This post is dedicated to S.L. at Harvard who is looking for her first faculty position and asked for a few posts about the job hunt. Good luck S.L.!
“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
I’ve warned my graduating bachelor and terminal masters students that for those who are entering the workforce for the first time, their first job hunt will probably be the hardest. This isn’t much comfort when you’re in the middle of it, but I tell them to keep in mind that it should never be this hard again. The same is true for your first faculty job search and, to a lesser degree, each application and on campus interview – it DOES get easier as you do it!
I’ve submitted MANY applications, been on three on campus interviews, been offered 2 faculty positions and have been on a search committee (so I’ve seen the other side). This is a process I feel comfortable describing.
This post focus on what the process looks like, a followup post discusses tactics for improving your chances of getting offered an assistant professor position.
Where to Apply
Every field has its own approach to listing and finding jobs. Some fields will have a central “clearing house” where all jobs are posted and that’s the only place you need to look. Other’s will have multiple places. In some ways it’s an advantage if their *ISN’T* a centralized job board. If you’re able to find job postings others have overlooked, there will be less competition.
I initially followed what I call the “shotgun approach”, in that I applied everywhere I could find a listing for that seemed remotely possible that they would hire me. I still feel badly about the number of letters I asked for from my references – I warned them at the beginning about what I was doing and told them I didn’t expect custom letters for each institution. I was ABD at the time, which worked against me, and despite 50 applications I only got 1 interview and no offers.
Other faculty have claimed that they follow a far more targeted approach and put all their efforts into making the best submission for a position that they think is the best fit for them. One of my committee members told me he’d only ever NOT gotten one academic position he’d applied for because he did this.
Probably a blend of these two approach would be best, don’t just apply to one place, but keep the number manageable enough that you can do a killer job on each application.
How to Apply
Typically schools will ask for a CV, a cover letter, a research statement, a teaching philosophy and 3 letters of recommendation (or 3 references). I’ll do future posts talking about these in detail, but you want these to be as close to perfect as you can make them. Go over them with a fine tooth comb. Ask friends to proofread them. Make absolutely certain their aren’t any spelling or grammar mistakes.
I put the time into having the best documents I could, then just customized the cover letter for each place I applied. If you’re putting more effort into a smaller number of places, customizing all of these documents wouldn’t be a bad idea.
The Phone Interview
Schools may schedule phone interviews for about twice as many candidates as they plan to invite on campus. Receiving a phone interview is a clear expression of interest. To a degree the phone interview is simply looking for an easy way to reject people without paying to bring them on campus and investing a day of everyone’s time in them. The committee will be evaluating your language skills in the language of instruction and your basic social skills.
If you don’t get an on campus interview after the phone interview, there is some big problem. They wouldn’t have called you if they didn’t think you were qualified for the position, so really try to figure out what the problem is if you don’t get past this stage.
You can think of the process as: the application gets you the phone interview, the phone interview gets you the on campus interview and the on campus interview gets you the job. Make sure you move on to the next phase each time!
The On Campus Interview
In many ways the job is yours to lose once you get invited on campus. The department is VERY interested in you at this point.
This is similar to a conference presentation – talk for a set length of time, then field questions. I would treat this as the most important talk of your life. Be absolutely prepared for the time allocated (don’t pull up a 45 slide presentation for a 10 minute talk). Rehearse the presentation repeatedly and be prepared to knock it out of the park.
Some department will have a faculty member deliberately ask some antagonistic questions – or it might just be the department jerk. Keeping you cool and engaging with them professionally is part of what you’ll be evaluated on.
We had a visiting faculty member at the department where I did my PhD. He figured he was a sure in for a tenure track position they were trying to fill and half-assed his job talk. He was shocked when they didn’t offer him the position, and outraged when he found out it was because of his poor job talk.
Teaching demos are deeply problematic. R1 schools don’t care if a candidate gives a poor job talk (which makes me wonder why have them do it in the first place?). Some positions will just use your job talk as a proxy for your teaching demo and won’t explicitly ask for one. For a teaching school they might have a teaching demo and no research talk.
If you do give a teaching demo, I’d suggest using a subject that you’ve actually taught before, add a bit of “razzel dazzel” and practice it a few times. If you’re asked to teach a specific topic to an actually class, do the necessary preparation to do a great job with that.
You’ll meet with the department – at the very least the search committee, the department head, the dean and the provost (or a representative for some of these people). You can find example questions of what you might be asked – practice them with friends. You want to give full answers, but not ramble on. In my experience candidates tend to ramble – so try to focus on being concise. Often with the 1-on-1 meetings they’re just determining if you can comport yourself as appropriate for a member of the faculty.
Keep in mind, it can be challenging to know where the authority to make the hiring decision really rests. In our department, the department head ruled like a petty tyrant, and most faculty members deferred to his wishes. The most important part of the candidates day was the 1.5 minutes they interacted with him as well as the part of their job talk he’d stick around for, he’d usually walk out about half way through.
Don’t talk down to staff or students who you meet during your day. Different schools place different importance on various stakeholders, and it’s possible that the person you’re talking down to might have a say in whether you get hired or not. Plus, it’s a pretty shitty thing to do to break the world up into people who you treat with respect and those you don’t.
Some candidates mistakenly think that meals or being driven around are social time where they won’t be evaluated. THIS IS PART OF THE INTERVIEW! For the duration of your stay, if you’re talking to someone from the university, expect that whatever you talk about may make it into the decision about whether or not to make you an offer.
My wife and I picked up a faculty canadiate at her hotel the morning of her interviews. Neither of us thought to ask if she was the person we were waiting for (and the three of us ended up sitting next to one another for a couple of minutes before we said anything) because she was dressed very casually. This is a professional interaction, for men that means a suit and tie. Women can have a look at Karen Kelsky’s blog The Professor is In which has multiple posts on this subject.
If everything goes well you might get the coveted offer!
I think it is WELL worth your time to discuss this with someone knowledgeable. It may feel crass talking about the specifics of the offer, but it is worth it to talk to some junior faculty members or other academics you know who have been on the job market recently. Karen Kelsky offers negotiation assistance if you don’t have anyone you can talk to about this – it was $400 when I hired her and it looks like she’s increased her rate to $600 at the time of writing.
You have more power to negotiate your position at this moment then you likely ever will again, so make sure you do your best to get what’s important to you. I was promised research funds for conference travel, which I ended up not getting – the Dean told me it was standard in the college and I didn’t need to have it in my offer, then it turned out it wasn’t and I didn’t get it. If they won’t put something in writing, I would expect that you aren’t going to get it. If they promise to “consider” or “discuss” something in the future, you probably won’t get that either.
You should be given time to evaluate the offer, if they try to put you on the spot, say some variant of “I’m really excited about this position and your school! I need to talk to a few people before I make a final decision, but I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” The school may give you between 1.5 weeks (very little time) up to many months to give them a final decision.
For readers who have participated in a faculty interview, did I miss anything above? What surprised you about the process? What part did you find the most stressful?