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5 Tips When Applying to Opportunities For Women in STEM

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I’ve now reviewed a bunch of applications, for a number of different events. I’ve run the sessions that come afterwards deciding on who gets what, and as a result there are some mistakes that I’ve seen over and over again.

I’m sure some women get rejected when they have a lot to offer, and part of the reason is that messaging around these things is hard. Trying to balance the message to universities and supervisors that there is an academic benefit to such events, but academics are not the only thing applicants are evaluated on. Students don’t know what they should be highlighting, they are pressed for time, and getting recommendation letters can be stressful. Good educators and supervisors see helping their students get opportunities as part of their job. But there is little incentive in academia to be a good educator or supervisor (researcher – yes).

1. Get To The Point.

At any point, at work or not, I have a number of different things pulling at my attention. I carve out time for these things because I think they are important, but the less time I take on your application, the more I like you.

I’m not reading everything in depth, so break up large blocks of text into headings. Use bullet points. Make it easy for me to pull out the relevant information and make a judgement.

Customise your materials. Delete stuff that is irrelevant to this (proficiency with Microsoft Word, for example). This isn’t a job application, so delete the “objective” that says you are looking for one. Highlight and expand on your relevant achievements – the event you organised for women at your university, the article or profile in the publication.

2. Talk About Women.

This is an event for women, so I need you to tell me what you would get and give to an event for women. Great academic work is insufficient, and what do you mean by “networking” anyway? What I want to know is, how will your work, and your life, be better because of this opportunity? Are you the only woman in most of your classes and feeling isolated? Are you trying to start up a women’s group, but don’t know where to start? Finally, but most importantly, what have you done for the women around you?

3. Show Me the Multiplier.

There are limited resources this kind of thing, and so what I want to see is how the benefit extends beyond just you. What do you want to take back when you leave? How are you going to share the things that you learn? What are you going to do differently?

1x – I want to come and learn and network.

xx – I have been working on [great idea] but so far my reach is [limiting factors, numbers]. I hope to leave this event with ideas to increase the scope of this project, and engage more women in it, ideally so we can expand it to other [universities/regions].

4. Have a Passion Rather Than a Life Plan.

Basically I’m just bored of reading undergraduates who have never even interned anywhere writing about they want to go into academia. Is this a decision that has been critically evaluated, or just a default through not knowing anywhere else? Do people say this because they think they have to know what they want to do?

Personally, I don’t care. I don’t know what I want to do in 5 years, and don’t expect anyone else to, either. In this industry, I’m uninterested by passion for a career path, and much more positive about passion for a theme.

I’m really interested in the pervasiveness of computers, and as we move from computers taking up whole rooms and buildings to being attached to every day devices and even clothing, technology approaches invisible, and yet is ever more important. As I progress in my career, I want to explore the kind of experiences we can create around that, and the very real implications of privacy and security.

I think we have only just started to explore the possibilities of large data sets and what they can tell us about disease, language, and the nature of the universe. Specifically, I’m interested in [topic], but longer term I’m interested in increasing the availability of this kind of analysis through creating and sharing tools for handling and visualising large data sets, and through education of scientists in other fields.

5. Be Careful Who Your Letters of Recommendation Come From.

Academic supervisor is fine, but do they know anything of your work for women? Or have you been deliberately concealing a lot of it because they would see it as a lack of commitment to your research? Is there someone who could better speak to that?

Once you’ve picked your person, it’s fine – helpful, actually – to highlight some achievements and talking points for them. Emphasise that this is a women’s event, and so talking up your academic work should be some, but not all of the letter.

Personally, I ignore any comments in the letter that are historically gendered. Few things bore me more than men describing women they work with as “shy”. Not everyone does, though, so if you suspect the person you are asking is somewhat sexist, even if benevolently so, you might be better served to find someone else.

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