Getting on the Short List: 6+ Tips for Life Science Research Assistant Job Applications

Published: Mar 02, 2017

Getting on the Short List:  6+ Tips for Life Science Research Assistant Job Applications March 2, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

The title of “research assistant” is pretty broad, ranging from college students working in laboratories cleaning glassware and performing some experiments, to full-career individuals with bachelor’s and master’s degrees working in academic, institutional or industrial settings. For the sake of simplicity, this article will refer to the latter, although much of this advice applies to college students, as well.

Nuts & Bolts

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines “Biological Technicians" as individuals that “help biological and medical scientists conduct laboratory tests and experiments.” The BLS indicates that, as of 2015, the median pay for biological technicians was $41,650 per year, or $20.02 per hour.

A related field, and one that may be more reflective of the pay scale for research assistants, is medical and clinical laboratory technologists. At least in healthcare situations, like research hospitals and some universities, the pay for a medical technologist is similar to that of a research assistant. Which, according to the BLS, the median pay was $50,550 or $24.30 per hour in 2015.

Job Hunting Tips

Get Experience

Assuming for the moment that you’re in college and thinking of going to work as a research assistant when you graduate, one of the best things you can do is gain laboratory experience in college. At research universities, there are hundreds, potentially thousands of research jobs working for professors who are conducting research, and as assistants to graduate students. This provides extremely valuable hands-on, practical experience on how laboratory techniques are done in the real world, how research is conducted, as well as things that may not be covered in classrooms, such as working with laboratory animals, grant writing, ordering supplies and improvising with whatever equipment is available.

Other job titles, more likely to be found in industry, are Assistant Scientist or Research Associate. As a general rule, industry jobs pay higher than academic research positions.

Even if a paid research assistant job isn’t available, volunteering some time in a laboratory, even if it’s for a couple days, gives you something concrete to put on a resume. University education and laboratory classes do a very good job, in general, of training you in very basic laboratory work and the theory behind it.

Even a little experience in the lab certainly helps.

Here’s some resume pointers for a Research Assistant position.

Resume Tips

1. A well-organized and professional-looking resume is a requirement.

The best elements of a resume include:

Identifying information. Name, address (optional), telephone, email, LinkedIn (optional).

Career summary. A short, carefully worded paragraph describing your basic skills and experiences. Typically four to six sentences long.

Key Skills. This is a fairly recent trend, but a great addition. Somewhere from nine to 16 bullet points that highlight your key skills. Examples include: Lab Technique, PCR, Assay Development, Grant Writing, Research Design, Data Analysis, etc. It’s good to use a combination of hard skills as well as some soft skills. Soft skills are Communication, Leadership and Problem Solving.

Professional history. In reverse chronological order, list your most recent positions first. One of the keys to a successful professional history and resume in general is to have an emphasis on Key Accomplishments. Employers not only want to know what your basic skill set is, they want to know what you’ve contributed. Although it’s possible to just have bullet points under professional history, a far better format can be found in this example:

BIOPHARMA COMPANY, Osteoporosis Department, San Francisco, CA 2002 - 2005

Scientist I

Performed preclinical evaluation of drugs for the treatment of osteoporosis, using a variety of technical techniques and animal models. Provided technical support for ongoing projects, database management of dose responses and analyzed and prepared reports based on data.

Key Achievements:
    • Received Team of the Year Award with colleagues for overall contribution to the company.
    • Awarded the Performance Incentive Award (PIA).
    • Provided technical and scientific support to evaluate research provisions for developing new drug applications (NDA).
    • Successfully liaised with data management center on data and laboratory systems.

Education & Training. A general rule, to avoid ageism, is to leave out the date of education if it’s older than 10 years. (And under professional employment, a rule of thumb is 15 to 20 years. For example, if you’re an older worker, for the most part, your work history prior to 2000 is not relevant, although it may be asked for on the application. The exception to this is if your achievements or the company you worked for was so well known that it would only be a plus.)

Technical Skills. This is optional, but it’s very common for IT people and engineers, to have an additional bullet point list, often at the bottom of the resume, that includes specific technical skills, such as computer languages or software. With life sciences researchers, that could also be automated equipment or specific skills, such as RT-PCR, Gel Electrophoresis, etc.

Awards or Memberships. If any. Optional.

2. Get to the point.

One reason modern resumes focus on the career summary and key skills bullet points is the so-called 30-second rule. That is to say, you have 30 seconds to capture the interest of the person reading it. So if an HR manager or potential employer can glance at your resume and get a sense of who you are in the first quarter or third of the page, they are likely to read on.

To that end, for most people, a resume is two pages long. In earlier years it was one page, but the industry realized that was just too short. However, unless you have a lengthy career or an amazing list of publications or accomplishments, keep it to two pages.

The same applies to the cover letter. Keep it concise. Keep it short. If you know the reader is only giving your resume 30 seconds, imagine they don’t want to plow to three or four dense paragraphs of information in the cover letter. In the cover letter, tell them quickly who you are, what job you’re applying for, and why you think you’re qualified for it. Provide a couple highlights from your resume, and close it out by saying you look forward to meeting them to discuss the position.

If the resume is your highlight reel, the cover letter is the teaser trailer. The cover letter is designed to get the reader to look at your resume. The resume is designed to get them to want to talk to you in person.

3. Target your application.

Although it may not be necessary to customize your resume for each job you apply for, your cover letter should be targeted. (Your resume can be as well). As Ed Ryder wrote in the Genome Editing For Beginners blog, “You don’t need to rewrite the whole thing each time, just tweak around the edges and make sure it answers the questions in the advert.”

4. Put your best foot forward.

As mentioned earlier, focus on your achievements and what you can contribute. But in reality, not all jobs lend themselves to that. But performing your duties in an efficient and reliable fashion—and being represented that way—can be perceived as achievements. Also, don’t exaggerate and don’t lie. As Ryder notes, “I’ve been doing PCR for over 20 years now and I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in that by a long shot.” Keep in mind that being “knowledgeable” or “experienced” is different than “being an expert.”

5. Proof your resume.

No, really. You can’t imagine how many resumes or cover letters—even by top level executives and scientists with Ivy League PhDs—include materials with typos and grammatical mistakes. Run spellcheck. Reread your materials. Have someone else read them.

That Personality Thing

Overall, we probably can’t do that much about our core personalities. But you can do something about your enthusiasm. Research the company you’re applying to, so you can ask smart questions. Be interested in the company and what they’re trying to do. Be excited about the possibility of working there. That doesn’t mean you have to gush or go crazy; it means being interested and engaged, having a conversation with the interviewer as opposed to passively responding to questions.

This is a common question in an interview: Why do you want to work for us?

Have an answer.

There’s an adage: Hire for personality, train for skills.

That can be a bit aggravating, but many employers go by it. Yes, they absolutely are looking for a specific skill set. But they’re also looking to see how you’ll fit in. All things being equal, if two people applying for a job have essentially the same skills, they’ll hire the one they can imagine going out with for a beer or glass of wine. That doesn’t mean you have to come across like a party animal. Be yourself—but your best self.

And good luck!

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