Applying to Faculty Positions

Sam Burden bio photo By Sam Burden

I was recently hired in a tenure-track faculty position at an RU/VH university. The application, interview, negotiation, and decision processes were each incredibly difficult. I am very grateful for the extraordinary mentoring and assistance I received, and feel extremely fortunate for the outcome. This post, analogous to my [Applying-to-Grad-School) brain dump, catalogues my experiences and summarizes my advice.

Timeline

There are five basic steps in the process, as described in any number of similar posts:

  • prepare materials
  • apply to jobs
  • prepare job talk
  • interview
  • negotiate

What this list fails to capture are the other tasks you should be completing in the year prior to applying; my version of the timeline looks more like:

-4. choose references -3. attend job talks, get strategic advice about research trends -2. line up post-doc / back-up plan -1. clear schedule from January through June

  1. network
  2. prepare materials
  3. apply to jobs
  4. prepare job talk
  5. prepare for & execute interviews . wait (patiently!)
  6. negotiate . decide (taking into account myriad factors)

Unintentionally, I did a “dry run” of steps (-4.) through (1.) in the year before I actually applied. Personal circumstances were driving me toward an earlier-than-planned graduation, so I prepared a research and teaching statement, confirmed my list of letter writers, and compiled a spreadsheet of open faculty positions. Fortunately my personal situation changed in October of that year and I aborted the application process. Looking back, my materials wouldn’t have had any traction on the job market.

However, the effort was not wasted: the experience dramatically improved my prospects by forcing me to focus over the next year on the most significant deficiencies in my application. Specifically, I submitted two journal papers, thought critically about my research program in the context of the broader community, and took every available opportunity to network with people in my field (e.g. conferences, seminars, and grant meetings). I suspect these efforts had a significant influence on obtaining interviews.

References

One of the most important factors in your career is who you work with. Although, as I’ve heard some say, “big ideas do not arise in distributed brains”, most of us benefit tremendously from our mentors and collaborators. By the time you begin seriously considering your prospects on the academic track, you’ve probably already committed to an advisor, who will be your primary letter writer and the person others associate you most closely with in their minds. But if you have even one or two years remaining in your ~PhD, you can still exert some influence over your final list of letter writers. Remember: «< Science is a sociological phenomenon. «< Therefore your social connections will have a significant influence on your ability to conduct impactful science. Expectations for letters vary by discipline, but for each application you’ll need 3-5 letters. You’d prefer that all five are well-known and well-regarded (not the same things) tenured faculty with whom you’ve published a journal paper. Even better if at least one is outside your discipline (e.g. a collaborator on an application domain) and at least one is outside your university (particularly as a fresh ~PhD, this will help convince hiring committees that you have potential outside your current position). Serendipity aside, to satisfy all these criteria you’ll need to plan your ideal list of references years in advance, and take specific actions to ensure you’ve published with the right folks. To choose between references (e.g. to select 3 of the 5 for an application that limits the number of letters), I’d defer to substantial interactions related to education or outreach.

Information

Talk to everyone you can. Ask about their trajectory, ask for their advice, and ask if they’re happy.

'’Why do you want this job?’’ Think hard about why you want a faculty position; people ‘‘will’’ ask, and they expect a better answer than “I like doing research”. The single best criteria in my opinion is the following: «< Seek a faculty position if and only if you are convinced that your research community is missing a critical element that you are uniquely qualified to provide. «< This is a bold statement, and requires a degree of arrogance I’m not typically comfortable owning. When it was first presented to me in the 4th year of my ~PhD, I felt too insecure in my contributions and perspective to satisfy it. Yet as I reflected on it while reading papers and attending talks, my confidence grew. It turns out that arrogance, like all other skills, can be learned. So long as you don’t let this sense of superiority affect how you interact with others, I think cultivating this feeling can help you prepare psychologically for the rigors of academic life (rejection, rivalry, repetition, etc.).

'’Where is your field going?’’ Though it is possible to have impact through singular, sui generis contributions, most of us toil in crowded sub-sub-sub-fields. Therefore to be successful, you will need to be aware of and responsive to trends, both in research and teaching. This doesn’t mean you must mindlessly track every fad. But demonstrating (particularly willful) ignorance of where your field is headed is a sure way to eliminate your candidacy. Also, for your own sake, you should be excited about ‘‘some’’ trends, otherwise you may find yourself isolated from your community in the future.

Backup

One of the best pieces of advice I received while preparing to apply for academic jobs: «< Get a faculty position, then defer and do a post-doc. «< You’ll need a back-up plan in the event that you don’t receive an appealing offer anyway. Plus, there are many reasons that deferring an appealing position can be advantageous, particularly for a fresh ~PhD:

  • publish your thesis work (and finish your thesis if needed!)
  • write grant proposals
  • plan your research program It can also help smooth this major transition for your life and that of your family. One major issue with meshing your career with that of your significant other is the high degree of uncertainty about where you’ll end up and the abrupt transition when you get an offer. If you’re lucky enough to get a position, it may still be wise to take extra time if you need it; by all accounts you won’t get a similar break until after tenure.

In my experience, institutions were completely open to a January start, and up to a year deferral (i.e. start the subsequent Fall) was workable. Note as well that the tenure clock for most places is determined by the calendar year (not the academic year) when you start, so be aware of this when requesting your start date. Ask about the possibility of obtaining a no-cost “affiliate” or “visiting” faculty position during the deferral period. This may (or may not) grant you the ability to:

  • submit grant proposals as a PI
  • recruit ~PhD students
  • spend your startup on equipment, furniture, renovations, travel, etc.

Schedule

An important piece of advice I wish I’d taken more seriously: «< Clear your schedule from January through June. No deadlines, vacations, thesis drafts, life events, etc. «< If you’re invited for even a handful of interviews, easily two months of your life will be consumed by preparation and execution. I met someone who went on ‘‘18 interviews’’! They literally had one or two interviews per week from January through April. I interviewed at six schools from February through April, and I found the schedule so grueling that I barely accomplished anything resembling research for that entire time interval. Apologize to your friends and family in advance for your exhaustion and lack of availability.

I had a weeklong family vacation in mid-April that had been scheduled months in advance. In hindsight it probably would have been more convenient to skip that trip, but it actually provided a nice rumination and rejuvenation period for both me and my wife. I’d advise taking your vacations in December or June, but April did work out for me.

Network

There’s only one rule for building your professional network: «< Take EVERY opportunity to meet and discuss your research with people in your field, whether at a conference, grant meeting, departmental colloquium, brown-bag lunch, group meeting, or chance encounter on an elevator/train/airplane/etc. «< I cannot emphasize this point enough; it is absolutely critical that you invest substantial time and effort cultivating relationships within and around your field. To be clear, your science must be rock-solid and your results impactful to be considered for a faculty position. But the next highest-priority predictor of whether you are invited for an interview is if you personally know someone in the department who will advocate for your candidacy. In my case, I knew of an advocate at every place I interviewed; if it wasn’t someone I had met before, they were close with one of my letter writers.

'’Anecdote:’’ In my first few years as a grad student, I was very aggressive about introducing myself to more senior people (grad students, post-docs, and faculty) whose work excited me. This wasn’t met with the overwhelmingly positive response I naïvely expected, so I assumed people were just not very friendly. A few years later, when I finally worked up the courage to start introducing myself and announcing I was on the job market, the response was markedly different. Everyone was friendly, willing to talk, and encouraging about applying to any open position in their department or school.

In hindsight, I realize that people aren’t eager to take on an advising role for some random ~PhD student from another university. They are, however, happy to receive one more high-quality application for any relevant position open in their university. Therefore I believe a transition occurs 1-2yrs before earning your ~PhD, when people realize you may be a viable candidate; be conscious of when you cross this threshold, and squeeze it for all it’s worth.

Materials

The structure and quality of application materials varies wildly.
«< Read examples of “successful” application materials. Then forget almost everything about them. «< Those applying as ~PhD students should invest more time and effort here, since there will typically be less of a track record (publications, successful projects) to refer to. Regardless of the reality of the role your advisor or other senior collaborators played in guiding or conducting research with you, people (particularly outside your field) default to attributing the ideas and results to the most senior author on the paper. You may hope that your letters of recommendation elucidate your contribution, but (i) you can’t know that message is conveyed and (ii) the committee could remain unconvinced. The application materials provide a critical opportunity to distinguish yourself from your research mentor(s) by proposing a novel and compelling research program.

Some other guidelines: «< The committee will be more concerned with “what” you’re trying to accomplish and “why”; it’s usually obvious “how”. «< Try to focus more on the potential impact (on the field or society) than the technical approach. Convince the reader (a) the program you’re proposing is needed and (b) you’re the right person to accomplish it. «< This is a persuasive document; it’s more convincing if you “show” rather than “tell”.
«< Don’t “tell” the reader a particular technique or solution concept is important/useful/etc. Instead, paint a picture that “shows” them its necessity. «< Particularly as a fresh ~PhD, it’s critical to establish yourself as an independent thinker with fresh ideas. «< Be sure to propose “Future Work” or “Future Directions” that are clearly distinct from each of your letter writers.

Applications

«< It is surprisingly difficult to find relevant open positions. «< There are many “job board” websites: some are multidisciplinary (AJO, Chronicle), others are run by professional organizations (IEEE, ASME), and there’s a lot of redundancy across the sites, but in my case no single one of them had more than a third of the relevant positions I ultimately applied for. To make matters worse, some schools won’t advertise on these pages, so you also need to check individual University / College / Department websites. The final confounding factor is that the advertisements are typically poor indications of what kind of researcher will ultimately fill the position. Therefore it’s ideal if you have an advocate inside every department you wish to apply to. I avoided wasting time sending applications for several completely inappropriate positions simply by pinging a contact.

'’A warning about multi-department / interdisciplinary / “experimental” positions:’’ My work is interdisciplinary, bridging control theory, robotics, and biomechanics. I eagerly sought positions that mirrored this diversity, for instance in cross-college institutes or joint appointments between applied math and engineering. There are many variations on this theme, and they seem to be increasing in popularity. There is one key question to answer about any “experimental” position: who grants tenure? Unlike most departments, the answer to this question may be undecided or ill-defined. I had the good fortune of interviewing for two positions at one school: one for a traditional position in a single department, and one for an “experimental” position. Before the interviews, I was drawn to the “experimental” position. Once I’d learned that this was the first position of its kind and the criteria for tenure hadn’t been clearly defined or tested, I strongly preferred the traditional position. Keep in mind that it is usually trivial to gain affiliation with interdisciplinary initiatives or programs once you have tenure in a home department.

Job talk

There are many different strategies one can adopt when structuring the job talk. The particular style best suited to you will depend on the breadth and depth of your results, your research program, and your vision for the future. Therefore there is only one general piece of advice I can give. «< Prepare a fantastic talk. «< Also: build momentum early, and end on a high note; demonstrate your technical virtuosity, as well as your ability to engage an audience; be fanatical and fastidious about every detail; know your audience, and make them feel smart.

Frustrated yet? The reality is that preparing and delivering technical presentations is a skill that, like any other, must be cultivated through dedicated effort. The amount of time and effort required will depend to an extent on innate ability, but everyone can always improve. Therefore my real advice is to prepare every talk as if it was a job talk. «< Practice preparing fantastic talks well before your career depends on it. «< Solicit honest feedback from your colleagues every time you give a talk. Experiment with different structures and delivery styles. Reflect on the structure and style of others. Find ways to make yourself seem comfortable and sound natural.

Interviews

Ideally, you will have several weeks to prepare for an interview and know well in advance who you will meet during your visit. In reality, you will typically have 1 or 2 weeks to prepare for an interview and receive your final schedule 1 or 2 days in advance. Spend as much time as you can researching potential collaborators, relevant laboratories / programs / initiatives / curriculum across campus, and tailoring your job talk to the audience. «< Read several papers from every potential collaborator at the university. «< It is critical that you are very familiar with the work of every potential collaborator within your department. Not only is this information important for your decision should you receive an offer, demonstrating ignorance of someone with closely-related interests could easily kill your candidacy. It is almost equally important that you are aware of the work of every potential collaborator from other departments at the university. Strong interdisciplinary connections attract talent and funding, and furthermore this provides another opportunity for you to demonstrate your genuine enthusiasm for the prospect of joining the university.

Expect that on a typical interview day, you will be occupied from breakfast around 7:30am through the end of dinner around 10:30pm. «< EVERY interaction is part of the interview. «< The vast majority of my conversations were collegial, and seemed to be driven by genuine interest directed at learning more about me and my research program. Occasionally, someone would interject obvious interview-type questions that were overly specific or unreasonably adversarial. If you find yourself forced into a disagreement, do not cave simply to seem agreeable. You know what you are talking about, and if you hold your position it will leave an impression. In these situations, I think it matters less what you say and more how you say it; remain calm and continue to convey confidence and enthusiasm. Most people will advise you not to drink anything; I didn’t abstain entirely, though I was very conscientious about imbibing.

Wait

In my year and in my area, I heard about offers going out as early as February and as late as June. However, in my experience most offers come in March or April. Although you are eager to consider any offer, you don’t want any particular offer too early. «< Push back the decision deadline as long as is reasonable. «< Typically, you will initially be asked to give a final response within two weeks. The Chair may be willing to push that deadline back by several weeks, but this cannot be guaranteed. There may be less deadline pressure if the department is hiring multiple positions, but you cannot know the department’s timing constraints.

Negotiate

I don’t consider myself a skilled negotiator. Fortunately, I found the “negotiation” process for academic jobs to be straightforward. The Chair should already have a good idea of your needs from the interview; once the offer is extended, their job is to prepare details of an offer that sets you up to succeed in the department. «< ALWAYS remain positive. Get EVERYTHING in writing. «< My preferred approach was to follow up every phonecall with a summary email comprised of phrases like “my understanding is that $X and Y sq. ft. will be available from my start date …” and a clear next step / list of action items for both parties. Though pedantic, this gives you a written record of the whole process, and (should) help quickly resolve any misunderstanding.

Decide

If you are fortunate enough to receive more than one job offer (academic or otherwise), you may have an incredibly difficult decision to make. I won’t presume to provide advice about how to weigh the overwhelming array of personal and professional factors that contribute to this extremely important decision. Good luck; I don’t envy you!