Academic Job Search — Surviving the First Cut

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Prof. Xykademiqz gets ready to screen tenure-track applications

I am on a faculty search committee again this year. It’s a lot of work, but as far as faculty service obligations go, this one is really worth it because you have an influence over who your future colleagues will be and where the department will go in the long run.

Here, I will be talking about a physical science field and a research-intensive institution, one of the so-called “very high research activity” or R1 institutions according to the Carnegie classification [also referred to as a major research university (MRU)]. While the process somewhat varies between disciplines and types of institutions, many aspects are probably universal and therefore  worth sharing.

The committee work involves sifting through hundreds of applications in order to choose 3–5 who will be invited for an on-site interview. We don’t do phone or Skype interviews. Our committees consist mostly of people with expertise in the targeted area within the department, but also one or two people from other areas.  In my department, everyone on the committee sees every application;  I am sure there are committee-to-committee variations, some may split the application piles so each file is seen by only one person.  The process of selecting interviewees usually involves several steps. The first cut is done by every committee member on their own. This is the most drastic cut, which the vast majority of applications don’t survive, as the several-hundred-application pile is reduced to a few tens — the long list. While each committee member has their own, it’s actually surprising how much overlap there is among different people’s long lists. Input from others in the department may be solicited at this point. Then the committee meets once or twice to discuss the people on the long lists and reduce the number to a short list of 3–5, with perhaps a couple of alternates. These 3–5 need to get approved by the department executive committee (all tenured faculty) and the college dean to be invited to an interview. Therefore, the candidates have to have some pretty apparent markers of future promise that are easily defensible in front of the colleagues and the dean.

You, the applicant, need to survive the first cut and make the long list of at least one but preferably several people on the search committee. If you make no one’s, it is highly unlikely that anybody will give your application a second look.  This process is not unlike panel review of proposals — someone has to notice you and want to champion you, or you don’t really stand a chance. 

When I have hundreds of applications to sift through and the search is defined pretty broadly, there are three things that I immediately look for: your area of expertise, where you did your PhD and postdoc, and your publication record. Which first brings us to…

Documents: Different searches request different paperwork, but every search will ask for a cover letter and a CV. Some will ask for research and teaching statements. Some will ask that the references send letters right away, some just want the names of the references and will ask for letters if you are nearing the inclusion on the short list. Always, always, submit a cover letter, a CV, as well as research and teaching statements. Even if the ad does not explicitly ask for the last two, submit them anyway. Why? Because others do, and even though your application must technically be considered if you submitted the minimal required paperwork, once you are nearing the  inclusion on the short list it helps if people know in a bit more detail what it is that you actually want to do and how.

However, in order to survive the first cut, your past record is key, so your CV is the most important document. During the first round of screening, I only look at the CV, along with a few quick glances at the cover letter. The following information gets retrieved during the initial screening:

Area of expertise: Have it prominently somewhere in both the cover letter and the CV what your subfield is, or what your 2-3 broadly defined areas of interest are. I am grateful if within 5 seconds of opening your application I know what it is that you are an expert in. Here’s the rub — sometimes the ad is vague on purpose in terms of the area, because the department wants to cast a broad net and just hire whoever looks best. Sometimes it is vague because the department did not decide ahead of time what the priorities are. Sometimes there are well-defined priorities, but they are not in the ad for all sorts of reasons. All you, as applicant, can and should do is apply if the search appears to be even remotely receptive to your expertise and then keep your fingers crossed. There is no point in trying to guess what is behind an ad. Ads are crafted as much (or more) by HR as by the department and language often leaves much to be desired. Faculty job ad craftsmanship often brings to mind the proverb “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” 

Pedigree and publications: Where you come from — your pedigree, your PhD and postdoc institutions and groups —  this is all very important. We all believe that people who went to top schools must be very smart to get in, they get quality education, and they have reputable people vouching for them, so it’s hard to deny that pedigree matters.  However, it is not enough. It is very, very important how your publication list looks. If you have a PhD and postdoc with many first-author publications in reputable journals, you are the person I want to see. So, if you are serious about an academic position in a science field and you feel you have what it takes to do that job, but you are getting a PhD at a good but not top school , then you have to publish as much as possible as a grad student, more than a person from a more prestigious school. If your field requires a postdoc, then you also need to try to get into a good, productive, and if possible prominent group at a better university, where “better” generally means “better name recognition.” And keep publishing like your life depends on it. I know, this is easier said than done, as postdoc advisors are not be the world’s most nurturing demographic, especially those who are very successful at cutthroat places.  Also,  a bad match with a postdoc group pretty much effs you over for good, which is why you need to be as careful and and as informed as possible when trying to find the optimum combination of productivity and pedigree boost. And it doesn’t hurt to be a  little lucky. 

Finally, it may seem like the first cut during a faculty search is made somewhat crudely. However, among hundreds of applications, the truth is that the vast majority are simply not competitive at all — these applicants will never get a faculty position. I am probably wrong about a handful of them, but not about most. In an ideal world, someone would tell these people that their applications don’t look competitive for the type of position they seek. But then again, all sorts of unconscious biases can creep up into this type of advice, so perhaps it’s better to just let people apply. But you, as an applicant, can certainly try to talk to your PhD and postdoc advisors and find out what a typical record of a recent tenure-track hire looks like. You can also go online and look at the websites of assistant professors at institutions where you envision  working, count their publications and see how you measure up. Good luck!

5 comments

  1. The first-cut lists often don’t overlap that much. On the committee I was on last year, only one of the people on my top ten list got an interview. Luckily, we managed to hire her, since she was clearly better than the people from other committee member’s top ten lists. If we hadn’t hired here, I would have been rather bitter about all the missed opportunities to get someone we needed due to interviewing the wrong people.

  2. gasstationwithoutpumps: Yes, this can really vary depending on the composition of the committee. In my department, there is also a pretty strong variation between areas — some areas have people who are among the best in the nation, others not so much, and it becomes apparent through the candidates they put up for interviews and is a cause for quite a bit of strife. As one retired senior administrator at my university said “A-faculty hire A’s, B-faculty hire C’s.” This generally means that the top people want to hire those who are as good as them or better, whereas mediocre people hire those who are worse than them. So when you have people who really are not looking for excellence but god knows what in a candidate (self-similarity in mediocrity?) that can really bring the whole department down.

  3. The problem here wasn’t “quality” in an abstract sense, but what the person brought to the department. We had advertised for an engineering position and desperately needed more engineering expertise for our undergrad curriculum, but many of the top candidates identified by others were pure science people. They were excellent scientists, but would not have been able to provide missing design courses in the curriculum. I was the only member of the committee who cared about the teaching needs of the program, and not just research opportunities. (I cared about research also, but there were 10 candidates who I thought were good from both perspectives—and only the one we ended up hiring got interviewed.)

  4. How do you guys coordinate between the faculty search committee and other faculty not in the search committee? Is the level of outside input high, or do mostly people on the committee make the decisions?

  5. Luna, in my experience there are variations. For instance, the committee might make a joint long list (somewhere between 10 and 20) and then others — where “others” might be all the people in the department or just people in the target area — have a chance to take a look and give their input. Most people will not want to go through the 300 applications and are grateful to look at the long list only.But then you have someone who has their own agenda and will dig up a singular application from the discarded pile and lobby that we take a second look; this is usually not an issue but might become if the lobbying is too aggressive and the committee really thinks the candidate is not all that great. I was cte chair last year, and we did the top 20-ish list, solicited everyone’s input (most people don’t care, a few from the area did give input) and then we made a choice of top 5. This year I am on the cte but another colleague is chair and it seems to me that he wants to keep everything in the cte as we will each come in with a long list and the expectation is to make the short one ourselves; I don’t see that he is formalizing the input of others and I am not sure if he’s somehow getting it unofficially. So it may be that this year it’s down to the committee. (There are some confidentiality issues with some applicants who are employed, so one has to be careful in how the input is solicited so as not to get the department into trouble over the info leaking out when an applicant formally requested confidentiality in writing.)

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