Academic Job Search

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

paper-stack-17686153

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!

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. 

Good luck!