Job-Seeking Advice, Specific to Science and Technology Research Jobs at Research Universities
This is intended for people with university degrees (Bachelorís, Masterís, or any type of Doctoral degree), looking for research jobs, not teaching or faculty jobs.
A job application typically includes the following documents: cover letter, CV, statement of research interests (for doctoral and above), references, and any employer-specific forms. Samples of work are optional.
1. A cover letter. The cover letter should summarize why the applicant is good for the job, preferably using factual evidence from their experience or skills. This overview of the qualifications serves to highlight where to look in the application packet for more detailed evidence of the qualifications. The cover letter must be customized for each job.
a. Cover letters should begin by specifying exactly what youíre applying for.† Often you would specify which professorís lab and which rank youíre applying for (e.g., postdoctoral fellow, masterís level scientific staff position, unpaid summer internship, part-time student and part-time staff, etc.)††
b.†† Cover letters provide a flexible opportunity to explain aspects of the CV that might appear confusing or undesirable at first glance, like being unemployed or switching jobs after less than 2 years.† Cover letters can provide information that doesnít fit in the more official documents, such as unpublished work in progress.
c. Anything important about the logistics of an application, such as your time frame of availability, or any plans to visit the same city as the employer, must appear in the cover letter (often near the end).
d. The cover letter should be 1 page (single spaced) for junior positions, and it can be up to 2 full pages for applicants with PhD or extensive experience.
a. In theory, the CV is a complete factual listing of all the professional activities during a personís career, but different people have different ideas about the boundary of their profession and their career. A longer CV is usually a stronger CV, but sometimes longer can be worse. If you include unimportant accomplishments and trivial awards, you will look juvenile, or youíll look like you have low standards. Junior people should normally have shorter CVs.
i. Different cultures have different expectations. In India, junior scientists often include a lot of smaller accomplishments, compared with equivalent scientists outside India. Indian scientists applying to jobs outside India should consider shortening their lists. Likewise, non-Indian applicants seeking positions in India might want to include more posters, travel awards, extracurricular awards, etc.
b. The CV must include a complete timeline of past education and employment positions, specifying the start and end of each stint.
i. Donít include anything earlier than your college/university education, unless you are currently a student, or unless it is closely related to your current career.
ii. Any gaps in the timeline must be explained or categorized. (Military service, Having children, Laid off, Travel, Family Illness). Sometimes people feel very defensive or apologetic about gaps in their timeline but you should be brief and factual, not defensive.
iii. Each job (or educational position) must include the formalities such as your title, name of employer, city/country. If the job title isnít very descriptive, then communicate the essence of it in plain language. If your title was ďsanitation engineer,Ē then you need to say whether you were carrying bags of trash, or working in a lab studying the bacteria in rivers.
iv. Full-time is the default expectation, and you can get in trouble for failing to mention if a previous job was not full-time.† Unless you were a full-time permanent employee or full-time student, you need to mention major contractual terms such as part-time, independent contractor, hourly, on-demand, etc.
c. Anything in your CV can be annotated with descriptions or clarifications, provided you stick with verifiable facts, and make it concise. ď..., awarded to the top 20% of Bachelorís degree recipients by GPA.Ē Donít include too many details or else the exciting things will get flooded and hidden by the boring things. Including annotations in your CV makes more sense when you are job-hunting and trying to make an impression. When you are holding a steady job, your CV will look more dignified and academic if it contains nothing but the bare listings.
d. Restrict your CV to pure facts, not opinions. E.g., The phrase ď....a highly innovative organization...Ē might be appropriate in a resume, but not in a CV.
e. There is often a skills section which includes technical skills and qualifications you have acquired over the course of multiple jobs, including software experience, equipment youíve used, methods you know, certifications, etc. Some people include lists of acronyms and keywords, to help them get noticed if the employer uses a computerized search for keywords. That is fine, but you should NEVER expect a human to read or remember a list of keywords. If there is a technical skill that you really want people to know about, then you must mention it somewhere else in the application packet.
f.† †In addition to employment, education, there are sometimes separate sections for awards, teaching experience, supervisory experience, invited talks, academic service, etc. Each applicant can establish their own sections and re-order the sections to suit their accomplishments, and to ensure that the most important information is first. One exception is publications, described below.
g. For university jobs, a CV always ends with listings of peer-reviewed academic publications. Separate sections may be provided for different types of work, including book chapters, journal articles, conference papers, etc. You can have a section for unpublished manuscripts, or non-peer-reviewed (invited) pieces, etc. Invited talks are very important to list, if youíre senior enough to get such invitations. The role of conference papers or posters depends on the field, so when addressing a broader audience you might need to annotate such sections with facts about selectivity or peer-review. Junior scientists with few or no publications might want to include other evidence of research potential, and explain the situation in the cover letter.† Some fields donít mention posters and some fields do.
h. Be sure to provide sufficient contact information for employers to reach you, according to their chosen mode (email, phone, etc.) on short notice with minimal effort on their part. If you might move in the following months (or if you expect to be in more than one city/country, or if you might finish your degree and lose your school email address) donít forget to provide additional forms of detailed contact information.
3. References. I recommend providing a list of 3-5 people including name, position, institution, phone, email, and concise description of how the person knows you. If your background is multi-faceted, it is often useful to mention which aspect of your work or your qualifications they can describe. Donít choose family, peers, or friends of family as references, even if they are high-ranking academics familiar with your technical skills. Typically your references would be your supervisors and instructors, but you could also get a reference from a high-ranking collaborator or an informal mentor who isnít your direct supervisor or professor. Postal addresses are not needed unless requested. If the employer asks for letters, itís better if you ask the references to send confidential letters directly to the employer, unless the employer prefers for you to collect them. If the employer doesnít request letters, itís still possible for you to collect 3 letters yourself and give copies of the letters at the end of your application packet. You might do that if you think the letters would be very good.
4. Statement of research interests. Applicants for PhD-level positions or higher should provide a statement of research interests. In my opinion, the statement is not expected to be customized for each job and it is not expected to match the employerís research, but thatís where some people disagree. So be clear about your intention. In your statement, if you propose future work, please be very clear about your intention - whether youíre actually expecting to carry out that exact specific project in that professorís lab, or if itís simply an ďexampleĒ of how you would approach the process of designing a projectÖ Perhaps itís what you would send when applying for an independent postdoc fellowship?
a. The statement of research interests must include some description of past research, including both high-level rationale for the research, and a sample of low-level technical accomplishment. For the actual accomplishment, I suggest you do not provide a summary of everything, but instead provide a single, well-chosen, well-explained sample of one particular thing. This description of previous work must be concise, fitting within a couple pages. You might want to include a figure. Because you have completed a PhD, employers can expect to see polish and professionalism, not just in your accomplishments, but also in your ability to communicate about this field of research.
b. In my opinion, itís also important to describe a proposal for future research that would interest you. Because your past work often reflects the interests of your supervisor, or the choices of a team of co-workers, employers want to see an example of your independent thinking. This section of the research statement is a chance to describe specific ideas and concrete choices of your own. Employers want to know if you can be BOTH creative and logical at the same time. When proposing future work, try to be very specific and practical about how the actions will actually achieve the goals, and try to be more creative about the choice of goal.
c. In addition to describing a specific future proposal, describe the broader range of your potential interests for future jobs. Are you narrowly focused on only a specific topic, or are you flexible about learning other topics? Did you propose this one project because itís the only thing you want to do, or is it simply an example of a topic that happens to be familiar to you.
d. I often hear young scientists worry about writing proposals for future work, because they fear that potential employers will steal their ideas. In my opinion, thatís unlikely for many reasons. The chief reason is because most researchers have very strong feelings about research ideas, and so itís very unlikely that employers would love your ideas as much as they love their own ideas. Experienced and successful academic scientists do keep secrets about their future work, but the secrets are often highly specific (such as the chemical structure of a proposed drug), and itís rare for a successful senior academic to be secretive about their overall goals and approach. Everything Iím saying is specific to academic research, not industry.
e. It can be any length from 1.5 to 5 pages or more. Iíd recommend 4 pages with 12pt Times font, with one scientific figure and one conceptual diagram. The overall structure is often written as a summary of past work leading to a proposed future project, but it can also be written as a future proposal that mentions prior track record.† You can also write it as two separate sections stapled together. The format and structure are not important.
f. Non-PhD applicants are allowed to write research statements, if they wish.
g.†† Postdoctoral-level applicants are not required to send any statement of research interests, and many do not, but unless your boss is a personal friend of the future employer, or unless your publications are really fantastic, how will you convince the employer to spend the time and money necessary to interview you?† You need to give the employer evidence that proves your intelligence and your ability.†
5. Employment forms. Obviously these differ by employer and you should follow the instructions given.
6. Optional samples of work. You can choose whether to send samples of your work. If you have any recent first-author papers, those can be very good to send. Multiple documents can be concatenated (www.pdfmerge.com) into a single supplementary PDF. Be sure to name your file to indicate its accessory status, like Supplement or Appendix or Sample. Donít include long documents and journal articles in the same PDF packet with the main application materials, unless instructed. Most employers will never open the extra attachment, but thatís OK.
7. Submission. If submitting by email, you can paste the text of your cover letter into the main body of the email submission, and attach your application packet as a single PDF. There are free web services (like www.pdfmerge.com) to combine several PDF files into a single PDF. This single PDF should include all your key documents: Cover letter, CV, possibly a Research Statement, and a list of references or copies of letters. I realize that the cover letter appears in the body of the email and also in the main attachment. Repetition is not ideal, but itís much better than having your application get separated from your cover letter. Any optional samples of work would be a second attachment.
a. The main application packet should have an informative filename, such as your surname (or the name by which you would be alphabetized), the month/year, and the code/number/name of the job opening.
8. After submission.
a. Donít expect to hear any reply. Most places donít respond to most applicants.
b. Hearing nothing doesnít mean anything. You wonít know whether the employer is waiting a few months before going through the applications, or if somebody else is getting interviewed, or if the employer hasnít decided what to do yet.
c. Some places provide rapid rejection of the weakest applicants, but sometimes the moderately strong applications (categorized as ďMaybeĒ or ďKIVĒ) will sit for a very long time without a decision.
d. If you havenít heard from an employer in more than 3 months and the job is still posted as open, itís OK to apply again, and you can even use the same documents, except change the date on the cover letter.
Never lie. Job applications are increasingly scanned and archived in databases, and even a tiny lie that would be hard to discover today might be easy for a future search engine, a future competitor, or a future security check, to discover. Lying on any job application, at any time in your life, is considered a serious crime in many countries, similar to ďperjury.Ē For example, lying on a job application (even if itís for a job you never take, on the other side of the planet) can cause you to be banned from getting a visa to enter another country.
How much should you talk about non-professional issues?† Personal stories or reasons for wanting to pursue a scientific career are often included briefly, but for applicants with doctoral degree or greater seniority, the non-scientific content should be minor and secondary, compared with the scientific research. A student essay for an application to a graduate degree programs is permitted to have more personal narrative, because younger students have less experience to talk about. University professors donít often ask about an applicantís personal feelings, but volunteering some information about your long-term aspirations and the rationale for your career decisions might be beneficial to your application, particularly if it helps makes sense of your timeline. Furthermore, if you are applying to a position far from where you currently live or in a location that has a very different culture, the application can be aided by explaining why you want to live there, and/or how you would settle in. Some employers might not care about your personal reasons, but they do care if they hire somebody who quits soon after arriving, and they do care whether the applicant is thinking realistically about the logistics of taking the job. When mentioning personal information, give your key message briefly without excess drama, and donít be overly verbose. The heart and the excitement of the application should be your scientific or technical qualifications.
Is an employment application asking invasive questions or violating the privacy of a job applicant? The world is increasingly globalized, but different places have dramatically different rules and expectations about what employers can ask of employees. In some places like Singapore, employers are essentially required to collect extensive personal information including religion, medical data, and family information. In other places like the United States, employers are tightly restricted, for example prohibited from asking employees to take tests of general skills. Whether youíre an employee or an employer, the culture and regulations of a place might affect your happiness, and should be part of the decision about where you want to operate. There are complex reasons why different societies provide for different levels of privacy. In any case, you should not expect to change an entire culture while you are in the middle of applying for a job.
Should you try to make your application exciting and memorable? Certainly you donít want to be boring, but an even greater priority in your application is to maintain professionalism. Itís great if you can be creative about scientific and technical problem-solving, but eye-catching creativity in other areas might run the risk of looking like youíre desperate for attention, like a child or a clown. Creative and unorthodox choices require wisdom (understanding the readerís perspective), not just confidence and bold attitude.
Best of luck!
©2014 Lisa Tucker-Kellogg