How to apply to a researcher position

4 minute read

The process to apply for positions at Universities differs a lot between different countries. I wrote some observations what’s special about the German system in a previous post. One particular aspect of the German system is that there are rarely “Ph.D. programs”. You apply for a researcher position which is funded by some source (a third-party funded research project, or a university-funded position, or something else). There is rarely a centrally organized admission process. Essentially, you directly apply to your potential Ph.D. supervisor, and this person will decide who to hire.

Now, after I decided to move to Bamberg, I have some positions to offer. I’d like to provide some guideance what distinguishes a good from a not-so-good application.

Does your application look like you send it like that to multiple places?

It is totally understandable that you apply to multiple positions. Nevertheless, make your application appear to be tailored exactly for the position you are applying for. Address the correct person, mention the correct place, but less obvious: Really explain why you apply for this position at this university, with this supervisor. For instance, formulations like “your esteemed institution” or “after a long period of research where to apply” or “your PhD program” sound not very targeted.

Some anecdotes: I received applications which mentioned the wrong name in the letter, I received applications from people who work in entirely different research areas (like… chemistry), and I received applications which mention the wrong University.

The application explains why you are interested in this position.

Explain why you are interested in this position. The supervisor wants somebody who is really interested in this job. The supervisor probably developed a research plan for this job to get money for the project, and is very likely super-excited about the ideas. The candidate should, given the little information they have access to, at least show some enthusiasm. If you need more information, ask the person you are applying to. Showing your interest in this particular project is probably more important than your past work. That’s also important, but for a different reason.

Again, some anecdotes: I sometimes receive applications which explain why the position is a good opportunity to develop. The candidates explain that such Ph.D. position helps them to do X or Y, and that it will make them an independent researcher. That’s not unimportant, it’s good to see that you have such goals. But these things are, again, not very targeted.

The application explains your qualification for the position.

It is important that you are genuinely interested in the position you apply for. Your supervisor wants to share the enthusiasm of the research with you, but of course they also want you to be able to succeed. For that, they want to know why and how you are qualified. Which previous work made you the ideal candidate for this position? Do not just list everything you did. Explain why some specific experience will be valuable for the position you are applying for.

For instance, if you apply with me for an emotion analysis from literature position (nope, none open in the moment, sorry), it is not that relevant to hear about your experience in text–to–image generation. If you wrote a paper about it, that might, however be relevant, because experience in writing papers generalizes across concrete fields. Try to be as specific as you can. It’s also not terrible if you don’t have awesome previous experiences that make you super-qualified, but explain what you have to offer.

My application is structured as requested in the job post.

Sounds so simple, but I receive quite many applications that do not provide all information that is asked for. That’s a no go. Do you provide all documents that are requested? Do you put them together in one PDF file (if that’s requested)? Failing to follow the instructions might look like you are not genuinely interested in the position. Or worse: that you are not able to read the instructions carefully. It would be a pity if your application looks worse than it needs to be.

It is surprisingly common to see applications that do not mention the position the application is for. It’s common to receive mails with multiple files as attachments (despite me asking specifically for just one PDF file).

Every person going through such applications has a specific approach to organize that. It might be that you don’t agree that having one PDF file which includes the motivation letter, the CV, and additional information is the best thing to send, but please make it easy for the person who makes the decision.

In my case, it is very unlikely that you receive an invitation to an interview if you don’t follow the explanations how to apply. I might ask you for a fixed application, but I might also not do that.

Anything else?

Is there something that’s still unclear to you? Please let me know, and I’ll edit this post to provide more information.