All is never as it seems in the life of an academic. What matters and what does not can be very arbitrary. A certain graduate program I applied to made it clear that if I played a certain musical instrument, I would be in with a strum. Not the only criterion, but one of them. I do not play a musical instrument and did not go to that university. Remember, I did not apply to a music program, but to a biology department. Job searches have some of the same elements. What instruments are we looking for? What should you play?
From you, we get a curriculum vitae, a statement of research and teaching interests, a few publications, and letters of reference from three or four people. From those documents, we play Madame Capricorn, and foretell who the geniuses will be, who will make our department and institution proud now, in 10 years, and in 30 years. We are not very good at this, because we are biologists, not social scientists. But we still do it. We even feel strongly about which of the three to five candidates that make it to the interview are the best.
Here are the basics. Don’t have any unexplained gaps of time in your CV. If you biked across the country for two years, say so. If you worked as a barista, perfecting your crema for a year, say so. If you taught high school for a decade, say so.
Work with someone we’ve heard of. The committees feel more trusting of the letters from people they know. I think we are generally pretty good at not just picking our friends, but we prefer that your advisors, or people on your committee, be people who have contributed to the field enough that we have read their work, or know their ideas. If you don’t do this, try harder, publish more.
Publish. Publish in good journals. We won’t hire you if you haven’t. We will rank candidates according to numbers of papers in first-rate journals above all else. Just because your paper is on spiders doesn’t mean you have to publish in Journal of Arachnology. Publish in Ecology, in Animal Behavior, even Plos One. Make a general argument, so even people that abhor spiders, or wouldn’t know one if it walked across their tuffet, love your work. In short, ask big questions, and answer them in small systems.
Collaborate. This makes you seem fun, collegial, productive. You will not be first author on some of these papers and that is a good thing. You should have a mix of first author and other author papers.
Innovate. If we think you are doing things just like your advisor, and have not branched out, have not read widely, we will worry about what you will be doing in five years. Ideas come easily from other fields. You should know clearly what went before, what you have added, and what the neighboring fields might contribute. I probably see more all right candidates lose on this than on any other issue.
Sell yourself. Make it clear you care about your career, your future lab group, your field. Have the one minute, the five minute and the ten minute versions of your story.
Write grant proposals. Repeat. You will need to demonstrate that you can get your work funded. Get help. Collaborate. Have big ideas (still).
Give a great job talk. It should be clear, from methods to results to big picture. Neither obsess over, nor black box, your methods. All through the talk, give credit to others who have helped, with their photographs. Put references there too.
If you have to give a chalk talk also, or a second informal talk, make it completely different from the first talk. I have seen many people fail on that second talk.
Study what we do. Ask us questions about our work at the one-on-one meetings, and when you meet with grad students. Make connections to the people already at the institution. Act like you like us.
Remember, you need to sell yourself to the search committee. But you also need for the entire department to fall in love with you and the prospect of seeing your smiling face in the coffee room, ready to pitch in, ready to make us shine, as you do.
Remember also, that fit matters, and matters more at some places than others. The committee can want someone similar or different. They may want someone that will use a particular instrument, or that works at a particular field station. So we could love you and your work, yet not hire you. Plan on making the faculty that take the most time with you your fan club, mentors, and colleagues, even if they don’t offer you the job. Keep in touch!