CVs, applications and interviews
So you’ve decided what roles you want to apply for. How do you make your CV and application as strong as possible? And how can you prepare for an interview?
The biggest challenges you face as a researcher may be:
- translating your specialist research skills and experience
- showing that you understand what the recruiter needs
- making what you offer easily understandable to a non-academic employer.
Building your collection of evidence for CVs and applications
1. Create a list of the employer’s needs in terms of your skills, experience and attitude.
- Do your own research: what do you think is really needed to do the job well and to be effective in the sector, environment or current challenges faced by the organisation?
- Ask what other people (e.g. contacts in your network) think is required.
- What is needed to address the commercial pressures they might face?
- What evidence do you need to show to address their possible assumptions about you?
2. Based on the above, create a list of your own corresponding skills and experience. What evidence can you offer against each employer’s need? Think of two or three examples for each need.
3. Prioritise your evidence - which do you think the employer will be most interested in? Which might they compromise on? Write your evidence for use in the CV, cover letter or application form using the STAR technique.
CVs: how to tailor your CV for non-academic posts
The PFDC has CV tip sheets to help you adapt your CV to the role you are applying for. You will likely have an academic CV, but you may need to adapt this to create a skills-based, chronological or some form of hybrid CV, depending on the role or industry you are moving into.
See the PFDC Tip Sheets webpage to see the three CV tip sheets: Academic CV, Skills-based CV and Chronological CV.
Note that different countries and different sectors will have preferences for different CV styles, so you need to make sure you tailor your CV to the sector or country to which you are applying. Find out what the norm is in the sector you want to go into. What type of CV do they expect to see? Find this out by asking colleagues and friends, looking at company webpages and by doing your research.
Personal statements on CVs are controversial. It’s your choice whether to include one, but there is some useful advice for researchers on this in ‘How and when to write a personal profile statement on a CV‘ – a blog from Sarah Blackford at BioScience Careers. The blog links to example CVs that have profile statements.
You may be asked to provide a cover letter with your application. A cover letter shouldn’t be your life history; it should detail your motivation for applying for the role, what you bring to the role and how your skillset makes you the ideal candidate.
The PFDC has a tip sheet to help you structure an effective cover letter - see the PFDC Tip Sheets webpage.
Referees and References:
- Choosing a referee: As you are moving away to a less familiar environment, you will need to think carefully about who would be a great referee for you. If you have a choice, think of possible referees who know you well and will also understand the perspective of a non-academic employer and how your research skills and experience are transferable to a different role. The jobs.ac.uk website has some advice for researchers on how to choose a referee.
- Helping your referee: It is a big responsibility, and very time-consuming, to write a reference or letter of recommendation for someone. You may want to offer to help your referee. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has useful advice to academics on writing a recommendation letter.
You’ve been shortlisted – congratulations! Now it’s time to prepare for the interview.
- Arrange a mock interview with the PFDC.
- Imperial’s Careers Service has a set of example approaches to commonly asked or difficult interview questions and useful guides on interview techniques.
- The jobs.ac.uk website has an ‘interview questions tool’ to help you answer the 100 most common questions asked in interviews.
- LinkedIn has an interview training resource with interview tips and questions.
The STAR technique
When preparing your answers and evidence, try to ensure your response is well organised. A useful approach is the ‘STAR technique’, where you organise your answer to include descriptions of:
- Situation – the situation that you were in;
- Task – what you needed to do or achieve;
- Action – the actions you took or the skills/approaches used;
- Result/Review – what happened, the outcome, successes, results.
Describing your research skills to employers
The key to articulating your skills and experience to employers is to look beyond what you are and do specifically and think in terms of how and why you do things and what this means in a broader context.
For example, you may be a postdoctoral organic chemist and may be researching a very specific field or conducting very specific experiments. Many non-academic employers will neither understand nor be interested in this. You need to explain your skills and experience in a way that helps them to:
- Understand what you have done (in non-technical terms);
- Interpret why this is important (the skills you used/experience you gained) and that it is of high quality;
- See how this will enable you to do the job well and help them to achieve their aims.
If you can explain your experience and skills well, this not only shows that you understand yourself, but that you also understand them and what they need.
Think about your experiences and skills and what they say about who you are and what you are capable of. Employers are interested in your potential. How can what you’ve done before predict your future performance as an employee? Start to see yourself as someone who has transferable skills, enthusiasm and drive; someone who can make a difference and would be a valuable addition to any organisation.
You will need to clearly communicate this to any potential employer. Remember that they do not need to understand or care about the specifics of your research topic (even though you do). What they care about is what you are capable of and what you might offer them or their business.
Negotiating and accepting an offer
If you have been offered a job, that’s great! Now it’s time to think about your negotiations. If at all possible, you should not start to negotiate on salary or other aspects of the job until after you have been made an offer.
That being said, you may be forced at interview to say what you think a reasonable starting salary would be, so go prepared with some expectations and market research on salaries for similar roles elsewhere (try using the Glassdoor or jobs.ac.uk salary checkers).
There are some useful guides on how to approach offers and negotiations:
- Imperial’s Careers Service - Evaluating job offers
- Target Jobs – Negotiating a better package for your new job
It is always worth negotiating the starting salary, but this may not feel easy or comfortable. For advice and thoughts on this process, have a look at the blog by ‘Cheeky Scientist’ on how to negotiate your salary, which was written by a doctoral graduate for PhDs and postdocs.
Negotiating on other aspects of the job
Money isn’t everything and some salaries will be non-negotiable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate on other aspects of the job, which may be more valuable to you
- Your responsibilities - e.g. perhaps you want to have some line management responsibility, but it wasn’t in the job description
- Training and development entitlement - will your employer allow or fund you to get a qualification or access development support, or commit to a certain number of days training for you each year?
- Flexible working - e.g. part-time or condensed working hours (nine-day fortnights), early/late start times to fit in with the school run or avoid peak travel times
- Alternative locations or homeworking - multi-site employers may allow you to work from different sites that are nearer to home, or allow homeworking one day a week
- Loans - e.g. for travel season tickets or to purchase a bicycle
- Annual leave allowance