WRITING YOUR ACADEMIC JOB APPLICATION
In this second article of a three-part series, Dr. Fiona Panther helps navigate the sometimes murky waters of applying for jobs in the academic market. In this article, Dr. Panther walks us through how to best suit your application to be optimal for each academic role you apply for.
One of the biggest differences between applying for an academic job and one in ‘industry’ (at a private company or within the government) is the sheer quantity of application material you will be required to write.
Advice on writing these kinds of applications is usually scarce, handed down from academic advisor to the student via clay tablets or dog-eared, coffee-stained scroll of parchment. Writing a compelling application is hard regardless of the amount of support you’re receiving. In this article, I will try and demystify the process for you, and give you some guiding principles to work with.
Find Out What Is Required
The job ad should be clear about the requirements. Once you’ve picked a job to apply for (see my previous article), it’s time to squeeze into the job cannon, as they say in ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’.
Most jobs require the basics:
A list of your academic publications (don’t panic yet)
A statement of past and planned research
Answers to some selection criteria.
The best place to start is usually your CV. Before even opening a template, get some examples, ideally from people at a similar academic level to the job you want to get. If you are applying for your first postdoc, your Nobel Prize-winning advisor’s CV may not be the best example to borrow from. Particularly generous postdocs may even provide you with a whole template to fill out. Ask around your institute.
Academic CVs differ substantially to resumes that you may be familiar with. While resumes focus on skills, academic skills have an almost depressing focus on achievements - specifically your academic achievements.
Your CV captures all the essentials an academic employer needs to know: who are you, what do you do, what your qualifications are and your past record of achievement. For astronomers, it’s typical to list prizes and awards won (including the amount of money if it’s relevant), telescope or supercomputer time awarded, any committees you have served on, and a list of talks presented at conferences or other institutes (be especially clear if they invited you!).
There are many opinions about what makes a good or bad CV, and the best way to develop your own is to get a selection of examples from colleagues. You will quickly identify the ‘must-haves’ and any practices you personally find obnoxious.
In my opinion, there are a couple of obvious CV ‘no-nos’, especially in Australia:
avoid indicating marital status/children (a fairly common practice in Europe).
It is also not the norm to include a photograph or headshot.
You may also wish to leave off citizenship/residency information - this is usually entered online when you apply and kept confidential, so is unnecessary for your CV.
Make sure that you list achievements that are primarily yours, i.e. not supercomputing time your advisor was awarded. If in doubt, discuss which achievements to list with your supervisor or a mentor.
Most jobs will also request a publication list separate to your CV. I adapted my CV template to create my publication list so they look consistent, and also so that on the rare occasion that a job requires the publication list to be included in the CV, I can just copy-paste the info into my CV template.
List publications in reverse chronological order (most recent first), with first-author publications and co-author publications, separated if you have more than a few. Make sure you make your name bold in the author list. If you have supervised students who are co-authors, indicate this with an asterisk or footnote.
Similar to the CV, ask to look at the formatting of others’ publication lists to get an idea of what is typical in your field. For any fellow LIGO or large collaboration members, there are ways to handle the thousands-of-author papers. Only list papers you directly contributed to if you are included in collaboration papers.
Depending on how many publications you have, it can be tempting to list non-peer-reviewed publications (like conference proceedings) or add ‘in prep’ papers. In general, non-peer-reviewed publications should be listed under a separate and clear heading, and you should only list papers if they truly are ‘in prep’ - that is, they will be reviewed or undergoing review when your application is submitted. In this case, write ‘submitted’ next to the paper, and details of the journal.
COVER LETTER: MISUNDERSTOOD BUT USEFUL
The final ‘generic’ piece of application material is the cover letter - a polite, short document stating who you are, why you are interested in the job and thank the search committee for considering your application. Don’t rehash your research proposal. I like this particular recipe, which takes about one and a half pages of letter format (half of the first-page being addresses). Do not forget the cover letter.
Open with ‘Dear search committee/name of a specific person doing the search’. Avoid ‘To whom it may concern’ (too impersonal), “Dear sir/madam” and especially avoid “Dear sir” (gendered forms of address are best avoided, and a shocking number of female professors receive letters addressed as if to men. If you are unsure, as some names are ambiguous, use the person’s name.)
Describe who you are: name, current university, where you did your PhD and where you did your undergrad, your current research field/title of the thesis, and (if you have more than one or two/yr since you started PhD) the number of publications you have. You may add your h-index here if you must. For early-career researchers within about 5 years post-PhD, h-index is fairly meaningless. It is more representative of the size of your research field than anything else.
Describe why you want to do the job you’re applying for at the institution you’re applying at. I usually try to find 3 good, short reasons and also name specific people at the institution I am interested in collaborating with.
Sign off, thanking the committee for taking the time to consider your application.
When writing your cover letter, check, check and check again that you have written the correct names and the correct institution into the letter, especially if you have a ‘template’ and are applying to many jobs. Also, ensure you rename the file to something either ambiguous (e.g. ‘Cover Letter’) or specific (‘<institution> Cover Letter’).
GETTING SPECIFIC: RESEARCH PROPOSALS
You can prepare your generic materials well in advance. You will find yourself needing to submit things like CVs and cover letters constantly. Make sure you spend 30 minutes updating your CV once every couple of months, or at least every time you do a Big Thing: it is very easy to forget your CV-worthy achievements.
The meat of your application is now your research proposal. The main purpose of these is to see if you can write well, and whether you have an understanding of the topic you are applying to work on. Depending on the job ad (read it carefully), the exact content of such a proposal may differ, as well as length. Typically, it will require you to write 2-3 pages about the research you plan to do in the job.
POSTDOC ADVERTISEMENTS (level A & B) for specific research
Most postdoc ads will be asking for a person to come and do a specific piece of research. For your first postdoc, it is not always necessary for you to do research in the same area you did your PhD provided you have transferable skills.
For these kinds of ads, it is important to read the job ad carefully and also to contact the person who you will be working for. While they will not be able to give you feedback on your research proposal directly, they can point you to important literature and give you an idea of the direction their group is taking.
If you’re interested in applying for a job, contact the person advertising (not the generic HR contact). Indicate your interest and give a ONE SENTENCE overview of your background, and ask one or two genuine questions (ideally not about material covered in the job ad or on the university website).
If you are applying for a job outside of your PhD field, you will need to be prepared to do a decent amount of reading and learning about the thing you are applying to do in order to write your proposal. Whatever you do, do not write a proposal to work on gravitational wave detection when the job ad is for galaxy evolution simulations. You can mention your transferable skills, but for ads where the job is to do a specific piece of research, your application needs to be targeted to that thing.
FELLOWSHIPS ADVERTISEMENTS (usually independent, choose your own adventure)
Fellowships are much more open-ended and tend to be more sought after and prestigious. These jobs will supply you with funding to carry out research of your own design, usually directed by someone more senior.
Read the terms for these carefully before preparing an application. Most are multi-stage applications (require an expression of interest, and then you will be invited to apply), and most if not all require you to identify a host institution and a mentor or supervisor for your planned research.
The institute you apply to work at may also have some internal requirements, which the mentor or supervisor you identify can help with. Most fellowships are offered every year, so if you are interested in a specific one, it is a good idea to identify host institutions and supervisors well in advance of the call for applications.
FURTHER ADVICE FOR WRITING PROPOSALS
No matter what kind of job you are applying for, there is some general advice that can help you out when writing your proposal. You only have 2-3 pages at most to convince someone that you have compelling ideas that are relevant to where your field of interest is going in the next couple of years, and that you are the best person to do this job. You are also showing them you can write well, a mainstay of an academic career.
Like everything else, take a look at some proposals written by successful applicants (contact your friendly neighbourhood postdoc). A good structure for a proposal is:
One paragraph about why the field and this research is important
First idea. One paragraph of background and 1 paragraph of what you plan to do. Then list the skills you have that mean you should be the one to do it.
Second idea. Same as the first. Again, list the skills that you have specific to this idea. If the job requires you to do signals processing, describe a time you have done this with, ideally, some published work that demonstrates this.
You should always be thinking that you should answer the following questions in your proposal:
Why this research?
Why at this institution?
It’s worth actually writing down your answers to these even if you never use the text verbatim. It can clarify exactly what you want to try and convey in your application. Don’t throw this stuff away - it will be useful to help you prepare for the interview.
Finally, get feedback on your application materials. Contact a few people who actually sit on hiring committees (possibly your advisor, but try and find someone else external to your supervisory panel, but not the people who are doing the hiring for the job you’re applying for) and be prepared to get some honest feedback.
Your applications will need a lot of iterations, so prepare in advance and remember to use your spreadsheet system that you set up if you read my previous article on searching for jobs to apply for.
At the end of the day though, you will need to submit your application. Don’t aim for perfection, but just the best that you can do. Once you submit it’s out of your hands. Cross your fingers, and hopefully, in a few weeks, you’ll be invited to be interviewed.
My next instalment will focus on how to prepare for an academic job interview and everything that comes after!
Dr. Fiona Panther
It’s easy to use the things we learn and hear on a daily basis to come to a conclusion when given time to mull over the facts, but what if you needed to share your conclusion with the world within seconds of hearing new information?
Dr Fiona Panther is an expert at using computers to do exactly this. As a gravitational wave astronomer at the University of Western Australia, she is part of a team of scientists who try to identify gravitational wave signals in real-time and send alerts to tell astronomers around the world that black holes and neutron stars are merging.
Fiona received her PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the Australian National University in 2019. She is fascinated by how we use information to draw conclusions about our Universe, and how we quantify uncertainty. Fiona is passionate about getting everyone involved in science, whether it be through school visits, public talks or by working to break down the barriers to STEM careers many face, particularly in academia.