How to apply to a job in academia – a list of mutually exclusive guidelines

Applying to a job in academia is tricky, especially if you are an early career imposter. To help add to the perpetual state of confusion and despair you are already in, here is an overview of mutually exclusive tips ‘n tricks!

What should I put on my CV?

This one is easy: you should put everything on your CV, but not too much. For example, you should definitely list pre-prints and manuscripts under review, but you should definitely not list work that is not finished – this is considered CV padding. In other words, you should list the relevant projects that you are still working on and have already finished. Related to this: don’t forget to list impact factors, unless the selection committee doesn’t like impact factors.

How do I make clear that I have similar interests?

Check out the job advertisement a few years in advance and publish in the same journals that the selection committee publishes. It also helps to hack said journals, assign yourself to be a reviewer of their manuscripts, and write a glorifying review. Don’t forget to sign it with your name. You know, for the sake of transparency.

Should I go for a short CV or an exhaustive one?

If the selection committee likes your CV it should be about 8 pages long, but if they do not you better stick to about 2 pages. To be more precise, it should ideally be just a single page, because nobody likes reading long CVs. However, remember that if you don’t list everything that is relevant, you will not get the job.

Source: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,

How much experience should I have to apply for job X?

This is just a mathematical problem. Take the amount of experience (in years) that you have and double it. Don’t worry if you haven’t yet finished your phd, just be sure that you already have tenure and your own lab. Does the job advertisement state that they are encouraging early career researchers to apply? This is a trap – they are actually looking for someone with at least 15 years of experience. In case you do have this amount of experience, you will not get hired because you are not an early career researcher.

Which of the 43 documents that I need to submit is the most important?

Everyone agrees that the cover letter is the most important and that your CV is more essential. However, your research letter and teaching statement are the most vital, and you will get judged exclusively based on your reference letters. Ultimately, it just depends on whether you have the same research interests, but you will only be hired if they don’t already have someone with your expertise, so be sure to explain how you are the same as them but different.

How long should my cover letter and/or research statement be?

There is no single answer to this, as it depends on the day and time that they will read it. If the they will open your email on Tuesday morning, you can write relatively long letters (approx. 1-2 paragraphs). However, for applications that are read on Friday afternoon you better just stick to a few words at most.

Should I contact the PI?

Yes, totally! Every PI likes to receive more emails, especially when there are over 80 people applying to a position. The trick is to make them feel even more overworked so they become spiteful and want to hire you just to make you feel like crap too. Misery loves company.

Be sure not to ask a generic question – you have to show that you have done the proper research. That means that you should extensively research the application, department, university, history of the local apiary, and the zodiac sign of the barber of the PI’s second cousin.

What is the most important thing I should I do?

Be a white man employed by one of the top 3 research universities.

So should I even bother applying at all?

You probably shouldn’t, scientist say.

3 thoughts on “How to apply to a job in academia – a list of mutually exclusive guidelines

  1. Sounds like a lot of the advice I’ve heard so far. So – it must be true!!

    I also like the grad school application advice to somehow figure out in advance (and in depth) what kind of person your potential advisor is and what kind of atmosphere the department has. As if unhappy grad students are willing to suddenly open up to a total stranger who comes for a brief visit.

  2. My department makes sure that the prospective grad students have some time ALONE with the current grad students. Doesn’t insure they’ll learn what they need to know, but I think it improves the odds.

    We also send every faculty job candidate out to lunch with the graduate students, and then ask the students for a report. I have been in this department a long time and I will say, no matter what the candidate’s credentials are, no matter where they’ve published or who they know, if the graduate students instantly dislike them, *don’t hire them.* It never works out well. (Yes, we’ve done this. Repeatedly. But I will never again vote for such a candidate.)

    That aside, sympathies on the job hunt. If it’s any comfort, applying for grants is much the same…. Please bear in mind that it’s *not about you.* It’s about too many candidates for too few positions/dollars. The field is asking you to play musical chairs and then blaming you if you don’t sit down, but obviously someone won’t get to sit down. The real problem is that there are not enough chairs.

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