Career Paths

Tips from Faculty for Your Academic Job Search

Ashley Donovan, Ph.D.

As graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, you spend most of your time teaching and moving your re­search forward. Suddenly, the time to graduate arrives. While this is an exciting moment, it is also one that induces stress for those interested in applying for faculty positions. How, exactly, are you supposed to start your professorial job search?

At the Spring 2016 ACS National Meeting and Exposi­tion in San Diego, the Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Office with the Office of Faculty Development co-sponsored a “Faculty and Postdoc Afternoon Networking Coffee Break.” The event convened postdocs, grad students, and faculty, with the faculty sharing advice about how to start a faculty job search and navigate the application process. The faculty panel fielded questions from the audience. Their responses to the main discussion topics are shared below.*

A neat, clean, professional application makes a huge first impression

1. What are the most important aspects of a faculty application?

Corcelli: The cover letter is extremely important because it is where you can establish a positive first impression. A good cover letter will convey that you understand how your quali­fications match the position and the institution to which you are applying.

Boucher: The cover letter should be long enough to state why you are applying for the position, give a short impression of your strengths for that position, and show a clear understand­ing of the position. For instance, if the job is for an organic chemist at a PUI, make clear that you are an organic chemist who knows what a PUI is and wants to work at one.

Adams: The cover letter is critical. Lots of candidates will have similar CVs or résumés, but the letter is where you can really make the case that you are a good fit for the institution to which you are applying. Take some time to tailor your letter to each institution—go beyond simply changing the institution name for each letter.

Rivera: Sometimes candidates send the same letter to several institutions, and the lack of understanding the mission of the college becomes clear through the letter, specifically when applying to a community college. For the community college, the letter of intent and the teaching philosophy are two of the most important pieces considered in inviting candidates for an interview. 

2. How do you ask faculty to write recommenda­tions for your application packet? 

Corcelli: A polite e-mail explaining that you are applying for faculty positions and would like a letter of recommendation is the first step. Subsequently, you should keep your letter writ­ers updated with due dates and instructions for how to submit the letters. A spreadsheet is often helpful to keep the process organized.

Boucher: Anyone you approach for a letter should be told (a) what your timeline is for applications, (b) what type of school(s) you are targeting, and (c) how the letters are to be delivered: by e-mail, sent directly to the school, or returned to you in a sealed envelope. It isn’t a hardship to write multiple letters—once the first one is written, the rest can easily be modified, so don’t be worried about asking for many copies for many schools. The kindest thing you can do for your letter writers is to be organized, with clear information as to dead­lines, type of schools, etc.—and don’t be afraid of giving gentle reminders to your writers as the deadlines approach. Your thesis adviser (or postdoc adviser) should know that you are applying to these positions, so hopefully he or she will have of­fered to write a letter for you. If not, any of your other advisers or committee members should be easy to approach, since they are your primary mentors and know you very well. This only accounts for one (or two) of your letters, and most schools need three. For your other letters, if you have ever worked as a TA or laboratory assistant for other professors, it would be a good idea to approach these people. 

Adams: Schedule a meeting with each recommender so that you can clearly explain the type of faculty position you desire. If a recommender is only able to write about your research experience but can’t really say much about your potential to be successful in the future (especially as it relates to the specific position for which you’ve applied), it won’t be helpful to your case.

Rivera: The recommendation should demonstrate with ex­amples the capacity of the candidate to be creative, work both as a team member and as an individual, and solve challenges. At the community college level, the recommendation letter is a tool that talks about the capacity of the candidate to thrive as an instructor and not as a researcher. We do not “judge” the chemistry content knowledge, as we use transcripts to verify degrees. 

3. Is there any protocol for writing research proposals? 

Corcelli: Your research proposal should match the expecta­tions (and the explicit instructions) of the institution to which you are applying. A one-page executive summary is helpful, and you should utilize images to convey your ideas whenever appropriate.

Boucher: The research statement should be of a scope that is appropriate for the type of institution you are targeting, and it should convince the reader that you could be successful at establishing a research program there. To do this, you need to know—and show you know—what success would look like at your target institution. If you are applying for positions at research-intensive institutions, your application should make clear that you are able to find external funding. If you are ap­plying to a PUI, you should make clear how undergraduates can be a part of your research. If you are basing your projects on work from your thesis, you should make clear that you have permission from your thesis adviser to continue that part of the project (or you should make clear that your proposed project is far enough away from your thesis that it is fair game to use). 

Adams: Speaking as someone at a PUI, when we are reading a candidate’s description of his or her research plan, we are try­ing to determine the following:

(a) Can this person successfully do this type of research at our institution? (e.g., Is it clear that the candidate at least checked our Web site to see what equipment we have al­ready?)

(b) Is it reasonable to expect that this candidate will involve undergraduates in his or her research on a regular basis? (Likewise, does he or she understand the challenges of developing a research program without graduate students, multiple postdocs, or both?)

(c) Is there a reasonable plan for securing funding (including funding for new instruments that might be necessary)?

Rivera: This does not apply for the community college. How­ever, we do see an advantage in hiring someone with experi­ence in writing grants that can strengthen teaching practices in the department, especially when it comes to increasing student success, technology, instrumentation, or all three. 

4. What is a typical timeline for the application and interview process? 

Corcelli: At my institution, we will compile a list of phone interviewees within one month following the application deadline. Phone and on-site interviews occur over the next two months. Offers are often produced within a few weeks of an on-site interview.

Boucher: Timing can vary, since some schools have a small search committee (just a few members of the department), while others have large departments and outside members to coordinate. Typically, most schools follow the same gen­eral timeline, but the time between one stage and another can vary widely. First the applicants are screened after the deadline. This group is narrowed down to a smaller group, from which some schools do an initial e-mail screening. After electronic screenings, phone interviews are typically set up. At my school, we try to interview 8–10 candidates by phone, although we have interviewed as many as 14. From the phone interview stage (which can take 1–3 weeks to complete at my school, but could take much more or less time at other schools), we invite 3 candidates to campus for day-long, on-site interviews. After a decision is made by the committee (which typically happens within 48 hours of the last site visit), our school takes 1–2 weeks to make an offer, since our recom­mendation needs to go through the Associate Dean, Dean, and Provost. 

Adams: Timelines vary a great deal. Much of this is due to the fact that openings can occur at any time. However, once the application deadline arrives, a shortlist or phone interview list is often determined within a few days. Candidates for campus interviews are invited shortly thereafter. The goal is to have all campus visits for a particular position scheduled within about a two-week period. After that, a lot of different things can happen: Sometimes offers are made almost immediately, while other times it could be a few weeks before the candidate hears something. There are a lot of factors involved—just keep in mind that if you haven’t been told “no,” the door is still open.

Rivera: The application is usually available on different sites for a six-week period. After that it truly depends on the hiring com­mittee, on how fast they can get together and come to a consen­sus about invitations. Once the application process is closed, the complete process can take anywhere between 1–3 months. 

5. What advice do you have advice for phone and on-site interviews? 

Corcelli: Research the department and institution in advance. Anticipate the people with whom you might have a close sci­entific connection. Have a short list of questions in your mind to keep the conversations interactive. 

Boucher: For phone interviews, do your research and find a place where you can have privacy and good phone recep­tion. Read up on the school, have a good idea of what sets that school apart, and have a few good questions in place. Con­sider practicing answers to the questions that you are fairly sure you will be asked: setting up a research program, why you are applying to the school, why you think it is a good fit for you. You don’t want to sound rehearsed, but you do want to have some idea of what you want to talk about! For on-site interviews, go with the idea that you are seriously considering working at that place, and be prepared to ask lots of questions (of the sort that you can’t find the answers to on the school Web site). This is your only chance to really get a feel for the school (and location) that you might be moving to! Look at the labs during the tour and imagine if you could teach in them, look at the research space and imagine setting up there, talk with the students and consider whether you would be successful mentoring them. The committee will be doing the same thing—trying to imagine you joining the department. Of course you want to do your best in the interview, but you don’t want to spend the entire time impressing the committee and not actually looking around the school to see if you really want the job! The committee wants to be impressed, but it also wants to see someone who wants to be at the school—not just someone successful, but someone who would be successful at their school. I’ve heard the on-campus interview described as “speed dating–to–marriage” and that phrase always struck me as so true. You (and the committee) are deciding together whether you want to link careers. It is a big decision, and the more time you spend really looking at the school and imag­ining yourself being successful there, the easier it will be to make your decisions. Also—wear comfortable shoes! 

Adams: Do your homework! It’s not just that you’re selling yourself; you have to show the interviewers that you know enough about the institution and the position to convince them that you are a good fit. For your research and teaching presentations, make sure your PowerPoint slides are clear and do not have mistakes. During the interview, be sure that YOU have questions for the interviewers. If you are offered the po­sition, it’s then up to YOU to decide if it’s a good fit.

Rivera: At the community college it is rare to conduct a phone interview, as the committee will focus on your teaching demonstration and how you engage (or not) the panel. Please be aware that we do evaluate poise, voice, grooming, and en­thusiasm—sometimes people forget these. ∎

Final Tips

The panelists encouraged starting your search early and keeping your application “professional and error free.” Says Prof. Boucher, “I’ve been on six chemistry searches, and it is amazing how many applications have basic mistakes—large grammatical errors, words misspelled, strangely formatted CVs that have obvious cut-and-paste errors. A neat, clean, professional application makes a huge first impression.” Pro­fessors Corcelli and Rivera echo the sentiment: pay attention to detail, use correct grammar, and “address the institution appropriately

* Editor’s Note: Faculty replies have been edited for length and clarity.