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Home Past Events Lunch and Learn Summaries 2016 Lunch and Learn: Academic Careers & the Academic Job Market

Lunch and Learn: Academic Careers & the Academic Job Market

Topic: Academic Careers & the Academic Job Market

Date: April 19, 2016

Invited Speakers:

  • Srividya Bhaskara, HCI
  • Dipayan Chaudhuri, CVRTI
  • Doug Christensen, Bioengineering and Electrical & Computer Engineering
  • Caroline Saouma, Chemistry
  • Holly Sebahar, Chemistry

Summary: Our panelists packed a lot of advice on academic careers and the academic job market into our one hour Lunch & Learn. Topics included the application process, interview tips and tricks, finding the right fit, and the variety of careers within academia.  A summary of key discussion points are provided below. Remember this is a summary of a panel discussion. As such, each comment does not necessarily represent the viewpoint or opinion of all panelists. Following this advice cannot guarantee you success on the job market, but we hope it helps.

Careers in Academia

  • Tenure-Track:
    • Tenure-track balances teaching and research obligations.
    • Realize that getting tenure is a difficult process.  Institutions vary as to whether they are highly supportive of highly competitive regarding tenure.  For example, some elite institutions will hire multiple assistant professors and put them in direct competition with each other (i.e., hire 3 faculty and tell them that only 1 will get tenure). In contrast, some universities only hire individuals that they expect can achieve tenure and provide as much mentoring support as possible to assist those new hires.
    • An advantage of tenure-track is that you can get develop your own balance of research, teaching, and service after you get tenure.  Prior to getting tenure, most departments require that you focus on getting grant money and publishing papers to demonstrate your research abilities.
    • Teaching may be your biggest career contribution. Mentoring multiple generations of students may have a larger impact than your research discoveries.
  • Teaching Faculty:
    • Teaching faculty positions go by a wide variety of names, including lecturer and adjunct. The unique feature of teaching faculty is that the majority of their time is spent developing course and teaching.
    • Teaching is a very rewarding aspect of a career because you get to interact with students and serve as a mentor.
    • The flexibility of being faculty is a huge advantage. It can help you achieve the work-life balance that you desire.
    • Teaching faculty can still be required to bring in grant money.  However, the pressure of getting grants is far less than on the tenure-track or research track.
    • A disadvantage of being teaching faculty is that you can feel isolated. There are typically only a few teaching faculty in a given department, and they are not often a part of major decisions regarding the direction of the department.
  • Research Faculty:
    • Research faculty primarily focus on research, but can have small teaching obligations as well. Research faculty are typically required to support a percentage of their salary from grants.
    • The independence to pursue your own research ideas can be very rewarding
    • Passing on knowledge to postdocs, graduate students, and lab technicians is very gratifying. Mentoring is an important component of doing research.
    • Important to enjoy (or at least tolerate) grant writing. Think of grant writing as an opportunity to connect your ideas and focus your research agenda.

Preparing for an Academic Career

  • Be honest with yourself about whether or not you are ready to apply. You want to have the full package – publications, mentoring, writing, communication, etc. – when you apply.
  • During your postdoc, take the time to identify your weaknesses (e.g., publication record, teaching experience, poor interview skills, etc.). Work with your mentor to address these weaknesses during your postdoctoral training.
  • Talk with your mentor about what research product or ideas you can take with you.  You want to identify a niche for yourself that is unique from both your Ph.D. and postdoctoral mentors.
  • Teaching experience can be important, especially for teaching-focused positions. Realize that guest lectures and mentoring undergraduates (or other lab personnel) counts. A passion for teaching can also be important.
  • Networking is important. Attend national conferences. Meet the people who are in charge of departments (chairs, heads, chiefs).
  • At conferences you should actively encourage people to come to your talk or poster. This is how you get known. Knowing people can help get interviews.
  • When you go on the job market, tell your mentors and collaborators. You want their support and you want them to advocate for you.
  • Consider attending a professional development and coach workshops.  These workshops teach you how to present yourself, excel in an interview, and negotiate.  They are valuable to improve your communication skills.

Applying for Academic Jobs

  • The application cycle typically involves applying in the Fall, interviewing in the Winter, and evaluating offers in the Spring. Make sure you spend the Summer preparing for the application process.
  • Academic applications include five components: (1) cover letter, (2) C.V., (3) research statement, (4) teaching statement, (5) letters of recommendation
  • Search committees will look through all components of your application. Realize they may only start reading documents and then stop reading if they lose interest or you aren’t a good fit.
  • Faculty outside the search committee will have access to your entire application, but are unlikely to look at it in detail.
  • The cover letter is your first impression.  Make sure it highlights why you are unique. Some faculty outside the search committee may only read your cover letter to get a snapshot of who you are as a candidate.
  • Recommendations are a critical component of your application. Good recommenders include your supervisor (Ph.D. and postdoc) as well as any collaborators or co-authors that know you well.

Choosing the “Right” School

  • Apply broadly because schools might surprise you.  After you interview, you may find a department more (or less) attractive than you anticipated.
  • Identifying a university or department with a strong research group can be important. You want to have group to join that includes both mentors and collaborators.
  • There are unadvertised positions. Search committees occasionally recommend highly qualified candidates for these positions. Sometimes contacting departments that do not have job postings can help you identify or learn about these positions.
  • Staying at the same institution as your Ph.D. or postdoc can seem attractive.  However, internal hires are rare.  Most departments try to create scientific diversity by hiring individuals from a variety of institutions and training backgrounds. So, to get hired at your Ph.D. or postdoc institution will typically require spending some time away from the institution, and then possibly return at a later date.
  • Reapplying to the same institution or department multiple years in a row is acceptable, especially if you really like the university. It is also appropriate to only apply to one institution before you are fully ready if it is your “dream job.” Make sure to highlight that it is your “dream job” in the cover letter.

Tips for the Academic Interview

  • Most faculty interviews will involve the candidate giving a 60 min. research seminar and meeting with the majority of faculty in a given department through 30 min. one-on-one interviews. A candidate typically interviews a school for 1-2 days.
  • Interviews are really important. You want to exude enthusiasm and demonstrate that you are collegial.
  • Before your interview, get acquainted with the faculty that you will be meeting. You want to demonstrate that you are interested enough in the school to get to know the faculty. Mention the facultys’ research specialties in the one-on-one meetings to show you learned about them.
  • Be prepared to talk about specific classes in that department that you could teach.
  • Prepare a 1 page research summary (could be 2-4 slides from your seminar). Include your name and contact information, so you can give this sheet to faculty. Realize that you will meet with some faculty that want to know about your research but did not attend your seminar. This summary sheet is an excellent aid for those discussions.
  • Be enthusiastic! If you feel your enthusiasm waning, one way to take a break is to go to the bathroom and spend those few minutes alone to regather your energy.
  • During your interview, be specific, honest, and don’t hog the discussion. You are trying to connect with your future colleagues.  Be yourself and sell yourself.
  • Many fields include two interviews.  Traditionally, the first interview is about you impressing the department. The second interview is often after an offer is made or as an offer is about to be made. Thus, the second interview is about the department impressing you.
  • During your first interview ask consider asking general questions, such as “Where do you see the future of the department?” or “What do you consider to be the strengths of this department?”
  • During your second interview, it is more appropriate to ask self-centered questions, such as specifics regarding your teaching load, how large a lab space you could have, etc.
  • If there are key people outside of the department that you would like to meet, ask to meet with them. This can be clinical collaborators, faculty that run core facilities that you would want to use, or interdisciplinary collaborators.
  • Realize that there are specific questions that faculty are not allowed to ask you during an interview.  These questions cover topics of ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, and whether or not you have a two-body problem (i.e., a spouse that needs a job in the same location as you)
  • Phone interviews can be more difficult than in-person interviews because you cannot see the person in order to read his or her body language and gauge his or her understanding. If you have a phone interview, be careful to speak slowly and clearly. It is easy to talk too fast on the phone.
  • It is appropriate to send follow-up e-mails to each faculty that you interviewed with, thanking them for their time. This acts as a reminder of who you are a few days after your interview.

Job Offers

  • Don’t take negative decisions personally.  There is a lot of randomness in the process of faculty hiring. Individuals are hired for because they are a good fit for the department. Outstanding credentials do not guarantee you a job offer.
  • If you do not get offered a position, realize that the interview experience and networking that came from the faculty application process is valuable and may help you secure an offer the next year.
  • Faculty positions are hard to come by. If you have an offer from a school that is not your top choice, think carefully before turning it down. It is a big gamble to refuse an offer one year in the hopes of a better offer the following year.
  • Offer letters are quite detailed. They will include information on teaching load, salary, start-up funds, benefits package etc. Almost everything in your offer letter is negotiable!
  • Realize you can defer your position. Many departments can be flexible and allow you to defer a position for 6-12 months.

The “Two-Body” Problem

  • 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 is called the “two-body problem.”
  • How well the two-body problem is handled can vary considerably across universities as well as within institutions and departments at the same university.
  • 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.” 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.