Saturday, 25 August 2018

After the PhD: The becoming researcher's job hunt ... some tips for the application pack

What is true for any job application at a professional and senior level also counts for getting a Post-Doc, researcher or lecturer position: you must get your application pack right. There are very few but important basics.

Currently at the HSRC we are hiring a lot of new entry level (post-PhD) and senior researchers, and I am going through roughly 200 (!!) application packs for about five jobs (and these 200 have already taken the HR hurdle!). That means, there are about 40 potentially eligible candidates for every post. From those 40, somewhere between 3 and 5 will be shortlisted and invited for interviews. So the bin is very close to the desk. And these are all - please note - highly qualified emerging and established researchers from across South Africa, the African continent, as well as from the UK, Sweden, Germany, Norway, and the USA.

To make the shortlist and not drop in the bin your application pack needs to respond to the advert and look the part. So here some basics:

(1) Have a great CV

Firstly, a CV is a formal document; make sure it is complete for the job you are applying for, up-to-date, accurate (and true!), and looks right.

The CV is often the first thing someone who seeks to hire you will look at (along with whatever you may have completed on an online platform). If your CV looks like you are straight from high-school, it's a major turn-off. A CV must look great. It must say - I am competent, I am who you want to hire, I have what it takes. It must be dressed up properly - just as you would dress up for an interview. Have your CV checked by a professional. Look at other people's CVs and improve yours. Update it regularly. 

Different professions have different rules about what needs to be in a CV. For a researcher/academic job, some of the unique additional things are listed below such as research outputs (publications list), research projects and research networks, funding including scholarships, grants for research, as well as supervision and mentorship. Furthermore: participation in professional or academic associations, relevant training (e.g. in key methodologies or software tools like Nvivo, Atlas.ti, STATA or SPSS, etc.), experience in publishing including editorship/reviewing.

Different countries also have different rules on what can go into a CV. In some countries, adding a picture is not allowed, nor any reference to ethnicity or race. In others, like South Africa, employment equity legislation encourages putting your ethnicity and EE status. Similarly, age, ID number, etc. can be tricky. I would put age but not ID number, for example. 

make sure that you are doing great work - including the 'above and beyond' - that makes you an outstanding candidate for the researcher. What are the key 'variables' from which one looks at the potential of a emerging researcher? Here are some pointers:


Obviously, listing your qualifications is important. Indicate type, discipline, year, institution; if it was thesis based, the title and names of supervisors/advisors, any awards or distinctions; and if it was coursework based, some major courses/topics covered.

Research outputs

Research outputs mainly refers to knowledge products, that is peer-reviewed publications in high-quality, relevant journals and scholarly books. 

Journal articles: choose relevant quality journals. That are not only those who are necessarily listed by Scopus or WoS/ISI, but also those that are relevant in your discipline and your context. Many quality African journals are not listed. They may be on the DHET or Norwegian lists, but not on ISI. If they are where your discipline and topical scholarly conversation is conducted, then that's where you must participate. 
Book chapters: it's a great opportunity to publish on a common topic with international (and local) peers. Make sure your editors and publisher are reputable.
Books (monographs or edited collections) indicate in some disciplines that you have now a certain standing. However, all depends on the publisher. Self-published books, sorry - unless it's a poetry collection. Publishing your thesis is a great idea - either as monograph or a series of articles. Just remember, there are predatory publishers out there who take a thesis and publish it without any 'value added'. Rather don't!
Research reports typically do not have the same standard of peer review as journal articles or reviewed scholarly books. Hence they are typically not counted as part of the peer reviewed research output, but they indicate your research productivity. 
Conference proceeding are sometimes also considered, especially if published. But don't count on in. Attendance of conferences is a good way to see in which 'circles' you mingle. 

Key: one list you do NOT want your journal to be listed is in the Beall's list. Learn to identify predatory journals and do not publish in predatory publishers. If you ever did, do not list them. Count your loses and move on. Similary, publishing your thesis with Lambert is devaluing it in the eyes of recruiters. Publishing in predatory journals that charge high fees and have questionable review and QA processes cast doubt on your ability to produce work "that stands the test of peer review". 

Make sure you have a Scholar Google Profile, an and/or Researchgate account, and your ORCHID. All this shows you are switched on and part of the world-wide community of knowledge producers. A public Google Scholar Profile also gives the recruiters an idea of your citation count and where you stand in your research career. They are more important in our business that LinkedIn. On the topic of social media, please be sure to monitor your own Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever accounts. Nothing like a good researcher profile and a Facebook account that shows a drunkard. 

Research experience, projects, networks, funding

This is really important to show. Research experience (and networks) can be well illustrated in a listing of actual projects. Important to show: duration, name of PI (principal investigator), grant holder, grantee and grant amount (if it is/was funded), your role and contribution. Of course, this must correlate with research outputs, conference/workshop attendance etc.

If you have raised or participated in raising research funding, this is important to note as well. Scholarships and fellowships can be listed, but are not as prestigious as actually having landed a grant from a major foundation or governmental or non-governmental research funding body. The role in the study and in raising the funding (PI, Co-PI, co-grantee, researcher) should be indicated, proposal name, dates, funding amount. 

Of course - a CV must be an accurate reflection of your competencies! Typically, good HR departments verify all qualifications, and good shortlisters will check whether your publications actually exist. Anything too weird and suspicious, is in danger of heading for the shredding bin.  

And - of course - every job is different and has different requirements and criteria. Customize your CV to highlight what recruiters want to see. For an academic teaching appointment, you may want to add the courses you taught; for a research appointment, you will want to include all relevant software skills, research methods courses taken and taught, etc.

(2) Have a great application pack (in addition to your CV)

A CV is a very important component, but only one component of an application pack. Sometimes, if the requirement is for a short CV, have a separate document with your research outputs listed separately. Please remember, your research outputs should be listed neatly, by year (and categorised), and with a consistently applied referencing convention. Also: include DOI or online links (as embedded hyperlinks in a Word or PDF), and if you have publications in lesser-known journals, or apply for a job where the recruiters may not be familiar with the key journals in your field, indicate if they are listed in key indices (e.g. ISI-journal, Scopus journal, DHET-accredited, etc.). 

Include your top 2-3 articles or chapters as PDFs. But better if they are less than 5 (max 10) years old and have good citation traction. Sometimes this is specifically requested.

The motivation letter: must respond to the job advertisement and particularly to all requirements (criteria) and responsibilities. If something is not 100%, explain. Thus, if you apply for a job in an Education Faculty but you are a Development Studies major, explain why you think you make a great fit. That requires research! and it requires sincerity. By all means, show your best side, but any grandstanding should be avoided. Also: this is a formal letter.    

Reference letters and referees: work confirmations, grant confirmations, and actual letters of references from previous research supervisors are great to include. Referees are important and should be senior enough, preferably from different work and country contexts. Ask them if they will be your referees before including them and send your application pack to them!

You want more info? I just found this great resource link: