The search

It’s the time of year where summer is winding down and new faculty jobs are being advertised.  I thought it was a good time to reflect on my own job search (20 applications over 2 years, 4 interviews in year 2, resulting in 2 offers), and integrate my own experience as an interviewee with things I’ve learned since being on a search committee.  This isn’t meant to be an expansive post*, but rather a selection of thoughts and key pieces of advice from myself and other TSW bloggers.

The nuts and bolts

1.  Building your application package 

If I have one piece of advice, it is to send all of your application materials to multiple trusted readers at various career stages.  Make sure to send them to people who can comment appropriately on the type of job to which you’re applying (e.g., top-tier research, small liberal arts, etc).  I think this made a huge difference for me in year two of my own job search- one person suggested moving my awesome concluding paragraph up to the front, because many people won’t read to the end of the research statement.

This leads to my second piece of advice…

Concisely ‘sell’ the value of your research right up front, in all possible application materials.  Everyone evaluates applications differently- some start at the cover letter and read through, some go straight to the cv or to your research statement, some skip all these and just read your papers.  The one universal seems to be that everyone is pressed for time, and so not all of your materials will be read deeply (or read at all!) by the committee members.  Therefore you need to be somewhat redundant in that you need to succinctly outline the questions that motivate you, the value of those questions, and why you are awesome right up front, in both your cover letter and your research statement.  Similarly, make sure your publications and grants record aren’t buried on page 4 of your cv.  And make sure it looks professional, clean, and easy to read**.  Use descriptive headers. Stick to around one page for the cover letter and two for the research statement. etc.

Finally, don’t waste your own time: make sure there is some good reason you’re applying for each position.  I found that I never heard a peep from the jobs that seemed like a stretch for me.  Having said this, you don’t have to be a perfect fit for the advertised position- there are many examples out there of people who applied for and got a job that initially seemed like a poor fit.  However, I think you need to be able to identify why you are a good fit for the department/school.  Also, don’t pay attention to the job title per se, but rather carefully read the actual job description- sometimes there is a disconnect.

2.  Networking 

Do it! Take advantage of all resources at your disposal!

Networking comes in many forms, and it’s good to lay the groundwork early by going to various meetings, talking to people in person and on twitter, making new contacts and forming research collaborations, etc.  All of these activities expand the net of people who know your name and (hopefully) think you would be a great colleague.

But I think there are some specific things people can do on your behalf while you are applying for jobs that are helpful.  In particular, my professional friends would call or email their friends in the department with the open job to put in a good word.  Sometimes these contacts happen organically (see below), but don’t be afraid to ask your mentors if they have any contacts at the places to which you are applying (assuming you don’t have a toxic mentor, of course!).  My postdoc advisor was particularly awesome- if he had a personal connection to someone in the department, he would set up a phone call with the person.

Networking can also be much more informal. During my job search, I found that some people are fairly cagey about where they are applying.  However, being moderately open about my applications and interviews worked for me because various friendly people offered to network on my behalf.  For example, I posted on Facebook that I was boarding a plane to city X for an interview.  A friend of mine messaged me to ask if I was interviewing in department Z at school Y- it turns out her former advisor is now in department Z, and so she sent him an email.  I have no idea what she said, but hopefully it was something along the lines of “DrMsScientist is awesome!  You should hire her!” (That email happened to be to someone in the department where I got the job, though I know she also emailed another contact at a school where I did not get the job).

What does this kind of networking do for you?  Now that I’ve been on the search committee end, I know that these connections won’t get you the job- you have to be able to stand on your own two feet as a researcher.  However, emails like these helped bring names to the forefront of my mind when I was in the midst of reading dozens to hundreds of applications.  As I scanned through an application, usually a thought would pop up- wait a minute, didn’t so-and-so email about this person?  So I would search my email, see what was written, and usually give the application a closer look. This didn’t necessarily result in an on-campus interview, but it never hurt the applicant.

3.  Interviewing 

Oh, the coveted on-campus interview.  I had four of them: three were awesome and one was terrible.  At their best, I found interviews- the part when I was actually on campus, not all the stressful preparation- weirdly enjoyable.  Adrenaline was rushing through me, keeping me alert.  I got to talk about my research and meet lots of cool new people.  It was a little like going to a mini-conference on steroids.  Lots of new contacts, new ideas, but with an edge.  Of course, I always crashed immediately after the interview from all the stress that the adrenaline masked, but I generally enjoyed my interviews.

There are lots of practical things to say about interviews.  My favorite summary is by Hope Jahren, posted first here and then later here. TSW blogger Professor hashb8ng recommends bringing snacks and taking bathroom breaks to eat them.  I used my bathroom breaks to check my notes on my next meeting.  We both recommend that you 1) practice, practice, practice and 2) remember that the interview is a two-way street.  Make sure you ask the host what is expected of you (research talk, teaching talk, chalk talk, or some combination of the three). Then put together a kick-ass talk and run it by people from both inside and outside your field for feedback.  Also, don’t do all the talking- you are also trying to figure out if the department is a good fit for you, so ask questions of your hosts.  For both Professor hashb8ng and myself, our faculty discussions of candidates always include a “did they seem interested in our work?” discussion.

But of course, it seems like there is always a bad egg to ruin the bunch, and when it’s bad, it can be very bad.  In my case, my bad experience was the result of lots of small (and some large) negatives that combined into a huge mess.  It’s probably a story for another time, after I get tenure and when I can be assured that if the details are identifiable there won’t be repercussions to my career.  In my case, this bad interview (the 3rd out of 4 in my season) led me to break down in a sobbing mess of tears after the interview, feel like I was a terrible scientist with no good ideas to contribute, and seriously question why I was even here to begin with.

Which leads me to my final note about interviewing…


4.  Protect your mental health!

Being on the job marked is really, really emotionally tough. My mental health went down the tubes while interviewing.  I am generally a pretty even-keel person, but in the thick of the job search, my emotions were all over the place.  By the end, my mother was so worried about me that she was ready to fly out and hustle me back home.  When I got the email asking me to interview at place #4 (where I ultimately got a job!), my first thought was “Oh great.  Another interview I can go to and fail at”.  Oy. vey.

I got through it and ultimately became one of the success stories.  It helped that I had a great group of friends and colleagues surrounding me, who would constantly remind me that I was doing fine, it would all work out somehow, and that I should go easy on myself.  While some times I just needed to retreat into hermit-mode, I tried to listen to them.  I wish I had thought more deliberately about my coping strategies beforehand.  I scheduled a few massages, something I rarely indulge in.  I took long walks with my dog and tried to eat well and exercise regularly.  I took breaks from my “regular” work and had long lunches with friends.  For those of you who are on the job market now, try to identify “treats” for those times when you are feeling particularly low, whatever that looks like to you.  Warn your friends in advance, or seek out those friends who have been there before and understand what you are going through.

However, one thought I keep returning to is this: I started out with pretty good confidence and self-esteem.  How do people who don’t start out with a strong baseline deal with the emotional trauma?I don’t have the answer to that.  I think if I have one message to convey, it’s that you should try to be cognizant of the fact that you will feel extremely vulnerable at multiple points throughout the process.  You’re not alone. Those feelings are normal, they are ok, and they will pass.  Know that one bad interview or fifteen application rejections do not make you a terrible scientist.



*For many more awesome resources, see The Professor Is In’s blog, this Dynamic Ecology post on ecology job search resources (many of which will be relevant to folks in other disciplines), and probably many others that the hive-mind can point to in the comments.
**Note of warning to people who are compiling their materials from R markdown or various other languages.  Beware: in some cases, the compiled materials have weirdly formatted words.  For example, italicized words (such as species names or section headers) were slightly larger, with different fonts and different kerning.  I remain very conflicted about this.  On the one hand, if you’re sophisticated enough to use a Word alternative for your application materials, I want you as a colleague.  On the other hand, when reading >150 applications in one sitting (in my case, on a long plane ride to Europe) the weird fonts were extremely distracting and difficult to read, engendering much rage on my part by application #35.

9 thoughts on “The search

  1. About formating materials there is just one word to be said LaTeX.
    As a physicist I got drilled to use it from my first lab report in my first year of Bachelors and now I can’t live without it.
    Of course it is a bit more work to set it up at the start and learn how to use it.
    But then it does everything, from beautifully formatted dissertations with long bibliographies whose citation style can be changed within seconds to perfectly organized slides and wonderfull job documents.
    Nothing says professional like materials that are perfectly typeset.
    (At least I assume, so far these only got me my Ph.D. and a first Post Doc, but I’m still young😉 )

  2. I agree that LaTeX is great…I think the issue wasn’t with LaTeX docs, but rather with ones compiled with Markdown, which is becoming more common in my field. But I don’t use either (yet), so I’m not exactly sure which program was causing the issue. My point is simply that little things like slight font issues don’t make much of a difference on any single application, but can become amplified when reading many, many applications. Overall, presentation matters, at least a little bit.

  3. For the research statement, on page #2 would you rather have ‘Career Plan’ describing a few career objectives or ‘Long-term Vision’ of research interests describing what you plan to achieve and how it will help the field and science in general? I can accommodate only one of these if I’m to limit my statement to two pages and I’m not sure which one is more important to hiring committees. It would be nice if three page statements were standard. Would appreciate some thoughts from people who have served on search committees.

    • The advice I got was to show people where you’ve been and how that leads to where you are going. This allows you to highlight the awesome research you have already done, as well as the cool new stuff you plan to do. For me, the key thing is that this is not a proposal- you don’t need a ton of details and it should be larger than one project. My own statement started out with a paragraph on my overarching questions and why they are important, a short paragraph stating in general what I have contributed already to the field, then a paragraph starting with something like “The diverse skill set I have developed thus puts me in a unique position to direct a high-impact research program at XXX that investigates XXX.”. From there, I delved into a few more objectives in more depth. I would be interested in hearing from other folks about this too!

      • Thanks, that’s useful! I guess there’s no fixed formula for research and teaching statements and that’s the beauty of of individual expression. But its always nice to know of ways to improve one’s material. Hope to see a few more suggestions in this comment thread.

  4. Re: research statements, don’t be afraid to include a figure or two, especially if it allows you to cut down on text. I was hesitant to include figures during my first draft, bu changed my tune after a mentor looked over my package for me. A clear diagram can communicate a lot of information very concisely, especially as many of the folks reading your package may not be intimately familiar with your specific sub field.

  5. All of this advice is great if you are applying for a faculty position with a substantial research component. If you are applying for a faculty position where your primary responsibility is teaching–whether a SLAC, a directional commuter PUI, or a community college–putting your research too front and center can lead to your packet being tossed aside just as quickly as the inverse. Everybody with a PhD has research experience. But we want to know that you are passionate about teaching and that you’ve thought about teaching beyond suffering through a TA to get support for your research.

    My entirely unsolicited advice from serving on a search committee at a PUT and seeing the applications we tossed aside:
    –Talk about wanting to teach in your cover letter. Make sure it is clear that you know that this is a teaching job with some research responsibilities, not a research job with some teaching responsibilities.
    –Move your teaching experience up in your CV. It should not be buried on page 6 after all the posters you have presented at obscure regional conferences. We are looking for it on the first or second page.
    –Make sure it is clear what classes you have taught, including where and when and whether you were the primary instructor or a TA. If you have designed a course from scratch, highlight that. If you haven’t, highlight any original work you have done, like designing individual exercises.
    –Any kind of teaching work you have is relevant, especially if you don’t have a ton of direct classroom experience. Did you mentor undergrads in your research? Did you volunteer at a high school? Did you help with a summer camp on your campus?
    –Do research about teaching philosophies before writing yours. We expect that you have some knowledge of the current pedagogy in your field and are familiar with modern active learning approaches: case studies, flipping, clickers, etc etc etc. If your entire plan to stand still at the front of the room and lecture, this may not be the job for you.
    –Do not just take advice from your advisor–they know how to get a job like theirs, which is not what you’re applying for. Ideally, find a mentor at a PUI who can look at your packet and help you refine it.

    • Thanks for your perspective! I am definitely writing from an R1 position, so I appreciate the practical advice for primarily teaching or undergrad institutions. I think all of my points still apply, but with some tweaks. e.g., search committee members at all institutions are pressed for time, so you need to sell yourself as the best candidate for the position right up front, in all of your application materials. The actual points people emphasize to make this sell will differ by position, however.

  6. Pingback: Unrelated to all that, 8/1 edition | neuroecology

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