Careers in Science Series: Academic Job Application Tips

Monday, March 2, 2015

Academic job applications typically include a cover letter, CV, research statement, summary of previous research, and a teaching statement. My number one recommendation on how to prepare your packet is to get several examples from your colleagues, such as a previous postdoc from your lab who recently started his or her own lab, or a new assistant professor/investigator in your current department.

My second recommendation is that you have as many people as possible review and critique your application package, especially your research statement. I have summarized below my tips for what you should include in each part of your application, but also keep in mind that you will need to tailor your application for each school and department to which you are applying.

1. Cover Letter

I would recommend that you limit your cover letter to about one page. It should include a formal header at the top and should start off with a short paragraph describing the position you are applying for and why you think you would be an excellent fit for the position. I would also recommend including a short summary of your previous research experience as well as a short summary of your future research goals. If the job you are applying for requires a significant amount of teaching, then I would also recommend briefly highlighting your teaching experience as well.

Other things that you may want to mention in the cover letter are any grants that you have and specific people in the department/school with whom you would like to establish collaborations.

2. C.V.

Hopefully, prior to going on the job market, you already have an up-to-date curriculum vitae (CV). If not, now is the time to update it. CVs also need to be tailored somewhat to the position you are applying for. For example, if you are applying for a job that will primarily be teaching, you may want to list your teaching experience first; whereas, if you are applying for a more research intensive position, you would want to list your research experience first.

A typical CV should include: Contact Information, Education, Research Experience, Teaching Experience, Honors/Awards, Grants, List of presentations, List of Publications, and a List of your reference writers.

A well-prepared application is a key prerequisite to your blossoming research career.

3. Research Statement

Personally this is the one part of my application that I spent the most amount of time working on, and if you are applying for a research-intensive position you really want to make sure you have a polished and well thought-out research plan. This is something you need to start working on several months before your applications are due. In my experience, for most places that I applied, the preferred format was a two-to-three page research statement. Two to three pages is not that much space to describe what you want to do in the future, so you really need to carefully think about what to include.

The people that review your application are likely going to be going through hundreds of applications, so also be mindful of that and don’t make the text or the margins too hard to read. I would recommend choosing a standard font with a size in the 10-12 range. Your research statement should include a brief introduction to the field, a paragraph or two describing the significance/innovativeness of the work, and then you should use the rest of the space to describe your actual research goals. If you have any preliminary data it’s also a good idea to include that as well.

4. Summary of Previous Research

This is not always a standard part of the application package, and some schools will ask for you to include this in your research statement and not as a separate document, so make sure you pay close attention to the application instructions for each school to which you are applying. I would recommend highlighting one or two papers from your graduate work and one or two papers from your postdoctoral work.

5. Teaching Statement

The teaching statement was another part of the application that took me some time to put together. I don’t think there is a standard format for teaching statements, so you have lots of freedom and can get creative if you want. I think it’s probably a good idea to include as many personal examples as you can. For example, in my teaching statement, I included a paragraph about my experience mentoring a summer intern while I was a postdoc at the NIH. I would also try to limit your teaching statement to about one page, unless you are applying for a teaching intensive position—then you will probably want to elaborate more on your teaching experience and philosophy.

6. Reference Letters

Reference letters are another important part of your application package. Most schools require three, but a few of the jobs that I applied for required four letters of reference. You should get in touch with your reference writers several months before you submit your applications to make sure everyone has enough time to write your letter.

7. Other Application Materials

A few of the jobs that I applied to also asked for some additional materials. Several places wanted reprints of two to three publications, and a few places (including the NIH, via the Stadtman Investigators Search) requested an additional research statement where you were asked to expand upon your long-range research goals.

By following the above tips, you will be well on your way to preparing future employers to invite you for interviews. Visit the "I Am Intramural" Blog again soon for advice on what to expect next in the process, preparing for interviews, and negotiating job offers.

Category: Careers