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Avoid the Big Oops Feeling When Applying for Academic Jobs

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Ice cream cone dropped on the ground

It’s academic job application season again, and horror stories are coming in from applicants who are new to the process and missed something important. Typos and other mistakes happen to all of us, but we can develop processes to mitigate their impact when we need to get things right.

Four Editor Tips for Avoiding a Big Oops

Project management skills and attention to detail can help prevent application errors. Here are four ways to catch problems before they sink your chances:

1. Proofread your notes about deadlines.

Take a few minutes to compare your notes about deadlines to the source information and check for typos. The difference between an 11/1 deadline and a 1/1 deadline is one you can probably feel in your gut right now.

When you’re creating a spreadsheet or other organizational tool to track deadlines, consider copy/pasting the text instead of retyping it. Both strategies can introduce typos, but copy/paste produces fewer errors and they are usually at the beginning or end of the text. Retyping can introduce errors anywhere, which is harder to proofread.

2. Use visual cues when you work with templates.

In your cover letter template, take a second to highlight any text that you intend to change for individual letters. Then each time you create a cover letter, copy the template and remove the highlighting as you customize each section. You won’t have to think so hard about whether it’s ready to go out. If you’re tired or in a hurry, it can be easy to forget to edit one of the sections.

If you’re working in LaTeX, you could treat the name of the school as a variable at the top of the document. Other elements you might consider changing automatically include the name of a person you’d like to work with at the institution, and your sentence expressing why you’re enthusiastic about applying to that school.

Always proofread the results if you decide to automate the document customization. It looks especially sloppy to allow mistakes caused by automation (extra spaces around terms, forgetting honorifics, capitalization that doesn’t make sense in context). Signs of automation also contradict a message like “your institution is my top choice,” even if you mean it.

3. Check your work.

Leave time for proofreading your application materials. If possible, proofread on a separate day from writing.

  • Double-check headings, contact information, and other sections where errors would be highly visible.
  • If you find yourself skimming, try reading the document backward from the bottom to force your brain to really look at each word.

4. Before sending, ask your mentors to weigh in.

Stay in communication with mentors and your professional network throughout this process. Get feedback on:

  • Tone, which may be specific to the country or region of the job listing
  • Whether you’re highlighting accomplishments and community engagement that will carry weight with hiring committees
  • The names of specific faculty that you’d like to collaborate with or study under

This last item is a safety check to help you name someone who is active in your field and who has a position with the correct institution (multiple institutions share names like Northwestern, Wesleyan, or Max Planck Institute).

What would you add to this list?

What did you learn from your experiences applying for academic jobs? Share in a comment!

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