Applying for Jobs

I wrote this for a Departmental postgrad handbook, the publication of which has now been delayed – so I thought I would post it here.  I’ve been involved in another shortlisting process this week, and it only served to reinforce these ideas.

Writing an Application

I am not an extrovert.  The process of writing a job application – a document in which I am supposed to praise myself to strangers – is a peculiar kind of torture.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve done it now, but it has never lost that sting of embarrassment and awkwardness.

I think, though, that I have now learnt how to do it.  Of course, you’d have to ask the members of the Department here, who read my application for my current job, whether I did the right thing – though I guess it can’t have been too awful, given that I’m here.  But my confidence is not based so much on that, as on the fact that I have also now had the experience of reading hundreds of other people’s job applications.  Probably more than a thousand.  And whilst I won’t pretend that it is as unpleasant an experience as writing my own, I do find it dispiriting in its own unique way – because so many people who write them throw their chances away.

So, here is some advice from a serial application reader, about how to make sure your application is not prematurely thrown on to the ‘reject’ pile.

You have seen an advert for an academic job that you would like, and you have decided to send in an application.  How do your maximize your chances of being one of the lucky few chosen to get called to interview?

It is worth remembering that the first and most important purpose of your application is to get you on to the shortlist.  That may sound obvious, but it actually underlies everything else that I’m about to say.  Imagine that I’m in charge of this particular job search.  Imagine me sitting with a huge pile of applications in front of me – often fifty or a hundred, sometimes many more – and with not very much time.  I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me, just to picture the situation.  Imagine me trying to make a fair but quick decision about which applications to throw on the reject pile, in order to get it down to a manageable size – an initial long list.

At this stage, I can promise you that I am not going to be reading each application in great detail, developing a rich and well-informed picture of each applicant’s individual character and strengths.  There simply isn’t the time.  Rather, I’m going to be skimming through the applications in haste to see which of them match their selection criteria.  In fact, the last several times I’ve done this, I’ve had a spreadsheet open in front of me, with the name of every applicant down the side, and a list of criteria across the top, and I’ve simply gone through writing some variant of ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Maybe’ in every box.  Only when I’ve used that process to weed out most of the applicants will I spend more time with the applications still standing, trying to make a final selection.  So that is what you are up against, at least to begin with.

But – and this is the most important thing to realize – in any well run process, you will have been told in advance what the criteria are, in whatever ‘Further Particulars’ or ‘Person Specification’ or ‘Job Details’ document was made available to prospective applicants.

So, in order to maximize your chances, you need to follow these simple rules.

Rule 1: Read the Further Particulars carefully.

Rule 2: Read the Further Particulars carefully again.

Rule 3: Read the Further Particulars carefully one more time.  (If you’ve reached this step, you are already ahead of the majority of other applicants.  Trust me.)

Rule 4: Find out whatever else you can about the job.  If it is an academic job, do you know someone in the relevant department?  Give them a ring and ask them to tell you what sort of person the department is looking for.  Do the Further Particulars give the details of a key contact, and invite you to get in touch?  Use them, and ask them whether they can give you more detail about what they need from the appointee.  Unless you take up stalking at this point, you’re not going to do yourself any harm, and you may get a clearer sense of what the criteria in the Further Particulars really mean.

Rule 5: Don’t simply submit the same application for every job.  Just don’t.  Your aim in your application is not to say how great you are in the abstract.  It is to show that you fit this job, and that this job fits you.  The application you wrote for another job last week will not work for this job, unless the two jobs are identical.  If you haven’t got time to write a fresh application for this job, then you don’t have time to apply for this job.

Rule 6: For any application where you are allowed to write a covering letter, do so – and use it to set out clearly how you meet the criteria given in the Further Particulars.  After a brief and formal opening paragraph, the content of which doesn’t really matter, take those criteria one by one, and write a paragraph highlighting the ways in which you meet that criterion.  So, if they say they want someone who can teach modern Jewish philosophy, who has published at least two articles, and who can juggle flaming torches, you should write a covering letter with a paragraph that highlights the experience you have teaching modern Jewish philosophy, a paragraph pointing out that you have one article published and another on its way, and a paragraph explaining that you can indeed juggle three flaming torches, and on a good day four.  Follow the order in which the criteria are given in the Further Particulars; use the same language that they use.  Make it as easy as you can for a panel member reading your application to see at a glance that, yes, you meet their criteria – or that you come close, and are on your way to meeting them soon.  You may be able to combine a number of the smaller-scale criteria into a single paragraph – but try to make sure that you still clearly cover all of them.

Rule 7: Tweak your CV so that it provides clear evidence to back up your letter.  Your letter can refer the reader to your CV for more detailed evidence (‘As you will see from my CV, I have juggled flaming torches in market towns across West Kent and South London’).  See below for more CV advice.

Rule 8: Make both documents – your letter and CV – clear, uncluttered, and readable.  A covering letter that is six dense, narrow-margined pages of unbroken prose in Comic Sans (and, yes, that does happen) is not going to do you any favours.  Unless you are given different instructions (did you read the Further Particulars?) the rule for non-academic jobs tends to be a one-page covering letter and two-page CV.  For an academic job, I’d aim for two pages for your covering letter, without getting too precious about hitting that length exactly, and let the length of your CV be determined by what needs to go in it to provide full evidence of the way you meet the criteria.  Aim for well-ordered clarity and simplicity – for professionalism, elegance, and readability.  Avoid dense complexity like the plague.

Rule 9: Check what you have written.  And check it again.  And again.  And again.  And then get someone else to check it.  Eliminate typos, clumsy formatting, bad grammar, awkward phrasing, sentences of baroque complexity, any impressive-sounding phrases that you don’t actually understand, and any lavish adjectives that aren’t matched by the evidence.  By the time I’m on application number 75, I’m just about ready to scream at every covering letter that reads like a bad entry in a highbrow literary prose-writing competition.  Just cut to the chase!  Tell me what I need to know!  Please!

Rule 10: Select good referees.  Choose people who know you and your work.  Choose people who like you and your work.  If possible, for academic jobs, choose people who are prominent enough to be known to your selection panel.  Ask them (if at all possible) well in advance, and then send them a copy of your application (both the letter and the CV) and a copy of the Further Particulars.  If they have to send in the reference themselves (rather than being approached by the selection panel), send them a polite reminder a week before the deadline.

Rule 11: And, finally – read those Further Particulars yet again, and make sure you’ve done everything you were asked to do, exactly as you were asked to do it.

And good luck!

Creating a CV

I have always found writing a CV an anxiety-inducing task.  It’s not awkward in quite the same way as writing a covering letter is awkward, because it is more formalized, so it feels less like you’ve been asked to tell a roomful of people just how marvellous you are.  But I could never shake the feeling that I simply didn’t have enough to put in my CV, and that other people’s were bound to be much more impressive.

Just as with covering letters, though, the experience of reading hundreds of other people’s CVs, as I have sat on numerous appointment panels, has helped me to realise that approaching the task the right way can make a big difference.  Just as with your covering letter, you can put yourself quite a long way up the pile just by writing your CV sensibly.  I should say, though, that I only really know about CVs written by candidates applying for academic jobs, so if you’re applying for some other kind of job you’ll need to take the following advice only cautiously.

The first piece of advice, though, goes for all job applications.  You should definitely produce a new CV for each application.  That doesn’t mean you need to start each time from scratch, but it does mean that you need to rework the content and presentation so that it matches the job you’re applying for.  (And this is the one bit of the advice I’m giving you that I have consistently followed myself – so I now have a hard drive littered with the carcasses of dead CVs, because I’ve written so many.)

Just as with your covering letter, remember that your CV is going to be looked at by people who have a number of criteria in mind, and are checking to see that you meet them.  So your task in laying out your CV is to make sure that all the evidence they need is very easy to find.  It’s not a bad idea, for instance, to rearrange the CV so that its main sections follow the order of the criteria from the job description – though do remember that, by convention, your list of publications should come at the end (and that’s where an appointment panel member will automatically turn if they’re interested in what you’ve written).

If you’re applying for an academic job that requires someone who has a PhD, the education section of your CV only really needs to tell the panel about your PhD, any Masters-level degrees, and your undergraduate degrees.  No one on the panel is going to be interested in what exams you passed at school – unless there’s a criterion in the job description about ‘a good general education’, or something similar.

When you give your employment history, briefly explain your key duties for each job – if (and only if) it will help you demonstrate that you meet some of the criteria from the job description, or if it will help you demonstrate that you have directly relevant experience.  Use, where you can, some of the language from the job description.  If they say they want someone who can ‘communicate clearly in written and spoken English’ for instance, and you had a summer job as a tour guide, you might want to say that it ‘required clear oral communication with diverse audiences’ or something similar.  Do keep it brief and relevant, however. I, for instance, have finally been persuaded that I no longer need to mention my teenage paper round, even though it did demonstrate some key paper-folding skills and an ability to work on my own when tired and cold.

If you have some teaching experience, look through any written feedback you got (from formal student feedback questionnaires, or from peer review, or from a mentor, or whatever) – and quote it, briefly.  (If it is good, that is.  This is not one of the settings in which you are being asked to demonstrate laceratingly honest self-awareness.)

Include as full a list as you can of any presentations you have given at conferences or symposia or seminars, or to other audiences outside the university.

List whatever other of your involvements or activities you think are relevant.  And remember, they are relevant if you can tie them to the criteria given in the job description; otherwise, they are not.  Mentioning you were in your university chess club is probably going to be ignored in all bit a few rather unusual academic contexts.

When listing publications, you will probably feel (like almost everyone else who has ever produced a CV for an academic job application) that you don’t have enough to put down.  Don’t scrape the barrel – the panel are not going to be interested in the paragraph you wrote for your school magazine when you were eleven.  But do put in commissioned pieces that are not yet written, and forthcoming pieces, as long as you describe them as such honestly, and are clear about their exact status. Oh, and if you list book reviews at  all, separate them out into a distinct section of your list, even if they’re kind of all you have for now.  It doesn’t do you any good at all if someone looks at your bibliography and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s a good long . . . oh, hang on a minute, they’re all book reviews!’

If you’ve had any reviews of or responses to your published work, quote them briefly.  (Again: only if they’re good.  It might be possible to win points by quoting a review of such startling, excoriating venom that you elicit awed sympathy from your reader – but that’s quite a high risk strategy.)

Finally – and I cannot stress enough how important this is – make sure your CV is neat and well presented.  You need, I am afraid, to become utterly, obsessively geeky about formatting.  In particular, you need to learn to use indents properly, and paragraph spacing.  Your CV should be neat, clean, readable, and elegant.  It should look thoroughly professional and polished, with headings of consistent style, consistent spacing around paragraphs, lists that have been formatted consistently, consistent punctuation in the bibliography . . .  You get the picture?

Imagine a panel member reading through a stack of a hundred applications on a late night train, with tired eyes and an incipient headache.  Imagine them faced with CV after CV that is a jumbled mess of crabbed 10-point scrawling, hunting wearily to see which of the criteria each one meets, and how well.  Then imagine them turning to your CV, and finding light spaciousness and legibility, and all the evidence they could need laid out in exactly the order they are looking for. You might be amazed how much difference that can make.

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