It is notoriously difficult to advise people on how to get shortlisted for an academic job. In the end, someone can satisfy all of the relevant criteria but not get shortlisted simply because someone else satisfies them to a greater degree. The reality is that not all ‘minimally qualified’ candidates can be interviewed; this is simply a matter of practicality, and of course it is frustrating for applicants who fall into the ‘not qualified enough’ category. However, more frustrating is not getting shortlisted because you simply haven’t put together a good application. There is nothing you can really do about someone else having more publications or experience or funding than you, but there is something you can do about not presenting yourself as strongly as possible. The purpose of this post is to try to advise people on what not to do; to eradicate the errors over which one has control. I apologise if some of the advice here seems a little basic, but things are not always as obvious as those of us who have been around the academic world for a while sometimes think!
Cover letters do an important job at short-listing stage; take them seriously. If a job is to be applied for by means of CV + cover letter then please remember that the letter is supposed to do something additional to the CV; it ought to have a function in your application. Thus, do not simply say ‘please find enclosed my CV’ and leave it at that. If you do you are giving up a huge opportunity to establish your suitability for the post. In essence, the covering letter ought to be a map from your CV onto the job description and onto the institution you are seeking to join. It is a source of constant amazement to me how many people seem not to read the job description or to direct their attention to it in their application. There is quite a lot to be said for systematically going through the description and outlining how you satisfy it in the covering letter; the committee can substantiate your outline in the letter by reference to the CV. If there are places where you are a little weak as against the job description try to explain that weakness. So, in this economic climate for example, if you are working in a country with very pressed public finances (like Greece or Ireland) and as a result there is a freeze on public funding and you’ve never been promoted or you have not received substantial public funding over the past few years explain this and show how you have adapted (so have you applied to private and international funders, for example?). Shortlisting committees can see the weaknesses in the CV; they are difficult to hide. The cover letter lets you address them. Everyone has weaknesses; you turn these into strengths by responding to them and trying to adapt. As well as that, in my view, the cover letter needs to show how you fit into the institution in question. It is important to remember that the members of the shortlisting committee will be your colleagues if you are hired. They want to see that you have thought about how you fit into their institution, but also what you will bring to the institution. Why do you want to work here? What do we have to offer you? How will you augment our strengths? How will you contribute to our community of scholarship? Outlining these things also demonstrates that you have thought about why you are applying for the job. It is not just another job for which you are submitting the same letter as you did for all the others. On a very basic level there are some frankly astonishing mistakes one sees in covering letters that easily can avoided with just a little care. Three spring immediately to mind.
(1) A failure to spell the name of the Head of Department correctly (by the way, you can address a covering letter simply to ‘the Appointing Committee, X University, School of Y’; do try to avoid ‘Dear Sir(s)’ on the assumption the committee will be all men).
(2) A failure to change the name of the institution from the last time you used some iteration of the letter (you would be amazed at how often this happens).
(3) A failure to apply for the correct job (you might like a professorship but this is a post doc, for example).
The covering letter is a real chance to create a narrative that connects you to the job description and to the advertised opportunity; please use it!
Under education, there is no need for a long narrative: we all have degrees; it’s really not a big deal. Tell us where you went and what you got; if you got some kind of honour while there then mention that too. Tell us who supervised and examined your Ph.D. Beyond that I am not sure what people think the value of listing every subject ever studied and the marks attained might be. A room full of established academics is not going to be impressed by the fact that you got 73% in a core freshman module.
Under employment, I think it is important to be a bit more detailed: what did you teach? What size were these courses? Were you module leader? Did you do marking? Did you do curriculum development? What were your teaching scores and feedback like? Did you win any teaching awards? What supervision did you do (undergraduate dissertations and postgraduate work including Ph.D. students especially)? What training did you do as part of your employment (teaching and learning workshops, funding training, etc)? What administration did you do within the department, if any? There is no need to skimp on this detail; we want to know it! Being more detailed here also helps lots if you didn’t have paid teaching posts before but you were supported to do some guest or co-teaching with your supervisor, or if you had tutorials but no lecturing. You can establish how much skill you have developed, even if you haven’t had a full post before.
Under research you really don’t want to skimp! Research here should include three things: publications, funding, and research environment. Outline the publications properly. What do I mean by properly? Four things spring to mind: (i) divide (accurately) into peer reviewed and other publications (don’t say something is peer reviewed if it’s not; we do know the difference); (2) include an accurate citation showing page length especially of articles; (3) include forthcoming pieces but show where they are forthcoming (an article under review is not forthcoming; neither is an article in preparation. Forthcoming means accepted and publication is pending so tell us what journal/book/publisher has accepted it); (4) include works in progress and your target journals. In terms of funding, do make sure to show what funding you have received in a clear manner. Some people make the mistake of only putting RCUK funding here; all funding is of interest to the shortlisting committee, including ‘personal’ funding such as a Fulbright of PhD scholarship. Even funding that does not cover overheads shows capacity to achieve further success; include it. Sometimes people are afraid to put funding applications that were unsuccessful; put them in where appropriate! If you are unsuccessful in an FP7 bid, for example, don’t worry too much; most people are, but putting the bid together shows ambition and huge leadership potential. We know that there are far more good funding applications than there is money; there are lots of reasons why things don’t get funded. Of importance is to make sure you put in what score the bid received (where relevant…and we know where scores are given to applicants);alpha-rated applications, for example, don’t always get funded but your committee will want to know about them. Please also be clear about what your role was. ‘I was involved a bid for …’ means nothing. Someone who had a chat over coffee with the person who eventually put the bid in could say they were ‘involved’ in it. Tell us more! Of course, if you were repeatedly refused £300 to hold a workshop in your own internal departmental funding competitions you don’t need (and might not want!) to include that. Tell us also your future funding plans; especially if you’re at the start of your career, we want to know what your ambition is and funding plans can help to establish that. [For tips on where to start with funding applications, take a look at Nadine’s post on ‘Writing Grant Applications’.] When it comes to research environment, shortlisting committees are interested in your speaking record, your record of organising events or helping to organise them, your involvement in research centres, whether you set up a reading group among your Ph.D. colleagues, etc. These are all examples of leadership, entrepreneurship and vision. Particularly at the entry level, vision shows ambition and is important (whereas at more senior levels a record of achievement in quite significant research leadership is, of course, important). You should also put in your ‘service’ or ‘esteem indicators’: reviewing, external examining, committee membership, etc. It’s all important; put it in.
A final point on CVs relates to references. Name your referees. ‘References available on request’ is just a slightly silly thing to write into your CV for academic posts and sends an odd message. Your choice of referee can matter, even before you get a reference. So, for example, if you have done a Ph.D. and had two contract posts but your referees don’t include a supervisor or anyone who ever managed you then frankly that might raise some questions: why would you not want to have a referee who knows your work and can comment on you as a colleague? Most likely it is because you just didn’t think about the kinds of messages that can send, but it could be because you were a nightmare PhD student or a terrible colleague… I can’t imagine this would ever knock someone out at shortlisting stage but it would raise a question that would need exploration at interview. So include your referees and think about who they are. Of course,sometimes your referees will include a current manager and you might not want her to know you are looking for another post. That is fine; we all understand that. All you have to do is put a little note that says ‘please do not contact referees without prior consultation with me’. This is not at all unusual and will be respected (barring any kind of HR mistake, which I have never experienced myself). You can also make sure that you note it in the email sending the application/the part of the form where you’re asked for further information, etc. if it’s an automated application system.
Unless you are asked to do so in the job advertisement, do not sent additional documents such as articles, book chapters, or whole PhD theses (yes … people do really do this). The shortlisting committee simply will not read these documents. If application is by cover letter and CV, then that is all that will be taken into account in the shortlisting process; the rest will be thrown away or simply ignored. If the committee wants to read your work they will ask you for it or go and get it in the library; otherwise you are making them print off hundreds of pages unnecessarily. It is a complete and utter waste of the time and resources of an institution you want to pay you to work there … not a great start. Furthermore, it suggests that you cannot follow a simple instruction. Send what you are asked for; leave the rest out until/unless it is expressly requested. All shortlisting committees will thank you for it.