Academic Job Application -in retrospect-
Job application in academia is fun, but only in retrospect, provided you achieve your desired outcome. The odds? Statistically, they’re pretty low. The process is a gamble mined with uncertainty and despair. My initial plan was to apply for an academic position in 2020. However, the pandemic shutdown led to job scarcity, prompting me to stay put in San Francisco and start a new project in the lab. The realization hit me last summer; I had been languishing in my postdoc position, and change was overdue. I genuinely enjoyed my job as a scientist, collaborating with a Principal Investigator I respect and trust. Over the years, my research interests have gradually diverged from those of my mentor(s), so I decided to apply for an academic position to establish my independent research program. I despatched 40 applications; some schools responded with silence – not even an automated rejection letter. My results were 13 rejections, 10 screening interviews, 4 campus visits, and ultimately, 3 job offers. Finally, on 4.20, I signed on the dotted line, accepting a dream job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Psychology. I feel profoundly lucky and privileged. Here, I share some reflections on the journey.
Preparing your application material
With each application being unique, they all tend to ask for a few key documents. Topping that list is the research statement, an essential piece that a research university uses to understand your research program, how well it aligns with its priorities, and how it diversifies from your advisor’s research interest and program.
Creating this document is a journey in itself. You start by acknowledging your past research and achievements but quickly shift the spotlight onto your future plans. Visualize it as creating a vivid image of where you see your research journey going, the novel techniques you’re excited to use, the captivating questions you’re eager to answer, and how you plan to build productive collaborations. You could liken it to an NIH grant proposal, a much shorter and more succinct version.
Universities generally ask for a two-page document, but there might be times when you’re asked for a three or four-page one. My advice? Have two versions on standby: a longer one and a shorter one. You can customize your application to fit the university’s preference. Sometimes, they might want to see your past experiences and achievements separated from your future plans, and that’s when you can divide your content to suit their requirements.
Working on my research statement was my first move. It took me some significant time and several rounds of edits to get to a shape that I could be happy with. Asking my advisor and a few close friends for advice proved invaluable. Therefore, I recommend giving yourself two to three months to prepare your application. Who knows, you might be taking a stroll one day, and a brilliant idea for your research statement might pop into your head!
Equal time and attention should go into your teaching statement. This is where you get to share your teaching philosophy and offer the hiring committee a sneak peek into your classroom style. This document tells the committee not just how you teach but why you teach the way you do. You may want to mention which classes you are eager to teach. I also talked about my mentorship philosophy and style in my teaching statement.
Then comes your DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) statement. This document is your chance to showcase your commitment to fostering diversity and ensuring equal opportunities in academia. Reflect on your experiences promoting diversity in your previous roles, your future plans in this area, and how you can contribute to the university’s DEI goals. Some people go to workshops on how to write a DEI statement, and they give you some templates in these workshops on how to write an effective statement that checks all the boxes. I decided to not follow the templates and write from my heart and about what I genuinely believe in.
And last, but definitely not least: the cover letter, a crucial document often overlooked. It’s your personal elevator pitch, often the first document the hiring committee will read. In one page, you must succinctly capture your past achievements, future plans, skills, service, mentorship, collaboration, and every element you’ve included in your application. It’s a table of contents for the rest of your material. This was the last document I prepared. I divided mine into five sections: Prior Research and Achievements, Skills, Grants and Awards, Service and Mentorship, and Collaborations. Remember, it’s about being concise while communicating effectively.
Take the time to thoughtfully craft each document, and never hesitate to ask for help along the way. Remember to start early. Happy writing!
Putting the word out
Navigating the networking side of job applications can sometimes feel like a balancing act. While some individuals suggest actively reaching out, cold emailing folks, even department chairs, to make your intentions known, it may not be the right approach for everyone.
For instance, I chose a slightly different path. I didn’t find myself reaching out proactively to contacts; instead, I let my network know of my job hunt through a simple post on my Twitter account. Furthermore, during conferences, when I bumped into colleagues, and the topic arose organically in conversation, I would casually mention that I was entering the job market.
I did reach out to a select few people, but this wasn’t to advertise my availability for open positions. Rather, I sought their assistance in evaluating my application documents. Each person has their unique networking style during the job hunt, and what matters is that you’re comfortable with your approach. At the end of the day, it’s about making sure your intentions are known in a way that feels authentic to you.
Screening interviews can be an intriguing part of the job application process, but their purpose is sometimes mysterious. You might wonder, what exactly are interviewers looking for during these Zoom meetings? Interestingly, I’ve found that not everyone has a clear answer, and some institutions even opt out of this step altogether.
In my experience, however, the interviewers are often looking for a “fit.” They want to gauge whether you would blend well with their institution and locale. For instance, I was grilled about my willingness to relocate to a specific city. It seemed they were trying to determine whether I was genuinely interested in their institution or if their school was just another checkmark on a lengthy application list. So, if you’re from Michigan and are applying to return there because you have family, you might be viewed as a more serious candidate.
These screening interviews typically last between 20 to 30 minutes, with one of my experiences extending to an hour and a half. The format usually involves a round of introductions followed by each interviewer asking a question. A list of common questions can be found, and I’ll share some that I was asked during my experience. It’s crucial to come prepared with thoughtful responses to these questions, as you don’t want to waste precious interview time formulating answers.
At the end, you’ll often be given the chance to ask your questions. Interviewers likely also evaluate you based on the nature of the queries you pose, so thoughtful questions could be a plus. I’ll share some questions I asked, which might help you prepare for your own Zoom interviews. So, gear up, practice, and turn on that Zoom camera!
- What about our department caught your interest, and how do you envision your research fitting into our overall vision?
- We’d love to hear more about your future research plans. How does your broader research vision fit in with your immediate plans?
- Could you share more about the essential equipment you’ll need for your research and who you’d be looking to hire immediately—a post-doc, technician, or grad student? What qualities would you look for in them?
- Where do you foresee seeking funding support for your research?
- Could you share your perceived strengths and areas for improvement? How can our department assist you in leveraging these strengths and addressing any weaknesses?
- We’re interested in your teaching capacity and philosophy. What courses do you feel confident to teach, and how does your teaching philosophy align with that?
- What sets you apart from your current Principal Investigator or others in your field, and how does this distinction play into potential collaborations?
- Could you discuss your work in terms of practical implications or translational applications?
- What are your thoughts on the future of your lab? What do you envision for its size, composition, and growth trajectory?
- We’d love to hear more about the type of students or trainees you envisage attracting to your research program.
- Can you share a bit about how diversity influences your research or teaching approach?
- Tell us about your scientific journey, including how you arrived at your current research topic, what makes it exciting or meaningful to you, and any challenges you’ve encountered. Feel free to share any unique experiences that have prepared you for an academic career or contributions to leadership and service.
- Could you describe your mentoring style and how you plan to foster an equitable and inclusive environment for trainee development among a diverse student body?
- Could you share about your faculty support, particularly for new members, and what mentorship programs are in place?
- What qualities or contributions are you expecting from a new faculty member?
- Could you talk about the support structures in place for students and trainees within the department?
- I’d love to learn about the community feel within the department and the types of events that foster this community spirit.
- How do collaborations typically evolve within the department or the institution?
- How would you define the expectations for a new faculty member, and what does success look like in this role?
- Can you provide some insights into the most significant changes in the department over the past few years, and where you envision the department heading in the future?
- From which programs do faculty typically recruit students, and what skill sets or interests do these students tend to possess?
- What are some of the common challenges new faculty tend to face, and how does the department assist in overcoming them?
- Could you give me an idea of the average lab size at your institution?
- Could you describe the department’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, both in hiring practices and in day-to-day operations?
- What are the opportunities for professional development for faculty members within the institution?
- What mechanisms are in place to facilitate cross-disciplinary collaborations within the institution?
- How does the department or institution facilitate work-life balance for its faculty members?
- What kind of support does the institution provide for grant writing and securing funding?
- How does the department engage with the local community, and are there opportunities for faculty to participate in such engagements?
Campus visits are an entirely unique beast in the job application process. If you’ve made it to this stage, it means your CV and personal statements have been well received, and the folks who’ve read them see potential in you as a future colleague. Different schools conduct these visits in different ways, with some extending them over two days instead of just one. A common element, though, is the expectation of a seminar about your past research, akin to a standard science talk you’d give at a conference.
When giving your seminar, it’s beneficial to start with a broad vision statement and conclude on a similar note, allowing your audience to see your past, present, and future trajectory in the field. Make sure your audience understands you’re not just mechanically conducting experiments; you’re driving forward with a purpose and vision. Make sure all technical aspects of your presentation work correctly beforehand; most schools allot some time for this.
Once your seminar is over, it’s time to immerse yourself in the campus community. This often begins with scheduled meals with faculty members or potential collaborators. It’s a beneficial strategy to deliver your seminar early on, say on a Thursday, if your visit spans Thursday and Friday. This approach provides an excellent refresher to those already familiar with your research and a useful introduction to those less acquainted.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the campus visit is engaging with graduate students. Their perspectives can provide crucial insight into the supportive programs, cultural norms, and overall environment of the institution. Be candid and inquisitive in your interactions, and remember to observe the general mood. Some institutions exude a vibrant sense of community, while others are more subdued. Both atmospheres can be positive, depending on your preferences.
As you navigate your campus visit, be mindful of any red flags that may arise. If something seems off, make a note of it. These visits can be intense, and you might forget specific details in the flurry of activities. Discuss any concerns with trusted mentors or colleagues when you return.
Preparing for your seminar, or chalk talk, can be daunting. There are many excellent resources available to help you prepare. Remember, some faculty members may give you a hard time, not because they dislike you, but because they may have different perspectives or preferences. Present your ideas as clearly as possible, and remember that if you’ve made it to this stage, you’re considered good enough for them.
In essence, be authentic. You are not just playing a role but potentially establishing a foundation for a long-lasting professional journey. So, instead of putting on a mask for the interview, let your genuine self shine during the campus visit. After all, it is you, not a character you’re playing, who might be working there for the next 20 to 30 years.
Job offers in academia come in varying forms. Typically, the department chair might initiate a phone conversation or email you regarding the decision of the committee. Sometimes, an email suffices, and you may even be invited for a second campus visit. At this stage, preparation is paramount; you should have a detailed budget list outlining what you need to launch a successful research program over the next five years.
This budget will cater to essential expenditures such as equipment purchases, salary payments for graduate students, postdocs, lab technicians, lab managers, and cover the cost of reagents/animal housing, etc. The expectation is that the school provides a lump sum of unrestricted funds to kickstart your research, enabling you to generate preliminary data for grant applications to NIH and other federal agencies.
Ensure your budget is detailed and justified, particularly for big-ticket items – quotations for these are necessary. Consider personnel needs for the first three to five years; how many postdocs or graduate students will you require? Depending on the institution, you may also need to account for a fraction of your salary. Make your equipment needs clear; either budget for it in your proposal or inquire about core facilities at the university.
If you have a two-body problem, the university often assists with finding a position for your partner, either within the institution or in the surrounding area. Regarding your salary, there may be room for negotiation, albeit limited. Review faculty salaries at public universities to gauge the institutional norms. Ensure any salary request is justified, reasonable, and within the typical range.
Space is paramount. One insightful piece of advice I received was to ask for time, space, and money, in that order. Time and space are non-negotiable – you cannot perform research without them. While funding is essential, there are always avenues to secure it. Therefore, negotiate for teaching relief and adequate space. Put these requests in writing, clarify renovation needs, responsible parties for these costs, and the timeline for such renovations.
- Anna Gillespie’s Job market reflections, Anna is amazing, and so is her guide to applying for academic jobs. She has generously provided thoughts, guidelines, and material for job applications. I truly benefited from her advice. So, thank you, Anna!
- UCSF Office of Carrer and Professional Development, a great resource providing a range of material, including guidelines, templates, slides, workshops, etc. I benefited from their resources, and you might too.
- Preparing a chalk talk for a faculty position, Bob Mahley, Gladstone Institutes
- Job application workshop at Gladstone Institutes, Bob Mahley, a playlist of over 10+ hours of lectures on how to prepare your application package, give a lecture/seminar talk/chalk talk, and get prepared for negotiations.