Day: November 29, 2016

Dispatches from an Academic Search

When you apply for faculty jobs, a standard set of required documents is:

a) Cover letter

b) CV [“Curriculum vitae” or simply “Vita”; please, I beg you, do not use “Vitae” as the title or refer to your CV as Vitae; vitae in curriculum vitae is the genitive case of the noun vita (life) and as such has no place being a title. If you want to be an obnoxious Latin nerd such as yours truly, instead of saying “Send me your CV” you could say “Send me your vitam,” because vitam is the accusative case appropriate for a direct object (yes, my native tongue is big on the declension of nouns). Kidding aside, English doesn’t admit these inflections, so I believe it’s fine to say, “Send me your vita.”)  A more important point is that your CV should contain a list of references in the back, and not the annoying and pointless statement “References available upon request.”]

c) Research statement

d) Teaching statement

Many searches will ask for the first two, but I recommend to send all four anyway, because some people always do, so you might as well be one of those people.

I have been on a number of search committees, and am currently on one that is fairly labor-intensive.

Here are some (grumpy) thoughts:

As will surprise absolutely no one, the CV is the most important part of your application. You don’t have to put a title “Curriculum Vitae” on it; it’s pretty self-evident what it is. Please don’t go nuts with formatting, colors, shaded text boxes… Keep it clean and not annoying. I want to see your contact info (get a webpage! if you can’t write HTML/CSS, create a free webpage with easy-to-use templates on WordPress, Blogspot, or Google Sites), then 1) education, 2) positions held, 3) honors and awards, and then straight to 4) published papers (for a research school like mine). Publications in archival journals are key in most fields, but for CS and some fields in applied math/statistics selective conferences are the main dissemination venues. After these come 5) conference papers and presentations for those for whom conferences are not the primary communication mode. Afterwards, if you have teaching experience,  some info about 6) which courses you taught etc., and 7) on the last page should be a list of your references. [There are many differences between a resume for a corporate job and an academic CV; one is that I don’t necessarily need to see a list of skills and tools that can use, but a corporate employer likely does. If seeking an industry job, check out this great resource from a veteran biotech hiring manager.] If you have written and received grants, that should come after publications, and some like CAREER or NSF GRFP show up early, among honors and awards.

Anyhoo… I look at your CV for less than a minute during the initial screening, and if I can’t find where you’ve been, where you are now, and what you’ve published thus far, you are not helping your case. Make bold or underline your name in the author list of your publications; I want to see how many you have as first or other significant author versus just some person in the middle of a twenty-author list (this for fields where author position actually communicates degree of involvement — in many physical science fields (of course, not all, so YMMV) lead junior author is first, lead senior author is last, and the contribution decreases as you move towards the middle of the author list. Regardless of what the conventions of your field are, chances are people will want to see quickly what your contribution is based on established field norms.

But I am guessing there are many resources for writing an academic CV.

What I want to talk about are the research and teaching statements.

These are usually also skimmed during the initial screening, unless they are not. We definitely look at them in detail in you have survived the first cut.

Teaching statement

I remain puzzled by the necessity to include the teaching statements for research universities. Don’t get me wrong — teaching is important and being able to teach well is important, I just don’t believe these documents, the way they are commonly written, are useful at all in discerning whether someone will be good in the classroom or not. Teaching statements are nearly always a collection of boring, generic fluff and cliches. Everyone writes the same thing about their teaching philosophy (everyone wants their students to be engaged, everyone knows that the close interaction with students helps student learning outcomes, blahblahblah); most of these people were never really in charge of a class, so they cannot really have much in the way of a true teaching philosophy (or a clue how much work it really is); they are also not stupid and if they get a job at a research school, they will shun “close interaction with students” when grant deadlines loom large. Honestly, other than writing a brown-nosing love letter to an abstraction of an undergrad class, which makes this search committee member roll her eyes, please be honest about your experiences or lack thereof, how you yourself learn and what you have enjoyed or not in the classroom, and I want to see a list of courses you could teach, whether you bothered to check out our course website and have an idea what the course numbers are, and if you have an idea for new courses that we do not actually already offer. Showing you bothered to do some research about us goes a long way. I am generally very impressed if people get specific, such as when they write — in nongeneric, non-vomit-inducingly-saccharine ways — about their experiences as a TA and their enjoyment thereof. Occasionally I see a teaching statement that just brims with real warmth and real enthusiasm for teaching based on actual experiences, and you know you have a winner (but only if their research is even more kick-ass, otherwise it’s a no-go).

Research statement

When I applied for jobs back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, both my statements were 2 pages of text, with only a handful of references. I have always been of the mind that a research statement should not be over 3 pages (okay, you can use page 4 for references if you must), but in this search I’ve been seeing really long research statements that make me think “Pages straight from advisor’s proposal!” I wonder what the blogosphere says, but to me, if you can convey excitement about your plans in 3 pages (with visually appealing figures that are not content-free bullshit schematics) I will be very impressed. Aim for no fewer than 3 and no more than 5 specific topics (topic = something that is several papers worth of work or a sizable grant worth of money) that are all connected into a coherent theme of what you will make a name in.

A common mistake is that people propose too little (basically, what their next couple papers in the postdoc advisor’s group will be) or too similar to what they are already doing (if the same thing is to be proposed by you and your advisor, I am funding your advisor and not you). Writing a good research prospectus is not trivial and if you do it well you will have the seeds for the first several proposals once you get the job.

In my field, the research seminar is followed by a closed-session equivalent of what the biomed kids call “the chalk talk.” Whatever it’s called, when you interview, be prepared to talk about the work you used to do and the work you plan on doing. Pick a name for your niche and for the 3–5 aforementioned topics and stick with those names: in the talk and in the research statement, call them the exact same thing everywhere; it makes it easier for people to follow what you are about once you are at the interview stage.

But one first has to get to the interview stage.

Blogosphere, thoughts on the research statement? Length, content, level of detail? Figs or no figs? Figs or Figs Newton? (Sorry. I had to. And I am not even really sorry.)

Other thoughts/comments/questions?