So you want to be a research assistant? Advice for psychologists

The dire state of the academic jobs market was brought home to me recently. I’d advertised for someone to act as a graduate research assistant/co-ordinator. This kind of post is a good choice for a junior person who wants to gain experience before applying for clinical or educational psychology training, or while considering whether to do a doctorate.  Normally I get around 30-40 applicants for this kind of job. This time it was 123.  This, apparently, is nothing. These days, for psychology assistant jobs, which act as a gateway to oversubscribed clinical psychology doctorate programmes,  the number of applicants can run into the hundreds.
One thing that strikes me is how little insight many applicants have into what happens to their job application. I hope that this post, explaining the process from the employer's perspective, might help aspiring job-seekers improve their chances of getting to interview.
With over 120 applications to process, if I allowed only two minutes for each application, it’d take me four hours to shortlist. Of course, that’s not how it works. There has to be an initial triage procedure where the selection panel views the applications looking for reasons not to shortlist. We were able to exclude around ¾ of the applications on the basis of a fairly brief scan. But we then had to select a shortlist of five from the remainder. This is done on the basis of a careful re-reading of those applications that survive triage.
So how do you get past this double hurdle and avoid initial triage, and then make it to the shortlist? Well, here are some tips. They seem very obvious and simple, but worth stating, as many of the applications we received didn’t seem aware of them.
  • Follow the instructions for job applicants, and read the further particulars. I gather that there are some careers advisors who recommend candidates should send their application direct to the principal investigator, rather than via administration, because it will get noticed. It will indeed, but it will create the impression that you are incapable of reading instructions.

  • Specify how you meet the selection criteria. Our university bends over backwards to operate a fair and transparent recruitment policy. We need to be able to demonstrate that our decisions are based on the selection criteria in the job advert, and not on some idiosyncratic prejudice. The ideal applicant lists the selection criteria in the same order that they appear in the job description and briefly explains how they meet them. It makes the job of the selection panel much, much easier, and they will give you credit for being both intelligent and considerate.

  • Don’t apply if you don’t meet the essential selection criteria. So, if the job requires you to drive, then don’t apply if you don’t have a driving licence (or a chauffeur).  When I was young and naïve, I assumed people wouldn’t apply for a job if they didn’t meet the criteria, and ended up appointing a non-driver to a job that involved travelling to remote locations with heavy equipment. It is not a mistake I’ll make again.

  • Don’t assume anything is obviour. To continue with the example above, if the job involves driving and you don’t mention that you can drive, the person evaluating your application won’t know whether you’ve forgotten to tell them, or if you are avoiding mentioning this because you can’t drive. Either way, it’s bad news for your application, and in the current market, it’ll go on the ‘no’ pile.

  • Don’t send a standard application that is appropriate for any job. It’s key to include a cover letter or personal statement that indicates that you have read the further particulars for this specific post. Use Google to find out more about the post/employer. On the other hand, the employer really doesn’t want or need to be told about the subject matter of the research - once I had the equivalent of a short undergraduate essay, complete with references, included in an application, and though it demonstrated keeness, it was complete overkill.

  • Read through your application before you submit it. I’ve had applicants who describe how enthusiastic they are about the prospect of working, not in my institution, but in another university. I’ve had applications where entire paragraphs were duplicated. A melange of fonts changing mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence, creates a poor impression.

  • Run the cover letter/personal statement through a spell checker, and check the English. Anyone working for me will be sending letters and information sheets out to the general public on my behalf. It creates a bad impression if there are errors, and so you’ve a very high chance of getting on the ‘no’ pile if you make mistakes on an important document like a job application.

  • Be honest. If there’s something unusual about your application, explain it. I have, for instance, shortlisted a person who’d had a prolonged period of sick leave, but who gave a clear and honest explanation of the situation and was able to offer reassurance about ability to do the job.

  • Be concise, but not too concise. The cover letter/personal statement should cover all the selection criteria, but avoid wordiness. One to two single-spaced pages is about right.

And if you get to interview? Well, this blog post has some useful hints:
But what if you follow all my advice and still fail to get to interview? Alas, given the massive mismatch between the number of bright, talented people and the number of jobs on offer, many good candidates are bound to miss out. It certainly doesn’t mean you are unemployable. But try this exercise: look at the selection criteria and your application, and pretend you are the employer, not the candidate: An employer with a huge stack of applications and limited time. What do you think looks good, and what are the weaker points? Can you gain further experience so that the weaker points can be remedied in future job applications? Or maybe the weaknesses include something like a poor degree class, which can’t be fixed. Perhaps your specific set of talents and interests just aren’t a good fit to this kind of job, in which case you need to consider other options.  
If all else fails, you may want to cheer yourself up by reflecting on how people who don’t go along with the system can nevertheless have interesting and influential lives, by reading  Hunter S. Thompson's 1958 job application to the Vancouver Sun