Some advice for writing postdoc applications

headimg We’ve recently gone through the process of hiring a postdoc. I hate running postdoc/PhD searches because you get to read about all these amazing projects, being done by all these passionate, intelligent people, but you can only hire one of them! This was a particularly painful one as we had 69(!) applicants, and all bar one or two could have definitely done the job.

Reading very quickly through 69 applications gave me some ideas about what was useful and what wasn’t in CVs and cover letters, so I thought I’d share this with you in case it’s helpful.

IMPORTANT NOTE None of these points refer to specific CVs/letters, they are things a lot of people did. Everyone who applied was awesome and I’m so gutted we could only hire one person.

Evidence of skills

In this postdoc call we were specifically looking for people with skills in using R to run macroevolutionary analyses. We got lots of really great applications where people did a great job of explaining what skills they had, but also a number that made us work hard to identify whether they had the right skills or not. We tried hard to carefully read everything, but when you’ve got just a few days to read 69 applications things will slip through the cracks. Making sure you very clearly and explicitly outline your skills, with some evidence of these skills, is vital.

How can you do this? For R you could provide a list of packages you work with regularly, or types of analysis you’ve done and the R packages you used to do these. GitHub/Bitbucket are great for this as anyone can see your code and what kinds of work you’re doing. Remember that the repo needs to be public for interview panel to see what you’ve done.

If you’ve written a really relevant paper, don’t just put it in your publications list and hope the interview panel notices it. Explain, either in the CV under the paper title or in the cover letter, how that paper is relevant and the tools you used to create it. At later shortlisting stages the interview panel may read your papers, but it’s unlikely in the early stages so make sure those things are really obvious.

Likewise, don’t just list your PhD or postdoc topic. Tell us a bit about what they involved. What was the title? What relevant skills did you acquire? This can go into the CV and/or the cover letter.

Cover letters

Often people are a bit confused about what to put into cover letters, but here are some pointers.

  1. Why do you want the job? What attracted you to the topic/institution/group?

  2. Why do you think you can do it? How do you meet the job criteria? This is where your evidence comes in (see above).

I’ve found a good way to do this is to copy paste the job criteria into the cover letter and then write a short paragraph about how you meet each. This makes it really easy for the interview panel to just tick stuff off their list.

If there are criteria you don’t meet, don’t panic! You can mention that you have limited experience but are keen to learn. You could mention training courses you intend to take to fill gaps. Being honest is better than pretending to be an expert. It’s common for people to not apply to jobs because they don’t meet all the criteria, only to find the successful candidate didn’t meet them all either! So it’s always worth a go! And even if you get rejected for not having the right skill set, don’t let this put you off. It’s really hard to predict who will apply for what job, so you might as well have a go and hope for the best. Some jobs get few applicants for various reasons so you might have a better chance than you think.

  1. What sorts of things are you particularly interested in doing with the job and/or how could you imagine expanding on the remit? Only include the latter if it seems the job is quite flexible.

One thing a few people did was to add links to papers, GitHub etc in their cover letter. This was really nice. But see my point below about not relying on people to actually click on the link. A link to a paper, plus the actual paper citation (e.g. Cooper et al 2020 Nature - lol I wish!) so people don’t have to click the link would be ideal.


Tailor your CV to the job

Much of the advice below boils down to the fact that you should tailor your CV to the job you are applying for. This means you probably need a slightly different CV for each job application. Remember this if you’re copying someone else’s CV. And especially if you’re looking at the CV of someone more senior.

Put important stuff near the start of your CV

Look at what the job advert asks for and put those things first in your CV. Don’t hide them at the bottom or in a mass of text. If the job asks for outreach experience, but doesn’t ask for teaching experience, then it makes sense for your outreach section to come before your teaching section (and even then you should probably condense the teaching section, see below).

Think really carefully about what is (and isn’t) relevant for the job in question

For a job that requires diving, for example, it would make sense to include your diving qualifications. These aren’t relevant to a computer based job.

Try and condense material where possible

The shorter your CV is, the more likely it is that someone will read the whole thing rather than skim it. This doesn’t mean you need to leave stuff out, instead you can condense things. For example, if you’ve run 20 outreach events, you could summarise these and list the five highlights of your outreach experiences. The same with teaching. No-one really needs to know every single practical you’ve demonstrated on (especially for a non-teaching position), but a short summary of the number of practicals and rough list of topics covered would be great. Presentations are similar; after a certain point you will have done lots of these, so some kind of summary of the most important ones and the total numbers and the kinds of locations you did them in, would be more helpful than a list of 20 talks.

Put your publications near the start of the CV

This is slightly different depending on how many publications you have. If it’s fewer than five or six, they can all go into a fairly early section in your CV. If you’ve got more than that, you might want to put the key publications early on, and the full list at the end so it doesn’t overwhelm the whole CV. It’s also nice to have a brief bit of summary text telling people how many publications you have, how many of those are first author. I’d also add a little bit of text for each paper explaining your role (especially if you are not first author) and what skills you developed.

Don’t write CVs or statements in the third person

It reads really strangely.

Save CVs as PDFs before submitting

If you’ve got a fancy CV with interesting formating, colour blocks etc., save it as a PDF before submitting it. Word can mess stuff up, especially with the terrible systems most places have for hiring people!

Put any information you want people to see in your CV. Don’t rely on people clicking links; they may be in a rush or not connected to the internet. It may seem sensible to just add a Google Scholar link rather than adding all your publications, but I recommend adding them to your CV anyway (unless you’ve got loads in which case you can just list the most relevant ones).

Content should come before design

For non-academic jobs you often see the advice to make your CV “stand out from the crowd”. Colour, pictures and boxes are nice, and might in some circumstances make your CV stand out. But for academic jobs we are generally going to look at every CV, whether it’s pretty or not. So if it’s a choice between design and content, always choose content. Sometimes these alternative CV designs are great, and do help highlight relevant material, but putting things in boxes can also make it harder to find the relevant information quickly.

Get someone to check for typos

Typos happen, we all know that and no-one will judge you for it. But it’s a great idea to get someone else to check your application materials before you send them in. It’s a particularly good idea to at least check you spelled the PI’s name correctly ;).

A quick note about diversity, equality and inclusion

We deliberately mentioned diversity, equality and inclusion in the job requirements because it’s important to us, and would affect our group dynamic if we added someone who didn’t share our values. While I suspect everyone who applied agrees with us, very few people explicitly mentioned a commitment to these values in their cover letters. It didn’t influence who we hired, but it does raise an important point that these sorts of requirements are likely to appear in more job adverts, and it’s important to at least mention them, in the same way as you mention your excellent team work skills etc. Also if you’re from an under-represented group in science, don’t be afraid to mention this briefly in your cover letter. It may provide important context for people reading your CV.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Written on August 1, 2020