Securing Academic Positions at Two- and Four-Year Institutions

I recently attended a mini-conference offered at Michigan State University which was designed to give PhD candidate students information on what it takes to get a job in today’s professorial market.  There was a panel of 6 experts from MSU and neighboring institutions.  There were representatives from Lansing Community College, Grand Valley College, Calvin College, Michigan State University and a nearby medical school that I didn’t catch the name of.  Each had chaired multiple search committees and had an immense amount of experience in the field.  This is a summary of the tips and tricks they gave out, I hope this can be of use to others who, like myself, are looking forward to a life outside of graduate school. 

First, let’s start by thinking about your life in graduate school.  If you want to teach you should take the time to become a better instructor.  Participate in courses, seminars, and take your TA responsibilities to heart.  One thing they did stress is that, if possible, you should participate in a search committee for a new faculty hire at your institution.  This will provide you with an inside view of the process and help you to realize that what they say they want isn’t always all they want.  The criteria for each member of the committee can vary within the framework of the job advertisement.  If you’re unable to take part in something like this, at least attend faculty talks and dinners.

Now you’ve decided to generically look at the field, but where do you want to apply?  Just like when you do your lab work, you cannot simply dive in and expect to get good results.  Take your time and do preliminary research, see what is out there, and then develop a plan of action.  If you want to pursue a career in research, then you will likely be looking at typical R1 institutions or the rare liberal arts college that stresses research.  Be wary however, the job market for these positions is highly competitive and flooded.  There are a limited number of schools out there, let alone the limitations of acquiring funding at this time. If you want to pursue teaching (like myself), then you have a much broader field of schools to look into.  There were speakers at the conference from both master’s comprehensive universities (grant few to no PhD’s and thus aren’t super research focused), small liberal arts schools, and community colleges.  There are a massive number of these schools (I believe the figure was 3,000+) and as such someone is always looking for a new hire.  I have been throwing around the idea of teaching at a community college for some time now, and the man who came to speak had a few things to say about teaching at one of these schools.  First off, there is still a stigma associated with these schools, both in the public eye and the job-market.  He warned that, should you desire to move to a 4-year institution or higher, you may have to prove that you can still teach higher-level courses to gain a position.  Community colleges these days are on the forefront of teaching in college sciences, regardless of what the public expects.  New teaching techniques such as flipped classes and online teaching are highly valued, so make sure you understand fresh methodologies and how they’re useful.  Many students use community colleges and college-prep academies, so you need to prepare them with the knowledge and experiences needed to survive in an advanced-degree classroom.

After you’ve decided what types of schools you’re looking at, what do you have to take into consideration next?  First off, research any school where you are looking to apply.  I know, I already talked about doing your homework, but they could not stress it enough.   This is exceptionally easy for public institutions where there is a required transparency to their hires and pay scales.  The panelists also made a few points clear:

  • (Almost) nobody matches a job description 100% (as it is idealized), but unless you match 75% of the application requirements and school description don’t bother applying – either you won’t get hired or you won’t fit into the school and will end up leaving anyways.
  • The US Department of Education has a list of universities in financial trouble – be very wary of applying to such schools (be it for job security or merely being associated with such schools later in your career).
  • Don’t apply to jobs that you don’t want to take – you’ll waste their time/money and can get a bad reputation.
  • As soon as you know you don’t want a job, inform the search committee (the interview weekend is NOT the time to do so).  A point I had not thought of is that a selection committee can deem all other candidates “unfit for the position”, and once they decide and submit this decision they cannot revert it.  Thus, if you report back soon enough they can avoid declaring and go with one of the other worthy candidates.  If you hold your tongue they will likely be forced to start an entirely new job search to hire who they could have had in the first place

Now to begin preparing your application materials. 

The panel all agreed that the most difficult step in the hiring process is going from the big bin of applicants into the smaller pile of applicants.  Most agreed that your cover letter is what gets you into that smaller pile.  You must blatantly address the job advertisement and their mission statement.  Only after they see that you have (painstakingly) crafted a perfect cover letter (and all other application materials are present) will they move your application forward and give you another look.  Another note was to only send materials that are asked for; if they do not ask for your manuscripts – do not send your manuscripts.  I would mention in your packet that prints can be made available upon request, but that’s just my two cents.

Your application materials should change between schools, and should you manage to get an interview, review the materials you sent to that school beforehand.  You want to know who you presented yourself as to that school.  Here is where many PhD candidates can slip up.  We have spent the last 4-8 years of our lives becoming hyper-specialists.  It may be advantageous at research institutions to be the world’s foremost expert on sea cucumber mating rituals, but outside of an R1 institution that may be considered a limitation.  Can you present yourself as a generalist who can teach a range of courses as they are needed, or does your knowledge base only cover sea-faring invertebrates?  This further extends to understanding the purpose of 2-year, 4-year, and graduate-focused universities.  Each school has a specific goal for themselves and their students and therefore it allows you to customize your application materials to present yourself how they would like to see you.

  • As I mentioned previously, your cover letter is your first impression, it’s what gets your application past the initial screening and into the real battle for the position.  You should draft a custom letter to each school and it should address the job listing, the school mission statement, and present yourself in the most flattering light for the job.  If you’re applying to a research position you should highlight your research, but if you do this for a teaching position it can show that you value research over teaching and that can hurt you.  Always try and put the most emphasis on the parts of ‘you’ that best represent the position you’ll have at that university.
  • The ever important curriculum vitae (CV) was the next thing that was stressed.  One of the panelists merely stated “Be careful with your CV”.  While cryptic, it emphasizes the importance of this document.  The same panelist also stressed to be bold with your accomplishments as long as they are related to the job you want.  “It is time to remove your High School Honors Society from your CV.”  Also to note was that presentations do not equal publications, so do not try and present them as such.  Finally, what I found to be the most helpful tidbit about the CV was to explain any fellowships or awards that you receive.  How many applicants were there, what was awarded, and were there any impressive parts of the application materials?  People outside of your field, university, or stage in life won’t necessarily know what an EPA-STAR fellowship is and if it is even worth of bragging about.  Let them know what was required to get the award and you will be rewarded for your hard work yet again.
  • Letters of Recommendation should (like everything) be prepared fresh and customized to each university.  Yes, this puts a massive amount of stress on your referrers, but Dean Klomparens suggested a nice work-around.  She recommends sending “first draft” copies of your letters to your referrers and have them complete the draft.  This may seem a bit forward but results in a letter tailored to what you want them to write while being much less work in the end for your referrers.  It also enables you to stress the aspects of your training and personality that fit with your desired job (as opposed to your PI rambling on about your excellent work on echinoderms) and have your faculty fill in the blanks.  Finally, each of the panelists stressed that writing a letter is one thing, but you need to ask yourself; “who will receive a phone call on your behalf and take the time to represent you well?”

Interviews these days can be done online (typically via skype) or in person.  The panelists did not say there was much of a difference between the two, but did note that in-person interviews are often more fraught with peril.  At an interview visit you are constantly being evaluated, regardless of your surroundings.  Of course you’re being judged in interviews or at your research talk, but what about while getting coffee or casual meets in the hall?  All of these are opportunities for you to hit a home run or strike out.  Along these same lines, do not become a lush on your visits – only have a single serving of any alcoholic beverage as you need to keep your wits about you.  The speakers each had a story regarding candidates who slipped up and ruined their chances at a position because they let their guard down.  Being tired is not an excuse either, so make sure you get plenty of rest.  Also, “no denim.”

  • Always research the institution (yes, again) to find out what their mission statement is, who they are, and what facilities and practices they have to take advantage of.  Also, make sure to ask questions before your visit and know what is expected of you.
    • Will there be a research talk? What kind and who is the audience?
    • To whom will I be talking to personally and in what regard?
    • Will there be a teaching demonstration and who is the audience?
      • Here’s a hint:  All of these are proxies for how effective you are as an instructor.
  • Can I get a copy of my itinerary beforehand?
  • Professors are looking for a good colleague and friend so avoid say derogatory things regarding current teaching practices, don’t say you’ll “revolutionize” their institution or mention faults in their program.  You should, however, explain how you can be of value to the institution/program by advancing their mission statement within their existing framework.
  • Keep in mind when answering questions that you need to tailor your responses to both the university and the person you’re talking to.  Always attempt to make a research or teaching connection with someone – give them a reason to want you at their university.
  • Always use the most formal title a person has until they tell you to do otherwise (Dean, Doctor, etc…).
  • You don’t have to answer illegal questions (do you have children, are you married, do you want children, etc…) but you MUST know how you will handle yourself if they ask.
    • A good way to handle it is to say that you’ll keep your eyes open for a candidate that would fit well at their university…or that you know of someone
    • Finally, do not practice your interview responses at your first interview.  Practice before you even have your first interaction with the search committee.  Slow down your responses and keep them concise – no rambling.  Don’t use jargon from your research field or your university, they are likely not as universal as you would think.  And finally, film yourself answering interview questions; what you say about yourself comes as much from your body language as your responses.

After your interview visit you should take the time to write (either by email or hand-written) a thank you letter to the search committee chair or whomever you made your primary connection with.  Explain that you enjoyed your visit but do not ask the status of the search.  If they want to contact you further they will.  This is your first step into creating a relationship with the university – never burn bridges.  While you may think that universities are all separate entities they are all connected and word will spread if you are inconsiderate.

If you are offered a position and are in the fortunate position to have other offers (or if life gets in the way) be tactful and delicate with your refusal of their offer.  The search committee and university has spent considerable time and money into finding you, so make sure to treat the situation appropriately.  A nice way to handle things could be to reject the offer (say you are unable to take the position (vague), and not that something better came along) and suggest to keep an eye out for another hire that could fit the position better than you.  This way you are showing that you value the school, position, and enjoyed the university enough to suggest a friend or colleague.

If, after all your hard work you are selected as the worthy candidate and want the position, now is your time to work out your terms.  Negotiations are a risky thing in a flooded job market, but you do have some leeway in this regard.  Often times at research institutions it is often possible to negotiate away teaching time for research purposes and vice versa.  Luckily for those of us who want to be teachers, pedagogical research can count towards this.  Another area where professors can sometimes negotiate is that if the hire teaches before getting a “real” position, some schools may offer you the opportunity to push up your tenure date.  However, this seldom changes the requirements needed to gain tenure and thus puts added stress and work on a new hire.  The panelists suggested that faculty can always go up for tenure early if they decide they are ready.  Also, before negotiating salary – make sure to check the publically available data to ensure you are on the same level as other early-career faculty.  Department chairs have a much easier life if everyone is on the same level from the start, as it leads to less friction in the department and work for them in the long run – so the panel said you can typically trust them.

Before closing I would like to wish you all luck in the next stage of your life and leave you with a perfect closing statement made in passing by one of the panelists.  “You need to be in control of your own destiny, your future.  If you don’t, someone else will, and you don’t want that.” 

Suggested reading:  James Lang’s book entitled Life on the Tenure Track

Any other suggestions or tips from experts out there?

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