Interviewing for research positions is challenging, and when it’s for a job at a university, the process can be lengthy and the competition fierce. Some jobs for which I applied reported receiving 60 to 160 applications for a single opening. When it comes to highly coveted positions, like tenure-track faculty jobs, the slow reduction in research funding and ever-increasing pool of PhDs can result in up to 400 applications per opening. One faculty member eloquently provided stats on their job search, which involved more than 100 applications over two years. I applied to a mere 22 jobs over a period of seven months (just counting the 2016-2017 season), but the lengthy process generated plenty of questions from family and friends who were dismayed by the slow trickle of news.
The Search Committee
The job posting needs to be carefully crafted. While most academic positions are looking for candidates with specific skills or research backgrounds, many faculty positions are open-ended so that a wide variety of candidates may apply. Any required elements of the job, such as teaching specific courses, advising, or extension activities, are often explicitly stated in the posting. Once funding for a job position and a post has been approved, the search officially opens. A search committee is formed, which is comprised of several members of the department, and perhaps members of other, closely related departments at the university. They may aid in the drafting of a job posting, but will be in charge of reviewing every application, selecting candidates for and performing preliminary and full interviews, following up on references, and making final recommendations.
Applications require a Curriculum Vitae, which lists your education and other professional training, all the positions you have held, professional memberships you belong to, certifications, awards, publications, public presentations, courses taught, career development activities, students you have mentored, and any other skills that might be relevant. Some applications require official transcripts, and all require letters of reference. These may need to be provided at the time of the application, or may be requested later by the committee when you have been added to the short-list of potential candidates. Your letters of reference not only confirm the skills you have claimed in your application, but they provide a glimpse into what it is like to work with you, so it’s best to pick someone who knows you well.
The brunt of the academic application is several essays that detail your experience, philosophy, and vision for each aspect of the job in question. Some universities limit these to one to three pages each, but others allow you the freedom of word count. Typically, you must provide a Statement of Research and a Statement of Teaching, and some may request Statements of Mentoring, or Diversity.
The Statement of Research asks you to detail previous work, the skills you have acquired, and important contributions your research has made. Here, you outline your experience in obtaining grants, or your plan to obtain them in the future, as well as describe the work you would like to perform at the university and the lab members you would like to bring in (undergraduates, graduates, technicians, postdocs). Outlining your proposed research can be tricky, as you want to add your expertise to the ongoing departmental research, but without being redundant or too novel. That might seem counter-intuitive, but if a department doesn’t have the equipment or funding to support your research, or similar researchers that can provide a research support network, it may be difficult for you to perform your work there.
Similarly, the Statement of Teaching asks you to explain in detail your previous teaching experience, and your philosophy of how courses should be developed to improve student learning, incorporate current research or hands-on experience into the curriculum, and use technology to increase student engagement. Here you can suggest courses that you would like to develop or take over teaching, based on your knowledge base, if the position involves teaching.
Additional Statements may be requested to provide specific information on your philosophy of mentoring students, especially your Statement of Diversity for training new graduate students, or recruiting minority students to science and providing career development opportunities to underrepresented demographics. The cherry on top is the cover letter that summarizes why you want the job and why you are the best choice.
Applications may be solicited for several weeks or months, and some accept applications on a rolling basis until the position is filled. You will receive a notification, usually automatic, that your application has been received by the system, and perhaps another one to notify you that the review has begun. Otherwise, you have little communication unless you are selected for the short-list or the position has been filled. I have waited more than 6 months to hear back about an application before.
It’s time to meet our first three eligible candidates…
The short-list is a subset of applicants, several or several dozen perhaps, that the committee would like to have a phone or video interview with, typically lasting 15 to 60 minutes. Depending on the number of applications received and when the job posting closed in relation to the end of the semester, you may not hear about a preliminary interview until several months after you have applied. Questions requiring detailed answers are often provided in advance, but otherwise, preliminary interview questions usually ask you to reiterate what you might have put in your application: why you want the job, whether you have experience working collaboratively, where you see yourself in five years, etc. These questions may probe your interpersonal skills, such as whether have you managed others, or whether you have dealt with academic conflicts. Having been through a number of tele-interviews, I can say that they are more difficult than they seem. You have a brief time in which to make an impression, and it can be difficult to read a room which you can’t see.
From the short-list, two to four candidates are selected for full, in-person interviews, which are scheduled as soon after the phone interviews as possible. These are complicated to schedule, as they are one to two full days for which the candidate and most members of the department need to be available. You are required to present a seminar of your research, both past and future. Depending on the position, you may be required to present a teaching seminar as an example of your style, or perhaps a “chalk-talk” where the committee can ask you questions on potential grants or experimental designs. You will also have one-on-one interviews with university faculty and staff that you may be working with, tours of the research facilities, and a chance to tour the university. From experience, even when the interview goes perfectly, they are exhausting. For two days straight you are talking about yourself, your work, your ideas, other people’s work, and potential collaborations. You are listening attentively, trying to give the best impression possible, and eating meals as quickly as possible while still talking about yourself and hoping you don’t have food stuck in your teeth.
Only once all the selected candidates have been interviewed will the search committee deliberate. They solicit impressions and opinions from everyone you met- faculty, staff, graduate students, technicians, as well as from your professional references. They will decide if a candidate is ineligible for an offer for any reason, and rank the eligible candidates. They will then make recommendations to the department chair or administrator, who will decide whether to extend an offer.
When a job offer is first made, it is a non-binding offer. Negotiations then take place until both parties are satisfied, and a written, contractual offer will be offered. University positions have salary ranges by hiring level and experience, and a certain, somewhat unknown, amount of additional funding available for other benefits like relocation, computers, or basic research materials. Tenure-track or other high-level research positions in the STEM fields typically come with start-up funds, which provide initial funding to buy equipment and lab materials, or fund lab personnel to get you started on pilot studies that can be leveraged for grant funding.
This is the most delicate phase because this is your best chance to determine your salary, your title, and the specifics of your job requirements. For example, you can use this opportunity to discuss when and how much you will be asked to teach, what your start date is, whether the department will reserve a teaching or research assistantship so that you may offer it to a new graduate student, and other non-specific benefits. If you have multiple offers, you might ask one to meet the benefits proffered by another. On the other hand, universities only have so much they can offer you, regardless of how much they like you. Remember, you aren’t out to “win”, you are out to satisfactorily arrange a contract with the people you will soon be working with- both parties need to be pleased with the offer. If an agreement can’t be reached, or if you accept a different offer, the second-ranked candidate will be offered the job, and so on.
Nothing is finalized until both parties have agreed to terms, a background check has been completed, and the contract is signed. From application to contract, the process may take 6 to 12 months, and it may be a further several months before you officially begin, which is a long time to provide vague answers to eager questions from friends and family. On top of that, most interviews are semi-confidential: you are not supposed to know who the other candidates are, so it is bad form to ask about them or for the department to discuss them with you, even after you have accepted the job. And, most applicants keep their interviews quiet until they have a job offer. For one thing, it’s not worth getting everyone’s hopes up for every application. For another, you don’t want a prospective job to pass you over because it looks like you are going to accept another offer, as candidate searches are expensive to conduct and occasionally don’t lead to a hire (failed search). There is also the potential for an uncomfortable situation to arise at your current job when they know you are leaving, although the pervasive search for job security and work-life balance in academia means most people sympathize with your search for the right job.
I choose… Candidate #3!
In the end, much of it comes down to luck: the right department needs to be looking for a candidate like you and have their hiring line approved, you need to find their posting, you need to craft an application that appeals to them while representing your interests and goals, and you have little to no idea who else might be applying. Often jobs will be posted at an open hiring level to attract a wider variety of candidates, so you might be applying at the lower hiring end but are competing with people who have years more experience than you do. And it’s important to remember that everyone in science has a large amount of technical training – we are all fantastic candidates and that makes it difficult to choose only one of us.
Since departments or fields don’t relist open positions predictably, most research job hunters will apply to jobs in their field to cover your bases, as well as several closely related fields (for me, it was animal science, microbiology, molecular genetics, microbiomes, bioinformatics, and any combination of those words); you are afraid to lose a whole year because you didn’t apply to enough postings. This increases the applicant pool size, and provides departments with interesting research directions to take the potential hire in; sometimes you don’t know what kind of candidate you want until you meet them. Moreover, you don’t really know if you will fit with a university, department, or research team until you have had some time to interact with them during the interview. Really, applying for a job in academia is a lot like dating. Some people go on many first date interviews, some on very few, in order to find the right match. Either way, it’s fun to play the game, but to win you need to ‘make a start date’.
Featured Image modified from The Dating Game show logo.