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Applying for Research Jobs in Academia and the Private Sector
The Academic Job Application
When applying for jobs in academia, it is important to realize that universities often receive upwards of one hundred applications for the same position. This means that members of search committees must read large volumes of material. Therefore, it is critical to be as brief as possible. Reviewers will simply skim the application if it is too lengthy. In addition, make sure that your application is wellorganized, attractive to look at, and that it contains no spelling mistakes or other careless errors. Everyone (native and non-native English speakers alike) should ask one or more people to proofread their application for errors and scientific clarity. While a nicely prepared application will obviously not get you a job, a poorly prepared application makes a bad impression no matter how many papers you have published. Don't be discouraged by a missed deadline, a late application will often be accepted.
The Cover Letter
The cover letter is the place where the search committee can get a quick overview of your background and interests. Therefore, you should give a lot of thought to how it is written. The letter should contain the following important pieces of information. First, introduce yourself and state the position for which you are applying. Next, describe your past research. Here, it is important to give a brief, but punchy account of past accomplishments. Explain why the research is interesting and novel. Use a few buzz-words. To let the committee know right away where you have published, you can place references in the text of your cover letter (Jones et al., Cell 78, 819-829). Finally, explain what you would like to work on in the future. Again, be brief but emphasize what is most novel or creative about your future plans. If the position has an emphasis on teaching, briefly explain your qualifications and interests (details should go in the CV). If possible, do not exceed one page, even if you have to use 10 point type. If your situation involves special circumstances, the cover letter is the place to discuss this.
The Curriculum Vitae
The CV should contain in the following order:
- Your name and address
- All higher education (college and graduate school)
- All professional positions held, including technician, post-doc, instructor/research scientist, and other relevant positions, even if they are from a former life. All years since college should be accounted for! Include very brief descriptions of work performed.
- Awards and honors, including pre- and post-doctoral fellowships. If you have a major source of independent funding, a separate category entitled "Current Funding" may be useful.
- Publications. List the most recent first. List your name in bold type. For manuscripts submitted, list where they were submitted, and if the paper is important for the application, include a copy. In cases where you are an equal author, place an asterisk next to all equal authors and note "* equal authorship" immediately below the relevant reference. Do not rearrange the order of authors to show that you have equal first authorship. To avoid the impression that you are simply padding your CV, list manuscripts in preparation under a separate category but only if they are really under preparation. If a paper you published was accompanied by a News and Views or if it was the subject of a review, this is worth pointing out.
- Invited talks. Do not include posters as this looks like "CV padding."
- Teaching experience and interests (not critical when the primary focus of the job is research).
- References. Name, title, address, contact info (phone, email) of references (usually 3-5). Remember to notify your referees well in advance, provide addressed, stamped, envelopes if possible, and badger them until they send your letters.
The Research Proposal
Many job ads state a page limit for the research proposal. Follow it! This limit is usually 2 pages single-spaced, 10-12 pt type (references can go on a third page), 3 pages at the most. Writing 5 pages will only hurt you because it won't get read. Start with a brief but general description of your area of biology. State the problem and perhaps the key unanswered questions. This is the place where you have to get the reader interested and demonstrate that you have a broad perspective. Remember that search committees are composed of people from different fields, and you must appeal to all of them. Interesting the reader in your problem is as important as convincing them you have the solution.
After the introduction, describe your past/present work. If your graduate work is critical to your current interests (perhaps it demonstrates skill in a particular field or technique), then include a brief description, but make it clear why it is relevant to your future. Otherwise, do not describe your graduate work; it should be obvious from your publications what you did. For your present work, give as brief a description as possible but emphasize what is novel and important. For each of your accomplishments that has been published or that is in press or submitted, list the appropriate reference.
Finally, state your future plans. This is usually 50-70% of the proposal. Come up with 3-4 distinct Specific Aims. They should be fairly diverse and address fundamental questions. Your aims should be creative yet feasible. They should build on your past experience. It should be clear that you have the necessary background to achieve what you propose. Often, the decision between outstanding candidates can come down to the research proposal, so you should spend a lot of time perfecting this.
Some job ads ask for reprints whereas others do not, so follow the directions for each application. If you have an important paper in press or submitted, you should send it along regardless of the instructions since the committee will not be able to look up this material in the literature.
The Academic Job Interview - First Visit
During the job interview, you will be asked to give a seminar (plan on a 50 minute talk) and possibly a "chalk talk," and you will have many short 20-40 minute meetings with faculty in the department. You can easily meet with 8-12 people, sometimes over the period of a day and a half. During this process, you would like to accomplish several things.
First, and most importantly, you need to convince the department that your work is exciting and that you will be a leader in your field in the future. This is the function of the job talk (see below).
Second, convince the department that you will be a good colleague. An essential part of being a good colleague is showing interest and the ability to intelligently discuss the work of each member of the department. During the short meetings, faculty will usually give you a brief description of their work. Be alert and ask questions. It is useful to read in advance a few papers (or at least skim abstracts) from all faculty you are likely to meet. Along the same lines, be as outgoing as possible. If you are naturally shy, make a real effort to open up during the interview. Often, faculty will start the meeting by asking you something about your talk or making small talk. Don't ramble on forever about your own research. Make sure they tell you about their work, even if you have to ask.
Third, would you like to come to this department if offered a job? This means you should ask questions about the department and institution. What is the student faculty ratio? How many years of funding does the training grant supply for each student before you must pay for them with your grant? It is especially important to talk to the most recent recruits. Do they look happy? Have they been sponsored for Young Investigator Awards such as Pew, Searle etc? Have they been able to attract students and post-docs? What kind of track record does the department have for granting tenure to junior faculty. However, do not ask junior recruits about their start-up package. Don't be too pushy with questions during the first interview. For example, if the Chairperson does not discuss the start up package, don't ask. It means they will wait until the second interview. Asking lots of questions has the added benefit of showing that you are serious and that you have thought deeply about the complexities of running a lab.
Certainly a neat and clean appearance is important, but does an interview setting demand a suit? An important objective is that you appear confident and comfortable. If you will feel sweaty and foolish in a suit, try something more casual like a blazer, semi-formal jacket, or just a button-down shirt or blouse.
The Job Talk
Your job talk should be extremely well prepared. Plan carefully to make sure you do not speak longer than 50 minutes. It may be useful to write out the entire talk, word for word, and memorize it. But practice the talk until you feel very comfortable giving it, so you can deliver it in a relaxed way that it does not appear memorized! Practice in front of your lab and try to include some colleagues (faculty, if possible) who are not already familiar with your work. It is important to finish on time. Plan your talk so that you can eliminate a few nonessential slides in case of time troubles. Make simple, readable slides. A good rule of thumb is that any type face should be readable with the human eye when the slide is held at arm's length against the light. For PowerPoint presentations, this means 20 point or larger fonts. Do not overload slides with data. If you don't have time to let someone fully comprehend a complicated slide, you are probably better off not showing it. Give each slide a title which briefly states the conclusion. Make good use of the space on the slide; do not leave huge gaping white areas. Powerpoint encourages bulleted lists, resist. Avoid complete sentences and leave only 1-4 words per bullet point, let your talk fill in the details. If you must use bulleted lists try to sprinkle in some figure or color in each slide to keep the audience conscious. As with your cover letter and research proposal, make sure you get the audience interested. Spend enough time on the introduction to state the general area, what's known, and what are the outstanding questions. You must be able to get a general audience excited. Divide the talk into clear sections and tell the audience ahead of time what's coming, and why it's important. At the end, restate your major conclusions even if you think they must have gotten the message by now. After the summary, include a slide that outlines your future plans. This should be done even if you will give a chalk talk on future plans to the search committee later during the interview; you want to get the entire department excited about your future directions. Be confident. Don't use Ôwe' to describe work where ÔI' is more appropriate. At the end of your talk, be generous but brief in your acknowledgements.
Nervousness can make the questions after the talk challenging. Listen to the question carefully and ask for a repetition if you didn't get it. Asking for a repetition can buy you more mental time even if you heard it the first time! Then, repeat the question for the audience. Take a second or two to formulate a clear and concise response and then deliver it. Do not ramble on forever until you get a sign that the questioner is satisfied. That sign often will not come, and you will look insecure.
Some fraction of the audience is always asleep during any talk, no matter how exciting the subject. Do not let this bother you! Even if the chair of the search committee nods off, it just means they had a big lunch. Find a few people who are listening attentively and give your talk to them.
The Chalk Talk
Not all interviews involve a chalk talk. However, if you have to give one, make sure it is well prepared. The word chalk-talk is to be taken literally. Search committees will be irritated if they have to sit through another highly polished slide presentation, whereas they will be impressed if you can stand at the board and explain your future plans with no visual aids. If you have some preliminary data that is crucial to demonstrate the feasibility of your future plans, then make an overhead of the relevant data. The chalk talk should present in considerable detail the future directions of your research. It is like a verbal NIH grant proposal. State several interesting problems (Specific Aims) and explain how you plan to solve them. Familiarize yourself with the experimental details of the techniques you propose to use if they are new to you. Present alternative strategies to achieve your aims. Don't be too ambitious. Your aims should be feasible within a few years with a small group. To show you also have a long-term vision, you can divide the aims into short and long-term goals. Beware that you may get constant interruptions (not a bad thing), and that you may not be able to get through all the points you would like to cover. Therefore, it is a good idea to give a brief overview before going into details.
If your approaches are challenged, listen carefully to the criticism and give a judicious response. Don't be defensive! If someone raises a valid criticism you hadn't thought of, acknowledge this. This will convey that you can handle suggestions/ criticisms. Rarely, you might get unreasonable criticisms from people with a bee in their bonnet (this can also happen during the questions after the job talk, too). Don't lose your temper. Politely stand your ground, perhaps suggesting a follow-up discussion later. Other members of the department will recognize an unfair attack as just that.
Searching for Industry Jobs
Although there are differences, there are also many similarities between academic and industry job searches. To avoid redundancy, this section focuses only on the differences and assumes that you have already read the previous section on the academic job search. The first major difference is where to send your application. For an academic position, each application sent to the advertised address will be seen by at least one faculty member. In contrast, it is widely accepted that in industry, Human Resources Departments are the final resting place for most job applications. While you should search for advertised jobs and send your CV (or resume, as it is more often called in industry) to the advertised address, you will also need to resort to other means.
Think of job advertisements as a way to determine which companies are currently hiring. Then use a strategy of networking to connect you with the right hiring manager. Ask friends and colleagues if they know people at any of your target companies. If so, ask friend X to send an introductory email or make a phone call to person Y introducing you and letting them know you'll be calling.
Call person Y and present yourself as a friend of X who is currently seeking advice about good companies that are hiring people in your field. Ask them to suggest companies that might be both interesting and currently hiring. Ask if they know a good person at their company or others from whom to seek advice. Call person Z, tell them Y suggested you call them. Repeat until you are tired of hearing the words, "Great, why don't you send me your resume".
The Cover Letter
Cover letters for industry jobs should be less focused on accomplishments and research interests than in academia, and more on skills and past responsibilities. State your current position and immediate career objective. Express that you are interested in the company and why. Explain that your skills are relevant to the work of the company and why. Indicate your willingness to relocate, if appropriate. Do not exceed one page. If your situation involves special circumstances, the cover letter is the place to discuss this.
The Curriculum Vitae
A CV for a science job in industry should be a blend of the traditional academic CV, focused on education, awards, and publications, with the more skills-based resume traditional to industry. In addition to the CV items mentioned above, it should contain:
- Your immediate career objective
- A summary of skills relevant to the position
The Industrial Job Interview - First Visit
At an industry job interview, you would like to accomplish several things:
- First, and most importantly, you need to convince the company that you are motivated, technically competent, focused, and understand how your work fits into the larger aims of your field.
- Second, convince the company that you will be a valuable team member. An essential part of being a good team member is showing interest in the work and goals of the company. Show flexibility in what projects you would be happy working on. Point out ways that your skills would benefit the goals of the company. Be respectful of people with occupations outside of science.
- Third, would you like to come to this company if offered a job? This means you should ask questions about the company. What is the culture of the company? Are there organized social activities outside of work. What is the growth potential of the company? Does the company tend to promote from within? If it is a small company, how long can it survive on its current round of funding? It is especially important to talk to the most recent recruits. Do they look happy? Don't be too pushy with questions during the first interview. For example, if the hiring manager does not discuss salary or stock options, don't ask. It means they will wait until the second interview. Asking lots of questions has the added benefit of showing that you are serious and that you have thought deeply about both the science and the business of the company.
Like the academic interview, beyond the basic requirement of appearing neat and clean the most important objective is that you appear confident and comfortable. If you are interviewing at a large pharmaceutical company, a suit may be more appropriate, while at a small startup company semi-formal attire will nearly always be more appropriate than a suit.
The Job Talk
All of the comments about preparedness and speaking style apply equally to the industry job talk. In general, your audiences will be smaller and more willing to ask questions so be prepared to go to the chalk board to more fully explain your work.
It is good practice to send a follow-up email individually thanking the people you interviewed for their time, and expressing your continuing interest in the position and the prospect of working with the company in the future.
For academic positions, the salaries and benefits are often (but not always!) standardized, so there is little room for negotiation. This is not the case for industry. They would like to pay you as little as you would find acceptable, within the constraint that you don't make too much less than others in your position. One of the first rules of salary negotiation is don't tell them how much you want. If you tell them what salary you require, you will never get any more than this. A company will ask in many ways, and you will need equally many ways to duck the question. Leave blank the "Required Salary Range" field in any application form. Here are some example responses to the direct question "what salary are you looking for?" (taken from http://www.nmt.edu/~shipman/org/noel.html):
- I am much more interested in doing (type of work) here at (name of company) than I am in the size of the initial offer.
- I will consider any reasonable offer.
- You are in a much better position to know how much I'm worth to you than I am.