Career Certainty – and the Uncertainty of It All

Dr. Joseph Barber

I have always enjoyed working in fields that include a lot of gray areas — those nebulous, intangible zones between something being absolutely correct and being incorrect. After all, if there is a singular right and wrong answer, it means you have much less room for creativity or flexibility — and I like thinking creatively. Career advising is one of these gray-area fields because one’s future career path is not predetermined.

That means that whenever someone meets with me looking for absolute clarity on their next career move, they are probably not going to leave my office with a singular answer. Instead, I’ll suggest a series of action steps that they can take to build confidence in the answers that they’ll discover on their own through a variety of different networking and exploration processes. I recognize, however, that when you want easy answers, receiving a “series of action steps that you can take to build confidence in the answers that you will discover on your own through a variety of different networking and exploration processes” doesn’t always feel so satisfying.

All that said, even within the field of career advising, you can, in fact, take certain actions that have very predictable outcomes. And it is worth thinking about some of these as illustrations of what career certainties can look like.

Writing generic applications. You unquestionably won’t get 50 job interviews if you send 50 versions of the same résumé with a cover letter that only differs because you remembered to change the name of the employer in the text (but not always in the file name of the attached document — oops!). You can find out why here, but you can probably guess that 50 different hiring managers at 50 different companies are each looking for something specific to their needs and interests. Generic applications certainly won’t interest people — and even more certainly, they won’t impress companies’ tracking software that scans applications to see if they match keywords in the job description. The robots like relevant keywords, and they are not so good at reading between the lines.

Downplaying your expertise. If you don’t apply for a job because you personally think you might not have enough experience for it — if they are asking for, say, three to four years of using a set of skills and perhaps you only have one — then you definitely won’t get an interview. If you write in a cover letter, “Although I don’t have the three to four years of experience you are seeking, I do have …” they will certainly agree with your lack of experience and probably won’t see what you do have.

But if you describe your actual experience, and tell them in words they are familiar with based on your research into the field and the many informational interviews you’ve had, you will make a much better impression. You can never be absolutely sure what a hiring manager is actually looking for in a new hire, so let them be the judge of your experience. They may see potential in your background that you can’t see from your perspective.

Raising no interview questions. If you don’t have questions at the end of a job interview, you are most assuredly increasing the chances you won’t be asked back for another one, much less given an offer. If you are uncertain why, then read this.

Predicting when job offers will come in. When you receive multiple job offers, you will probably never be able to get them all to line up at the same time so that you can choose between them — no matter how well you negotiate or stall for more time. And just as it seems that buttered bread always lands butter side down when dropped, it can certainly feel like offers from less preferred employers always come first. They also have more immediate turnaround times than offers from the employers you really want. I have met with many students and postdocs who have an offer on the table from a less preferred employer that will probably expire before they can even complete the interviewing process for a more preferred one. No one can know for sure what will happen in the future if that first offer is turned down or accepted.

Not negotiating. You will certainly regret not negotiating. You may not feel it all at once in the glow of receiving and immediately accepting a job offer, but over time, you will increasingly wish you had asked for something. You don’t have to negotiate for much to feel satisfied that you have advocated for yourself. A small salary increase, a reduction in your teaching load for a couple of years or priority access to your new employer’s day-care facilities can all make a meaningful contribution to how you feel. But you should always negotiate positively — and do so as confidently as possible.

Questioning your decisions. You will always look for career certainty as you make your decisions. But in most situations, once you make a choice, you will remain a little in doubt about your future career prospects. Will your decision get you closer to your dream job or employer, or will it take you down a path that will lead you away from it? You can never tell for sure.

The thing about career uncertainty is that it actually exists no matter what choice you make. And while that may sound a little scary, if we flip the narrative around, it means that there aren’t really any wrong choices. You will have to make many different choices. Some will be strategic ones that move you toward some future career goal, some will be more immediate to address a crucial need (e.g., financial) and some will be less about the work and more about your family or personal well-being.

Each is valid in its own way. As long as you have given thought to why you have made the choice and are committed to making the most of the situation, you can continue to leverage the experience you gain in any role for whatever future career move you choose to make.

Here are five steps that I would certainly recommend once you have made a career choice in order to feel satisfied that you can make the most out of it:

  1. Thank everyone who has helped in your job search, especially your references.
  2. Take advantage of any training or mentoring available in your new role.
  3. Make a concerted effort to grow your network within your new employer, as well as within the employers’ broader professional industry.
  4. Identify new skills or knowledge you can gain in your new role that you didn’t have before.
  5. After you have settled into the new role, begin to think about the different career steps you can take next, and what you will need to do for each of them.

You can always learn from the past decisions you have made. But rather than second-guessing a previous career choice, invest your energy in developing a forward-looking strategy that will help you be as informed and confident as possible when taking the next step.

Acing the Reverse Interview

Dr. Joseph Barber, Senior Associate Director

After the hard work of putting together application materials for a job, or many jobs, it is always a welcome reward to be contacted with an invitation to interview. For most people, this euphoric state is quickly replaced by the realization that they now have lots more work to do in order to ace the interview.

A good starting point for this preparation is to generate a list of questions that you might be asked. A website like Glassdoor.com provides some of the actual questions that other people say companies where you might be interviewing have asked them — although, of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get the same ones. On the Career Services website, we have sample questions that are commonly asked in interviews, including a list of questions that Ph.D. students and postdocs who’ve had screening or on-campus interviews for faculty positions have shared with us. You can also reach out to alumni or other contacts in your network who work or may have interviewed at your target companies and organizations. You can certainly ask them about their experiences being interviewed and the types of questions they were asked.

Additionally, by looking at the job description, and from discussions with your networking connections who may have similar roles in similar organizations, you can also create a list of skills, experiences and knowledge areas that are likely to be essential for the role you are applying for. The more important they are to the role, the more likely you will be asked about them. Usually, these types of questions come in the form of behavioral-based ones. Here are 12 pages of them — some very similar to each other, some positive leaning and some negative leaning. With a list of “behaviors” from the job description, you can narrow down this list to the most relevant questions. And the best way to prepare answers for these questions is by coming up with examples and stories to share about how you have engaged in such behaviors. We’ll come back to those examples and stories a little later.

I’ve previously written about the five key questions you can always expect in any type of job interview. They are:

  • Who are you? Tell me about yourself.
  • Why do you want this position?
  • What do you know about our organization?
  • What do you bring? What is your greatest strength? What are your relevant strengths?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

And I have also encouraged everyone to answer this last question with a excited and definite “yes!” But what happens when, rather than being the last question that is asked, this question is the only question that is asked?

I have heard about this happening in all types of career fields and industries from the many students and postdocs I have worked with and advised. But it does seem more frequent in several specific settings. In small start-ups, without much of a structured HR department or process, interviews often feel more like informal conversations, and that seems to result in this question popping up more often. The other situation occurs during campus interviews for faculty jobs. During such interviews, candidates may be scheduled to meet with many individual faculty members from the search committee and beyond. I have seen interview agendas with 15 to 20 of these one-on-one interviews scheduled!

The reasons that interviewers may not ask a formal set of questions, and instead just let you ask them, are likely to be diverse. But they probably fall under one of these explanations:

  • The interviewer wants to be helpful.
  • The interviewer wants to ascertain how interested you actually are in the role and the organization by seeing what questions you ask.
  • The interviewer didn’t have time to prepare a list of questions.
  • The interviewer neither had time to prepare questions nor had the opportunity to look over your application materials — and will be trying to do the latter as you are asking your questions.

This last one is probably the most likely in working environments where everyone is busy and people are involved in multiple searches each with multiple candidates.

Given that you will have prepared some questions to ask during your interview, the fact that a 30-minute interview with a member of the hiring committee starts with “do you have any questions for me?” shouldn’t be too much of an issue. However, you probably don’t have 30 minutes of questions prepared, so you will need to think up more on the fly. More important, if you just spend 30 minutes asking an interviewer questions and listening to their responses, you will run the risk of not leaving enough about you — and your skills, experiences and knowledge — in their consciousness.

In an interview, your goal is to make a good impression and to leave a clear enough image of yourself in the brain of the interviewers that they can imagine you in the role they’re trying to fill. You want them to be able to superimpose the impression you left onto the day-to-day tasks of the job. If you ask a lot of questions but don’t talk about yourself, the image you leave behind will not be clear. It will be hard for one hiring committee member to advocate for you and the value you’d bring to the role with the rest of the committee if they only have an intangible sense of who you are and what you can do.

So, whether the interview involves a formal set of questions that you are asked, is an informal discussion or follows the “what can I tell you?” approach, your goals are actually the same: you need to know before the interview what you want to say and how you are going to illustrate that with examples from your experience.

In fact, the best way to prepare for any interview is to come up with examples in advance that illustrate your relevant skills in action. With a few such examples prepared, you will have a much easier time answering any behavioral-based question that comes your way. Examples make your skills and experiences come to life — especially if you add a touch of drama to your story.

For example, rather than just telling people what you have done, you should show how what you did was challenging (and exciting and enjoyable), and the steps you took to overcome the challenge. Everyone loves a bit of drama. Without drama, the many pages of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy become nothing more than “a hobbit finds a magical ring, which is eventually thrown into a volcano.” Make sure the descriptions of your experiences don’t come across like this.

But how do you share your examples if people don’t ask you about your experience? After all, it would be awkward if the conversation went like this:

Interviewer: So, what can I share with you?

Candidate: Er … well, actually, let me first tell you about a time where I worked collaboratively in a multidisciplinary setting.

Interviewer: Um …OK.

You have to be a little more strategic than this. The goal is to ask questions to get the interviewer to respond with answers that you can then respond to with your own examples. The questions need to be answerable by the interviewer, so picking the right ones for the right person is important. 

Interviewer: So, what can I share with you?

Candidate: Yes, I have a few questions today. I saw from your online profile that some of your project work seems to cross different departments here. Can you tell me about how your teams are set up to promote this type of cross-disciplinary work?

Interviewer: Well, I think you are talking about my work with … [answer continues]

Candidate: Thank you, this is helpful, and actually, it is very similar to the approach I have taken in my work as part of the student writing group on our campus. One of the challenges we always faced was the fact that we collaborated with over 27 different departments, which made coming up with marketing materials relevant to all those groups very hard. So, what I did was …

You want to leave each interviewer with a solid image of you, whether they ask you questions and have looked at your materials beforehand or not. That way, you are maximizing the potential that all the hiring committee members can share in the same experiences when they discuss the candidates after the interviews are done. If they can share the same experiences, then they can also get excited about those experiences. And the more people making hiring decisions who are excited about you, the greater the chances are that you will get the offer.

The Psychology of Networking

Dr. Joseph Barber, Senior Associate Director

With my Ph.D. in animal behavior, I have been specifically trained to identify and analyze subtle changes in the behavior of animals that I observe. The fact that I spent my time watching chickens for my Ph.D. will become relevant in a moment as I start talking about networking.

As an animal behaviorist, I have developed testable hypotheses about why behavior changes, and what internal or external factors lead to such changes. As a career adviser, I still use this scientific knowledge when it comes to human behavior — we are just another type of animal, after all.

One of the most interesting career-related situations that is rich with behavior is networking. It is a social behavior, which tend to be some of the most complex behaviors we see in the animal kingdom. If I were trying to create a behavioral ethogram (a well-defined list of behaviors that observers can use when collecting data on behavior), I might define networking along the lines of a social, affiliative interaction involving direct or indirect physical or vocal communication between at least two individuals

If that is all networking is, then why can it seem so stressful to many of us? In terms of how I, and the many introverts like me, perceive networking, I might change the definition slightly to state: a social affiliative interaction involving direct or indirect physical or vocal communication between at least two individuals that results in a measurable stress response — and one individual (or possibly even both) running back to their room, hiding under their covers and vowing never to do it again.

That’s not a scientific definition, but it is an accurate description of how many people experience networking events. That is how I experience them when faced with meeting lots of new people in a short, concentrated space of time (hello, every conference I have attended). Given that I studied chickens, perhaps my interest in understanding the struggles to network effectively makes a little more sense. If chickens were actually a cowardly species (they are not — read this), then I would certainly associate myself with them when it comes to networking.

But chickens are not cowardly in the least. They are highly social, superinquisitive, and have been shown in research to identify up to 90 other chickens they have interacted with as familiar. They are probably much better networkers than I will ever be — if they didn’t peck the living daylights out of unfamiliar birds they meet and tread in their own poop, that is. So, if chickens can actually be effective networkers in their own way, then there is also plenty of hope for those of us who find some parts of the networking experience draining and overwhelming at times. Here are some best practices for introverts based in the science of animal behavior, more or less:

Keep your social groups small. Speaking with another person where the ratio is one to one rather than one to many is always going to be easier to manage. You will find that this networking approach suddenly just feels like having a conversation and is not bad at all. It is OK to avoid large networking events, or find opportunities for small groups conversations within them, and it is great to prioritize one-on-one informational interviews with people in career fields that interest you.

Focus on the needs of others to distract you from any negative emotional states. One of the key approaches to any networking outreach is to make sure the person with whom you are interacting feels positive about that interaction. I have talked about the fear response I get if someone asks if they can “just grab a coffee” here. If someone I didn’t know reached out and asked if I could forward their résumé on to a hiring manager in my office, it would first make me feel a little awkward — how can I say no politely other than just ignoring the request? — and then perhaps a little angry. Why am I now spending so much time worrying about how to say no? Why would this person put me in a position to be angry at myself? All of these negative feelings become connected with the person who reached out to me.

So how do you make people feel positive? You value them for who they are and appreciate what they are willing to share, and you thank them — authentically and often. For example, if someone were to reach out to me and ask what some of the trends are in the field of career professionalism for Ph.D.s and postdocs, I would need to give this some serious thought. Serious thought takes time, and even after a lot of this time, I still wouldn’t be able to come up with a very satisfying answer for this high-level question. The question is a neutral one — it doesn’t make me feel bad, but it doesn’t leave me feeling positive.

Now, if I was asked what I have done at Penn to focus on career professionalism for Ph.D.s, it wouldn’t require deep thinking. It would give me an opportunity to talk about something I have invested lots of time in already and that am likely to be engaged by. If the person I am talking to finds hearing about the approaches I have taken here to be interesting and valuable, then that is going to make me feel good.

Positively reinforce behaviors you want to see more frequently. If you have given your dog or cat a treat immediately after they have performed a behavior you like and want to see more of, then you are engaged in the process of positive reinforcement training. Once an animal makes a connection between a behavior and the reward, the behavior will occur more often.

You can train most animals in this way. If you want people you meet through your networking outreach to continue to provide you with great insight, then make sure that you positively reinforce them, too. Always send a thank-you note or email to people who have taken the time to speak with you within 24 hours after meeting them. This works just as effectively after speaking with employers at a career fair or an actual job interview. The longer you wait, the less effective the reinforcement is.

If a contact you have met suggests someone else you can speak with, go ahead and do so. Thank your new contact after you have met them, and then get back in contact with your initial contact to tell them how helpful your conversation was with the person they recommended. Everyone likes to be thanked. If you are authentic in your thanks, you might find that your contact is more willing to suggest someone else that they know as your next outreach contact.

Use your social connectors effectively. People often ask me how they can tap in to the many second-degree connections that they have on LinkedIn. (Second-degree connections are people whom you don’t know but someone whom you know does know). That is a fantastic way to grow your networking and make the sometimes scary step of reaching out to new people much more effective.

Let’s say I want to reach out to James, who works as a senior scientist in a biotech firm I am interested in. I don’t know James, but I see that I am connected to Magda on LinkedIn, and Magda is connected to James. I can leverage my existing relationship with Magda in one of three ways to establish a connection with James. I could ask Magda to share the email she has for James. First-degree connections on LinkedIn can see each other’s email addresses. With this email, I could reach out directly, but that could still be a hit-or-miss approach if I don’t leverage my social connections. Or I could ask Magda to introduce me to James. Magda might send an email to James directly, copying me in and asking if James would be able to speak with me. That is the most effective approach, but it requires the most effort from Magda. As a third alternative and good middle-ground approach is to ask Magda if I can use her name when reach out to James. For example, I might write:

“Hi, James, I saw on LinkedIn that we both know Magda Patel. I worked with her for a couple of years at Penn in the student consulting club. I contacted Magda, and she highly recommend that I reach out to you and said that you would be a great person to ask about some of the genetic sequencing projects at your company. This is an area I am very interested in exploring in terms of industry career paths, and so I would love to hear a little about your experience in this field. Can I send you a couple of quick questions by email or set up a time to chat on the phone, if that is easier? This would be so helpful in my exploration of possible paths to focus on when I graduate next year.”

The reason that James might be more likely to respond to this email is that he might not want to lose his social standing and reputation that he now feels he has with other people — in this case, Magda. If Magda highly recommends him, and says he is such a great person to talk with, and then he turns down my request, it will result in an immediate loss of perceived status. If I reached out to James directly without involving Magda, he could easily ignore my outreach without feeling too bad. As soon as another person is involved, James is likely to be much more aware of how he is perceived both by me and the person whom he knows. The truth is, I may have just asked Magda if she recommended James and thought he would be great to reach out to, and she might have just said yes, but that is good enough to get the social connection process started.

So there you go: some easy to use, biologically sound, behavioral-based approaches to help you (and your chickens) with networking!

Your Career Fair Checklist

Dr. Joseph Barber, Senior Associate Director

If you want to make the most of your career fair experience, then try to achieve as many of the following steps as possible:

1. Find the dates for our upcoming fairs on Handshake – they are all listed right here: https://app.joinhandshake.com/career_fairs

2. Click on each of the fairs and gently browse the various employers who have registered, or do a more targeted search using filters such as job types, school year, major, and industry.

3. Take some time to think about some of your career fair goals. Are you exploring, networking, looking for information, checking in with employers you have already interacted with, or applying? And yes, you might well have different goals in mind for different employers.

4. Create a list of employers at each fair that you want to connect with. It doesn’t have to be a long list. You may only want to speak to a few, and that is perfectly fine, as it can still be an incredibly valuable use of your time.

5. Now that you have a preliminary list, you will want to prioritize it. You can sort the employers into different industries if you are exploring multiple career paths, and you can identify the employers that you are most interested in, those you are a little less interested in based on what you know, those you want to learn more about, and maybe have a few that you are just somewhat curious about.

6. Here is a really important step – do research on all of the employers you have listed. Look at their website to know what they do and how they do it. Look at the jobs that they have posted on Handshake. Look at the jobs they have posted beyond Handshake (LinkedIn the “careers” page on their website are good places to start). Create a list of smart questions you hope to ask (smart means not questions that can be answered through easy online research).

7. Since you cannot just walk up to a table at a career fair, ask a bunch of questions, and then run off without saying anything, you need to work on the narrative you are going to use when introducing yourself to employers. Make a list of information you want the employer to know about you. Again, this might be different for different employers. Put it all together into a well-structured narrative. Practice your introduction aloud, and do it several times until it sounds and feels natural.

8. Think about what you want to wear. You don’t have to be in a suit, but you still should look professional. Think about which companies are at the top of your prioritized list, and try to dress in a way that their representatives will be dressed at the career fair. For example, representatives from law firms that come to campus looking for PhDs to be patent law specialists typically dress in suits. If you turn up in jeans and a t-shirt, you will create an obvious, visual disconnect.

9. Have a good resume to share. This will usually be a document used as a shared reference for your discussion, rather than the document that is used for an actual application, but it should be good enough to do both. Get your materials reviewed before you go to the fair.

10. When you arrive at the fair, choose one of the employers that is lower down your list of priority organizations to ease yourself into the process – this will help you to practice your introduction one last time, and to get a sense of the timing of the interactions that you will be having with employers at the event. Since some fairs can be busy, the next employer you meet with should be one of your priority organizations.

11. Don’t start by handing someone your resume – start with a strong handshake and good eye contact. All employers have name tags on, and you can even start with a strong “Hello Julie, thanks for being here today…”. Did I mention that your handshake should be strong and confident…, and dry! Find out more here: https://ulife.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/blog/2018/04/04/handshaking-a-guide-to-making-the-right-impression/

12. Introduce yourself, ask some smart questions, share your resume, ask for a business card, and offer to follow-up with an electronic version of your materials. Thank them again, shake their hands, and move on with a smile!

13. Within 24 hours, and if you have their email address from their business cards, send a thank you email thanking them again, telling them why you found your conversation together helpful, and sharing anything that you said you would share. You might learn something about an internship or a job from your discussion at the career fair that makes you want to change something in the general resume you took with you to the event in order to better highlight your fit for a particular position.

14. Make sure you apply for specific jobs you talked about at the fair through Handshake, and some companies will need you to apply through their websites too.

15. Celebrate your successes. Think about what went well from the fair, and plan to improve on what didn’t go so well when it comes to the next career fair you go to. There are quite a few of them each semester. An appointment with a career advisor can help with this.

Good luck with your networking and information gathering, if these are your primary goals for your career fair experience, and make the most of your conversations to update your application materials if you are actively applying for positions.

Uncovering the secrets of the cover letter

Dr. Joseph Barber, Senior Associate Director

While there are certainly specific styles of resumes that reflect different career fields and industries, the cover letter offers a much less structured document, and so often leads to much more confusion. You will no doubt get different advice from everyone you ask about cover letters, and so what I am covering here will certainly to add to this pile. However, having read a frighteningly enormous number of cover letters in my role as a career advisor, my advice comes from experience. This experience can be divided into positive experiences (where the letter was interesting to read), and neutral-to-negative experiences, where the letter was readable, but not very engaging. When you are thinking of your cover letters, the description of “readable” should be the absolute minimum outcome you aim to achieve. Ideally, your letter is interesting, engaging, unique, positive, energetic, and optimistic! That is a lot to achieve in one page!

The first question to ask yourself is what is the purpose of the cover letter? If you have already created a customized resume for the job you are applying to (and this is essential), then you have already highlighted the relevant skills you have (relevant to the job you are applying to). You don’t just want to provide exactly the same information again in your cover letter. Reading the same information twice doesn’t make it any more impactful, but can definitely make it less interesting. Used strategically, the cover letter gives you an opportunity to highlight some of the best parts of your resume in a slightly different way, and with the main focus on explaining why – why you’re the right person for the job; why your experiences are relevant; why you want to use your skills and knowledge in this new role at this new organization. The answers to these questions are not punchy bullet points. Instead they need to be slightly more narrative in their form, and when you start using more narrative formats you can start using story-telling approaches. The benefit of telling stories is that you don’t just have to state empirically what happened (which is what the bullet point in the resume does), you can talk about the broader impacts of the experience, including what you learnt from it, how it made you feel, why you sought it out, what was so surprising about it, why is was challenging, and so on. These will all be unique perspectives to you (which makes them interesting to your reader who won’t have read them in 100 other cover letters), and can help make your letter more energetic by bringing in action-based emotional states. People remember stories more than they remember high-level, generic statements that you have important skills.

Let’s cover the basic structure of a 1-page cover letter that I tend to recommend. We can break it down into three separate sections just to make it easier to think about.

First paragraph/opening

Make a very clear statement of intent. This means avoiding statements such as:

“I am writing to possibly explore the opportunity to be interested in applying for the position of….”

Instead, the most direct approach could be this:

“I am applying for the position of X that was advertised on your website

You can add to this, but be direct. The rest of the first paragraph is taken up with a takeaway conclusion about yourself. Yes, you can start your letter with a conclusion. This means that the reader immediately knows you have something that they want, and makes them more likely to read the rest of the letter to find out more. If you are going to start off with a conclusion, though, make sure that it is relevant to your reader by summarizing what they are likely to care about the most. Take a look at this introduction sentence and see if you can identify what some of the key takeaways are, and thus what some of the job requirements might have been:

“With 8 years of experience managing multi-step data collection projects in academic and industry settings, and an ability to establish and maintain relationships with clients, stakeholders, and international collaborators, I am excited to bring my creativity and structured approach to this Data Analyst role.”

Middle paragraphs

Once you have made a conclusion statement in the introduction (I know, it sounds a little weird!), the main part of the letter is going to be expanding on these themes. You don’t have to go through all of your experiences from the resume, but rather you want to highlight the best parts. This means that everything in your cover letter should be echoed by something in your resume, but not everything in your resume needs to be mentioned in your cover letter. And if you are wondering why you can’t just customize your cover letter and send a standard resume as part of your application, just remember that not everyone will read a cover letter. You want them to, but you cannot make them!

The main body of your letter will contain good illustrations of your relevant skills in action, all wrapped up in a narrative form that includes just a sprinkling of drama. Here is an example of a story without drama:

“As a project leader in the PBG Healthcare Consulting Group, I oversaw a team of 3 students and completed an extensive market analysis of the medical device field to determine the a suitable pricing model for a wearable device developed by the client.”

None of this is bad information; it is just not that engaging. It would be much better as a bullet point in a resume. And if it were already a bullet in the resume, it should not just be repeated in the cover letter. Here is an alternative version with a little more drama.

“When I was serving as a project leader in the student consulting group at Penn, my team had engaged with a client seeking market access information for a new wearable device. We faced two immediate challenges with this work: the device was unique, and there were few products to compare, and this was the first consulting experience for half of our 4-member team. In thinking about the project, I saw their lack of experience as a possible advantage, and took the opportunity to encourage the two new team members to think creatively about comparable products in the medical space and beyond. In two brainstorming sessions, we successfully generated sufficient data for our market analysis. I found it really satisfying to see how well the new members complemented and then learnt from our more practiced approach”

Every piece of work you have done, every project you have been involved with, has presented its own unique challenges. If you can state what these were, and talk about how you have used your skills and abilities to overcome these challenges (relevant skills and abilities for the job you are applying to), then you have the basis for good examples. Concepts that you can touch on in a cover letter that are hard to highlight in a resume include:

  • Enjoying or being excited about something
  • Learning from an experience that went well or badly
  • Combining experiences from two separate roles you have had (that might be separated by years on a resume) to show how you solved a problem
  • Explaining why you did something, not just that you did it
  • Passion

Final paragraph

Once you have given some examples to illustrate the themes highlighted in the first paragraph, you can move to the final paragraph. Here you might want to answer the questions: why do you want this job? Why do you want to work here? The answer to these questions should flow nicely from the examples you have been giving.

“In all of these projects, I have found myself most engaged when I have been able to bridge disciplines, and draw upon my relationship building skills to establish productive collaborations. I would enjoy the opportunity to liaise between the marketing and science teams in this Project Coordinator role, and this would make exceptional use of my lab research skills and creative mindset. I have spoken with three Penn alumni who work at X, and each has highlighted the mentoring program for junior staff as wonderfully helpful for their own professional development. I have been fortunate to have strong mentors in my current lab, which has certainly helped me progress in my research, and I am very excited about learning from the experience of senior staff in this new role through this mentoring program.”

The more you know about an organization, and the role itself, the easier it will be to come up with an authentic answer to the “why this job?” and “why this company?” questions.

There is no perfect cover letter, and different approaches can be just as effective (after all, different people will read each letter, and they have their own ideas about good and bad letters!). Hopefully, you can take some of these considerations to heart for your next letter, and uncover just a hint of drama as you describe your exceptional skills, knowledge, and experiences!