Tips for job applicants: how I read your file on the first pass

It is not easy to read hundreds of job application files, so it is important to have a system. I do not know if other people use my system or not. Most probably they have their own system, but we probably arrive at similar conclusions. I do not read too many files at once so they don’t all blur together. Out of these files I could concoct my dream candidate and might do so tonight in my dreams. While I read about you, it is crucial that I see you and only you.

First, I want to know what you do. I usually condense this from several sentences in the cover letter. I will jot this down with about 6 words to remind me, so help me out with something short that gives the conceptual question, the organism(s), and the approach. About a quarter of the time I cannot tell what you do from the cover letter. Then I turn to the titles of your publications.

Second, I want to know how good you are at turning research into publications. This is the currency of our field, at least for now. I look at how many and where they are published. I hope to see some in PNAS, PLoS Biology, Evolution, Current Biology, Ecology Letters, ProcB, Animal Behaviour, and the like, basically the top general and discipline journals. I’m happy if you have a paper in Science or Nature, but understand how random that can be, so I don’t much care one way or the other.

Third, I look at the flow of your papers since your Ph.D. focusing in particular on 2012 and the flanking years. Publishing is the best sign of future publishing, funding, and tenure.

Fourth, I try to identify really big cool ideas or things you figured out. How have you advanced the field?

On the first read, I stop at this point for some people. If you are not publishing at a powerful level, say two papers a year in good journals, you are unlikely to be competitive in our pool. But this level of publishing is not a fixed thing. I look at everything and if you have a great idea that is clear, I’ll ignore the number of papers. Many of the people I pick as tops have fewer papers than people I rank lower.

If I’m still excited, or if I’m undecided, I will turn to the letters of reference. These are really important even at a first pass, so that is why we ask for them up front. I’ll write more about what I want to see in a letter later, but above all I want to hear you are a creative, collegial leader in your research who is smart, hard working, and productive. I want some hint of interdisciplinarity because it is an easy way to be continuously creative and productive. I want to hear what your great ideas are.

I suppose I should worry about funding at this point, but I don’t much. I pay most attention to those ideas and those publications.

I do not care if you went to the snobby universities or not. Doesn’t most great science come from the state universities? I just don’t look at this. I think there are people that do, but I don’t see why.

I do consider fit with our department. I’ll write about that later. The higher up you are, the less fit matters.

I make mistakes. I miss things. So I read files again on different days. Other people read the same files I do. If you make the first cuts, then I will be reading a whole lot more! But you all look so good, this is a stressful job!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to Tips for job applicants: how I read your file on the first pass

  1. Pingback: Useful links related to tenure track job searches in ecology | Dynamic Ecology

  2. Pingback: How do you get an academic job in biology? | Sociobiology

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