By Kelly


First, I must apologise for the delay in getting this post up. My brain appears to have softened post submission…. However I do appreciate those who ‘liked’ the fact the advice page was empty!

There are two questions on every PhD’s mind toward the end, first, will this ever end, and second, what on earth will I do next? Unfortunately the latter needs to be thought about during the former, so when all your energy should be focussed on getting over the finish line, more often you are writing endless job applications. Here in Australia one job option includes applying for the Public Service Graduate Programs. Due to our current government’s lack of faith in the merit of scientific research the Public Service is one of the few options with long-term security*. And so I ran the gauntlet for three different departments, lets call them Dept A, Dept B and Geoscience Australia. I did a great job on two of these, and a rather shocking job on another…hence the how to….and how not to.

The selection process for most departments requires that you first send in your CV and address a series of selection criteria. I was then required to do a written test. Then after that comes the interview if you’ve managed to jump through the first two hoops. Lets address the first today.

Selection Criteria

These make all of us feel a little ill when writing them as it’s hard (at least for most of us) to write so explicitly how awesome we are. Now the trick is that these things, particularly in the public service, are SOOOOOOO formulaic. You can find advise all over the web** but almost all Human Resources Departments use the STAR formula (Situation, Task, Action, Result) and they LOVE it when you stick to it. This is a really important point, it is the HR department that are reading your selection criteria, NOT a panel of experts. Keep the language and concepts simple, save the technical jargon for the interview, showing off at this point will alienate you rather than endear you to a selection committee. All of the departments asked questions about leadership, organisation, time management and problem solving. So a question might go something along the lines of:

Describe a time when you had to juggle multiple priorities? What happened?

Situation: I have been responsible for writing posts for the school’s blog, as well as writing academic papers and proposals for media work.

Task: Each of these required that I do many hours of research and writing, which I am sometimes a little slow at.

Action: I keep a very well organised timeline of when things are due ensure that tasks are never left to the last-minute. And I make sure that I write at least a small amount every day.

Result: I wrote and excellent post and was thanked by many readers, I published a paper in Nature and was given a documentary by Discovery.

Okay so none of the results were actually true as I am late putting up this post, I haven’t started writing any of the four papers on my list none of which will go to Nature, and I need to get my media proposal off to my coauthor today and it’s not finished….I would not give me the job, but then again I would NOT have given this response!

You will be given a VERY strict word limit by each of the sections must be addressed. Apparently the thing that most people forget is to mention the outcome, or result, of their actions. You need to think about this as, particularly in interview, they will ask things like “And what did you learn from this?”. Which in my case I would answer “I need to start setting my alarm”.

To be successful you must also KNOW THE DEPARTMENT! This seems very obvious but you would be surprised the amount of people who do not do their research. A prime example would be that at the moment we are being governed by a party that does not favour climate science. This was rather unfortunate as my PhD was very environment focussed. In this instance I needed to be a little more creative. For instance I concentrated on discussing the transferable skills rather than the topic, and because technically I study organic geochemistry I was able to couch this in terms of oil exploration rather than the food web dynamics in deep-sea coral. I like to call this ‘savvy’ rather than ‘dishonest’.

Lastly, before I sign off for today…allow plently of time. These things take days. Then you need to leave it and return with fresh eyes. This is your foot in the door and considering there were over 1500 applicants for Department B this year, you are playing footsies with a lot of people.

Now if you will excuse me I have a paper to write…

* If there is one thing that REALLY annoys me, it is the stuffy academics who look down their noses at government positions. I have had many do this to me and have even had panel members suggest that I should leave my husband in pursuit of an overseas post-doc…Clearly they didn’t marry as well as I did

** I’ve added a few links in the PhD Resources page under ‘Useful Links’ in the tool bar.