How I secured an ideal post-PhD job during lockdown

2020 certainly hasn’t panned out for many of us as we’d have hoped. Ideally, I would have submitted my PhD thesis around Easter and then start applying to jobs while preparing for the viva, hopefully with something lined up by graduation, having had the perfect month or so of downtime after an intense few years of study.

Little did I (or any of us) know, the Covid-19 pandemic would suspend recruitment across nearly all industries for a significant chunk of this year. I was quite sad that when I graduated two months after passing my viva, I still didn’t have any firm job offer – despite reminding myself that the circumstances were extraordinary.

That said, I ploughed on and steadily applied to jobs from March to the end of August. I tried to get a job in a Covid testing lab but they had enough people in Scotland by the time I handed in my thesis.

Similarly, I applied and interviewed to be a contact tracer but again, they had enough people from the NHS staff they had redeployed. That said, I really needed a bit of a break, even if it was longer than I’d originally planned it to be, so I decided to focus on applying to long-term job options.

While I heard very little back from other jobs in the following months, there was a definite shift in August. It seemed like every hiring manager I’d applied to had been given the green light to resume recruitment and I received a wave of rejections, writing tests and interview dates that month.

During the last week or so in August, I interviewed for three really interesting and very different jobs that would apply my PhD to work away from a chemistry lab. While this was quite an intense period, I surprisingly ended up being offered all three roles.

Unfortunately, two of the roles were conditional on Scottish offices reopening or me moving to England until then which I wasn’t keen to do. The other job, which I accepted, was an associate medical writer position that started remotely so was the firmest offer of the three. Thankfully the offers all came at about the same time, so I didn’t have to stall my potential employers too much.

Obviously, I’m acutely aware of how lucky I was to get any form of work during the recession caused by the UK lockdown, let alone multiple offers. Ironically, the existing restrictions on office work in Scotland made the choice between the three jobs easier.

Below outlines the various processes I optimised during the few months I was applying to jobs. I hope it can be of some use to anyone else seeking work in these mad times.

Cover Letters

Always write a cover letter if asked and tailor it to the job. Don’t tweak one you wrote for a similar role. I found it helpful to have a template document saved with my address and my standard opening/closing remarks and then it meant I wasn’t looking at a completely blank page for each new application. Write the rest from scratch every time.

Use the opening paragraph(s) to outline the role you’re interested in, why you’re looking for a new role and why you’re attracted to their company specifically. After that, use the job description as a template to show how you meet their requirements using specific examples. Keep it to one side of A4 and end with “Yours Faithfully” if it’s someone you haven’t reached out to before.


Like the cover letter, tailor your CV for each job. I started off with one that was two sides of A4 listing all my education and experiences from the past few years. However, someone I reached out to for advice suggested it was too crowded and didn’t clearly indicate what I wanted to do with the experience I had.

I then tried to focus on sharing experience relevant to the job I was applying to e.g. for writer roles, I would be less specific about the lab techniques I learned and emphasised my blog writing more.

Consider doing a skills-based CV. Like the cover letter, you can use the criteria set out in the job description as sub-titles within your CV and list experiences that show you have those skills. Use the company’s wording, don’t try to be clever or creative with rephrasing the job requirements. Make it as easy for them to see you fit the bill.

Use numbers where possible to quantify the months or years of experience you have in a particular area to save the hiring manager from having to figure that out from the dates you give e.g. “7+ years chemistry laboratory experience in academia and industry”.


I found it really helpful to reach out to people who worked in the sectors I wanted to be in. From public engagement coordinators, to clinical trial researchers, to science magazine editors, I asked former colleagues and people who I interacted with on social media if I could speak with them briefly about their roles and how I could get something similar.

Some people advise you to speak with one person every week, but I probably only reached out to half a dozen or so people. The worst they can say is that they don’t have time, so you have to find someone else.

One person was so generous with their time, they looked over the slides for a presentation I had to do for an interview. It’s always worth asking.

If reaching out to individuals sounds scary or you just don’t know where to start, look for relevant webinars to sit in on and e-mail speakers afterwards, or connect with someone with the job title you want on LinkedIn and send them a brief message.

Writing Tests

For a number of roles I applied to, I had to complete a writing test. Some were open ended in that they didn’t give a set time, I just had to complete it within a week and let them know how long it took me. One had a specific time where I was e-mailed the task and had a few hours to complete it.

Generally, I found it helpful to skim over the material and create a plan of action for the following day. My writing tests varied from writing a manuscript introduction about lupus, a blog post about epilepsy, an abstract for an oncology drug and even making an interactive e-learning storyboard about hypertension. No writing test was the same.

Soft Skills Assessment Centre

One of the roles involved attending an assessment centre over Zoom to allow the interviewers to see how you work in a team under pressure, usually. I found it helpful to set some specific goals to get the most out of the day.

I’m aware I can sometimes dominate a conversation or team exercise so I decided I wouldn’t immediately take the lead on a group task, although I did end up steering the group’s activities as times went on.

If you’re someone who is generally quiet in group settings or things like this, why not set yourself the goal of asking a question to the interviewers at the appropriate time, or being proactive about taking on a particular task e.g. scribe or slide maker?

Virtual interviews

I only did one interview in a physical workplace, and that was because it was in my hometown. All of my other interviews were done on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other software.

In terms of preparation, I read over what I had previously sent them as well as the job description; made sure I had STAR-style examples prepared for each aspect of the job criteria; and made a point of reading every page on the company’s website the day before.

If I knew who my interviewers were, I’d look them up on LinkedIn to find any areas of common interest e.g. similar universities. LinkedIn usually lets the person know you looked at their profile, but in this case it shows you’re doing the right preparation rather than coming across as a stalker!

I found it best to make sure my laptop was set up an hour beforehand with good lighting and that the correct software was downloaded and working – if you click on a link too early it usually just said you were in a waiting room or the host hadn’t started the meeting yet.

Have a glass of water with you; have a list of questions for the interviewers – but don’t ask loads! – and let anyone else in your household know you have an interview so they know not to disturb you. It’s up to you whether you dress completely formally or only for the portion where you’re in view (I might have done a mixture of this – I did defend my PhD over Zoom in flipflops after all!).

Be yourself, prepare as you would for an in-person interview and enjoy not having to deal with the additional stress of traveling to an unfamiliar office!

I hope these tips are useful. What advice do you have for applying to jobs?

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