My experience on the academic job market

Update on 2/29/20: I am excited to be joining the University of South Carolina Department of Statistics as an Assistant Professor in August!

I figured it would be a good idea to write a post about what I learned from my experience on the tenure-track academic job market. This post pertains mainly to jobs at major research universities in the United States in the fields of Statistics and Biostatistics, but some of this could nevertheless generalize to other fields. Also, of course, this is just a sample size of n=1. In what follows, I describe the overall job application process, my application materials, and the interviews.

Deciding Where to Apply

In the fall of 2019, I applied to 53 tenure-track positions, all at research universities in the United States. I applied to positions in Statistics, Biostatistics, and Mathematics departments. For all of my efforts, I received 8 phone screening interviews, 3 of which turned into campus invitations. I also received 2 campus invitations without a phone interview, bringing my total up to 5 campus interviews. Most application deadlines were in early November through early December, and I heard back from most schools before Christmas (one I heard back from in early January).

Update on 2/29/20: After I had accepted the position at University of South Carolina in February, I also received several more e-mails from various schools asking if I was still available/interested. So if you haven’t heard back by January, do not panic! Some schools may decide to do a second round of interviews in late February or March, and if you were ranked right below the threshold for the first-round campus interviews, you could still be contacted for an on-campus interview in late February or March.

There are over 4000 institutions of higher learning in the U.S., but only around 400 of them grant doctoral degrees (research universities). Of these doctoral-granting schools, 259 of them are classified as “R1” (very high research activity) or “R2” (high research activity). So that means 90+ percent of colleges do not award PhDs, and the vast majority of academics teach at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs), regional comprehensive schools (which may award Masters degrees), or community colleges. At the R1 research universities, the teaching load will typically be 2-1 (two courses one semester, one course the other), sometimes 2-2 or even 1-1 at very elite universities. The primary criterion for tenure at R1s is research (i.e. publications, grants) and supervision of PhD students. Most R1’s will reduce the teaching load for Assistant Professors to one course a semester for their first few years in order to allow them to focus on their research. At PUIs and regional comprehensives, a typical teaching load is 3-3 or 4-4 (at a select few prestigious colleges, it is 2-2), and at these institutions, the primary criterion for tenure is teaching and service to the college. These schools also require some research to get tenure (with the elite colleges requiring more), but typically, the publishing requirements will not be as intensive as those at R1s, because they want you to focus most of your time on your teaching.

I decided to focus my job search on research universities. Due to the fact that there are relatively few jobs at research universities and not all of them will be hiring in your field every year, I cast a wide net to improve my chances of landing some interviews. That meant that I applied all over the country and was not particularly picky about geographic region or location. From what I am told, the most important things required to get interviews at R1s in my field are a strong publication record and strong letters of recommendation. For teaching-focused schools, your teaching experience (e.g. having taught a course as instructor of record) is vital to success in the job market and some publications are also helpful as evidence of scholarly output.

At the time that I sent out my job applications, I had six papers, five of which were first-author papers and at least one which was forthcoming in a top journal in my field. One of my PhD classmates who went on the job market the year before me also had the same number of papers as me when he applied, including one in a top journal. He also managed to land a tenure-track job at a research university. So in order to be a competitive enough candidate for tenure-track jobs in Statistics at an R1 or R2 research university, I would say that this is a good benchmark. Of course, there are job candidates who had even more papers than I did, including multiple ones in top journals, and I assume that they landed interviews at multiple top schools.

There is a fair bit of luck involved in getting an interview because most programs receive many more applications from qualified applicants than they can offer interview spots to. It is not completely dumb luck (so applicants with no publications, PhDs in a completely unrelated area, etc. will be eliminated in the initial review of applications). But since most programs will only invite 3-5 job candidates for campus interviews for every open position advertised, making it to the campus interview often involves things beyond your control.

For example, if the only professor in the department who teaches/researches probability theory is about to retire, then the search committee may prioritize applications from probabilitists. If the department is looking to grow its faculty specifically in one area (e.g. I saw a job ad that stated that the department would give special consideration to applicants with research focused on environmental and spatial statistics), then you may be out of luck if your research is unrelated to that. Some programs may have these kinds of preferences but not explicitly state so in their job ads. For example, I applied to a math department at one school which had statistics under its umbrella, but I later heard from a colleague there that the search committee decided that they would focus on hiring an applied mathematician rather than people in other specialties. So I was out of luck there. Finally, if a department has recently hired a bunch of people with a very similar research focus as your own subfield, they may opt to pass on your application because they want to diversify the department’s expertise. These are all things beyond your control. This is partly why I recommend applying widely to maximize your chances.

Application Materials

In spite of the randomness, there are also a few things you can do to get past the initial screening filters. Apart from applying widely to maximize your chances of getting an interview, you can also put together the strongest possible application materials you can. These materials typically include a cover letter, a CV, recommendation letters, a research statement, and a teaching statement. Some people I talked with insisted that the research and teaching statements didn’t really matter all that much in comparison to the CV and recommendation letters, but I am not sure this generalizes to all schools. At two schools I applied to, they did not even ask for recommendation letters until after they had invited me for a phone interview, and one school told me my research statement was a primary reason they chose me as a semi-finalist. So it behooves you to make your entire application packet as strong as possible.

My cover letters briefly outlined my education/experience and my research accomplishments. Each cover letter also included a paragraph or two customized specifically for each department I applied to, including: why I was excited about that department in particular, which professors in that department I could potentially collaborate with and/or whose research was highly complementary to my own, which courses I would be prepared to teach if hired and what special topics courses I could offer, and what (if any) departmental or university initiatives I would like to be involved with if hired.

My research statement was three pages long, excluding references. The first two pages described my general research interests and summarized my past papers and present research projects. The last page of my research statement expounded upon my future research plans and topics that I planned to pursue in the future. In general, I tried to keep things at a somewhat high level so that non-subject matter experts on the search committees could grasp the overarching theme of my research agenda. My teaching statement was two pages long and focused mainly on my past teaching experience as an instructor of record and my teaching philosophies. I did not customize my CV, research statement, or teaching statement for most schools that I applied to. Unlike the cover letters, I sent the same documents to most schools.

My letters of recommendation were from my PhD advisor, my postdoc mentors, and one was from a prominent professor in my field who was both familiar with my work and a research collaborator. To help them write the strongest letters possible, I sent them my CV, my research statement, and my teaching statement.

Skype/Zoom Interviews

As mentioned earlier, I had 8 Skype/Zoom interviews. The phone interviews were usually conducted with 10-20 semi-finalists, from which 3-5 would be selected to interview at campus. The most common questions I was asked were:
  • “Why did you apply to our program?”
  • “If you were to explain your research to a non-expert, what would you say?”
  • “Could you describe your research plans for the next five years?”
  • “Are there any research collaborations you could foresee if you came to our school?”
  • “Could you describe your past teaching experience?”
  • “What course(s) would you like to teach?”
So you really do need to be ready to succinctly describe your research and teaching. Namely, you should be able to articulate that you have a clear agenda that you can sustain for the pre-tenure years. Additionally, you really do need to have researched the program and be familiar with the research of its faculty. Finally, you should definitely go through the course catalog and course descriptions to see which classes offered by the department you could teach.

At the end of each Skype/Zoom interview, there was also an opportunity for me to ask a few questions. I asked questions about computing resources, mentoring programs (formal or informal) for junior faculty, support for junior faculty to attend conferences and summer research support, and how junior faculty were evaluated pre-tenure. These are only a few possibilities.

For these Skype/Zoom interviews, I would just do your best. Try to convey enthusiasm for the specific program and demonstrate that you have thoroughly researched the program and its school. Additionally, I would not try to gouge your chances of being invited for a campus interview from how well your phone interview went. Even if you “nailed” the phone interview, you have no idea how the other semi-finalists did. Other job candidates may have also interviewed very well. Maybe you had been ranked 9th before the interview and a stellar interview pushed you up to 5th on the list… but the department was still only going to invite four people to campus. So you may have fallen just below the threshold. At this point, I think you should pause a bit and be proud that you made it this far. Your application was picked as one of the top 10-20, so obviously, the search committee thought you were well-qualified for the job.

On-Campus Interviews

As mentioned earlier, I did five on-campus interviews. In my field, interviews at research universities usually take place from December through February. All these schools paid for the hotel and the meals, but a few of them asked me to pay for my plane ticket and ground transportation to/from the airport and reimbursed me for these costs later. As long as you send the receipts to the appropriate office administrator promptly after your interview, you should receive a reimbursement check within a matter of weeks. Still, if you have on-campus interviews, I would prepare to go into a bit of short-term debt during the interview season. To deal with this, I got a second credit card right before the interview season.

The interviews themselves typically lasted one or two days. Within a week before the interview date, I would receive a detailed itinerary with the schedule for my visit. In all cases, I flew in the afternoon or evening before the campus interview. If I arrived early enough the day before, I had dinner with a current faculty member. Then the next day, I would be on-campus interviewing from 8 or 9 am to 5 pm. These day-long interviews comprised of a number of one-on-one interviews with individual faculty, the search committee, the dean of the college, and current graduate students. After the day was done, a few faculty members would take me out to dinner at a nice restaurant before dropping me off at the hotel.

Overall, these meetings and meals were not that stressful. Obviously, you should come prepared to these meetings so you have good questions to ask (e.g. about the department, the school, expectations for tenure, etc.) and so you can ensure a nice conversation “flow” (so it may be a good idea to look at faculties’ webpages once you receive an itinerary of who you are meeting with). However, there is no reason to be very tense or nervous. I found that for the most part, people were just trying to get to know you and gouge if you would be a congenial colleague. Rarely was I “grilled” in these one-on-one meetings. Everyone I met with was super nice and friendly. The only time I was “grilled” was during the Q&A of my job talk, which brings me to my next point.

In addition to these one-on-one meetings, I had to give a 45-50 minute research seminar (or “job talk”), followed by a 10-15 minute Q&A session. I was usually given a 30-60 minute break before the actual talk, giving me enough time to “prep” and set up the presentation. I am told that if you apply for a job at a teaching-focused institution, you may also need to give a teaching demonstration as part of your campus interview, but I did not have to do this. For my job talk, I gave a talk on one of my recent research papers, but some people like to talk about two different projects in their seminar talk.

I had started preparing my job talk slides in November and December when I started to get interview invitations. Before my interviews, I practiced giving my job talk in front of three different audiences. Each time, I made changes to my presentation in response to the valuable feedback that I had received.

My job talk was structured so that I opened with about 10 minutes of relevant background information on the topic for non-experts. The next 30 minutes were about my specific contributions to this research area. Here, I still tried to keep it fairly accessible. Finally, I closed with 5-10 minutes of future research directions. This included not just extensions to the specific work in my job talk, but also a few slides on my overall future research agenda and my future plans to obtain grant funding. This was mainly to demonstrate that I could sustain an active research agenda for years beyond my PhD and postdoc research.

The Q&A session after the job talk can be just as important as the talk itself. So in addition to preparing the job talk itself, you also need to be prepared to address potential questions, challenges, and criticisms of your work. During the Q&A, some questions are simply asking for clarification, so you should be able to give cogent responses to such questions. During the Q&A, some faculty will also try to ask “tough” questions to try to press you to think deeper about the topic at hand. In this case, it is best not to be defensive, but to acknowledge these as legitimate issues and discuss how you might be able to address them. Keep in mind that no method or research is “perfect” and everything can always be improved. If an audience member suggests something, be amenable to that as well and thank them for their suggestions.

The day after flying back from my interviews, I sent a thank you note to the chair of the search committee and the administrative assistant who organized the visit. Then I simply waited to hear back. Schools will typically not contact you until all the interviews are finished. If you are lucky enough to get a job offer, then you can spend some period of time negotiating the terms of it. There are some great online resources for negotiation: see here, here, and here. Among the things that you can negotiate on are salary, start-up package (e.g. funds for computer equipment, conference travel, etc.), a one-year delay to your starting date to complete (or finish) a postdoc, and teaching releases (e.g. one semester off from teaching to jump-start your research).

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  1. Pingback: Friday links: RIP Katherine Johnson, #PeepYourScience, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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