Not that Kind of Summer: Tales of Preparing for Academic Job Season
The time has come. Your training is nearing completion, you have discussed your career plan with your mentor, and now you must apply for your first academic faculty position. Because academic research institutions are closely tied to university and medical school calendars, they prefer their new faculty hires in place by late summer or early fall. This is particularly true of basic science departments. Therefore, most positions are posted in the fall. If you are considering entering the job market, fall is the best time to do it, and the summer before is the perfect time to start compiling your application documents. In this first entry into the job search series, I will discuss the very first step: putting together the application.
Having been in academia this long, it should come as no surprise that every single application is different. Below are listed the possible application components and lengths that I have seen, as well as my thoughts on what to prepare ahead of time. These thoughts are based on the hundreds of job postings I have read, the 60 or so to which I applied, and the communal wisdom and suffering of my fellow job seekers. As always, n=me and a few of my friends.
Cover letter: Some applications require a cover letter. Draft a standard one page cover letter in which you introduce yourself, your science, and rattle off your pertinent experience and why you are the candidate of their dreams. When you apply to positions, edit the letter as needed to reflect the position description and department.
Curriculum vitae (CV): This is the most important document you will put together. Most institutions have a format that they recommend for their faculty. Find your home institution’s format and build your CV into it. Include everything that is relevant to your academic career, and avoid including elements that are impressive but not relevant. Ask everyone and anyone to read it and provide feedback on content, clarity, and appearance. There are quite a few search committee members who only read the CV. Prepare the document accordingly.
Letters of recommendation: All applications require letters of recommendation. Some search committees want to review the letters for every application submitted, while others wait to select their top applicant pool before requesting letters. Either way, you will need three to five individuals (referees), ranked assistant professor or higher, to write you letters of recommendation. One of these individuals should be your primary mentor. Consider referees with connections in specific departments and fields in which you are interested, and leverage their network appropriately. For example, for applications to clinical departments, I requested a letter from my clinical mentor. Start working on your referee pool now.
But how do you get five faculty members to agree to be on letter of recommendation standby for the foreseeable future? Simple. Draft their recommendation letter. I realize this is controversial in some circles. However, I would argue it is the only way to guarantee all the elements you want addressed in your letter are covered. When an individual agrees to write me a letter, I provide a solid draft of the letter and an updated CV. I have yet to receive pushback from any referee about this practice, and in the research circles I operate, this practice is common. Whether my referees use the letters as they are, edit heavily, borrow sections, or write their own, I do not know.
Teaching statement: This is a one page summary of your teaching experience and strategy. If you, like most of us, have limited teaching experience, discuss your experiences in research supervision and highlight your excitement about learning how to teach. If you are planning on doing more teaching in your new position, do the leg work and think about how you would teach your students. In our experiences, excitement about teaching can offset lack of experience.
Research statement and/or plan: The terms “research statement” and “research plan” are used interchangeably by different institutions. In some places, the research statement is a one to two page summary of your research to date, and the research plan is two to five pages of your future research plans. In some places, the contents of these two are combined into one document, while others still do not care about your past research and only want to know what you will be doing next. Most of the time you will receive guidance in the application instructions. For your pre-application prep, I would recommend writing a one page summary of your past research, and a two and four page future research plan. What you write about depends on your career development award status:
If you have a career development award: Most of the hard work is done. Simply condense your science. Consider pitching one or two smaller projects to develop as well.
If you have written an unfunded career development award: Do not be discouraged. You do not need a career development award to land a tenure track faculty position. Use the reviewer comments to guide your research plan. If your research interests have changed, allow your proposal to evolve beyond your NIH-submitted application.
If you have not written a career development award: I repeat, do not be discouraged. Again, you do not need a career development award to land a tenure track faculty position. The first thing you need to do is meet with your mentor and discuss what projects you can take with you. In an ideal world, your mentor will allow you to take your project and will not compete with you. In the real world, sometimes the project is part of an NIH-funded grant, sometimes it is the best project in the lab, and sometimes the mentor is a jerk. Figure out if you can build on your current project or if you need to develop something new and act accordingly. If you are starting from scratch, leverage your skills into an interesting problem you have always wanted to address. Write some specific aims and get some feedback from your mentors and colleagues. Without a career development award, you can tailor you research plan to the job positing, and that can be an advantage.
Diversity statement: Some institutions are beginning to require a one page diversity statement, in which you describe how you will support diversity at the institution. Although this is difficult to prepare ahead of time, my advice would be to read up on the diversity initiatives at your institution and think of ways to incorporate them into your teaching and research plan.
Contributions to science: Some institutions require additional documents in which you select some of your papers and describe their impact on science. Usually these are one page per paper. Although I would like to think these provide the search committee additional information for very prestigious and competitive positions, my gut feeling is these serve more to deter applicants from applying. Your NIH biosketch provides a good starting point for describing these contributions to science, should you need to write these components.
Online presence: While this is not strictly a component of your application, it is something at which some search committee members look. Update your academic online presence in LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Scholar, Orcid, ResearchGate, etc. If you use social media for non-academic purposes, make sure it is locked down tight.
With these tips in mind, you are now ready to start working on your application documents. As with all things in science, give yourself enough time to get feedback and revise. In my next post, I will cover our job search strategies, from finding positions to narrowing down the job applications you will submit. Stay tuned for more tales!
Still have questions? More confused than when you started? Need to vent about the process? Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org