Career Paths

Applying for a Faculty Position at a Research Intensive University

Erik Lee Snapp, Ph.D.

This fall, thousands of postdoctoral fellows will apply for faculty positions at research intensive institutions. Yet only a small fraction, typically 7–11%, of all postdocs will suc­cessfully obtain a faculty position. It’s no secret that the num­ber of postdocs is dramatically larger than the available pool of faculty positions. How, then, can one stand out among the often hundreds of applications for a single faculty position? I cannot cover everything in a page, but I’d like to suggest a few effective ways to help candidates distinguish themselves and navigate the application process. 

1. Self-Assessment. Applicants need to frankly assess their prospects. 

Applicants will be judged by 1) research ac­complishments, 2) strong letters of reference, and 3) proposed research. Research accom­plishments translate literally into publica­tions. Publication number and quality are metrics that will be used to define one’s potential for grant funding by the search committee and by grant study sections. The good news is that it is not mandatory to have a first author, top-impact-factor journal paper. Such papers do not hurt your chances, but they are not required. Even without a first author paper in any of the top impact journals, I received multiple faculty position offers. One does need multiple first author papers, especially recent papers (from the past two years), in respected journals. The papers need to be accepted. Manuscripts in preparation or submitted are not going to impress search committees. Ap­plicants need to demonstrate productivity as a postdoc. I am aware of cases of job offers made to candidates without any postdoc publications, but I can count these examples on a couple of fingers. 

Equally importantly, applicants need to have a vision for a project with significant impact. This vision needs to be dis­tinct from one’s postdoc mentor’s research. Other factors that can increase an applicant’s attractiveness to search committees include: expertise in a hot new technology, history of funding success with grants and fellowships, and teaching experience. 

Search committee members must be able to understand what you did and what you are proposing.

2. Educate Yourself. 

Applying for a faculty position is frequently a black box for many applicants. What should be in a cover letter? A diversity statement? A research statement? How should one prepare for a Skype interview or a chalk talk? Resources are available and candidates should seek these out. For example, I have written a free eBook on Applying for a Faculty Position. The first chapter of HHMI’s free Making the Right Moves also contains several helpful suggestions. Ulti­mately, applicants should be aware of all of the components of faculty applications and should have materials prepared in time for the start of recruiting season—typically late July to early August. As indicated below, these documents and presentations will benefit tremendously from constructive feedback, and this process takes time. 

3. Constructive Feedback on Your Appli­cation Materials. 

The single biggest mistake made by applicants is assuming that their materials can be easily understood by the members of the search committee. No mat­ter how expert committee members are in a subject area, search committee members must be able to understand what you did and what you are proposing. It is safe to as­sume that there are nonexpert committee members and that their votes are weighed equally. To ensure the materials can be understood by a broad audience, share them with people outside one’s lab, and better yet, with people outside one’s field. A good reviewer will help applicants minimize jargon, pare down epically long sentenc­es, and clearly articulate ideas.

It’s especially helpful if someone asks “Do you mean this?” Remember, an applicant can only provide the written documents. There is no accompanying clarifying commentary or question-and-answer session. Similarly, practice for Skype interviews, job talks, and chalk talks with feedback from both experts and nonexperts. It is very important to seek out people who have actually served on search committees. One’s friends and colleagues can be helpful and well intentioned, but there is no substitute for the perspectives of people who understand what search committees expect. 

4. The Million Dollar Sales Pitch

During the interview stage, applicants are evaluated for com­munication skills, critical thinking skills, ability to defend ideas, professionalism, maturity, and preparation. At this stage of a postdoc’s career, he or she should have honed all of these qualities. Yet there is something that applicants can do days or weeks before an interview to improve their prospects. Appli­cants can come to the interview extremely well prepared.

I cannot overstate how many applicants that I have seen fail an interview due to poor preparation. Applicants should know about the research interests of potential future col­leagues who they will be meeting. Applicants should be able to describe their own research on multiple levels from a simple “elevator pitch” to a highly detailed critical evaluation. Presentations should be well rehearsed and understandable to a broad audience. The job talk and chalk talk should clearly articulate the key ideas at the very beginning to help the com­mittee members appreciate the applicant’s research vision. Applicants need to convince the committee that there is a significant and, yes, fundable research program. 

When I work with postdocs to hone their presentations, I often hear the complaint that my prescription sounds a lot like salesmanship. That’s because it IS salesmanship. Biomedi­cal researchers need a lot of money to start a lab and keep it running for 3–5 years until grants start coming in. In 2017, an applicant for a faculty position is literally making a sales pitch for a startup package between 1–5 million dollars. Let that number sink in. That’s a lot of money! My point is that if an applicant is going to ask for 1–5 million dollars, then the ap­plicant should be highly motivated to put in the time prepar­ing for an interview. 

5. Remember That the Interview Is for Your Benefit, Too. 

Use interviews as opportunities to learn about potential future colleagues and work environments. While applicants are clearly focused on getting a job offer, they need to de­cide whether they and their research can develop and thrive at an institution. Does the institution make a strong effort to mentor junior faculty? Are there many shared resources?

Do potential colleagues have the expertise and enthusiasm to provide constructive feedback on the research? Is there good administrative support for grants management and teaching? Does the department have a good track record for helping ju­nior faculty achieve tenure? Does the institution offer daycare, and if so, how long is the waiting list? And so on. 

My final piece of advice is not directly related to interac­tions with a future employer, but it is about an important re­lationship—your spouse or significant other and family. Their support can help an applicant remain positive and enthusiastic throughout the long and sometimes stressful application pro­cess. Be sure to thank them verbally and often. ■