Monday, February 21, 2011

Job Application Tips for Field Biologists (Part 1)

I’ve applied for several field jobs but never really got feedback on how my cover letter and resume were viewed by others—that is, if they represented my qualifications well or not. But I got interviews most of the time. And I’ve also been on the hiring end of things and have looked at over 150 field assistant resumes. So while I’m not an expert--I can give some general tips. Especially for young field biologists and newbies in the field. 

None of this advice is earth-shattering. But most of these are common mistakes I see people make, and some apply to just about any job. Others are more specific to field work in wildlife biology. These are just my suggestions—so take them or leave them—there’s really no one way to do it, and some people are picky about certain things, including me. But it frustrates me to see qualified field biologists with poor resumes.  Hope it helps.   Leave a comment if something is missing or you disagree.

General tips:

1. Make sure you proof read it! And have someone else proof read it! Make sure there are no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors—and try reading it aloud to be sure it doesn’t sound awkward. If you have a ton of experience, tiny errors probably won’t hurt you too much, but mistakes imply that you don’t take these things seriously—if you don’t take cover letters seriously, will you take our field work seriously? What about recording field observations? We don’t want careless mistakes in the data collection. And make sure you spell the contact person’s name correctly when addressing them. This sounds obvious, but I’ve seen it several times because people simply don’t take the time to proof read.

2. Follow directions! Make sure that if it says “Combine cover letter and resume into one file” or “send email with WIFL job as subject line”, you do it! It is as simple as that, and it ties in with my statements above. But most people don’t do it! If you don’t follow these directions it implies you won’t follow directions and protocols in the field.

3. Don’t stretch the truth, if you don’t have the experience, you just don’t. Employers usually have a way of figuring that stuff out—and it makes you look bad if you obviously stretch things to make yourself look better. Emphasize what you do have, express enthusiasm for learning and improvement in certain areas, and talk about your ability to learn new skills quickly. It may not be enough for certain positions, but it’s better to be truthful in my opinion. Saying that you have "mist-netting experience" from one 30 minute lab in college is not very truthful.  Just make sure the employer understands that it's experience from coursework (usually its obvious anyway). Also, listing several qualities in a row such as “hard working, fast learner, reliable etc.” without explanation or “proof” to back it up is somewhat useless—everyone can do that. Give examples if you can. And finally, if you don’t have a lot of pertinent field experience, don’t simply fill the gaps with a long list of random stuff like “pet sitting, face painting, donating canned goods, high school star quarterback”. That’s all nice, but it doesn’t get you much further ahead in most cases. If it doesn’t apply directly to the position, it’s usually overlooked. If you want to put it in, put it at the end.

4. Change and update your cover letters (and often times resumes) for EACH individual job. Don’t send the same thing to every job and just change the person or place to which you are applying. It’s usually easy to tell when people do this. Most positions are very different from each other and one letter will not work for them all. I suggest reading through the job description and making a list of everything they are looking for—then describe how your experience matches it as best you can.  And don't forget to change the organization and person each time...and send the right copy to the correct person.

Cover letters:

1. Keep cover letters brief (aka, 1 page) but detailed and to the point, especially when it comes to the experience you have that applies directly to the position. Mention pertinent stuff—not everything – if you have had a lot of jobs.

2. Use the job posting and relate your experience to it. If you have nest searching experience, and are applying to a nest searching job, emphasize that, not the fact that you have tons of survey experience. (I know this seems obvious, but I’ve seen this mistake a lot) If you have what we want, make sure we know that! If you don’t have it—talk about what you do have and how adaptable you are to new learning tasks.

3. Again, simply listing qualities isn’t as important as providing evidence that you have those qualities. 
4. Typical format: Introduce yourself and why the position interests you, explain your experience and how it relates to the position, and close with your availability and contact information.

5. Cover letters seem pretty simple and straightforward—but take it seriously, it’s often the first thing employers read, so make a good first impression. If you don’t, they may never even get to your resume. Keep it organized and easy to follow.

To be continued...more on resumes and references to come.


anw said...

I agree with the last comment you made about cover letters. I read cover letters first; if they have typos and/or the applicant doesn't clearly state why they're interested in the position and how they are qualified, I often don't bother to look at the resume.

Swamp Thing said...

These are great - I may be linking to them in an upcoming post about important job skills not taught to biologists in school (i.e. public speaking).

Another one I'd like to add to your list is resume' length. If you are 22 and have only worked summer jobs, you do not need a 3 page resume'. People will laugh at what you put on such a resume'.

Hint: I only started using a two page resume' after about 12 years in the field.

And like anw said - if there are typos or poor grammar, I'm unlikely to interview that person. Why? If I am hiring a biologist, they need to have good attention to detail. Even seemingly meaningless details. At least SOME of the time.

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Tks very much for your post.

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