Tips for Improving your RSE Cover Letter

Posted by Ian A. Cosden on September 22, 2020 · 6 mins read

This is a crosspost from Ian A. Cosden's Blog, Ian Cosden's Personal Blog on RSEs and Other Things. See the original post here.

Note: This is part 2 of a series with tips for getting on the short list for an RSE interview.

Your Cover Letter

In the first part of this blog series, I gave some tips on ways to improve your CV. I had made the point that the purpose of a CV is to summarize your experience/education in a way that demonstrates that you are qualified for the position. In other words, a CV talks about what you’ve accomplished. A cover letter is your opportunity to fill in everything else. It’s a huge opportunity that so many applicants waste. The cover letter is literally your only opportunity to write something directly to me (that I will always read) explaining why I should move you to the short list. You can tell me who you are, why you are interested, and why you’d be a good fit. I cannot stress the following enough:

A strong cover letter, tailored to the position can make a massive difference.

It can take an average CV and catapult you to the front of the list. It can take a good CV and move you into the “Dear HR, call this candidate today!” category. It’s that powerful.

Cover letter tip #1: Passion is contagious

Explain why you want to do this work and why you think you’d be good at it. This is your chance to show me that you love to do Research Software Engineering. If you don’t have lots of formal experience, but you read about it, research it, and experiment on your own - tell me! If you’ve decided that this is the career path for you - tell me. Passion and an eagerness to learn is just as valuable as experience. It’s nearly impossible to show this on a CV, so the cover letter is your chance. No one (at least not yet) majors in research software engineering, so we have ALL learned it through a combination of formal/informal education and training, and experience. How you learn can come in all shapes and sizes.

Cover letter tip #2: Highlight one or maybe two key experiences

Don’t use the cover letter to just reiterate what’s on your CV. Instead, highlight some experience that you think especially qualifies you for this position. It might be a 3 month internship that doesn’t get the top billing on your CV, but it’s a good fit in terms of experience, talk about it. Class projects, an aspect of your dissertation research, even a talk you saw at a conference are all possibilities. Remember tip #1, and explain why this experience is applicable.

Cover letter tip #3: Do some research

It doesn’t have to be a ton, but something to show me you know enough about the position to actually want the job. I absolutely notice if you use phrases that are generic or worse, not accurate. Saying “at your company” in a cover letter to a position at an academic institution looks lazy. Do you want that to be the impression you make? A generic cover letter is better than nothing, but not by much. I’ve read enough to know the ones that have been tailored in a way that lets them be used for virtually any position. These are definitely better than nothing, but they rarely convey the same kind of application-elevating information as one clearly written for this application.

Cover letter tip #4: Spend the time to do it well.

This is the last one, because it logically follows from the other. It’s worth your time to write a high quality cover letter. Yes, it’s going to take time to write something unique for each position. If you aren’t particularly interested in a position, but figure it’s worth a short, then don’t write one. But realize that when I don’t see a cover letter I’m going to assume you fall into the bucket of “not particularly interested.”

A note about English & communication ability

I’d like to point out that while I do use the cover letter to judge communication, mastery of the English language is not particularly important. The ability to communicate your ideas in writing is, however, a critical skill that I believe RSEs must have. You’ll be writing comments in code, version control (issues, PRs, comments) and discussing technical topics in emails. If I can’t understand what you are trying to say, that’s a problem. Conveying ideas is far more important than the flawless writing. We aren’t looking for a journalist. So non-native English speakers, don’t worry. If you aren’t using big words, or have some minor grammatical mistakes, I don’t care. Making a verb conjugation mistake is completely different from a statement about how you look forward to contributing to improve our company’s bottom line (we aren’t for profit!). If you aren’t a great writer, don’t skip the cover letter, just do your best. Ask a friend or colleague to proof read it and give suggestions. And practice. The more you write, the better you’ll get.

Wrapping up

To summarize, a good cover letter can convey literally all the following important traits: you’re serious, you’re a hard worker, you’re professional, you’re a good communicator, you’re passionate and excited about the work, you’re a good fit for the position, etc. All things that a hiring manager wants to know that are very hard to determine from a CV alone.

So write those cover letters!