THE Scholarly Web

Ambitious undergraduates are aware of it, PhD students fear it and applicants often despair of it: competition in the academic job market is very tough indeed.

September 8, 2011

Responding to a sharp increase in the number of applications for a research assistant post, Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, posted on her BishopBlog, a guide for those seeking work.

After outlining the size of her task - "with over 120 applications to process, if I allowed only two minutes for each one, it'd take me four hours to shortlist" - Professor Bishop goes on to explain the approach she and her colleagues take to separate the wheat from the chaff.

They use a "triage procedure" to whittle the pile down to a manageable number, with the selection panel "looking for reasons not to shortlist". Only then do they move on to more exact vetting to compile the final shortlist, "on the basis of a careful re-reading of those that survive triage".

She offers several pointers to help applicants survive the cut.

Overzealous attempts to prove one's enthusiasm are not advised: "I gather that there are some careers advisors who recommend candidates should send their application direct to the principal investigator, rather than via administration, because it will get noticed," she writes. "It will indeed, but it will create the impression that you are incapable of reading instructions."

Professor Bishop advocates a more regimented approach: "We need to be able to demonstrate that our decisions are based on the selection criteria in the job advert, and not on some idiosyncratic prejudice. The ideal applicant lists the selection criteria in the same order that they appear in the job description and briefly explains how they meet them. It makes the job of the selection panel much, much easier, and they will give you credit for being both intelligent and considerate."

Above all, Professor Bishop says, applicants should not go in for "overkill" and should at all times be honest.

For those seeking more guidance, she links to a list of "10 psychological techniques to help you get a new job". These include "schmoozing" (but not too much), offering yourself "verbal self-guidance" (while remembering not to "talk to yourself in front of the interviewer") and "cutting out the fake smile".

Any applicants determined to not follow a conventional tack could, Professor Bishop counsels, consider the method adopted by the author Hunter S. Thompson, who did not "go along with the system but nevertheless had an interesting and influential life".

She links to a letter Thompson wrote in 1958 applying for a job as a journalist on the Vancouver Sun, in which he wrote: "Since I haven't seen a copy of the 'new' Sun yet, I'll have to make this a tentative offer. I stepped into a dung-hole the last time I took a job with a paper I didn't know anything about...and I'm not quite ready to go charging up another blind alley. By the time you get this letter, I'll have gotten hold of some recent issues of the Sun. Unless it looks totally worthless, I'll let my offer stand."

He didn't get the job, but he made his name nonetheless.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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