Job applicant scienceAre you nervous not to find a job? Does the insecurity nearly kill you? Are you sending out hundreds of applications without success? Stop wasting your time and change your approach. Intelligent job search and application costs time and effort but has a much higher chance of success.

Again, I received multiple applications of young scientists who apply for a position in my lab. And all my colleagues get exactly the same email. They start with “Dear scientists” or my name is copy-pasted into the standard email they have sent out to hundreds of other PIs. Sometimes my name has even a different format than the rest of the standard text.

They are very interested in the research of my group and they summarize their great expertise in insect biology or how to purify plant sterols etc. Unfortunately, they cannot be further away from the research I passionately perform – which is CNS repair in mammals. Apart from that – I do not have an open position.

I immediately delete all these applications and all my colleagues do the same. Nobody reads them. Nobody opens the probably carefully designed resumes and publication lists. This is a major waste of valuable time and effort. It is a waste of my time and the time of all the other scientists who receive these applications.

Think about a more intelligent approach:

Do your homework BEFORE you apply – are you a good fit?

The first and most important step: Get clear about your goals

Before you search for a job and before you apply you must know what you want to get hired in science. If you have vague ideas about your aims nobody will hire you. Or you will be hired for the wrong reasons for example because you are beautiful or easy to manipulate. You must first know what kind of job you want based on your personal preferences. Find more details on how to define your dream job here:

Define your talents, skills and assets

Make a list of your skills and expertise (technical and transferable skills). Then search intensively for jobs where these skills and expertise are needed. If you are an expert in biomarker development in multiple sclerosis do not apply for a project on plant sterols etc. Do this only when you have a very good reason to change your specialization. As a principle: Look for VERY good fits.
One classical book that may help to get a first orientation what you really want is the classical book What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles.

good fitFind jobs which are a very good fit

If you find these jobs, read the website of the PI, look up the last 10 publications (at least the abstract) and ask yourself again:

Am I a good fit? If not – do NOT apply. If you are not a good fit you will not be happy, you will not be successful – because you do not fit. And your supervisor will hate you. And it is a waste of your and the PI’s time. Do NOT apply!

When you find a job and a project which is a very good fit you must find out whether the group, the institution and the location is also a good fit. For example, if you love nightlife and culture events you should think carefully whether you want to go to a small university on the countryside in a small town with three pubs. Read more here: Should I choose a big or a small university?

If you do not want to live in a specific country such as the US or Germany for any reason – do not apply there without extremely good reasons. If you want to work in a highly ambitious environment with a good chance to publish a Nature paper apply only for positions in very good groups which publish – you may guess it – Nature papers on a regular basis. Be aware of the fact that high impact papers are very useful to get a promising academic position but you can get also many positions without having high impact papers. Read more here: Do I need Nature or Science papers for a successful career in science?

What to do if there a no jobs which are a very good fit

You may have a specialization which is not needed on the labor market right now. In this case you should investigate thoroughly for which other jobs your technical and transferable skills may be useful. If you are an expert in certain techniques look for jobs in other fields which are remotely related but use the same methods. Do not apply randomly because it will frustrate you. Search for good fits on the methods level which still raise your interest. If you can afford it try to make additional experiences and learn new techniques for example by organizing a guest stay in a foreign lab and add mobility to your CV.

When you find a potential good fit

Get in contact with the principle investigator BEFORE you apply!

telephone callWhen you find one or more jobs which appear interesting you should get more information. Do NOT make the costly mistake to apply and go to a job interview without knowing anything about the position, the group and the institution. You should make an appointment for a short meeting via telephone or skype. Thus, send a very friendly and polite email to the PI and ask whether you may call him/her to ask some questions about the position and the research project. This demonstrates that you are genuinely interested in this specific position and project. You should ask a number of intelligent questions about the project, the group and the institution. Be aware: you create an informal job interview by making this appointment. Find a list of essential questions you should ask here: The most costly mistake in your job interview! and questions you should NOT ask: 12 QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD NEVER ASK AT A JOB INTERVIEW.

The aims of asking your potential future boss a lot of questions:

  1. You are proactive and show a lot of interest because you are well prepared for this informal interview.
  2. You get an impression whether you want to work for this person for the next years.
  3. You can judge whether you are a good fit for the group.
  4. You can judge whether the project, the position, the group and the institution are a good fit for you.

Keep this telephone call short and finish when you have got sufficient information. PIs are busy people, do not waste their time. Do not ask about salary and holiday regulations during the first contacts because this creates the impression that you are not really interested in the project but primarily in your personal advantages. You should ask these questions later when you contact the HR department of this potential employer. Most PhD, postdoc and tenure track positions go with standard salaries but there are considerable differences between countries, thus, you should know this before you go to a job interview.

When you do this via Skype make sure to avoid the most common mistakes.

After addressing all these questions ask yourself again:  Am I a good fit?

If you are not a good fit – do NOT apply!

If they need an expert in e.g. electrophysiology and you have no experience in this domain do NOT apply. You are wasting your time and the time of the supervisor. They must be completely desperate to take a candidate who has completely unsatisfactory qualifications. This cannot be a good environment for you.

When you apply

attentionattentionRead the instructions for applicants carefully!

On a regular basis we post new positions on the major job portals such as EURAXIS, Naturejobs, Science Jobs, FENS job website and others. We give clear instructions to apply via a specific website because we want to filter out those applicants who apply to every job opening anywhere without any thought. However, multiple young scientists just send their application to my personal email or to the email address of the HR department.

These applications get deleted. Immediately. Because if somebody does not take the time to read the instructions carefully we do not believe that there is genuine interest in the job.

Write a cover letter which illustrates that you have already gathered  a lot of information about this position

Refer to the contacts you already had with the PI and other group members and refer to the different aspects which probably make you a good fit for the group and the organization. It is important why you find the job attractive but more important what you can contribute. Explain why you are a good fit and how you will contribute. Keep it simple and do not exaggerate.

Adapt your CV according to the instructions and according to the needs of the potential future employer

You should adapt your resume/CV always for every new position you apply for.  Do not use always the same application. Use the information you have gathered during the preparation phase and emphasize those aspects which seem to be important for the potential future employer.

When you get invited for a job interview

Again – prepare very well. If possible you should get in contact with other members of the research group. Talk to older PhD students and postdocs. It is also a good idea to find former PhD students of this group. They may give you additional information how it is to work in the group and in the institution. Talk also to the technicians because they often have a different perspective. This needs quite some effort but you will know the conditions very well before you finally have the official job interview. You will appear very well prepared and very professional.

Good luck with the interview. 🙂

Why you should apply this strategy

The great thing about this strategy is that it is very healthy and effective because you look for the best fit. Your supervisor will greatly appreciate a new staff member who fits perfectly well in the team and in the project. You will probably be successful and passionate – because you fit. You will survive the stress and uncertainty of the new position much better because you can be authentic without effort.

Do you know even better strategies? Please tell us what you think and add a comment below. 

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