Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Job applications and selection procedures in three different scientific communities

In the course of my career, young as it still is, I have nonetheless already had some experiences with job applications and selection procedures in three different scientific communities: (1) Central Europe, especially Germany and the German-speaking part of Switzerland; (2) the United States; and (3) the United Kingdom and Australia. (I lump the latter two for present purposes because of similar procedures, but of course they are really two communities.) Because this might be of interest to young scientists who are willing to look beyond their home country in search for new challenges, be it permanent employment or a postdoc, and who might happen upon this from a search engine, I thought it would be a good topic to write about.

Bear in mind, however, that this is not official and professional career advice, that I have only successfully applied for employment in the first and the last of these three, and that my observations presumably become less relevant the more we move away from biology, as it is likely that, say, mathematicians, engineers or historians have slightly different habits. Finally, my experiences with job searches are, as of this writing, at least two and a half years old. That being said, the cultures of the various communities do not change over night.
Starting with Central Europe, a usual job application in biology will include the following:

  • Cover letter.
  • Curriculum Vitae, traditionally including a portrait photograph and the date and place of birth. Even more traditionally, it also used to include information on marital status and number of children, but you generally do not see this in the CVs of the younger generation any more.
  • List of publications.
  • Copies, usually certified, of diplomas. Depending on the level of the position and the stage of your career, this may or may not include anything back to the high school diploma, but at a minimum the highest and most recent degree you have obtained.
  • Sometimes the names and contact information of two to four professional referees.

These days, this is often all bundled into one PDF to be sent to the head of the selection committee or their assistant. For members of other scientific communities, it may be surprising that a portrait photograph and the date of birth are expected, because in many countries this information is considered a potential target of bias or discrimination. However, apart from this simply being how things are done in Germany, one could say that the same information is unavoidably available at the stage of the job interview anyway, and photographs of most scientists can easily be found on staff websites. So if some professor or director really does not want to hire somebody who is non-white, female or older than 50, they can ultimately discriminate against these groups of persons even if no photograph was included in the original application, and one needs to take a different approach to stop them from doing so.

Many colleagues in my generation and, it has to be said, many professional career consultants more used to advising candidates in a business environment, appear to obsess unduly about the exact phrasing of the cover letter and the look of the portrait photograph. Admittedly, it is obviously easy to give a very bad impression, but those dangers should be no-brainers: clearly, you don't send a cover letter with coffee stains or a photograph where you goof around. But in science, as opposed to the marketing department of a company, I would expect potential employers to care very little about the content of these two items as long as they are functional. If the photograph looks nice and the letter appears to convey genuine enthusiasm about the position, that is probably enough. In fact, if I were confronted with an application on the lines of "look, I am so edgy, I designed this to make sure it would stick out", I would probably just be annoyed with the applicant and doubt their professionality.

And if we want to be entirely honest, from my experience there is probably a good number of Central European scientists for whom the criteria with which they judge a candidate look something like this:

  1. The candidate's list of publications.
  2. Grants and scholarships that the candidate has obtained.
  3. The candidate's list of publications.
  4. The candidate's list of publications.
  5. Any other qualifications that are relevant, e.g. teaching experience or research methodology.
  6. What they think of the candidate's PhD supervisor.

Sad, but true.

Second, the United States. Again, the best I ever made there was second place, so I may not be the perfect person to give advice on how to do it right, but the differences to the above are still very instructive. A typical job application in biology will consist of the following, which in this case I will directly intersperse with commentary:

  • Cover letter.
  • Curriculum Vitae, which must NOT include a photograph or the date of birth, due to the considerations implied in the previous section.
  • List of publications.
  • In the early stages of the career, university "transcripts". This is something that, at least during my time at university, we simply did not have in Germany. My best bet was always to send them a copy of the Vordiplom and Diplom documents, and to attach an explanation what the German grades mean in English. With the credit point systems that have been introduced in German universities after my graduation, this requirement can perhaps be fulfilled more easily now.
  • For everything postdoc and above, one or two pages of "research philosophy" and perhaps one or two pages of "teaching philosophy", or a combination of the two. I have never found a good explanation what precisely these are supposed to be and, coming from a system where these items do not exist, found them very hard to write. A reasonable assumption is that they should convey enthusiasm for scientific research and teaching, respectively, and cover all the bases as far as commitments to integrity, quality, fairness and diversity are concerned.
  • Either the names and contact information of a few professional referees, or two or three sealed envelopes with letters of recommendation from those referees, or else you are expected to have the referees send separate e-mails with their letters of recommendation from their own work accounts directly to the head of the selection committee or their assistant. Especially the last option is unpleasant because it puts you at the mercy of your professors who if you are very unlucky may be so stressed that they do not remember to send their letter in time, especially if as a non-American they are not used to this system themselves. I have also heard from a few American colleagues that these letters of recommendation must be very enthusiastic, and essentially always praise the candidate as the greatest talent of their generation, or else the selection committee will assume that something isn't right. If true, then this is definitely different to the German system, where a professor once told me that he made a point of always mentioning a negative aspect about the people he recommends, with the idea that this would make his recommendation more believable.

In summary, coming from a Central European system one has to be aware of the American take on letters of recommendation, one should not include a photograph, and one should at some point prepare collections of stock phrases and paragraphs to facilitate the writing of research and teaching philosophies.

The Australian system and, at least as far as some institutions are concerned, the British one, I experienced as quite different from the previous two. Several institutions have very fancy, standardized online systems for job applications instead of requesting submission by e-mail or snail mail. You enter your name, address, and other relevant information, and then you scroll down or click "continue", and you find text boxes for numerous "selection criteria". At that stage you begin to wonder where exactly you are supposed to upload your CV because, as a German for example, you would expect that and your list of publications to be the most important if not the only really relevant documents for a job application. Likely you will find such an upload field somewhere, like an afterthought, but this arrangement already shows that you need to rethink entirely: While the CV is certainly not superfluous, there is clearly a reason why the selection criteria figure so prominently on this website in front of you. They are where you have to make as good an impression as possible, and where you essentially have to write out the details of your CV insofar as they apply to each criterion.

How much to write under each criterion probably depends on their number and how much you feel you have to say in each case, but I have heard say that it should be the equivalent of at least half a page each. The criteria range from hard skills, e.g. specific qualifications and experiences that are relevant for the position, to soft skills like communication and even to personal stances, e.g. on equality in the workplace and integrity of science.

There are a few obvious puzzlers here, the most obvious being whether the people who formulate these criteria really assume that a racist and misogynist who is bright enough to obtain a PhD in, say, developmental biology would be dumb enough to truthfully write "no, I will abuse everybody who is not a while male as a matter of principle" when faced with the selection criterion "the candidate must be dedicated to non-discrimination and fairness in the workplace". Several possible explanations are possible. A colleague opined that these criteria had been introduced to satisfy pencil pushers in administrations who could not judge the quality of a scientific CV but who can deal with boxes to tick, on the lines of: aha, this person says they are dedicated to equality in the workplace, tick! A less cynical view might be that these are standards that a candidate must commit to when they apply, so that they are more likely to follow them later.

The important thing is, as somebody from a different system, to be aware of the importance of the selection criteria, and to resist the temptation to answer a criterion like "proven track record of publishing scientific results in peer reviewed, international journals" merely with "yes, see my publication list for details" because that will not make a good impression.

Other scientific communities will be different still. For example, I have been told that in certain Latin American countries scientists obsessively collect certificates showing that they have participated in courses, workshops, meetings, conferences, field trips and the like, no matter how unimportant or irrelevant, because when applying everybody apparently hands in a preferably fat folder full of those, an approach that would only serve to raise eyebrows in my home country. Well, as long as one is aware of the fact that things don't work the same everywhere, that is a start, and the best bet when preparing an application is generally to ask a colleague from the relevant country what is important. Not that I was always bright enough to follow that advice myself...

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