November 27, 2014
The faculty market (Advice to young scholars, part 1 of 4)
These notes are an adapted summary of the the 1st of 4 professional development panels for young scholars, as part of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) Mathematics Research Community (MRC) on Network Science, held in June 2014. Their focus was on mathematics, computer science, and networks, but many of the comments generalize to other fields. [1,2]
Panel 1. The Academic Job Market
Opening remarks: The faculty hiring process is much more personal than the process to get into grad school. Those who are interviewing you are evaluating whether you should be a coworker for the rest of their careers! The single most-important thing about preparing to apply for faculty jobs is to have a strong CV for the type of job you're applying for. If you're on the tenure-track, that nearly always means being able to show good research productivity for your field (publications) and having them be published in the right places for your field.
- Where did you find job postings? Where did you search?
It depends on the type of job and the field. For math: AMS weekly mailings, back of SIAM news. For physics: the back of Physics Today. For computer science: CRA.org/jobs, Communications of the ACM. For liberal arts colleges: chronicle vitae. In general: mathjobs.org, academicjobs.org, and ask your supervisor(s) or coauthors.
- When do you apply?
The U.S. market is, for the most part, seasonal. The seasonality differs by field. Biology searches may start in September, with interviews in November and December. Math and computer science tend to have applications due in November, December, and maybe even January. In the U.K., institutions tend to hire whenever, regardless of season. Timing for interdisciplinary positions may be a little strange. It is worth figuring out 6 months ahead of time what the usual timeline is for your field.
- What kind of department should you apply to?
If you're in department X, you will be expected to teach courses in department X. (At most institutions, you will teach a mixture of undergraduate and graduate-level courses, but not always within your research speciality.) It may be better to have your publications match the departments to which you apply; for instance, if you're interested in jobs in math departments, you should be publishing in the SIAM journals. You should also get letter writers in that field, since their name will be more recognizable to the hiring committee (and thus carry more weight).
- What should you put in a cover letter?
The cover letter is the first (and sometimes only) thing the hiring committee sees. In some fields, the cover letter is 1 full page of text and serves as a complete abstract of your application packet (i.e., it describes your preparation, major research areas and achievements, and intended future research agenda). If you have a specific interest in a department / location, say it in the cover letter (e.g., "I have family living in X and want to be close to them") since this signals to the hiring committee that you're genuinely interested in their institution. Also, mention the people in the department whom you would like to look at your application. Mention a few specific things about the individual advertisement (no one likes to feel spammed). Finally, the cover letter is your one chance to explain anything that might look like a red flag to the committee.
- What should you put in a teaching statement?
At research universities, teaching statements are usually the last thing that is read. For junior-level positions, their contents often cannot help your changes, but a bad statement can hurt them. At liberal arts / teaching colleges, a compelling teaching statement is very important.
- What about letters of recommendation?
Letters of recommendation are the second most important thing in your packet (the most important being your publication record). The best letters are those that can state firmly that you are in the top whatever percent of students or postdocs. Their description of you is the most important, and their own fame is second. There are some cultural differences between the U.K., U.S., and other places in terms of how glowing they will be. An excited letter from an unknown writer is more important than a mediocre letter from a famous person. The absence of a letter from a PhD or postdoc advisor will be interpreted as a red flag.
- Are software and blogs good or bad?
Sometimes good, sometimes not. Don't do these things at the cost of your own research. If you have specific reasons for doing these things, emphasize them in your research statement as "sweeteners" to your strong publication record. For tenure-track faculty jobs, these things generally cannot compensate for a poor or mediocre publication record. The research itself is the most important thing.
- How does the hiring committee work?
At most institutions today, the ratio of candidates to faculty jobs is roughly 100:1. At major research institutions, about 60% of those candidates are not competitive to begin with; it's the other 40% you have to beat. This means the hiring committee has an enormous job to do just to narrow the pool to the 10-20% or so that they'll scrutinize closely. Your goal is to make it into that group, so that your star qualities can be properly noticed.
A common strategy that hiring committees take is to progressively pay more attention to a progressively smaller pool. Your goal is to get through the first few waves of filtering until you can get a serious look by the committee. Two very common reasons a candidate is dropped from the pool during these early evaluations are (i) their area of research is not a good match to the areas of interest in the search (including not looking like the kind of candidate the committee thinks they want, e.g., because their work appears in unusual places), and (ii) their research productivity is not good enough (usually controlled for time since PhD). Both are subjective criteria and vary by search. In general, the more prestigious your PhD, the more prestigious your publication venues, and the more prestigious your letter writers, the better you will fare.
- What about the interview itself?
Usually 1-2 days of intense, back-to-back meetings with faculty, plus a meeting with a group of graduate students, plus 1-2 dinners with faculty, plus a job talk (about your research), and sometimes also a "teaching talk." In your job talk, you need to convince them of why they should hire someone doing exactly the research you're doing. Make the audience excited. Make it related to things they know about. Be sure to look at the webpage of every person that might be in the room. Be sure to ask for your meeting schedule in advance, and then read up a little about each person you will meet.
- "Exploding offers" (offers that expire after a few weeks) may be used by lower-tier institutions when trying to hire a person likely to have offers from higher-tier institutions. But, deadlines are often negotiable. Play nice. It's often not malicious, but rather just to proceed quickly down the ranked list of candidates. Moreover, if you turn it down in a friendly conversation, you may be able to negotiate a "if you are still interested in me in a month, please let me know."
- During the year before you apply, figure out what departments you'll be applying to, and be sure to have some publications and talks at major conferences for that type of field or department.
- Don't pad your CV. Put all preprint and in-prep publications in a separate, clearly-labelled section. CV readers will look at your PhD, your research interests, and then your publications. Awards (e.g. Best Paper) and high quality venues are more important than quantity.
- You could email people at the target department(s) saying "Here's a paper, btw: I'll be applying soon." If you're uncomfortable with that, your advisor could do it.
- If you are applying to a lower tier school than your pedigree, tailor the application well. You must send a very strong signal that you are serious. (Otherwise, they may not even interview you.)
 Panelists were Mason Porter (Oxford), David Kempe (Southern California), and me (the MRC organizers), along with an ad hoc assortment of individuals from the MRC itself, as per their expertise. The notes were compiled by MRC participants, and I then edited and expanded upon them for clarity and completeness, and to remove identifying information. Notes made public with permission.
 Here is a complete copy of the notes for all four panels (PDF).