Tuesday, July 30, 2013

In the Trenches: Cover Letters for Undergrads

Although the main purpose of my blog is to share fascinating microbiology, I also have interests in science education and the scientific enterprise itself. I thought about posting in a separate place on these topics, since it's a bit of inside baseball, but in the end I decided to include these posts here as a feature called "In the Trenches". Here's the first in the series, written for undergraduate students who are interested in doing research with a professor during their time in college. 

Standing out in a crowd: tips on writing cover letters for undergrads applying to lab research positions

There it is, stapled to the bulletin board in the hallway. A job announcement advertising the perfect research opportunity for you! It's a chance to work in a professor's lab, doing experiments on a fascinating topic. If you're interested in pursuing a career in science, conducting research with a faculty member during your undergraduate career is one of the best ways to develop your scientific skills and gain important experience. But, your classmates know this, too. How can you set yourself apart in a crowd of eager applicants? Write a good cover letter! Based on my experience hiring students for lab research positions, I’d like to offer a few pointers to help you craft a strong and professional cover letter for your application.

Most likely, the job announcement is a few brief sentences describing the project, a list of desired qualifications and a request to submit a resume to a particular person. Something like this... 

A work study position is available in the laboratory of Dr. Sarah Stupendous. The student will assist in studies of gene expression in bacteria exposed to antibiotics. Experience with PCR, gel electrophoresis and RNA isolation is desirable. Please submit a resume to Marcus Marvelous (marcusisthebest@fakemail.com). 

Some job announcements may be longer, some may even be shorter, but most share these main points: (1) what is the project, (2) what skills should you have, and (3) who to contact. In these three points lie the key to writing a strong cover letter.

Your simplest option is to open your e-mail, address a new message to Marcus Marvelous and write... 

Dear Marcus,
I am applying for the work study position in your lab. I have attached my resume.
Thank you,
Anna Aspiring 

Marcus Marvelous, a busy postdoctoral scientist in the Stupendous lab, receives this when he is waiting for an experiment to finish while eating his lunch at his desk and reading the latest, greatest research from some other lab. He thinks...<zzzzzzzzzzzzzz>.

Labs are looking for enthusiastic, self-motivated students who are eager about scientific research. Does anything in that e-mail sound enthusiastic or eager? Nope. Your e-mail should convince Marcus Marvelous that you are the perfect person for the job. Your e-mail is your cover letter, and it can make the difference between an impressive application and a boring one. In a short paragraph or two, you can do a lot to make your application stand out. Here are some tips…