Improving your RSE application

Improving your RSE application

Improving your RSE application

In an excellent recent US-RSE community call about applying, interviewing, and hiring for RSE positions (a nice recap of the call is available here) the question came up,

“What do hiring managers look for that helps an RSE get on the short list?”

I have some very specific opinions, and after hearing some other RSE hiring managers on the US-RSE call, I don’t think I’m alone. This blog series is in an effort to answer that question in more detail than the call allowed. The following are strictly my opinion, formed over the course of years of looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. Will this be the same for every job and every hiring manager? I doubt it, but they make a big difference for me.

These are my thoughts, tips, and suggestions for what to do to get past the first round in the application process. In my case, that moving from a large pool of applicants to the short list for a phone screen. My hope is that this can be used as a resource to give people who are serious about getting an RSE position some tips and a leg up, especially if they aren’t coming from a traditional background.

When you apply to a position (at least the ones that I post) you have only two opportunities to share information with me: your CV and a cover letter. A CV is required, a cover letter is optional. My first piece of advice is also my biggest: do not consider the cover letter optional. We’ll get to the specifics of why, and what makes a good cover letter later, but for now realize that it’s simply that important. To be clear, a great CV - one that perfectly matches the skills and experience needed for the position - even without a cover letter, is more than sufficient to get you on the short list. But that’s still not reason enough to skip it.

Why am I writing this?

Because so few people know what an RSE is, let alone have first hand knowledge about the positions, it’s hard to get targeted advice. There are a million resources online for getting a software engineering job. There are nearly as many for applying to a research position. But an RSE? I don’t know of any (if you know of one, send me a link and I’ll edit this to include it). I hope resources like this help make RSE positions more accessible to everyone, not just those with a spectacular CV and insider knowledge. After Neil Chue Hong’s fantastic talk “Does RSE have a diversity crisis and what can we do?” at the 2nd International RSE Leaders Workshop I felt compelled to contribute something - even if very small - to the effort. So here are some insights along with a handful of tips for improving your chances of moving forward, especially if you don’t have an exceptional pedigree or years of applicable experience. These tips are intended to help improve your application now, not fundamentally change something about it, or convince you to pretend to be someone you aren’t. In the future, I might outline experience, qualities, and other specific aspects that I look for in a candidate, but for now this is just about highlighting you.
I’ve approached this specifically with an early-career and aspiring RSE in mind, those with the hardest time building up a strong CV, but everything should be universally applicable.

On to the posts!

Part 1: Tips for improving your CV
Part 2: Writing a good cover letter

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About Ian Cosden

Ian Cosden leads the Research Software Engineering Group at Princeton University and is the chair of the US-RSE Association steering committee. He has a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Find out more here.

Princeton, NJ