IndiaBiospeaks Crafting your Career

Crafting Your Career (CYC) | 18 Cover Letters and Interviews

Shreya Ghosh

In this episode, Lakshmi, Shreya and Smita discuss the art of writing quality cover letters and the difference they make to a job application. They also discuss some practical tips to keep in mind while preparing and appearing for an interview. 


Transcript

Lakshmi Ganesan

You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one-stop resource for science news and careers.

Hello everyone and welcome to our next session on Crafting your Career” in science. I am Lakshmi and I am your host for this episode.

In our last episode, we discussed a really critical tool when you are on the job hunt — CVs and resumes. In this episode, we want to talk about another important item in your toolkit — the cover letter. We will also go one step further today and discuss some things to keep in mind once you proceed to the next stage in the job application process, i.e. the interview.

Joining me today are my colleagues, Smita and Shreya. Welcome, both.

Shreya Ghosh

Hi, Lakshmi.

Smita Jain

Hello Lakshmi.

Lakshmi Ganesan

So let’s start with the basics. Why is the cover letter important? For example, if you already have a stellar resume or CV, one may ask — is the cover letter redundant, or obsolete? 

Smita Jain

Thanks for raising this very key point at the outset Lakshmi — this is a misconception many people seem to have. In fact, the cover letter is neither redundant nor obsolete. The cover letter is crucial in getting the employer interested enough to consider your application. A well-written cover letter helps you stand out from everyone else who is applying, by giving the employer an idea of who you are and what you bring to the table. The cover letter also demonstrates your interest in the job and gives a personal touch to the application.

Shreya Ghosh

I agree, Smita. Although, a point to note here is that the exact importance of a cover letter to the application process may vary from profession to profession. For example, if an industry position receives hundreds of applications, the hiring manager may not spend time in reading through each cover letter, while for a PI receiving 2 – 3 post-doctoral applications in a year, the cover letter may make a huge difference. 

Lakshmi Ganesan

Yes, Shreya. In either case, it is best to be prepared with a clear and memorable cover letter to improve your chances of landing the job.

So, now that we have established that a cover letter is an important tool in your arsenal, what should the cover letter actually include?

Shreya Ghosh

Well, your cover letter should have an introduction that is clear and memorable, after which it should mention your specific work experience that suits the role being advertised. You should end the letter with a strong conclusion and a call to action for the reader, e.g. I look forward to hearing from you, or I’ll be happy to discuss this further over a phone call or an interview.”

Smita Jain

That’s correct. Also, the tone and voice of the letter will depend on the organization you are applying to. Keep the letter short and to the point and make sure that you are not restating your entire CV in the cover letter. Keep it clear, crisp and concise. 

Lakshmi Ganesan

Absolutely. Another important thing to keep in mind is that your letter needs to be tailored to each job you apply to. You should try and explain how your skills match the position advertised, if possible, using examples to demonstrate how your skill set will match the job. You could also use PAR’ statements, which we discussed in our last session. 

Also, keep your focus on what you can contribute if you are selected, rather than how this job will help you. 

Shreya Ghosh

How about adding suggestions for projects or original ideas about working in that position if you are selected?

Lakshmi Ganesan

Yes, that’s an excellent idea as well.

Shreya Ghosh

So now that we have discussed why cover letters are important and what should go into them, let’s talk about some common cover letter mistakes.

Smita Jain

Well, Shreya, the most common mistake I see is using the same cover letter for every position. It is very obvious when a candidate uses a fit-all generic cover letter, and it tends to create a pretty negative impression. Instead, you should tailor each cover letter to fit the job you are applying to, as we just now discussed.

Lakshmi Ganesan

Yes, Smita. Another common mistake is using greetings such as Respected Sir/​Madam’, Dear Sir/​Madam’ etc, or even just Respected Sir’! Instead, try to take the time out wherever possible to find out the name of the person you are applying to, and address the letter directly to them 

Shreya Ghosh

I agree, Lakshmi Sometimes this information may be hard to come by or not available — still, make sure that you have at least tried. Other common errors include making the cover letter too long, repeating everything that is there in your CV, sounding demanding, pushy, or desperate. Grammatical errors, or punctuation-related errors, also tend to stand out and distract from the message along with creating a negative impression. 

Finally, I’d suggest not relying on cover letter samples from online sources. You can use them to get a feel for the format, but create your own letter. Otherwise, you risk being buried with a hundred other applicants who may be using the same templates.

Smita Jain

Exactly, moving on let’s say you have prepared the best possibleResume/​CV and cover letter, and you have landed yourself an interview. How do you make sure that you are presenting your best self forward for the interview?

Shreya Ghosh

Well, Smita, I think to answer that, we first need to establish — what is the purpose of an interview?

Lakshmi Ganesan

Well, from the point of view of the employer, an interview is a tool to assess three things.

1) Ability: Can you do the work?

2) Motivation: Will you do the work?

3) Values: Will you fit in?

Smita Jain

Exactly! And therefore, as a candidate selected for an interview, your aim should be to:

First, demonstrate that you are qualified to do the work 

Second, demonstrate that you are motivated and interested enough to do the work

Finally, demonstrate that you will fit in with the organization’s culture

Shreya Ghosh

Right, Smita. The first point, whether or not you are skilled and qualified enough to carry out the required work is usually assessed by a technical interview. The other two questions — whether you are motivated, and whether you will fit in’ are usually answered by a personal interview. Note that these need not be two separate interviews — in many cases, the two may be conflated into a single interview. In case of certain industry positions, a separate HR interview may be held after the first interview — this is usually similar to a personal interview.

Smita Jain

Yes, Shreya. In certain cases, you may also be asked to prepare a presentation, either about your own research experience or on a topic specified by the employer. Your performance during this presentation counts strongly towards hiring decisions, and hence you should make sure that you put sufficient effort into preparing and practising the presentation.

Lakshmi Ganesan

So, as we discussed, our aim during the technical interview is to demonstrate that we have the requisite skills and experience for the position that we have applied for. What are some steps we can take to prepare?

Smita Jain

Well, one should definitely spend time researching the position one is applying for. What are the skills that it would require? Does it need any specialized knowledge? If the position needs skills/​qualifications you do not possess, can you present evidence that you are willing and able to learn the same quickly?

Shreya Ghosh

I agree, Smita. In addition, one should also research the organization one is applying to. What is its main focus? What is its vision for the future? How do you and your expertise fit into this niche?

Lakshmi Ganesan

Of course, you should also brush up on basic concepts in your main field of expertise. You can also practice applying them to situations that require problem-solving. If the job you are applying to is research-oriented, be ready to speak about and present your past research experience. Here, the aim is not to put forth all the data you may have ever generated, but to highlight a few key outcomes from your research.

Smita Jain

Another thing to keep in mind — during the interview, you should be confident in your knowledge. At the same time, if you are asked a question you do not know the answer to, don’t be afraid to say clearly that you don’t know. Similarly, if you do not understand a question, it is perfectly fine to ask the interviewers to repeat it. Or you can rephrase the question into what you think it means, and ask the interviewers if you have got it right.

Shreya Ghosh

Finally, be careful of the level of jargon you use in your speech. Your interviewers may be experts, but not in the same field as yours. Hence, it is important to tailor your language to your audience.

Lakshmi Ganesan

So, now that we have discussed some strategies to prepare for a technical interview, Smita and Shreya, do you have any tips for preparing for a personal interview?

Smita Jain

Well, one suggestion is to prepare answers for some of the most common questions beforehand, and practice them, so that you are not caught off-guard at the time of the interview. For e.g. Tell us about yourself”, Where do you see yourself in five years?”, Why do you want to join our organization?”, What are your key strengths and weaknesses?”, Why should we hire you?” etc. 

Lakshmi Ganesan

That’s a good idea, Smita. I have always found that it is good to be prepared to talk about your interests, both in the long and the short term, and to describe how they align with this specific position. Again, remember that it is much more important to stress what you can do for the organization, rather than how this position or job will benefit you.

Shreya Ghosh

Thanks, Lakshmi. I would also like to add that you should be honest while giving your answers, but at the same time, you should be careful not to overshare. Make your answers stick to the point. Do not badmouth your previous employer, for example

Smita Jain

I think while we are on the topic of preparing for interviews, we should also talk about interviewing etiquette.

Lakshmi Ganesan

Very true, Smita. Being and appearing professional in all your interactions with the organization and interviewers is extremely important. And there are many little things you can do to ensure this. For example, even before the interview, one should be prompt in replying to the interview call letter confirming/​declining your attendance, furnishing any information requested or filling any required forms etc. You should also take out time to do some basic homework on the organization, the position and the interviewers (if this information is available). 

Shreya Ghosh

Absolutely. Then on the day of the interview, you should make sure you are on time and dressed professionally. During the interview, you should either switch off your cell phone, or keep it in silent mode. Greet the interviewers when you enter the room and look them in the eye when you are speaking to them. Speak clearly and firmly. And finally, thank the interviewers when the interview is over.

Smita Jain

Yes, Shreya. And you can keep demonstrating good interview etiquette even after the interview is over, by sending a thank you note, and following up politely if you do not hear from the interviewers after a certain period of time has passed. Also, in case you are not selected for the position, send a thank you note anyway and ask for feedback. You can also include a line asking them to consider you if any positions open up in the future.

Lakshmi Ganesan

Finally, one should remember that an interview is not an interrogation. It is always okay to ask questions during or after the interview. Remember that just as the employer is interviewing you to find out if you fit their organization, you are interviewing them to figure out if their organization fits your long-term career goals and values. 

Smita Jain

Very true, Lakshmi. Usually, once the main part of the interview is over, the interviewer will ask you if there are any questions you want to ask. If they don’t, you can respectfully ask the interviewer if you can ask a few questions at the end of the interview. 

Shreya Ghosh

So, I am curious, what sort of questions can we actually ask the interviewers? 

Smita Jain

Well, you can ask the interviewers to explain a little more about the nature of the job, day-to-day responsibilities etc. Or you can ask them about the next steps in the interview process, or what is the typical career path for someone in this role. You could also ask how success in this role will be evaluated. Another good question to ask is what the employers would like to see the person in this role accomplish in their first six months on the job, for example? This will showcase your willingness and seriousness towards the position.

Shreya Ghosh

I see — that makes sense, Smita. So, we have seen today that the art of interviewing well can be summed up as preparing thoroughly, being clear, confident and honest, and presenting a professional appearance. At the same time, cover letters are an important item in your toolkit when it comes to fortifying your job application and are worth spending a little time on.

Lakshmi Ganesan

Listeners, in the description section of this podcast, we have added some resources and links where you can learn more about cover letters and the art of interviewing. 

Shreya Ghosh

Yes, and we also invite you to check out our in-house publication Disha, a career resource book by Suman Govil, which also talks about writing cover letters and preparing for interviews in some detail. You will find a link to this in the description section of this podcast as well.

Smita Jain

Let us know your comments and feedback and any suggestions or ideas that you may have on what we can talk about. Also, in case you haven’t listened to the previous episodes in this series, do check them out — I am sure you will find them both informative and entertaining. 

Lakshmi Ganesan

Thank you all for listening and thanks Shreya and Smita for a fun and useful chat. We hope to see you next time. Until then keep listening and subscribe to our season, on Crafting your Career” in science.

Shreya Ghosh

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Written By

Program Manager - Science Communication