Writing the job ad

One that people want to apply to

We’ve all read job postings.

Sometimes job posts are for a very specific position that precisely identifies needs for a particular project. Other job posts can be ‘open-ended’. These are typified by ambiguity other than perhaps a degree requirement and some statement that can be roughly summarized as “position open to unicorns only.” One thing that tends to be common across most job posts is that they are unidirectional from the hirer to the applicant. The person writing the job ad is writing a description of a position, not writing to a person. The applications submitted in response to such ads are often just as unidirectional and devoid of personality: “check out all I’ve done, pick me!”

Every employer wants to attract quality candidates to their open position. Surprisingly, there is very little information on how individuals choose which jobs to apply to. This makes it challenging to identify mechanisms employers can use to make job posts stand out to applicants. Of the research that exists, broad trends in the ways women and minorities tend to apply for jobs have been identified. For example, women tend to self-select to positions, even if they have the skills to do the job well, and minorities often cast a wider net in anticipation of discrimination (Pager & Pedulla).

As part of our effort to attract more applications from groups underrepresented in STEM, we wanted to construct a job description that got diverse pools of applicants excited. Our approach was to write the ad for the person we’ll hire—not for the position vacancy. That is, instead of writing about a position, we’re writing to a person. We wanted to make it clear to applicants that from day one we’ll value them, their opinions, their beliefs. That they’ll learn from us. And that we’ll learn from them. That their life experiences are an asset to our group, not an impediment. That we work for them as much as they work for us. That it’ll be tough at times, but we’ll get through the hard parts together.

How do we convey all of this, plus the duties of the job in a short position description?

We don’t. There is a lot to cover. We feel it’s important to cover it all.

Here’s what we want to convey to the applicant:

  1. What they’ll be doing

  2. Their key responsibilities

  3. How we’ll communicate with them

  4. Our expectations of them

  5. What they can expect from us

  6. We support having a life outside of work

  7. We want diversity

  8. We’ll be patient with them

  9. We want them to do the best work of their career with us!

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An example of one of our job posts

An example of a recent job description for an undergraduate intern is copied below. I’ve annotated each paragraph to clarify the why behind each section. Often the details related to the job at hand, or the specific position (technician vs undergraduate vs graduate, etc) will change, but the general format is the same.

The abstract. This is all the basics: when, what, and how long.

The Carini lab is looking for an undergraduate intern to assist our technicians and students with lab maintenance and research! This position can be paid (details below) or fulfill a degree requirement for independent research. We’ll be accepting applications until MONTH DATE, YEAR, with a flexible start date in December or at the beginning of next semester. It’s been over a year since we hired for a similar position, so this is an exciting and somewhat rare opportunity to join our team. After onboarding, you’ll start by working with a mix of in-person and remote guidance on a combination of lab upkeep and research projects. We’d love to have a long-term contributor, someone that will be with us for a full year or longer.

Position Basics.This is what you’ll be doing” not “this is what you are required to do.” Our language here describes the applicant-centric approach. It helps the reader envision themselves working with us. We are going to teach you, you’ll get to do these exciting things. Here’s how you’ll start out and here’s how we’ll transition you into bigger things.

You’ll be acclimated to how our lab functions by washing dishes, receiving & shelving orders, preparing the occasional outbound shipment, and other general lab upkeep. You’ll have some other infrequent administrative duties related to lab inventory & keeping up with safety requirements. These responsibilities will lay the foundation for you to be an active contributor to the research in our lab group and give you time to get used to how we do things. Ultimately, we want to teach you how to perform essential experiments, collect critical data, and contribute to our publications. We’d love to have a long-term student contributor, someone that will be with us for a full year (including the summer) or longer.

Specific skills, if any. Like the first paragraph, we are stating the responsibilities for the job without approaching it from the top down. Here, we explain the needs of the position in terms of skills. Ideally, we’d like evidence the applicant can do these things for us. Again, we want the applicant to envision themselves working with us. We also note it’s not necessary to know how to do everything listed here—we’ll teach the things they don’t have experience with. Why state this outright? It’s known that women tend to self-select unless they feel they check all the boxes.

You’ll prepare bacterial growth media and grow bacterial cultures. You’ll revive microbes from cryopreserved stocks and streak them to purity. You’ll work with cultures on petri plates and in broth. You’ll count cells using flow cytometry. You’ll extract and quantify DNA. You’ll conduct PCR. You’ll run some electrophoresis gels. You’ll be taught how to interpret the data you collect. (But note: we don’t expect you to do all of these things without supervision right away—you’ll be paired with someone for most projects, and your responsibilities (and confidence!) will grow over time).

What’s it like here? This is where we attempt to explain the culture of our lab. This is always a bit tricky and we don’t always get this paragraph exactly right, but we’re getting better at it. It also holds us accountable, which only helps us foster a better working environment built for the long haul.

We want people who can manage their own schedules, are OK with failure and repeating experiments, and are good problem solvers. We require good communicators—both written and verbal! We want folks that can work across projects and are good lab citizens. They’ve got to be passionate about the process because there will be crappy days. Again, the language here is meant to get the reader to envision themselves working for us, instead of laying out expectations and requirements for a position.

We’ll set your direction and let you take ownership, ask questions, make decisions, fail, right the ship, and see things through. We know you are here to learn, and we expect that you’ll make mistakes. You’ll be able to communicate clearly with your colleagues, work across several different projects, and lend a helping hand when needed. You love to do labwork and will be excited to check on your experiments (even if the results are hard fought and experiments don’t always work). You understand that labwork requires attention to detail and meticulous organized notetaking (we’ll provide the lab notebooks!). You know the details matter as much as the result of the experiment. Great results with few details on how they were collected don’t go very far. You care about how things are set up and documented as much as you care about the result. Your ability to communicate clearly and a strong track record of meticulous, considerate work speaks volumes.

Put the applicant in our space. This short statement does two things: First, it’s a reminder that the applicant should do their research and have an idea of what we do. Second it puts the applicant in our space and gives them a chance to envision themselves contributing to our work.

See our publications page (https://www.carinilab.com/publications-1) for a sense on the kind of work we do. We’d like to see your name on one our future papers!

Job logistics. Where, physical expectations, how you’ll be advised/managed. Updated for 2020 COVID-19 requirements.

Our lab is located in the building on the North side of campus. The work for this position will necessitate that you work in-person in a large lab space shared with four other research groups. You’ll need to adhere to COVID-19 safety procedures designed to reduce your chances for exposure, including mask requirements, cleaning procedures, and social distancing guidelines. You’ll be supervised by a combination of in-person, asynchronous and/or remote communication mechanisms. You’ll need to have reliable transportation to and from the building. Luckily, we’re located right at the end of the streetcar line.

Pay, scheduling & review. Here, we illustrate the expectations AND how those expectations will change over time and what the review period is. The details will vary significantly by position type.

As an undergraduate, your primary responsibility is your coursework—full stop. We understand that and offer extreme flexibility around your schedule. You’ll be able to work up to XX h per week at $XX.XX per hour. As you take on more responsibility and grow confident in your new position, we’ll extend your hours and pay accordingly on a semester-by-semester basis.

This is a 2-way street. Reiteration that we’re in this together. We appreciate that there are many different learning styles. We give more details on what the applicant can expect when they get started and how we’ll interact with them.

Everyone learns differently and has a different style of how they do science. We’re committed to accommodating your style. You can expect a mindful ramp-up period with time to learn. You can expect a team that teaches you and listens to you. You can expect a team that understands your primary goal is your undergraduate education. You can expect to give and provide direct feedback. You can expect to be counted on, and you can count on us.

Diversity matters to us. Job ads often will have a diversity statement that is stale—copied and pasted from the HR website. We try to convey that diversity matters to us. We want to hear about your experiences related to diversity & inclusivity. The highest scoring applicants will address diversity in some way or form in their application. It’s important to us—every applicant for every position is evaluated for this (we’ll explain application scoring in our next newsletter).

We strongly encourage candidates of all different backgrounds and identities to apply. We believe the best science occurs when people from varied backgrounds come together to solve problems. This means we want a diverse team built from different backgrounds, experiences, and identities—including yours. If you have a background that you feel would make an impact on our lab group, please consider applying and highlight this point in your application (if you are comfortable doing so). We put in the work that goes into building an inclusive, supportive place for you to do your best work and learning. We value a sustainable, healthy relationship with your work and education.

How to apply & associated details.  How to apply. The deadline. Explanation that there is no one way to apply and there is no rush. The highest scoring applicants tend to tell enough but not too much, tell it clearly, and have evidence that their arrow is moving upward in their career. We don’t take volunteers. Some of the best students can’t afford to volunteer. We also believe that time is all we’ve got in life and no one should give it away for free.

Please submit an application that speaks directly to this position. Tell us about yourself, your favorite classes, about what you can bring to the Carini Lab, and about the Carini Lab’s role in your future. Tell us about what you’ve done and what excites you. We’ll also happily accept a traditional, well-constructed cover letter full of personal touches and that shows us how much you want this job.

We’re accepting applications until [date]. There’s no benefit to submitting your application early, so take your time. Email your application materials as a single .pdf attachment to [where to send]. You’ll get a reply from Dr. Carini when your application is received.

*We don’t allow students to be paid at the same time they are working with us for credit. We don’t accept volunteer student workers.

How we evaluate & our timeline. After evaluation (we’ll go over our evaluation process in a future newsletter), we reply to everyone to let them know whether they got an interview (everyone) or the job (interviewees only). This is followed by a ‘what to expect next’ statement and again reiterating that everyone will be reviewed.

We expect to take a few weeks to review all applications. You’ll hear from us by the end of November, about advancement to the interview stage. Expect one interview, up to one hour long, remote (via zoom), with your future colleagues, on your schedule. We’ll talk through your background, your approach to solving problems, and dive into your professional knowledge. We’ll send you our questions in advance so there are no surprises. We aim to make an offer late in the fall semester with a flexible start date in December or coincident with the start of the spring semester.

We appreciate you giving us that consideration, and we promise to give you our full attention in return. We look forward to hearing from you!

Position-specific paragraphs. We’ll often include an additional paragraph or two outlines details about position-specific nuances. For example, we are currently writing an ad for an open PhD student position. This job ad will include a paragraph that summarizes expectations of PhD students, the opportunities for professional growth they’ll be given, how they will be mentored, and how we’ll evaluate their progress. It’s important to us that we explain these things up front so there are no surprises once the new lab member arrives.

Behind the scenes:

I’m usually the one who drafts the job post. The structure and style of the ad is heavily inspired from those posted at Basecamp. The specifics of our post depend on what is required for the job and the tier we are looking to hire (student, postdoc, research technician, etc.). Once I’ve drafted the ad, I pass it around to the lab group. They take up to a week to review and comment. This internal review is invaluable because the lab members often catch confusing wording, but more importantly, it gives them a chance to tweak things that might be misrepresented or to add contextualization.

For undergrads: I’ll circulate an email with the position details to undergraduate advisors from several departments at our university in various fields relevant to the position. I’ll also email research programs that link undergraduates to research opportunities. I’ll post the job on our website and twitter, but typically, I find our website and twitter has a limited reach for undergraduates.

For graduate students: I’ll post the position on twitter and on my website. I’ll also circulate an emails to my network of colleagues. This process is usually started well in advance of the graduate school deadlines. We’ll need to evaluate candidates and help them find a good academic home here at UArizona and that takes time.

For more senior research associates (postdocs or technicians): We rely on posting the job ad to twitter, our website, and emails to colleagues. The job is also posted on the university’s jobs website by default. We’ve had excellent applicants from each of these avenues.

We leave all position postings open for 4-6 weeks and don’t look at the applicants as they come in—we wait until the position is closed and we don’t accept late applicants. Yes, we may miss some good folks by doing this, but it reduces bias in evaluating the applicants.

We made the transition from traditional job descriptions to the more elaborate candidate centric approach in 2020. Anecdotally, we found that the candidate centric job ads skewed the applicant pool in several meaningful ways. First, we receive about twice the number of applicants per position than we did previously. Second, the applicants are enriched in women (approximately 60-70% women). Finally, on average, the entire pool of applicants is of higher quality. We’d love to work on actually testing the idea that simply altering the language in job position descriptions leads to more diverse applicant pools—if this is your field of study, please reach out to me directly (carini@hey.com).

Next newsletter, we’ll talk about how we treat the applications internally. How we score them, and assess which candidates to interview.

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