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…

1. Find out who you are addressing and address him or her professionally.

Did you catch the fact that Marcus is a postdoctoral scientist? This means he has earned a PhD. There are many opinions about the pros and cons of formal titles, but your cover letter is not the time to take a philosophical stand. Address your contact professionally using an appropriate title, as in “Dear Dr. Marvelous”.

I've read a few applications addressing the professor in charge of a lab as “Dear Miss So-and-So”. Please don’t make this mistake. Use the University directory. Look up the professor’s website (almost every professor’s lab has an Internet presence now). Use the proper, professional title. Later on, the professor or postdoc will tell you if first names are preferred.

2. Read some of the lab’s publications and refer to them in your cover letter. 

The job announcement may give a lot of detail about the project, or it may offer one brief sentence, as in our example above. Regardless, you want to show a solid understanding of the lab's research, its significance in a larger context and why you are interested in contributing to it. This demonstrates enthusiasm and self-motivation, two highly valued qualities in a researcher.

The professor's website is a good starting place to learn the broad context of his or her research. The website may list recent publications from the lab. If it doesn't, visit a scientific literature database, such as PubMed hosted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed), and do a search using the professor's name. (Note of caution: some people, such as me, have extremely common names! Check the author affiliations (where each author is employed) of the publication to make sure you're reading publications from the right person.)

Okay, great, you've downloaded a couple of PDFs of the lab's publications, complete with ridiculously complicated titles. Now what? Don't worry about methodological details or what Figure 1 shows. At this stage, you want to understand the hypotheses driving the lab's research. If you can demonstrate this understanding in your cover letter, this will definitely win points for your application.

For example, let's say you find a recent paper published by Dr. Marvelous and Dr. Stupendous. It's about how low concentrations of antibiotics cause certain genes to be up- or down-regulated in a particular bacterial species. Looking back at the job announcement, it says, "The student will assist in studies of gene expression in bacteria exposed to antibiotics." Ah ha! Here is your hook.

In your cover letter, you should write something like, "I read your recent paper in Journal of Fancypants Awesomeness about how low concentrations of antibiotics alter gene expression in Escherichia coli. This is very fascinating work. I am interested in antibiotic resistance and infectious disease, and I would like to contribute to your research exploring how antibiotic usage affects bacteria."

Feel free to go into more detail if you like. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of showing you have taken time to learn about the lab's work. When I hired students to work in the lab, this was the determining factor. Only one or two applicants bothered to read any of the lab's publications, which was astonishing. Again, labs are looking for enthusiastic, self-motivated people. Demonstrate these qualities in your cover letter by showing that you sought out the lab's published work and read it. 

3. Describe your qualifications for the job. 

Almost every job announcement will include a list of desired qualifications/laboratory skills. Occasionally it may seem as if the ideal job candidate already possesses the lab experience of a third year graduate student. Don't let this deter you. If the lab is hiring an undergraduate researcher, training is part of the deal. You can't be expected to walk in and start churning out beautiful immunoprecipitation assays like a finely tuned robot.

Having said that, university research labs are under a tremendous amount of pressure to publish and get grant funding. Research productivity is the main measure of success, and labs don't get a lot of points from the higher-ups for undergraduate training (unfortunately). So, you don't need to be a laboratory wizard, but you do want to show that you have a good grasp of basic laboratory skills. How can you do this in your cover letter?

Our example job announcement says, "Experience with PCR, gel electrophoresis and RNA isolation is desirable."

If you have any laboratory research experience, such as a summer internship during high school or a previous stint in a faculty member's lab, you should definitely state this in your cover letter (and your resume, obviously). Say where you did your research, the main research question and the skills you acquired.

If you haven't had an opportunity to do laboratory research yet, don't worry! Your college education is intended to provide this kind of specialized training. That's why you're here! At this point, you have probably taken a couple of science courses with a laboratory component. You may have run a gel or two, prepared genomic DNA from a bacterial strain or your cheek cells, etc. Use the job announcement as a guide to determine which laboratory skills are relevant, and then talk about them in your cover letter. Say something like, "In Molecular Biology with Professor Wonderful, I learned DNA isolation, PCR and gel electrophoresis techniques over a six week module studying cheek cell DNA. I do not have experience with RNA isolation, but I am excited about the opportunity to learn this technique."

In my opinion, it's better to be honest about what you know and what you don't. As I said above, training is part of the deal. You want to learn some new things, and the lab should be willing to teach you.


4. Ask a few people to read your first draft cover letter.

I gave a lot of advice above, and other people will probably give you more (and possibly contradictory) advice. Apart from writing a cover letter consisting solely of creative profanity, there really are no fatal mistakes. Tailor your cover letter to reflect your own enthusiasm and interest in the research position. If you're excited about the opportunity, it will show in your cover letter and attract the attention of Marcus Marvelous or whoever is reviewing applications.

A strong cover letter will do wonders to set your application apart from the crowd when applying for coveted lab research positions. Good luck with your scientific endeavors, and I hope to read about your research soon!

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