Crafting a great science cover letter is an essential part of the job application process. Even if you’re right for the role and have a polished CV, you still need to prove why you’re the best person for the job.
Let’s face it: most of us dread the prospect of having to write a cover letter. Promoting ourselves can often feel uncomfortable, and writing in a persuasive, compelling style is already difficult enough.
Fortunately, writing a top-notch cover letter doesn’t require the prose abilities of Austen or Hemingway. By following a tried-and-tested formula and getting straight to the heart of what the hiring manager is looking for, anyone — regardless of writing ability — can produce an effective cover letter that really showcases your talents.
Indeed, writing a cover letter can be a real confidence-boosting exercise and even add to your professional skill set.
In this guide, we’ll talk you through each stage of the cover letter process and provide some tips and tricks on how to stand out from the crowd.
SECTION 1: PREPARATION
Research the hiring company
To kick off the cover letter process, you should spend an hour or two of your time acquainting yourself with the role and the company.
By aiming to better understand the business, the role, and how you’d fit into the bigger picture as an employee, you’ll be able to keep your cover letter direct and to the point from the very first word.
After all, you can never do too much research. If you’re not equipped with even the most basic knowledge of the company, how can you properly demonstrate that you’re right for the role?
Your research will also help you confirm whether or not you want to work for the company. Do the company’s mission and values align with your own? If not, then you may want to consider another role.
What to look out for
Aim to familiarise yourself with info on the following:
- What the company does
- The company’s services and/or products
- The company’s people and culture
- Any relevant information on the target market (including competitors)
- The tone of voice employed by the company
Where to look
You can use social media channels such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor employee reviews, and science publications. You should also browse through the company’s website, which will (or at least should) provide information on what they do (in their own words) and the team.
The information you gather will help you tailor your cover letter according to what the company and hiring manager are looking for in the job description.
Analyse the job description
The job description is pivotal to the cover letter. While each job description differs in detail and scope from the next, they all have the same purpose: to outline the type of person that the employer requires.
Job descriptions usually start by offering an overview of the company and role, before getting into the nitty-gritty of which skills and experience are required, as well as what the role entails. Often, these are in the form of bullet points, which can help you separate and identify the exact points that your cover letter needs to cover.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cover every bullet point, but you should definitely try to cover the most important ones.
To recap: Always have one eye on the job description when writing your cover letter. Let the former act as your guide; follow it closely and you’ll be better placed to prove your suitability to the hiring manager.
SECTION 2: WRITING YOUR COVER LETTER
How long should a cover letter be?
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong answer. As a benchmark, one sheet of A4 paper or 250 to 500 words will usually suffice, but the length of your cover letter will largely depend on two things:
- The number of essential criteria listed in the job description, most of which you’ll need to show evidence of.
- The examples you provide to meet these criteria (more on this shortly).
PRO TIP: Always write a new cover letter for each role you apply to. Every job (and therefore every job description) is different, so try not to reuse an old cover letter or rely on a one-size-fits-all template. If you do have a template, then at least ensure you tailor it to the exact role you are applying for on a case-by-case basis.
Now, let’s get into the actual writing.
How to start your cover letter
The start of a cover letter is arguably the most important section. Your intro will set the tone for the reader, so make sure you are forthright and direct, but also aim to demonstrate your uniqueness and suitability for the role as early as possible.
After all, each open position will likely attract dozens of applications — which is a lot of reading for those in charge of hiring (many of whom will be strapped for time and have other responsibilities to attend to).
How to choose the right greeting for your cover letter
If you know the name of the person you’re addressing (tip: this is often stated on the job advert), use a simple:
Dear [first name],
If you don’t have a name, it’s worth gauging the tone of the company you’re applying for by browsing through their website and social media pages. If the company uses formal or technical language, go for:
To whom it may concern,
If the company is less formal (as many startups tend to be), the following greetings will be appropriate:
Dear hiring manager,
OR (for a company with a particularly informal culture)
Make the reader know your intentions from the outset
Hiring managers are busy people. Given that there’s a good chance your application may be skimmed through, it’s crucial that you stand out. Once you’ve chosen a greeting, you’ll need a killer opening line.
If writing doesn’t come naturally, don’t worry — you’re not being judged on the merits of your prose. Instead, aim to outline your intentions in the opening line. For example:
Please accept this as my application for the position of [Job Title] with [Company Name].
Now you’ve set your stall, it’s time to briefly summarise:
- What makes you right for the role
- Why you want to work for the company
In one or two paragraphs, explain what attracted you to the job posting and include some relevant information about what the organisation does. This will demonstrate that your research on their company has gone beyond just the job title and job spec.
PRO TIP: Aim for paragraphs of between three and six lines. This will break up the text for the hiring manager and make it easier to read through.
Think of your cover letter as an elevator pitch
Much like a sales pitch, the cover letter represents your chance to sell yourself. But instead of trying to sell an idea or a product in a five-minute presentation, you’ll have a page of A4 to impress the hiring manager and showcase your suitability. As you start writing, aim to make every word, sentence, and paragraph count. Likewise, aim to remove anything that doesn’t add value.
What to include in the cover letter main body
Once you’ve crafted a snappy intro of one or two paragraphs, the bulk of the letter should see you systematically work through the job description and highlight any skills, experience, and the techniques that are relevant to the role.
Be explicit, as these are the details that will jump out to a busy recruiter or hiring manager who may be scanning your letter.
Here are some pointers on what to bear in mind or include when writing your cover letter.
Write in the company’s tone of voice
If you’ve done your research on the employer, you’ll likely have picked up pointers on the type of language they use externally (if not internally, too).
When writing and editing your cover letter, aim to mirror their tone of voice as closely as possible. Do they place emphasis on scientific jargon? Use scientific jargon. Do they have a conversational approach? Write to them in a conversational way (though again, not too informal).
By mirroring cultural markers, you’ll subconsciously stand out to the hiring manager as someone who is likely to quickly assimilate.
Provide situational evidence of your competencies
Given the technical demands of scientific roles, hiring managers want to see evidence of you applying your technical knowledge to real-world scenarios. You’ll therefore need to demonstrate how your background, skills, experience, and attitude can enhance the business you are applying for.
To do so, you should refer to one successful real-life example where you have saved your previous/current employer time and money or have streamlined processes to increase profitability. Using the ‘STAR’ technique will help give you a rounded example. STAR stands for:
Situation — Briefly describe the background to the situation
Task — Describe the task or challenge you were faced with
Action — Describe what you did and why you did it
Result — Describe the outcome of your actions
Show your personality
This key part of any cover letter is often neglected (particularly by scientists!). While skills, experience, and aptitude is crucial for any hire, so too is the personality and cultural fit of each candidate.
Given that many scientific roles continue to be office- or lab-based, every hiring manager is looking for candidates who value teamwork and camaraderie. As such, you should include a paragraph that provides an insight into who you are outside of work.
This doesn’t have to be a huge achievement; it can be as simple as the things you like to do in your downtime (e.g. activities with family and friends; hobbies; groups; charitable endeavours; engagement with the local community).
Demonstrate your adaptability and willingness to learn
Innovation in STEM happens at a breakneck pace, so most employers are looking for candidates who are adaptable and up to date with the latest trends. Focusing on your transferable skills will demonstrate to the hiring manager that you’re self-aware and on a journey of professional development. It will also show that you can be a long-term asset to the business.
Include memorable numbers and statistics
Much like how an infographic helps break up a blog, any relevant or valuable data will immediately stand out to the reader and pique their interest (especially as they’re likely to be scientific professionals themselves). Let’s be honest, “I increased lab efficiency by 35%” sounds more impressive than the vague “I increased lab efficiency.”
Make sure to pepper your cover letter with relevant keywords that relate to the role or job, particularly any that are included in the job description.
For a molecular biology role, for example, skills- or technique-related keywords may include things like PCR (polymerase chain reaction), gel electrophoresis, ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), and cell culture.
For an analytical chemistry role, this could include HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography), GC (gas chromatography), and/or MS (mass spectrometry). Of course, you should only include keywords that are relevant to the role and reflect your actual experience.
Be honest about your experience
Like with your CV, you’ll eventually get caught out if you include half-truths in your cover letter. If you’re missing experience, there’s no need to apologise or try and overcompensate for it elsewhere. Simply act natural and let your actual experiences and values come to the fore. Besides, being honest will help you better recall what you wrote in any subsequent interview — and help you avoid any awkward umming and ahhing.
How to end a cover letter
If your reader has made it this far, you’ll want to leave them with a favourable final impression of your application. After all, there’s no use in nailing the introduction and main body if you simply rush the ending and/or sign off with a whimper.
Instead, you want to end with a bang.
First up, summarise your key strengths, skills, and experience. In one or two sentences, reiterate the most important points from your main body. Don’t simply lift words or phrases from earlier in the cover letter, though. Rephrase what you’ve already said and, if possible, try to inject something new into it.
In your closing statement, you want to exude professionalism and confidence, but without being pushy. Round off your cover letter by thanking the reader for their time and attention, and offer your contact details so that you are easy to get in touch with should they wish to organise a further exploratory conversation with you.
Keep it short and sweet.
Finally, choose a professional and courteous salutation to wrap up your letter, such as,“Yours sincerely” (only if the recipient is addressed by their name), “Kind regards,” or “Thank you for your consideration.” Avoid overly casual or informal phrases such as, “Yours,” “Cheers,” or “Take care.”
SECTION 3: EDITING AND FOLLOW UP
Before sending your cover letter...
Proofread your letter.
Some scientific roles will require writing skills, so try to avoid any embarrassing typos (“King regards” crops up very frequently). A second pair of eyes always helps, so ask a close friend to give it a read. Free plugins such as Grammarly can also help you spot repeated words or grammatical errors, which can be a real timesaver (and lifesaver!) when writing.
Make sure it sells you as the best person for the job.
While a good cover letter takes time, you’ll also feel proud when you’ve got it down to a tee. Put yourself in the shoes (or reading glasses) of the hiring manager: does the letter excite you? If not, you may need to add some more tweaks.
Writing an email subject line for a job application
In many instances, the job advert will instruct you to apply via email. This requires creating a strong subject line to capture the hiring manager’s attention.
When crafting your subject line, don’t overthink it. Be succinct and direct. Unless explicitly instructed otherwise, include both the job title of the role you are applying for and the company. For example:
Application for the position of [Job Title] with [Company Name]
The above is short, simple, and to the point. In other words, it’s an effective way of telling the hiring manager exactly what to expect when they open the email.
How to follow up your job application
If you’ve not had an acknowledgement or feedback on your application within the suggested time on the advertisement (or a week if not stated), follow it up with an email. Demonstrate you are keen, interested, and motivated to successfully see your application through.
In your follow-up email, you should open with a polite and courteous salutation, keep it brief, and express in sentence or two why you are a good fit. Then, ask any questions related to the job at the end of the email. As before, close with a professional salutation.
Follow-up email template
Subject Line: Molecular Scientist Position - [Your full name] Application
Dear [their first name].
I hope you are well.
I recently submitted my application for the molecular scientist position and wondered if it would be possible to receive an update on your decision timeline.
I am very interested in working at [company name] and believe that my skill set — especially my extensive experience in [give example of relevant experience] at [current or former employer] — make me an ideal fit for the role.
Please let me know if you need any additional information from my end.
Thanks again for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
[Your full name]
With that said, good luck in your job hunting!
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