Perhaps this column should be entitled “How not to get short-listed for a job”, as it is the mistakes that candidates make that eliminate them from consideration as much as (if not more than) the things they do correctly that get them from being a mere applicant to being short-listed.
In case hunting for an academic job is something new or altogether unfamiliar, the cycle often starts with an advertisement, which may or may not have a closing date. The evaluation then begins with a small committee (usually no larger than 3) that does an initial screening of the applications. For this stage, the most important documents are the cover letter and the curriculum vita. Although other things may be requested at the application submission stage, their importance is only secondary in the initial screening.
Depending upon the prestige of the academic institution, the seniority of the position, how specialized it is, and whether or not it is permanent, there may be only a dozen or so applications or several hundred. From this group of applications, a short list of candidates (typically 4-12 individuals) is compiled. At this point several things may happen: (1) this group may then be given preliminary, skype-based interviews; (2) letters of recommendations may e sought from the nominated referees; and/or (3) credentials may e further examined by either the original screening panel or by a larger committee. In terms of improving the odds for success, being “short-listed” is the crucial step (i.e. going from 1 in 100 applicants to only 1 in 10, for instance).
The first piece of advice is to read the advertisement. If you are a theoretical physicist and they want an experimental chemist, do not waste your time or theirs. Similarly, if you are just graduating, unless you have a MacArthur genius award, or something of equivalent distinction, do not apply for senior positions. You simply will not be considered. There are a surprisingly large number of these poorly aligned applications that are submitted.
Some job ads are very explicit. These are the easy ones, because the institutional requirements are usually well-articulated. Sometimes they are so specific that it seems that they are written with a particular individual in mind. While this may be the case, things do happen that may prevent that individual from being able or willing to take the position. So if you think that you fit the job description, apply.
When the job description is vague this may be because the institution has funds to do a general hiring of the best available candidates or that they have something in mind but are concerned that they will be unable to find the specific expertise and do not want to undertake the time and expense of a second hiring round if the ideal candidate does not appear. For instance, while at my first academic post, my institution advertised for a position in structural engineering with an expertise in steel, but what they wanted was something much more specific – a candidate with experience in large-scale steel experimentation. Thus, they received nearly 200 applications but only considered those with the additional, unstated credential. If you see broadly written description, try to find out what they are truly seeking. If they already have young staff in your areas of expertise, why would they want you? You may also obtain information from your network of either student or staff contacts. Academic communities are fairly small, so you may be surprised by whom you know at a particular university.
Applications are often discarded because candidates have failed to comply with the submission instructions. This usually occurs by missing a deadline set by Human Resources or by failing to include all of the requested information.
Another common failing is a sloppy or unprofessional cover letter and/or cv. In this game, first impressions are everything. Not only is this true with respect to typos and grammar errors, but there are more subtle cultural factors. For instance in the U.S. you never include your photograph, age, gender, family status or nationality in application materials. Employers are actually forbidden by law to inquire on such topics. In Europe, many countries would find an application without those data lacking. Another more subtle issue is whether employment, education, and publications are presented in chronological or in reverse chronological order. To determine what is likely to be expected, look at on-line cvs of the existing staff members.
Perhaps the most import factor to remember is that you are selling, and they are buying. This means that you must sell yourself. Ideally this happens in the first 2-3 sentences. Imagine yourself being the reviewer with a huge stack of applications. Immediately tell the reader why you are the perfect fit for this position. Include brief descriptions of major achievements, prizes, competitive funding, and useful industrial ties in the area. Finally your letter should not be longer than 1.5 pages. Typically, the committee will not read past the first page, so efforts beyond this only represent wasted key strokes.