What does your soul (read: postdoc application) look like?

Portrait of Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships, in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.

What queue? by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I have a secret weapon. I can look into your soul.

By that, I mean that, as part of my role, I’ve had to read a large volume of academic CVs. Particularly postdocs’ CVs.

I’ve probably looked more than 600 CVs in the past year, and what has astounded me throughout that process is not the number of staff looking for employment (there are many), or the wide variety of academic pathways (an encouraging sign).

The thing that surprised me most is the sheer volume of CVs that seem to be actively trying to thwart the reader.

Applying for a postdoc position is a bit like applying for a grant application. There are lots of other people who are also applying. The person reading the applications could be trying to shortlist from over 300 applications, and is looking for reasons to drop your application onto the cutting-room floor.

I can’t help you with most of these factors. I can’t control the number of applicants and I can’t help you with journal articles you haven’t written, or grant applications that haven’t been successful.

What I can do is give you a short list of tips that can help keep your application in the initial cut. These mostly cover the CV but the principles apply to the Key Selection Criteria and other parts of the application.

There are a million clichés when it comes to discussing applications: ‘First impressions count’ or ‘Reading a CV is like meeting someone for the first time’. One of my recent favourites is that reading CVs is like online dating but ‘more like Tinder than eHarmony‘.

I’m not the first to provide such a list, obviously, as there are myriad tips out there already.

What I’m going to give you is my Top 10 hints on how to avoid annoying someone who has to read hundreds of these things.

  1. Think about the role you’re applying for. No, seriously, think about it. If it’s a teaching role, put teaching up front, if it’s a research role, put your research up front. Don’t make the reader wade through a dozen descriptions of teaching modules if they want to hear about your research. This involves a bit of work – maybe even having two different versions of your CV – but it’s important. If I have to wade through unnecessary detail, I’m already less than impressed by the time I get to the stuff you really want me to read.
  1. Money talks. I’m not saying you need to grease any palms – just put the amount of funding you’ve received next to your grants. I don’t magically know how much your fellowship at the Institute of BLAH was worth. I don’t know how much money you received from The Grantuitous Fund for your conference and, with 300+ other applications to look at, I’m certainly not going to look it up. Here’s the thing: it’s your job to tell me. It’s simple. I want: X project, Y months, Z funding. It doesn’t matter if you think it isn’t a lot of money. If you don’t tell me how much it actually is, then I’m not going to make up a bigger number. It will just make me annoyed.
  1. Use subheadings! Remember, 300+ applications – so you want to make yours as easy to read as possible. This means you don’t simply list everything under ‘Outputs’. Don’t make me look too hard for the details of your publications. Put subheadings for your conference papers (both refereed and not), journal articles, chapters, books, creative works, and all the rest.
  1. This is a big one: Number your outputs. Don’t make me count them. Don’t use bullet points, use numbers. Don’t be afraid if the total seems small. If I don’t have to count the number of publications, I’m more likely to spend a bit more time looking at what you’ve written. That’s exactly what you want.
  1. Bold your name in your publication list. Trying to find a name in a paper with 13 authors is hard. Bolding your name makes it simple for me to know if you’re first author, last author, or somewhere in between. It will also create a lovely river of text that emphasises your name, right down the page.
  1. Don’t use tablesWord tables are awful. They just make it hard to read your projects, papers, whatever. Just use simple numbered points, consistent formatting, and include details like digital object identifiers (DOIs). These show that you know the game.
  1. Remember to credit your colleagues on the grants and outputs they worked on with you. If you weren’t the only person on that grant, list everybody. If I think you’re not telling me the whole story, that may cast a doubt on the rest of your claims. Some people put percentage of effort against each person – for me, this is unnecessary. If you’re a co-author, then just say so. This may be a personal thing but percentages for me only ever: (a) undermine your contribution, or (b) make it look like you’re trying to steal credit from other people. All in all, it doesn’t look collegial.
  1. Don’t submit your application as Word docs if you can avoid it. If the submission process allows it, submit your application as a PDF. The formatting is more likely to stay solid and it won’t bring up little red lines under your spelling mistakes.
  1. Don’t have spelling mistakes! Also, cut out anything completely crazy. By the time you’ve revised your application a million times, you’re probably blind to both so ask someone to read it to make sure these things aren’t in there.
  1. Don’t forget to cut out irrelevant things – things that were perhaps relevant a while ago but aren’t any longer. For your teaching: don’t worry about module numbers or descriptions. And remember that this isn’t your first job. Nobody cares that you were House Captain in highschool or, for that matter, that you enjoy cooking, music, and reading.

Following these tips won’t necessarily get you the job, but they will make sure that your application doesn’t completely suck.

More importantly, they will make my job slightly easier and, most importantly, they will mean I’m more likely to pay attention to the content of your application. That is definitely what you want.


  1. Hobbies, like cooking, music, and reading expose a little more about an applicant’s personality, which I believe can be beneficial to the recruiter – at least I know it was for me when I was in that position. It’s usually a brief line on the bottom of the last page and I can’t imagine a CV would be dropped to the cutting-room floor as a result of its inclusion. That said, my experience is with the finance industry. Perhaps academia is different?


    • Hi Michael – thanks for your comment. I guess I was trying to focus on getting the applicant through the first cut. Academic CVs are often quite lengthy and really, getting the reader to focus on the detail that is relevant is really the end goal. The personality stuff is important I think, but this also comes out in the interview process as well.


  2. Thanks for this post! It’s very timely since I’m updating my CV (actually CVs) at present.
    I’ve been using Karen Kelsky’s resources – both her website [ http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/01/12/dr-karens-rules-of-the-academic-cv/ ] and book “The Professor is in”. The advice expands on yours and gives some clear examples on how to do it.
    For me, the biggest take away point from your post, and Karen’s resources, is to *think of the reader*. My favourite piece of advice is to use a 12 point font (or 11 point at the absolute smallest) with wide 2.5 cm margins. Why? Because the people reading applications are likely tired, overworked faculty who will be sick of reading (or more likely skimming) over pages and pages of very small text crammed onto the pages. Make it easy on the eyes and and least the reader might not *hate* looking at it!


    • Hi Emma, thanks for your comment. I’ve seen Karen’s page and it does have some great advice. I hadn’t thought about the font or margins size and you’re right – readability is definitely important for time-poor people who are skimming through (having just gone through the ARC Discovery round, this is definitely on my radar now). Font colour is another interesting note. I’ve only ever seen it used well in two CVs so probably best to steer clear of that too. Glad you enjoyed the post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.