Unsolicited Advice, V: How to Apply for a Faculty Job

By Julianne Dalcanton | September 26, 2007 5:57 pm

After wading through a mile-high stack of applications for an open faculty position at UW a few years ago, I compiled a list of tips for postdocs hoping to make the transition to the faculty level. I’m therefore barging into Sean’s Unsolicited Advice series with advice for the later stages, completely screwing up his numerical order in the process (sorry Sean!). This advice is undoubtedly biased towards those applying to research oriented universities, rather than to smaller liberal arts colleges with a stronger emphasis on teaching. I also am in a pure astronomy department, and can’t say for sure whether the physicists have some more involved series of secret handshakes and passwords that they use to evaluate candidates. You’ll therefore have to cherry pick the advice as needed. Hopefully others can weigh in on comments to bring a different perspective. Let’s begin!

Read the job description!

Very rarely do departments conduct truly open searches. Instead, they are usually trying to fill some current need in their department, whether it’s finding someone to teach a particular graduate course, to expand into a new research direction, or to build strength in a specific subfield. They will usually try to make this clear in the advertisement. If you do not fit the description, you need to explicitly address that fact in your application (usually in the cover letter, but also in your research statement as well). For example “Although my past research has been focused primarily on predicting the gravitational radiation signatures of colliding black holes, it has a natural outgrowth into the generic physics of compact objects” or “While I’m known for my work on galactic dynamics, I have published several papers on barium abundances in K-giants.” It’s OK to apply for jobs for which you are not a perfect fit, as long as you explain why you think they should still take a look at you. Also don’t self-select out if you’re not a perfect match to the ad. Like the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Remember that it’s a job, not a prize.

Many postdoctoral positions are “prize fellowships” that go to the applicant with the most scientific promise and/or the strongest record. Faculty positions are different. They are jobs. There is work involved, and the department is looking to bring in someone who can do that work. They are not passing out an award to you for being smart. If there will be teaching involved, you need to discuss your teaching record and philosophy explicitly. What graduate courses could you teach? Would you be comfortable teaching large introductory courses? Do you think you’ll be a good mentor for students? If there are large department projects underway (i.e. new facilities or initiatives), discuss the role you will play in shepherding those projects.

Understand the institution.

It’s remarkable how many applications we get that clearly have no understanding of our institution. They don’t know who’s on the faculty, what research is done here, or what facilities we have. If you’re applying to a small liberal arts teaching college, you shouldn’t be discussing how you look forward to working with grad students. If your work absolutely requires the world’s largest telescopes, and you’re applying to a place that doesn’t have one, you had better explain why you think that will be just fine with you. Otherwise, you look unserious about the position, which makes you look immature, and unready for the larger responsibilities of being a faculty member. Departments love to hire grownups!

Don’t write more than a 3-4 page research statement.

Why? Because I’m reading 99 other applications and have better things to do then read a 20 page review article. And don’t try to dodge this advice by using a tiny font. I will not be fooled, and will instead be annoyed.

Look to the future.

Unless you’ve applied to a place with a poor record of tenuring assistant professors, you may be at the institution for decades, and they’re going to want to know what you’re thinking about doing in the next five years. More of the same? Branching into new directions? Switching wavelength regimes? We’re not after a detailed plan for the next six months, but a brief general discussion of where you think your research is heading.

Know your weakness, and fix it.

If you’re not getting on short lists after a few years of trying, there’s a reason. Find out what that reason is, and fix it before the next round of applications are due. You need to take a cold hard critical assessment of yourself as a scientist and colleague. Compare your record to those of the people who are getting on the short lists. Are you not publishing enough? If not, then stop traveling or writing proposals and write something up instead. Are your papers not getting cited (hint: you’re working on stuff that people find uninteresting)? If not, then you need to work on something that will actively shape the larger scientific discussion, rather than working on something that is decades ahead of its time, that will get scooped by someone else who has better data and works faster than you, or that just cleans up a few details of little general interest. Alternatively, if you haven’t been traveling at all, you need to go give some good talks at major meetings and drum up some interest. Do you have a larger vision? If not, you need to step back from your little piece of the puzzle and figure out what the big problem is you’re trying to address, and then reassess if you’re taking the right step to answer it — avoiding the old chestnut that “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Do you communicate well? If responses to your talks seem lukewarm, you need to learn how to give more engaging informative talks. Practice them in front of grad students. Practice them in front of someone who you trust to give you the truth. Which brings us to…

Give good talks.

Anyone who is personally known to someone on the committee has a real leg up. “Oh yeah, I saw her give a great talk in Victoria!” goes a long way to getting your application an extra look. The flip side is that you really can’t afford to give a bad talk at this stage of your career. If all someone remembers is that they fell asleep during your talk, it’s not going to help you. Since teaching is an essential part of being a faculty member, bad talks will kill you. Don’t write your talk the night before, no matter how much other stuff you have to do. If you have been lacking opportunities to give talks (i.e. you’re not being invited to give colloquia, and keep getting assigned posters at conferences), get some help from any senior person you see as a mentor (and also re-evaluate your research choices and your speaking skills!).

Don’t neglect the cover letter.

The cover letter is the opportunity to frame your role in the department. Who do you see yourself working with? What big projects/facilities at the department interest you? What can you offer the department to make it a better institution?

Make your CV easy to interpret.

Separate refereed and unrefereed papers. Put your name in bold-face in all author lists. Include the titles of your papers. A nice layout and scrupulous avoidance of typos keep you from looking sloppy.

If you don’t get the job, sometimes it’s not you.

Sometimes there is absolutely nothing you could have done to get a particular job, short of having an entire personality/interest transplant. Sometimes a department needs a big scientific presence to shake things up, and if you’re a more careful deep thinker, you’re just not going to fit the mold. Sometimes they need a generous mentoring presence, and if you’re an energetic mover on the national scene, you’re not going to get the job. Sometimes they really really really really need someone to work on star formation, and you don’t. You may be demographically wrong — too fresh out of grad school, or too senior for a greying department. So, don’t take it too personally if you don’t get a specific position. However, don’t use this fact as too much of an excuse if you never get on short lists, and instead go back to the advice above.

Decide if you really want a faculty job in the first place.

Being a faculty member is not the only way to be a scientist. There are many jobs out there that don’t require worrying through another 6 years of uncertainty, dealing with hordes of sometimes mathematically illiterate 18-year olds, struggling for grants and putting up with the psychoses of other faculty. Take a good hard look at Rate Your Students first and decide if this is really for you. Just because being a faculty member seems like the obvious next step, it isn’t always the best step for you. Don’t be afraid to send out a round of “real world” applications at the same time and see what alternate paths are available.

UPDATE: Doug Natelson weighs in in the comments with a link to a parallel physics-oriented post on his blog.

  • Aaron Bergman

    Read the job description!

    Wanders over to the rumor mill….




    Well, that was depressing….

  • Z

    How common is age discrimination?

  • No One

    Two more things:

    1) If you are on speaking terms with anyone in the department you’re thinking of applying to, contact them before you apply and talk with them about the position. They may provide information about what the department is really looking for, and may become advocates for you in the evaluation process.

    2) Get senior faculty members who you trust to review your application before submission and give comments.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    How common is age discrimination?

    I haven’t noticed any examples of it. There’s definitely “stage discrimination” (i.e. for or against more senior faculty trying to switch jobs), but I’ve never seen anyone single out an applicant for being 45 rather than 35. It might start to be an issue if an applicant started to approach an age where they might retire at the same time they got tenure. The older (40-50 yr old) grad students I’ve known have largely self-selected out of the research faculty pool in anticipation of this. They have, however, applied to more teaching oriented faculty positions.

  • Pingback: Few more links! « Entertaining Research()

  • Simon DeDeo

    god im so scared im typing in all lowercase

    going on the postdoc market is bad enough

  • Hektor Bim

    I’ve seen age discrimination at other steps in the process. I’d be very surprised if it didn’t manifest itself for faculty jobs, especially because of the folk wisdom that scientists don’t produce anything groundbreaking after they are 35.

    As a corollary to this post, it’s important to remember something else. Most people fail in this process. Most of your peers in graduate school, even if you went to a top ten research university, are not going to get faculty jobs. It’s also much easier for experimentalists to get jobs.

    This is a long list of what it takes to apply to a job. But there’s a substantial amount of work involved in complying with all of this. If you are applying for 50 positions, and trying to publish and go to conferences, and put together a smoking job talk, etc., it’s going to take a colossal amount of time. And you might put in this colossal amount of time and get bupkus. Happens all the time.

    If your advisers (grad school and postdoc) aren’t willing to call their friends and put in a good word for you – it’s going to be a lot tougher. That’s something it is important to know about your grad adviser before you sign on. Many advisers are perfectly willing to let their students dangle in the mistaken belief that the system is a pure meritocracy and that brilliance will naturally rise to the top. It’s not true, and you want to use every possible connection you have to rise above the masses. That’s really how people get jobs.

  • Hektor Bim

    I also want to concur with the last point. There’s a book out there called “A Ph.D. is not Enough!”. The book isn’t perfect, but one thing it plays up is going to a national lab instead of a faculty position, and that is often (though not always) an excellent choice. The pay is a lot better starting out, and there are no faculty meetings!

  • Paul

    Retire to a country farm, live simply, translate articles from the Russian to make money, then you’ll have time to sort out time. It worked for Julian Barbour. Or become a vicar or civil servant. It worked for all those Brits in the 19th century. Or, become the departmental IT person. The computers run themselves, or you can delegate. No one can question your doings because you have the superuser password.

  • http://nanoscale.blogspot.com Doug Natelson

    I actually just wrote a very similar post here about the physics side. No secret handshakes that I know about.

  • Douglas Clowe

    Just to reinforce a point that Julianne made, even when the job description doesn’t explicitly mention that they are looking for a specific specialty, they usually are. I think I’ve given close to 10 colloquia over the past year and a half at universities which didn’t put me on a short list to be hired at some point in the past 4 years. When asked over beer, people who were on the committee usually say that the department had decided before looking over any of the applications that they wanted someone who did stellar astronomy, or galaxy evolution, etc. A friend even got rejected from consideration at one position which was advertised in exactly the field he was working in because they felt his research too closely overlapped that of an existing faculty member.

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    The flip side is that you really can’t afford to give a bad talk at this stage of your career.

    When, say, pre-tenure, is it affordable to give a bad talk?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    When, say, pre-tenure, is it affordable to give a bad talk?

    When you’ve given enough good talks that they assume you just happened to have a bad day, rather than assuming based on a small sample size that you’re never going to have anything interesting to tell them.

    This is a long list of what it takes to apply to a job. But there’s a substantial amount of work involved in complying with all of this. If you are applying for 50 positions, and trying to publish and go to conferences, and put together a smoking job talk, etc., it’s going to take a colossal amount of time. And you might put in this colossal amount of time and get bupkus. Happens all the time.

    It’s true that the effort to reward ratio is high, and I understand being demoralized about it, but if no effort is spent, you’re much less likely to be successful. In that giant stack of applications are people who clearly have their act together, and if you look half-assed, you don’t look as good. I agree with Doug’s advice to call people you know in the department first, to see if it’s even worth your time. However, I’d add that you should call more than one person, because not everyone’s read on the political situation will be the same.

  • Hektor Bim

    It’s not a question of being demoralized. It’s just a fact, especially if you are not an experimentalist. You’re very likely to have to apply for jobs multiple times, and you’ll have to redo much of the work each time. It’s rare to succeed on your first try. So, yes, you do have to put a huge amount of work into it, and it may take a while to pay off.

  • stressfulyesdemoralizingno

    Yes, the whole process is stressful. But there’s no need to get demoralized. You wouldn’t want to be hired by a place where the existing faculty had significant doubts about you before you arrived. So think of it as a mutual recognition that the fit wasn’t right. At least in my search, I think “fit” was extremely important… In fact, in retrospect, I’d say that most of my job applications were pointless. None of the ads and applications that I thought were a stretch resulted in more than a request for references. On the other hand, of the ads and applications that I did feel good about, a respectable fraction reached the shortlist stage. Perhaps, I put more effort into the latter. But if I were doing it again, I’d write half as many applications.

  • Ben

    Okay, I should not comment on this subject, but I have one addition. All of these things that the applicant should or must do are very reasonable. But it’s not just you-the-applicant’s burden. I think that tends to make people more stressed out and guilt-ridden, as if they didn’t do enough. As far as I know, nobody really gets a job based just on their own efforts, except for supergeniuses – and supergeniuses tend to also have good letters of recommendation. You need somebody like an advisor, collaborator or mentor who will help, writing good letters, promoting your work, and caring about your fate (a little). If your senior people won’t help you, probably the best course of action is to politely move on from them (I nearly said “politely fire their asses”) and find new senior people who will, in your next postdoc or other career move.

    FWIW, don’t forget that in a lot of fields (maybe not string theory) there are non-professor science jobs. Too many people act like the only choices are tenure-track and hedge funds.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    You need somebody like an advisor, collaborator or mentor who will help, writing good letters, promoting your work, and caring about your fate (a little).

    Completely agreed! The one of the pieces of advice I would have added to Sean’s piece on being a grad student: “Pick an advisor who you like and who has a track record of going to bat for their students, even if the research is not your first choice scientifically.” I’ve seen too many pairings where it’s clear that the student and the advisor essentially lothe each other, which isn’t likely to result in a gushing letter or tons of support after graduation.

  • http://suu.edu/faculty/chisholm/ James Chisholm

    Don’t neglect the cover letter.

    Very important — I probably would have gotten at least a few more bites had I taken the time to individualize my cover letters in my first round of applications. As it was, I used the same technique I used for my postdoc letters, which was a stock letter with name and address merged in.

  • f15mos

    This post convinces me once more that American Science would benefit from:

    – abandoning affirmative action
    – establishing IQ thresholds and entrance exams for faculty candidates
    (exams should not be based on multiple choice problems, but be open ended
    problems including some with unknown solutions).
    – finding out how many papers the applicant has actually written (applies
    mostly to experimentalists)
    – abandoning tenure. Just hire professors on term contracts with possible
    extensions based on certain performance markers.

    Nowadays you either need to be a blind lesbian or be lucky to be mentored by well connected professor, or be married by one.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben


    That’s a load of B.S. It’s also unsupported by the evidence. Scientists care about the supporting-evidence business, or should. Lord only knows what purpose IQ tests (!) and entrance exams would serve. By the way, the problem in most searches appears to be choosing among too many qualified candidates, not weeding out undeserving ones.

    Applying for these jobs is a pain in the butt, irritating, and at times degrading. However, if you let the difficulty of it overtake and own you to the point where you blame all problems on some putative undeserving “blind lesbian,” you’re ruining your own life with bitterness. That’s okay, but don’t inflict it on others.

  • f15mos

    How can it be unsupported by evidence if it has never been done? Sound petty darn stupid.

    Meanwhile elsewhere it done left and right. Google does it (asks to solve nontrivial problems) – a pretty well to do company. So do any financial market company while competing for the best of disillusioned former string theorists. Even good old INS admission officers do it. Recall what Einstein was asked when he crossed the border of the land of the free?
    Application process should be a well deserved prize for well spend research work years not the idiocy of what it is now.

  • Garbage

    Since this trend of unsolicited advice was originated by Sean, I was curious about what does he have to add to this theme. Havent noticed any comment of his instead. I am sure he must have some good piece of advice for the crowds…

  • tiger-moon

    1. Try your best to go to the best universities for you PhD degree;

    2. Pass all the exam;

    3. Publish good papers;

    4. Learn how to handle with “dog fighting”;

    5. Join in top 1 group during pos-doc period;

    6. Go to second level universities for assistant professor position;

    7. Raise up;

    8. Stanford, Harvard will use money to buy you back;

    9. Grab best graduate students;



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