On writing cover letters, and a small gripe with About.Com

I was strolling along the internet the other day (like you do). I was trying to find inspiration for writing my first cover letter to an editor for a paper I’m hoping to submit for publication later this week. This is different than your regular “Hire me! Please! I need to eat and not sleep in cardboard box!” sort of cover letter. Rather, it’s the slightly more unusual “Publish this! Please! I need this on my C.V. so that I do not perish!” type of cover letter.

"Searching for research scientist to work for minimum wage. Must be able to pipet 300 aliquots a minute and wash glassware."

However, Google, perhaps having predicted the future career I will be doomed with, led me to an About.com page for a “sample cover letter for a Research Technician Position”.

It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read (yes, I read Twilight), but I am definitely not a fan. Personally, I wouldn’t interview anyone who used this as their cover letter. Since I’m too lazy to figure out how to contact About.com about it, I’m just going to use my blog as my own personal soapbox (isn’t that the point of these things anyway?).

It starts out well enough with a brief introduction regarding the position that the person is applying for, where the position was posted, and a statement that the person has mad skillz that qualify them for the job.

“Please accept my resume for the Research Technician position posted on MonsterTrak. My background and skills in lab techniques will prove to be an effective match for your qualifications.”

This is when it starts to get a bit hairy though.

“I have a BS in Chemistry, and a 3.8 GPA. I have taken several lab course in BioChemistry, where I worked with chromatography, ELISA, and southern and western blotting techniques.”

I think what you were trying to say is you have taken “several lab courses in Biochemistry”. I personally avoid using the term BS because it makes me giggle. Also, that’s a mighty high GPA you have there. Be prepared to be asked why you didn’t apply for med/grad school if you get an interview.

“While working for ABC Environmental Laboratory, I successfully applied my research skills, and maintained the laboratory. I participated in planning experiments as well as evaluating test results. I monitored equipment performance and maintenance schedules. In addition, I was responsible for maintaining biohazard and radiation safety standards, and ensuring proper handling of potentially hazardous chemical and biological agents.”

This seems to be the most relevant job experience, so I’m confused as to why you would start off with the specific skills you learnt in your “BioChemistry” class and then be vague about the details of your previous job as a lab manager. Unless it’s stated in the job description, I can’t say that I care all that much that you know that you shouldn’t be drinking 12M HCl (how I choose to interpret, “ensuring proper handling of potentially hazardous chemical and biological agents”).

“In addition to the lab work, I recorded, calculated, and analyzed data, and prepared reports.”

What sort of data did you analyze? What sort of reports? Why do I care about this?

“I worked closely with a team of researchers and learned the value of good lab practice.”

This seems like an attempt to say that they understand Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) without knowing what it means.

“I work well as a team member, am very reliable and organized, and willing to learn.”

Cool. Don’t use this cover letter, please.

In all fairness, writing is often not a strong suit for those of us in the sciences, so I can be a bit forgiving. Someone who is qualified and has good references (or better yet, knows the right people) can still get an interview even with a crappy cover letter.

What really frustrates me is that this is supposed to be a model example of a “good” cover letter. It may have gotten someone an interview, but there are still a lot of obvious flaws.

As a rebuttal, here is one of my cover letters from a few years back, modified accordingly for our friend on About.com. Statements that are underlined would need some adjustment, obviously.

To Whom It May Concern:

I am interested in applying for the Research Technician position currently advertised online for your company. I am a graduate from Name of University/College, where I achieved an Honours Bachelor of Science in Chemistry as well as a specialization in Biochemistry.

Recently, I have worked as a lab manager at ABC Environmental. In this position, I worked on a study that focused on something specific that may be relevant to your company’s interests. As such, I am well versed in common laboratory assays including: chromatography, ELISA, as well as southern and northern blotting techniques. I also have up-to-date WHMIS and Biosafety qualifications, and I am very comfortable with GLP and GCP regulations.

I am looking for an opportunity where I’ll be able to continue to do research and learn new techniques. I am enthusiastic for all things science, and I know I would be an asset to your research team.

I can be reached any time at contact information. I am looking forward to hearing from you.


Ms. Lost Lands

This entry was posted in Life lessons, Science writing, Slightly more serious than most posts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On writing cover letters, and a small gripe with About.Com

  1. NaddaTroll says:

    Cover letters are tough. It’s easy to get in the habit of sending out subpar ones, in my opinion, because they have to be so customized to each position you apply to. That said, there’s no excuse for a crappy cover letter in an online exemplar.

    I’m starting to think that I’ve sent more than my share of bad cover letters…

    • Me too, I’m afraid. When you’re sending out lots of resumes, it can be so tiring… but I think it’s important that you have a solid template to work from.

      (But, the worst bit for me was “BioChemistry”… fuelled my blogging rage enough to write the entire post.)

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