time-consuming hobby, be ready to answer questions about it during the interview. This is especially important if you have a side-business. If you are hired, the company might ask you write a declaration of your business to make sure there is no conflict of interest (i.e. you are not a competitor) and the time commitment does not interfere with regular business hours.

 In summary:

If there is one term I have heard hiring managers say repeatedly it would be this: “We want to hire someone who can hit the ground running.” In other words, they want their new employee to be productive and contribute to the company starting on day 1. Your job is to demonstrate in your CV and cover letter that you have the right technical skills, communications skills, and leadership to make a difference in the company. 


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. received her PhD from MIT and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for several years. Dora is a thesis and career coach for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. She is the author of The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates

18 Sep 2014

Related Posts

The Evolving Dissertation Landscape: A Conversation with ProQuest

Austin McLean, ProQuest’s Director of Scholarly Communication & Dissertation Publishing, recently spoke at the CUNY Graduate Center as part of a program entitled “The Evolving Dissertation Landscape: A Conversation with ProQuest.”…

Learn More

Book Review - Playing the Game

The street smart guide to graduate school, written by Frederick Frank, Ph.D. & Karl Stein, Ph.D.…

Learn More

Seven Strategies to Save Your CV from the Paper Shredder

I remember spending countless hours during my last semester in graduate school looking for employment opportunities.…

Learn More

Search the Blog