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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Getting a tenure-track position when “they all get 300+ applications”

It’s easy to get discouraged about a career in academia these days. Everywhere I look (but especially on social media), somebody is lambasting it. Don’t get me wrong, there are very real issues (off the top of my head: “work-life balance” [while I understand the sentiment, what a ridiculous term, implying that work isn’t part of life], very real diversity issues, decreasing funding support for basic scholarship and an increasing tendency for administrators to equate “success” with things that they can easily count). Not a trivial list, I acknowledge, but for people genuinely passionate about lifelong learning and inquiry, I maintain that it still may very well be their right calling. So, let’s say you’re realistic about the issues mentioned, still feel the tug, but now worry about an additional perceived hurdle, which appears to go something like this: “I heard from a friend of mine that a recent ad for a tenure-track position in ecology at University X received 320 applications. How will I ever get a position with those odds?” Before I go any further, I should mention that the impetus for this post was a series of tweets among a group of us (@hormiga, @skmorgane, @surt_lab, @TrevorABranch, @subsurface_life), triggered by Terry McGlynn noting that a ridiculously small number of people had applied for a tenure-track position they are currently advertising. Some of my comments (especially about numbers) will be most relevant to those in ecology, evolution or conservation biology, but hopefully the sentiments expressed have broader application.

Here, then, are some thoughts about the process of applying for positions. I won’t go so far as to call it a list or advice, but I hope reading it will allay the concerns of at least one potential applicant.

300+ applications: Maybe the biggest one to get out of the way. Does this number have any basis in reality? Yes, yes it does. I have it on good authority that broadly defined searches (e.g., “Tenure-track Position in Ecology”) at <insert your favourite leading institution here> (e.g., University of British Columbia for me) will approach or exceed these numbers. So, if you’re set on obtaining a faculty position in Canada (as I was, applying only once to an institution abroad [Leeds]), be prepared for stiff competition if you have your eye on UBC, McGill, University of Toronto, etc.

But, seriously, 300+ applications?: Umm, see above. Oh wait, I think I know what you’re asking. No, such numbers are nowhere near the norm. More importantly, that’s a bit of a “straw person” number: a fairly large proportion of them will be whittled away in the preliminary rounds. Why? Well, some people will apply for anything. A position at a great place will only inflate this by adding, for example, those who aren’t necessarily a bad fit but way too junior. Incidentally, if you make it through all the way through the process, some day you too will receive “Dear Sir/Madam” form letter “enquiries” about openings in your lab (might as well get this out of the way now: if they haven’t taken the time to personalize their inquiry, you shouldn’t feel a shred of guilt in deleting it without a reply).

So, how many are we talking about?: In my experience, a pool of 30-80 applications probably captures a pretty healthy proportion of job ads. In fact, I am sitting on a search committee right now, and I have a list of exactly 30 applications to go through. Think about that for a second: without *any* critical evaluation (that is, perhaps an admin person chucked an incomplete application or two), somebody is looking at 1-in-30 odds for a job *for life* in a progressive city (Mayor Nenshi, anybody?) located about an hour’s drive from absolute world-class beauty (yes, Canadian Rockies, that’s a shout-out to you). But, it gets better: I have yet to be part of a search committee (or been privy after the fact to the general proceedings of other search committees) that really struggled to come up with a “long” shortlist of <<20 applicants. The hardest part has typically been coming up with the shortlist of (typically) four candidates to bring onto campus for the interview.

Bottom line: Provided you are realistic about your background/abilities/desires, meaning that you are not always applying for “pie in the sky” positions, forget the horror stories and realize that your odds are way better than all that. I think David Baltrus summed it up best: “EVERYONE I know ready/searching for jobs eventually landed one N>30”. If you heed what I started off the last sentence with, then you will have supportive referees writing good letters for you and, more importantly, not minding doing that. I know there’s some concern about “overworking” your referees — personally, I’ll never tire of promoting a former member of my lab so long as they are realistic about what they are applying for. Where fatigue would set in is if there was a repeated mismatch between, say, area of expertise of the applicant and that of the position they were going for. That said, I’ve had them write me to the effect of “I know this one is a bit of a stretch, but we would so love to be back in <insert neck of woods here>”, in which case I will roll with it.

Is that all? No, but yes (for now). I know that just putting your hat in the ring is just one step in the whole process, but memory suggests others have written at length about application packages, how to prepare for phone interviews, navigating on-site interviews, negotiating offers, etc. so I didn’t go into any of that. If I get the sense that folks would like more discussion on any of those points, use the Comments box for that, and I’ll see what emerges. Thanks for reading, and best wishes with the job search!