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One frequent misunderstanding about job applications is that the purpose of the materials is simply to get the job. Although getting a job is certainly your goal when you submit your job application materials, in fact, they serve a number of purposes throughout your entire application process. Your cover letter, résumé/CV and other materials will be reviewed by many people (and even some robots!), each of whom brings a particular perspective and set of priorities to their review. Your application materials need to speak to all of them.
Doctoral students and postdocs have a wide range of diverse career options available to them, each of which may bring to bear a different hiring process. In preparing for your job search, you should include a systematic approach to understanding how the application and hiring process is structured in the organizations and industries you are applying to.
Who reads your job application materials, and what do those people care about? In this article, I will answer that question using two examples that Ph.D.s and postdocs frequently encounter: academic positions and industry positions outside academe. Those are the two areas about which I am most knowledgeable, and both provide lessons you can apply in other sectors, as well.
If you have followed guidance laid out in “Carpe Careers” and elsewhere over the years, you will first use the tools available to you to build a professional network with employers who interest you before you even submit your application. Particularly in industry, it can be helpful to establish personal contact with recruiters and researchers through LinkedIn, professional organizations or even through a cold email when you find a position you would like to apply to. I recommend conducting this before you hit “submit” in an applicant tracking system, or ATS, the online portal for application submission that most companies and universities use. That is because once you hit “submit,” your relationship with that organization changes: you are now an applicant, and members of your network may not feel as comfortable discussing potential job opportunities with you.
In any case, the first “reader” of your application is likely to be an ATS. Their functions vary from employer to employer, but in large industry companies, a primary one is to automate the work of collecting applications to make it as easy as possible for the organization to review them and identify the best candidates while documenting each step in the process.
Employers may use their ATS to screen applications and identify those that most closely align with the job, usually by searching your résumé/CV for words that are relevant to the job. They often are particularly looking to confirm you meet the minimum or preferred qualifications, since it is (at least on the surface) reasonable to dismiss a candidate who does not meet them. That’s why you must ensure that your résumé and cover letter use the language of the job advertisement—especially its minimum and preferred qualifications—to convey your fitness for the job.
One key difference between the hiring process for academic positions and those in industry outside academe is that in academic hiring, your materials will more likely first be read by specialists (for example, faculty members in your field who are serving on a search committee) and then less closely by generalists (administrators, human resource professionals or students and staff in your prospective department and so on). By contrast, in industry environments, your materials are more likely to be read first by generalists (third-party or in-house recruiters and department leads) and then by specialists (such as hiring managers who are intimately familiar with the job and fellow scientists/researchers).
The implications of this distinction are important, because the first round of review is where the majority of cuts to the application pool are made. Your materials must therefore speak as directly as possible to the concerns of the readers in that round.
Research-Focused Academic Positions
For research-focused academic jobs, that means speaking to the concerns of fellow scholars on a hiring committee. What committee members look for can vary widely, but above all, they want to see that you are a thoughtful scholar with a coherent research program that will sustain you through the tenure process (four to seven years). They also want to make sure you will complement existing faculty expertise and enhance the department’s reputation in the discipline.
Many academic job postings specifically ask for candidates who will do these things. These are not meaningless qualifications. You should address them directly in your cover letter, noting, for example, “My research program focuses on …”; “My work will complement your department because …”; “My research strives to impact the field because …”
Search committee members are likely to read all of your materials as a single package and will expect your CV, teaching statement and research statement to contain evidence of the claims you make in your cover letter. You can use your cover letter as an overview, pointing your reader to other aspects of your application for more detail. That will not only help the reader know what to expect elsewhere, but it will also build some excitement for the materials they have yet to read. Use language such as “You will see from my CV that …”; “In my teaching statement I elaborate on …;” “My research statement describes how this project will expand upon …”
Readers who encounter your materials later in the application process will perhaps read them less carefully but will be looking for specific information that they are interested in. You should strive to make it as easy as possible for them to find that information. For example, senior administrators like chairs, deans and provosts may be looking for when and where you received (or will defend) your Ph.D., the impact and consistency of your publication record, and what courses you have taught and could teach. In STEM fields, they are often interested in what kinds of funding you have received, what expenses you will need to start up a new lab and how much space the lab will need.
Use headers, margins, indentations, bold font and white space in your CV to easily draw those later readers to the information that they want to find (and that you want them to find). Your education should be at the very top of your CV, starting with your Ph.D. or most recent postdoctoral appointment. The institution you received your Ph.D. from and the year you received it should also be obvious, and you should emphasize what is most salient or impressive about you—such as the year you received your Ph.D., the institution you went to, the title of your dissertation. Here are some examples of different ways to achieve this through formatting choices.
2022 Ph.D., musicology
Dissertation Title: “More Dramatic Than Any Drama”
Ph.D., musicology, Brandeis University, 2011
Dissertation Title: “More Dramatic Than Any Drama”
Ph.D., musicology, Brandeis University Defense sched. Dec. 14, 2023.
Dissertation Title: “More Dramatic Than Any Drama”
Positions Outside Academe
For positions outside the academy, your materials are most likely to be read by generalists such as human resources professionals before moving on to subject matter experts. For positions that have many applicants, your résumé may not be read for more than a few seconds. Therefore, it is important to demonstrate clearly on the top of your résumé that you possess the most important qualifications for the job and put more detailed information toward the bottom. That will allow the first reviewer to quickly conclude whether you are qualified and should move forward to the next round of review with specialists.
One way to accomplish that is with a summary that contains a straightforward description of your professional profile and how it aligns with the job you are applying for, followed by several bullet points that speak to your most salient qualifications. There is no one way to do this, but a formula I have used with my graduate students in postdocs for their professional profile is: 1) your broadest categorization, such as your field or your career path, 2) a more narrow categorization (your expertise) and 3) your motivation or rationale.
Here is a past example that I have used when seeking a position in a centralized career center.
- Career services professional with a background in career and professional development for graduate students and an interest in transitioning into a robust centralized career center.
This professional profile can be easily tailored to different kinds of positions based on the most important qualifications of each, and it allows you to frame your experience from different perspectives. For example, when applying for a position in a postdoc office, here is a different version I used to bring forward the administrative aspect of my professional profile:
- University administrator with background in the success and professional development of postdoctoral scholars and graduate students.
Here is another example I composed for a position in faculty development:
- University administrator with background in graduate and postdoctoral affairs seeking to apply my experience to support faculty recruitment, onboarding and development.
For positions outside the academy, you should also think carefully about how to describe your research publications and presentations. Generalists who first read your job application materials are less likely to be familiar with your published research expertise and may not read your list of publications and presentations carefully. But specialists later in the hiring process may be interested in a short, selected list of them.
That being said, you should strive to include publications that are relevant to the position and would interest the hiring manager and fellow researchers with whom you may be working. As a rule of thumb, I often suggest including no more than three publications using the following criteria: 1) publications whose research is directly related to the job you would be doing or 2) publications in national or international outlets that would be recognizable to readers. That will help to demonstrate your initiative, communication skills and impact while acknowledging that your future position may not necessarily involve continuing to publish research.
Composing application materials for jobs is time-consuming. But a deeper understanding of the different ways that they will be used throughout the application process can help you produce materials that effectively move your application through different rounds of review—and improve your chances of ultimately winning the job.