The most intelligent strategy to get hired in science - title

The most intelligent strategy to get hired in science

Are 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.

Often, I have received applications from young scientists who apply for a position in my lab. All my colleagues got exactly the same email. They start with “Dear scientist.” 

Often, my name is copy-pasted into the standard email they sent to hundreds of other PIs. Sometimes, my name has a format that differs from the rest of the standard text.

They are very interested in my group’s research, and they summarize their great expertise in insect biology, how to purify plant sterols, etc. Unfortunately, they cannot be further away from the research I passionately perform – which is CNS repair in humans. 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. It is a terrible 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.

Do not do this!

Think about a more intelligent approach:

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

Before submitting your application, thoroughly investigate your goals, skills, and talents and compare them with the profile of the academic institution and the specific department you want to apply for – to ensure they align with your research interests and career aspirations. 

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

Before you search for a job and apply, you must know what you want to get hired for 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 attractive or easy to manipulate. 

You must first know what kind of job you want based on your preferences. Find more details on how to define your dream job.

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. 

Thus, 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. 

Find jobs that are a very good fit

Puzzle pieces representing a good fit of applicant and science job

If you find these jobs, read the website of the PI, look up the last ten 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. Moreover, your supervisor will hate you. It is a waste of your and the PI’s time. 

Do NOT apply!

When you find a job and a project that is an excellent fit, you must find out whether the group, the institution, and the location are also a good fit. 

For example, if you love nightlife and cultural events, you should think carefully about whether you want to go to a small university in the countryside in a small town with three pubs. There are good reasons to prefer a small university, but it should be a conscious decision.

If you do not want to avoid living 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 excellent groups that publish – you may guess it – Nature papers regularly. 

However, be aware that high-impact papers might be beneficial to getting a promising academic job, but you can also get 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 no jobs are a very good fit?

You may have a specialization not needed in the labor market right now. In this case, you should thoroughly investigate which other jobs your technical and transferable skills may be useful for. 

If you are an expert in specific techniques, look for jobs in other fields that 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 that 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 adding mobility to your CV.

What do you do when you find a potential good fit?

The classical advice you will find everywhere on the internet sounds as follows: “When you find a potentially good job, tailor your resume and cover letter to highlight relevant skills and experiences, and prepare to make a compelling case for why you are the best candidate during the interview.”

No surprise, this does not work well…

Do this instead:

CALL the principal investigator before you apply!

Scientist calling a potential employer

When you find one or more interesting jobs, you should get more information. 

Do NOT make the costly mistake of applying and going to a job interview without knowing anything about the position, the group, and the institution. 

Instead, you should make an appointment for a short meeting via telephone or online. 

Thus, send a very friendly and polite email to the group leader and ask whether you may call them to get more information about the position and the research project. 

This demonstrates that you are genuinely interested in this specific position and project. You should ask several intelligent, well-prepared questions about the project, the group, and the institution. 

Be aware: you create an informal job interview by making this appointment. 

Use a list of essential questions you should ask during a job interview. Reflect on questions you should NOT ask during such a call.

Why should you ask 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.

Rules when calling a potential future employer

Keep this telephone call short and finish when you have sufficient information. PIs are busy people, do not waste their time. 

Do not ask about salary and holiday regulations during the first contact because this creates the impression that you are not interested in the project but primarily in your advantages and perks. 

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. However, there are considerable differences between countries as well as between private and public institutions.

When you do this online, avoid the most common mistakes in online interviews.

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 electrophysiology expert 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 desperate to take a candidate with unsatisfactory qualifications. 

When you apply, avoid the typical mistakes!

When applying for job openings, many applicants make foolish mistakes, such as not following the specific application instructions or not tailoring their cover letter and CV to demonstrate their knowledge about the position and how they will fit into the team.

Read the instructions for applicants carefully!

Regularly, we post new positions on major job portals such as EURAXIS, Naturejobs, Science Jobs, and the FENS job website. We give clear instructions on applying 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 standard applications to my work email address or the HR department’s email address. 

These applications get deleted. 


If somebody does not take the time to read the instructions carefully, we do not believe they have a 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 the different aspects that probably make you a good fit for the group and the organization. 

Why you find the job attractive is important, but what you can contribute is more important. 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 always adapt your resume/CV for every new position you apply for.  Do not always use the same application. 

Use the information you gathered during the preparation phase and emphasize those aspects that seem important for the potential future employer.

When you get invited for a job interview

Again – prepare very well. If possible, you should contact 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 on how it is to work in the group and the institution. 

Talk also to the technicians because they often have a different perspective. This requires 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.

Remember to think about the most appropriate outfit for this specific job environment!

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 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.

Good luck with the interview! 


I have used AI systems, including Grammarly, Google Gemini, and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!

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