How to get a job interview: 5 Tips for writing your cover letter and CV

All of a sudden I am at the other side of the table. The first time I had to hire someone in the lab I was probably as nervous and sleep deprived as the candidate, but I tried really hard not to show it. It's scary. Picking those first few people with whom you want to build your team is of great importance. You don't want someone to quit after a year, because they suddenly realise they want to do something else. You don't want troublemakers: when your lab is still really small, one sour apple is going to spoil everything. You hope for someone smart and creative and you take a guess. In the end, there is no certainty.

What struck me however, was how easy is it is to make the first selection. And with 'first selection' I mean deciding who goes on the 'yes definitely invite to an interview', 'well, maybe' and 'nope' pile. As it turns out, many candidates have no clue how to write a letter (or how to present their CV) in such a way that they even remotely stand a chance.

So here are my 5 tips for increasing your chance to be invited to an interview (and I guess most of these tips hold for non-academia as well). Now some of these may sound like nitpicking. But remember: the job market is tough. For every tiny mistake that you make, someone else will do a better job. And that someone else is going to land on the 'yes' pile. That could have been you. So make the extra effort!

1) Spell check. Spell check. Spell check.
If you make errors here, what subliminal message are you trying to convey? That you don't care about details? That you never think twice and reflect on what you do?

2) Grammar. Structure.
Eventually you are going to have to write a thesis. And papers. And reviews. And I'd like to be that period as productive and enjoyable as possible for all our sakes. So if you give me mumbo-jumbo in your letter and CV, what am I supposed to think? Even if you suck at writing, make sure you have your letter and CV checked by someone else! You want to dazzle me at the interview right? Bad writing is not going to land you one.

3) Dear Sir.
If you don't have the time to google my name and check my website to find out that I am a dear Madam (and preferably a dear Dr. and while we're at it let's go completely overboard and actually address me as Dear Dr. Lastname), why should I take the time to read your letter?

4) Layout.
Okay, maybe this is a pet peeve of mine. But if you cannot align stuff on paper? If it looks like your CV was created by aiming a letter gun at a piece of paper? That just gives me goosebumps allover. It sends me the subliminal message that you don't care about organisation and that everything you do is going to be a mess. Now my bench is not the neatest, but at least my CV has never betrayed that!

5) Make sense.
Get to the point. Why do you want this job and why should I want you? Saying that you admire my competitor's work? Yeah, there just might be days during which I have a hard time reading a complement in there. Why don't you write him a letter instead.

The Unknowns Unknowns

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
The other day I watched a documentary about Donald Rumsfeld. I found him intriguing, and a bit scary at times. He didn't even remember the quote himself and I cannot blame him. It is a pretty insane tongue twister. None of this however, is as intriguing, scary and insane as suddenly finding out that all the things you thought you knew in the lab, turn out to be things you do not know. Does this qualify as unknown knowns or unknown unknowns?

Anyway... we were trying to order filter tips the other day. It took us four hours and multiple phone calls to Greiner and Fisher to find out what we wanted and what the correct ordering number was. At least, I hope so. We'll see it when they get there.
Not nearly as complicated though as trying to order a bottle of BSA. Did you know that Sigma sells about two dozen? I've used three in my PhD and postdoc years, as it turns out (I paid some attention to the BSA, but not that much, I just grabbed it from the fridge. Come on folks, it's hard enough as it is to get everything going, I don't have days to think about albumin. Although of course I did. Because the stuff is bloody expensive. After we finally made a decision, it turned out we might be using far less that we were actually planning in the near future, since it looks like it's giving me a helluva lot of background in my Western Blots since I recently switched to a Licor/Odyssey system. 

So that was my week. Troubleshooting Westerns, ordering filter tips and freeze dried cow protein. They don't give you the PhD for nothing.

It all looks the same from up close.

My first class

I have spent the better part of a decade (+/- a few years) focusing on research. I got out of bed, picked up a pipette and didn't put it down until I was ready to go back to sleep. Now that I have my own lab at The University, I also am going to spend part of my time teaching. Of course I have ample experience teaching students on a one-to-one basis. I have mentored quite a few undergraduates over the years. But when I was scheduled for my first 'real' lecture it suddenly hit me: I had not been forced to attendance in a college auditorium since I was an undergraduate myself.
So when preparing the lecture, I thought back to the things that I remembered from my own college professors. The quaint ones. The storytellers. The inspirational ones. That's what I would become. A source of inspiration that they would still remember fifty years from now...

I decided to sit in on a few lectures in the weeks prior to giving my own. Because how do you even talk to first year bachelor students? How do you know what they know and what they don't know? How do you talk differently to second year students? Or to third years? How do you maintain order? And, not unimportantly: How do you make them like you? Apparently constantly highlighting the stuff they're supposed to know for an exam is one way to score brownie points. But wait a second, I'm not here to score brownie points! I am here to inspire! To show them how wonderful biology is! How normal development and disease are closely intertwined! How cool it is to do science! How technology is developing at such an amazing pace! How great scientists of the past developed these incredible insights! I am...

... terrified. That's what I was when I walked into the room. I felt like I was a piece of bait, dropped into an ocean, waiting for the sharks to get me. Surely they could tell I had no clue what I was doing. I was hit by a serious case of imposter syndrome. This was definitely a fake-it-till-you-make-it moment.

Only 50% of the entire class showed up to begin with. Apparently, that's normal (I had counted attendance during one of my sit-ins). Out of those, about 25% appeared to pay some sort of attention. A couple of students were talking amongst themselves. They were over in a corner, I could ignore them and they didn't seem to bother anyone else and I was too damn scared to tell them to zip it or leave. Apparently they had mistaken the lecture hall for a Starbucks. These things happen. Same thing for the guy in the back row, who was wearing a headset while watching a movie on his laptop.
Just like that my whole Mary "I-will-be-firm-but-kind" Poppins courage sank somewhere to the bottom of the ocean. It was replaced by a slightly different mantra. The "Please-don't-throw-any-tomatoes-at-me" kind. No way would I tell these students to pay attention or leave! A quick risk assessment told me that if they would just choose to ignore my orders I would have no idea what to do next. If only I were six feet tall and male, I thought... Then I'd tell them...
Ah well, maybe in a next life.

In the end, no one threw tomatoes. And after the lecture a couple of students came up to me to ask for a bit more details on a part that they had found 'really interesting'. And that's when I realised that perhaps that's all I should ask for. If I can get to five students, that may be worth it. But is that really true? In this day and age, are there still teachers who can captivate a room full of 18 year olds? Should I start using clickers or soapbox or other gadgets that to my opinion only eat up time (and only provide room for technical glitches and the associated mockery) and don't really add anything?
I have decided that I will approach classroom teaching the same way I approach an experiment. Like a scientist. I will change a variable every time and see what happens. Next time, I will ask the group of students to stop talking. Maybe the time after, I will ask the student in the back row if we could plug in his laptop so we can all watch the movie. Or maybe I will think of something really brilliant, and they will all pay attention for two hours straight even though it is almost five o' clock in the afternoon and then they will spread the word and I will get 100% attendance from hence on.

I guess a girl can dream.

Why there are days when I feel like president Obama

So this is it. I never thought I'd say this, but I miss the bench. I've been managing my own tiny little but ever so expanding lab for seven months (heavens, has it really been more than half a year already?) and it's come to the point where I already do not know how to program the latest PCR machine. Or the latest gossip. I used to be the one in the lab you would go to if you needed to know anything. As a postdoc, the lab had no secrets from me.
Now, I am out of the loop. Hungry for other people's data. It's not that I want them to work harder and produce more. But let's face it. That Western blot? That PCR gel? That's all the real science I am going to see in a day. The rest of the day is spent... doing what, exactly?

On a typical day I find myself on the phone (I used to dread making phone calls, boy, did I get over that pet peeve quickly) to fix all sorts of shit. Equipment that is not delivered on time. Equipment of which half the boxes gets delivered. Equipment that breaks down after a week of use. Computers that take six weeks to arrive (six weeks! it's enough to make you pull out all of your hair and then some). How is that even possible in this day and age? Purchasing departments that pretend to think with you, but which sometimes give of the impression they are thinking for you and than forget the thinking part while they are at it. Orders that are placed, but that then disappear into thin air. It's a never-ending struggle to just get things running smoothly. There are days where I've been really busy, only to go home at 9 pm to find that I have done nothing, apart from talking, calling and e-mailing about crap.

This must be what the president of the United States must feel like. You can come in with all sorts of ambitious goals and lofty ideas. You can make all sorts of promises on the campaign trail. When it comes down to it, you have to work within the budget and without getting into fights with other parties. In the end, your political agenda is controlled by outside forces and whatever te different agencies put on your plate.
Luckily however, I have come to the realisation that this is it. I am the wrinkle remover. I am responsible for making things in the lab run smoothly, if not for me, than for everybody working in the lab to produce those Western blots and PCR images I so yearn for to look at. I am solving problems, such that others can work without encountering them. I am the troubleshooter. Too bad that there isn't more time in a day to actually troubleshoot science, instead of the smudgy layers of 'processes' that seem to stand in the way of my lab advancing scientific knowledge. I have the feeling I'd better get used to this.

Open office

I am finally out of open office space hell. So far, the best part of this whole tenure track phenomenon is the fact that I have my own office. I am sharing, but my office mate is hardly ever there, which means I am essentially all by myself and it is sheer and utter bliss. I haven't gotten this much work done behind a computer at work in oh, I don't know, forever! As strenuous as this whole thing may turn out  to be, they can't take that away from me! (well, I guess they can, but let's not go there for now, okay?)

Setting up my own lab is fun. It's challenging, but something I was looking forward to. I am off the tenure track job market and for that alone I have enough gratitude to last me a couple of years. There were hassles that I expected (thanks to the blogosphere I was well prepared because I read everything there was to read about those who have gone before me). But then there are the weird little things that I never thought about. And the office is one of them. 

For one, I didn't realise that with the office I suddenly exude a whole different vibe. Even with an open door policy, there is an invisible barrier. It's in the eye of those who come to visit. A psychological threshold so to speak. Some don't enter and hang out in the hallway when they have to ask me a question. Others do come in, but only after hesitating in the doorway. It is Really Awkward.
An office apparently comes with its own special code.

Now, when I say: let's go to my office (just because that's where all my stuff is), I see a swift look of desperation on people's faces. Of course, whenever I was summoned to my mentor's office I also always thought "oh shit, what the fuck did I do wrong". Nine out of ten times it was just to get some privacy, but bloody hell, overnight I turned into the scary high school principle where the words "my office" equal "you are in trouble". Let alone when I close the door because I want to discuss a sensitive subject, you can just see them brace for impact.

The worst part is that nothing changed for me. I have an open door policy, anyone can always come in any time they want. In fact, I wish people would come over more, because now that I am stuck behind the computer for most of the day it is unbelievable how much of the gossip and lab life I suddenly do not hear anymore. I used to be the one who was always spreading news (mind you, news, not gossip. Well not mostly anyways), now I keep being the last to find stuff out (there's cake, there's a new student, equipment is broken). It's only been a few months and I turned into a Group Leader. *shivers*
Yet I don't feel like my office is some holy temple of power. It's just the luxury version of a cubicle where now I am suddenly stuck for most of the day, really busy, yet feeling completely unaccomplished by the time I go home because I haven't done anything tangible, like running a gel. The other day I was discussing Exciting Science with a lab member. Who checks their watch when they do that, right? Suddenly there was a timid knock on my open door. It was the student with whom I had scheduled an appointment that should have started some 15 minutes earlier and the poor bastard had quietly been waiting for me to finish. Apparently I also need to be equipped with special timekeeping skills while in the midst of a scientific discussion. Before, in the Land of Postdoc, everybody would just barge in on any conversation you were having, scheduled or unannounced. When did I turn into this?

Yup, I am in the ivory tower and its turns out to be a shared office next to the bathroom and the coffeemaker. Who knew. But please, fearless travelers. Do come in. You are my lifeline to the Kingdom Of Science where the real stuff happens.