Where do you eat lunch? And does it matter?


Lunch culture seems to vary a lot from place to place.

I will admit to sometimes eating lunch at my desk, even though it is seems a highly unusual thing at European universities. But these days it is rare for me to do that, partly because most people aren’t and partly because it is just nicer to take a moment and eat properly. Continue reading

History will not repeat itself (i.e. lessons learned as a first-year faculty member)


By Sarah Bisbing

I survived my first year as a faculty member. In fact, I think I even did pretty well if I consider my student evals and the number of end-of-year hugs received. I’m going to pat myself on the back. Why? Because being a first-year faculty member (or really an any-year faculty member, as far as I can tell) makes you feel like you are in a constant state of fight or flight. I did know what I was getting myself into by starting down the path to tenure, but I also really didn’t have any idea what it would actually feel like. I was exhausted from living in a constant state of undone to-dos and never-ending lists, and I felt a bit like I was drowning. This reality hit me hard about half way through my first year, and I decided that I needed to come up with a better strategy for survival. I thought hard about my experiences to-date as a new professor and came up with my own rules of the game. And, you know what, I think I made some significant strides in managing my time and surviving the uphill battle toward tenure. Continue reading

Chairing a search committee, in hindsight


Last year, I had the dubious honor of chairing a search committee for two positions in my department. The speciality was open. I learned about my department and my university by seeing it through the eyes of applicants and would-be applicants. There’s a lot I’d like to say about the process that I can’t, or shouldn’t, say. But I do have some observations to share. Continue reading

What kind of faculty job do you want?


Faculty jobs involve teaching, research, and mentoring. Different kinds of universities expect faculty to conduct these activities in different proportions. What is your ideal balance? Consider the figure to find out where you belong.


Figure by T McGlynn

For the uninitiated, SLAC indicates “Small Liberal Arts College.”

This figure implies a lot of mechanisms that differentiate institutions, and there are a bunch of reasons why the distribution for a regional comprehensive (where I work currently) fills in the gaps that other institutions don’t occupy.

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 4: Consequences of our social interactions


This is the penultimate piece in a series on faculty-admin relations. Here are parts one, two, and three. You don’t need to get caught up to appreciate the set of tips inferred from prior observations:

  • Faculty are the ones who really run the show at universities. This is true as long as there is tenure, and especially as long as there is collective bargaining. Universities exist to let us do our research and teaching jobs, and any service on campus is designed to facilitate that core function. Any administrator that runs afoul of the faculty as a group will not be able to implement their vision with any kind of fidelity.
  • Administrators cannot be effective at serving students unless the faculty are on board.
  • In a university of adjuncts without tenure, the show is run by regional accreditors, because they can get administrators fired. This is why places run almost entirely by adjunct labor, such as “University” of Phoenix, have curricula that follow the prescriptions of regional accrediting agencies, without anything above or beyond what is required.
  • Faculty and administrators need one another. The more they can get along to meet shared goals, the better things are. When individuals pursue their own goals, that don’t contribute to the shared goal, conflict results. When there is cooperation toward shared goals, then all sides will be more able to fulfill their individual interests.
  • Good administrators and faculty share one common interest – serving students – but they also have many conflicting interests, and these are highly variable and shaped by the environment.
  • Professors typically want vastly different things from one another, so organization around a common interest is uncommon. This may result in administrators having their own interests met more often than the faculty.
  • Administrators can spend money on any initiatives they wish, but unless faculty choose to carry out the work in earnest, it will fail.
  • Conflict with your direct administrators over things that they are unable to change harms everybody. Individuals who can successfully minimize the costs of conflict are in a position to experience the greatest gain at the individual level, and these actions also serve to increase the group-level benefits of cooperation.
  • Administrators who don’t cooperate with their faculty will be ineffective, and faculty who don’t find common ground with administration don’t get what they need.
  • Universities have often evolved to take advantage of the faculty even though they collectively the machine that runs the show. Adjuncts have little power to individually control what happens in the university, and are highly subject to manipulation by administration and other faculty. If they wish to be a part of the system then they have little choice but to carry out the will of the administration.

Crossing ‘the pond’ for science*


This is a second guest post by Amy Parachnowitsch.

Amy learning that glass art is a kind of big deal in Sweden at the Kosta Boda Art Hotel

Amy learning that glass art is a kind of big deal in Sweden at the Kosta Boda Art Hotel

Originally from the Canadian east coast, I first crossed the continent to do my undergraduate on in the west (British Columbia), moved to the middle for my masters (Ontario) and then made the big leap south to the USA (upstate New York) for my PhD (read: 5 hrs drive between where I did my masters and PhD but sometimes worlds apart). Now I am an Assistant Professor/Research Fellow in Uppsala, Sweden. My science career path has not been particularly straight or narrow geographically or otherwise, but one theme that has emerged is the opportunities that have come from changing places and outlooks.

Because it is relevant to my recent experience and my perspective on moving around, I’ll describe what I’m doing in Sweden. My position is always difficult to translate either into English (forskarassistent = research assistant, directly translated but those are actually forskningsassistent) or North American positions because there are no real equivalents. I’m either a Research Fellow or Assistant Professor (there are even internal listings where I am one or the other). As I grow more comfortable in my position, I tend towards saying I’m a non-tenured Assistant Professor because that most accurately describes what I do. The position came with a small start-up fund, guaranteed 4 years of salary, a small teaching responsibility (5-10% of my time, officially), and salary for one PhD student. There is no formal option to continue my job after the 4 years and I’ll need to find either research funds to support my salary (basically like applying to NSF or NSERC and budgeting your salary) or another job. For me, the long-term prospects of staying here are unknown. But so far being a professor in a different country has been interesting, challenging and a fabulous learning experience.

So breaking Terry’s tradition of no lists, here’s my take on the some of the benefits and challenges of taking this path:


  • New ideas/ways of doing things –First and foremost, working somewhere else gives you a different perspective. I’m exposed to all kinds of differences both big and small on a daily basis. I constantly see my own assumptions and expectations exposed when they’re not met. I may have come here thinking that European PhD positions are advisor-driven, and although that can be true, I also now see the tremendous variation in PhD training. Although I had heard about the lack of social security in the US my entire life, I was shocked to learn that there really is no maternal/paternal leave in the US (its basically up to the employers). In my experience, Ivy league students are pretty similar in their abilities to the other university students I’ve taught, they just tend to have more security and confidence (sometimes to their own detriment). I could fill this post with things that I have learned and gained from being immersed in different countries and systems but it is good to remember that the benefits don’t have to be one-way. You also have something to offer others from your own contrasting experience.
  • Meeting fellow scientists—One thing that has been really fun for me is that I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people that I had only read before. Although there are always some researchers that cross the pond to go to conferences in Europe or North America, it is by far more common that people attend conferences within these regions. And even when scientists do travel to the same conferences, when they are big ones like ESA/Evolution, I get to see people’s talks and might have a chance to chat, but I find some of the most valuable networking happens when you causally go for a meal or to the pub. It seems like these causal interactions tend to happen more with people you know or they know which can mean staying within your continent. It is of course possible to cross these boundaries and some people are very skilled at this, but living in Sweden has made it more natural to get to know more European scientists. The flip side is that it has been more difficult to connect with my old network because it is now more difficult for me to travel to conferences in the USA/Canada.
  • Exploring a new ecosystem—Whenever I travel, I’m often trailing behind, looking at flowers. Curiosity is really why I love my job; so seeing new ecosystems is a delight and offers a kind of understanding that you can’t get from reading papers alone. I had amazing experiences as a graduate student visiting Florida, Hawaii and especially the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, where so much of the literature I had been reading was based. Moving to Sweden has allowed me to explore a whole new place. When I first got here it I had to turn off the internal “introduced/invasive” tag that went with so many plants. This summer I’ve been playing around with a bunch of different species here in the aims of developing a local system. But living here has really given me an understanding of the place that I wouldn’t get if I just came here to visit/do research. For example, although I intellectually knew that the days were long in summer and dark in winter, living here has given me a whole different understanding. Who knew I could complain about too much light (seriously, it is tough to sleep)? And as the days get noticeably shorter I know what I’m in for (noon-day sun like dusk). But this also gives me a deeper understanding of the differences for the organisms I study.
  • Learn a new language—Although I am still hopelessly inadequate in Swedish, when I think back to a few years ago I realise that I actually understand quite a bit. When I first came here, nothing made sense. These days I can get around, talk to someone at a store, and understand quite a bit of what people are saying around me. Now if I could only carve out some time to study each day I think I could actually get somewhere.


  • Isolation—Perhaps one of the harder things is the feeling of isolation that can come from being an ex-pat. This can apply to daily life as much as your job. Although much of science is conducted in English, lots of informal and formal university events tend towards the native language. Here in Sweden, people tend to be ridiculously competent in English but you do miss out on some of the banter. As soon as the non-Swedes leave a room, the conversation slips quickly back to Swedish. Although my grasp of Swedish is improving, I miss jokes and think it would be really hard to make friends speaking only Swedish. It can also be tough for faculty meetings, etc when things are discussed in Swedish. There I tend to hear a lot of words you don’t commonly encounter and although I can often follow the general theme, some of the details are lost.
  • An increase in the imposter syndrome—actually it is difficult to know whether I feel this any more than I would in similar position in North America. Perhaps best not to admit until I get that permanent job, but I can find myself thinking that I have no idea what I am doing. And worse still, it can be because I really don’t know what I am doing (not focusing on the science here because that part is pretty portable). The things I learned watching my mentors or from PhD experiences are often out of sync with what it happening around me. For example, teaching hasn’t been at all how I expected myself to be doing based on years of TAing. I am now involved in team-taught courses and students are only taking a single course at any given time. This means less control over the course as a whole (because I only do a part) and intensive teaching when it happens (e.g. 3hr lecture time slots). So although I can apply lots of my teaching skills to this new situation, it has been another learning curve to figure out how to be the most effective, etc. Another big difference for me is that PhD students are generally hired on specific projects here. So although I was offered salary for my PhD student as a part of my position, I fund the project and had to write an advertisement for the position. In truth, many PhDs do follow their own research here and my own student will not strictly follow the advertised position. However, I interviewed candidates for my PhD position in a completely different way than I myself had done. All these differences can definitely fuel the imposter syndrome but it also gets me talking to my peers much more than I might if I thought I had a clue about how things are done here.
  • Slow start-up – Getting a lab running is not an easy or fast task for anyone and I haven’t even had to think about hiring in the way I would if I was starting a lab somewhere in NA. But starting a research group in another country has its own set of challenges: That craft store you used to buy strange things for your fieldwork? Not here. Chemical you could easily order from Sigma/Fisher? The European branch doesn’t carry it. University finances? You’ll need to figure out the reimbursement system and fill out all the forms in Swedish. Major granting agencies? Where do you start when you haven’t even heard of them? In my experience, people are incredibly helpful and willing to share information, but it does mean that I sometimes feel like I’m a step behind. After two years I am still learning but my footing is a little steadier. I’m sure that many of these issues would apply to moving to any university, anywhere but it probably wouldn’t involve talking to the industrial supplier in broken Swedish.
  • Time zone differences—A huge pain when you want to contact family and  friends, time zone differences can effect how you work as well. It means that I’m often out of sync with my NA collaborators, so there is definitely a time lag between emails, etc. And although skype and google hangouts are great resources to virtually meet, the time difference often mean tight scheduling. And on a personal note, when I travel for research in the USA, it is really tough to skype with my daughter but really important to do so. Somewhat easier but also challenging is talking with my graduate student when she’s in the field and I’m in Sweden. In some ways this might be good because she has more freedom to figure things out on her own but sometimes it would be convenient to not have the six hour time difference. Another drawback is that twitter conversations can be more difficult to participate in with the NA crowd; the plus is that I’m seeing a lot more from fellow Europeans.
  • Not being able to read between the lines—Here’s a funny story to end with. In my first few months I travelled every couple of weeks to the department for a few days while we negotiated the move, etc. One of these trips there was a small conference for Uppsala plant folks just outside of town. There was a program with events for the two days but nowhere, and I mean nowhere, was there anything about staying overnight at the conference center. So I hop in the car with the head of my department and some new colleagues with only my laptop, etc. As the day progresses it slowly dawns on me that everyone is planning to stay the night. Here I am, no change of clothes, no toiletries, nothing. The conference center is far enough outside of town that there is no real way to get back without a car. One of my colleagues with a young child headed home that night but wasn’t coming back the following day. So I remember thinking, do I take this opportunity to go or do I stay? I had committed to being there for two days and it seemed silly to miss out for a change of clothes (how I longed for that overnight bag sitting in my room in Uppsala). So I stayed, was grateful for a single room where I didn’t have to feel stupid in front of anyone. Now I know that it would have been fine and I could have shared a good laugh. But then I didn’t know any of the people I was with. It wasn’t perfect but I’m really glad I just stepped back into my same clothes after showering that morning. In the end staying meant I started a collaboration that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. But it just goes to show that not being a part of the culture around you means that you can miss out on things that seem so obvious to everyone else.

Despite the long list of challenges, I remain pretty positive about my experience here. Mostly the challenges have been opportunities to learn and grow. I’m excited about the collaborations I am developing here and the research we’re doing on both sides of the pond. Of course there are days that I’m tired and wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if I could find that ideal tenure track job in Canada or the USA. I don’t know where we’ll end up in the long-term but I do know if we return to NA, I will bring with me a broadened perspective on how to be a professor.

*Full disclosure: I came to Sweden for family reasons first (Swedish husband with a job here) and searched for a job from here.

The cover letter for a faculty position at a teaching institution


What is the role of a cover letter in the application for a faculty job?

The primary function of the cover letter is to help you make the short list. Many search committee members use cover letters to cull the tower of applications to a workable height. If your cover letter doesn’t communicate a good fit, then it’s easy for your application to be tossed aside.

Once you’re on the short list, your application will get scrutinized in more detail. Your cover letter, along with your CV, is your foot in the door, before the door slams shut.

Because cover letters are used for culling, the absence of negatives in the letter is particularly important. In addition, the there are a number of required elements showing that you are a potential good fit. Your letter can’t have things that rule you out, and it needs to have things that take you to the next level.

It doesn’t take a paleocytogeneticist to figure out that you need to identify the traits that are seen as essential, negative, and positive by the institution to which you are applying. You can do some research, but what a department thinks is often mysterious, even to the members of the department. Regardless, there are a number of commonalities among most teaching institutions in how they pick candidates, which I attempt to elucidate here. This might be an incomplete or flawed list; I’d love to see comments.

Required elements: These are needed to make the short list.

You are capable of teaching what the job requires. You have to be qualified to teach the courses in the job ad, and then some. If you haven’t taught these courses already, that’s okay. Be sure to explain what you have already taught, where you’ve taught it, and that you’re fully prepared, and excited, to teach what is in the job ad.

You are focused on teaching. There are different ways to communicate this fact, but it has to clearly emerge throughout the letter that teaching is your highest priority.

You are serious about research, and discuss it in the context of undergraduate mentorship. Be clear that student research experiences are integral to your research. This doesn’t have to be the purpose of your research, but nearly every undergraduate institution is expecting its new faculty to substantially engage students in research.

Your research program is workable on campus. Nobody is going to want to interview anyone whose research looks like it isn’t compatible with the campus. It needs to be obvious that your research can continue after you move. If your work has involved specialized locations or facilities, you need to make it clear that you have a way to continue a productive research agenda after the moving. (For example, since my research is based in a different country, then I have to mention that I always do my fieldwork in summer and winter break. Another approach would be to indicate that I’m prepared to operate my research program locally.)

You’re not a weirdo. Being a weirdo isn’t just a negative; you have to actively not be a weirdo to get on the short list. What does a weirdo look like in a cover letter? Well, a weirdo has a weird cover letter, meaning that it appreciably deviates from the norm. Be normal in the cover letter, just do it in an excellent way. One exception is if the search committee is composed of weirdoes. This is academia, after all.

Negatives: Stay away from these things in the cover letter

Research comes before teaching: At a teaching institution, teaching comes first. That means, literally, that teaching should be mentioned first. Don’t be more excited about research than about teaching.

Research gets more verbiage than teaching. You’re being hired to teach. I understand that describing your research program in the level of detail you wish might take three paragraphs. But that would require at least three, better, paragraphs on teaching. And if you did that, your letter would be too long.

Not doing your homework: There could be many small things that could suggest that the applicant hasn’t taken the time to learn the basics of the campus. Don’t mention that you really want to teach a specific class that is clearly the territory of someone else. Don’t say that you would like to teach the laboratory of a course which is offered without a lab. Don’t refer to a department-less program as a department, and don’t use acronyms or names for things on campus unless you know those are in common use.

Typos. One can be overlooked, but two is mighty bad. Be careful to avoid cut-and-paste errors that show traces of other applications. Of course everybody knows that applicants apply for many jobs, and this isn’t fatal, but it obviously doesn’t look good.

Educational mumbo-jumbo. It would be great if your teaching included quickthinks, think-pair-share, formative assessments, and uses Bloom’s taxonomy to formally establish expectations. To many scientists, even at teaching institutions, you’d be overbearing if wrote about it in your cover letter. You might not even want to mention clickers unless you know the department has already adopted them. Many scientists, even at teaching institutions, are threatened by other scientists who are progressive in finding effective modes of teaching. You can present yourself as a progressive, experienced and innovative instructor without making the recalcitrant relics in the department think that you’ve gone to the dark side of education.

Namedropping. Let your CV and reference letters speak for themselves, especially if you were blessed with a pedigree including Dr. Famous. Keep in mind that small campuses have people in such divergent fields that Dr. Famous might not even matter to your audience.

Boasting. The cover letter is not the place to mention awards you’ve received, big papers you’ve published, or big grants you’ve landed. That’s on your CV and it can speak for itself. Discuss your projects, but not the amount of money connected or who funded it. If you have a record of external funding, then say in your cover letter that you intend to continue the projects that you’ve been running.

Discussion of the nice location of the campus. Anybody can waste words about the perfect weather in coastal Southern California, the great cultural scene in Los Angeles, New York’s great bagels, that charming rural towns are great places to raise families, and that Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh. To say so is cloying, unless you’re a Warhol scholar.

The mistake that being a student informs you about the life of a professor. Many people who apply to liberal arts colleges mention that they were liberal arts college students, suggesting that this experience gives them a better preparation for the job of a liberal arts college professor. This argument is both pedestrian and non-compelling. We are smart enough to read your CV and connect the dots. It’s okay to mention it, but don’t write about the topic as if you have some magical level of understanding, unless you had attended the same school to which you are applying for a job. Being a student at a liberal arts college doesn’t help you know what it is like to be a professor at one. If imply this idea, you could sound a little naïve.

You’re coming up for tenure. The longer you are in a faculty position, the harder it is to move, unless you want to become an administrator. If you want to move from one job to another, it’s possible, but you have to convince the committee that you’re really serious about moving and that you’re not just applying for a counter offer, or to test the waters. Don’t mince words and be clear about your motivation if you want to leave. You also need to remain positive and not say anything negative about your current position. This is a delicate dance. Make sure that this is backed up by a letter-writer from your campus, who can be more frank than you. You need to bring this out in your cover letter so that the committee will choose to look beyond your CV.

Expression of negativity about anything. Don’t complain, don’t make excuses, and don’t air any grievances about anything. If your publication record is subpar, the worst thing you can do about it is to make excuses or promises. If you’re looking to leave one job for another, or choosing one career path over another, your motivations need to be positive. You might be working in a snakepit, but you can’t speak badly of your current employer if you are to land a new one.

Positives: Recommended but not required

The letter is the right length. Spilling onto a third page is too wordy, but not getting far enough into the second page is too terse. The best cover letters I’ve read (in my opinion) go some distance into the second page. Five brief paragraphs should be fine. You’re not fooling anybody by shrinking the font, other than yourself.

You communicate that you might have a realistic idea about what it is like at that institution. Many applicants for teaching jobs really have no idea how much teaching happens. If you’re smooth, you can subtly phrase things to make it clear that you won’t get sticker shock when you find out what the teaching load is like. If you can find a credible way of explaining that you are able to thrive while teaching a full course load, include it in the letter. As a drawback, I don’t know how to recommend how to do that smoothly without having already had that experience.

You are open-minded about your teaching assignments. Sometimes, new hires are stuck with the classes that senior faculty are tired of teaching. In others departments, new hires are rewarded with the opportunity to teach their specialty. You never know what the department needs, and even if the job ad is detailed and specific, the people in the department might not have equally specific ideas. In addition to explaining that you can teach the things in the ad, you should indicate that you enjoy teaching at all levels (if this is true) and that you’re open to a variety of courses that are suited to your qualifications (if this is true).

Specific references to campus-specific traits indicating that you can fit in well: These things are particular to a person and to a campus. For example, if you do work in Latin America and the university has a clear emphasis or strategic direction towards Latin America, bring this up. Another example could be that you know that the college has a nature preserve adjacent to campus, and that is the home to organisms that you study, and that working there would facilitate long-term and student-centered research. The more you do your homework, the greater the chance you might find a connection. Don’t make a stretch, but if it’s a natural fit, it’s okay to mention it in the cover letter and them amplify in the teaching and research statements as needed.

Your research is in the area required in the job ad. Perhaps this is a surprise, but this is not in the “required element” category for a reason. Job ads are forged through compromise, and are typically unsatisfactory to members of the search committee, and might be altered by administrators before going to press. You can’t put too much stock in them (Including the role of research on campus, or the role of religion on campus). You never really know what the department is looking for, from just reading the job ad. You can’t ever really know until you get an offer. If you really want to work at a particular school, it can’t hurt to apply even if you don’t fit the exact subspecialty in the job ad, except for the time spent on the application. Your odds are lower, as the job ad might be accurate about the search, but you never know if they’ll like what they see. Just don’t try to sell yourself as something that you are not. For example, the ad for my current position called for an ecosystem ecologist. I clearly am not an ecosystem ecologist. It turns out that the department just wanted an ecologist, and an ecosystem ecologist was a field that they were somewhat interested in, but they weren’t that picky. If you do fit, that’s wonderful for you, and you have much better odds. But, there is a chance you still could land an interview if you don’t have the exact specialty in the ad. Just be honest about your qualifications and interests, because the untruth usually smells a lot like bull.

Gorgeous prose. A workmanlike and sufficiently written letter isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But excellent writing will make you stand out. There are different ways to write beautifully, but they all require practice. There are lots of people and places that are pleased to tell you what good writing looks like.

You’re a member of an underrepresented group. Nobody is going to be hired solely because of ethnicity or gender. However, this can help get you on the short list. Once you get on campus, this stuff mostly doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter to the department, though it could to an administrator. (I’ve only once been involved in a faculty search in which there was a clear affirmative action candidate. Administration insisted that we create an extra interview slot for a particular applicant from an underrepresented group, who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a slot. This person showed up and was nothing short of amazing, far better than all of the other candidates. That was affirmative action at its best, in an environment where it was necessary.) If you’re a member of an underrepresented group, make sure it is overt in your application somewhere, because it could increase the chance you get an interview. It’s not cheating, and it’s not unfair. It’s giving the institution the opportunity to make the choice that it wishes to make. Once people meet you in person, how you got the interview doesn’t matter. My campus is has 50% Latino and 30% African-American students, and we need more faculty who are not only role models for our students, but also physically appear to be role models. Research shows that this makes a difference in students’ lives, and if there’s a chance that a person from one of these groups might be the best candidate, I definitely want to find that out. The best person for the job is picked, but indicating your underrepresented status could give you the opportunity to show that you’re the best.

If the job is in an unpopular or expensive location, provide a compelling reason to live there if you have one. In my opinion, it’s helpful to spend a single sentence explaining a specific personal reason for moving to, or staying in, what many consider to be a difficult place to live. For example, there are a bunch of great colleges in the Midwest, and upstate New York, in tiny towns multiple hours away from what any genuine city. Those places may have trouble recruiting – and keeping – faculty because of where they are located. There are similar recruitment problems in very cosmopolitan – but expensive – cities. If you explain that you have deep personal ties to a location, or that your spouse is interested in returning back to his or her hometown, I think it would help. For example, when I applied for a job in Los Angeles while I was employed in San Diego, I had to explain (in one sentence) that I grew up in the area and was interested in moving back. Otherwise, they probably would not think that I was serious, because San Diegans universally think that San Diego is way more awesome than LA. (When I lived there, I thought that, too. It might be something in the unfluoridated water that causes the mass delusion.) Keep in mind that your reason to bring up personal stuff has to be very compelling. Just saying that you’d like your kids to grow up in a rural town with a nice community isn’t going to cut it. The academic job scene is a seller’s market, and these personal factors matter only when you think you can prevent them from not taking you seriously. For example, if an applicant has a very strong publication record, teaching campuses might be afraid to waste an interview slot on someone who, in their view, is likely to opt for a job at a research institution.

You don’t have too many strings attached. Search committees shouldn’t – and often don’t – make decisions based on their knowledge of the personal lives of the applicants. But, if you have information, it’s hard to avoid thinking about it. The bottom line is that if you have a spouse with a portable job, and the search committee knows this, they would feel better about investing an interview slot in you. Likewise, if they suspect that you have a personal barrier that would keep you from moving, this could, unfairly, influence the decision-making process. Such possible scenarios include dual-academic-career situation when a double hire is impossible, or being single and moving to a small remote town, or having a spouse whose job cannot easily move. If you can say something to make it clear that these possible negatives don’t apply to your situation, you might be better off by doing so. Is it fair? No. But it is in your interest, and life isn’t fair. You don’t want to specifically refer to a spousal employment situation, or the lack thereof, with specifics. But pushing that borderline by saying that you ”do not have any personal or professional constraints that would prevent you from permanently relocating to the area.” (I’d like to be very clear that I intentionally work at avoiding using these kinds of data when making decisions about applications, and I honestly think that I am functionally unbiased. However, I’m going to leave it to the committee members to decide which information they want to use, and I typically lean towards sharing more rather than less if it has the potential to work in my favor.)

That’s the end of the lists.

As a guiding principle, when in doubt, be straightforward and honest. You don’t want to get a job by pretending to be someone that you aren’t, because then you’ll have to continue pretending for another six years.

As a caveat, keep in mind that all generalized advice about how to prepare a faculty job application is apt to be wrong about some things. The people who evaluate applications are normal folks just like you and me, and we all do things our own way. So, anybody who says that the cover letter is the most important part of the application, or that the CV is, or that the teaching statement is, well, they’re just making that up. The search committee is not monolithic, and every part of the application is important. I’ve already written about the teaching philosophy, and more on the other parts is forthcoming.

Applying for faculty positions: the teaching philosophy


Job application season is not ramping up until the end of summer, but I’m bringing this topic up now because it might require some thought and introspection before applications get sent out.

Some ads ask you to make a teaching statement. Others ask you to also provide a teaching philosophy.

Those are the same thing, right? I don’t think so.

A teaching statement explains what you have taught, what you’re capable of teaching, how you have taught these courses and how you go about teaching on a day to day basis. It’s important for a teaching school to know these things when evaluating a candidate. But some departments want more information. They also want to know your philosophy.

Keep in mind that many members of search committees don’t give a damn about teaching philosophies at all. They’d be glad if you wrote a teaching statement, or if you needed to provide both, that you just got a little wordy in the philosophy. They won’t care. But for those that do care, an excellent teaching philosophy can really make you stand out, with at least some of the teaching faculty who are doing the hiring.

You might be asking yourself, “What the hell is a teaching philosophy? Do I have to have an actual philosophy about teaching?”

My answer would be, “Yes, you really should have one. Your teaching philosophy is your overall approach to teaching and a guiding principle behind all of the decisions that you make when teaching.”

Ideally, your teaching philosophy can be expressed in a sentence or two. And then it takes a few paragraphs to explain it. That’s how you write a 1-page teaching philosophy.

What is the secret to writing a kickass teaching philosophy statement to get you that job interview?

The secret is to actually, genuinely, have a kickass teaching philosophy. If you don’t have a few firm guiding principles that guide your teaching, this summer is a good time to develop them.

Instead of just telling you what a teaching philosophy is, let me give you some specific examples. I’m most familiar with teaching philosophies not from the university, but from K-12 science and math teachers. I’ve been involved in scores of interview panels for beginning and experienced teachers. One question that we always ask is: “What is your teaching philosophy?”

All but the most nervous and least prepared teachers have their answer down pat. Most of them say a slight variant of:

Every child deserves an opportunity to learn.

I love that one. I think it is broadly applicable to many circumstances – dealing with economic inequalities, differentiating instruction for students with higher-level work, working with those learning English, and those with behavioral challenges. Everybody, despite the challenges that they face and those that they even create themselves, deserves the opportunity to learn. And it’s the job of the teacher to create that opportunity. That’s a powerful philosophy.

That philosophy, however, doesn’t work for me in the university environment. Here’s my philosophy, that I’ve had for at least the last eight years:

You don’t truly learn something unless you discover it for yourself.

Someone can explain something to you, and you can understand it. But you haven’t learned it. It hasn’t been banked in memory or as something of substance unless you figure it out for yourself. Consequently, labs are important. Fieldwork is important. Discovery-based lessons in class are important. Interactivity during lectures helps. Making sure that students genuinely and deeply read helps. Creating an environment in which students feel an interest and need to discover matters. And so on. In my more recent job applications I spent a few paragraphs spelling out the corollaries and applications of this philosophy.

What are some other teaching philosophies that could work? Maybe:

University students learn best when they have both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

or maybe:

Learning is a social activity and interactions with others are a critical part of the college experience.

or how about:

Being able to communicate a clear understanding of a topic verbally and in writing is required for mastery.

or perhaps:

Learning is fun.

and lastly:

To be an effective teacher you must be a lifelong learner and create that spirit in your students.

or other stuff that you can just make up like I just did.

The best teaching statement is not one that you just made up, it’s one that you genuinely believe.

Realistically, most people emerging from grad school and postdocs looking for teaching jobs have something less lofty on their minds, such as “My philosophy is to do anything that results in good evaluations,” or “My philosophy is to not entirely destroy the entire semester by not knowing what I’m doing,” or “I just want to spend as little time on class as possible so that I can get everything else I need to get done finished so that I can actually keep my job.”

Those might be acceptable ideas. But it’s not a philosophy.

So, how do you find your philosophy? Experience with teaching helps, but I think even more important is to spend time interacting with others who care about teaching, and care about understanding what works and what doesn’t work.

You don’t have to be an expert in the education literature, but you should be able to hold a respectable conversation with someone who is. (You don’t need to know the acronyms but you should be able to understand the concepts.) You should be familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, if nobody’s hit you over the head with it yet. Knowing about constructivism is a good idea. If you’re going to spend even a small part of your career teaching, then understanding the way professional educators approach teaching is a good idea.

Beware, though, when you write your teaching philosophy, you actually have to be careful to not bust out the technical education terms, because that would piss off the majority of the faculty who harbor a genuine suspicion of educational theory.

Any search committee is likely to have some people involved who think, “It’s just my job to teach and their job to learn.” I actually think that’s true, but the definition of good teaching and good learning is where I part way with those folks. The education folk like to make a distinction between the “sage on the stage” versus the “guide on the side.” I don’t follow the Johnnie Cochran school of espousing teaching philosophies, though I think effective teachers guide rather than preach.

You’d hope that these people are fossilized enough that they’re not reading blogs. Nonetheless, a dislike for anything other than bullet-point lecturing is common among many junior faculty who don’t want to be bothered with student learning and instead think their job is to spew information. As in all things related to job applications, you don’t want to express any view strongly enough that it would piss anybody off, even if that person is unreasonable.

The take-home message is that you are best off using your Statement of Teaching Philosophy to actually espouse a genuine philosophy of teaching. If you don’t have one, it’s not too early to develop your own!

If you have one you like, or would like feedback from folks on one, please share in the comments. You’ll probably get some good comments. And we won’t charge $100/hour.