Applying to jobs? You must spend approximately 27 hours a day writing and customizing your cover letter for every position. Cover letters give you the chance to paint a more complete picture of who you are and tell a story that might not come through in your résumé… right?
Well, it turns out that cover letters are not always the key to getting hired, especially in industries with more of a technical bent like software development or the sciences. We’ve heard this on the AfterCollege Blog before—one lead developer told us, “Maybe I’m just a technically minded person, but I don’t usually pay attention to cover letters.”
Leya Strode, a Chemistry major who graduated from Reed College in May 2014 made a similar observation during her job search—recruiters and employers just weren’t that into her cover letters. We chatted with Leya to learn more about the job search from a science major’s perspective—and why ditching cover letters might be one strategy for success.
Where are you working now and what’s your job title? How long have you been there?
I’m currently working at a lab products and diagnostics supplier called Bio-Rad Laboratories as a Production Chemist. I’ve been here for a few weeks now and am still settling in.
What was your job search like?
Although I attended several networking events throughout my job search and contacted several alumni from my college, I did not end up finding work through my professional network. I applied exclusively to jobs that I found online rather than through word of mouth—and did not avoid websites that would link me to recruiters.
Throughout my job search, I ended up speaking with over ten recruiters on the phone and four in person. I did not actually interview with any companies that I was not connected to through a recruiter. One company, Real Staffing, hired me for the job at Bio-Rad.
When I got the job, I had been looking for two months and had been out of school for three months. I noticed something pretty simple that I don’t think a lot of people talk about, which is that the amount of responses I got was proportionate to the amount of applications I sent out. It seems self-evident, but the volume strategy was really what worked for me.
At one point you decided to stop writing cover letters and just send out résumés. What prompted that decision?
Three distinct phases stand out to me over the course of the two months that I looked for work. The first was a time when I was applying to one job every few days and painstakingly writing cover letters and customizing my résumé. Obviously, this wasn’t a great strategy, so about two weeks in I decided to increase my output to at least one application every day.
I found this hard to sustain while spending so much time on each application, so I started saving cover letters for different categories of jobs I applied to—start-ups, quality control, and research were my big ones—and changing details when they felt relevant or needed to match a job description.
This brought some responses my way, but after a big disappointment in which I made it through to the third round of an interview process and didn’t get hired, I decided to start sending out only résumés. I made this decision for a number of reasons.
The first was that I had noticed that recruiters were calling me from websites where there was no space to submit a cover letter; they were contacting me based on the content of my résumé and my listed technical skills. Furthermore, these résumé-only recruiters were contacting me more than any other employer or recruiter.
The second reason was that I wanted to increase my application volume even further and it was impossible to do that while still submitting cover letters. I could sit down for an afternoon and edit and send out 2 or 3 applications that had cover letters—or I could send out 15 résumés.
The third reason was a motivational and emotional one: I found it very motivating to think to myself, “I applied to ten jobs today and now I’m going to sit down and write a cover letter anyways.” It helped me keep going through the misery of unemployment.
I decided to continue applying to at least one job that required a cover letter every day, mostly in order to diversify my applications and reach out to employers that were looking for something more than just a résumé. It was so easy to submit résumés that I had a sort of momentum going after an hour or two where I felt as if I could easily rewrite a cover letter or even write one from scratch. At the end of the day it just gave me a sense of accomplishment.
How would you say the job search for scientists is different from the job search for humanities majors? How have your friends’/classmates’ experiences compared to yours?
I think the major difference between science and non-science job searching is what an employer is looking for.
One thing I’ve noticed while watching my non-science major housemate look for work is that her potential employers are looking for her to be a good fit for the workplace culture. That’s not the case necessarily in science fields—they want you to fit in, which is very different.
It’s the difference between a school actively recruiting the sort of student who will want to join the fraternities and a school expecting students who end up there to engage with fraternity culture. Of course, it may be different at start-ups.
One good example of this is the difference between the interview that led to a job for me and the one that led to a job for one of my housemates. In her interview, they didn’t talk about her résumé much, but they did emphasize fit, in terms of personality. After she got hired, it was clear to me that her company valued genuine work-friendship between their employees. They have lots of group meetings to talk about goals and are going on a team bonding outing soon.
On the other hand, in my interview they asked me a lot about what I could and couldn’t do (a lot of yes or no questions) and my philosophy on teamwork. They emphasized what a great place the company was and told me a lot about where I could expect to find myself fitting in. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it has a lot to do with building a corporate culture vs. having an already established one.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that science employers are really looking for technical skills—have you used an HPLC before? Do you know how to run a particular assay? They want you to not be a total jerk and to be able to work with other people in the lab for all eight hours of every day, but what you can do and bring to the table is just as important.
What advice would you give to science majors regarding the job search, either for the time while they’re still students or once they’ve graduated?
It’s easy to forget that to get a job in a science-related field, you need to be in an area where there are science companies.
You can find work as a chemist or physicist in small towns, but there will not be as many opportunities as in a major metropolitan area.
Looking before you graduate is a great idea and networking is an even better one, but it’s not the end of the world if you want to just focus on school until you have your degree. I found a job two months after moving to a huge new place.
The biggest advice I would give is to become proficient at many different techniques and instruments. Employers want to know that you can do things and that you can learn to do new things quickly. There are plenty of industry standard instruments that aren’t even mentioned in undergrad, but if you know how to do a lot of things already they will feel more comfortable hiring you. Jump at the chance to learn new things and add them to your résumé.
Homework time! Are you applying for technical jobs? If so, you might want to experiment with Leya’s method of posting your résumé on recruiting sites or sending it out to potential employers. Even if you’re not applying for technical positions, take a moment to consider how you’ve been approaching your job search. Have you been doing the same thing over and over again without getting any results? Maybe it’s time to try out a new technique—whether it’s being creative about the way you network, asking someone to do an informational interview, or working with a recruiter.