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Getting on the short list: academic job applications

Posted by , on 18 June 2014

After serving on some academic selection committees recently, I’m worried about the future of some of our young scientists. Especially concerning are the number of applications where the candidate, pursuing a academic or research career, does not seem to have a understanding of what is required to put together a stand-out application for a position, and it in some cases may even be to late for them to be competitive for such positions.
It is getting tough out there on the academic job front; each position may receive well over 50-100 applications (even getting into the hundreds at larger high profile Universities).

How can we help our PhD students who want a career in academia? They need to get on top of things early on and learn what they need to achieve to be considered for research and group leader positions.

Job applications are becoming like grant applications – in a pool of excellent candidates the selection committee will look for a reason not to put you through to the short list. How are you going to make your CV and application stand out in a competitive field?

Below I have listed a few tips to get the discussion started.


“The post-doc position”

Outline your Research expertise and interests
An overview of your research interests (what about this research excites you?), can also (briefly) outline your previous research projects and their outcomes

Publications – vital
This could be split into manuscripts in preparation, manuscripts under review and accepted/published. It is critical to publish during your PhD. Your PI is likely to be very busy so it may be up to you to push to get the first drafts of the manuscript together. Plus those employers that are looking for post-doc want to see evidence that you can write!

Qualifications and Employment record
Include expected date of thesis completion or examination.

Contributed and invited talks at meetings/conferences and at departmental level. Never turn down opportunities to speak, it is your best shot at getting you and your research noticed. As they say, every talk is a job talk.

Laboratory skills
Describe the skills/techniques that you are proficient in and have experience with. The employer may be looking for new skills you can bring to the group as well as experience required for the project.

Teaching and mentoring experience
Evidence of teaching and mentorship can be important.
This may include student demonstrating and guest lectures. List the students that you helped to supervise and the relevant output (eg thesis or if their data ended up in your publication).

Grants, awards, scholarships
List any travel awards, PhD scholarship, anything you applied for $ and got it. Any prizes at conferences and meetings = Peer esteem.

Professional activities and skill development
Workshops, reviewing grant applications, committee work, outreach activities. Take the opportunities to be involved all these activities when they are offered or seek them out yourself.
Professional memberships – Membership to societies. Join up – it is often very cheap for students and early career researchers plus they offer travel grants and awards.
The COVERLETTER – Please write one and address the advertised project, otherwise it looks like you are just applying for everything. Be enthusiastic about the proposed project/research area and address how your skill sets met the selection criteria. If you don’t have all the skills listed (and it is rare to have them all), then you can address this to say why you aren’t proficient in this area, and refer to your ability to quickly pick up new skills.


“Lecturership position”

Publications (vital):
The number of publications since PhD is often used as a marker of research output (often around 2 publications per year is considered great but this will vary depending upon the research field). Impact factor is also taken into consideration eg a fewer number of high impact papers can be weighted similarly to a CV with an overall higher number of publications. Where possible you might want to include impact factor,  number of citations of each paper, H-index, ranking of the journal within your field of research (Eg this journal is ranked 2nd out of 50 journals in the field of developmental biology) = essentially showing the measure of the impact of your work in the field of research.
For multi-author publications – what was your contribution? (this can be important if you aren’t the first or last author in a long list of authors, even if it is a Nature or Science paper).

Previous grant funding
Provide evidence of research grant success – this proves you have ideas and they are fundable. It is expensive to do research, you need to show you can fund your research (and bring some extra income into the department). These don’t have to be large grants; keep an eye out for smaller funding opportunities to get you your first grants as PI.

Research interests and projects
You need to outline the research directions for the programme of research you will establish in your new group. Include how they fit with the department (and existing facilities) and other members of the university. What funds will you apply for? Do you have any established collaborations?

Leader qualities
Examples of how you have lead research projects/programmes in the past.
Supervision of research students – what was the outcome (eg did they contribute to publications?)

Develop a teaching profile or teaching philosophy. Why do you want to teach, what kind of teacher do you want to be? Include any evidence of teaching experience. Look at the courses within the department you are applying, discuss what courses can you contribute too.

Other helpful additions to the CV
Any community engagement or outreach activities.
Presentations such as conferences but include others too and note if you were an invited speaker. University service such as work on committees (there will be a lot of this if you get the job!) Evidence that you understand the compliance issues that must be met and administrated by you as a group leader such as animal ethics, lab safety, biological compliance.
Your employment record – if you have any career gaps it may help to explain them.

The Coverletter. Do one!
Why do you want to move to this department/university? Specifically address the selection criteria.

The Final word – It is going to take planning! Start planning early in your career for the position you want in 5 years time. Don’t turn down opportunities and take a few risks.


Dr Megan Wilson (@DrMegsW)


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Categories: Careers

8 thoughts on “Getting on the short list: academic job applications”

  1. Great… After so much effort to bring forward the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, young people are still instructed here to make the impact factors of their publications clear in job applications…

  2. Impact factors aren’t going away any time soon. They are still a thing, and while they are a thing, they are going to be used for comparative assessment in grant proposals and job markets. Science is hard, it’s performance-based, and the more you can do to underline and highlight your performance where it counts, the better.

  3. There are better indexes to show how good your research is when you apply for a job, which I expected would be explored and explained in this article. I always look for the H-index and the “individual impact factor” when I evaluate somebody’s scientific credibility.

    The journal impact factor shows how cited is that journal, not a specific paper you may have published there. You may want to show you have papers good enough to be published in big journals, I understand that. But if your paper happens to have zero citations then you’re just making a fool of yourself (or fooling yourself). You need to show more than that to stand out in the crowd.

  4. Many organisations are now placing less emphasis on the Impact Factor (which is great – I fully support the principles of DORA), but I think this is very country-specific – I don’t know what it’s like in New Zealand, but it may well be that Megan’s advice reflects her own experience, and what’s expected there…
    Remember that H index is really problematic for junior researchers as well – if you only published your paper a few months ago, it won’t have gathered any citations yet, so your H index would be very low.
    Essentially, there’s no substitute for judging an individual’s research output by the actual content of their publications (and their application/grant proposal), but unfortunately with the volume of applications, this isn’t always feasible.

  5. Actually, the H-index may not show the impact of our most recent research, but to apply for a “lecturership position” one needs a track record of good publications over the years. A couple of publications from the PhD plus a couple of publications from at least one post-doc should start showing up on the H-index.
    However, as said, it is best to use a combination of indexes, H-index, individual impact factor, etc. Journal impact factors are a bit useless when evaluating a candidate. They are great to evaluate a journal, no doubts about that, that’s what they where meant for.

  6. Fair point Peter – I guess it depends how you define a ‘good’ H-index, which is something I don’t have a good feel for. Does 3 or 4 count as a good H index if you’re applying for a faculty position?

    I have to say, though, that I don’t think that Impact Factors are even a good way of evaluating a journal. There are plenty of ways to ‘game’ the IF system – some of which are deemed acceptable by the publishing community, and some of which aren’t. You can publish lots of front section content – either reviews that cite much better than research papers, or editorial material that won’t count in the denominator of the IF calculation, but whose cites do count in the numerator. You can front-load your issues, publishing big issues in the first part of the year so articles have more time to get noticed before the IF window kicks in. You can encourage (or even coerce) your authors to cite papers in your journal.

    Even without these tricks, there are so many factors that influence IF – other than the quality of the science published in a journal – that it’s pretty flawed as a measure. Consider, for example, the fields of mouse developmental biology and yeast biochemistry: it might be possible to do a full set of experiments for a yeast biochemistry paper in 6 months, allowing you to publish a follow-up paper a year or so after an initial paper came out – meaning that you can cite that initial paper while those cites still count towards the IF. But an equivalent mouse developmental biology paper, that might require a couple of generations of breeding, or even making a new mouse line, will probably take a couple of years – so by the time you’ve published that follow-up paper, cites to its predecessor have already fallen out of the IF window.

    I agree that a range of metrics is the way to go – we have the 5 year impact factor, the citation half-life, the EigenFactor and many more. The problem is that no-one really knows what any of these, except the standard IF, mean!

  7. That’s exactly the problem – while the IF is a flawed metric (as is the H-index to a lesser degree), it’s still ‘industry standard’ in that it’s understood by most, particularly people who have been in the system for some years. Bringing it back to what I see as the purpose of this blogpost, it’ll be those people who are sitting on your interview panel, and as with all pieces of scientific writing – be it a grant proposal, a job application or a ‘lay’ science communication article – you have to write to your audience, put yourself in their position, understand their mindset, what motivates them, what they might be looking for. Like the research industry at large, those people have a need for a metric which reliably compares the relative quality and impact (for want of a better word) of different journals and journal articles, even more so in a research environment facing further dissolution/fractionation of the publication market and the difficulty of assessing new open access journals with the established ‘old guard’ publishers in any particular field. Long story short, include whatever metric it is that is understood by the generation who sits on your panel – whether IFs today, or something else in five years – and if it’s favourable to you of course!

  8. Thanks for all the interesting comments! IF certainly isn’t a great metric but it is one of many that selection committee may consider when evaluating CVs and many people do include them on their CV.
    Basically use want ever metric makes your CV stand out and this may differ depending upon the stage of your career. It is really about emphasizing your research impact in the field you work on to a group of people who may not work in that exact field.
    As an aside: in NZ we have a performance based research model of funding (PBRF) for tertiary education organisations, ran every 6 years – in which we are required to include IF, H-index, journal ranking etc as part of the “Quality Evaluation” of your research. Which means there is now a bit of a drive for University departments to employ people who will rank highly in PBRF = more $ for the Uni.


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