On the breadth of faculty job applications

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Faculty job application season is building. If you’re applying for jobs, how much time are you going to invest into the process, and how many applications will you be sending out?

The process can be a lot of work. Last year, Jeremy Yoder made an infographic showing what it took for him to land his current position up the road at Cal State Northridge, which involved 112 applications over the course of two years. Here are some unordered thoughts about how you might increase yield relative to effort.

-Before you go about this whole process, develop an idea of your priorities and what you want, and what you’re willing to accept. Are there dealbreakers when it comes to geography or institution type?

-Are you applying to some jobs with the idea that they’d be “starter” faculty jobs? This strategy sometimes doesn’t turn out so well. It’s totally fine to change jobs of course, but applying to a job with the notion that you’ll be unhappy if you fail to trade “up” can be a bad idea.

-If you’re not sure about the kind of institution that you might want to work in, put in some effort to figure this out before you start applying for jobs. Ideally this means that you learn about the jobs that you might think you don’t want, as well as the ones you think you want. Because you don’t want to miss out on applying for jobs that could be great for you.

-Consider that some openings will get way more applications than others. Factors that will affect the number of applications include: 1) geographical favorability, 2) prestige, 3) teaching load, and 4) the breadth of the academic field. So an ad from a prestigious university on the coast with a low teaching load that isn’t picky about the speciality will generate a metric ton of applicants. On the other hand, a non-prestigious teaching-focused institution, in a remote area where nobody would ever consider vacationing, that wants a someone in a narrow specialty, will not attract many applicants. If you’re only applying to jobs that generate huge numbers of applicants, you’re limiting your chances. Believe it or not, there are some great tenure-track faculty jobs that generate a mere handful of applicants — and some of those applicants aren’t even qualified! I’m just sayin’, consider the odds.

-It’s only worth your while to apply if you’ve taken the time to read up about the institution and the department, and substantially customize your application to address the specific demands of a particular position. Sure, you can increase the number of jobs that you apply to by having a single set of materials, but you’ll be decreasing your yield. For example, if you’re applying for job in my department and you send us the same materials that could land you an interview a big research university, then I’m here to tell you it’s not even worth your time, because you wouldn’t even make the first cut. On the other hand, if you show how your research can fit our department and our students, that you know the courses in our catalog and which ones you can teach, and communicate an understanding of our university’s mission, then you probably will avoid the first cut.

-Having been a student at a liberal arts college gives you almost no insight into what it would be like to be a professor at a small liberal arts college. If anything, it might give you a mistaken notion. It would help to go visit some of these campuses as a peer of the faculty and ask them about their jobs — before you craft your application. You’ll learn so much about things that were entirely off your radar as an undergrad.

-This should seem obvious, but only apply for jobs if there’s a nonzero probability that you’ll accept the job. It’s okay to apply for a job with the notion that you might not want it — that’s what interviews are for! But if you are confident that you would never ever take the job (for whatever reason, including geography, religion, institution type), don’t apply. It’s not a good use of your time (or anybody else’s), if you apply with the notion that you’d get interview practice or to get an offer that you would solely intend to use for counteroffer leverage. This is not only sleazy and overmanipulative, but also the odds of this actually helping you in some way are pretty low.

-It’s not good that a lot of ads ask for letters of recommendation at the initial application phase, but please don’t let this limit how many applications you are doing. When we agreed to be your letter-writer, we knew what we were getting into. You don’t have to apologize for asking us to write so many letters. It’s our job.

-Don’t be too dissuaded by the speciality listed in a job ad. These job descriptions are often forged in compromise in a meeting among faculty and it’s quite possible the department isn’t entirely sure what it wants or needs, and won’t know until they are sifting through applications. (It’s also possible they have a highly specific set of needs, and won’t consider anybody else outside that set of needs, but it’s almost impossible to tell the difference based on the job ad.) So if you think you’re a good fit for a department in a lot of ways but you specialty is a bit off, go ahead and apply anyway. Sure, it might get tossed right away, but on the other hand, if it’s a job that you think you’d really like, well, then it might not be.

-Don’t be dissuaded by open rank positions. In the eyes of search committees, potential is very attractive, and open rank searches frequently end up with brand new Assistant Professors, who got the job over senior faculty.  Senior faculty often apply for these jobs not because they want them, but because they’re looking for a raise or resources back at home. So these jobs often go to junior folks as a result.

-Getting it in before the deadline matters, but getting it in early doesn’t matter. Because most folks don’t really look at apps until they’re all in. (If you’ve missed the deadline, you could call the department admin assistant to see if it’s still worth your while.)

What did I miss?

11 thoughts on “On the breadth of faculty job applications

  1. Thanks for this article, to which I will refer my job-hunting students/mentees. I want to especially emphasize the “Don’t be too dissuaded by the specialty listed in the job ad”. A recent PhD advisee is starting a new tenure-track faculty job at a teaching institution, where the job ad originally indicated a very different branch of applied physics. He called them up, described his background, they encouraged him to apply, and he landed the job!

  2. Nice post, this is all very good advice.

    I’d emphasize that, when thinking about your “dealbreakers”, you want to be damn sure they are dealbreakers. I was really hesitant to take a postdoc in the UK, because it would mean moving to another country an ocean away from family and friends. But I did it, and loved it. I think it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live anywhere you haven’t visited, unless perhaps you’ve previously lived somewhere very similar nearby.

    I think I might give slightly different advice on the degree to which applicants should customize their application materials. I’d advise customizing to the type of institution, but not bothering with much if any customization to the specific institution. For instance, back when I was applying for jobs I had different materials for liberal arts colleges and big research universities. But my application to, say, Oberlin was substantively identical to my application to, say, Williams. I take it you’d recommend rather more customization to the specific institution?

    Here’s what I’d add:

    -don’t worry if you don’t have any previous connection to the institution to which you’re applying, or even that you’ve never even met anyone there. That puts you in exactly the same boat as the vast majority of applicants, and the vast majority of new hires in ecology.

    -Related to the previous bullet: don’t worry about the possibility that some other applicant has a leg up on you by virtue of having some current or previous connection to the hiring institution (currently a postdoc there; did their PhD there; did their undergrad there; has a current collaborator there; whatever). That possibility may loom large in your anxious brain but it is extremely rare in the real world.

    -Don’t assume that you need a PhD from a prestigious institution to apply for a faculty position at a prestigious institution. You don’t in ecology (in some scholarly fields, you do, but not in life science fields. Faculty hiring in life sciences is not “hierarchical” in that way.)

    -Don’t think you need a paper in Science/Nature/PNAS to be competitive for a faculty position at a research university. You don’t. The majority of new faculty hires in ecology don’t have Science/Nature/PNAS papers, not even if you restrict attention to new hires at research universities.

    -Don’t assume you “have” to have previously been a VAP in order to be competitive for a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college. The vast majority of new faculty hires in ecology were postdocs prior to being hired, even if you restrict attention to new hires at liberal arts colleges.

    -the common theme of all of the above is: don’t try to guess how competitive you’ll be for a faculty position you might want. Because you can’t guess that, not with nearly enough precision to be useful (and you’ll just make yourself anxious and sad by trying). Think you might want the job? Apply for it.

  3. Jeremy, to answer the question of customization, I think there two levels. The first is to have a different materials for (say) Oberlin, than for (say) Ohio State, than for (say) Cleveland State.

    The second is to customize for a particular institution. This is what I was thinking of. For example, in the teaching statement for Oberlin, a short paragraph about what you can teach and might be able to teach for their particular curriculum. Something like, “I am well qualified to teach Biology 128, 129, 250, 330, and I already have taught a General Biology course similar to Biology 104. I would be interested in developing new classes in Insect Biology or Biogeography, or perhaps Climate Change Ecology, if these courses would meet departmental needs.” And a research statement can make specific reference to field sites in the area or a field station run by the campus. I don’t think it should be cloying or stretch for credibility, but if it’s a natural connection, it would make sense to mention it.

    I know in our search committee, it made a huge difference when the teaching statement showed that our candidates had actually read the courses that we offer (and noticed the ones we don’t), and remarked on which ones they can teach, the ones they wanted to teach, and how their expertise fits into our strengths and weaknesses.

    • Thank you for the clarification Terry, interesting.

      So, thinking back to my own teaching statement back when I was applying for assistant professor jobs, I had a boilerplate statement on what courses I could teach that wasn’t customized to individual institutions. I just listed the broad topics on which I felt I was well-qualified to teach courses. Something like “I am well qualified to teach courses in general biology, general ecology, biostatistics, population and community ecology, and evolutionary ecology.” And if the ad listed specific courses that the successful applicant would be expected to teach or develop, I’d add a sentence addressing my ability to teach those specific courses. But except for responding to anything specific in the ad what I didn’t do (as far as I recall; it was a long time ago…) was to go through the course catalog in order to identify specific courses I felt able to teach or develop. IIRC, I only used to do that if invited to interview.

      Reflecting on this, I feel like my boilerplate statement conveyed most or all of the same information about what courses I could teach as a statement of the form you suggest. Like, a search committee member could read my statement and think “Ok, that means he can teach BIOL 101 (intro bio), 203 (general ecology), 215 (biostats I), 331 (biostats II), and 413 (community ecology), and he could develop a new population ecology course.” But your suggested statement also demonstrates to the search committee that the applicant has already read the course catalog, whereas my boilerplate statement suggests that I hadn’t. Does that make my biolerplate statement worse, from your perspective as a search committee member? When you say that, as a search committee member, you really like it when applicants identify the specific courses in your catalog that they could teach (or specific courses they could develop), is that in part because you see it as an “honest signal” of their level of interest in working at your specific institution, and/or of how well they’d “fit in” if hired?

      My question here is perhaps a fairly hair-splitting one. But it’s interesting to me. I have the sense that this is something on which search committee members vary. Now I’m mulling over a poll on this. Asking applicants about the level of specificity in their applications, and people who’ve sat on search committees about the level of specificity they prefer to see.

  4. As someone who has served on multiple search committees, ABSOLUTELY read the individual university/department’s catalog/course listing and do your “due diligence” about the specific courses and even which courses are required/optional for different majors (such as an Ecology major within a Biological Sciences department). Preferably even find out which courses there will be a specific need to teach- for example, if the open faculty position is to replace a limnologist who taught some very specific aquatic ecology courses, or perhaps someone who was the only entomologist in the department, the person who makes it demonstrably clear on their application they could step right in and teach those courses, would have an edge. At a minimum, it (theoretically) signals they’re serious enough about the institution that they went to the effort to learn specifically about it and the department… other than it being a liberal arts college in Ohio.
    When you write, “Does that make my biolerplate (sic) statement worse, from your perspective as a search committee member? When you say that, as a search committee member, you really like it when applicants identify the specific courses in your catalog that they could teach (or specific courses they could develop), is that in part because you see it as an “honest signal” of their level of interest in working at your specific institution, and/or of how well they’d “fit in” if hired?”
    In my experience and at my institution (a research institution that nevertheless takes teaching seriously), those who don’t do this… at least nowadays… are unlikely to make the first cut.

  5. I am interested in the role of letters of recommendation in this process and why you think there is a movement to asking for letters up front on applications. Is this a matter of saving (search committee) time? Gauging true interest/commitment by the applicant in the position? I have been investigating how bias (mainly unintended) creeps in from wording by letter writers to interpretations/filtering by those using the letters in their deliberations on search committees. Different cultures also treat the writing of such letters in ways not always appreciated or interpreted correctly by the intended recipients. A few years ago, I attended a workshop (on bias) that proposed abolishing letters of recommendation and while the idea shocked me at first (so intrenched is the tradition), the more I read and think about implications, the more I think this is a great idea and might mitigate some of the hierarchical hold of the entrenched generation on the up-and-coming one. This is not to say one should not cultivate professional relationships, collaborations, or mentors, but the idea that this is mainly so someone will write you a favorable letter of recommendation can be toxic.

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