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Applications in Academia: What Counts?

By Heinz Reinders

What criteria form the basis for the evaluation of applications? How are interviews, specialist competences and academic grades weighted? Results from an online survey.

Applications in academia: What counts?© andy-Q - Photocase.de
Applicants will search in vain for literature with advice on how to apply for an academic position. What is both standard and a profitable market in private industry has no equivalent version for junior academics: guides and advice literature. There are no books that provide tips and tricks for applying for postgraduate positions, no sample applications that can be adapted to the applicant's own career path.

What is important when making an application, and how do academics in managerial positions select the most suitable candidate? The online survey "Requirements for Applications in the Academic World" - a cooperation between the magazine "Forschung & Lehre" and unipark.de, set out to answer these and other questions. 452 researchers with hiring experience, mainly from German public universities (77 percent) participated in the survey. Approximately half of them are professors or junior professors (47.3 percent), a further 14 percent are deans, vice chancellors or directors of institutes, and 41.7 percent are comprised of other academic staff.

Applications for posted job offers are favoured

Those that participated in the survey are in agreement that unsolicited applications are not popular (3.5 per cent) while applications for advertised positions are much more accepted (70.1 percent). Job openings are very often advertised via the university's own website (77.2 per cent) or sent via email newsletters (54.4 per cent). Newspaper advertisements ranked only in fourth place (54.2 per cent), directly behind Internet job portals (40.7 per cent). Among the internet portals, academics.de strongly dominates with 34.1 per cent of positions advertised. "Die Zeit" ranks first among newspapers by far with 60.2 per cent, but specialist journals also represent an important forum for job offers (31.6 per cent). Among interdisciplinary bodies, "Forschung & Lehre" clearly leads (11.1 percent) ahead of the "Deutsche Universitätszeitung" (7.5 per cent). At least 46 per cent of survey participants also search internationally for suitable junior candidates.

The applications received for the posted job offers are analysed primarily with regard to the motivation of the applicants and the form and content of their CVs. The most important criterion (27 per cent) appears to be the degree to which the applicants are able to present their motivation for the particular position they are applying for. Just under 20 percent primarily pay attention to the CV, and slightly over 19 percent place particular value on the application documents being complete.

Show motivation in the interview

It also remains important to present one's motivation in the interview. 29.4 per cent of those surveyed attach particular importance to this. Equally important is the candidate's presentation of their specialist knowledge. Only approximately every second position requires candidates to hold scientific presentations; the same applies for submitting publications. Only 37 per cent of future "bosses" require letters of recommendation from colleagues.

The reasons upon which the final decision for an applicant is based differ considerably between the individual disciplines. In the field of natural science, which with a quarter of respondents is the largest field represented in the survey, the decision is primarily made based on the quality of the interview (29.4 per cent). The second most important factor for this group is specialist competence. For the social sciences, which make up just under a quarter of the survey participants, the opposite applies. Here, decisions are based primarily on the expertise of an applicant (25.4 per cent), and the quality of the job interview follows in second place. In mathematics and engineering sciences, respondents even more strongly consider expertise to be the most important decision criterion. 45 per cent of respondents from these disciplines pay close attention to the specialist know-how of candidates. The twenty per cent of linguistic, cultural or humanities scholars consider the evaluation of the job interview to be equally important as specialist expertise, both with a third of the votes. For economists, the assessment of specialist expertise (21.4 per cent) is more strongly connected to the academic grades that an applicant has achieved than in all other disciplines. Every fifth respondent in this discipline chose the graduation grades of an applicant as the most important guideline for making their decision.

Three quarters of the survey participants consider a maximum of two pages as fully sufficient for the covering letter of an application, and 74 per cent are satisfied with a maximum of one hour for the job interview.

Opinions differ on whether the applicant should contact the potential employer before applying. Almost 41 percent would welcome phone contact prior to the application; 24 per cent have no opinion on the matter. However, for 35 per cent of the survey participants, prior contact would lower the applicant's chances of obtaining the position.

Forschung & Lehre