20,000 Leagues Under the (Academic) Sea — The Application

Applications are as unique as the applicant.

Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D.
5 min readNov 9, 2020

This is part of a series of posts tackling the academic job search from my recent experience. Read the rest here.

It was August 2019, and I was in a social event after a conference — remember when we were still doing those in person?

I usually get a bit anxious on those kinds of settings. I’m terrible at chit chatting, and I’m usually exhausted from an entire day wandering among posters, listening to talks, and having great ideas that I dismiss a second later.

But there I was, talking to other postdocs who were also planning on diving in the academic job market in upcoming months. I was sipping some delicious IPA when I overheard my name. Pointing at me it was this other postdoc who already had an offer from another institution and whom I had been talking a good portion of the night. He had just recommended me to a professor who was looking for talented young researchers interested in applying to assistant professor positions. And so it began.

What do you include in the application?

My application typically consisted of six documents:

· My research statement: this is arguably the most important document of your entire application and where you show off your ability to have ideas and put them on paper in a comprehensive, yet summarized manner.

· My teaching statement: this is not required 100% of the time, but you should have one ready for when they asked you for it. Talk about how you plan to approach teaching at different levels, and what you can bring to the table to advance high education.

· My diversity statement: sadly, this is also not required 100% of the time, but it’s a very important one from my point of view. Talk about what diversity means to you and how you’ll ensure the work environment will be a welcoming and safe environment for everyone.

· My cover letter: Only 1 page, starting with where and how I heard about the position, following with highlights of my career, and finishing with why I thought I would be a good fit for the department (what I can bring to the team, but also how I can grow as an academic by joining them).

· My curriculum: I probably overdid it. My CV was 5 pages long, and perhaps I should have cut it down. But I wanted to show all my extra-curricular activities in science outreach and communication and so I decided to risk boring my interviewers by looking at a rather long CV. Do not go over 5 pages, as that’s the maximum generally allowed.

· My list of references: I had a list of 5 references across different stages in my career. Sometimes they asked for only 3, but it was easier to have the 5 of them on board from the beginning.

Don’t just talk about why you want to join them, but also what you can bring to the table. It is all about having, giving, sharing and receiving.

In my opinion, a good applicant should put as much thought into the research statement as into the diversity or teaching statements. After all, you’re applying to a position where you’ll be the mentor of future scientists, so those mentors should be carefully chosen among applicants. But unfortunately I know some search committee members don’t read all the documents, and they would just go straight to your research statement dismissing the importance of the other documents. But that’s a topic for a different day… My advice is to carefully prepare every single part of your application like if it was the most important one. In every single place I interviewed, search committee members took heed on different aspects of my application, so be prepared.

My Research Statement

This was the most mysterious documents of all. No one would give me a straight answer on how it should look, which frustrated me. But I now understand how there is no right answer to this. Here I’m sharing what I chose to do, but it doesn’t mean it was the right choice. Though I got a position, I also got rejected from many, many places (and I’m still waiting to hear from so many others… I’m assuming I didn’t succeed).

I shared my research statement with a couple of senior professors, but they didn’t give me much feedback, as they didn’t want to tamper with my personal style and views. It was useful though to make sure that my ideas made sense, and that it seemed doable in the timeline that I was suggesting.

My choice was to make my research statement to look like a micro-R01. I was lucky enough to look at some applications from people who succeeded before me, and they all looked similar in the sense that they were presenting some “aims”. This seemed to be the “right” way to go if you’re applying to a medical school. I applied to other departments that were a lot more teaching-oriented and they seemed to like that format too, at least enough to skype-interview me.

The structure of my research statement was:

· A paragraph with my overarching idea

· A paragraph with my past research (Ph.D. and Postdoc)

· Two main aims with two sub-aims each, rendered as my short-term goals, and accompanied by a little graphical abstract.

· A paragraph with my long-term goals

· And a final sentence summarizing why everything was worth it.

It was 3 pages long, though I had a shorter version, as some departments required a 2-page statement. This was a bit of a headache, as the application sites sometimes had very different requirements from the previous one: sometimes I had to upload all my documents merged as a single PDF, other times as single PDFs, sometimes you had to copy-paste in their text boxes, sometimes they wanted 3 references, other times 5, sometimes the teaching and diversity statement were a single document, etc… So keep in mind that applying for every single position is a job in itself. It will take time. I spent 12-hour days just submitting applications.

The process will burn you out, and you will feel hopeless at times. But always remember that you’re looking for a department where you will be spending the next few (more stressful) years of your life, so choose well and dedicate the time that it deserves to prepare.

Good luck!

If you have any resources to help prepare for the application, please share below in comments! And reach out to me if you have any questions. I will be more than happy to help if I can.



Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D.

Neuroscientist, science communicator, ukelele player. I write about brains and sometimes other stuff.