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Cover Letters -- Never went away, still important  

 

Dave Jensen
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May 20, 2018 7:01 pm  

I'm wondering why some people are advising others (different sites) that it is no longer necessary to have a cover letter to send along with an application or when sending off a CV to a networking contact. You certainly lose something valuable . . . the opportunity to describe your "fit" briefly and to point to certain elements of your enclosed CV that make sense for the reader.

How have people here found the topic of cover letters -- does it still fit within the automated, web-application job search, or has it gone away?

Dave Jensen, Moderator

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
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Tony Derten
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May 20, 2018 7:37 pm  

Hi Dave,

As you can gauge from my posts here, I am by no means experienced. I have been actively looking for a job in the industry for a few months now, and there is a lot of bad information out there. In fact, there is very little good info regarding the biotech/pharmaceutical sector. I am a postdoc, and I have used our postdoc office resources, and those were very off the mark, and likely cost me an excellent opportunity with bad advise on interview prep. They do recommend cover letters, but clearly do not know how to structure them. I had an interview recently and was told my cover letter was excellent, and I did not follow the advice of our postdoctoral affairs office. In fact, I am sure I wouldn't have gotten anywhere at all if I had.

Researching sample letters/resumes, I have mostly come across content spam/clickbait (e.g. theballance, themuse, etc.) that had zero useful information and much misinformation. My guess is that cover letters may not be important in other technology sectors because those jobs are not as niched as biotech. Positions like application developer, IT director/lead, or data scientist are probably not as restricted by subsector of the specific industry where candidates may have worked. So the general nature and low quality of "advice" you get on many forums and "career" sites is really because their advice is not biotech/pharma/life science specific.

I would be very interested in your advice on how to structure industry cover letters.

All best,
Tony


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PG
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May 20, 2018 10:33 pm  

I usually base my decision to proceed or not to proceed with a candidate after the initial screen based on the cover letter after using the CV to confirm that the candidate has relevant experience and knowledge.

For me the most important parts in the letter are about why the candidate wants the job and what the candidate thinks that he/she can bring to the Company except for tha parts that are obvious from the CV.


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RLemert
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May 20, 2018 11:03 pm  

Looking at some Google results, it looks like the answer to this question depends upon whether you're an "applicant" or a "candidate."

If you're an applicant, your resume is probably going to go into an Applicant Tracking System. If you're then considered for an opening, it will be because your resume contained enough of the 'required' key-words for the software to consider you attractive. At no point in this process is there any interest shown in finding out who you are or why you'd be a benefit to the company. You are a part being placed in a machine, and your resume contains your product specs.

If you've decided you'd rather be a 'candidate', though, you're writing directly to the people that will have some say in whether or not you're hired. Sure, they're going to want to take a look at the 'spec sheet', but they're going to want to have a reason to do so first.


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Dick Woodward
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May 21, 2018 12:03 am  

Rich Lemert makes a valid point about "applicant" vs "candidate". I always find the cover letter to be much more reflective of the candidate than the resume. I once had a fellow apply for a position where his resume looked OK, but in the cover letter he told me that since he could not find the position he really wanted, he would deign to accept mine. The resume went into the trash, but I kept the letter to show as an example of what not to do.

Additionally, during the interview, my first question is "tell me something about yourself that is not on your resume". This actually lets me see how the person reacts to a truly atypical interview question. The funniest answer was "I sculpt little animals out of Starburst candies." Over lunch, one of my colleagues brought in some Starburst candies, and she actually did sculpt little animals. She actually was a very good hire for our start-up.

Dick


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Dave Jensen
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May 21, 2018 1:33 am  

Looking at some Google results, it looks like the answer to this question depends upon whether you're an "applicant" or a "candidate."

If you're an applicant, your resume is probably going to go into an Applicant Tracking System. If you're then considered for an opening, it will be because your resume contained enough of the 'required' key-words for the software to consider you attractive. At no point in this process is there any interest shown in finding out who you are or why you'd be a benefit to the company. You are a part being placed in a machine, and your resume contains your product specs.

If you've decided you'd rather be a 'candidate', though, you're writing directly to the people that will have some say in whether or not you're hired. Sure, they're going to want to take a look at the 'spec sheet', but they're going to want to have a reason to do so first.

Totally agree with Rich's advice on this one. The applicant process is completely different than the candidate process. This month's Tooling Up has some of that detail, at http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/05/job-search-it-pays-take-difficult-path. But there's another, earlier Tooling Up with more info on the difference between these two job seeking "states" and it is called "Be the Candidate," located at http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2010/06/tooling-be-candidate.

Dave

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Tony Derten
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May 21, 2018 4:36 pm  

For me the most important parts in the letter are about why the candidate wants the job and what the candidate thinks that he/she can bring to the Company except for tha parts that are obvious from the CV.

Hi PG,

Could you give some examples of "good" reasons for a candidate to want the job? In my letters I cite my (genuine) desire to continue my professional development as a scientist, to be involved in development of drugs with explicit clinical application, and to join a company passionate about leadership in the field. That said, as honest as it may be, I suspect it is rather generic.


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Dave Jensen
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May 21, 2018 6:23 pm  

For me the most important parts in the letter are about why the candidate wants the job and what the candidate thinks that he/she can bring to the Company except for tha parts that are obvious from the CV.

Hi PG,

Could you give some examples of "good" reasons for a candidate to want the job? In my letters I cite my (genuine) desire to continue my professional development as a scientist, to be involved in development of drugs with explicit clinical application, and to join a company passionate about leadership in the field. That said, as honest as it may be, I suspect it is rather generic.

Tony, that sounds a bit like the old "Objective" statement that people would use (in the old days -- anyone doing it now would be making a big mistake) at the top of their Resume. "Passionate scientist seeking to join a company which leads the field in the development of drugs and with opportunities for my professional advancement."

I would suggest that you write your cover letter with a complete openness so that you stand out. No BS jargon and general "seeking this" and so forth. Just write from the heart. "I really like what XYZ Bio is doing in the cancer therapeutics program. As a child, I lost my favorite uncle who died from Prostate Cancer and I only wish that the therapies you are developing today could have been available to him. My present situation is challenging and the work environment is fun, but I miss the chance to work on something that I could actually get passionate about."

Dave

Dave Jensen, Founder and Moderator
Bio Careers Forum


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RLemert
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May 21, 2018 8:48 pm  

For me the most important parts in the letter are about why the candidate wants the job and what the candidate thinks that he/she can bring to the Company except for tha parts that are obvious from the CV.

Hi PG,

Could you give some examples of "good" reasons for a candidate to want the job? In my letters I cite my (genuine) desire to continue my professional development as a scientist, to be involved in development of drugs with explicit clinical application, and to join a company passionate about leadership in the field. That said, as honest as it may be, I suspect it is rather generic.

To me, your remarks focus too much on "what's in it for me?", and those that pertain to the company are too generic.

* "my desire to continue my professional development" - doesn't everyone who has any ambition desire this?

* "join a company passionate about leadership" - there are very few companies that don't make this claim.

Your statements will be much stronger if you determine what the company offers that will allow you to accomplish these goals, and relate that information to your interests.


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DX
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May 22, 2018 6:41 pm  

I'll comment on Rich's post.

For me a good coverletter tells me the motivation for the position (less the company) and outlines in brief the experience one carries that confirms both the interst and potential for success in the role. The motivation should be very targeted and not generic.

For example in my area, most job descriptions will be linked to to a product/ or portfolio, genearally with focus in a disease area (if in pharma). . So letter that helps my understand why you're compelled or what was the trigger for you to apply for the role is key. The more targeted the better. And I do think showing some passion about the product/portfolio and where possible diease area (if in pharma) helps.

From there one can briefly relate to how their experiences will contribute to the succes of the product, be it in development or marketed etc. as well as the teams that are working to advance the product if possible - then I think last and least can be said about the company if one feels compelled. For me the coverletter is about succient agrumentation to where you feel you can bring value, if not added-value to success of the product/portfolio and supporting teams.

I was in a situation that I did have to write a cover-letter for a position and I focused on the product - i remembering championing some of its recents milestones, its active research program (all from the public domain) and talking about the specific experience I had that would help take that product further. I showed that I did my research, I knew what I was talking about and I was crystal clear on what I could bring to the table. All done in a very succinct and crisp manner.

I remember the hiring manager stating that she called me because of that cover letter. So when you do have to write one, avoide the generic garbage - try to show you've done some research and show the value you bring to the table. Avoid statements like, "I want to join ABC Pharma because of its committment to patients with 123 Disease and wide number of divisions and business units that allow career development opportunties blah blah blah blah..garbage garbage.

Taillored, direct, with substance and convincing. Like Rich, i've seen alot of coverletters that make my eyes roll...you just want to garbage them right away.

DX


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Tony Derten
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May 23, 2018 5:54 pm  

Thank you all for your input. This is very useful!


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Craig J
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July 12, 2018 10:03 pm  

This is my first time on the forum (Hello!) and this topic stood out to me. It absolutely blows my mind that anyone would tell people that cover letters are irrelevant! I agree 100% with DX--it is the perfect way to stand out over the crowd and express your passion for anything related to the position, target indications, company culture, etc. Especially if others are not writing them, it shows that extra bit of effort you are putting into your job application.

I will say that, having been on dozens of interview teams over the past few years, the number of cover letters I see is shockingly low. I'm not sure why that is. The cover letters I do see are usually from applicants with less experience and are mostly just a prose resume (which I despise and often throw directly into the trash).

If you know how to write a good cover letter it is a great tool and gives you an advantage. If you don't know how to write a good cover letter it will probably harm your chances (at least if I'm your hiring manager........).

Craig


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