How to Stand Out When Applying for An Academic Job

pedone_re“I regret to inform you that your application has not been successful.”

The letter you were so eagerly awaiting has arrived. You were full of anticipation for your latest application. But this was not what you were hoping to hear! So, now you feel disappointed, frustrated, and hopeless. Wondering whether you’ll ever succeed at securing that post.

Getting a job in academia is hugely competitive. If you want to stand a chance of succeeding, you’ve got to stand out.

As a very first step, you need to make it to the shortlist and be invited for an interview. That’s where you become alive and not just another CV on paper. That’s when you get to show who you really are and why they should hire you.

But getting shortlisted for that one position when there are at least another ninety-nine applicants is certainly tough. So, what can you do?

How do you stand out when almost everyone else has a similar track record as yours, an equivalent number of papers, a similar h-index, an equally appropriate experience, the same excellent reference letters and a comparable potential for leadership?

Not easy, I know.

If that wasn’t enough, all too often, panel members have only a few days to skim through a huge amount of paper work and select candidates for the shortlist.

Typically, this task comes in the middle of several others with similar degrees of urgency and impending deadlines: grant applications; papers submissions; multiple trips; high-level meetings; teaching; exams; marking; experiments; supervision; preparing a keynote talk for a major international conference.

This means that you are not only competing with all other applicants; you are also competing against scarcity of time, urgent issues, and general busy-ness.

It’s not that the panel members are lazy. Or don’t care. Or are unprofessional. It’s just that they have to juggle the multiple demands of their time… in a very short time.

Of course, they will do the best they can, but if you can help them making up their mind fast (one way or another!), they’ll jump at the opportunity.

Make it hard for them to find the information they are looking for, and they’ll be more likely to discard your application altogether. Forget to show how you match the job requirements, and you are out. Fail to include your vision and ambition, and they’ll wonder what to do with you.

So, what can you do to stand out? How can you shine above all other applicants?

Distinguish yourself in your Personal Statement and in your Research Plan.

In the personal statement, most people write about what they have done so far, the projects they have been leading, the papers they have published.

In the research plan, they typically reflect back on what they have already achieved and briefly mention the research they intend to carry out.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that, but none of it will make you stand out.

Here is what you can do instead.

Personal Statement

Answer this question: Why are you the best person for the job?

Make it relevant; be bold; recall what you have already achieved as a way to support your statements with facts.

Show that you have taken the time to find out about the department you will be working in; the directions in which it’s going; what challenges you would be facing; how you intend to contribute to the host group’s activities. Explain why you would be a perfect match and what new and unique skills you will bring to benefit that group.

Be brief, convincing and to the point. Speak to your strengths without dragging  and let the facts speak for you. But guide your reader to make the appropriate connections.

Research plan

Most of the research plans I read evolve along the lines: in the first two years of my post, I intend to do… ; then, I will… ; in the final year of this fellowship, I plan…

This is all fine, but with nothing else to make it spark, it’s just a timeline without any vision.

Answer this question: What is your ultimate ambition? If money, time, resources were not an issue, what would you like to be, do, accomplish over the next five to ten years?

Again, think big! Be specific, without making it sound unrealistic. Share your vision. For yourself and for the group/department/university you will be working with.

Once you have affirmed your ambition, say why this particular job position is the best opportunity for you to achieve your goals. Explain how it will allow you to realize your dreams. Illustrate why it would make a difference in your career.

Be bold. Think big. And you’ll stand a better chance to stand out.

In general, it pays to get in touch with someone in the host department so that you can get useful insights about the post and the type of person they are looking for. Then, once your application is ready, get some feedback from an experienced colleague. Ideally, someone who has been there and has succeeded. Their help can be invaluable.

Are you applying for an academic job any time soon? Do you need further help and guidance? If so, get in touch for a 30 min free strategy session. I’d love to be able to help you.

11 thoughts on “How to Stand Out When Applying for An Academic Job

  1. Shanna Gutierrez

    This was so helpful to read, thank you! I’m writing an application for a position now that I’d never thought I’d see in the US, and I am not a traditional academic applicant. This process seems so foreign, thanks for the tips! I’d be very interested in a 30 min strategy session if you’re still offering it.

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    1. Marialuisa Aliotta Post author

      Hi Paul, you raise an excellent point. Normally, the length is prescribed and often it’s one page each.

      There are good reasons for this. In part, it’s because panel members do not want (nor have the time) to read pages and pages of personal statements or research plans.

      In part – and perhaps more importantly – it’s because it requires some skill to be able to write excellent statements in a limited number of words. And that’s a skill panel members often pay attention to.

      Another way to stand out.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. Padhu Pattabiraman

    This a a great write up. I am just starting my job hunt and I am currently packaging an application. What a time to read about personal statement and research plan. Happy to have this. I would definitely love to get that 30 min free strategy session.

  6. mimcmahon

    I greatly enjoyed this post. I have been involved in three shortlisting and interview panels for academic positions in the last year. Your “thought experiment” on what one might achieve with unlimited money and time is an excellent idea. Many people cannot see much beyond what they have done for their PhD or postdoc, and this is not what we are looking for. An academic position might be for 20+ yrs, and universities are looking for people to lead large – possibly international – projects and attract major funding. You need to think BIG!


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