How to Read Job Descriptions to Prepare Winning CVs & Cover Letters for Academic Positions

Oliver Drake

Oliver is recruitment specialist who specialise in recruiting to academic, research and university administration roles. Oliver has gained, over 20 year resourcing for the higher education in the UK and worldwide.

Reading Job Descriptions to figure out what a particular position requires is a skill which you will have to develop (or improve) if you are currently applying for academic positions. It is important to know how to do it properly for two reasons. Firstly, unless you analyse a Job Description the right way you will never be sure whether you should apply for a particular position. Secondly, if you misread the Job Description you will fail to properly tailor your CV and Cover Letter to the position applied for, which will decrease your chances of getting invited for an interview. If you want to find out how to read and analyse Job Descriptions properly, check out this Example Job Description of the Random University for the position of Senior Lecturer in Business forwhich John Smith applied. This article will help you understand John’s thinking processes when he was analysing the Job Description as well as how he used the Job Description to prepare a winning CV and Cover Letter for the position.

What Job Descriptions are for

Reading through a Job Description for the first time can be quite scary. It can make you think that you don’t have enough skills for the position advertised or that you don’t meet some of the basic requirements of the job. But you shouldn’t get discouraged. Job Descriptions are there to describe an ideal candidate for the position who is perfect in all ways and who, well… probably doesn’t exist. Each candidate applying for the role will excel in some of the responsibilities specified in the Job Description, and they will not be sufficiently experienced in others. A Job Description is not a pass or fail type of a checklist. It is more of an invitation to negotiate, to see how many of the requirements you meet as a candidate compared to other candidates for the position. At the end of the day, the vast majority (if not all) candidates for the position will typically only meet around 70% of the requirements listed in the Job Description. The prospective employer will then invite for an interview the candidates whose combination of skills interests them the most. The bottom line is that you should not think twice about applying for a specific position if you meet around 70% of the core requirements of the role specified in the Job Description.

For example, when applying for the Senior Lecturer in Business role John analysed the Job Description carefully and understood that there were certain requirements which he did not meet. Point 7 of the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description specified that an ideal candidate should be able to supervise students in their projects and placements:

  7. Supervising student projects and placements as appropriate.  

Although John has never supervised students writing their dissertations or theses, he did not get discouraged because he understood that he can easily use his existing skills to support students in more advanced academic projects, such as dissertations. John also did not have much experience with supervising students undertaking placements. But he trusted that his excellent coaching and mentoring skills would enable him to do a great job in this respect.

Similarly, because of his personal circumstances John wasn’t sure if he could meet the “Additional demands of the role”, particularly in relation to working long term in a different RU office from the one he applied to work in, since the other offices were much further away from his home:

  Additional demands of the role: You may be required (after consultation) to undertake similar and/or related duties in other RU offices elsewhere in London, on an on-going i.e. long term, interim or strictly temporary basis, in accordance with the prevailing operational requirements as determined by the relevant Head of School or their acknowledged nominee.

But John still applied for the position and instead successfully negotiated during the interview that if he was indeed required to work at a different RU office, it would be for a period no longer than 2 months. Thanks to this approach John is now happily working as a Senior Lecturer in Business at the Random University – which would not have been possible if he had thought that he must fulfil 100% of the requirements listed in the “Additional demands of the role” section of the Job Description before applying.

Analysing the “Responsibilities” section

The “Responsibilities” section of a Job Description could probably be considered as the heart of it because it tells you exactly what the job is about and allows you to judge whether you want to do it in the first place. This section typically consists of clear, factual statements about the day-to-day duties that the candidate would have to perform in a particular position. Unless you are applying for an entry-level position, you should have experience in performing approximately 70% of those duties, and feel that you are able to quickly learn how to deal with the remaining 30% of tasks. Once you have decided that this is the case, you need to make sure that your CV and Cover Letter reflect the “Responsibilities” listed in the Job Description. Here’s how you can do that.

How to tailor your CV to the “Responsibilities” section

Tailoring your CV to the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description is quite easy. If you have the right experience for the role, all you need to do is make sure that the duties which you list in bullet points under various positions in your CV are worded in the same words as the responsibilities listed in the Job Description. This will help your prospective employer to perceive your CV as matching the Job Description, because they will not have to analyse whether what they called “Supervising student dissertations” in their Job Description matches the duty of “Supporting students in their academic projects” in your CV. Let’s take the example of John again.

In the Job Description provided by the Random University John spotted point 12 which mentioned “Identifying opportunities for income generation”:

  Identifying opportunities for income generation and/or entrepreneurialism from research, consultancy and/or professional practice.  

John used to perform this task regularly in his previous position, but in his CV he usually phrased it in a slightly different way:

  Lecturer in Business, University of Leeds | September 2017 – August 2020   Designing curriculum content and materials for selected modulesDelivering lectures and assisting in running module assessmentsDesigning and running seminars and tutorialsAssisting the department in research-related income generatingParticipating in administrative activities of the Business School  

There is nothing wrong with how John described this duty in his CV. But when scanning through his CV the recruiter from the Random University would not be able to easily tell in what way exactly John was “assisting the department”. For example, they wouldn’t be able to tell whether John was identifying new funding opportunities by himself (which is what they require), or if he was merely helping other colleagues to follow up on any opportunities they identified. This is why it is crucial that the wording of the “Responsibilities” section in the Job Description and the duties described under individual positions in your CV match.

How to tailor your Cover Letter to the “Responsibilities” section

The same rule in terms of the matching wording applies to Cover Letters. But there are also other things which you need to consider when tailoring your Cover Letter to a specific Job Description. First, let’s set some things straight. There are many examples of Cover Letters which contain just a few sentences and are treated more as a brief message accompanying the submitted CV. If you treat your Cover Letter as a mere formality, you are missing out on a very good opportunity to sell your skills to your prospective employer and show them that you really want the job. A winning Cover Letter should be one or one and a half pages long, and it should describe why and how you meet the requirements of the job. One of the paragraphs in your Cover Letter should be devoted specifically to the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description. It is your opportunity to show that you are experienced in dealing with the specific tasks required of the candidate. You will not have enough space to discuss all the responsibilities listed in the Job Description, because your Cover Letter would end up being around three to four pages long. Instead, you should choose around four key responsibilities and focus on discussing them in your Cover Letter. For example, here are the responsibilities which John decided to include in his Cover Letter:

  Engaging in teaching on undergraduate and/or postgraduate level programmes as determined by the Head of School and carrying out the associated examining and administrative processes. The range of teaching duties may change from time to time.Taking responsibility for the design, content and delivery of specific areas of teaching and learning as well as for the quality of teaching delivered.Collaborating with colleagues in the continuous review and development of the School’s programmes.Leading modules and/or courses.Working in accordance with University’s policies and procedures to undertake assessment of students’ work and give feedback.Contributing to the wider student experience through personal tutoring, excellent classroom teaching and providing support in and outside the classroom.Supervising student projects and placements as appropriate.Developing a standing as a scholar in the candidate’s field that contributes to the profile and reputation of the School.Collaborating in scholarly activities with colleagues in and beyond the University, if appropriate.Extending, transforming and applying knowledge acquired from scholarship and professional practice to teaching and appropriate external activities.Maintaining contacts and collaborating with the wider academic community, relevant professional bodies, industry and other external stakeholder groups to disseminate knowledge and enhance the reputation of the School.Identifying opportunities for income generation and/or entrepreneurialism from research, consultancy and/or professional practice.Individually or with colleagues bidding for external income (including research grants) and managing and/or delivering projects that are secured.Taking part in relevant internal boards, committees and working groups at departmental or faculty level, as required.

John has in the past performed the responsibilities listed in points 2, 8 and 12 above, so he had very good examples to provide in relation to each point. For instance, here is how he discussed in his Cover Letter the duty of “Developing a standing as a scholar in the candidate’s field that contributes to the profile and reputation of the School” listed in point 8 of the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description:

According to the Job Description you are looking for a person who will actively work on developing a standing as a scholar within their field. Throughout my career I have published several journal articles in renowned peer-reviewed journals. Moreover, I am currently working on three new journal publications and I am determined to continue expanding my expertise as well as recognition in the field of business.

In case there are certain duties listed in the “Responsibilities” section which you did not perform in the past, your Cover Letter is an opportunity to explain why you believe you could easily take on those duties. For example, as we have established earlier John has never supervised students writing dissertations before – as listed in point 7 of the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description. Here is how he addressed this shortcoming in his Cover Letter:

The Job Description specified that an ideal candidate would have to be supervising students in their projects and placements. Although I do not have experience with supervising students writing dissertations or undertaking job placements, I am used to regularly supporting students in their assignments as well as attempts to obtain internships. I am confident that my coaching and mentoring skills would enable me to supervise students in dissertations and placements with great success.

By addressing his lack of experience with supervising dissertation and placement students John showed to his prospective employer that he is fully capable of performing well in the position of Senior Lecturer in Business, despite his lack of prior experience in this specific area.

Analysing the “Person Specification” criteria

Just like with the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description, the “Person Specification” describes the attitude and characteristics of an ideal candidate for the position. The difference between them is that the “Person Specification” section is usually much more generic and related to your soft skills, that is skills which you could have developed in various aspects of your professional and personal life rather than purely through your previous work experience. As with the responsibilities of the position, you should not get discouraged from applying if there are certain skills mentioned in the “Person Specification” section which you believe you haven’t developed yet that much. Remember that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Your prospective employer is not looking to find a candidate who matches all the criteria of the “Person Specification”. They are merely looking for someone whose combination of strengths and weaknesses will match their working environment well. So, your job when reading and analysing the “Person Specification” criteria is to try to select around four characteristics which you believe are your strengths. Once you do that, you should use them to your advantage in your Cover Letter.

How to tailor your Cover Letter to the “Person Specification” section

As with the “Responsibilities” section of the Job Description, once you have selected the four key characteristics mentioned in the “Person Specification” section, you should explain to your prospective employer in your Cover Letter why you believe you have those characteristics. You should especially do that by using specific examples from your professional life – even if they are not strictly related to the duties which you performed in your previous positions. For example, John selected as one of his strong sides the following quality listed as “Essential” in the “Person Specification”:

Person Specification
EXPERIENCE & PERSONAL QUALITIES Essential: Development and innovation of teaching and learning methods.

He then decided to mention the unique seminar system which he came up with as part of his teaching practice to help the students learn the study materials faster and more effectively:

I understand that you are looking for a person capable of developing and using innovative teaching and learning methods. I have repeatedly demonstrated those skills when designing new seminar learning activities for my students in the past, which are a part of the unique seminar teaching system I created over the years. I strongly believe in constantly seeking to improve my teaching skills, especially by incorporating into my courses unique online and face-to-face learning exercises.

By including specific examples of actions – just like the example above – John managed to convince his prospective employer that he does indeed have the characteristics and skills listed in the “Person Specification” section of the Job Description.

Further resources:

Michael Harrison, How to Get Hired: An Insider’s Guide to Applications, Interviews and Getting the Job of Your Dreams (Independently Published, 2018)

John Lees, How to Get a Job You Love 2019 (McGraw-Hill Education, 2018)

Johanna Greeson, From PhD to Professor: Advice for Landing Your First Academic Position (THE MUSE, 2020):

Rogier Creemers, A Machiavellian guide to getting ahead in academia (Times Higher Education, 21 December 2017):

Hannah Alpert-Abrams, How to apply for academic jobs in 2020 (Medium, 21 May 2020):

Jack Kelly, How To Really Read A Job Description Advertisement (Forbes, 18 March 2018):

Heather Huhman, Tricky, Tricky: How to Read Between the Lines of A Job Description (Glassdoor, 16 December 2016):

Emily Moore, How to Customize Your Resume for Each Job You Apply to (Glassdoor, 26 February 2018):

Jon Simmons, How to decipher a job description to improve your chances of getting hired (Monster, 2020):

Darlene Jeanty, How to Interpret a Job Description (Jopwell, 1 July 2019):

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