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?

25 comments

  1. Figs Newton FTW!

    Seconding your point about figures in research statements…I love seeing them for the same reason that I love figures in proposals – it breaks the monotony of text and gives me something interesting to look at for a bit. Some people love schematic figures. I personally hate them because I haven’t found a useful one yet and prefer empirical/model results figures. Show me something cool!

    One thing that surprised me (don’t know why) on my first foray on a search committee was how much the committee members varied in terms of what they were looking for. Even though we are R1, we had one member who was all about teaching first, second and third. Anyway, my point is that you can’t please everyone. So, don’t stress about it. Just do the best you can and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there – even for jobs that you’re iffy about. Search committees do *not* spend any time perusing the rejection pile saying ‘what were these people thinking applying for XYZ’. Applying won’t hurt you (aside from the time it takes to tweak a cover letter).

  2. I concur on the uselessness of a teaching statement. I’m actually at a teaching-focused institution, but there’s such a consensus on what you are “supposed to” say, on what the proper buzzwords are, that everyone just says that. I would probably give bonus points to an application that says “Teaching Statement: See the usual boilerplate in the other applications.”

  3. I’m at a research intensive school biomedical and have been on 3 search committees so far and currently involved in a fourth (our school requires a person from an outside department on all searches- so that coupled with being on of the few female professors means I am usually one of the go-to peeps). Anyway, the advice I give for the research statement (3-5 pages) is to spend a paragraph or two describing what you’ve previously done and how you will leverage your training with what you propose to do when you get here. Then open with the vision for your lab and how your research fills a unique need or gap in the field. What is your niche. Or think of what you want to be known for— i.e. when people think of the Dr. Smith lab, what do you what them to immediately think (i.e. “Oh they are the widget lab who looks at how widgets are made” or “they are the sprocket lab who looks at sprockets int he context of….”. The rest should LOOK LIKE A GRANT (NSF/NIH/ADA–I don’t care). Lay out what you expect your first two grants too like like. Not necessarily *specific aims* but a broad research aim. IMHO this makes you look a lot less “green” in terms of knowing what goes into a grant and that you are already thinking about how to set one up. This may vary by field but is always what I subconsciously look for. Oh and FIGURES– pretty, non-blurry non-small type figures…..

  4. Ha! It drives me nuts when people talk about their vitae. Exactly how many lives have you had? So your mini rant made my day. And then “Send me your vitam?” I died.

    I am in a small department, and have been on several search committees outside of my area of expertise. When I read research statements, I want at least a line or two putting your research into a broader context — some indication that you can hold a conversation with someone outside their area. The 4+ page research statement? Please. Either you’re a poor editor, or you are overestimating the importance of your own work. Think about your reader!

  5. Thank you!! I’m also on a huge search right now and thinking many of the same thoughts. I’m in the humanities, though. So, for example, no research statement for a creative job (a lit person would use a diss abstract). I pay major attention to cover letter, which needs to do more than summarize the CV but make an argument for good fit. These are generally 2 pages single spaced….shorter you haven’t said enough (red flag).

    I literally stopped reading one application because of the font. Enough said.

    I’ll try to come back and comment more. Need to read the writing samples…ugh.

  6. Yes to all this advice! Especially on keeping the number of pages down on the research statement. Even the long list is long enough that it is tedious to read so many research proposals in a short time frame, especially when not in my field.

    Bonus points for: showing up to interview with a list of what equipment you NEED, what equipment you would like to have but can live without/can share, and how many trainees you would like to have at steady state. Super bonus extra credit for knowing approximately how much what you want to buy will actually cost.

  7. One disagreement: references don’t go on a CV—they are a completely separate category of information. The CV should only contain verifiable facts about you (jobs, publications, courses taught, …). References are usually a separate entry on the web form for the job application.

    I agree that generic teaching statements are useless pablum (much like NSF Broader Impacts statements), but I do like to see applicants who have teaching experience and can explain what they have done to improve their teaching.

    In research statements, I like to see some indication that the person knows what shared lab equipment will be needed—a junior faculty member generally can’t raise enough money to duplicate everything they had available as a postdoc, and it helps if they know what they really need. If someone applies who needs equipment that we’ll never have, then it is better to reject them quickly rather than hire them and kill their chance of doing research.

  8. I have to disagree with gswp on the CV. Even if you are uploading your application electronically (which many places still don’t, often you just email you packet to someone) and there are text boxes to enter you references, those will likely be used to trigger solicitation emails for letters but will likely not be read by a human on your committee. You want the human on your committee to see the list of your references, because that is the list of people who vouch for you and if the committee knows and respects the people on your list of references, that is a strength. Sure, I can infer from your publications who is likely your advisor, but when I skim, you want all pertinent information out there and trivially obvious. So yeah, while CV lists what you have done during your industrious career, CV for a faculty job application most definitely should have a list of references in the back, even if you pasted that same info in a text box somewhere.

  9. Just applied for an R1 level job that had word counts stated for all required docs (except cv and cover letter). Research statement 1500 words, teaching statement 500. I included figures in the research statement, one per topical section. Job ad also suggested (but did not require) a diversity statement, which I included, 750 words. Didn’t include list of refs on CV, as they were uploaded separately online. Will do so in future apps (thanks for the tip). I paid a lot of attention to how my docs were formatted, with the goal of making them as easy to read and refer to as possible.

  10. For chemistry at R1 schools, the standard is for the whole research statement to be 9-10 pages, often split into three sub-proposals. Usually there is one page at the front that summarizes the whole thing and gives the big-picture view. The purpose of this page is to get people excited about the approach and give them reason to read the details that will follow. Also, refs definitely go on the CV.

  11. Refs should definitely go on the CV. But in my opinion, if you keep a CV on your website, it’s cool to omit them there – no need to make spammers’ jobs easier. Sometimes our publication list is a separate doc from the CV just to keep the CV from getting too long (some leave publication summary statistics in the CV), but each application is different and one should follow instructions!

    aspiring riff raff – Word counts!? Ugh. I’m so sorry, but hopefully jumping through that hoop will be worth it!

  12. @anon I actually really liked the word count- it gave me a good sense of how much depth they wanted.

  13. Yeah, 1500 words is about three pages, which is a good, not-excruciating length. (For instance, today’s post is about 1380 words.) 5oo words, or a single page, sounds great for the teaching statement.

    JoshVW, 9-10 pages is scary long! Is this the norm across chemistry or do subfields vary?

  14. I second JoshVW’s comment about R1 chem depts: three sub-proposals + summary synopsis for a total of up to 10 pages. My impression is that the longer proposals tend to come from the more bio-oriented side of the field, while the shorter proposals tend to come from the more physical side.

  15. I seem to be the only humanist… research statement is foreign concept to me.

    We use diss abstract and then, for second cut, 20-30 page writing samples.

  16. XY: As far as I’ve seen this is pretty standard across all fields of chemistry. In physical it may be more of one long proposal since there’s probably going to be a lot of discussion of instrumentation. For inorg/materials/organic, the three proposals are often more conceptually distinct. I’ve heard this described as three mini-proposals, each of which you could expand and send to a different funding agency (or sub-program in an agency).

  17. JoshVW: Wow! That’s quite a detailed evaluation at the incoming end, basically like pre-proposal review for 3 projects! How long is the typical postdoc experience before securing first position? It seems people are expected to be well versed in proposal writing by the time they land a faculty position?

  18. Going back to the very first comment by pyrope, it’s an important point: yes, “you can’t please everyone,” but be sure to touch all the bases, and seriously. Even though I’m at a research university, it seems that all our search committees have at least one person on them to whom it is “all about teaching first, second and third.” Maybe it’s a different sort of diversity thing. 🙂 Even though research is the king of the hill, if you submit a “generic” teaching statement, you’re out.

  19. am I the only one who has been told (repeatedly by multiple experienced people) to NEVER send any document not requested. Seems like a great way to irritate the search committee…who don’t want to read more and technically can’t include extras as part of an evaluation

  20. Having sat on a number of NSF Fellowship Panels, many of the best students have done amazing outreach things. This should definitely go in the teaching statement. Coherent outreach is increasingly important in proposals, especially center proposals. OTOH, I’d like to have undergrad students in my lab during the summer is a definite eye roller.

    As xyK started to say, think of the research statement as a pre-proposal. Length is about the same, as is the purpose, to excite the reader.

  21. On CVs and references: I’m not sure whether this argues for or against including names of references on CVs, but it also permits the applicant to get around limits on the number of references allowed. Many departments allow only three letter writers (Top-top places in particular). Since I have three current/former advisors who write these letters, including my other references on the CV shows that people who didn’t train me are also willing to vouch for me. I suspect this only works for you if someone recognizes a name on the list, so you can argue this perpetuates old boys clubs… but it’s still a consideration.

  22. XY: postdocs are actually quite short – just 2-3 years in total, so people are applying after only 1 or 2 years as postdocs. Many chemistry graduate proposals have students write original research proposals as one of the checkpoints on the way to the Ph.D, so we get some experience with this.

  23. following up on my last comment: I guess I don’t find this length so odd. If you’re going to start a research group, you should have more than one idea of projects you want to do and be able to describe them in 2 to 3 pages. You need to say what you want to do, why it’s important, and what your clever idea is for doing it, while making clear that you know what others have done to tackle similar problems. I don’t know how else someone can judge whether you have good ideas or not with a much shorter summary of your goals – then it’s just an idea and not a plan. When I was writing my research proposal, initially it seemed like the 10 pages was way too much but by the time I wrote the plan in enough detail such that I felt it was clear, it naturally fit that length.

  24. JoshVW, I guess my question is how this works out at the selection stage. My understanding is that the application materials should be significant/informative enough to get the applicant the interview, and the selection is always (IME) heavily weighted towards the CV; many people don’t even look at anything else before the interview. We look at the research statement to see how exciting and novel the proposed work might be, how well it ties to the candidate’s expertise, and how well it fits with the specific call (if we are not casting a big net), but we don’t do the in-depth technical vetting of details of the research statement that you describe at the pre-interview stage. The candidates definitely get grilled when they give the job talk on how this or that would be done, where they would apply for money, etc.

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