Research Assistant Cover Letter: How to Get It Right in October 2020

Updated: September 14, 2020


You should never underestimate the power of a good research assistant cover letter. Whether you are seeking to gain some research experience to bolster your medical school applications or seeking to get a coveted research assistant position, your cover letter is one of the key components of your application. Research assistant cover letters can be tricky to write, but I'm going to guide you through this process. In this blog, you will learn why you should get involved in research, why a cover letter is important and how to write your research assistant cover letter. Finally, I'll go over some tips to make your cover letter stand out, plus, you get to read a cover letter sample!

Here's what you’ll learn:

Why Get Involved in Research?

The Importance of a Research Assistant Cover Letter

How to Write Your Cover Letter

How to Stand Out in Your Research Position Cover Letter

How to Look for Research Positions if You Have Little to No Experience

Tips on How to Make Your Cover Letter Successful

Things to Avoid in Your Research Assistant Cover Letter

Research Assistant Cover Letter Sample

FAQs

Why Get Involved in Research?

Research is certainly one of the ways to build up your medical school application and impress the admissions committees with your extracurriculars for medical school. However, it is also your chance to build up professional skills and knowledge in the field of your interest. Admission committees appreciate applicants with a research background because these students demonstrate interest in actively shaping medical and scientific progress. Since the research process is challenging and enriching, these students develop critical thinking skills and confidence to challenge the status quo. Research fosters patience and stamina. It provides freedom to experiment and a space for constructive criticism. If you are looking to gain research experience, do not limit your search to strictly medical positions. Pursue disciplines that interest you. Research skills can often be transferred to a variety of fields. Unique research experiences will also make you stand out in your medical school applications. As you might already know, one of the most common medical school interview questions you’ll be asked is how you can contribute to the diversity of the incoming class – research is your chance to add another unique experience to your application. Research experience is highly valued by some of the top medical schools in the world. For example, over 90% of Ivy League medical schools’ matriculants have research experience. According to latest data, 99% of Stanford Medical School matriculants have research and lab experience. Research is especially valuable if you are looking at MD-PhD programs.

To gain some research experience, many undergraduate students start seeking research assistant positions early on in their educational careers. It is much easier to find research positions while you’re a student. Being on campus, taking courses, and being part of the student body exposes you to opportunities graduates may not have. So, it is wise to try to gain research experience as early as you can. The earlier you are exposed to research, the earlier you will know if it’s something you like. However, if you are a graduate with little to no research experience, don’t worry, there are ways to build up your research portfolio even if you are no longer a student. Knowing how to write a research position cover letter will get you closer to your desired goals.

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The Importance of a Research Assistant Cover Letter

Firstly, you should always send a cover letter in addition to your CV as part of your job or volunteer application, unless otherwise expressed by the recruiter. Even if you have had the chance to explain your motivation for applying in the application form or email, you should still include a separate cover letter. This letter is an additional opportunity to present yourself as the perfect candidate for the research position.

The primary goal of a research assistant cover letter is to intrigue your potential employer enough to invite you to an interview. Whether you’re an experienced researcher or an undergraduate student looking for research experience, your cover letter is the “face” of your application. Most likely, your cover letter will be the first document your potential colleagues read about you. A perfect research assistant cover letter should include the following:

  • A clear and compelling introduction.
  • Summary of your background and experiences, starting with the most recent.
  • Demonstration of past accomplishments using definite examples.
  • Articulation of enthusiasm for the research field or this particular research project.
  • Your cover letter must compel the reader to read your CV and other application components, if applicable.

In general, your cover letter should explain why you are the most suitable candidate for the position. Your letter must demonstrate how you meet the criteria for the research position and what makes you a unique candidate. Additionally, this letter is your chance to show off your communication and language skills. Research reports require the ability to articulate clearly and succinctly. Your strong technical research abilities must be accompanied by excellent verbal and written communication skills.

How to Write Your Cover Letter

Let’s examine what steps you need to take to create an outstanding research assistant cover letter.

Research the Position

First and foremost, when you write a cover letter for a research assistant position, you must know exactly what the position entails, what expectations your potential colleagues have of the new hire, and how this research position might develop in the future. If you found this position as a job posting, it would certainly be wise to study the job description closely. It usually gives you some important, albeit surface, information. You can start by carefully studying the position summary, duties and responsibilities, qualifications, requirements, etc. However, this is usually not enough. Whether you found this position as a job posting or not, it is important to do your research.

Your cover letter needs to show that you are the best possible match for this research position. The job description you have found can only give you so much. You need to find out how your research interests match with this institution’s research program, what the recruiters are really looking for, and how it can help you in your future career as a medical professional or a medical researcher. Start by researching the institution or department you’re applying to online. Research their programs, their research profile, and the research interests of their staff. Often you can find important information about the institution’s latest research ranking and their research projects on their website. It could also be interesting to read reviews written by people who have worked in the institution to which you’re applying. Do take these with a grain of salt, but some of these reviews can give you insights into the program’s expectations.

Another way to find out more information about the position is to contact the institution or the department. There is usually someone who can answer your questions, like an administrative assistant, recruiter, or someone directly involved in the research project. They will be happy to answer any questions you might have about the job, the department, or the institution. Just ensure you're not asking specific questions that will be covered in an interview such as “how much does the job pay” as this will send the impression that you're only interested in the position for the pay, not because it's what you really want to do. Calling to inquire about the job may also make your name stand out among dozens of applicants for this position. The recruiters may make a note that you personally called and showed enthusiasm about the job. Before you call, make sure you prepare a list of questions. Beware that your phone call may turn into an unofficial interview, especially if you talk to someone involved in the research process. Be ready to speak about yourself in relation to the position and prepare to answer some of the most common interview questions like “Tell me about yourself?”, “why do you want to work with us?” and so on. These are common introductory questions that allow the interviewer to get some insights about you as a potential colleague.

If you are a current undergraduate student, you can also try speaking to your classmates and any TAs you know who may worked in the research lab you are applying to. You can ask them what they enjoyed and what they found challenging about the work, allowing you to learn from a first-person perspective what it is like to work in that lab.

It might seem like a lot of work, but researching the position, the institution, faculty, and staff will give you a competitive edge. Whoever reads your research assistant cover letter and CV will be able to tell the depth of your research. Your dedication and curiosity will really show in your application and distinguish you as a serious applicant from the rest of the hopefuls. It is also great preparation for the interview stage.

Format the Cover Letter

A research position cover letter should be no longer than a page. Your language must be succinct and clear. You must be able to demonstrate that you can express your ideas fluently and clearly – do not use informal language or include any fluff. Your cover letter is not the place to give a detailed account of every research position you held. Remember, your letter may go through several readers and not all of them may be researchers so do not use overly technical language. Your cover letter must capture any reader’s interest, while further details of your research experiences and education can be included in your CV. If you want to accompany your cover letter with a stellar CV, check out our blog on how to write a CV for graduate school.

For your cover letter, use a classic font such as Times New Roman or Calibri sized 11 or 12 and break your letter into paragraphs. This order of paragraphs is not set in stone, but it may give you some ideas about how to structure your letter:

1. Introduction. Be sure to address the cover letter to the person or persons involved in the research project. Typically, you will address the head of the research group or the principal investigator (PI). If this person's name is not listed in the job description, try to find this information online or by emailing an inquiry to the institution. A personalized address is always better than a general address.

2. First paragraph. This should be a brief introduction explaining why you’re applying for this research position, some brief background on who you are in terms of your research interests and education.

3. Middle paragraphs. These will be the most important sections of your cover letter. To write these paragraphs, choose the top 3 or 4 responsibilities listed in the job description and provide illustrations of how your research experiences and achievements relate to these criteria. You need to prove that you meet the top job expectations of this research position. If you convince your employers that you have the right experiences and credentials in the areas that matter most, you have a better chance of being invited to an interview. Remember, it is always better to show than simply tell. Instead of simply saying that you have great communication skills, demonstrate them by bringing up an example.

4. Final section. Explain why this research position is of interest to you and why you would be a good addition to this team and the institution. You may also add how this position will help you grow as a professional.

5. Conclusion. Remind the reader why you are a good fit for this job and restate your interest in the position.

Do you also need help creating a CV? Check out our video for tips:

How to Stand Out in Your Research Position Cover Letter

When you prepare your cover letter, you need to reflect on what makes you a unique candidate for the research position to which you’re applying. To do this, think about what may differentiate you from the competition and try to think of what other candidates may offer.

First of all, try to analyze and have a clear understanding of your depth of expertise in this field. Do you have a high research profile? Have you had much research experience in this field? If your answer is yes, then it might be a good point to include in your cover letter. Perhaps you have demonstrated passion for this research field, and you want to commit your future to this area of research? Or maybe you want to stay and work in this particular institution? Perhaps you completed your undergraduate degree there and know the ins-and-outs of their labs? Try to think of yourself in relation to the position, your potential colleagues, and the department. You might find more connections upon a deeper inspection.

Another great selling point is your ability to access research and funding networks and organizations. If you have had success in applying to and receiving research grants or organizing fundraisers for your research projects, be sure to include this in your cover letter. A colleague who can increase funding for a research project is an invaluable addition to any team.

If you do not have a strong research background in this field, do not worry. Try to think of your personal research experience – do you have a diverse background? Does your particular blend of experiences give you a unique perspective? If you have had research experience in a variety of disciplines, it might be your competitive edge!

Perhaps you have not had the chance to gain research experience? Maybe you have had a limited amount of opportunities for research? You can talk about this in your cover letter by expressing enthusiasm to be exposed to research. In this case, try to focus on your biggest successes and most relevant qualities. You might possess a qualification that would be highly relevant to this research position even if you’ve never had a serious research experience. Have your abilities to multitask been praised by previous employers? Have you received awards for teaching excellence? Are you particularly skilled with technology and computer software? All these qualities and accomplishments may help you impress the reader. Try to market yourself, your skills and qualifications in relation to the position – you might have something other applicants don’t.

How to Look for Research Positions if You Have Little to No Experience

If you have little to no research experience, but want this experience for your medical school application or to be eligible to apply for a research position you really want – here are some tips:

1. If you’re out of school, finding out about research positions and opportunities is quite difficult. Oftentimes, research positions are not posted externally. Even within the institution, professors and PIs tend to select students they have taught to help them in their research projects. With this said, there are things you can do to search for these opportunities. One of the most common ways to find a research position is to email professors in the department you would like to join as a researcher. Whether you are still a student or a graduate, explain in your email that you want to volunteer in the lab. Do not mention money – state clearly that you want to gain research experience. Without experience, a paying research position is almost impossible to get. Start as a volunteer and see where it takes you.

2. If you do not have any research experience, honesty may be your best policy. Blatantly state in your email to the PI that you are a premed interested in gaining research experience and that you'd be willing to learn whatever the PI wants to teach you. Not only will this show enthusiasm, but it will also guarantee to the PI that you are making a commitment and will do anything you are told to get that research experience.

3. If you live by a medical school, check out their affiliated medical centers. Each department at a teaching hospital may have their own research personnel and you can inquire about research internships with them. It will most likely be an unpaid position, but it will allow you to jump into the research experience right away. While you are gaining experience, getting to know your colleagues, and the research environment, keep an eye out for more research opportunities if money is an issue. However, try to focus on getting the experience rather than making monetary gains from it.

4. If research and academia are your passion, you might want to look into getting a master’s degree or enrolling in special master's programs. You can gain experience in the lab by doing your thesis work. DO NOT apply for a master’s if you only want to get research experience. It will cost you a lot of time, money, and effort. Only consider the master’s if it is a discipline and a project you truly want to pursue. Additionally, a master’s degree will allow you to make connections with faculty and staff in your field, which may help your career aspirations. Your colleagues may even agree to write your medical school recommendation letters.

5. If you have clinical volunteering or shadowing experiences, think about reaching out to the physicians you have worked with there. Physicians are often involved in clinical research and may have opportunities for you to be a research volunteer with them. You must approach them professionally, as outlined above, with an email or phone call stating your interest in research and that you are willing to volunteer in any role that is available.

Tips on How to Make Your Cover Letter Successful

  • Your cover letter should include your most recent successes. Talk about your most recent or current jobs.
  • You should present evidence that would support your relevancy for the position in the first half of the letter. Support your pertinent qualifications with examples of achievements from your previous or current roles (i.e. awards, distinctions, publications, etc.).
  • Illustrate your successes with brief but solid examples, explaining why you would be a good fit for this position.
  • Concentrate on achievements and qualities that make you unique, rather than simply listing the job description’s criteria.
  • Your cover letter should indicate that you spent much time researching the position, the faculty, and the institution. Demonstrate how well you know the role and the research context when explaining your career motivations.
  • Ensure your letter is error-free and clearly written. A grammatically correct and succinct letter is professional and shows the reader you are capable of communicating effectively in writing.

Things to Avoid in Your Research Assistant Cover Letter

  • Do not summarize your CV or give too much detail. Remember, the reviewer already has your CV so it's not appropriate to list items that are available elsewhere in your application. You must be selective about the qualifications and responsibilities you emphasize.
  • Do not leave out examples when you make statements about the relevancy of your skills and experiences.
  • Never send the same cover letter to more than one employer. Do not cut and paste from one letter to another. Your reader will be able to tell your lack of research and career focus.
  • Do not use jargon and overly technical vocabulary. You might want to come off as a knowledgeable candidate for this position but try to stick to a professional tone and language as much as possible.
  • Do not concentrate your cover letter on what the employer can do for you. Instead, focus on what you can do for the employer and the research project.
  • Do not make statements that are too general. For example, do not say “I’ve always wanted to work in this research field” – rather, show that you have worked in this research area and that you are passionate about this field. Do not write that you want to work for this institution or with this PI because they are famous all over the world. You must include other reasons for wanting to work with them. Searching for validation might make the wrong impression and eliminate you from the competition.

Research Assistant Cover Letter Sample

Dear Dr. Smith,

With this letter and enclosed CV, I would like to express my strong interest in the Research Assistant position you have available in the X department. I am a recent master’s graduate with experience in facilitating successful clinical trials. My graduate research involved working with clinicians and patient populations. Before my master’s, I graduated from a premed program at X university with the highest honors.

This research assistant position is a perfect combination of my educational background and my clinical experience. During my master’s degree, not only was I able to read, analyze, and interpret information from professional journals, technical procedures, and government regulations, but I also participated in clinical procedures directed by my PI, Dr. John Johnson. I completed and maintained case report forms as per FDA guidelines and reviewed them against the patient’s medical record for completeness and accuracy. I was heavily involved in assisting my superiors with the clinical process. I collected, processed, and shipped blood and urine specimens at scheduled patients’ visits. I was in charge of ensuring that all laboratory results were given to appropriate doctors for review of clinical significance, then filed the results in the patient study binder. My dedication to research and my team earned me the Research Assistant Excellence Award. Today, I am still in touch with my PI and my colleagues, with whom I have maintained professional and friendly ties. After recently graduating from my master’s degree, I am looking to apply my skills and knowledge to your research project.

Aside from learning a set of clinical and laboratory skills, working in research has trained my other competencies. My research position involved working in a team of researchers from different disciplines and nationalities. This experience significantly improved my ability to communicate as I often found myself explaining complex concepts to people outside of the medical field. Working with such an international team taught me to problem-solve and find quick solutions. For example, one aspect of the project involved collaborating with team members in Japan. We had a hard time communicating due to the time difference. I suggested to my colleagues and PI that we create a message board online where we could quickly ask questions and send documents back and forth; this board was available both on mobiles and computers, allowing for easier communication between our two teams at any time. This initiative improved our productivity and speed, as well as allowed us to quickly communicate practical solutions to any problems that came up during research. This successful collaboration resulted in the university funding our research project for one more year.

My interests and responsibilities outside of research would also make great contributions to your team. I am particularly impressed with your Institution’s commitment to improving patient experience in deprived communities. As an active volunteer at my local Street Heath Community Clinic, your dedication to providing healthcare to all in need is very inspiring. I am also drawn to your department's interdisciplinary approach. As a master's graduate, I learned the value of combining academic and clinical research. I know from experience that thinking beyond your discipline will only improve your research approach and results.

I am confident that my clinical research experience, my in-depth educational background, and interests make me an ideal match for this position. I would appreciate any opportunity to discuss my expertise in more detail at the interview and I look forward to hearing from you shortly.

Sincerely,

Author’s signature

What makes this cover letter strong:

1. Uses a personal address.

2. States right away that his/her educational and research background are relevant.

3. Gives solid descriptions of his/her duties, experiences, and successes in the most recent research project.

4. Uses specific examples to show his/her soft skills, including superb communication skills.

5. Mentions that he/she was able to secure extra funding for a research project.

6. Includes interests outside of research that make him/her relevant to this institution.

7. Restates his/her interest and shows confidence in closing remarks.

Check out our video for a quick recap:

FAQs

1. I lack research experience and my CV clearly shows it! Will I get the research position I want?

In truth, the recruiter may decide to go with a candidate with more research experience than you. However, your cover letter is exactly the place where you can address any lack of experiences found in your resume or CV. This letter is an opportunity to reinforce yourself as a candidate, rather than highlight your flaws. If you do not have specific research experience appropriate for the position, perhaps you can augment your candidacy by demonstrating other qualities that your recruiter is seeking for in their potential colleague. For example, you can demonstrate that you are a fast learner with experience in reading and analyzing complex information, or that you have experience in organizing and executing fundraising activities.

2. All the relevant information is included in my CV. Why do I need a cover letter?

A cover letter is your chance to be more than a list of experiences and accomplishments. You can make them come alive and describe how they are relevant to the specific position to which you’re applying. CVs can be a few pages long, it's a lot of information for reviewers to sift through. Instead, they prefer an easy to read, one-page document that summarizes an applicant’s main accomplishments, experiences, and overall suitability for the role. Keep in mind that hiring departments may not even review your CV if they are not first impressed by your cover letter.

3. Why does my cover letter need to be only one page? Shouldn’t I include all the relevant experiences?

Your cover letter is an addition to your CV, and you need to show you can concisely focus on the strongest experiences you have had. A well-written cover letter demonstrates your ability to write and prioritize information clearly, which is something you must do as a researcher. Even though most job criteria have more than 3 qualities or skills they look for, it is important to stay succinct in your cover letter. Remember, you cannot just list the skills but must show that you have them by using concrete examples of encounters and interactions you have had. Including examples will limit the number of skills you can include in your cover letter to a maximum of 3, as it is usually not possible to talk about more than 3 in any detail at all. So, reflect on your experiences and pick a maximum of 3 that you have solid examples for.

4. How should I organize my experiences?

Your cover letter must be easy to follow and easy to read. Consider ordering your experiences in chronological order so the reader can follow the timeline of events easily. Include your most recent experiences.

5. How long does it take to write a cover letter?

Brainstorming experiences, creating an outline, writing, revising, and finalizing your cover letter may take a while, so think about giving yourself at least 1 week. Pay attention to the deadline to submit your job application and give yourself enough time.

6. How do I revise my cover letter?

Once you have created an outline and thought up experiences, you want to write your body paragraphs first, using a few sentences to describe each experience and what you gained from it that will contribute to this research position. You can then write succinct concluding and opening paragraphs. You want to ensure you read through your cover letter at least twice and correct any instances of unclear phrasing. Your first revision should be designed to change any wording or examples that are not as effective. Your second revision should finalize all the elements of your cover letter and include a check of grammar and fix any typos.

7. Do the experiences have to be academic?

No, they don’t! You could have picked up relevant skills for a research position through academic experiences, but also through extracurriculars, volunteering, other work, or even personal experiences. For example, playing on a sports team teaches you a lot about perseverance, reliability, and teamwork. You can definitely include these types of experiences if you feel they are relevant.

To get an idea of what kind of experiences you should include, start by looking at the job posting. The job description should indicate the main criteria the recruiters are looking for in their candidates. Make a list of all the examples you can think of that relate to those criteria, and then choose a few that best highlight a variety of skills. Make sure to include the most recent examples in your cover letter.

8. Where should I look to find research assistant jobs to get some research experience?

If you’re an undergraduate student, start looking for research positions in your school. They may be posted in science department classrooms, on the departments' website pages, or around the lab spaces. It's also important to pay attention to your professors, perhaps they have mentioned that they are involved in a research project right now and are looking for a student assistant. If you're unsure, don't be afraid to ask them if they are looking for any help.

If you’re no longer a student, you can always reach out to your past professors and ask if they need any help with research. Make inquiries in local medical centers, hospitals, and other institutions. You will need to explain your situation and ask if they are looking for any help. Be aware that many entry-level positions are not paid well. Sometimes you may be required to help for free, but this will all depend on the position. If you have volunteered or shadowed a physician, you should reach out to them and ask if they are involved in research and could use your help.

If you are a serious researcher, you can look for research positions on job websites. These positions usually require an in-depth research background. If you are simply looking to gain some experience to build up your medical school applications, this option may not be for you. Some research projects last years and med schools can be skeptical of applicants who spend too much time on research and not enough time gaining clinical experience. They might wonder how well you will transition to patient interaction and clinical work.

9. Can I take some formatting risks to make my cover letter stand out?

You should avoid using any funky fonts, colors, or formatting in your cover letter. It is a professional document not suitable for experiments. So, stick to the standard font types and size, professional tone, and appearance.

10. Should I include the papers I have published and the awards I received for my research in my cover letter?

You can certainly include these great achievements as long as they add to the overall narrative of your cover letter. Be sure to show what kind of skills and qualities your accomplishments helped you develop. Make your achievements come alive on the page.

Do you want us to help you with your research assistant cover letter?

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