Every day, another essay lands on the virtual doorstep, detailing the challenges facing academia and decrying the “failed system.” Some essays offer solutions, others prognosticate doom. After all of the essays and after the majority of a decade (or more) spent in the reality of academia, do you still want to be a professor? I’m here to give you a primer on how to do it—or at least correct some common misconceptions about the process.
How do you know? Having recently started a tenure-track job myself, and having been exposed to the world of the hiring committee, some fellow scientists have come to me for advice before they head to the academic job market.
Can it be done? Professor has joined the list of jobs, along with astronaut, race car driver, and movie star, that fall into a lonely category: “no one” has a hope of landing such a job, and yet the world still has astronauts, race car drivers, movie stars, and yes, even professors. (I exaggerate a bit for comic effect here, but the truth is that, in spite of the bad odds, tenure-track positions do still exist. Put it in the category of “tough but possible.”)
Is applying worth it? If being faculty is your dream, this might be a no-brainer. But the process of applying, even if you don’t wind up applying, is extrinsically valuable: it forces you to assemble your credentials and consider the aspects of teaching, research, and administration that matter most to you.
When do I start? There are two answers: If you see academia in your future, consider every day and every action as part of your application package. Elegant papers and studious lab work will be part of that application, but so will experience mentoring younger students, participating in committees, and networking at conferences. It’s also never too early to start building relationships with senior faculty who could someday write letters of recommendation; this means going beyond just your advisor and thesis committee. No matter your age, if you see academia in your future, focus your efforts on the skills and achievements expected of a candidate.
From an immediate standpoint, the academic application “season” typically begins in late summer and continues through the fall and early winter. From senior faculty, I’ve sometimes heard the goal: “Have your application done in April for applying in September.” I’ve typically understood this to mean that the time between “finishing” the application in April and applying in September should be spent improving it and seeking advice on research and personal statements. From a more practical standpoint, beginning in May and working consistently over the course of the summer typically works well.
What materials do I prepare? First and foremost, keep your curriculum vitae up to date; try to update it at least once per semester. Remember, there’s more to a great CV than papers. By assembling your CV, you have an opportunity to think on what aspects of your credentials seem thin. Not enough awards? Not enough papers? Not enough mentoring? These questions become a lot easier to answer when the whole list is assembled.
In addition, you’ll prepare statements describing your teaching philosophy and your research plans, as well as college and graduate school transcripts. (More about those in a bit.)
Though you won’t be writing them yourself, you’ll also want to find faculty who are familiar with you and your achievements and can recommend you. That will often mean not only writing letters, but also potentially speaking on the phone with members of the search committee.
How do I prepare? Now that you know what you need to be preparing, go forth and seek advice. I’ll offer some here, but it’s well worth your time to speak to not only faculty, but also other graduate students and post-docs who are hunting for faculty jobs themselves. Part of success comes in synthesizing the wisdom of a multitude of sometimes-contradictory sources. In the realm of more codified advice, the AAAS’s science careers site offers a great set of straightforward advice for academic job searching and job getting.
To go with these resources, I’ll offer a bit of my own advice: in writing your materials, be specific—not in the sense of scientifically over-detailed, but rather in the sense of making your documents specific to the job for which you’re applying. The teaching philosophy of someone aiming for a position at an R01 school will likely be very different from that of a candidate aiming for a position at a small liberal arts college. (And the research statement will be thoroughly different between the two.) Show that you’ve considered the details of the position you want.
What happens next? It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that nothing else happens. Maybe you don’t quite get around to sending your materials in this year, or maybe this just isn’t the year. As a tool for figuring out your future direction, preparing your application is still fantastically useful.
But “next” might mean a phone interview and, eventually, an on-site interview. If you’re lucky enough to move forwards with the process, remember: your application package gets your foot in the door, but the interview gets you the job. Once a hiring committee is satisfied that you’re qualified for the job, your challenge is to convince them that you possess the ineffable qualities that can’t be represented in a CV—and that you’re the person they want as coworker. Another hint: part of interviewing well is being able to talk conversationally about your project and your interests. I personally like to offer a standing invitation to buy lunch for anyone who will discuss a paper (of their choice) with me.
And though I’m sure it goes without saying, interviewing means presenting a professional appearance, too: Get a haircut. Wear a suit. Make sure you can walk comfortably in your dress shoes all day. Be the person they want to hire.
So that’s it? Applying is a challenging and time-consuming process; I don’t mean the brevity of this article to imply otherwise. Ultimately, it’s a process (in part) of self-discovery.
Adam Hill graduated from UC Berkeley in 2013. He is currently Assistant Professor of Chemistry at St. Lawrence University, a small liberal arts college in northern New York. He is the blog editor emeritus of the Berkeley Science Review, and co-author of the photography blog Decaseconds.