Forum: How to apply for a job
gravatar for Emily_Ensembl
3.2 years ago by
Emily_Ensembl21k wrote:

Given the response to F's post about cover letters the other day, I thought I'd post something that I've been messing about with for a while about applying for jobs (born out of frustration with bad job applications). Other recruiters will probably disagree with me on some aspects, but maybe if we have an open discussion about these things it will mean that:

  1. People applying for jobs will be more likely to get them.
  2. Recruiters will have an easier job.

Here's my ten-step process for writing a job application.

Step one: Read the job advert.

Decide, do you want to apply for this job?

Step two: Read the job advert.

Take another look, do you really want to apply for this job? Or do you want to apply for a different job that you imagine this job to be? Really read the list of duties involved and qualifications required, and check for any misconceptions you may have formed.

The recruitment I am involved with is at a bioinformatics institute, but we’re not actually looking for a bioinformatician, yet we get loads of applications from people clearly looking for a bioinformatics job. A friend of mine works for a biological archive with the word “Bank” in the title, and gets inundated by applicants with an accountancy background.

Step three: Read the instructions.

You’ve decided to apply for the job, how do you do that? It usually says so on the advert. If the advert tells you to email your CV and cover letter to a particular address, do that. If the advert tells you to go via an online application system, do that. If it asks for all your qualification certificates, include them. If it asks you to include references, do that. If it doesn’t ask for any of those things, do not do that – the recruiter does not want to sift through extraneous documents to find what they need. Edit: If there's an application portal with different sections, fill in the sections – try to get into the application portal and take a note of all the sections before you start writing, this allows you to spend a decent amount of time looking over the sections and editing them.

Finding the person who is likely in charge of recruitment and emailing them your CV, when the advert clearly asks you to fill in a form does not make you look proactive, it makes you look like you don’t know how to follow instructions, especially if you get the wrong person. Email them to ask questions, by all means, but the actual application should follow the instructions. Never phone, as phoning people requires them to talk to you at your convenience, not theirs, and can be considered an intrusion; an email allows them to respond when they have time.

Step four: Write your CV.

If you’re job hunting, you probably have a CV written and ready. That is not your CV, that is your CV template. Reorder items on your CV to put the things that you think the recruiters for this particular job will find the most useful first. People reading job applications get bored, and may trail off reading if they don’t see the most relevant stuff first.

A CV should be no longer than two sides of A4, so use that space well. Instead of listing all the responsibilities you had in a previous job, list the main ones, plus the few that are the most relevant to the job you’re applying for. List specifics of skills that are relevant to the job, be vague about skills that are less relevant. Rather than list all publications, conferences etc, point out the most relevant to this job, then link to LinkedIn or ORCID for the rest. If you're a coder, link to your GitHub. Always have full links to things the recruiter might find useful (your blog, your ORCID, your GitHub) rather than just usernames, they're more likely to visit them if they can do so in a click rather than having to search, and all of these provide evidence of your ability, which is much more useful than you just describing it.

Edit: (Thanks genomax) If there's a portal with different sections to fill in instead of a straight CV, use that. This may mean pulling out sections from your standard CV template and pasting it into their boxes. It's still a lot of effort for a recruiter to go through everything, so you should still make sure you're putting relevant skills first and expand upon them.

Step five: Read the job advert.

Does the CV you just wrote address the advert? If not, go back to it. If it does, move on to the cover letter.

Step six: Write your cover letter.

This is not a copy/paste job like the CV, this should be written fresh each time. Here’s a standard structure for a cover letter:

  • Paragraph one: why you’re applying for the job. Make sure you state the job title and the name of the organisation, and check them. This tells the recruiter that you really did write this letter specifically for this job, because you really are interested in this specific job. Make positive and specific statements about the job and/or organisation to show how enthusiastic you are and that, as a person knowledgeable about what they do, you’d be ready to hit the ground running.
  • Middle paragraphs: Go through the advert and pick out all of the skills and responsibilities listed. Explain how, through all of the jobs you’ve had and extracurricular activities you’ve done, you have learned or demonstrated these skills or held these responsibilities. Do not write about skills that are not necessary for the job. All activities should be cross-referenced to aspects of your CV, ie “I had this responsibility as part of this extracurricular activity” means that you need to list extracurricular stuff in your CV. Be specific. Don't just say "I am good at presentations" say "I have delivered presentations to a variety of audiences, including academics, clinicians and patient groups, as part of my job at place".
  • Final paragraph: Assure the reader that you really are enthusiastic about this job (again job title and/or organisation) and that you really think you’d be an asset, based on everything in the preceding paragraphs.

A cover letter should be no longer than one side of A4. You can fiddle with font size and margins a little, but not too much or it will be unreadable.

If you know the name of the hiring manger, it is fine to address the letter to their name. If you do not know their name, use a gender neutral address such as "Dear Sir/Madam", "To whom it may concern" or "Dear hiring manager". Addressing your letter to "Sir" when you do not know their gender is a surefire way to get yourself marked as a misogynist and have your application thrown in the bin by half the population.

Step seven: Read everything.

Does the cover letter you just wrote match the advert? Does it match the CV? If not, go back and adjust.

Proof-read for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Poor spelling and grammar or typos make you look sloppy. Also check your CV for formatting and layout to ensure that it is easy to read.

Step eight: Wait 24 hours.

Unless you have a tight deadline. But if you can, wait. If you can't wait, get a friend to read your application.

Step nine: Read it all again.

This is your final proof-read. You will spot far more mistakes if you wait than if you proof-read right away. This is because immediately after writing, you read what you think you wrote, not what you did write.

Consider your file names. The recruiter is going to receive many CVs and cover letters for this job, so calling them CV.doc or jobtitleCV.doc will give them a computer full of files with the same name. Call the files something like yourname_jobtitle_CV.doc, so that they can be easily filed by both you and the recruiter. You’ve just saved the recruiter the 30 s job of changing your filenames (which, if they receive 100 applications, is nearly an hour overall) and now they look upon you favourably.

Step ten: Hit send.

Send the application by the method specified in the advert.

ADD COMMENTlink modified 7 months ago by jovali84290 • written 3.2 years ago by Emily_Ensembl21k

Great summary.

A friend of mine works for a biological archive with the word “Bank” in the title, and gets inundated by applicants with an accountancy background.

Doesn't that place have a HR department that does pre-screening of the applications? Your friend's time is likely more valuable.

A couple of things to add.

A lot of companies now use automated programs to scan CVs to find keywords. If your CV does not have the right words then your CV may not make it to the eyes of a human recruiter. The automated systems seem to do this by OCR or you may actually be required to fill in various sections by cutting/pasting/uploading a file. So once that happens you have to ensure that the system did its job correctly. Before you spend a lot of time formatting your CV, see if you can figure out what the employer's application portal needs. At least in the US most applications now require an online submission. Only for post-doc's and such contacting someone directly may be possible (even then you may still be asked to formally submit online).

I also want to say that employers are not without blame. They have been asking for "chef credentials" when the job only needs a person to know how to prep vegetables. So applicants are never sure if the listed requirements are real or a wish list on part of the employer. Unfortunately they are forced into "let me throw my CV at this job and see if it sticks" situation.

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by genomax91k

I agree that employers are to blame for not making their job descriptions reasonable. I often see requirements for skills that require time and experience to acquire only for the position to be advertised at junior/beginner level or for requirements that are rarely found in combination to realistically expect to find someone matching all of them.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Jean-Karim Heriche23k

Good point about the application portals. I'll add that to the section on checking how to apply and writing a CV.

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by Emily_Ensembl21k

For me the cover letter is the most important part. As I read it first, it forms my impression of the candidate. I use the CV to cross-check elements of the cover letter. Also don't neglect your web presence. By this I don't mean social media but anything that can show your professional contributions, e.g. code repository, project website. A personal website that presents/links your various professional activities may be a good idea. Think of it as a kind of online CV.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Jean-Karim Heriche23k

A lot of people think of the cover letter as an afterthought, but the clue's in the name, the letter is your front cover – it tells the recruiter if they should even bother reading your CV. I'm amazed at how many cover letters are just one paragraph saying "I'm applying for this job, here's my CV."

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Emily_Ensembl21k

It may be dependent on the system the employer is using too. Many portals have no place to upload cover letters. Some even seem to be doing away with conventional CV's. They accept Linked-In profile links instead of a filled-in application.

Both you and @Jean-Karim place a lot of importance on the cover letter (as a preview of the CV?). It sounds like a personal preference though. You are ultimately going to review the CV anyway, correct?

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by genomax91k

I always read the CV, but if the cover letter's no good then they're not getting an interview. Communication skills are one of the things we're looking for, so the quality of the cover letter is a marker of those skills.

Even if I wasn't looking for communication skills, your CV lays out your skills, your cover letter explains how your skills make you suited to this particular job. A good cover letter makes a recruiter's life easier because they don't have to hunt through the CV for all the skills to match their requirements, it's all been spelled out for them in the cover letter with examples. It can be quite easy to miss something important in a CV, especially if it's very long and they haven't (as I described) made sure the relevant stuff comes first so if your cover letter is good then I'm definitely not going to miss anything important (I'm going to be actively looking for the sections of your CV that your cover letter has mentioned), and you've made it easy for me so I'm generally well disposed towards you.

I probably wouldn't apply for a job that didn't require a cover letter, or at least some section of the form page that was equivalent to a cover letter. I feel like if they don't want to read about my motivations or interests in my application, then they probably won't be interested in my career development while I work for them. I'm generally not a fan of form applications anyway as I might have something useful to say that doesn't fit into any of the sections they have, for example if they only provide space for describing past jobs and education, how do you explain that you taught yourself to code or had a particular responsibility as part of a sports club you were on the committee for? When I review applications I'm happy to consider skills acquired in any aspect of life (eg one of our responsibilities is making YouTube tutorials, someone's cover letter said they do video make-up tutorials – big tick).

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by Emily_Ensembl21k

I agree with Emily. I also always read the CV but you can get a lot of impressions from the cover letter. Is it written clearly and logically with respect to the job advertised ? If not, either the candidate hasn't spent enough time thinking about the job and/or they are not able to clearly articulate their thinking. Is it full of spelling mistakes ? The candidate doesn't know how to use a spell checker and doesn't care about details, how would they cope with more complicated stuff, will they treat data/results/protocols in the same cavalier way ? That's not giving a good first impression.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Jean-Karim Heriche23k

Interesting perspective. Hopefully it will help someone here land an interview at EnsEMBL.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by genomax91k

My top tip for applying to any job at Ensembl – don't put an E on the end of Ensembl.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Emily_Ensembl21k

And to show you really payed attention, spell it EnsEMBL :)

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Jean-Karim Heriche23k

No-one does that any more.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Emily_Ensembl21k

I still do :-( That's the way I first saw it and given that EMBL is the institution, I stuck to that particular mode of casing.

ADD REPLYlink written 2.5 years ago by RamRS30k

Any job ask for some qualifications (like; experience with RNA-seq, R, exome sequencing etc ...), and not every one have all the qualifications. what is the percentage of qualification should I have to apply for a job?

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Medhat8.8k

As long as you possess the core requirements for education (and experience). These may not always be clearly stated (discussion above) but you should get a gut feeling. You must also be reasonably sure that you will be able to learn the top two/three things included that you do not presently know. Ultimately every new job requires some education e.g. a new employer may use different cluster scheduler and architecture.

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by genomax91k

Most adverts list things that are required and things that are advantageous/desirable. You should have everything that is required, and some of what is advantageous/desirable. If a job advert has been written without the split of required vs advantageous/desirable, then it's reasonable to assume that everything is advantageous/desirable and you should have some of those skills. I think this goes back to point 2 above – only apply for jobs that you actually want and you think you'd be good at. If you don't necessarily have all the skills, but you think you would be good at the job and can demonstrate through your cover letter how your other experience would put you in good stead, that might be good enough. You don't know what the pool of other candidates will be like.

While it might piss off recruiters to read job applications from people who clearly are not qualified, you're not going to lose anything – they're not going to give you the job anyway so what does it matter to you if they're pissed off. That said, when I log into the jobs portal at EMBL to find all my applicants, I can see what other jobs they've applied for in EMBL, and if they've applied for every single job that the EBI or EMBL have advertised in the past month (from trainee developer to director of the institute, from HR to sysadmin) that doesn't reflect well (they're clearly not interested in the specific job, they just want to work at a prestigious institute), but if they've applied for a selection of related jobs then I can see that they're interested in a particular job type and I'm quite well disposed towards them. A scatter-gun approach to job applications is not good.

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by Emily_Ensembl21k

Sorry, supposing the deadline for the advertised job is Aug 10th, what is better, applying for that ASAP or waiting until Aug 8-9th if I am waiting for the acceptance of an article and would like to add that to my CV???

I have arranged a table of jobs by deadline and don't apply for them until 1-2 days before the deadline, now, I felt I am lossing some opportunities by postponing sending my applications :(

Thank you

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by A3.9k

I think in our field most jobs are advertised with a deadline, with the idea that all applications will be reviewed after that deadline and all interviews done in one go. As such, there is nothing to be lost by waiting until close to the deadline. Just don't forget to actually do it! Maybe set yourself a reminder.

Some of my colleagues don't even look at the applications until after the deadline. I look at them as they come in and make notes on my spreadsheet, but I would never make any decisions until I'd seen them all.

In my experience, a lot of the early applications are the scatter-gun ones, where they're just applying everywhere. The best applications tend to come closer to the deadline, where they've properly considered it.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Emily_Ensembl21k

Thanks a lot, very useful post

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by A3.9k
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