How to Write the Best Cover Letter for a Research Scientist Job


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By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

There are generally three components to applying for a job—the cover letter, the resume or CV, and the actual interview. Each has a role, and they should work together.

The cover letter grabs the interest of the recruiter, human resources executive or employer enough so they look at your resume. Your resume is your highlight reel, and should be designed to get them interested enough to call you in for an interview.

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This article will focus on components of the cover letter for a research scientist. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical scientists have a median annual salary of $82,240 per year ($39.54 per hour), and typically have a doctorate degree. Some may have an MD, but conduct research in addition to, or instead of, practicing as a physician. From 2014 through 2024, the BLS projects job growth for medical scientists at 8 percent.

7 General Cover Letter Guidelines

An article written by Chris Daniels in the Houston Chronicle provides seven key steps to writing a scientific cover letter. For the most part, all seven steps or tips apply to any cover letter. They are:

1. Match your cover letter to your resume or CV.

Use the same font and font size as you use on your resume or CV. In addition, for the letterhead portion, use the same style, whether your name and contact information is all centered, or pushed to the left or right, but have it be the same for both the cover letter and resume. There are a variety of fonts that can be used—Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica—but the key is to be conservative and clear. An 11-point or 12-point font is preferable. If necessary, as small as a 10-point font, but that can be hard to read and isn’t desirable.

2. Address the reader as specifically as possible.

If you know it’s going to Dr. Jennifer Smith, address it to her. Sometimes job postings specify, often they don’t. If not, then “Dear Reader” is perfectly acceptable.

3. First paragraph should state what job you’re applying for with a brief overview of your qualifications.

There are several ways of doing this, but an example starts with: As a recent PhD in molecular biology from UC Berkeley, I am submitting my resume for a role with your organization.

It’s a pretty standard approach. But you can be more specific, as well: As a recent PhD in molecular biology from UC Berkeley, I am submitting my resume for the position of Research Scientist I with your company.

The next sentence should support your qualifications for the position. For example: My research into the molecular basis of cancer with an emphasis on the role of transcription factors and chromatin modification on tumor cell growth uniquely qualifies me for this position.

Some recruiters and HR experts feel that the next sentence should be something along the lines of: I believe that, with my experience and skills, I will make a great addition to your company and I am excited at the possibility to join your team.

The next section provides an alternative to that.

4. State your research objective in the job opening.

This was shown in the above examples. It would be appropriate as well to add another sentence or two detailing your research topics, the title of your thesis, and any particular skills, especially if they support your qualifications for the position you’re applying for.

5. Detail your previous experience applies to how you can be successful in the new position.

6. Address any requirements for teaching or academic experience.

This may or may not be a top priority if you’re planning a transition to industry, as opposed to a postdoctoral position or a faculty position.

7. Close your letter with a strong final paragraph.

An Alternate Middle Section

As a professional resume writer, I have a slightly different take on the middle section of the cover letter. One of the worst things a cover letter can be—aside from having typos and grammatical problems—is too dense. Recruiters and HR executives are looking at anywhere from dozens to hundreds of cover letters and resumes, and three or four solid paragraphs of copy is difficult to skim, which is the first thing they are likely to do.

As such, I recommend that the middle of the cover letter be bulleted highlights of your skills or, even better, key accomplishments. So, as an example:

As a recent PhD in molecular biology from UC Berkeley, I am submitting my resume for the position of Research Scientist I with your company. My research into the molecular basis of cancer with an emphasis on the role of transcription factors and chromatin modification on tumor cell growth uniquely qualifies me for this position. Below are highlights from my attached resume:

* Successfully completed thesis research on “DNA repair proteins as molecular targets for cancer therapeutics,” funded by NCI grant #1234567.

* Presented interim findings, “Analysis of O6-alkylguanine DNA methyltransferase in nucleotide excision (NER) pathways” at ASCO-SIT Clinical Immuno-Oncology Symposium, 2017.

* Gave poster presentation, “O6-alkylguanine DNA methyltransferase and non-homologous end-joining (NHEJ) repair in tumor apoptosis” at American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting, 2017.

* Formed and acted as president of UC Berkeley’s Graduate Oncology Research Council (GORC), a forum for cross-disciplinary graduate students focused on cancer research to network, advise and provide support.

Don’t exaggerate. Don’t lie. If possible, choose achievements that dovetail with the job you’re applying for. Any achievements that show leadership and initiative are also a good idea. Although not always possible, include specifics and metrics. For example, the first bullet points could have added: …funded by NCI grant #1234567 for $75,000 for 2 years.

You want to keep your cover letter to a single page, so three or four bullet points are good. You can wrap the letter with something along the lines of:

Additional details can be found in my resume. I look forward to discussing this position with you in person.


Your Name

Additional Tips

Try to personalize the cover letter as much as possible, and tailor it for each position. Again, keep to one page. The Addgene blog points out, “Highlight your achievements but do not sound arrogant. For example, instead of saying ‘I have excellent communication skills’ (a common requirement for many positions), it is better to support your skills or achievements with examples and metrics. For instance, you might say, ‘I have extensive communication experience having given more than 20 talks at conferences and taught for 5 years at [name of the university].”

A trickier concept is to include keywords from the job description. Examples of common key words found in a Senior Research Scientist, Pharmacology are “molecular and cellular pharmacology,” and “ion channels,” “in vitro assays,” “experimental design,” “cell-based systems,” and “mechanism of action.” Don’t overdo it, but having the key ones in the cover letter can be useful. For example, in the first paragraph, notice that certain key words were used: “molecular basis of cancer,” “transcription factors,” and “tumor cell growth.”

Job Examples

A quick search through job postings show just how many and the variety of research scientists jobs there are, including the above-mentioned “Senior Research Scientist, Pharmacology at Vertex .”

TeneoBio, in Menlo Park, Calif. has a “Research Scientist” job focused on cancer, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and emerging viruses.

COI Pharmaceuticals has a posting for a Senior Research Scientist in La Jolla, Calif., for drug discovery work. “The scientist will have a key role in the development, optimization and implementation of cellular in vitro pharmacology assays to drive lysosomal drug discovery.”

Precision Immune in San Francisco has a posting for a Research Scientist (Protein Sciences) who will “lead the innovation, design, quality control, and delivery of candidate therapeutic antibodies and reagent proteins.”

And Eli Lilly has a number of positions open, ranging from PK/PD, Particles Engineering and Development Scientist, and Clinical Pharmacology—Diabetes and Metabolic Disease.

And be assured, there are many other research scientist jobs available. Craft your cover letter, make sure you run spellcheck and grammar check, and proofread it again before you send it out with your resume. And good luck!

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