Pro tip #2: Vision

I hope you read my post on the importance of writing.  This post is a follow-on, focusing on the most important piece of writing you will do to get your next job (or next student position in college or grad school): your application essay/statement.

For academic positions, your job application is a proposal, a proposal about you and the science you want to do.  My #1 first tip is to read Julianne Dalcanton’s unsolicited advice on how to craft a grant or observing proposal.  We’ll be using her core principles to break things down.  Read it?  Good. We’ll start from there, with a bit of framing first.

What hiring and admissions committees are looking for is vision.  What do I mean by vision?  I mean, an excellent proposal about yourself and your science which demonstrates the

  1. importance,
  2. feasibility, and
  3. efficiency

of your plan for doing science and adding to your community.  You want to sell a committee on a big-picture future that involves you and the science you do, and a path to get there that is compelling and doable.  It’s the Dalcanton approach to writing a successful grant proposal, but a proposal about you.

Importance means that you’ve identified a big broad problem, identified a barrier to progress in the field, and found some way to break through that barrier.  Importance also means that you’ve identified a vision for the type of scientist and educator that you think the field and that institution need, and the values that you think matter.  If you’re applying to grad school in STEM, you are almost certainly not going to be in a position where you’ve identified The Thing in research that’s prevented progress in some field.  For grad school applicants, you should show that you’ve identified broad subjects that are interesting to you, demonstrate that you know why they’re interesting to people other than yourself, and that you have some sense that you know what it’s going to take to make an impact in the fields in which you have interest. But if you are applying for postdocs or faculty positions, you need to show that you understand the broad context of your field, that you have really identified a niche where you can move things forward, and explain it in a way that a non-specialist can understand and get really excited about.

Feasibility means you have a well-defined path forward to breaking your identified barrier to progress and achieving science/education/career nirvana.  Demonstrate that you have a plan, that the steps make sense, that you’ve SWOT’ed it out (identified Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).

Efficiency means that you identified your plan and yourself as the best/robust/fastest (choose your combination of metrics for success) path to solving the problem you identified, to achieve the goals you identified as important.

Having read hundreds (if not thousands) of applications and proposals, my observation is that the majority of the problems are with step #1, importance, and with step #3, efficiency.  Most people are pretty good at #2, feasibility, in the sense that they know what they want to do, can describe a calculation and measurement pretty well, and have a well-defined definition of success.  The front-end problem is usually that a good introductory section on importance is missing, and a concluding statement (or even introductory–I always address this on page 1) on efficiency.  The usual issue is that people will dive into discussing a set of calculations or measurements, without explaining their broader context (for either the science or field/institution), showing the reader why these action items are the critical ones to do to make progress, that this set of tasks (and your vision for the field/institution) is the key to solving the problem best/most robustly/fastest, and that it can really only happen because of YOU.

Most postdoc applications are focused almost entirely on scientific research, but grad and faculty applications typically need to cover much more ground.  For grad applications, you need to explain the story of yourself, and why a particular department should be chomping at the bit to make an offer to you.  For faculty applications, you want to sell a vision of yourself as a good faculty colleague and mentor.  You can identify a problem you see at an institution (or your field), and propose a plan to fix it.  You can describe the legacy you want to leave in the students you will advise or teach.  You can describe your values when it comes to education or research, and how that institution will benefit and grow from having you and your values in residence.

In the words of my PhD advisor, no one is going to care about your career as much as you do, so make sure to bring your A game for your job applications.  You have to make the case to the grad program, postdoc institution, or faculty search committee that you would be indispensable to them.  Ask not what that institution and field can do for you, but ask them to imagine just how much greater that institution and field would be by having you there for the long haul.

As an aside, let me tell you about the importance of Julianne Dalcanton on my own career, aside from telling me (and the whole world) how to think about writing a proposal.  I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.  As was typical of the time (and sadly, also now–the numbers haven’t really changed), I encountered VERY few women in my physics classes, especially in instructor/TA/mentoring roles.  I had one TA during my freshman year who was a woman, and she always took time to talk with me.  She was great. I didn’t take a STEM class from a woman professor till the second half of my junior year.  That year, I took two astronomy classes from two great woman professors: Paula Szkody and Julianne Dalcanton.  I was just so surprised at the time to take classes from someone who wasn’t a man.  I learned a LOT about stars from Paula, which I especially appreciate now as I mull over problems that involve the types of variable stars she taught me about.  Julianne was  impactful for my career because she worked on the kinds of problems that I imagined myself working on one day, and also because she was not much older than I (as in, most of my professors before that point were at least as old as my parents).  I admired her approach to science, in addition to her choices of specific problems.  In her, I could see my future.  Ever since, her career choices have inspired me to be more bold with mine, to take chances on new directions, and not be afraid to tackle ambitious projects.  Thanks!