Academic Job Searches: Tips from SWE-WIA

Today I am excited to share a guest blog post about searching for a job in academia by Diane Peters, the Women in Academia (WIA) Committee Chair!

While many of you in the graduate student community are planning on a career in industry, there may be others who want to pursue an academic path – or who are still trying to decide what path to take. If you’re graduating this year and are interested in academia, you’ve probably already sent out some applications, and perhaps already had a phone interview. If all goes well, soon you’ll be hearing from some of these schools about scheduling an on-site interview! If you haven’t applied yet, there may still be good opportunities that are open, so keep your eyes open for job postings that might interest you.

All of us in faculty positions have gone through the job search process ourselves, and many of us have been on the other side of the table, serving on search committees and interviewing candidates. The advice here is distilled from quite a few of the WIA members, and we hope it’s of some help to you.

  • Think a lot about what type of positions suit you. There are a lot of different positions, both tenure-track and non-tenure-track, and they vary in teaching load, salary, advancement opportunities, job security, and other expectations; know what’s important to you, and what types of positions offer that at the colleges and universities you’re interested in. You’ll want to make sure you convey this throughout the process.


  • Customize your application materials to the position and the institution. You’ll want to write a very different type of cover letter for a community college teaching position versus a large research university. Make sure that you’re emphasizing the aspects of your work and background that apply specifically to them. This goes all the way through the process as well, including the interview. If someone is interviewing at a community college, for example, and all they can talk about is their research, while someone else is able to explain why teaching at a community college fits into their own goals as a faculty member, who would you hire?


  • Get feedback on your application materials. Ask people to proofread them for you, both for content and for grammar/spelling. You want to make sure that they’re well written and that they really contain the most important things, and you don’t want people to be distracted by awkward prose or poor spelling.


  • In the same vein, make sure your application materials are easy to read. Members of a search committee have to read a LOT of applications. One of our members mentioned 50-100 as the number of packages she’s had to read; I’ve been on a search with over 40. At large universities, there may even be hundreds of applications. With limited time to review applications, you need to catch people’s attention quickly and convince them that they want to read more about you. Use descriptive titles and headings so that the reader can find key information. But what’s key information? That brings us to the next point…


  • Do your homework on the institution and the department. Make sure you know basic facts about the school, as well as anything that makes them unique. Don’t make the mistake of talking about how you’d love to teach doctoral students at an exclusively undergraduate or master’s granting institution, or refer to the department by the wrong name, or anything else that indicates you don’t know much about them. If the school is on a quarter or trimester system, you’ll want to know that; for example, at my own university, Kettering University, we have an unusual academic calendar. If someone starts talking about the “summer break” as though they expect everyone has summers off, it’s clear they don’t understand us! (Oh, and one personal annoyance: when the cover letter says “Dear Sir”, that gets to me, personally. If you don’t have a name and all your homework can’t find out who the chair is, use something that doesn’t presuppose that the reader is male, like “Dear Sir or Madam”, or perhaps “Dear Search Committee Members”.) This is important through all phases of the process, both the written documents and the interview. If you’ve done your homework, then you’ll connect much better with potential colleagues in the interview, know what questions you want to ask, and be able to better absorb information. If you know that the college just opened a new computer lab with 3D printers, you can be prepared to ask questions about it when you see it, which shows both your preparation and your interest in what they’re doing.


  • Part of your homework should be seeking connections in your network who know the university, and who work there, if possible. Before one interview, I was able to talk to a former faculty member from the university, and was able to get a good idea of the culture. Another of our SWE-WIA members was fortunate that a fellow SWE member was on the search committee for the position she applied to. These people can help you with your homework, and point out things about the institution that are unique – exactly the kinds of things that you need to know about.


  • As part of your homework, look at the courses taught in the department. You should know which ones you’d be comfortable teaching, particularly if your degree is from a different but related field. This may be something you include in the application materials, depending on what you learn about the institution; it will definitely be something that comes up during the interview process. If you’re interested in course development, you can also discuss this in the interview.


  • If you’ll be doing research at all, think about what you can reasonably do at the institution. Do they have equipment that you would need, or do you have a way to get access to it? How does your research fit into what others are doing? You want to have your work fit into the institution – it should complement what’s already being done, but not be exactly what someone else there is already doing. When you’re interviewing, you’ll want to be alert to potential collaborators, and spend some time talking with them, if possible.


  • You also need to consider funding, particularly as you get farther into the search process. This has two sides to it: first, what kind of startup funding do you need to launch your work, and can the institution provide it? Second, what sources of external funding do you intend to pursue for your work? If you can specifically point out companies, foundations, or governmental agencies that fund your type of work and explain why you think you can get funding, you’ll look good. Regarding startup funding, you’ll want to try to find out what the range is for the institution. If you ask for too little, you jeopardize your ability to successfully launch your career, but if you ask for too much – well, some universities simply don’t have as many resources as others.


  • Know what type of support is available to you; this can include both equipment and money, as stated, but also may include mentoring, some kind of a teaching center to support efforts to improve teaching, and other university resources that will enhance your teaching and research. Ideally, the school’s expectations will be in line with what they provide to you – if not, you may be setting yourself up for failure. Do be careful how you ask about expectations, though; if you ask about teaching load in a way that implies you don’t want to teach, you’ll hurt yourself. You could, instead, ask a potential colleague what classes he or she is teaching right now, and that would give you an idea of what their load is.


  • Practice your job talk. Then practice it again. Then practice it again. Then… you get the idea. Your job talk will let people know what research you’re doing, and also indicate how well you can communicate it. I’ve seen some good talks and some disappointing ones, and a lot of the difference is in preparation. Some people have too many slides, and skip around, which looks sloppy; others look like they’ve never seen their slides before, or like they’ve forgotten what they had there; others are unable to explain their highly specialized research in a way that people can understand. One piece of advice I was given was that everyone should understand the basic idea of what you’re trying to accomplish, but there should be at least one brief time when only the expert in the room knows what you’re talking about; the idea behind that advice was to demonstrate both breadth and depth, and to show the ability to communicate. That’s a tall order for a single seminar, so practice a lot. If possible, you may also want to go to job talks while you’re in grad school, if your university is interviewing potential faculty members. Evaluate their talks, and ask yourself what they did well, and what you might want to do differently.


  • On a broad level, throughout your written materials, phone interviews, and how you present yourself at a campus interview, don’t be afraid to “brag” just a little. You don’t want to be obnoxious or pretentious, but don’t downplay the very real and awesome things you’ve done. You are good at what you do, and it’s important, and it’s OK to say so.

Good luck to all of you who are searching for academic jobs! Those of us in SWE-WIA look forward to having some of you joining us.


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