Academic Job Search
Guest Post: Interviewing for a Job at an Undergrad-Oriented School
I want to follow up on xykademiqz’s posts on job search strangeness. I’m in a STEM discipline at an undergrad-oriented school. My department has no graduate program, and those departments that do have graduate programs usually only have small MS programs. The focus is on undergrads.
For some reason, most of our candidates in our current search showed the same missteps in their interview presentations. Being an undergrad-oriented institution, one certainly does have to aim a research seminar in our department a bit differently than a seminar at an R1.The audience won’t include many direct competitors who can pick apart your research proposal, and it will include many undergraduates who know nothing about your topic (or, worse, have a bunch of misconceptions about your research area). So you certainly need to spend more time than usual on background. This is the standard advice, and all of our candidates followed it. The problem is that most of them followed that advice a bit too well. They spent so much time on background that it was really hard for faculty to figure out what they actually do and what they actually want to do. Some of them showed at least a few results, others showed literally nothing of what they do. Only a couple actually got very specific about what they themselves do and why their approaches and results are so exciting.
“Wait, isn’t the point of the seminar just to give undergrads an idea of what you do and why you do it?” Yes, that is a big part of it, but it isn’t all of it. We are not looking to hire somebody who will publish in Glamour on a regular basis, but we are looking for somebody who has exciting research projects that are intellectually significant, sustainable, and amenable to undergraduate involvement. In order for us to figure out if you meet that criterion, you have to use your seminar talk to tell us what it is that you actually do. You can’t spend 43 minutes on background and then spend 2 minutes saying “So, I work on stuff related to what I just showed you. Any questions?” Um, yeah, I have a question. What the **** do you actually do?
“But I wrote a research plan! Didn’t you read that?” First, I’m not on the committee. Second, there’s nothing more adorable than a n00b. Tenured professors reading? Really? Most of us are too busy napping! But, seriously, we did read about your research, but we aren’t in your field, so we’d like you to summarize your key approaches and findings thus far, and then follow it with something like “So here’s what I want to do next…” Then we can have a Q&A.
“But won’t that go over the heads of undergrads?” Well, yes, they are kind of stupid. That’s why we really only expect you to spend about 50% of the talk at their level before taking it up a notch. Second, are you saying that you are unable to take what you do and bring some of the essentials to undergrads? Are you sure you should be working here?
Anyway, having been harsh on candidates, I’ll say this much for them: I think they’ve been hit over the head a bit too much with good advice. They were told again and again and again (and then some) that they need to take it down a notch for students. And when we look for people who have a lot of teaching and mentoring experience and want to go to an undergrad-focused school, we probably select for overly-conscientious types. It also doesn’t help that we are doing a search in one of the more abstract corners of our discipline, and people in that sub-field are especially likely to be told “Remember, most undergrads do not appreciate the abstraction the way you do. Take it to their level. You need to take this weird stuff and make it accessible.” Still, at the end of the day, you need to tell us what you do, and tell us why it is exciting and show us how smart you are. Yeah, yeah, the earnest progressive types will say that you shouldn’t be a sage on the stage, but we want to hire a smart scientist who does stuff. Show us what you do, you smart scientist! I mean, otherwise, why would we hire you?
Notes from the Search
We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.
My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.
I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.
One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.
I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.
Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all. Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance. I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.
Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.
Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?
Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.
- For several searches in a row, a colleague always favors a candidate from the same country of origin, even when others in-area unanimously favor someone else. (That same colleague also collaborates only with compatriots and only brings in students from the same country. This cannot be a good thing.)
- Some colleagues will penalize a candidate for having a presentation style and general demeanor different from their own; we have a subarea that is starting to look like it’s populated by clones or, at the very least, siblings.
- Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones; I wish it weren’t true, but it is. No matter how well they present, they are never perceived to be quite as polished as the very thin ones, especially by the very thin and polished members of the faculty. This makes me want to eat a cookie.
Interview Season Fatigue
I am fortunate to have a faculty job at a great public R1 university. Owing to the high research activity, there is always someone here to give a talk. There are three seminar series, associated with three departments, that I usually attend (generally biweekly), and another 1 or 2 where occasionally an interesting seminar comes up. (Which begs the question: what’s the ideal seminar attendance frequency? Too many, and you infringe upon your work time, too few and you start getting out of touch, missing potentially important info about trends somewhat removed from your immediate expertise, which is where juicy inspiration for new projects comes from!)
On top of that, we are interviewing for multiple parallel searches, so we have been having 2-3 guests every single week over the past few weeks. Considering that I am involved in the search, I am supposed to not only attend each talk, but also formally meet with every candidate as part of the committee. And let’s not forget that candidates have to be taken out to eat, several times per visit. I know I am supposed to enjoy department-sponsored meals at nice restaurants and the chance to talk to smart new people, but I am mostly just resentful. My family doesn’t care for me repeatedly staying out and disrupting their evening routine either.
The face-time fatigue during interview season is brutal for job seekers, but if it makes you feel any better, it sucks pretty fiercely for the people on the other side who are involved with the search. As exciting as the prospect of bringing in bright new colleagues is, all the meetings and chit-chat and the extra seminars are simply… exhausting.
Good luck to all who are interviewing! If an interviewer dozes off or their eyes start to glaze over, don’t take it personally.
Musings on Networking
Presenting work at conferences is an important part of being a scientist. It falls under the broad umbrella of making your research known to the scientific community. Being able to create and deliver a good presentation is an inherent part of graduate and postdoctoral training.
Let’s say you are a junior scientist — a graduate student or a postdoc — and you are attending a conference. Generally, your primary purpose is to present a paper (otherwise it would be considerably harder to justify your expenses to the university financial services and therefore harder to get your trip reimbursed on the professor’s grant). You present a paper and hopefully do a decent job. The probability of having a talk versus a poster depends on the field and the particular conference. In some communities posters are looked down upon; in others, poster sessions are a very important mode of interaction among the conference participants. If you have a talk, ideally you practiced in front of your group members at least once (“the dry run”); in my group we do it once for senior grad students and postdocs, usually more than once for inexperienced students.
So you survived the talk and/or your poster session. What do you do the rest of the time? Are you alone at the conference, without anyone you know? Do you perhaps have some of your group mates around? Is the whole group attending, including your advisor/PI? If there are other group members around, you may even go together to do some sightseeing. Also, it is important to actually take advantage of the technical program and attend the talks and poster presentation of other people whose work relates to yours.
But whether you are attending the conference by yourself or are there with the group, conferences are your chances to meet other scientists and enhance your professional… NETWORK. (bwahahahaha!) Networking is considered a dirty word among many academics, who seem to viscerally reject it as being a gauche corporate term for schmoozing, something that the presumably intellectually pure ivory-tower dwellers needn’t engage in. In my opinion, it just means meeting people, getting to know them, and generally trying to not be a douche to them, whoever they are. Some small fraction of the people you meet may turn out to be professionally useful to you. Others, not so much. But spending a few minutes chatting with someone need not be torture.
Like any group of people, scientists vary in their social prowess. Still, I think it’s safe to say that people in the physical sciences are not considered the beacons of congeniality. These days, however, you cannot be an extremely successful scientist without at least average social skills. For instance, I know a very successful young PI who would come to a conference with a list of people he wanted to meet, and he literally would not rest until he met every single one of them. He is supremely energetic and charismatic, probably on par with the best ad executives, lawyers, or businessmen. He also happens to be a very creative scientist, and this combination of extroversion, charisma, and technical excellence is a great recipe for his success in today’s “show me the grants” science model.
Most other scientists are more introverted or not quite as charismatic. Still, networking is necessary, unavoidable, but can luckily be even fun. Or, at least, it can be practiced to the point of becoming bearable.
— The best way to make good professional connections is at small or mid-size meetings, like workshops, where attendance is smaller but the attendees have a lot of chance to interact with one another. After 2-3 years of showing up, people will start recognizing you and saying ‘hi’ just because they have seen you around. Even if you feel awkward and totally out of place the first (or second, or third) time around, just showing up repeatedly will make people used to you and you might actually start feeling like you belong there. What I would recommend for a junior scientist from grad student to tenure-track faculty is to identify 2-3 small or medium conferences where if makes sense for you to show up every time; it is the best way to find a community where you will comfortable, and where you can feel supported, both in the abstract sense and in terms of having future collaborators or just general connoisseurs and proponents of your work.
— You don’t have to force it. There are plenty of relatively low-effort opportunities for networking at conferences. Every conference has some sort of an opening reception, most have a banquet near the end, then there is the poster session or sessions, coffee breaks, and lunch breaks. These are all chances to talk to people if you feel like it. I completely understand not wanting to talk to anyone, wanting to have your lunch or your coffee in peace. But try not to spend 100% of your lunch or coffee breaks alone or with the people whom you know well from your research group. Even if you aim for meeting one new person per week-long conference, that’s still something!
For instance, when you are alone at a conference, if you pay attention you will see there are always tables with people who also seem to be there on their own. You can certainly sit at one such table and try to start a conversation. Usually it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s no big deal. The point is to meet someone new, practice small talk, talk about what you do, hear about their work, and then move on. (The art of moving on is also a very important one and one that even many senior folks really have to master — reading cues that the interaction has run its course and you should go your separate ways. And try not take it personally.)
— Many people are very discriminating when it comes to chatting with people at conferences. Both junior and senior people are often guilty of bending over backwards to talk to someone they perceive as important , and don’t think twice about ignoring someone they consider lower on the totem pole, unimportant, or generally unremarkable (a student, a postdoc, a woman they consider to just be someone’s accompanying person…) . I have often been on the receiving end of people assuming I am no one of consequence — usually because they think I am a student or someone’s wife, although the former becomes less common the older and fatter I get — so I am relatively desensitized to it, I generally correct people or assert who I am, and it doesn’t bother me too much unless it’s really egregious. One example of a blatant slight was the guy I met at a recent grantee meeting for a federal agency. We were all walking up to the cafeteria and I was talking to a big-shot graybeard from another institution with whom one of my former undergrads is now a grad student. This other guy came up to us, looked me over like I was the shit on his shoe, wedged into the conversation then quickly screened me out, first passing by me then starting to walk right in front of me and cutting me off from the person I had been talking to. You bet I will remember this guy, but not fondly.
It is basic decency to talk to anyone like they are a worthwhile human being. But when it comes to forwarding their professional agenda, many people seem to forget this rule. So perhaps it’s useful to rephrase it in the professional networking context: talk to everyone as if they matter to your agenda, because you have no idea when a certain connection, a certain 10-min chat, may actually materialize into something that benefits you. It is never a bad idea to be kind to another person. I personally don’t mind small talk; people usually like to talk about themselves, and I like hearing their stories and learning something new about different universities and areas of research. So I just go on autopilot and ask questions along the following lines: I ask about the university, how large it is, what they do for research, how large the group is, if they come to this conference often, what are the other important meetings in their field. Then if it’s a PI at a public university, I may ask about state support, departmental size, if they have had recent hires, how are tenure criteria, then we may kvetch about funding in general if there is time, discuss where each one of us gets funding from etc. If a student or postdoc, I ask what they do, how far along the program they are, what they plan to do when they graduate, where have other people from their group ended up. If I happen to talk to someone’s spouse, there’s stuff to ask about the city they live in, how their trip was, if they have stuff planned for after the conference, sometimes we talk about kids, which I enjoy. When you think of it, the whole small talk business is quite formulaic, and thus hopefully less intimidating. The point is that it should not be hard to spend a pleasant 10 min talking to pretty much anyone and learn a little about them. Being a listener is an excellent quality for making connections with other people.
— One thing that someone mentioned years ago in response to one of my posts over at the Academic Jungle, I think it was Pika, is to forget about sucking up to the big guys and hang out with your peers. This is a very important point.
Everyone always tries to chat up the big shots, who might meet you but will usually forget you, especially if you are junior [unless they know of your work (i.e. they know your advisor) or you have been introduced to them by your advisor (i.e. they know your advisor)]. It’s also quite amusing how much many of the big shots enjoy all the attention… but I digress. So just hang out with the people your own age instead. Making friends with other young folks is not only easier when you are a student or postdoc, but those young folks are your actual peers. They are the leaders of tomorrow, and those conference connections of today are collaborative proposals, grants, and postdoc placements for your students of tomorrow.
— Finally, you don’t feel like interacting with other humans? Then don’t. If you are painfully shy, too busy, temporarily not in the mood to talk to people, or generally misanthropic, that’s fine. It’s OK to keep to yourself, no need for to torture yourself or others; you have my blessing.
But… If you don’t actually mind talking to people, I would say just relax and talk to whoever seems interested in talking to you. That’s all you need to do, that’s networking.
In the comments to yesterday’s post, Academic Job Search — Know Who Thy Friends Are, reader MidCareerTenured asked a question about upgrading institutions mid-career:
xykademiqz and other: What do you think the chances are for a midcareer tenured scientist to move from a very low ranking research institution to a quality R1? Assume a solid performance in publication and grants on par with an average/good R1 faculty, but nothing spectacular (no Nature/Science or $multimillion grants). Does anyone really sympathize that the effort to get things done in a low ranking institution might turn into much better results in a quality R1? Is it really much harder to move with tenure?
As I told MidCareerTenured, I have no personal experience with moving mid-career. I have had serious “feelers” from several places, including a few fairly formal ones, but I don’t believe in stringing people along when I have no intention of moving right now, so I didn’t accept the interview invitations. Luckily, my department is sensitive to people being courted with outside offers; there are retention funds that are used to preemptively show appreciation to people who are at a high risk of being recruited away.
However, I can say a few things based on my observation of the people who have either moved from mine to another institution or whom we have recruited after they had become established elsewhere.
In my opinion, it is certainly possible to move laterally or somewhat upward without being a superstar; the question is always what you would bring to the new institution. If you are a respected name and have a niche, you will find a place that wants you, but it may take some time and you probably need to send out some feelers through trusted colleagues. Sometimes, it is about the fit — your expertise may be redundant at one place but sorely lacking at another.
But I would say moving mid-career generally requires that you have an “in,” someone who will champion your case. This is considerably more common than getting interviewed after just applying cold. One reason is that you would have to be brought in with tenure, so colleagues have to commit to spending decades by your side without the acclimating probationary period of the tenure track. That is why it is very important to have someone with a strong interest in bringing you in. For example, there is a person who is being strongly advocated for these days in my department. That person is very good, but I would not say a superstar, yet they have already moved several times in their career (at least 4 or 5), with most of the moves lateral-ish. This person has a whole collective of long-time collaborators in several departments at my university, and these people are jointly putting a lot of pressure on the department and college to make things happen.
If you have been very active at a lower-tier institution, people will be impressed, but I don’t think you can count on them imagining all the wonderful things that you could have done if only you had had more resources. Instead, I thing I would go for the following mindset: forget that you are at a lower-tier institution. Tell yourself that you are as good as anyone else and these are your technical strengths and this is what you are known and respected for; you deserve to be at a strong R1. Now, what is it that you bring to institutions that they already don’t have? Often the answer means that you are joining an exisiting strength and are filling a need within that strength. Namely, many strong R1 departments pick several areas that they want to be leaders in, and then hire to develop those areas to be as strong as possible. Sometimes, a department may have just decided (after some “strategic planning” *shudder*) to start developing a new area, one they previously didn’t have. Usually, such development starts by bringing in someone who’s mid- or even late-career, and ideally someone who has great name recognition. However, not all places are able to afford a superstar. I am not sure what type of place you are at, if you are at a lower-ranked R2, maybe first jump to a top-ranked R2/lower-ranked R1, and there are many very good schools in this group. You could be that productive person who helps them start a program in an area they haven’t had before and really revive their program. Then a few years later upgrade further to a better R1. If you are at a lower-ranked R1, perhaps go for a mid-range R1 first, then even higher after a few years?
Based on what I have observed, ultimately it is about what you bring to the table and where the places are that have someone who recognizes the importance of what you could bring, and if those colleagues are willing and able (i.e. they have enough gravitas in department) to really go to bat for you.
What say you, blogosphere? Do you have advice for MidCareerTenured on how to move to a better institution mid-career?
Academic Job Search — Know Who Thy Friends Are
Professors are frequently asked to write letters of reference: recommendation letters for undergrads applying to grad school, graduate students and postdocs seeking postdocs or jobs; evaluation letters for tenure-track faculty who are being considered for tenure, as well as for faculty at various career stages who are being nominated for honors or awards. If I agree to write a letter for someone, I will not write a negative one. If I cannot in good conscience write one that is positive, then I will refuse to write a letter entirely.
If someone gets a PhD degree in my group, I endorse that person and I vouch for them. Hey, PhD is thicker than water, right? It’s not without reason that a PhD advisor-advisee relationship constitutes a lifetime conflict of interest in the context of the NSF proposal review. I will write letters for students and postdocs as often and for as long as they need them, until one of us drops dead. I would never have a problem with any of my former students or postdocs seeing the letters that I have written for them.
In the context of evaluating tenure-track applications, the issue of the letters of reference comes up for candidates who have survived at least the first and often even the second cut.
For most faculty candidates, the PhD and postdoc advisors are at the top of the reference list, which indicates that the candidate considers them someone on whose enthusiastic support he or she counts. In the vast majority of cases, this trust is warranted: the PhD and postdoc advisors usually promptly respond to the requests for letters and send recommendations that are detailed, informative, and usually glowing. This expediency holds even for the busiest and most famous among former advisors, which goes to show that if something is important to a person, they will find the time to do it.
But then there are others…
For instance, I know a successful mid-career colleague who did not put the PhD advisor on the list of references at all back when he was first applying for tenure-track jobs. I don’t even think the two of them got along that poorly, I mean the colleague published a lot and well as a grad student, but I can imagine he might have been a handful on account of having a very strong personality. I really don’t think the advisor would have written a bad letter, but I suppose you never know. The colleague had decided he had stronger and more enthusiastic references elsewhere and, while he knows this conspicuous absence of the PhD advisor’s letter raised red flags with some hiring committees, he was ultimately able to land a good tenure-track position and is now very successful.
Then there is my favorite from a few years back, where the PhD advisor wrote a paragraph-long email basically saying the candidate was good and productive. Nothing bad, but a freakin’ paragraph. It raised all sorts of questions about the candidate and I think ultimately contributed to them not getting an offer.
I have seen cases where the PhD advisor or the postdoc advisor is near the bottom of a lengthy list of references. Usually, from the CV, you can see a clear correlation with the person not having published very well during the PhD/postdoc. In a few cases, the advisor had a reputation as being very difficult to work with. Unfortunately, all this does cast a shadow of doubt on the applicant, but it does also reveal that the applicant knew what was going on, knew that this advisor was not to be counted on. In my experience from the search committees, I am going to say that having a so-so relationship with the PhD advisor can be remedied by great postdoc experiences. I have, unfortunately, seen candidates with a great PhD but a ho-hum postdoc, or a good first but not a great second postdoc, and they usually don’t fare well on the market. It is a sad truth that a bad postdoc can totally tank your academic career, especially if it’s the most recent one.The unnerving part is that who you land with is luck to a great degree, so you may be in deep doodoo through very little fault of your own.
I also remember the case of an applicant from a few years ago, who looked great on paper, had a great record from his PhD, and listed PhD advisor as first reference. The reference letter from the advisor never came, even after reminders. Before you wonder whether the advisor had died, became incapacitated, or was otherwise indisposed, I should tell you that the advisor did submit letters for other candidates in the same search. So the absence of a letter was definitely meant to convey a lack of endorsement. Whether or not this was a petty or a real issue, it hurt the candidate. What is most surprising to me is that the candidate was not aware that there was an issue, that the advisor would not be supportive. Maybe the advisor was sneaky and passive-aggressive, or even openly deceptive — all sweet on the outside but seething with rage and disappointment on the inside. Could it simply be delusion on the part of the candidate, refusing to believe that the advisor would not provide support? Could it be that everyone’s egos were just a little too big for the candidate’s good?
But, there is no need to sink into the depths of despair at these unfortunate anecdotes. Most PhD and postdoc advisors are really, really supportive of their group alumni. However, some professors are not nice people. Some students are not nice people either. Sometimes there is just too much of a mismatch between what the two parties expect from one another. In an ideal world, the advising relationship would be dissolved in these cases and the junior person would go work for someone more supportive. In an ideal world, people would also talk openly, and the advisor, who holds considerable power over the student/postdoc, would be able to convey what they are unhappy about and what needs to change. But, this is not an ideal world, so you, the candidate, had better rely on your gut and common sense and try to be honest with yourself as to how much support you can realistically expect and from whom during the application process, because the competition is so fierce that committees will readily relegate you to the “do not interview” list if there are doubts cast upon your merit by the people who are supposed to know you best.
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.
Academic Job Search — Surviving the First Cut
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!
Academic Job Search — Tales from the Other Side
We often read about the trials and tribulations of academic job seekers.
But it’s not until you are on the other side and a few years into a professorship that you start seeing how a faculty search looks from the standpoint of your future colleagues.
The first aspect is what goes on in the department. There may be a more-or-less formal mechanism by which the department decides when new hires are needed. How this is done depends on the department culture and size. In mid-size (20-40) and large (40+) departments, there are probably multiple people in several subareas, and it’s sometimes a tug of war to decide which subarea gets a new candidate or has the highest priority for hiring. It helps if the department administration in functional and keeps a record of who hired last and how successful recent searches in different subareas went. Also, some areas have the potential to bring in more money than others — it should not matter, but it does. Some areas are considered to be the department’s great strength, and some places like to be the best place to do A and B, rather than just another place to do A through F reasonably well. As a result, they will hire more in the subareas where they are already strong. The larger the department, the more large subareas as well as strong personalities there are. Things can get gory…
Assuming the department can get its act together and decide on what it needs, a case has to be made with the higher administration, which generally means the college dean. The department may or may not get to hire, depending largely on the college budget, but also on the college strategic plan (I shudder at the sound of this bit of bullshit jargon, but there are such documents and people do rely on them), how recently the department last hired, if they had retirements or faculty leaving for other institutions, and the general standing of the department in the college pecking order or the dean’s list of favorites.
If things go well, the department will get an OK to hire in early fall and will be able to advertise in October-December and generally interview as early as late January, but more typically February through April. Getting an interview is the hard part, yet it never ceases to amaze me how poorly many candidates actually perform during the onsite interviews (we don’t do Skype or phone), but I would say that’s fortunate as it helps the search committee decide.
I am on the search committee second year in a row and it is a lot of work. People are really looking hard for the best candidate but also one who is likely to want to come here. This is an interesting twist, especially at places that are not MIT, Stanford, or the like — the über-tippity-top-5-school-ultimate-pedigreed candidates who don’t botch interviews tend to want to stay within their creme-de-la-creme echelon. Every year there are one or two such hot commodities on the job market, whom everyone interviews and everyone gives an offer to, which I think is silly — each is only one person and each of them having 20 offers is good for their ego, but schools should really think whether such candidates are realistic hiring prospects.
I know, that means the department admitting that they don’t consider themselves to be tippity-top, so the collective self-consciousness of the department comes to play. Do we pretend we are more awesome than we are and go for the fanciest candidate, but then get turned down? Or do we potentially sell ourselves short and not go for the fancy, but rather for one who is both very good and likely to accept?
I suppose there’s a dating metaphor here: do you ask out the hot girl you really, really like, but so does everyone else, or do you ask the the not-quite-so-hot girl you like as well, but who’s not on everyone’s radar so your chances of her going out with you may be higher? I would say, in dating, definitely go for the girl you really like, because the heart wants what the heart wants, and she may like you more than you know. My Spouse would say to go with maximizing your chances. In academic hiring, things are a little more straightforward; after all, you will not be longingly looking on as the hot girl walks into the sunset with another dude and curse yourself for not having had the guts to ask her out. In fact, if you are lucky enough to have two candidates the department likes, they are both generally pretty awesome and either one would make a great colleague. Eliminating one based on super-hot-commoditiness (I really should lay off of making up silly words) is as good a reason as any.
New faculty searches are quite draining for existing faculty. A lot of emotional energy goes in it — we all want to hire someone good, we get excited about promising candidates, we get irritated by those who have failed to prepare or look downright disinterested. Candidates (understandably) don’t realize how many meetings each of us faculty have in regards to each search, even without the time needed to talk to the candidate. When you are on the search committee, you also have the higher-than-average obligation to take candidates to lunch or dinner, on top of having to attend every talk, meet individually with each candidate, and partake in debriefing meetings after each visit. After the 3rd or 4th candidate, the time commitment alone does get fairly tedious.
After the interviews are over, there is the potential lack of consensus as to who the best candidate was. In my experience, in very strong, high-performing subareas, people tend to reach a consensus as to who performed best pretty quickly. In others, you have more of a strong-personality interference, territoriality (someone senior but inactive people blocking the hiring of someone junior who is perceived as a threat), and other considerations that may result in the most promising candidate not getting the offer.
I am in a large enough department that I have seen all sorts of scenarios play out. We are lucky to have a smart chair who has the best interest of the department at heart, as well as considerable political savvy to pull it off and forward our agenda while not irritating the college administration. Thank god for those soft skills, heh?
As for advice to faculty candidates: apply anywhere you appear to be a reasonably good fit, with “reasonably good” and “fit” interpreted very liberally. If the call is vague, that often means the department is open to seeing who’s out there before deciding on a subarea to prioritize. If you get an interview, congratulations! But even if you think you did great, you as a candidate have no idea about what is going on in terms of the internal politics, so it’s best not to obsess about it as there is nothing you can do. There may be some who liked you when you interviewed, but if the department priorities or loudest mouths are elsewhere, you are toast. I know this hardly sounds as a consolation, but it is what it is. All you can do is try to do your best. You’ll get better at interviewing with more practice, and you’ll get better at realizing what it is that you want in a potential home department.