In the past couple of years, I have been involved in various stages of the hiring process. During my PhD, I sat in on interview presentations on request a couple of times. A few times I have also been part of a ‘more intimate’ interview talk with only a couple of members present, and have toured some candidates for positions through the facilities of my PhD institute. I always found these good learning experiences, and I have mostly been deeply impressed by the candidates that I have met. These were obviously the best of the bunch, and pre-selection had already taken place. For a long time I knew little about the early steps.
Since starting my postdoc in Germany, I have been more involved in the hiring process. I have from very early on advertised positions for student helpers and gone through the interviewing and hiring process from start to end. That already gave me a bit more insight into what the process involves and the diversity of applications that you can receive for job ads. It gave me a pretty good bullshit radar, too. I have gone through the entire hiring process for one of the PhD candidates that I supervise. Although I judged all the letters and CVs in multiple advertising rounds, the input was still limited from my side, because my name was not on the job ad. Currently, I do have my name on the advertisement for another funded PhD position. That means I do get all the questions now, and I do get all the things you don’t see when you are only sitting in on the interview. And boy, is it an interesting process to follow. There are huge differences between how people prepare their applications.
The deadline is later this week, but I have already been keeping an eye out for the applications that have passed by, and there have, by now, been quite a few. I thought it would be interesting to list some of the things I have read and seen that I find inappropriate in an application for a PhD position (or probably any position), but are pretty easy to avoid and/or fix.
1) Copy pasting the same motivation letter to every available position. Sure, I get it, there will be some recycling of certain parts of your motivation letter, the description of who you are, and why you apply can indeed look similar. However, make your letter SPECIFIC to the position you are applying for. Why do you want to work on this project, and why are you the person for the job? Highlight some aspects from your CV that are valuable experience that indicate how your previous work has shaped you into the best candidate.
2) Addressing the letter to someone that is not working in the department or in any way associated with the project. This is simply a no-go! If you want to stand any chance of being invited for an interview, address it to the people that are in the job ad. I totally understand if you address it to the senior person in the ad, and that is totally fine. What is not fine is sending an application addressed to someone that is not in the description, has never worked on the model system, and has not worked in the department for more than two years. A female PI I know told me she had several times received applications addressed to “Dear Sir”. What a dumb thing to do. I have no other words for it. Figure out who you are applying with (to some basal level), and don’t assume it is a Sir.
3) Applying to another unrelated project. I was surprised by the number of people, including those with very good CVs, that apply and describe a position that is not the position that is advertised or even for a university (city) that is not related in any way to the project. Give the committee the idea that you are applying for their position. Ties in closely with 1), but it is a bit different, because these are often clearly well-prepared letters, but (I think) sent out to the wrong recipient with a sloppy transfer.
4) Filling pages with why the project is important. We know our project is important. That’s why it probably received funding. Although I find it perfectly acceptable to mention that something is important to you personally, or motivates you, it is probably good to include a bit more than that. I have read multiple letters that were raving about how ecology or agriculture is so important, but never got to the point. The point of a letter is to get you invited. Showcase your suitability and trigger the committee to want to read your CV – and more importantly – talk to you. Don’t ramble about things that are not important.
5) Asking to elaborate. I think it is very appropriate to ask more information about a project. However, make sure that it is specific! What do you want to know? Of course I can elaborate on the project, but what do you want to know? We all have busy schedules, and although I am personally happy to help out any interested candidate, answering unspecific questions like “I am interested, can you elaborate” is very difficult.
6) Naming your documents. Sure, this is nothing your future PhD position will hinge on, as content is more important than the name. Still, I found it quite interesting to read how many people send around documents that are titled ‘documents.pdf’ or some variation on the theme. Maybe it is just me, but I find a document titled ‘Jones_Application_ProjectX.pdf’ a bit more professional. It’s also about the first impression.
7) Overdoing it on the praise. I think some praise can work, but it only has value if it is specific. For instance, I would find it very nice to read that specific papers were of special interest to a candidate, and for what reason. However, a full-blown paragraph on how good a professor, but with little substance to back-up the statement, may be a bit too much. (Even if it can be true)
It can sometimes be a very subtle distinction that turns a well-structured letter into something that feels sloppy. On the other hand, it can sometimes be surprisingly easy to make a letter better by quite a bit with a bit of preparation. Applying for a PhD is an important step in your academic career. You might want to make the impression that you take it seriously. Of course these boxes differ from person to person, but they have always worked well for me. Now that I am on the other side of the conversation sometimes, applications that tick the above boxes already give me a more professional impression and are more likely to bring a smile to my face.