Standing out in a crowd

Nov 05 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Originally posted on Friday November 5, 2010 at LabSpaces (here).

Over in the Groups section of LabSpaces there's this Career Networking group. NatC started a discussion there titled "Make it memorable." He asks:

Gerty-Z just wrote a blog post describing 600 applications for a junior faculty position. What strategies do you use to make your application memorable (in a good way)?

I wrote a longish reply that I thought might be of interest to the general readership. So here it is (tweaked and embellished):

I've served on a bunch of search committees and there are two things I come away with every time. First is that there are a lot of people out there who appear incapable of putting together a decent CV/research plan/teaching statement. Second, how the hell did I get a job? Seriously. In many ways it's a crap shoot...

Okay, how do you stand out? Often it comes down to quirks (and sometimes jerks) in the department you're applying to. Do your homework - how would your research fit within the department? You don't have to spend hours on this, but it earns you brownie points if you put something in your cover letter about this. Do you strengthen a particular area within the department? Do you bring new techniques that people there would benefit from? Are there people there you can envisage collaborating with? If you're applying for a position that's specifically targeted towards someone with particular skills or research, how do you fit within that? Put this all in your cover letter (and consider highlighting it somehow in your CV). The cover letter is your first (and in the case of a bad one*, last) chance to really impress the search committee. Yes, you're applying to every position you can, and yes, you have a form cover letter all set up and ready to go, and yes, it would be easy just to change the address on it, print it out and send it in. Don't do it. Take the time to customize your cover letter. If it doesn't impress the search committee there's a reasonable chance they won't bother looking at the rest of your packet. And even if they do, do you really want them starting out with a "ho-hum, yet another application" attitude when they pick up your CV?

Your CV should be easy to follow. Ditch the fancy fonts and colors.* Comic sans will have your application in the round filing cabinet in mere milliseconds. Use white space and 12 point font - no one want to read a dense CV in 10 point font. Remember, the search committee is probably wading through hundreds of these. Design your CV for an exhausted, overworked PI with poor eyesight, a pile of 500 applications to read, and potentially one too many bourbons.** Put the information we want to see up front - education, postdoc training, publications and funding (if any). Teaching experience should come after that. Then put in the "fluff" - awards, society memberships, any administrative stuff you've done etc. It's not that that stuff doesn't help, it's just that it's less important than the other stuff. Have lots of people look at and critique, seriously critique, your CV. Try to get as many faculty at your postdoc institution to look at it as possible.

Guess what? Glamourmag publications aren't everything they're cracked up to be. You absolutely need a good, solid publication record with a good number of first authorships. One Nature first authorship plus three middle authorship papers likely won't outweigh four first authorships in decent (society-level?) journals. The number of authors on a paper can be important too. Personally I would rank a first authorship on a publication with 2-4 authors total in a society-level journal higher than a first authorship on a publication in Cell with 10+ authors (some may disagree with me on this). How much you personally contributed is important. Consider writing a small blurb, just a sentence or two, outlining your contributions under each listed publication. The number of publications you need to be competitive is very field dependent, so I'm not going to offer numbers other than zero is not good.*

Funding helps. If you're in the biomedical fields, a K99 or some kind of development award is a very good thing. But don't despair if you haven't landed one. List any funding you've had - postdoc and grad student fellowships, travel awards etc. And, if you've been applying for funding, let us know even if your applications were trashed (but don't tell us that part!). If you don't have funding, we want to see that you have some track record of at least trying (even if just at the postdoc and grad student fellowship level). My department has hired four people in the last 2.5 years. Two had K99's. Two didn't have any funding to bring with them*** (and beat out applicants that did). Like I said, it helps, but it's not absolutely essential.

Your research plan needs to be well thought out and concise. If you're exceeding five pages it's way too long (remember the exhausted, overworked PI with poor eyesight, a pile of 500 applications to read, and potentially one too many bourbons). You want to highlight why what your are proposing is important, why you're the right person to do it, how you're going to do it, and, importantly, how you plan to fund all this. Actually say where you plan to send proposals and what the proposals will cover. Some people might disagree, but I think doing this shows you've thought about it. If your entire research plan can be covered by a single grant, you're thinking way too small. Be careful in your research plan to make sure you're not proposing to use multi-million dollar fancy equipment not available where you are applying,* unless you can justify this (i.e. through established collaborations).

Don't neglect the teaching statement. This can help even at research-intensive institutions. Outline what teaching you have done. Talk about your approach to teaching and what you would be excited to teach. Don't, under any circumstances, say what you don't want to teach.* Ultimately you will do the teaching you are assigned, like it or not. I found the teaching statement the most painful thing to put together because I lacked real teaching experience. But I guess mine was good enough. Put some thought and effort into it. No one is expecting a work of art, but we do want to see that you realize this is an important part of the job. And please keep it short. Maybe two pages tops (unless it's a primarily teaching position, then it might need to be more substantial).

Most of all, make everything in your application packet clear and easy to follow. Always, always, always put the important stuff up front. I'll be exhausted and overworked, with poor eyesight, have a pile of 500 applications to read, and will have had one too many bourbons when I read it.

* Yes, I've seen multiple publications with this. In some cases, many.

** This is also the person who will be reviewing your grant proposals, so write everything this way.

*** One of these landed an R01 with his first application. It's still very early days for the other - their time in the department is still being measured in weeks.

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