Sunday, September 27, 2015

How to Get a Faculty Position I
Most graduate students starting at research-intensive universities state that their career goal is to become a tenured faculty member at a research-intensive university; yet the fraction that ultimately do become faculty members is very low (less than 1% by some estimates - see above figure). This transition from doe-eyed starting graduate student to hardened, one might say wizened, veteran fleeing to non-academic pursuits can be traumatic (see a particularly angst-ridden example here). One of the greatest bottlenecks in this process occurs for postdocs trying to get a faculty position, which occurs at a rate of about 10% in the Life Sciences (see graph below). In hopes of assisting the dedicated and motivated people who wish to make it through this bottleneck with the fewest possible scars and in the best possible position, I will now generate a couple of posts on “How To Get a Faculty Position.” These posts follow almost sequentially from my earlier “How To” posts.
Given that blog posts do not increase the total number of faculty positions in existence (Now that would be a really useful post), they can at best influence the particular people who make it through the bottleneck. One might cynically view this attempted help as unhelpful because, for everyone it helps (someone who might not have gotten a position without the post), it hurts someone else (someone who would have gotten a position if the other people hadn’t read the post). I prefer to view the attempt more positively: perhaps this post will help everyone cast themselves in the best possible light and thereby help the best individuals to the best possible positions. From an evolutionary perspective, perhaps we could say that this post might help to optimize the assortative pairing of individuals and positions based on merit.

My advice on “How to get a faculty position” will proceed in three posts, which I will write in the weeks/months to come. Each is quite different from the others. This first post is likely to be the most obvious one (with a few surprises), and the novel suggestions will increase through subsequent posts. Importantly, my comments apply most directly to research institutions and North America, although many of them will apply more generally.

1.  Getting the interview.
2. Succeeding in the interview
3. Guaranteeing success

Getting the interview

Your job application package will consist of (give-or-take) a cover letter, your CV, letters of recommendation, a research statement, a teaching statement, and your extra-package profile (the people you know and your internet presence). By far the most important part of this package is your CV, with (in my opinion) your extra-package profile often being second-most important.

Probably the most important aspect of your research statement is to portray a research program, rather than a list of projects or topics. Most members of a hiring committee want to see that you have the potential be the world leader in some particular area of science, which will normally require a multi-pronged approach to a single important and broad topic. Thus – to the extent possible – weave together a narrative (with subheadings) that first introduces an important research topic (cute baby!), then outlines how your past research informed that topic and how new research is critical (a werewolf!), and then describes how you have a series of projects (use subheadings) that all address those research needs (silver bullets!). Here is my post on the baby-werewolf-silver bullet approach to writing. An additional point is that your statement should be modest in length, at least in terms of text (I would guess max two pages and ideally less), but with cool images and figures that provide nice sign posts and breaks from reading. Remember that – at this first stage – search committee members are reading very quickly and you need to keep and maintain their attention.

Baby - Werewolf - Silver Bullet.
Teaching statements tend to be blah blah blah BS, and I doubt many committees at research-intensive universities weight them much – unless they show evidence of teaching excellence, such as awards. Thus, keep your teaching statement focused and simple. First describe your teaching approach. In some ways, this is just a necessary hoop to jump through as everyone says the same blah blah blah about active learning and engaging students and integrating research, etc. However, you can stand out if you cleverly highlight really unique aspects of your teaching, such as through links to videos of you teaching in a unique way (see example below) or through screen captures of webpages or twitter feeds or whatever. As an additional point, I suggest you don’t list a huge number of courses that you could potentially teach at the university you are applying to. This looks rather desperate and most research-intensive universities won’t want you to teach too much. Instead, say something like “I would be happy contributing to the core biology curriculum and field courses, and I would be excited to develop my own upper-level course on ….”

Comment from Steve Heard: You are absolutely right about the common blah-blah, but I think these are valued more than you suggest except at the biggest research universities.  For me what makes the difference is concrete experience and plans.  Everyone says they want lecturers to be dynamic.  A good statement adds "and I'll accomplish that by doing X, which I did in my course or which I saw Dr. X do in a course when I sat in to learn from her award-winning teaching".  Few statements I see do this. And you don't have to actually have teaching experience to do it; you can say something concrete you've observed and admired, and why.

An example of how you can make your teaching profile interesting: YOUTUBE
Your CV is by far the most important part of your application, and the most important part of your CV is your publications. Thus, the primary determinant of getting a job interview has nothing to do with how you write your application but rather with the work that you have already done. Previous posts in this How To series should help with bolstering your academic record. Here I will instead provide a few tips on how to convert your accomplishments into a CV that brings your best work to the fore in a situation where committee members are doing a very quick triage and then later deliberation of a “long list” of suitable candidates.

The key elements of your CV are typical: experience, awards, publications, grants, teaching, reviewing, editorial work, and so on. Here I will concentrate more on details in how you order and construct some of these elements. (1) Get your publications up front in your CV – these are the most important things for most universities (you can also have a short list of courses before the publications – course details can appear later if you like). (2) Underline your name in the author list as some committee members want to assess your first- (and sometimes last-) authored contributions and these guideposts really help them. (3) Put “in press” papers in normal chronological order (most recent first) with the rest of your publications. (4). For the above papers, I would separate “full journal papers” (or something like that) from “notes/comments/responses/reviews/book chapters” by putting the latter in a separate section after the full papers. (5) AFTER the above, put your “in review” and “in revision” papers in a separate section. (6) AFTER this last, you can put “in prep” papers in a separate section. In reality, I would only list such potential papers if don’t have many papers in the other sections. Overall, listing in prep papers just makes you look like you aren’t confident in the strength and quantity of you actual papers and, of course, committee members know that “in prep” papers are a dime a dozen, that some won’t ever be published, and that, even if they are published, it might take a long time and often won’t be in the form they are listed anyway.

The last point just made in the above paragraph was my first hint to the importance of not puffing up your CV with hot air. When you do this, it is always clear to the readers, it makes it harder for them to find the key stuff, and it makes them view you as unconfident about your own CV. An additional point along these lines will initially seem counter-intuitive: you might not want to list ALL of your papers on some applications. That is, if you have a decent number of papers, then you might want to leave off the really minor, peripheral ones unless they have particular relevance to the position or university or search committee members. Having a lot of minor papers in your CV can (1) make your good papers less obvious, (2) imply that you “waste your time” on minor papers, (3) be interpreted by some to suggest you chase “minimum publishable units”, and so on. Thus, if you have ten papers in “good” journals and two in the Open Journal of the Southwest Alabama Natural History Society, then your CV might look better without the latter. Omitting some papers isn’t misleading as nothing legally or even morally compels you to list everything you have published in your CV. (Also, all your publications will be evident online anyway.) If such omissions stress you out, you can simply title your publication section as “Relevant Publications.”

A few other points about CV presentation: (1) Just before your list of publications, perhaps include a very short executive summary listing the number of papers published, your total number of citations (Google Scholar and Web of Science), and your h-index (Google Scholar and Web of Science). For a fast-reading committee member, this summary acts like an abstract telling them they should look further. (2) Make sure to list major and prestigious awards and research grants (with dollar amounts) that you have obtained – these (if short) can go before your publications. Note that for research grants, you can list awards you wrote even if you weren’t listed as a PI (sometimes grads or postdocs write grants for PIs), although you need to make this distinction clear. Also, if you do have some prestigious awards and major grants, it is probably not helpful to list the minor ones. This advice falls into the same “hot air” category as puffing up your list of papers, with all of the same attendant problems. (3) If some papers have received particular attention (media, citations, F1000), you can note this after the paper in the list of publications. (4) Do list things like talks given, posters presented, and journals reviewed for; but these are of relatively minor importance, so put them toward the end of the CV. An exception would be any keynote addresses, which (as long as there aren’t too many) can also be listed before the publications.

If you wish to see my CV, which includes some (but not all) of these elements, you can look here. Of course it is important to remember that the elements of the CV should be tailored to the type of job you are applying for. For instance, teaching experience and awards should be given more emphasis for a teaching-focused university.

The cover letter is the one thing that, apart from your publication list, will be read by everyone (or nearly everyone) on the committee. Thus, make it a SHORT (certainly no more than one page) executive summary of the key points: state your general research area (baby-werewolf-silver bullet), state any major awards, state your number of papers and note some of the best journals) and citations and h index, give your dollar amounts for grants, and list teaching interests. Importantly, don’t give a huge list of people who you think you could collaborate with in the department. This makes you seem desperate for approval and the people you mention might read it and think “Huh, I don’t see myself collaborating with this person.” Moreover, it will again (hot air) diminish any comments you make about very clear likely collaborations within the department. Instead, say something like “I can see immediate collaborative opportunities with PROFESSOR 1 and PROFESSOR 2 and I am excited about the possibility of exploring other potential collaborations within the department and university.” Of course, cover letters can get tiresome after you write a bunch of them, which might lead you to drastic actions such as this, which led to the below.

Letters of recommendation are essentially a check on what you are asserting about yourself. Thus, their most important role is to “not fuck up your application” by saying something bad about you. By this I mean that a great letter of recommendation can move you slightly in a ranking of applicants, but a bad letter can kill you even if you have a great CV. Thus, you need to make sure you are getting good letters of recommendation, which can start by (when in doubt) asking your letter writers “would you be able to write me a good letter of recommendation”. Of course, most letter writers won’t want to say that they will write you a bad letter, so you can instead more subtly ask them who they think would be your optimal letter writers. That way, they can recommend someone else “who is more suitable” without implying they would write a bad letter. It does help to have a big-name person write the letter but some big-name people are so busy, and have seen so many good people, that they might write a very short or less-than-enthusiastic letter. Thus, only ask big-name people who you have actively collaborated with. Alternatively, you can ask for a letter of recommendation from your Mom, excerpt below.

Your extra-application profile can be very important in two main arenas. First, you can sometimes have a real champion within the search committee who knows you; someone who has seen you present something or has had a beer with you in the pub at a conference. The key point here goes back to early How To posts that commented on the value of networking. In short, talk to visiting speakers and people at conferences, give lots of talks at conferences and lab groups, collaborate with lots of people, and so on. Also blogging and tweeting and the like can really help your profile as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of your research. Second, probably every candidate who makes the long list (usually folks with a good publication record given their career state) will be scrutinized by all (or most) of the committee members for their online profile. Thus, you really want to have a good website and you really really want to have a profile on Google Scholar, which provides a completely objective summary of your contributions.

I am sure I have missed a bunch of other stuff and I am also sure that some of my suggestions won’t be optimal for all positions, including some teaching-focused universities. However, my experience on job search committees suggests that the above points can help present your application in the best light and thus increase your chances of an interview. Once you get the interview, an entirely different set of guidelines applies, and that will be the focus of the next post.


  1. Here is an actual letter of recommendation I received as a member of a Search Committee. This is a great example of a letter writer effing up a candidate's chances. In this case, the letter writer was presumably naive and didn't know how to write a letter for a faculty position. Either that, or he / she did not want the candidate to get the job.

    I write this letter in full support of Dr. X for the assistant professor at X. I am an assistant professor at University of X. My research program uses field, laboratory, and X to understand the molecular basis and adaptation of organisms to the environment. Dr. X have been collaborating for the past two years to identify any molecular X for the differences in reproductive success of X. Her knowledge of X physiology has been instrumental in pushing this project forward and in obtaining research funds through X. We are currently waiting to hear back from NSF on a proposal that Dr. X is the lead PI. Her research can easily tie into both medically relevant applications as well as ecological applications giving her a wide range of funding opportunities. From the proposals that we have put in together, it is clear that Dr. X has hypotheses that are at the leading edge and a writing style that grabs readers attentions. This is also exemplified in her ability to reach a broad audience. She led a keynote address at X, which invited the general public on the X campus for hands on STEM activities and presentations. Nearly XXX people attended our X annual event. Dr. X inspired and awestruck many of the participants that ranged from child to adult.

    In short, Dr. X is ready to make the move into an assistant professor position and I fully recommend her for this position. Her work with the X makes a good match for a X ecologist.

    If you have any questions, please feel free contact me at the email below.

    Dr. X

    1. This is interesting, because as a naive early-career scientist myself, I'm not sure what's wrong with that latter. It says only positive things, it describes the person as being at the leading edge of their field, being an effective communicator, being good at attracting funding, being a good collaborator... what would a search committee want to hear that this letter doesn't say? Why would such a letter mess up the candidate's chances?

    2. I second that question, as another naïve early-career scientist myself :)


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