How to make your application stand out among hundreds

Who are you? What have you done? How do you compare to our metrics? Can you make it easier for us to find this out? I am getting very cranky because I am spending my weekend reading file after file where the authors and letter writers spend much more time telling me what you work on or who you have worked with and not what you have discovered. Neither you nor I want me to count publications, or look up your silly little H, so help me out.

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Might one of my great current undergraduates be the next star?

This piece is focused on academic hiring, but some of it applies to anyone applying for any job. The simplest, most crucial part of the message is to figure out what we want to know and tell it to us in the most clear way possible. A faculty position is complicated, so we want to know a lot of things. First among those are probably what you work on, what you have figured out, and how effectively you have communicated it. It is only after you make this first intellectual cut that I will start looking at things like collegiality, mentoring, and teaching. These latter three are crucial, but alone won’t get you past the first cut. Without them, you won’t make the last cut.

To make the first cut, you will therefore have to convince me with your publications. Better papers are generally in better journals, the discipline tops like Ecology, or Ecology Letters, or even the more general top journals like PloS Biology. So bold the journals. Put publications all in one list, not broken up by topic. We want to know that you are consistently productive.

It is no secret (Google it) that the nomination to the National Academy of Sciences is a 250 word summary of accomplishments, a 50 word abstract, and 12 publications. You are much earlier in your career than these people, so surely you can tell us what you are about in this length. In fact, I think the 50 word abstract should be at the top of your CV.

I do not mean that this abstract is all you should send us, because we really dig in towards the end when we have 20 or so people to look at, not hundreds.

There are three searches for new faculty in our biology department right now, neuro, genomic, and ecology. I’m on the committee for the last one and so have been reading over a hundred files. For the first two searches I only read the long short list of 20 or so folders and let the committee know about my top 5 or so picks. Ultimately the committee presents a list of people to interview, usually 3 to 5, and the faculty usually goes along with that list, just as they usually acquiesce to the committee’s ultimate decision.

This process seems to have worked fairly well, in that my most recent colleagues are all great, creative, industrious, smart, and collegial. However it is impossible to know if in 20 years time they will prove to have been the best out of the pool of applicants. Is there anything else we might do?

What we are looking for with the ecology search is to hire the next Robert MacArthur, or G. E. Hutchinson, but odds are, they are not in our pool. Even if they had been, would we have recognized them early on? One of the many things I worry about is that with our blinders on for stardom, we miss a lot. How do we avoid falling for the prolific but superficial and ignoring the truly creative scientist that may not publish so excessively? What a hard time Bill Hamilton had getting a job. After all, he only changed the face of animal behavior, ecology, evolution, genetics and any field that looks at interactions.

No doubt more will come to me as I work through more files on this brilliantly clear 20 degree (F) day when I should be out hiking. If I don’t share now, though, life might move on. My parting message is to pick your top 12 publications (or top 5 if you are just starting out), write your own 250 word and 50 word statements, and keep those updated. Not to get into the NAS, but to remember to keep your eye on the big questions and figure stuff out.

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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 How to make your application stand out among hundreds

  1. Esfandi says:

    Hello Professor Strassmann,
    Thank you for your interesting post. I wonder if you, as a committee member, really consider the number of publications? Then how many publication would be enough to get into the short list (and what impact factors)? And were you preferring those candidates who had done postdoc(s) as well? I am doing my PhD and I’d like to have clearer plan with more realistic goals and milestones.
    Thank you again
    Esfandi

    • Good questions. I look for the big ideas, the field changing approaches, even if they are small steps. Different fields have very different publication standards. I like good journals but hate impact factors. My favorite journals are the ones run by societies and the open ones. Have fun in grad school. Find research that you love. Publish promptly and in the most general journals you can. Put your work in the context of what went before. Remember this is only one of many kinds of fulfilling ways you can make a difference and have a satisfying career!

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