Quantity vs Quality

How many job applications should you make? Should you send out as many as possible to maximise your chances of success or should you send out just a few well-targeted quality applications? This was a question put to me recently when I ran a career workshop entitled “How to recession-proof your career”. For doctoral students and researchers coming towards the end of their PhD or contract it is a dilemma: should you flood the market with your CV and applications or should you be more discerning?

While there is no definitive answer to this question, there are three main factors to consider in answering it:

1)      How much time do you have? Making applications is a time-consuming process which may distract you away from other equally important pursuits such as writing up your thesis or preparing papers for publication. If you don’t particularly enjoy the writing process (and many researchers don’t) you could easily spend a disproportionate amount of time on job applications when, in fact, the very activities which will enhance your application still need to be completed. 

2)      What is your career intention? Have you made a clear and informed decision about where you want to take your career (even if only in the short-term)?

If you know what you want to do next, e.g. apply for a postdoctoral position or fellowship, a research post in industry, a technical post, teaching etc., you can formulate an application and/or CV which reflects the experience and skills required by the employer. Even so, every application you make still needs to be re-tuned to satisfy the finer details of the post so that you are matching yourself as closely as possible to the requirements of the position. On top of this, a covering letter is also normally needed to accompany the application and, as with any précis or summary, it needs to be focussed and succinct to maximise impact, which can take some time to write.

If you are undecided about your next career move, you may be tempted to send out applications to a wide variety of advertised jobs in the hope that one of them will be successful. Generally speaking, I would recommend against this, not only because you will find it difficult to sell yourself to many and varied employers, but also because by making applications without having determined what it is you want and are suited to do, you are missing out a crucial step in your career planning – see a previous blog on self-awareness. In this case, your applications may come across as being superficial by the employer and you will be unlikely to secure an interview. Having said that, I don’t propose you only apply for one type of post, but if you want to spread your options, I would suggest you settle for one other career track (which may be made up of a number of similar associated jobs). For example, perhaps you are considering research in academia and/or research in industry as two career options. These are closely related but the jobs are advertised on different internet sites (see career resources) and will have subtle differences in their job specifications meaning you will need two types of CV – an industry and an academic one. Applications will take time to compose so that you ensure you are placing emphasis on the key experience and skills, qualities and achievements which will be of most interest to a research group leader in these two different sectors.

3)      Do you need to make a compromise? There are a number of reasons why you may need to compromise your career: the recession is starting to bite hard with funding and research positions more difficult to find; your research may not have resulted in many high impact papers; you may be restricted in terms of your mobility and need to limit your job search to the local area. When you compromise your career you have to be more creative and open minded about what you are prepared to do. Technical posts or teaching may seem more attractive than they did previously, you may even think about non-scientific administrative posts being advertised in your institution. If this is the case, be very careful about how you approach each of your applications. Each post may differ considerably from another in terms of the type of job, work environment and candidate requirements. Job adverts will be attracting professionals who are already working in the sector so your application must be highly targeted, demonstrating the transferability of all your experience, so that you set yourself at a level which is comparable to your adversaries. If you find your applications are consistently unsuccessful, examine the gaps in your skills and see if there is something you can do to fill them to improve your chances in future (e.g. enrol on a course, do some voluntary work, network, etc).
Making applications can be likened to writing an essay or taking an exam. You need to read the question, underline the key words and then answer to your best ability within the confines of the time and space allowed. For job applications, the clues can all be found in the job and personal specifications. Read them, highlight the key requirements and then write your application accordingly. This will take time and energy so if you try to do too many, too disparately, you may be reducing the quality of your applications. Consider the application process as just one part of the whole career planning process in which other activities are just as important such as researching opportunities, networking, self-analysis  and enhancing your employability. Make your applications, but never compromise quality over quantity.

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