How I write cover letters

Following up on some recent (and less recent) discussions on Twitter, I decided to share a few of my applications for academic positions. Although the tips here are specifically about the cover letters, for context I am also adding the CVs that I applied with at the time. Depending on the application, other documents may have been required as well.

Applications

I am sharing three applications from different periods of time:

  • 2010 when applying for my PhD
  • 2014 when applying for a postdoc
  • 2016 when applying for a faculty position

These led to me at least getting an interview (see CV of Failures) and/or also getting the position. You can find them all in a single zip file here.

A bit of a disclaimer – I do NOT think these are the best examples out there at all, but I’m sharing these for transparency, as realistic examples. I also have to note that I have likely benefitted from applying to places “close by” in my network.

Cover letter structure

When I write letters – and I have tried these with the letters above, I try to use the following structure:

  • General introduction of the letter – who am I, why am I applying
  • My research background and how it fits the position
  • Another thing that is special about me
  • Summarize why it’s a good fit & plans for the future

Often this translates into a paragraph per bullet point, but as the examples show there is some flexibility there.

As much as possible, I try to address the person who is going to read the application, using their correct title. If you are not sure, I would go with “Dear committee” since that is the most inclusive version.

Tips

Above I have highlighted which parts I think are the most important. All of it is about personalizing your letter to the position. Researching the website of the lab, the long-term vision document of the university, etc., can give you a lot of information on what to write.

It is also important not to write too much – although I highlight a few things from my CV, I do not repeat everything in detail. And, I think it is good to write in a way that sounds natural to you. Although I think these are not the best letters at all, I do still find that I sound like myself, even though one of these is from 10 years ago! Note that I do NOT have an in-depth story of how motivated I am to solve a major scientific problem, because that is just not me.

Although I do not know it for a fact, I think my “another thing that is special about me” has helped my applications a lot. The exact contents have evolved over the years, but overall I think I tried to focus on activities that can be seen in a leadership context – from organizing student events to outreach on social media.

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That’s all I have to say about my cover letters! I hope these documents are helpful – if you have any questions please leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter!

Not-so-supervised learning of academics

Picking up where I left off with blogging last year – this is part two of a write-up of a talk I’ve given a few times last year, part one is here. After talking about algorithms which deal with data that is not fully labeled, in this part I discuss how career choices can be similar, with my own as an example.

PhD 

Doing a PhD was not on my radar until my MSc supervisor suggested that I apply for a position in the group. I liked the group and doing research for 4 years seemed like a good job to me (see my post on being an employee during your PhD). I didn’t have any specific long-term goal and, as I now realize, was clueless about most aspects of academia. 

What I did understand is that it was good to publish papers. I had a few interesting (though not spectacular) results fairly early on, so I wrote papers and sent them to various workshops. I enjoyed these workshops a lot – since there were not that many people, I could meet researchers I’d just been citing, and have good discussions. On the other hand, I spent quite a lot of time writing smaller papers and pushing away the fact that I needed journal publications to graduate. Also, as I discovered later, my grant reviewers have never heard of these workshops, and thus were not impressed with my publication record. 

I also did a lot of service and outreach activities. I had already been doing this type of thing as a student, so I was good at it, I enjoyed helping others, and it was good for my CV, whether I’d stay in academia or not. So I spent time organizing workshops, reviewing papers, giving talks to encourage more girls into science. I did learn something from all of these activities but in retrospect I think I spent a disproportional amount of time on them. 

Postdoc

I doubted a lot before deciding to go for a postdoc. The awareness of the struggle of finding a position after, and all the people telling me I really have to go abroad to have any shot at it, didn’t help. In the end by talking to more mentors, I decided to go give it a try – without leaving the country. 

My plan was to only do one postdoc and then get an independent position – or leave academia.  As I understood to achieve an independent position I needed to do three things: publish on the project I was hired on, develop my own line of research, and get my own funding. I was not prepared to deal with so many different objectives, so in the end, I did all the things poorly. On top of that, I failed to take care of myself, and had to take a few months off to recover.

It was during a particular low point during the postdoc that I started blogging and tweeting more. It started with me publishing my CV of Failures – I thought I would be documenting a story that would end with me leaving academia. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I continued with the How I Fail series. During all of this I found an incredibly supportive Twitter community, with many others who were going through similar struggles, and it’s been helpful ever since. 

Tenure Track

Much to my surprise (and other feelings), I did find myself in a tenure track position after all.  This is an important accomplishment, but at the same time, the next goal – getting tenure – is coming up in a few years. Again, there is this (self-imposed?) pressure to do all the things, so it is not without challenges.  But, it is a much better experience in several aspects, because I occasionally realize that I don’t have to do all the things all the time. :

  • I occasionally realize that I don’t have to do all the things all the time. I’ve now actually been able to have periods on time focusing on writing, then focusing on teaching etc. 
  • I occasionally (not often enough) realize that I don’t have to repeat the career paths on others to “succeed”. The combination of things that I do, might just be “good enough”, even though it doesn’t fit the typical “successful” CV. 
  • I have a lot of people, online and offline, who share or have shared many of the same experiences, and who have advice, or are just up for having a coffee or a beer when things are tough.

Academia as supervised learning 

Where does the not-so-supervised learning come in? It seems to me that a lot of advice of what we need to do to “succeed” is based on rules derived from previous “successful” CVs – publishing at particular venues, doing a postdoc abroad, etc. Some of these rules we are explicitly told as advice, others we assume ourselves.

But there is a lot of missing from this picture. The “success” label is a function of much more than particular activities, but also the state of the world (number of tenure track positions, number of students, etc), and the state you are in yourself (including anything else you have to deal with next to the job search). These features have not been taken into account when creating the rules. So even if you do follow all the rules you might get a disappointing outcome, and vice versa.

There might also be opportunities that didn’t exist before. For example, few full professors would have been using Twitter during their PhDs and postdocs. As a yet “unlabeled” activity, it probably wouldn’t come up in any rules, but it can be a powerful tool for early career researchers.

Last but not least, it’s important to remember there’s more than one success metric, and why I’ve been writing “success” in a CV sense. Ultimately success should probably involve being happy, which can be achieved through other types of jobs. And perhaps some of these jobs are not even in our dataset yet.

CV of Failures vs Shadow CV

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that the “CV of Failures” or “Shadow CV” are a recurrent theme on my blog and on my Twitter timeline. In this post I discuss why I think the two concepts are actually quite different, and why this difference is important. 

CV of Failures

The CV of Failures, originally proposed by Dr. Melanie Stefan, is mostly that – a list of things that didn’t work out. Most often I see failures interpreted as “things I tried to do but didn’t succeed”. This category includes rejections of jobs, grants and papers. Although these failures are hard, I think they are not very personal because they depend on both everybody else who applies, as well as everybody who evaluates you. 

Much less common is to include things that are more personal – something you just didn’t do (but should have). It’s often not your fault, because of how academia is structured – but in retrospect, you would have done these differently. This category includes focusing on the quantity over quality, not taking opportunities out of fear and being a bad mentor to others. Even more personal, it’s neglecting your health or people around you – although I haven’t seen many examples of people sharing this. 

Shadow CV

What is a shadow CV then? To me it is larger than the CV of Failures. While the CV of Failures focuses on things you have done (or didn’t do), there are many more things that influence where your CV or CV of Failures are today. It’s all the additional challenges faced by one person, and all the privilege enjoyed by another. 

There are efforts to take parts of the shadow CV when evaluating people. For example, in the Netherlands time off due to parental leave or illness can be listed on a grant application. But this is limited in scope and does not include, for example, chronic illness, financial insecurity or family problems. Even if you are lucky to work in a place where people are supportive – and I have been – these things are invisible to somebody deciding whether you belong to the top 10% of researchers who deserve funding.  

But the shadow CV is not only the challenges. It is also all the things you are proud of but that are not on any CV, like finishing a paper despite having a difficult year or a thank you email from somebody who’s read it. Regardless of what your reviewers say, don’t forget that these are the true successes.

 

My biggest mistake and what it taught me about the academy

One of the most read posts on this blog is “7 things I wish I would have done during my PhD“. Although none of the advice there is surprising, it seems important to hear stories about mistakes, without “how to” one-size-fits-all rules attached to it. So when Times Higher Education invited me to write about “My biggest mistake & what it taught me about the academy”, I didn’t have to think twice.

In this piece I talk about not realising the importance of mentors early on in my academic career. I can view this mistake as something that led to a CV that is suboptimal, at least in the eyes of my reviewers. But now I also realize it’s made my journey much more interesting, and I wouldn’t trade what I was able to learn in this process for a few more high impact factor publications.

I haven’t yet decided on what the best trade-off is, but would love to hear from you! Should your mentors prepare you for everything? Or do you need to experience some mistakes yourself? Let me know after you read the article, in a comment here or on Twitter!

How I Fail in Open Science

Last week I had the pleasure of giving a talk at OpenMR Benelux event, wonderfully organized by @fmrwhy.  Although the slides and a video of the talk will be available online, for those of you who prefer reading, I thought I would write a few of the things I mentioned during my talk. 

As I mentioned in my talk, I was feeling a bit like an imposter speaking at this event, since I neither do a lot of MR, nor a lot of open science”. Nevertheless I’ve decided to be open about how open my science is and share my experiences with it so far – hence the title “How I Fail in Open Science”. 

Open science during my PhD 

My story begins in 2011 when I started my PhD. After focusing on workshop papers for two years, I realized I needed journal papers to graduate. I submitted three papers that year and followed the suggestion to post them on arXiV because the review process could be lengthy. I used public datasets and a publicly available MATLAB toolbox, and since both the data and tools were online, I didn’t think it was needed to share the rest of my code. 

In 2015 the papers were finally accepted and I finished my PhD. Because the papers were already online for two years, I was able to benefit from the preprint bump. I would also occasionally get emails about the experiments in my paper. I then decided to share my (non-version controlled) experiments code to reproduce the results table in the paper. Miraculously even after two years I was still able to run my code AND get the same results. So I shared the code with a CRAPL license, which I felt absolved me from doing any other “cleaning up of the code”.

Open science during my postdoc

After starting my postdoc in 2015 I felt like I should publish as fast as possible. Instead of investigating the best tools for my project, I decided to go with my tried and trusted method. This was not a good strategy and in retrospect, I would have been much better off investing some time into switching to Python, creating clean code and so forth. In the end I didn’t publish much at all that year.

The publishing situation became even worse in 2016 when I started searching for my next job. However, since I was updating my CV often, I did also decide to share a few more things online. I also started using social media more often, and learning more about open science in general. 

Open science now

In 2017 I found myself in a tenure track position. Inspired by everything I saw on Twitter, I wanted to do everything right – switch to Python, publish in new open access journals, share everything online. I quickly discovered that this is not feasible next to all the other responsibilities you have when starting on the tenure track.

The only thing I have been doing consistently is posting preprints on arXiV. Here and there I have a paper for which I’ve shared data or code (still not version controlled), but it’s not something that happens by default. 

Why is my science not as open as I want it to be? It’s easy to say there’s too little time, but in the end it is a question of priorities. I am still influenced by my grant reviewers who tell me “that’s nice, but you should have published more”, and the funding agency who agrees with them. And although overall my experience on Twitter has been positive, people with strong opinions about what counts as open science, can be quite intimidating. 

How can I do better? I cannot change the system, but I can at least try to create a habit out of being more open. To do so I decided to draw parallels between open science and another area of my life in which I’ve had both successes and failures – running! 

Strategy 1: Start slow and focus on process

The first strategy is to start slow and focus on process. Find a thing that’s easy to do, and do it often. For running, my thing was “go for a run three times a week”. Note that there’s no distance or time – I just had to go out of the house, and even running 10 minutes was a success. If I had set a more difficult goal than that, I would get discouraged and quit – something that has happened to me several times before.

Translating this to open science, it’s a bad idea to try to do everything at once. I started with preprints and am now slowly adding sharing things online. I do this by using templates in Todoist. For example, every time I agree to give a talk, I import a fixed set of tasks, including “Create slides”, but also “Upload slides to website”.

Todoist project for the OpenMR talk, which includes preparing the talk but also sharing the slides

Strategy 2: Find accountability and support

To motivate yourself to continue with the habit you need to find accountability and support. With running, I find accountability by signing up for 10K races and then deciding that it’s probably going to be better for me to train on a regular basis. I also have a few friends who have either been running for a long time, or are just getting into it, so we can support each other. 

With sharing data and code, I feel accountable towards my students. I want them to do things better than I did myself, so I’m helping them set up their projects on Github from the start (inspired by Kirstie Whitaker). The code might still not be clean and run out of the box, but I feel like it’s an important first step.

As for support, I’m in a Slack group with other academics where we discuss this and other issues. And of course Twitter is a great place to learn new things and find people who are trying to improve their open science too. 

Strategy 3: Reward yourself

Finally, to create a habit don’t forget to reward yourself! After a race I might get a beer and a badge in my Strava app. But of course there are also long term rewards such as overall health, and being able to socialize with others. 

For open science there are also various metrics such as the Altmetric – here’s an example for a recent preprint. There are also gamified ewards, for example badges on ImpactStory. But more important is feeling the impact of your work on others, such as a thank you email, or an invitation to talk at an OpenMR event ūüôā 

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Do you struggle with sharing your work online? Or do you have any other helpful strategies? Leave a comment or let me know on Twitter!

My tenure track job search

This topic has come up several times on Twitter, in particular with #TotalToTT. I always participate in these conversations because I remember finding it so important to read stories of others when I was applying for a job. This is a more detailed summary of what I usually try to say regarding my search for a tenure track position. Note that since I was applying in Europe, positions are advertised continuously, so there is not really a “job season” like in the US.

Summary

I applied to a total of four jobs, interviewed for three, and got offered one – the position I have now. This sounds easy especially if you see the stories of people applying to 50, sometimes more than 100 positions.

It didn’t feel easy at the time. I already had problems with my mental health and spent some time on sick leave because of this. At the same time, I was also (unsuccessfully) applying for grants. Although I was not too worried about job security in general, academia already felt as an important part of my identity and I dreaded leaving.

Applying

The first tenure track job I applied for was the Delft Technology fellowship, a fellowship only for women I would compete with other women from all disciplines. I realized this application was a long shot, but since the fellowship only was given every two years, I thought I had to try. I discussed my applications with several full professors in Delft, who encouraged my to apply. But long story short, I quickly got rejected.

I then applied to two jobs in the UK. Although in my field there are quite a few jobs, I was quite selective with where I tried to apply. For example, I chose only universities that were neither too low nor too high on university rankings, only cities where I could see myself living, and only groups where I was getting a good impression about the lab culture. For both jobs, I emailed ahead to ask if it made sense for me to apply, since I wasn’t sure about the fit of my research. The responses were enthusiastic! These lead to informal Skype calls, and then invitations to interviews. This was so important for my self esteem since I felt like I was on the right track.

Interviews

I did a lot of research on each place before the interview – next to general “how to interview for academic positions in the UK” advice, I researched what other people in the lab did, looked at course syllabi and even read the strategic visions of the universities. What I felt was helpful for me, was to write down some answers to questions I was expecting. I felt that overall the interviews went well, however, since Brexit happened, I was myself unsure about willing to move to the UK. I wasn’t offered either job, but I received good feedback so overall I was happy with the process.

My deadline to start applying for non-academic positions was getting closer, when I somewhat by a combination of lucky circumstances heard about my current job. To prepare I did similar things as for the other interviews, but since the position was in the Netherlands I felt like I had an advantage. A day before my deadline I got the phone call that I had the job!

Verdict

I felt excited and relieved, but also scared and guilty about getting the offer.¬†It’s strange for me to think that this is already almost two years ago, because I still do largely feel the same way. I am aware that luck and privilege played a big part in this process.

On the other hand, I do think that the way I prepared my CV and contacted the groups in advance were also helpful. In the end, perhaps having only a few applications was an advantage. I do think this is individual and will vary a lot per field and country. If I could give any advice, I would still encourage people to apply, but talk to others more about how much time and energy you should invest.

Reader Q&A: choosing your advisor and topic

In today’s post I’m answering some questions from readers of this blog, on choosing an advisor and research topics. As a caveat, for me both things just “happened” so I am not the best person to give advice, but I did think of some tips that could be useful.

1. How to choose your advisor?

I think the lab where you will do your PhD is the most important factor for choosing a particular position. A large part of this is the advisor, but also the general atmosphere in the lab. That being said, it can be difficult to figure these things out in advance, if you are not already familiar with the lab. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Do people in the lab have social media accounts? The absense of social media probably doesn’t tell you much, but if one or more people have accounts perhaps you can learn a bit about the lab culture.
  • Look at publications lists – do the students get a chance to publish? Are there publications with multiple students, indicating more collaborations in the lab? Do students publish on their own topics, or only extend the work of the advisor?
  • Look at videos or slides from the advisor’s talks, if you can find any – do they credit their trainees for the work?
  • Get in touch with current or former trainees of the advisor – how is/was their experience in the lab?
  • Ask questions during the interview – what are the expectations of students in the lab? Are there any group meetings (such as a journal club) or other lab activities?

2. How to choose a research topic?

In the Netherlands (and several other countries in Europe) the topic will already be somewhat defined when you start a project. However, within that topic you should still have freedom to explore different questions. Here are some things that worked for me:

  • Just start somewhere. Read papers and implement them, and be critical about what you see. Are there some limitations, for example datasets that would not be suitable for the method?
  • Start writing as soon as possible, for example your thoughts about the papers you read. Are there any trends you start noticing?
  • Talk to others, both within and outside your field. Explaining research to others can often bring you to new thoughts
  • Ask yourself, “Am I building another hammer instead of investigating whether the problem is a nail?”
  • Ask yourself, “If my work was going to change a sentence in a textbook, what would that textbook/sentence be?” (Paraphrased from talk by Robert Williamson)

As with everything on this blog, my final piece of advice is – don’t stop here, but search for more different people giving different types of advice. If you know of a great blog post, or have your own advice to share, please comment below!

The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Dr. Eva Lantsoght’s book, The A-Z of the PhD Trajectory. The title is definitely fitting – I cannot think of any topic that was not covered.

I remember that at the start of my PhD, I got a book about “how to do a PhD”. Sure, it covered the main things like long-term planning, but I remember thinking I couldn’t really do anything with the advice.¬† Dr. Lantsoght’s book does not only that, but provides actionable hints on everyday habits that will help you successfully finish the PhD.

The chapters are quite modular – although there is a progression from starting to finishing a PhD, some chapters can be valuable as stand-alone reference, for example writing a literature review. In fact, many of the chapters are relevant not only to those pursuing a PhD! Although Dr. Lantsoght identifies supervisors as part of the audience, I think postdocs and new PIs who do not yet supervise PhDs (such as myself) could also greatly benefit from the book.

Perhaps the most important message I’d like to highlight is that of self-care, such as getting enough exercise and sleep. It is easy to fall into the trap of ditching these in favor of a few extra hours of experiments or writing. But in the long run, you will be more productive if you are happy and healthy. Thumbs up for voicing this message!

Balancing responsibilities in academia

In this post I discuss how I divide my time as an assistant professor and whether it is any different from being a postdoc or a PhD student. This is inspired by this tweet by @jayvanbavel (the plot is from this presentation), that got quite a lot of attention. Since I also had a few questions from readers about how I balance my responsibilities, I thought this would be a good topic to talk about. Spoiler: I do not identify with the message of this plot.

The categories in the plot are very fine-grained, but I will just talk about the larger categories: research (which for me includes manuscripts), service, grants, teaching and advising.

https://twitter.com/jayvanbavel/status/980071519505338369

As a PhD student

It’s true, as a PhD student I spent most of my time doing research. I would have whole days just for my exploring papers, drawing things on paper, trying out things in Matlab, meeting with my supervisors and writing down my findings. I suppose that going to talks also counts as “research” in this categorization. But more often than not, I did spend time on other categories than research and manuscripts.

First there is teaching. In my department, PhD students did not have to do a lot of teaching, but would be expected to help out with practical exercises in various courses. I did that, and volunteered for other teaching opportunities. I gave a few lectures about my research topic – the first took me approximately 30 hours of prepare. I’m quite shocked at this number now, and think I must have miscounted, but I did blog about right when it was happening, so I should probably trust my past self.¬†I¬†also had an opportunity to help redesign a module of a course, which was very insightful, but was also time-consuming.

Then there were activities in the “service” category. I had started reviewing papers,¬†organizing workshops¬†and giving outreach talks. I also organized the lab meetings for a while and kept various websites up to date. I enjoyed these activities and never consciously thought of them as “taking time away from my research”, which is probably why my grant reviewers are complaining now about my publication record.

The only category I didn’t spend a lot of time on was “grants”. But even so, I did manage to get a few rejections in that time.

As a postdoc

Most of the activities I was doing as a PhD student, continued into my postdoc, so it definitely wasn’t mostly “research”. While teaching decreased a little bit, service definitely increased – not because of the obligations of my contract, but my perceived obligation to the community, for which I was reviewing etc.

The big difference was “grants”. I had a two-year position, but given the low probability of getting funding, I started applying for things 6 months into the position. Since most things were rejected, this did take a lot of time away from research, and further worsened my position with grant reviewers.

Sometimes I hear the advice “only spend time on research during your postdoc and don’t worry about grants”. It’s nice to think how things would be now if I did have more publications from my postdoc. But at the same time, if I didn’t do what I did, I probably would not have the job I have now.

As tenure track faculty

In my current position, I am for the first time expected/paid to do all the things I was doing before  Рresearch, teaching, advising, service and grants. I think if I had spent the previous years doing only research, this would have been a very difficult shift. But having a bit of experience in each area has helped the transition a lot, even though my research did suffer compared to my PhD.

I am not sure what % of my time I spend on each category because this varies per week. But I do – for the first time – consciously think about it.¬† I say no more often now (especially in the service category – while still doing my fair share). I try to group meetings, so that I have a few days without meetings, which I can then dedicate to research (although I do get distracted by other things I’m involved in).¬† My weekly review, where I write down what I did in different categories, also helps to see whether I’m spending too little time on research.

All in all, balancing responsibilities is difficult, but I feel that it’s possible to learn to do it better, which is one of the things (I realized) I’m exploring on this blog. I feel very fortunate to have the support – from colleagues, mentors and the community on Twitter – to do so.

I would love to hear from you – how do your spend your time, and has this changed throughout your career?

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