Lunch AND Learn: Academic Career & Academic Job Market


Topic: Academic Career & Academic Job Market

Date: July 26, 2017


  • Jennifer Nichols from Orthopedics – moving to University of Florida for a tenure-track position,
  • Anna Eiring from HCI – currently on the job market,
  • Doug Christensen from Bioengineering – tenured professor,
  • Timothy Dahlem from HCS Mutation Generation & Detection Core – directs core facility,
  • Erhu Cao from Biochemistry – on job market 2 years ago, currently on his 2nd year as an Assistant Professor on tenure-track.


Summary: Academic careers are like a three-legged stool with legs of teaching, research, and service. Tenure-track balances obligations in each of these three areas. Prior to getting tenure you will have to demonstrate your research abilities by focusing on publishing papers and getting grants. After tenure, you have more flexibility to develop in the areas of teaching and service.

Teaching may be the most rewarding experience and be your biggest career contribution. Mentoring students may result in a larger impact than your research discoveries.

Research faculty focuses mostly on research. It may be a very rewarding experience. However, a portion of your salary is typically dependent on soft money, meaning you need to obtain grants to get paid.

Another career option in academia is managing a core facility, where the work focuses more on methods or projects development. It can be like running a small business in an academic setting. It is important to realize that not all universities manage core facilities the same way.  So, if you are interested in this type of career, do what you can to learn about each university’s approach to running its core facilities.

The general timeline for academic job applications is about a year, and usually starts in the summer. Applications for faculty positions typically include a cover letter, C.V., research statement, teaching statement, and list of references.


Some specific pieces of advice given by the panelists:

  • The cover letter is the most important part of the application. Highlight awards, ground-breaking papers, and what makes you unique, but do it as succinctly as possible (because those committee members are tired).
  • Get acquainted with the people that you are going to interview with. Review their lab webpages. Consider writing notes on a copy of your interview schedule to jog your memory.
  • Put together a list of classes you’re interested in teaching. Use this general list to identify classes within the department you are applying to that you could teach. Tailor your teaching statement and interview to each specific department.
  • Have a one-page summary of research (could be 2-4 slides from your seminar) to hand to interviewer. Include your contact information. Consider that some faculty want to know about your research but could not come to your seminar.
  • Be prepared on the department/university you are applying to. Show that you know their research, and propose potential collaborations within department or institute. A very common interview question is “Why are you interested in working at University X?”
  • During interview do not hog the discussion.
  • Networking is important. Meet the people who are in charge of departments (chairs, heads, chiefs). Attend national conferences, encourage people to come to see your poster or talk, because this is how you get known. Knowing people helps you get interviews.
  • Look at the location – where do you want to live for the next few years?
  • Go on the market a year before you’re ready.
  • “The professor is in” by Karen Kelsky was recommended. Realize that this book is primarily written for the humanities and social sciences, but provides some really good general advice that is applicable to STEM.
  • Don’t take negative decisions personally, rather consider them constructively. There is a lot of randomness in the process of faculty hiring. Individuals are hired because they are a good fit for the department. Outstanding credentials does not guarantee you a job offer. Reach out to search committees for feedback if you were rejected and use it while preparing for the next application time.
  • Realize that most people are on the academic job market for more than one year. Try to find a balance between optimism and realism.  Being on the job market can be a great time to explore all career options and figure out if staying in academia is right for you.


Answers to questions:

Question: Can you comment about the cover letter?

  • First paragraph is introduction, then highlight current research, then previous research, and then teaching. End with a paragraph tailored to the institution.
  • Look at the job posting (which is generally generic), and cater specifically towards that.
  • Switch paragraph orders around to suit application. For example, if interviewing for a teaching-intensive position, put teaching before research.
  • Do not sound like a postdoc or a trainee, rather like a PI. The committee is searching for a colleague, not a trainee.
  • You will probably get jobs through people you know.
  • Mention contacts in the cover letter.
  • Keep the cover letter to 1-2 pages. The shorter, the better!!

Question: Does a long postdoc matter?

  • That depends on the field. For instance in bioengineering postdoc run for 1-3 years, and here 3rd year may be a ‘yellow’ flag to a search committee. However, in other biomedical fields postdocs last till 5 or 7 years, and then 7 years may be considered as a ‘yellow flag’.

Question: Are U.S. PhDs preferred?

  • PhD from outside that U.S. can be harder to evaluate. This adds extra work for search committee. For instance, it may be hard to evaluate the ranking of the university you are coming from. In that case, provide this information with your application package.

Question: Are references ever contacted?

  • Yes, but only those shortlisted have references contacted, and it is generally via e-mail.

Question: What about Teaching-intensive careers? What do search committees look at for those?

  • If you are interested in a teaching-intensive academic career, teach undergrads. Contact a PI about teaching their class, not just TA. Might have to volunteer for it.
  • Get experience lecturing or start adjuncting.
  • Show you’re committed to teaching.
  • Teaching statements are required for both teaching and tenure-track.

Question: There are an increasing number of faculty applicants who have a partner who is also an academic.  These two individuals searching for jobs in the same location are called the “two-body problem.” When do you bring this up?

  • How well the two-body problem is handled can vary considerably across universities as well as within institutions and departments at the same university. You will not know how good a university is about spousal placement until you are there.
  • There is no “right” answer as to when or how you should bring up the fact that you have a two-body problem. However, realize that you should “not wait too long.” One suggestions is to bring it up at the campus interview, at the last interview which is generally a department head. A good department head will keep this information confidential from the rest of the hiring department. But having the information helps the department head start to look into options for the spouse because the hiring department can only help you find a position for your partner after you tell them.
  • The best advice is to try everything and be flexible. Couples have solved the two-body problem by finding jobs at the same institution, finding jobs at neighboring institutions, or having one person with an offer act as an anchor for the partner who finds a position a few months to a few years later. There is no one way to solve the two-body problem.
  • You will have to volunteer this information, because an interviewer is not allowed to ask.

Question: Are most academic positions only for U.S. citizens?

  • A lot of academic jobs are open regardless of nationality.