How To… Write a Successful Job Application

For many Early Career Researchers this time of year is job hunting season so we’ve lined up a two part special on how to land your dream job. In Part 1 Professor Kate Darian-Smith takes us through the key steps of writing a successful job application. She advises us to research the position, address the selection criteria clearly and to proof read everything!

Kate Darian Smith Profile Pic

Professor Kate Darian-Smith holds joint appointments as Professor of Australian Studies and History and Chair of the History Program in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, and Professor of Cultural Heritage in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. She is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA).

You’ve recently finished or are about to complete your PhD in History, and have seen an advertisement for job where you can use the skills and experience gained through doctoral study.  This could be for full or part-time work. It might be for academic teaching or research support, or for a graduate level position in government, management, publishing or a field that relates to your thesis research and qualifications.

Your task is to write a job application that is successful in getting you to the next stage of the process—most usually an interview.  Here are some step-by-step suggestions to assist with that process.

Step 1: Research the position and employer

Before you begin writing an application there is research to do.  Make sure you carefully read the position description and/or selection criteria and the qualifications required. You can  seek further information via the contact person listed in the advertisement. Desktop research on an individual or institutional employer is relatively easy and is recommended. You might also know someone who has worked in a similar role or for the same organisation, so ask his or her advice.   The more informed you are about any position, the more focussed and assured your application will be.

Step 2: Evaluate your experience and personal qualities

Look closely at your achievements and see how they match the position criteria.  Think laterally about the capabilities you have acquired in academic life.  You should review the ‘graduate attributes’ published by your university, and think about ‘transferable skills’ in the workplace.  For instance, your PhD can be framed as an exercise in project management, with the time-specific delivery of evidence-based complex analysis offering solutions to key problems! Make sure, too, that there is a good match between job requirements and your personal strengths and qualities.

If you don’t have the required qualifications in key areas, then don’t waste your time—or that of the selection committee—by applying.  Sometimes, though, the matching process can be blurry.  Again, if you are not sure, it is important to ask.

Step 3: Writing a Winning Application

Writing a strong and convincing job application is not easy.  Give yourself enough time, and ideally ask a mentor or peer to read over your draft. Do a short plan, so that you know where you want to stress certain attributes and can avoid repetition.

Some job applications have a form to be completed on-line. Other applications are ‘free-form’, and in this instance make sure that your presentation is clear.   Whatever the format, you need to convey your enthusiasm, competency and individuality and why you are an excellent applicant. Take care with your writing as it should be compelling.

Most job applications ask for the following: response to selection criteria, up-to-date Curriculum Vitae, and a list of referees. Sometimes, a short cover letter or summary document is also necessary.

Response to the selection criteria: This is the opportunity to outline your experience against the job requirements. Do this logically, and with enough detail so it is easy to understand what prior employment or training actually means.  For instance, if you worked as a research assistant for Professor X, explain what this involved. Choose examples that are most pertinent. Be relatively succinct and keep to the point. Indicate your motivations and passions, and highlight your strengths—your voice has to shine through.  If relevant, you might also append a short teaching portfolio, copies of publications or a statement about future research projects and interests.  And while you want to put a positive spin on your past, be careful not to misrepresent your experience.

Curriculum vitae:  It is a good idea to keep your CV up to date. It is an important document and should be straightforward to read and well laid-out.   Ensure it is an accurate record of publications, and list these in conventional academic categories: books, chapters and refereed articles as well as non-refereed and media publications.  You should also include conference papers, and an outline of academic teaching.  Avoid extraneous information, but do ensure your skills and capacities are clearly stated.

Referees: Choose appropriate referees.  An academic position needs academic referees (such as your PhD supervisor or examiners), but a non-academic position might require a different referee list. You might include a sentence on why you are listing a referee: ‘Dr Y was my PhD supervisor and can comment on my research and analytical skills’.  Make sure all referees are willing to be named, and send them the final application and CV.  If written references are submitted with the application, give referees the maximum time and all the information they need to do this.   It is also a courtesy to thank them and let them know the outcome of any application.

Finally, make sure that you carefully proofread all documents.  Sloppy formatting and small typing errors have no place in a job application, and can cast doubts on your professionalism.  Make sure, too, that you submit the application on time!

Check back next week for Part 2 with Associate Professor Martin Crotty who will be discussing how to shine in any interview!



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