Getting short-listed for a job requires a combination of luck, perseverance, and ingenuity, but the following are some places where you can actively increase your odds.
Most academic job applications will ask you to list the name and contact information for 3 to 4 referees (aka reviewers). These names must be selected with care. The screening committee will expect to see the name of your doctoral supervisor as a referee. Sometimes this is not possible due to personal conflicts or other matters, but its absence may be a red flag. If you supervisor is not available due to death, illness or some other situation beyond your control, you should note this in your cover letter. The screening will want to see the names of senior faculty members at institutions at least as prestigious as the one to which you are applying. This means they do not want industrial referees (unless you are coming from an industrial research position where you were working under someone with a doctoral degree). This also means that non-tenured faculty members or other junior staff members should be referees unless she or he is your supervisor. Ideally your references would come from Full Professors at internationally respected universities (top 20). Finally, your referees must know you and know your work. Also, it is highly advisable to ask before putting someone’s name on your reference list.
Personalize Your Motivation
When writing your cover letter try to include some type of personal connection to either the institution or at least to the locale. For example, writing things like “I was inspired to apply for this position after meeting Dr. Smith at the recent conference on twirlygigs. I believe that my expertise in “x” could be highly synergistic with her recent efforts in “y”.” Other ways to bolster your motivation is to write about specific pieces of institutional equipment you would use or particular nearby industrial contacts. Institutions want to think that your motivation for applying is not simply that they have an open position.
Do Not End the Process Before It Begins
No job is a panacea. Every institution and locale has its good things and its bad things. The job searching and interviewing process is much like dating. So try to have an open mind and appear highly agreeable, at least until a job offer is made. While you may have deep seated (and highly legitimate) reservations about a possible job (e.g. too rural, too urban, too focused on teaching, too small, too big, etc.), the cover letter is not the place to express them. You are selling and they are buying. At this very initial stage you need to spend all of your words describing how valuable you can be to them. The other critical thing to remember is that it is always easier to get a job from a job. Meaning that even if the application is not for your dream post, finding the dream post is will be easier to achieve once you are “in the club” of having an academic post. The academic world is small (even in the biggest disciplines) and people know each other. They meet at conferences and through other professional opportunities. You will be much better suited to gain the needed professional reputation and skills for your dream job once you have landed any academic post.
Try to Visit
Although this may not be financially or logistically easy to arrange, if it is at all possible to arrange a visit to the institution then you should do so. Ideally you would do this prior to the submission of your application so that in your cover letter you can mention your recent visit, but if this is not possible try to visit anyway. This will cost some money and some time, but it will make you appear much more serious as a candidate, and if you are lucky you might even get to meet with individuals who are on the search committee. You can give most any excuse for a visit (e.g. seeing an old friend from grad school who is now at that institution, a vacation, family in the area, etc.). The reason is not important. The goal is to get to the institution and if at all possible have a few minutes of face time with the department head or anyone else who is senior and in the hiring area. Be bold, take some initiative, and know that the worst that they can say is that they are sorry but they are unable to accommodate your visit at that time.