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Odyssey

I'm a molecular biophysicist in a biochemistry department. In a college of medicine. And I'm funded by the NSF. Not too sure my dean likes that... I'm here to blather on about things that interest me and to raise the average age of the bloggers here by at least 1.2567 years. And I'm Australian.

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Standing outOver 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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Gerty-Z
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excellent!


Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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This is so very awesome, Odyssey, thank you!  But couldn't you have posted it before Oct 1 deadlines?


Prof-like Substance
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A lot of good advice here, particularly being mindful of the folks reading the pile of apps.

 

I'm sorry, but any ad that gets 600 aps was either very poorly written or too broad to be of any use to anyone. Search Committees, you get what you deserve if you write an ad like that.

gc

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Thanks for the great advice!

btw, i was under the impression that one first-author Nature paper equals 3.24 first-author society journal papers :]


Tideliar
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Excellent post mate. Totally inapplicable to me regarding the TT (that ship has sailed, sadly), but still a good reminder for *anyone* on the job market.


Will
UC Davis
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Thanks Odyssey, this is useful information!


NatC
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Fantastic! Thanks!

Regarding the research statement - I've actually had a lot of conflicting advice on how specific to be. Some say be as specific as possible with the research plan, whereas others say big picture questions, methods, how previous work gives you the technical and intellectual basis for research on these quesions, but NOT specific aims/hypotheses/designs.

Comments?


Gerty-Z
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@PLS: yes, we wrote a broad job advertisement. But on purpose we are a highly diverse department, and we aren't "looking" for anything in particular...just want someone that does smart science. In the area of biology or biochemistry. Hence, the 600 apps. From what I'm told there are always a lot of applications, but this year there are ~150-200 more than normal.

I wonder what this says about the job market?


Doctor Zen
The University of Texas-Pan American
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NatC said:

Regarding the research statement - I've actually had a lot of conflicting advice on how specific to be. Some say be as specific as possible with the research plan, whereas others say big picture questions, methods, how previous work gives you the technical and intellectual basis for research on these quesions, but NOT specific aims/hypotheses/designs.

Look at the place you're applying to. Who are the faculty? Are there experts in your field? If not, then most search committee members can't understand someone else's detailed research plans.

And to say "five pages is way too long" is an understatement. Anyone who plows through a three or four page research statement is obviously a better human being than I am.

 


NatC
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@Doctor Zen - you just made my day!

 


Odyssey
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@Doc Zen: And to say "five pages is way too long" is an understatement. Anyone who plows through a three or four page research statement is obviously a better human being than I am.

Depends how compelling it is.

@NatC: Doc Zen is right. Tailor it to the place you're applying and the type of position. For a focused search, more detail is probably good. For a broad search it's better to err on the side of broad brush strokes. Either way, you need to convince people that it's important, doable, you're the right person to do it, and you've thought about how you'll get it funded.

 


Dr. O
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NatC said:

Regarding the research statement - I've actually had a lot of conflicting advice on how specific to be. Some say be as specific as possible with the research plan, whereas others say big picture questions, methods, how previous work gives you the technical and intellectual basis for research on these quesions, but NOT specific aims/hypotheses/designs.

Not sure if this is true for everyone, but a lot of the ads I've applied to have kind of made this decision for me by requesting a "concise" or "one-page" statement (which has to remain broad no matter the expertise of the department) or a "detailed" or "3-4 page" statement (for which I've added a figure and lots more detail).

I have another question for you guys. If a job asks for just a CV - no research statement, no letter, etc - do you still include a brief research statement? I've gone ahead and included a cover letter for these jobs (so far), which gives a very brief overview of my research, but nothing else. Hopefully this was the correct way to go, but let me know if not so I can correct it for future apps! ;P

 


Odyssey
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@Dr. O:

Always include a cover letter. Always. You can promote yourself there in ways that aren't obvious from a CV.

I must say I've never seen an ad that only asks for a CV. They'll ask for a research statement if they're interested. In the future you may want to go ahead and include it with your CV - I can't imagine how that could hurt.

 


Prof-like Substance
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Gerty-Z, as an applicant, I despised those ads that were broad enough to encompass half the world's postdocs. It doesn't matter how broad your department is, if your department is too lazy to hash out what you are looking for in a colleague, it sends a message to applicants that you're not very organized. It also means that you are willing to waste a lot of people's time instead of having an internal conversation. Is that how you want to be perceived? You will likely also be facing the situation of comparing apples and oranges when it comes to you short list, which is also off putting to applicants.

Sure, you'll get plenty of applications, especially in this economy. But I think you will have a lot of recruiting to do on the other end to secure your top candidate.


Odyssey
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@PlS: Of course in a very broad department, having the kind of conversation you're advocating could be more painful than simply holding a very broad search. I'm not saying that's the right approach, but it's something to consider.


Doctor Zen
The University of Texas-Pan American
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Dr. O said:

I have another question for you guys. If a job asks for just a CV - no research statement, no letter, etc - do you still include a brief research statement?

My take on it would be: What is not forbidden, is allowed. If they explicitly say they do not want anything other than a CV, follow the directions. If they say "a CV," then that doesn't rule out including other materials, although you don't want to include so much as to annoy people, so you should be bound be common sense and good taste.

And you know the other thing you might do? Ask! There is usually a search committee chair, and that person is not secret. A short query about anything that's not clear in the ad couldn't hurt.

 


Dr. Zeek
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Thanks Odyssey for this post!  I am planning on starting to apply next fall for TT-positions and I am absolutely scared shitless about the whole thing.  Not just the application and interviews, but the also the fact that someone may think I can actually run a lab and I might actually get hired somewhere.  I am not sure which part scares me more.

Agh-it is the number of authors on papers that I think may screw me up.  I am first author with the four other co-PIS (on our grant) and then my boss as corresponding.  That is a total of five authors, three continents and five different school affiliations.  The other authors do nothing more than edit the manuscript-maybe bring up a few references that I had forgotten and things like that.  But no data generation and no real intital stage data analysis, but in the interest of keeping the grant together and playing the politics, my boss feels it prudent to include all the co-PI's.  His thinking is that since he only cares about the first and last author when he reads the paper that other people think the same.

 

 


Odyssey
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@Dr Zeek:

Not just the application and interviews, but the also the fact that someone may think I can actually run a lab...

Hopefully there will be at least two people who think this. One of those needs to be you.

I am first author with the four other co-PIS (on our grant) and then my boss as corresponding.

The key here is that you are first author. In some ways your boss is right - it's the first and last authors that really count. In another way he's not right - handing out guest authorships for political reasons is just plain wrong. Write a short blurb under each listing outlining your contributions. No need to say what the others did (or didn't) do.

 

Comrade PhysioProf

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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).

This is absolutely false for job searches in the biomedical sciences at elite institutions.

Also, five pages is absurdly too long for a research plan. Two pages is more than enough. If it takes more than two pages to explain how important your research is, then it probably isn't.

Finally, cover letters don't mean jacke dicke. No one even reads them.


Dr. Zeek
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@ Odyssey

Hopefully there will be at least two people who think this. One of those needs to be you.

True, and I am slowly coming to the realization that I can do this (not with out trials and tribulations of course).

In another way he's not right - handing out guest authorships for political reasons is just plain wrong.

Agreed.  One of the co-PIs on the grant (a younger, new-i.e. two years into the TT) has a rule about "intellectual contribution" in that while you may not have actually gotten your hands dirty-if you spent anytime in the early planning stages/discussing the data, working out the results with him-you are on the paper.  I like this idea a lot more, but as of now I have to follow what my boss fells is necessary to do.  It's funny, though, I would expect this "poltical" reasoning more from a new professor, rather than from my 80-year old PI who, after this next set of grant reviews (and once "our" grant is up) has been talking about retiring.

So here is the random question for today that I have seen some people argue about before-- your cover letter-- do you use your current institutions letterhead or no?

 

 


GMP
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So here is the random question for today that I have seen some people argue about before-- your cover letter-- do you use your current institutions letterhead or no?

When I applied it was still largely paper applications. My advisor's secretary wouldn't give me letterhead paper as she said it's not appropriate for job searches. Job hunt is a personal matter and does not fall under official university business. You should however prominently list your current university affiliation/address in your cover letter.

I am also with Dr Zen on the length of the research plan. Anything over 3 pages is too long.

I don't know about biomed, but first authorship papers in good society level journals are highly respected in the physical sciences I am familiar with. But you are expected to have a fair number of them (typically more than 10, but this varies a bit with the field). Postdocs are much shoreter (2 years typical) and in some fields (many engineering disciplines and CS) postdocs are not the norm and you typically look for a TT job straight out of grad school.

Ajkl

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This is great advice I think it's key to remember your app will be read quickly and by tired people.

The best asset is a long list of publications, at least some in prestigious journals.

In my field, the cover letter seems to be really important. Separate from the research statement. You have to shine to the top of that pile of applicants with your brilliance without being annoying and pompous.  I had my very prolific and successful postdoc advisors help me revise my letter and i was shocked at how obnoxious they made it sound and I got interviews from every job I applied with that letter. So get help. I was apparently being too modest/subtle.

If you're applyin overseas, try to find someone who works in that country and get help from them on your materials. There are some differences in what is expected (and also re: what is considered self promotion vs. obnoxious)

I did use a uni letterhead on applications.

Research statement should not be longer than 2 pages, in my view. Using small amounts of bold or underline to highlight different research areas or sections is a good idea.

 

Kim

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If you're applying to a teaching-intensive institution, your teaching experience is critical, and could be the difference between making the short list and making the "might make a decent candidate in a few years" list. Don't bury it behind a list of publications and grant info, unless you want the search committee to think that you aren't interested in being at a school that values teaching.

SearchingRightNow

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@PLS.  For a tightly-written specific ad, expect to be competing with 90-150 qualified applicants.  Better odds, sure, but you’ll still need an application that stands out in a good way.

@Odyssey and Comrade....  Some hiring committee members read the CV first; some read the cover letter first.  Therefore, both have to kick butt.  When I assemble a hiring committee the screening meeting goes like this:  okay, everyone, applicant #1 – yes or no?  No, okay, done [place application in ‘no further discussion’ pile].  #2 – everyone says ‘yes’, great [goes in ‘yes’ pile].  #3 (the application with a great CV but so-so cover letter) – 3 yes, 2 no – great [goes in ‘maybe’ pile, which will only get discussed in depth if we don’t have enough ‘yes’ apps to keep us busy].  #4?...

@Prof-like.  We use broadly-written ads when we’re willing to consider a variety of people/projects.  When a department is well-balanced you can be generous and search away.  Often what I *really* wish I could ask for is “Wanted: a good colleague.  Can work on anything they want but must fit in with our team”.  (And FYI that’s a lot of what I’m looking for in the interview.)  So I’m sorry if you consider the broad search a waste of time but there could be a perfectly rational reason for it.  If my dept. needs a RNAi researcher, though, that’s what I’ll advertise for, and won’t waste your time.

@Zeek.  I consider the # of authors thing to be discipline- or project-specific to some degree.  Look, if you contributed to a HUGE project, well, sure, there will be a bunch of authors.  And some labs still practice the ‘we are a big collaboration’ or ‘we are super specialized so Dr. X is on every paper that needs technique X” approach so the # AU increases.  A mention of this (cover letter, maybe; research proposal, definitely) can explain.  In your case, there are 5 authors because you’re showing signs that you’ll be a real collaborator in the future, and work with labs both within and out of your institution.  I wouldn’t hold that against you, although others might.  Don’t knock ‘playing politics’ – getting a grant with 4 PIs shows some good skills, and was probably a way to get funding when applying alone wouldn’t have gotten it.  Remember, it’s publish or perish out there.  Your PI sounds like s/he could teach you some great stuff about politics. 

 

S. Pelech - Kinexus

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While preparation of a well crafted application package for a faculty research position is critical, applicants must also suitably prepare themselves well in advance for such an undertaking. If the applicant does not have the requisite training with clear evidence of research, teaching and management ability, then he or she should acquire such capabilities first. The applicant's publication record will carry the most weight, and it is not desirable that these arise primarily from work with a single mentor. The post-doctoral experience provides the best opportunity to acquire these vital skills. Four to five years of post-doctoral training is the minimum that I would recommend in view of the challenges in successfully running a laboratory as an independent investigator.


Dr. Zeek
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@ Searching-- Oh yes, I do agree about my current boss teaching me a lot about politics.  I have already learned a ton about "playing the game" from him (and Lord knows he has been around here enough to know all the tricks--when you are at an institution for over 50 yrs-you tend to see a lot come through the doors).  There are a few, unbloggable issues with the authorship lists that I think also adds to my cynicism about the entire situtaion.

Another random question for the older (erm-more experienced) and wiser out there.  What exactly should be in you research plan?

No, wait, let me clarify.  When someone says to me write a "research plan" for your lab I am thinking NIH style specific aims/approach sort of thing --here is what I want to do, here is why it is cool, here is how we will do it.

So, someone gives me their research plan and the first page and a half is all about their previous experience/projects that they had worked on/etc (a lot of fluff-not a lot of "stuff").  Then there is two pages of actual science but nothing that really relates the two.  Isn't the cover letter that no one reads (haha) where you are supposed to talk about how awesome you are and why you are a good fit and the research plan where you justify things? Or am I just way off base?

 

By the way-these posts and comments have been awesome.


Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Dr Zeek, this might vary by field, but the advice I was given is that the research statement should *integrate* your experience and future plans. So talk about the projects you want to undertake, but also why your training has made YOU the person to do these projects. I think actual specific aims would be too specific, but again, that could vary.


Dr. Zeek
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Ahhh, ok see that is why I got somewhat confused.  Integration is the keyword here.  There was no integration in this.  Which worried me that I was thinking about this all wrong.

Anonymous

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Thanks for the post! Very helpful.

- Reshmi

Tideliar

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