Today I was perusing the recent issue of Physics Today, and read with interest a feature article on "Hunting for jobs at liberals arts colleges", by Suzanne Amador Kane and Kenneth Laws. There is much in this article that is applicable to any academic job search, including jobs at big research-focused universities.
First, a few things I disagreed with, as these come early in the article:
1."However good your PhD or postdoctoral mentor may be at research, the odds are that he or she knows relatively little about the small-college environment." In the first paragraph, the authors make the case that of 764 college physics departments in the U.S., 513 of them are at colleges or universities whose highest degree offered is the bachelor's. So.. doesn't it follow that quite a few graduate advisors and postdoc supervisors will have come from undergraduate-focused institutions? I realize that there are smaller numbers of physicists graduating from the undergraduate institutions, but even so, my impression is that graduates of small liberal arts colleges and other undergraduate institutions are legion in academia. I am one such SLAC graduate, and I am by no means rare or even in the minority.
2."Faculty positions at liberal arts institutions include a much more significant component of teaching and working with students than do similar jobs in research universities." OK, I know this is not a controversial statement, but it would be a mistake to assume that jobs at research universities do not involve substantial involvement in teaching and other educational activities (e.g., advising undergraduate students in research projects). In fact, I spend all of my weekday time on teaching or teaching-related activities (including graduate advising), and it is primarily at night and on weekends that I have time to do research (+ teaching preparation, grading, and such).
But let's focus on the excellent advice in this article for job applicants:
- In written statements and interview talks/discussions, show that you can articulate your research to a general audience. There will be opportunities to show how technically excellent and focused you are, but don't do this at the expense of showing breadth and awareness of the context of your research.
- Keep track of the materials/formats requested as part of the application, be concise in your cover letter and statements, and don't send a form letter. I have seen a surprising number of applications in which the applicant forgot to change University X to University Y. It's a detail (sort of) and everyone expects applicants to apply to multiple places, but it definitely undermines your message if you write a passionate paragraph about why you want to be at a different university than the one to which you are applying.
- A related point: tailor your cover letter to the specific place to which you are applying, and, if you interview, show that you spent some time learning about the place. This sounds straightforward, but there are some possible pitfalls:
- Don't dig too deep to learn about faculty and others. I have encountered a few interviewees who somehow learned my child's name and age, as well as other details of my career and life, and I just think that's weird. Another interviewee, who had no interest in sports, memorized the starting players and their statistics for the university basketball team. Don't be so insecure to think that there won't be anything of mutual interest that you can discuss with faculty and others.
- Don't treat the senior faculty with more respect than the junior faculty. This used to drive me crazy when I was an Assistant Professor. On more than one occasion, an interviewee would be obsequious to the senior faculty and administrators and patronizing to the junior faculty. Mistake. We all get a vote.
- Also: If you do a bit of research on a department, you won't make the semi-fatal error of assuming that a young-looking woman is a student (or secretary).
- And: I was going to write "Don't be a jerk at conferences if you are on the job market", but in fact, if you are a jerk, that's important information for prospective interviewers. Example: One year at a conference, I was at a social-professional event, and asked the organizer if there was anything to drink besides beer. He smirked and said to me "If you don't like beer, you should get out of here", then turned his back. When he arrived in my office a few weeks later as a candidate for a faculty position (I was on the search committee), he was very uncomfortable talking to me. I tried to put him at his ease, but the interview wasn't going well in general, so the whole thing was kind of unpleasant.
- And finally: It's fine to look into cost-of-living and other lifestyle issues, but I always think it's bizarre when interviewees have already contacted a realtor and selected neighborhoods and schools and such. There's plenty of time for that later, if you get an offer.
- Make sure your letter writers send their letters on time. Some of us write lots of letters of recommendation for lots of students, and it can be hard keeping track of deadlines and the nuances of different positions/schools. I don't mind if someone checks to see if I sent a letter or letters, and I don't mind polite reminders before a deadline. I like it best when I get an organized list of what letters have to be where when. If someone asks me "Can you send a letter to College X by December 1?", that's not enough. I need a copy of the job description and I need the address/email. If I'm writing 20+ letters for different students and different jobs, I am not going to go digging for the information myself.
- A related issue: I was recently concerned when a graduating Ph.D. student asked a research associate for a letter of recommendation instead of asking another faculty member. Junior scientists tend to take letter-writing very seriously, but, depending on the job/institution, the search committee might wonder why all the letters weren't from faculty. Maybe in some cases it's better to have a substantial positive letter from a postdoc, as opposed to a one-line letter from a Nobel laureate (<-- this really happened), but in general, get letters from faculty if at all possible. I have read about 150 letters of reference just this week, so I have more opinions on this issue for a later post.
- The CV: Don't list manuscripts that are "in preparation" -- no one will be impressed. Don't mix citations of abstracts/conference presentations with those for peer-reviewed articles. Put the peer-reviewed articles first. My personal preferences is for the most recent at the top, and then reverse chronological order.
- Whether you're interviewing at a small college or big university, ask to meet with students. You learn a lot about a place from talking to students, and having lunch or an informal discussion with students might well be the most fun part of your interview.
It is too bad that the article doesn't deal more with dual-career couple issues. Instead, the authors refer readers to a 1999 article in Physics Today. There is a website associated with this article, but some of the links are dead and/or useless, with some exceptions.
And finally: After an interview, send a brief follow-up letter to the relevant people (search committee chair and/or dept chair and/or search committee and/or others) to emphasize your interest, and to note any updates in your files (new publications, thoughts based on your interview and interactions with students and others). Don't be too schmoozy and uber-grateful - be succinct and sincere and professional.
That's a lot of information, but most of it is common sense stuff.
2 months ago