On making the short list, and rising to the top after

It’s been a while since I wrote to dispel the myth that “all faculty positions get hundreds of applications” and thought I’d follow up on that post with some “Do’s and Don’ts” with regard to your application package and on-site interview. As always, take my comments with a grain of salt and keep in mind that adhering to all of the Do’s does not guarantee success nor does ignoring any or all of the Don’ts necessarily mean you will not be successful. Also, if all/most of these items seem like no-brainers, that’s great — I would tend to agree but for the fact that I’ve seen most of these (I cannot evaluate the “be honest” item and the comment about dialogue after the interview is largely a matter of choice) ignored with ill effect at one point or another during a span of ~ 20 years of paying attention to academic interviews and ~ 13 years of participating in them (either as interviewee or job search committee member). It’s probably best if you view my comments in the light of trying to make favourable impressions that keep you in the race rather than as sure-fire solutions to getting the job.

Thoughts on application packages

Do list your publications early in your CV. From experience, if I have to hunt for them, that’s not a good sign for your final prospects. If you have a robust set of quality contributions, highlight them by listing them up front! If not, well, burying them on the fourth page will only make it worse. Also… while a ‘significant’ social media presence, presenting at conferences, and rescuing kittens in your spare time are all potentially good things (although, only the second item has figured in deliberations about candidates that I have been part of thus far), I have yet to see them substitute for a solid set of peer-reviewed publications in respected journals. You can also help yourself by maintaining an up-to-date Google Scholar page (or ResearchGate, GitHub, etc.)* and including a link to that page on your CV. *Yes, even if you have a page on your current post-doc advisor’s site — never too early to convey that you’re (ready to start) spreading your wings.

Don’t try to “sneak in” theses and works ‘in progress’ as peer-reviewed publications. Not saying you shouldn’t list them in your CV, but they absolutely need to go in a separate section *after* your in-press (with proof; so, list the manuscript ID number) and published peer-reviewed publications.

Do think carefully about your referees. I’ve always had mixed feelings about reference letters — can’t tell you how many job and scholarship applicants routinely get called “the best student/trainee ever” — but one thing is clear: while a glowing reference letter will not win you a position on its own, an impersonal one can really sink you. I find it reminiscent of the famous Red Queen quote, in that stellar reference letters largely serve to keep you in the race (as opposed to vaulting you to the finish line), whereas a poor/impersonal/etc. one is like blowing a tire on the penultimate lap of Le Mans.

Don’t leave off your PhD advisor. Unless you have really, really good reasons for doing so and you’re pretty certain your other referees will provide supporting statements in their letters, be sure to get a reference letter from your PhD advisor. Sure, your current collaborators may should say glowing things about you, but letters from them to the exclusion of previous advisors will raise a red flag.

Do submit the most complete & personalized application package you can. Unless you’re forced to apply through a specific gateway with very strict file requirements (side note: I hate those things — recently, I was asked to provide a reference letter with very draconian character limits… who the hell does that serve?), give serious thought to submitting most or all of: a carefully composed & personalized cover letter, nicely formatted CV, a research statement, a teaching statement, and PDF copies of (up to five of) your most significant contributions. Search committee members can ignore what they want in your file, but have a much harder time evaluating what isn’t there. Of course, this means that you need to have thought carefully about the significance of your research and where it is going, what your teaching philosophy is, etc. but, then again, you are applying for a position that you might hold until you retire, so surely you have thought about these things, right?

Thoughts on the interview process

(note: there is so much one can say [and has already been said] about this; what follows are just a few things that rise to the surface for me)

Do your homework before you show up. I am simply shocked by the number of times candidates have shown up for an interview and appear to not. know. a. single. @#$%. thing. about the place. Questions such as “which of our courses would you be interested in contributing to?”, “who do you see collaborating with?”, “what grants do you expect you would apply to?” should not all be met with “I hadn’t looked into that.” If you cannot be bothered to grab a coffee, open a web browser and spend a couple of hours learning about the Department, Faculty, University, etc., do you think you’re going to convince a single soul that you’re somebody they should hire? That said, we understand that you probably won’t know everything about the place, so don’t bluff about things you’re in the dark about and don’t hesitate to consult handwritten notes when asked these things, but… yeah, may as well save everybody the hassle and not hop on the plane if you forego the homework part.

Do be honest. Let’s say you heard good things about the place, did your homework, etc. but halfway through the interview you realize that it just won’t work for you — maybe the facilities are incredibly dated, the teaching load is higher than you’d thought it would be from the ad, city/province/country rubs you the wrong way once there, etc. — you owe it to yourself not to take the position. It can be hard to keep this in mind when your post-doc funding is coming to an end, but you won’t be doing anybody (especially yourself) any favours in the long run by accepting a position you aren’t excited by.

Don’t forget that you are simultaneously interviewee and interviewer. Following on the last two points, keep in mind that you are interviewing them as well. If all works out, you may have this position for life (scary thought, hey?), so make sure it works for you/there are no surprises going in. So, bring lots of questions and make sure you like the answers you get. Don’t hesitate to pose the same important questions more than once, say to the Dean and also to the interview committee during the final meeting. Of course, these shouldn’t be questions that cover for a lack of preparation, but ones that really let you decide if this is the place you want to work at (provided they also want you, natch).

Don’t ever let your guard down. Huh? What I mean is: the interview starts the moment somebody picks you up at the airport, train station, bus depot, your hotel room, etc. and ends only after you finally leave campus, get dropped offed at the airport, etc. Think of every interaction you have during that two or so day span as being part of the interview. So, yes, be honest (see two points above) while being mindful of what you say and do the whole time. I’ve heard of very strong candidates take considerable damage because were dismissive in their interactions with graduate students during a pizza lunch, and downright crash out after getting loaded at dinner (and subsequently think it was OK to urinate in public while waiting for the evening’s transportation to arrive). We all have our own tolerances, so I will only say to be extremely cautious when it comes to wine/beer/spirits over dinner — in my case, I would typically have one beer or one glass of wine and then switch to water for the remainder of the evening. As for lunch, I passed even when somebody else indulged.

Don’t necessarily stop the dialogue after leaving campus. If you really enjoyed your experience, thought it went well and would be stoked to be offered the position, it’s OK to send an email to the members of the search committee thanking them for the opportunity, etc. Arrive home to an email saying that a manuscript was just accepted? Don’t hesitate to forward that news to the committee.

Happy for your feedback, and hope this helps at least one person hunting for a tenure-track position!


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