Thursday 25 August 2011

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 obvious. 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  


  1. Thank you, a very useful blog.

  2. I disagree with your point of corresponding directly with the PI. At least where I work, this is a centralized job applicant database for research assistant positions. Many labs search the database to create their own short list.
    There is no centralized facilitation. If you specifically state in your application that your dream is to work with Dr. X, there is no guarantee that Dr. X will ever see that since it's unlikely she'll search for her own name in the database.

    My advice is to definitely follow all the formal application rules, but a very brief email to a PI to let them know your application exists can't hurt. By brief I mean 1-2 sentences about who you are, 1-2 sentences about why you specifically want to work with Dr. X that show you've done your homework, & 1 sentence to make clear that your application is submitted through the official procedure.

  3. Apologies for previous post attempted on iphone which doesn't allow preview function. I managed to embed one draft of my comments into a slightly different version. The comment should have looked like this:

    This is a great list of tips. I had 350 applications for a very similar post at City University. We were not 'allowed' to say we needed a driver, but so many applications had too little information supplied or had one line about highly relevant voluntary work - as Dorothy says you need to tell us how your experience equips you for the job. Other things that help are:
    Get some experience in RA work - it is different from clinical work and if you can do a voluntary RA post for someone (preferably someone well known) and they are willing to write a reference afterwards, this is impressive.
    Put referee names on your cv. I had a week to turn applications into a shortlist and needed to see quickly who was willing to recommend the applicant. With lots of applications to look at quickly the name of an eminent colleague as reference jumps out.
    Like Dorothy, I also rejected general applications, including some with another job still referred to in the text and some where the cv file was saved as an application for a different RA post e.g., 'CvforDurhamRA.doc'.
    RA posts need someone to finish the whole job wherever possible. So stating that you want the experience to springboard onto a clinical course is not usually a good idea. Principal investigators want to believe you are passionate about research.
    Finally I agree with Dorothy that you should be very wary about contacting the PI directly, especially asking them to comment on your application chances. The best pre-contacts I had asked a sensible quick to answer question that showed they had read up on the study area, but I got 10 of these a day for 30 days, so they can't always all be answered.

  4. Good tips. I am looking for a research assistantship.

  5. I have recently moved to the UK to seek work in the field of psychology - I am so passionate about the research and academic aspects of the field - It's honestly my DREAM to get involved. Today I was walking on Euston Road - UCL signs everywhere and instant fire burns inside! The problem I am currently facing is that my qualifications were obtained in South Africa - I have a postgarduate degree in South Africa but the system in the UK is very different. I did an internship in psychometric testing in SA, and have a lot of experience in psychological assessment testing (screening and diagnostic), but the problem is that this profession is not even recognised in the UK either. I am one candidate amongst 100's - HOW do I get my foot in the door!!!!??? Can anyone give me some advice?

  6. I have the same problem here... you have to go back home! Otherwise we can only dream about research job or any other psychology job. (maybe in exception of care assistant)

  7. Now I want to vomit! I'm sure at least a quarter of all applicants know these tricks. Much less than half of them will end up on a short list where one of 5-10 will get the job!

    1. Your interviewing experience must be more extensive than mine.

    2. To Anonymous - so what makes the lucky half of the good quarter end up on the shortlist?

  8. I agree. after experiencing the grueling torture of applying consistently to positions within this field for 4 months, I can only respect and admire those of you who have had to withstand it for longer. I am on the verge of giving up. Call me cynical, but as someone who has studied and worked tirelessly for over seven years in the field of psychology, I never imagined I'd be faced with this much adversity in attempting to step my foot in the door here. I may not hold the same work experience as those who have qualified in the UK, but to what extent is experience a measure of capability? To what extent is qualification a measure of work output? the only hard working and goal focused individuals that I have met within this field have been driven by their passion for this work. How is that measured when screening a CV?? Maybe this needs to be considered from the grass roots point of view - for example, in order to be accepted into research focused degrees one should have to be screened more stringently. This may lower the amount of people who exit such programs, and in essence it lowers the amount of individuals who have the door shut on them for further opportunities. It may seem harsh, but it appears to me that this market is flooded. Rather than work consistently to achieve a goal so out of reach, I would be happier gaining skills in another field and actually having an opportunity to USE them!!!!

  9. As a recent graduate looking for a research assistant post, I am wondering, is it wise to mention assignment grades for relevant modules in a personal statement?

  10. In response to my own question (Anonymous 27 September) for any others in a similar situation: yes, cite results when relevant.
    I've finally had some interview invitations.

  11. A great blog post for all those students who are applying for their jobs. A great research paper is a good way to make an impression on your employers and this blog has given all the main reasons why. To get help in writing a good research you can take a look at this site:

  12. Thank you for this post Dorothy. I first read this over a year ago and I keep it mind whenever I am planning an application.

    Unfortunately, I am still sending out applications, and even when I meet all of the essential and desirable criteria for position I still do not get shortlisted, and this includes Research Administrator positions.

    I am posting this for two reasons, 1) because I am frustrated and angry and I hope that other employers will read this 2) do you have any advice for a struggling MSc graduate?

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