A Grad Student’s Guide to Getting a Job, Part II: Application
by Sarah G. Sunu -- April 25th, 2014

Here’s my philosophy on the application process. In some ways, your initial application is the most important part (you can’t wow anyone with your interviewing skills if you can’t get an interview). My job is to write an application packet that is compelling enough to get me an interview. If I manage that, I’m happy. The interview itself is still very important, but at that point it’s not just them evaluating me and whether they want me to work with them, it’s also me evaluating whether I want to do that job with that organization. I also never apply to anything I don’t think I would want to do—it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

So here are some tips I’ve picked up on how to write an application packet that will hopefully get your face in the door!

One of our stops on a recent field trip for Coastal Watershed Science and Policy–I don’t really have any good resume pictures!

1. Research

You’re a graduate student, so this should come as no surprise—researching the organization is important. Most people get that they need to do some research before the interview, but you should do most of your research before you even write your cover letter. You wouldn’t start an experiment without reading the background literature, would you? You should have good research skills by now, so put them to work and really get to know the organization you’re applying to and how the position they’re advertising fits into their structure. It will help you throughout the process.

Additional tips:

  • Look for news articles about the organization—see how they are perceived
  • If they have a blog, read it—they’re writing about what is important to them
  • Research their competition as well—who else is doing what they’re doing, and how are they different? What is it about this organization that sets them apart from others in their field?
A gator we saw on a field trip--we saw 2 total, and a bear!  Happily the bear was far away.

A gator we saw on a field trip–we saw 2 total, and a bear! Happily the bear was far away.

2. Resume

You’ve probably read this on the internet already (it has thankfully started popping up in recent years), but you never ever ever want to send the same resume to two different jobs. Your resume should be tailored to the specific position at the specific organization that you are hoping to work at. I keep all the different versions of my resume and tweak them, so they’re not necessarily drastically different, but you do want to think about what the job is about and what is important to the organization. I also have one big CV that I try to keep updated, so that I can pull into a new resume all the different things I’ve done that are relevant.

Additional tips:

  • Format it so it’s easy to read. Nothing like crazy fonts or impenetrable walls of text to get you tossed.
  • Make sure that everything included in your resume can be traced back to the job description and speaks to the need outlined there—try to write the resume like you’re describing the job based on your existing experience.
  • Always bring three or more copies of your resume with you to the interview—you never know when the person interviewing you might not actually have seen it (this has actually happened to me). It’s also helpful for you, because if you have it in front of you it can help you remember things you’ve done that are relevant to the position.
Road on the field trip.

Road on the field trip

3. Cover Letter

Cover letters can be really awkward and daunting to write (at least, they are for me). A friend of mine helped me deal with the awkward recently by pointing out that the cover letter is really like a request for proposals—you need to show the organization how well you understand their mission and what you could bring to it. Put that way, it feels a little less like blatant self-promotion (I don’t really think “You should hire me because I’m awesome” is a valid argument) and gives additional structure to the letter. I keep copies of old cover letters, particularly ones that got me interviews, to help me when I’m writing a new one but the rule for resumes applies to cover letters too—they should always be tailored to the specific position at the specific organization.

Additional tips:

  • Address it to a real person if you can. Sometimes there’s a real person’s name in the application instructions; if not, try to research the organization and find out who is doing the hiring (this should be part of your overall research on the position and organization—you need to understand who is evaluating your application and what they’re looking for, hard to do if you don’t know anything about them). “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam” are fine if you really can’t figure it out.
  • Don’t waste sentences. A cover letter is short—3 paragraphs or so—and you don’t want to waste any of it. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include the standard preamble and conclusion, like “I am writing to apply for the position of,” but you can make that sentence do so much more by using a word other than ‘writing’ or adding an adjective before it—“I am pleased to apply,” “I am excited to apply” “It is with great enthusiasm that I write to apply” (yes, I really used that last one, and yes, I did get an interview). Caveat—only say things that you can back up in an interview. If you’re not excited, don’t say that you are!
We got to ride in a skiff up Core Creek last week--this is where we ate lunch!

We got to ride in a skiff up Core Creek last week–this is where we ate lunch!

The last big thing I would say is, find someone you trust to go over your materials with you before you send them in. You want to make a good impression (no typos) and make sure the materials reflect you and what you can bring to the position. I’m lucky enough to have some very good friends who have really good editing skills, and it’s made a huge difference—I’m much more confident about the quality of my applications!

I hope these tips are helpful, and that you’re all finding great jobs doing awesome things!

Tides for Friday, April 25th, 2014, Beaufort, NC:

High: 5:14 AM, 3.34 ft

Low: 11:26 AM, -0.17 ft

High: 5:50 PM, 3.53 ft

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