Finding an Academic Job
by James Lambers
Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering
The end of your graduate career can be a very stressful period, given the inherent difficulty of completing and defending a dissertation. The added burden of securing employment after you graduate can easily be the straw that breaks the camel's back. This guide is intended to help prepare you for the latter ordeal and, hopefully, help ensure a positive outcome.
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Just as hiring decisions are rarely easy, it is not a trivial task to identify the universities to which you should apply. Hiring committees will try to determine, based on your application, if you are suitable for their faculty, but which institutions are suitable for you? Some factors you should consider are:
- Does the research in the department interest you? It's important to be able to collaborate with other faculty members within your department, as well as outside of it. Usually it is easy to look up the research interests of faculty members from their departmental web site. Do you see yourself working with them?
- Does the balance of teaching and research suit you? It's not easy to submit many publications when you are teaching four courses per semester. If you have decided that teaching is far and away your first love, then such a position is ideal for you. If you wish to devote yourself primarily to research, make sure that you apply to departments with a similar mindset.
- Do you have a preference for institutions based on their location? This can be a constraint that is severely limiting, as some areas may not have many institutions with available positions. It is best to be open to applying to a number of institutions that do not meet your geographic criteria. Not only do you increase your chances of success, but you can also broaden your horizons in many respects.
Once you have an idea of the type of institution to which you want to apply, you need to find out which institutions meet your criteria. For this purpose, you may already have an excellent resource close at hand. Your advisor can likely recommend destinations that would suit you, since he or she is already aware of your abilities and goals. Also, it's wise to keep in touch with your fellow students who graduate ahead of you, so that you can benefit from their new postdoctoral experiences. As a student, it's easy to build preconceived notions about postdoctoral life, so your recently graduated friends can provide a useful reality check.
If, in addition to your other criteria, you wish to apply to universities that are considered to be among the best in broad categories such as applied mathematics or computer science, a useful resource is the US News & World Report rankings, which can be found at http://www.usnewsuniversitydirectory.com/graduate-schools/default.aspx. Although the rankings cannot tell you, for instance, what are the top-ranked institutions in optimization or numerical methods for PDE, these rankings can indicate which destinations are likely to provide you with a broadly-based learning experience across all disciplines within the department.
Once you know where you want to apply, it's time to find out where you can apply. The following resources can help you find vacancies:
- Employment Information in the Mathematical Sciences, hosted by the AMS at https://www.ams.org/eims/
- NA Digest. You can subscribe at http://www.netlib.org/na-net
Care should be taken when consulting such sites. Upon finding a vacancy, visit the department's web site and try to find the job posting there, as it is possible that there may be discrepancies concerning the list of required application materials, deadlines, or other vital information.
Once you have identified departments at which you would like to apply, you can help your application before you even send it by contacting faculty
- Certainly, anyone that you already know among the faculty should be made aware of your intent to apply; even if they are not on the hiring committee they can lend a strong supporting voice to your application.
- If your advisor knows any faculty members in the department, contacting them to introduce yourself can help ensure that your name, and your qualifications, are remembered while they examine hundreds of applications.
- Even if neither you nor your advisor know any faculty in a particular department, it can be helpful to contact those who work in your particular research area to introduce yourself and discuss your research. If they are interested in your work, they may develop an interest in working with you.
Such communications can even be useful in cases where the department in question does not have an advertised vacancy. In some cases, if a department is truly interested in working with you, they can find a way (and find funding) to make it possible for you to join their ranks.
While each university requires a different set of application materials, the following list represents an approximate union of these sets, so it is a good idea to have all of these items available.
- Cover Letter This letter is your way of introducing yourself and expressing
your interest in the position, as well as their first opportunity to
become interested in hiring you. A guide to writing academic cover letters
can be found here:
It is recommended that you use departmental letterhead for your cover letter. If departmental stationery is not available, there may be a LaTeX style that you can use. Make sure that your cover letter includes contact information, even though such information is already included in your curriculum vitae, or CV. If a faculty member is inclined to contact you after reading your cover letter, then this contact information should be readily accessible, and the last paragraph of your letter provides this accessibility very nicely. In most other respects, the cover letter and your other application materials should complement one another:
- As a CV can be lengthy, finding the most interesting or appealing details of your experience can be tedious. The cover letter can summarize your experience, making note of the highlights, and referring the reader to the CV for details.
- A cover-letter can also provide useful time-dependent information. For example, you can indicate in your letter if you will be attending upcoming conferences at which you can meet with faculty members in person, whereas you would not provide such information in a CV.
- Since the cover letter is likely to be the first document that is read, it may be tempting to include some self-promotion, but do so carefully. While the cover letter is an appropriate place to highlight your most significant accomplishments, you should let your references tell the hiring committee what a great colleague you would be. Not only will they do a much better job of describing your positive qualities, but their claims about your abilities will be taken much more seriously than your own.
- Curriculum Vitae Once the hiring committee has been introduced to
you, the curriculum vitae, or CV, furnishes the details. It's essentially
the academic counterpart to a resume, although it typically includes
more detail than a resume would. You can learn more about what a CV
should contain here:
As with resumes, be sure to use high-quality paper for your CV, not plain photocopier paper.
- Statement of Teaching Philosophy If you are applying for a position
with a significant teaching component, the hiring committee will be
interested in your ideas about teaching. It is recommended that you
get an idea of what types of courses you would be teaching if offered
the position, so that you can tailor your statement to such courses
where appropriate. Some useful tips for writing a statement are given
- Statement of Research Interests Given candidates who are equally qualified, their research interests often serve as the differentiating factor, as departments prefer candidates whose research interests are more compatible with those of existing faculty. In your statement, you should not only discuss your work to date, but possible directions of future research. What contribution can you make to ongoing research in the department? This is one question a hiring committee is almost certain to ask, and you should too.
- AMS Cover Sheet The AMS cover sheet, available from the AMS web site at http://www.ams.org/coversheet/, is used by many institutions to obtain a quick overview of a candidate.
- Letters of Recommendation Hiring committees place much weight on what their peers have to say about your abilities. Usually, a minimum of three letters are required, but in some cases you may need to provide four, or even five. In some cases, one of the letters is required to discuss the candidate's teaching proficiency.
- Teaching Evaluations Positions with a significant teaching component, and certainly lecturer positions, are filled by those who can clearly demonstrate proficiency in teaching.
- Reprints or Preprints An overview of your research interests or accomplishments is not always considered sufficient; hiring committees may want to review your publications themselves. Since you will likely publish one or more papers that are based directly on your thesis, it is a good idea to prepare drafts of these papers, if you have not already submitted papers for publication prior to writing your dissertation.
- Institution-specific Forms In some cases, institutions will require you to fill out an application form. Be sure to check the job posting to see if one is required. If so, you will likely be able to download it from the departmental web site.
It may seem premature to devote much time and energy to job-hunting when graduation is more than a year away, but it's never too soon to start preparing yourself for the challenging task of demonstrating that you are the one who should be hired from a field of several outstanding applicants. The following timeline suggests what you can do throughout your graduate career to make yourself more employable when it is finally over.
Before your final year
- Identify sources of postdoctoral funding, such as NSF fellowships (see http://www.nsf.gov/pubsys/ods/index.html for details). Deadlines for these and other awards occur early in the academic year or even the preceding summer.
- Remember that at least three faculty members will need to be able to write an informative letter about your abilities and accomplishments. Members of your doctoral dissertation reading committee are in a good position to discuss your research acumen, so make sure that they are kept up-to-date on the progress of your research. Presenting them with at least a draft of your dissertation well before they would need to write letters can be very helpful. If you have the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant, the professor is the logical choice to write a letter about teaching ability, which is often requested.
- Keep in mind that experts in your chosen field of research are likely to spend the most time scrutinizing your application. Furthermore, they will likely know who their counterparts are at your university, and may even know them personally. Therefore, it is a good idea to establish relationships with the experts at your own university and give them the opportunity to familiarize themselves with your work so that they can write an informative letter on your behalf. Such a letter can carry significant weight with their counterparts at the universities at which you are applying.
- Try to attend some conferences and similar events at which faculty from other universities are in attendance. They provide excellent networking opportunities that may help you to get your foot in the door. Funding is often available so that students can travel to attend conferences. If you have made sufficient progress in your research, making a presentation can be very beneficial for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it can get you noticed by a potential employer. Identifying such potential colleagues early is crucial, as postdoctoral fellowships may require a faculty sponsor. Furthermore, if you are able to establish a working relationship with a faculty member that you meet in such a setting, they may be able to support your application with a letter of recommendation. References from outside your university can be very helpful as they demonstrate your ability to network and establish working relationships--essential skills that every faculty member must learn.
During your final year
- Prepare your application materials. Some details you should keep
- Does your university have a placement office that can assist you? They may provide a reference file service, so that your references will only have to send one letter that is then distributed to potential employers at your request.
- Even though by now you should have a cover letter prepared, you should tailor it to each institution and the position for which you are applying. A "one-size-fits-all" cover letter is not likely to net many interviews.
- Often, departments are looking to hire applicants working in certain areas of research, but are willing to consider applicants from all areas. If you do not work in the area for which they are looking to hire, you will need to devote extra effort to convince them that they should hire you anyway. Can you still make the contribution that they are seeking? Your cover letter and statement of research interests can be used to make your case.
- Make sure that your CV is up to date. Many activities that take place during your graduate career should be included in it, and the more such activities are listed, the greater an impression you can make.
- Make your presence felt. Even though your final year will be primarily devoted to completing your dissertation, now is no time to hide your head in the sand while working on it. Be sure to keep up the networking effort, since the people you meet may soon be looking at your application.
- Prepare your "interview talk." For on-campus interviews,
expect to be required to make a presentation. If you choose to give
a talk about your thesis research, it can be an excellent opportunity
to practice for your defense. Of course, you should practice your interview
talk as well. Make the presentation to a friendly audience first, such
as fellow students in your department, or try to speak at a departmental
seminar. The following links can help you to prepare the best presentation
- Tammy Kolda's guide, "How To Give a Talk: Advice on Preparing and Presenting Technical Talks in the Mathematical Sciences", at http://csmr.ca.sandia.gov/~tgkolda/abstracts/giving-a-talk-snl-2001.html
- TeXpoint, available at http://raw.cs.berkeley.edu/texpoint/TeXPoint.htm, is a Microsoft PowerPoint add-in that facilities the inclusion of LaTeX content in PowerPoint slides.
- Once you send your applications and request your letters of recommendation, you need to ensure that all materials have been received. Some universities will contact you if application materials are missing, but not all. Furthermore, once the application deadline passes, it is typical for department staff members to process all of the materials they have received before review of applications begins, and this processing can take weeks.
- Review of applications, on average, can take about three weeks. Given that many universities accept applications until early January, one can expect to be notified of the status of their application sometime in March.
- Once review is complete, you will be notified, usually by e-mail,
if you are on the "short list" of candidates. You will then
be invited for an on-campus interview, or a phone interview will be
arranged. In most cases, travel expenses for an on-campus interview
will be reimbursed, but this is not always the case.
Should you actually accept every invitation to an interview? If you have not yet begun your job hunt, this may seem like an odd question, but it is possible that you will have many institutions that are interested in you, and if all of them invite you to on-campus interviews you may not have time for all of them. In such a situation, you may wish to shorten your list of candidates while they are shortening theirs. However, it is advisable to attend as many interviews as possible, for two reasons:
- Nothing is certain. You may have five universities that would like to interview you but what if all of them decide on one of the other finalists?
- An interview is an excellent learning experience. Not only do you get to practice your interview talk, which you will need for future searches, but you get exposure to new departments and learn what they are really like, and, more importantly, new departments are exposed to you.
- Regardless of the type of interview, the purpose is basically the same: the faculty is trying to determine if you are the candidate who can make the greatest contribution to the department.
- Once the interview has taken place, it's possible that you may still have to wait a few weeks before you learn of your fate, especially if on-campus interviews are given and you are the first finalist to be interviewed.
- If you are offered the position, it is customary to be given a period of time to decide whether you will accept. It is understood that you may have other offers to consider, or may be anticipating other offers, so don't be afraid to ask for a week, or even longer, to decide. If the department is truly interested in working with you as a colleague, then they will work with you during the hiring process and be more accomodating. However, you should agree to a specific deadline by which you will have reached a decision and show due consideration to the department by meeting that deadline.
- If you are considering one or more offers, you can use these offers to your advantage with other institutions at which your application is still under consideration. For example, if a department is inclined to hire you but has not yet made its decision, their decision process can be accelerated by the knowledge that they may lose you to another institution if they do not act quickly.
In addition to sites previously listed in this guide, the following sites can also be very helpful in your search: