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.
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.
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.