Yes, this is my advice to maximize your chances of getting that grad school, postdoc, or faculty position. Yes, there are differences between these three - pointed out in text below - but actually I think they are pretty similar in a lot of ways. A blog post using 'one sentence mentoring' echoes this sentiment.
A central goal of any application is to first find out what the people who will read it care about, and then to provide evidence that you have these skills/traits: NOT to just say that you have them. I.e. show, don't tell. Avoid making judging statements about yourself or your work (avoid: 'I am hardworking', 'My research is really interesting', etc.).
The application file must be clear and clutter-free, understandable and exciting to the non-expert. I really recommend you have your whole file read by someone who successfully applied for what you are applying for. One of the key skills for anyone to have is to take feedback seriously and work on changing what needs changing.
Start early. When is this?
- Applying for grad school: Start planning your research experiences and mentor connections as soon as you get to college (freshman year). Start finding future grad schools and advisors in the spring or summer before you plan to graduate – i.e. 1-1.5 years before you want to start grad school. Grad school programs usually start in the fall, and application deadlines are typically in November or December the year before.
- Applying for postdoc positions: Start thinking about what your future research niche will be in year 3 or so of grad school. Think about which postdoc experience will best complement your method and conceptual knowledge in year 4. Go to conferences and look for potential postdoc mentors in year 4 and 5; also start looking for places to get postdoc fellowships, and mark their deadlines in your calendar. Start contacting them about a year before you plan to graduate. Ask for suggestions on how to get funding, assuming you will apply for it. Assume you will need several weeks to write a fellowship application. Remember that university offices may be required to sign off on applications, and in those cases will have their own deadlines before NSF/USDA etc deadlines.
- Applying for faculty positions: Most advertisements come out some time between September and January, to hire starting August. Of course you have started preparing what will go into your file (your research record, your niche, your connections) since grad school. But don't underestimate how long it will take to prepare the actual application packets. Since you want to revise your research and teaching statements with feedback once or twice, I recommend starting to write them as soon as you start your postdoc position, or a year in. During the semester you are actually applying, you'll need to also research information about the particular schools you are applying to, your potential colleagues there, and work on a great cover letter and your interview talk. Your postdoc period could be anywhere from 0 to 10 years, but most common are 2-3: that means you are applying in the beginning of your second year (assuming you started in a Fall semester). Don't delay planning this until the last minute.
The number one thing that people care about is your research record; this should be the main topic of the file (for any of these application types). The main evidence of a great research record are the number of publications and the quality of the journals. What should this look like?
- Applying for grad school: What matters for research experience is not that you came up with the idea for the research – in fact this is on average not a good idea. What matters is that you actually got results and that you can describe these results and their implications broadly, professionally, and expertly without saying you don’t know why you did something or that it was part of what the grad student/advisor/whoever wanted to do. You must find out what the publication plans are for each of the projects you were involved in. Only list publications that you will be a coauthor on on your CV, but do list those even if they are ‘in prep’. Having any is great. List any meetings/conferences/events where you presented research, either as talk or poster, even if they were local events at your school.
- Applying for postdoc positions: By the time you apply you will most likely not have all your graduate work published. But it will be necessary to have at least some work published or accepted in journals. It is normal to have anywhere from 1-5 papers published by the time you apply; more would be exceptional. By the end of your PhD, having 5-10 published or submitted is great.
- Applying for faculty positions:Depending on how long ago you finished your PhD, committees will expect the above plus about 1-2 papers/year since finishing. At this stage, quality (which journals, and what is said in the letters about your work, as well as what the committee itself knows about your work) will start to matter more than just the number of publications. However, expect that competitive applications for faculty jobs at good research universities typically have 10-20 papers published, sometimes more.
The second most important thing will be your letters. Any committee reviewing your application is more likely to read your letters than your publications. Observe rules for getting recommendation letters! The letters are what communicates to non-experts what the relevance and quality of your research is; they also impart information like whether you are a likeable person or hard to work with. Your grad school advisor and postdoc advisor will be writing letters for you for a long time yet - so pick the right ones, and then honor the rules of that relationship. Recommendation letters that praise your independence, great projects, and teamworking ability are good; outstanding letters will talk about how your work has already had high impact, and how much potential you show for being a major figure in the field in the future.
Applying for grad school: A good, well-known previous advisor, program, or university matter, but less than you think: your research record and recommendation letters are more important.
Asking questions is good. Every year, I am amazed that some of my students are not aware of fellowships that their labmates are applying for, or that I have to repeat the same advice about applying for grad school to three different lab members. Perhaps you don't want to expose your ignorance by asking questions, but this is really the wrong attitude to have when you are working in a lab! You should see your lab mates (both peers and more senior members of the lab) as your collaborators, and everyone is encouraged to help mentor others. In particular, if you are planning to apply for anything, ask around! Have your packet read by others, and read other examples of applications for that program! Take this advice extremely seriously.
A good GPA and GRE scores do matter. Simply because a good GPA shows that you consistently can solve problems and work hard (or as hard as you need to). A good GRE score shows that you compare favorably to your peers from other institutions, banishing the suspicion that a good GPA is the result of grade inflation or a weak prior institution. However, it is not the details of either of these scores that matter; it is that they don't show unexplained strong weaknesses. Once you are invited to interview, their importance really drops. If you have some mediocre or outright bad grades, you might mention any events that kept you from doing you work (health issues, family problems: you don't have to be very specific, just mention in which semester(s) these prevented you from achieving the best grades). Or you can say that you realized that this area was not your strength, or be honest and say that your motivation/focus/work ethic flagged: but in both of these cases, you should then pivot to arguments and evidence that demonstrate that you now do have renewed focus/motivation/or that what you are applying for is in fact one of your strengths. Do not say that 'my math grades flagged because I lost interest in math' and leave it at that: this only proves you are intellectually weak and dishonest with yourself to boot. Even worse would be blaming it on the teacher.
Personal statement: Remember that this is always a bit of a misnomer - admissions committees don't care about you as a person (why would you as a person be better than someone else?). What this should contain is (a) a clear justification for why you are interested in the program you are applying for (use as many different reasons as possible, from research strengths, people you plan to interact with, natural environment, teaching focus, facilities, mentoring program, whatever), and (b) a clear, question-centered description of your past research experience and ideally future research plans. I.e. mention hypotheses tested and broad relevance of your work. Do not focus on particular techniques you have mastered (at least in EEB-type programs, people typically don't care about this at all). Show that you intellectually 'owned' the research you participated in, even if you were just the dishwasher. The only really personal information you might add is an example story of significant personal challenges you have overcome as evidence that you can write well and are a mature individual. You might also mention if you are a first-generation College student or have any other underrepresented minority status.
CV: Academics divide up the world into research, teaching, and service (which includes any kind of contribution to your community as well as science outreach, i.e. communication with the public). Make sure your CV contains any research experiences you have had (whether paid or not is not really relevant), and any presentations or publications you did of this. If you have done any teaching, mentoring, or science communication, list those activities. Then list everything that is contribution to the community, from holding offices in any clubs or societies to charity work/volunteering. Scientists in my experience don't care what languages you speak, which computer software you can use, or which specific lab techniques you have learned (the reason they don't care is that they expect you to learn everything you need 'on the job', each lab's methods are often unique, and PhD research often requires developing new techniques). They certainly do not care about your hobbies. Do list any awards of any kind that you have received, as well as fellowships or stipends.
Other fields. The application form or website might have specific other fields, just as 'Previous research' or 'Research interests'. While you should have all the important information on these kinds of topics in your statement, never leave a field like that empty. Make use of all the space you have to add additional details, particularly where your research is concerned.
Be specific. As I've said elsewhere, choosing a project or research direction is the part about research that requires the most experience, and so you may feel unprepared to do it now. However: in EEB-type programs, a clearly specified research topic of interest is considered one of the things that 'makes or breaks' an application. So, you are not doing yourself any favors by being 'open to different research directions' or listing several broad fields as your interests. Instead, give one general field ('I'm interested in behavioral ecology', say) and then be very specific ('I want to focus on studying cognition in insects', or whatever). You can change your mind later, but for the purpose of the application, demonstrate detailed, well-formed, specific interests and knowledge in that area (by using the correct terms for the field).
People matter. If you worked in someone's lab, say their name. You are talking about this person's intellectual property when you are talking about 'your' research; anyone reading the application will also assume that this person mentored you in a variety of other ways and that you owe them a lot. If you do not recognize this or don't mention their name ('I worked in a molecular biology lab' rather than saying 'I worked with Dr. XXX on YYY'), you come across as ungrateful as well as naive and unprepared for a professional environment. If you worked with additional people (e.g. a graduate student or postdoc), name them as well, but still name the PI (principal investigator) of the lab you were in. Also remember that scientists use the term 'lab' to refer to the intellectual/social unit, not the room: if you are doing fieldwork, you are still working in the 'lab' of a PI.
Equally, if you are applying to a specific lab/advisor, say their name, give reasons for it, and mention whether you have met that advisor yet or even worked with them. Praise their work and mentoring qualities along with those of the program you are applying to. If you appear lukewarm about wanting to go where you are applying to, this will instantly sink your application. As I've said before, choosing (or at least investigating) potential advisors is one of the most important parts of applying to graduate school - if it appears that you have not done this (e.g. because it is not clear that there is someone who would be an appropriate advisor given your stated interests), this is a massive negative on your application. This is also true for other types of applications, such as UBRP, although to a lesser degree.
Applying for postdoc positions. If applying for an advertised position, emphasize that you are a great independent capable innovative scientist, but also that you are a team player and give credit to your prior advisor. Emphasize any links between your expertise and previous projects and the advertised project. Come up with specific ideas relating to the advertised project but do not give the impression that you want to go off and do something other than exactly what the project demands. If you are applying for your own fellowship, expect this to be competitive; but unlike in the previous case, your future mentor is now your ally. Let her read and re-read your application. Do not assume she will know anything or remember anything about the specific call you are applying for; keep on top of the details, read the instructions meticulously. But in every case of doubt, check with your mentor about how the instructions are to be interpreted. Ideally sit down in one or two in-person meetings to go over the process, instructions/RFA, formalities and over the research proposed. Assume that this application will have to be a highly polished document which, other than you, two people have read in detail and provided feedback on everything from content to formatting, spelling etc.
Applying for faculty positions: More than in the previous cases, the people reviewing your file (primarily the search committee) will not be experts in your area of research. Therefore, the broader relevance of your research must be crystal-clear in the document, i.e. your plans and previous results must be exciting, answering fundamental questions in biology, and sound cool. What must also be crystal-clear is what is yours rather than your advisor's; in particular, when you start your own independent position, what will be your research niche that isn't already occupied by your previous mentors, but that is directly following from your previous work. Your plans for the future matter more here than they did before, also. Rarely new faculty are hired who say they will start a completely new direction from their previous work. Mostly committees want to see that you have plans for 2-3 larger projects that can each lead to one grant proposal and several papers in the near future (no more than 2-3 years into your new position). Remember you are supposed to have data collected for around 6-12 papers by the end of year 4 or so into your position. So, you need to have a coherent, feasible, and exciting plan.