How to apply for a position

Ok, since I have lately been reading a lot of application letters, both for my own group but also for “search committees”, here are a few thoughts on applications.

The job announcements might vary but frequently people will be asking for several documents including (but not limited to):

  • a motivation letter or motivation statement (also called a cover letter)
  • an up-to-date curriculum vitae (CV)
  • contact information for references
  • possibly a publication list
  • (in some rare cases certificates, but in case of doctoral students language certificates might be needed)

Now, the CV – and for postdocs the publications – are definitely important. But to be honest, we pretty much take it for granted that those will be good or at very least suitable – otherwise you’d not be applying (but then there are definitely exceptions to this).

Where many (if not most) people fail – and you may ask that from other senior researchers – is the motivation statement. By now I typically can tell by the first paragraph of the motivation statement whether I am interested in the candidate at all. That means this motivation statement will need to be pretty much spot on. In a motivation statement, or a cover letter, or if nothing of the sort is asked in the main text of the application (body of the email), you’ll need to clearly state why you would like to join the specific research team. That does mean that you will have to look at the webpage of the group, you will have to read their articles at least to the extent that you know what they are researching. Yes, that takes some effort! I am not interested in reading that you cried when your granddaddy cut down a tree. I also don’t care if you think that flowers are nice. And while you can state that you have a passion for science, I will take that as a given. What I am curious to know is what actually interests you about the science that my group is doing. If you don’t know that, you probably should not be applying.

If you are unsure and you would need more information about the position, the research group, or the work environment then send an email asking for more information. This is not impolite and actually gives a good impression since you are showing interest.

Another thing that many people do in their motivation statement is write long and detailed texts about their current/past research. While it is good to include a short paragraph on that (“Based on my background in…” etc.) this is not the main purpose of the motivation statement, I can get that information from your CV anyways. Tell my, why you are interested in working here, with me, with my team. This text does not need to be long but it needs to demonstrate your interest and that you have understood what the team is doing. It also should show what you would bring to the team (what would make you a valuable new team member!). As a rule of thumb, frequently people get hired not so much for what they can do but rather for what a PI thinks they will be able to achieve in the future. Along the same line, if you apply for example to a group studying receptors and ligands a two page description on why you think transcription factors are cool might not give a compelling argument to hire you!

There are also some minor things, which nonetheless can make a difference. Read the announcement carefully! I will invariably ask for pdf documents. This is not by chance, someone who reads the instructions should see that, however, you’d be surprised by the amount of doc files I get. This is not a deal breaker in an otherwise excellent application but as said, small things. If you are not currently employed and therefore have an official email address (or you don’t want or cannot use that for whatever reason) please (please please please) get a decent email address based on your name. Again, while not a deal breaker using an email address along the lines of “partydude101@” might not be the most convincing thing for your prospective employer 😉


Some more links with info on applications: