Monday, 26 October 2015

Five job application behaviours – and what they say about you

Dr Steve Joy

[An edited version of this article was also posted on the Guardian Higher Education Network.]

A couple of years ago, I proposed ten irritating mistakes in academic CVs and ten suggestions for writing good cover letters. I think that those tips are still relevant today, but in the intervening years, I have noticed a pattern. Applicants get so wrapped up in worrying about how to present themselves that they stop seeing the wood for trees, and they fail to see what their behaviour implicitly communicates about them to the panel. Here, then, are five examples of such behaviours and why you should guard against them.

1. Inattentive

You absolutely must pay careful attention to the details of your job applications, and this includes the formatting. One bizarre manifestation of inattentiveness that I keep seeing is the use, in the same application, of different formats for different documents, e.g. pairing a cover letter in boring old Times New Roman pt 12 and a CV put together in a trendy sans serif font, with an eye-catchingly modern template.

What does this communicate about you to the panel? First, and most obviously, it screams that these documents were written at different times, for different positions. No prospective employer wants to think that you’ve just pinged off a couple of recent drafts willy-nilly, without any thought as to how they fit together, or how you fit with what that employer is specifically needing. And second, inconsistencies of this sort suggest that you’re comfortable with work that is hasty and slapdash. Bad idea. Instead, make sure that the formats of all your documents cohere, so that it feels like one carefully assembled application.

2. Concessive

Honesty is one thing, but making concessions is counter-productive: “Whilst I have not yet published any results from this work…” “Although I haven’t ever taught postgraduate students…” “I am not familiar with funding schemes in the US, but…” Why would you want to plant negative thoughts with the panel? I know that it might seem as if you’re being authentic and avoiding boastful arrogance, but the subtext – which is what comes across to your reader – is a lack of confidence that you’re good enough for the job.

In 99% of cases, you simply need to delete these concessive phrases. Focus on the positives of what you have done, and put forward a coherent plan for what you intend to do. Most applicants are too fixated on listing past achievements, proving their competence based on what they’ve already done, but applications are just as much about the future – so write about that. Have a ‘vision’ for how you will approach the job and how you will help your prospective employer to be successful.

3. Evasive

You can’t evade awkward truths. What would you think if you were reading a CV and all of the publication dates had been omitted? Or all of the dates for the conference papers? Or the years when the teaching was delivered? Come on, nobody is going to be fooled by this. The immediate conclusion is that something is being concealed here – most probably a big gap. It’s achingly obvious. And yet I see this tactic deployed time and again when researchers are anxious about gaps on their CV which they perceive to be problematic.

You can’t pull the wool over the panel’s eyes in this way, and they won’t thank you for having tried. CVs have dates on them. End of discussion. What you have to do, as an applicant, is twofold. Seek feedback about the gaps – are they really as problematic as you think? Often, I promise you, they aren’t. And then, as I suggested above, show what you are planning to do in the immediate future to get back on track, e.g. with a list of publications in preparation (with details about where and when you intend to send them) or a statement about the next grant application you will submit.

4. Excessive

Don’t exceed what’s been asked of you. If the employer has said that they want the names of two referees, then they want two. Not three. And certainly not six. I encounter this behaviour all the time, and it’s so frustrating. “I want them to see how many respected professors have said that they’re willing to write references for me.” “I want them to choose the referees that they’re most interested in.” Please. This is crazy.

What it says about you is that you can’t follow instructions, you can’t prioritise (viz. you don’t really understand what the employer is looking for), and you don’t want to take responsibility. Put the shoe on the other foot for a moment: if I’m the employer, having to send off requests for references, all you’ve given me is a headache, because I now have to spend my time and energy in deciding what to do with the excess of information you’ve given me. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if I simply contact the first two names on the list.

The same principle is true of every other part of the application, whether it’s about the documents you send, the length of those documents, the writing sample you’re asked for, and so on. Credit the employers with having actually thought through why they’ve asked for the things they have. Don’t presume that they want more from you, which indicates, at base, that you think you’re important enough to deserve extra consideration (otherwise known as more of their time). Do as you are asked. Do exactly as you are asked.

5. Unreflective

Reflect before you reject feedback on your application. Dismissing advice before you have reflected plays out most commonly through use of the ‘yes, but’ formula. “Yes, you’re right, but what I meant was X.” “Yeah, but they don’t need to know Y.” “Yep, OK, but I really think Z.” This is what someone sounds like when they don’t want to do anything with the feedback that they’re receiving, i.e. they interject by implying that the person giving the feedback has erred in their analysis. We all do it. It’s pompous, and unwise.

Think of the old adage that if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny. The same logic applies here: if you have to justify what your application says, then it doesn’t work. Let’s face it, you aren’t going to be there to guide the panel through their reading and to defend yourself against their interpretations. An honest reader will give you insights into how the panel will receive your application; multiple honest readers will help you to account for how subjective recruitment really is.

Feedback isn’t a curse. You’re under no obligation to accept all the feedback you receive. But what you do have to do, every time, is shut up, genuinely listen, and reflect later. Then it’s up to you: act on the feedback or don’t act. After all, isn’t that what, in academia, we’re supposedly trained to do?


  1. I'm an early career researcher and someone who gets CVs from students (they think I'm a lot more important than I am). While I can't imagine many of these mistakes turning up in postdoc cover letters/CVs, they are endemic in Masters/PhD level cold-emails. Here's an example (anonymised) of an email I get frighteningly regularly

    Subject: Looking for a PhD position from Univeristy of [SUDDEN USE OF ALL CAPS and they can't spell check], UK- CV attached (clearly mail merged)

    Dear Dr Dr [my first name, hanging space] ,

    [Info from candidate]
    I was just wondering whether you have any available
    PhD position I can apply to?
    [No info about why the candidate wants to work with me]

    [More info on candidate, skills, experience. Still no mention of what I research or why candidate wishes to work on that topic or with me]

    Please find attached my CV along with this email.

    Please let me know the possibilities.

    Even if I were in a position to take students, I am NEVER going to even *consider* someone who poorly mail merges a boiler plate application email to me. It makes me angry. This person clearly just wants to stay a student and doesn't care what they study, where or who with. Don't they understand that they'd be better putting even a little effort into 10 emails than no effort into 1000?

    1. As someone who spends my days reading postdocs' cover letters & CVs, I have to say that, sadly, these mistakes do come up all the time, but you're right that the issue is even more pronounced with more junior researchers & grad students. Thanks for this really helpful comment. What you say is so pertinent: mail merge is not a good tool for job searching, and I couldn't agree more that 10 decent emails outweigh the value of 1000 hopelessly impersonal ones.

  2. Just wanted to thank you for the blog. It's been such a great help -- and very glad to report that after 3 semesters adjuncting and being on the job market, I finally landed "the job". Permanent Lectureship in my field (Irish Drama) at a University in my home city. I don't even need to move house, let alone move to a new town. Without a doubt, I got this job - and, in particular, did a killer interview, by virtue of the advice you dispense on this blog.
    So thank you, thank you a 1000 times over.