A life science careers blog for early career researchers
This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.
In the last 18 months, we’ve invited a number of recruiters and hiring managers to EMBL to share their advice on applying to jobs outside academic research*. We’ve distilled the tips and advice from these sessions into 3 tips for your job application and 3 tips for your interview. At the end of the article, we also include some useful resources that can help you implement these tips.
“On average we look at a CV for 2-5 minutes at the first screening – if you have a 4-page CV we aren’t going to get to the final page. The information you have in your CV and cover letter needs to be relevant and you need to change this every time you write an application for industry. I can tell immediately if someone has done this.” Lee Milligan, NovoNordisk
1) Tailor each application for the position you are applying for
A clear message from the workshops was that recruiters and hiring managers have little time. A reader of your application should therefore be able to understand your background, achievements and fit to the position from a quick skim-read. Including too much irrelevant detail can dilute your message. You therefore need a concise and well-structured application that focuses on the most relevant points; a good understanding of the position you are applying for can help you identify these. To support your knowledge of the sector and role you can, for example, carry out informational interviews before applying, and can also ask the HR recruiter if there are parts of the job advert that are not clear to you.
2) Use the cover letter to show your motivation and fit
Your CV is a historical document outlining your skills, achievements and experiences to-date. Your cover letter, in contrast, should be forward-looking, and link your motivation and skills/experience to the position – ideally in 1-page.
Specifically, your cover letter should not only include an overview of the key skills and experiences that make you a good fit to the position, but also a concise explanation of why you want THIS position and THIS company, and how you came to be interested in this type of role. For example, if you have you done an informational interview with someone in the role, or talked to an employee in the company you are applying for, you could mention this.
A detailed description of your research is not needed, unless you will be working on a closely-related research project.
3) Show, don’t tell
When you are one of many well-qualified applicants, simply claiming that you have particular skills is not enough. Including achievements that provide evidence of the key skills will help you stand out as a serious and authentic candidate. This applies both to the cover letter and CV. For instance, if good presentation skills are essential for the role, don’t just state that you have these skills in your cover letter, substantiate this claim by including a short example. The example will be even more powerful if it is something that not every PhD-qualified scientist could say. Perhaps you have won a poster prize, received excellent feedback scores for a course you taught or been invited to give a talk based on something you had already presented? Additionally, when describing your research experience in your CV, rather than the project title, include high-level information about the scientific area, a brief summary of your contribution and relevant achievements/outputs (this could be papers, other outputs [database, protocol, software etc], or simply that your research enabled you to answer a particular unanswered & important research question). In the CV, bullet points are easier to skim-read. See our related article on impactful statements.
The interview for an industry position varies greatly according to the company and type of role you are applying for. If you are applying for a programme, it may include a day long “assessment centre” with group activities and case studies, or – if applying to research roles – it may include parts (such as a scientific talk) that you are familiar with from academic interviews. However, generally, there is a stronger focus on skills and traits than in academia (see quote below).
“The standout candidate will demonstrate an obvious passion for science and for helping patients. We are looking for someone who is a clear technical and subject matter expert, but in addition to that, we are looking for someone who could fit easily into a team and the culture of the company. Being passionate about helping others, achieving the best science, and being a good teammate go a long way to standing out in a crowd of applicants.” Ami S. Lakdawala, GSK
1) Start collecting examples you can use to answer competency-based interview questions
Many companies use competency-based questions that explore particular skills or traits by asking for examples of situations you have dealt with previously. For instance, to explore organisational skills, you may be asked to give an example of when you had to balance a number of tasks, and how you handled this. Questions may also be framed negatively (e.g. for details of a time when you didn’t meet a timeline). Negative framing is used to see if you have self-insight, and if you learn from mistakes – in these answers, include what you learned from the experience.
So that you will have good examples in your mind at your interview, it is worth starting now, by keeping an active list of different situations you have been in where you have faced difficulties or achieved something positive, linked to different skills needed for the types of jobs you would like to apply for.
One good way to structure answers to competency-based questions is using the ”STAR” technique. STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result. When using the technique you:
• start with a brief description of the situation,
• then talk about what the task was (what was the goal),
• you then focus on what actions YOU took,
• and finish by describing the outcome.
This is a lot to fit into one answer, so you will probably need to practice doing this so that you can keep your answers concise.
2) Prepare a short career summary as an “elevator pitch”
This can be used as a basis for answers to questions like “could you summarize your CV for us” or “why don’t you start by telling us about yourself”. When you are drafting this, consider what you can focus on, and how best to structure this, so that your match to the role and your motivation for applying shines through.
3) Research the company / role and come prepared with your own questions
An interview is also your chance to decide whether the job is for you – come prepared with questions that will help you fully understand their expectations and your fit to the culture. This is normally well-received by the interviewers, who will see it as a sign of genuine interest. However, do make sure you have done your own basic research too. Interviewers won’t expect you to know everything, but if your questions are informed* this will make a much better impression than questions that highlight a lack of basic understanding of the sector. This research will also help you answer any questions that explore your existing knowledge of the sector, company and role.
* e.g. “I read that your main competitor xxx has recently done yyy, will this affect the long-term prospects in this department.” or “How will the recent xxx affect investment in this area within the company in the next 5-years”