Academic Job Search — Some Things That Perhaps Shouldn’t Matter But Do

Over the past few weeks I have been looking at tenure-track faculty applications. Most candidates are on their first postdoc, with some who are about to finish graduate school and some on their second postdoc, or even further in their career. As I have written before, most applications are unfortunately not competitive and will be eliminated during the initial screening process. What we look for is a fairly high publication rate in reputable journals, with clear evidence that the candidate themselves is very strong, as opposed to just having been carried along by a productive group. In general, that means we look for a number of good first author papers (ideally, we know the papers and what’s in them and how influential they have been, but in the absence of direct knowledge of the content, the journal reputation often serves as proxy in determining the approximate quality).

For candidates who look strong and productive on paper, we want to see what the people who know them have to say. Once the list is down to about 20 applications, we send out requests for letters. It’s customary to have the list of references as part of the application package, usually in the back of the CV. Typical faculty search ads ask for at least three references, and all candidates have at least as many. However, on the one hand you have a candidate with three names, either all professors from the candidate’s graduate school or the postdoc advisor, PhD advisor, and another grad school prof. On the other hand, you have a candidate with 5-6 names, of which two are the usual-suspect postdoc and PhD advisors, but there are also 3-4 other faculty, all big names from various universities  around the country. Who do you think gives off a better impression when you glance at their reference list?

What I have noticed is that US-born candidates from strong groups are much more likely to have these numerous and varied connections, whereas foreigners have fewer on average. I am sure it’s partly cultural, perhaps stellar candidates who grew up in the US have had longer to absorb the need to network and have worked on it, many of them having started to do research and present their findings at conferences as early as their undergraduate years. When I see a foreigner with a great publication record but a very brief list of references, I wonder why those advisors haven’t pushed the candidate to network more. Being a good person in the lab is great, but not enough for the junior candidate themselves. I feel that certain faculty are happy to keep a junior person in the lab, cranking out data, and don’t offer (or better yet nudge!) their apprentice to develop other aspects, such as build their own collaborations and connections. If the candidate is perhaps unsure of their English and not crazy about giving talks at conferences, or the candidate cannot travel for other reasons, such as having young children (obviously, this holds for US and foreign-born people alike), then you have a potentially great person who has not received enough exposure or had the chance to develop their own reputation as a rising star, and despite all their potential and hard work they will not do as well as they should on the faculty job market.

Then come the letters. Much has been written about how letters from the US are all glowing, gooey with superlatives, while those from Europe and Asia are more terse. In my experience, terse Europeans are perfectly capable of conveying strong support if they are so inclined, they just take fewer pages and fewer adjectives to do so.  Moreover, American letters are longer and more wordy, but they too convey their intentions just fine — there are the sparkling but generic letters of an emotionally uninvested letter writer versus those that are strong, specific, and reveal a deep personal interest in the candidate’s success.  It seems that letters have gotten longer in recent years — a strong letter these days is 3 pages long, and very uniformly so across a large sample. I hear that 3 pages used to be the considered too long, but not any more. Shorter letters are fine from the people who are a little at an arm’s length from the candidate, but your advisors and close collaborators better have a lot of specific stuff to say about you. So it really makes a difference if you work for someone who knows how these things are done and can write a convincing  letter of support, versus someone who is unaware of what is perceived as strong these days or is simply less effective at conveying their support in written form. We see that the letters from top-notch groups look top-notch, no doubt because the candidates are great, but also because these big names are aware of what people are looking for, which gives their students and postdocs yet another advantage on the job market.

So not only does your PhD or postdoc advisor’s capacity to “play the game” affect your training, i.e. your ability to do and publish important work while being funded for it, but higher-order effects, such as writing you a strong letter or ensuring you form your own network, are of considerable importance for how you fare on the job market.

8 comments

  1. I was once asked to help a European write a reference letter, precisely because of the differences in approach between the US and Europe. I think it was an excellent decision by the mentor for the European person.

  2. Two things.

    1) I think that the long letter is very field-specific. In bioinformatics we routinely see very strong letters that are 1–2 pages long. Three-page letters are rare for a junior hire, though we will see them occasionally for a senior position.

    2) I think you need to look up the usage for “bode”. It is usually used with a non-referent “it” as a subject (“it bodes well for you”). Literally “bode” means to “be an omen”; the important noun is after the preposition “for”, not in the subject position.

  3. Interesting to hear this – maybe I’ve been selling myself short. Is it really customary to include as references people you haven’t worked with closely? [Obviously this is field-dependent, but say for physical sciences.] All of my letters are from people I have written papers with.

  4. LM, when I was applying I had references from PhD advisor and two close collaborators, but also from 2 or 3 people whom I knew well from conferences and workshops, and who knew my work really well. It’s actually not bad to see someone other than your advisors (i.e other than those who have a vested interest in your success) say you are excellent and one of the best in the field and comparable to a Recent Rising Star or some such thing (I am in a physical science field).

  5. I wonder if it’s a consensus that these shouldn’t matter. And if so, why hasn’t the consensus tried to change things. For my industry job they requested 10 references who each fill out a short survey. We just want to see that you can leverage people. If we judged the candidate by the ability of someone else to play “the game” then we probably wouldn’t hire anyone. It’s not perfect, but what is?

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