Observations from the Academic Job Market

Talia Lerner
30 min readDec 16, 2016

I’ve been training essentially my whole life for the job I’m about to start (Assistant Professor of Physiology at Northwestern) and I couldn’t be more excited! As I transition from postdoc to professor, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about how easy it will be to forget the struggles of getting here. It’s been about a year since I did my academic job interviews and already I can feel the memories fading. So, before they’re all gone, here is my guide to navigating the academic job market from the perspective of a recent survivor. Keep in mind that n=1 and that I have never been on the other side (served on a search committee). Let me know if you find it useful or have other opinions and tips!

The job search is overwhelming and extremely time consuming. If you plan to apply, you probably want to abandon most if not all of your experimental plans for the coming months. If you are fortunate enough to land some in-person interviews, then these six stages will keep you occupied for basically an entire year:

  • Stage 1: Looking for job postings
  • Stage 2: The written application
  • Stage 3: Wait
  • Stage 4: The interview
  • Stage 5: Wait again
  • Stage 6: Negotiate

Below, I’ll explore each of these stages in detail.

Stage 1: Looking for job postings

Your big paper is out (or very close) and you and your adviser have agreed that you should try the job market this year. What now? The first step is to see what’s out there. Jobs will get posted through the summer and fall. You can setup email alerts from job sites like Nature Jobs or NeuroJobs (make sure to see if there are field-specific job sites or listservs for your specialty e.g. if you’re more on the psych end of neuro you can try the PsychJobsWiki). Also note that some places, like Rockefeller and Janelia, always have calls. If you’re on Twitter, check out @NeuroRumblr, which tweets out job posts regularly (you can also check http://neurorumblr.com/). Neurorumblr maintains “The List,” a list of people on the market for search committees to check, so feel free to add yourself to that! Especially if you’re a woman or minority, search committees may be looking to diversify their applicant pool and can use The List to seek you out for opportunities. Finally, do not discount the power of word-of-mouth. Tell people you are applying! Everyone you can think of, especially anyone you know at an institution you’re interested in joining. Word-of-mouth can help generate buzz about your application and can also give you insight into what the search committee is looking for or whether there might be a job opening on the horizon that hasn’t been officially posted yet.

As you accumulate information about job openings, you are going to want to stay organized. Make a spreadsheet. Include columns for the institution, its location, the department posting the job, the due date, a link to the application website or job posting, the materials that are required and their page limits or other specifications, instructions for submitting your references, and any information at all you can collect about the search committee and what they might be looking for. Sort the spreadsheet by the due date column and now you know where to start.

You may find yourself with an overwhelming list of possibilities. This is a good thing! There are lots of jobs out there — hooray! Initially, write down anything at all that sounds interesting to you. Do not exclude a posting from your spreadsheet because you think you already have enough or because you think the job would be either above or below you. Just collect possibilities.

When you sit down to actually write applications, though, you may need to winnow. The number of applications you submit is highly personal. Now it’s time for some self-reflection. What are you looking for in a job? Must you get an academic job at all costs? Or, would you like an academic job only if it could be in a certain location or type of department and otherwise you’ll look at other things (that is OK!)? What mix of research and teaching do you want? Do you need to do an “all out” search this year or could you do a very selective search and go on the market again next year if it doesn’t work out? My personal belief is that you should apply and only apply for the jobs you actually want. Don’t psych yourself out of applying to anything, but also don’t psych yourself into applying for jobs you’re not excited about. Here are some example scenarios:

  1. Applying to very few jobs: Your paper isn’t quite out and you think maybe you’re not ready for the job market yet, or you’re considering non-academic career paths, but then you take a look and see your dream job posted. The exact city, institution, department, teaching load, etc that you want. Perfection. Apply. Apply to that one job. Why not? If you don’t get it, you’ll just wait until next year like you were planning anyway, but now you’ll have a little bit of experience putting together a job app and so you’ll be even more prepared. Not a bad downside (apps take a long time, yes, but one app isn’t that bad), and the upside, of course, is enormous: You nail your exact dream job! Also (contrary to some popular belief?) having only one offer, if that’s what you end up with, doesn’t completely sap your negotiating power (more on that in Stage 6).
  2. Applying to all the jobs: For whatever reason, you must leave your postdoc this year. You cannot conceive of life without an academic professorship. Then, you must be prepared to get excited about and apply to all the jobs. To help motivate you and clarify whether this path is right for you, think about whether this situation really holds true in your case (are there really no jobs posted to which you wouldn’t prefer an industry/policy/consulting/fill-in-the-blank position?), but if it does, then you know what you need to do. Go all in.
  3. Applying to some jobs: The Goldilocks zone where most of us fall. You want to take advantage of the momentum of your recently published paper, but you could possibly stay another year in your postdoc. You really like academic research, but other factors come into your decision as well (Where do I want to live? Can my spouse move anywhere? What kind of colleagues do I want to have? Do I prefer a med school over a college or vice versa? Are only certain places really able to financially support the kind of research I most want to do?). My approach was to consider each position on my list and ask: if my only offer came from this institution, how would I feel? If the answer was “Yes! Great!” then I kept it on the list. If the answer was “kind of disappointed that this is all I got,” I did not apply. I’ve heard of people applying to places they aren’t excited about because they think it might give them the opportunity to have a counteroffer to use as a negotiation tool. I think this approach is disingenuous and wastes everyone’s time. You don’t know if you’ll get an offer from any specific place. This isn’t like college or grad school where you have “safeties;” it’s all about fit. If you don’t like a place, then you’re not a good fit for it. People might not be able to tell that you’re unenthusiastic on paper, but it will likely come out in an interview and could damage your reputation. Besides, as I’ll discuss in Stage 6 on negotiation, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have more than one offer and if you’re not really going to accept your “counteroffer” it’s not a powerful negotiation tool anyway.

Stage 2: The written application

You’ve got your list, it’s sorted by application due date, and you’re ready to get started! OK, that’s not quite how it goes. In reality, you’ll need to work on preparing your written application materials simultaneously with Stage 1. Plan on spending the summer before your job cycle (July and August) writing up a generic job application. Then, you can use that as a base to create a more specific, tailored version for each job you’re applying to as the due dates come up. Here are the main components you’ll want to have ready:

Cover Letter

As the name implies, the cover letter is likely to be the first thing a search committee member sees. For today’s harried search committee member a quick look at your cover letter and CV is enough for them to determine whether to look any further. Other than nice formatting, there’s not much you can do about your CV at this point, but your cover letter is personal. You can and should use it to provide an engaging narrative about your career trajectory and vision. You should also explain why you think you’re a particularly good fit for this position. Tailor extensively. You should, of course, make a scientific argument, but you can also make a somewhat personal one. For example, when applying to schools in Philadelphia, I did mention that I’m from there and that my family is still in the area. Why? Because it makes me more likely to accept an offer. If I had roughly equivalent offers from two places, but one would bring me home and the other would not, I would go home. That’s a potentially important advantage for the school if they try to recruit you. Knowing that you are recruitable might make them more likely to interview you (remember that the search committee does not want their search to fail). I noticed that some applications did not specifically ask for a cover letter or said it was optional. However, I always included one. Why miss the opportunity to personalize and explain yourself? Keep the cover letter to one or two pages though. No one wants to read your memoir. The tone should always be respectful and professional, even if you are giving a few personal details.


Make sure you have an updated and professional-looking CV ready to go. There is no set format, so use your best judgement. Keep it clean and easy to read. Make sure to list contact info, education, awards, publications and grant support. You may also want to list professional memberships, invited reviews or talks, and teaching or mentoring activities. Don’t just use your NIH Biosketch (now it has all that narrative stuff you don’t want here anyway). Here are some helpful tips, though not specific to the sciences: http://theprofessorisin.com/2016/08/19/dr-karens-rules-of-the-academic-cv/

A note on unpublished work: You can list publications that are “in submission” or “under review.” These count for something, if not for as much as an accepted manuscript. Don’t say what journal (maybe a reference can mention that in their letter). Don’t bother listing things that are “in preparation.” That’s pretty much taken as meaningless and desperate as far as I can tell. If you’ve got an excellent (definitely fundable) score on a grant, I think you can list that even if the funding hasn’t officially come through yet. Just make sure to be clear about what’s going on so people don’t feel misled later.


Identify your references. By identifying these people well ahead of time, you both make sure they are prepared to support you and you have the opportunity to ask them for their advice on the job application process. They may have important tips you’ll want to know about from the beginning. You will need three references. Some places, but not all, allow you to select more, but I wouldn’t go this route unless you feel strongly that the fourth or fifth reference adds something specific to your application. Likely, you will ask your graduate school adviser and your postdoctoral adviser (if you don’t, people will wonder why not and you’ll definitely need to explain yourself). So the real question is, who is your third reference? The chair of your Ph.D. thesis committee is one obvious choice. Alternatively, if you’ve collaborated closely with another lab, you may want to ask the PI of that lab. Consider who knows you the best and would be certain to be enthusiastic about you should he or she receive a phone call from the search committee. I’m not sure, but I think you may also want to consider the name recognition of your third reference. If you find yourself choosing between Dr. Nobel-Prize-who-definitely-knows-your-name and Dr. I’m-new-here-but-we’re-great-friends…. well, let’s just say you shouldn’t overvalue how many beers you’ve had with the person. As long as Dr. Nobel knows you scientifically then he or she is a great asset.

Once you’ve chosen your references and confirmed their willingness to support your application, you’ll want to stay in close touch with them as your list from Stage 1 develops. These references are key people who can provide input on your list, potentially including inside information. Also, if your postdoc adviser knows that your absolute first choice is University X and they are giving a talk there next month, they can make sure to highlight your work and talent and the fact you’re applying — super incredibly helpful!

Make sure to keep your references up to date on exactly how and when to submit. Of all the parts of your application, the procedures for submitting references are probably the most variable. Don’t make your supporters work extra hard to support you and risk having them do it wrong or miss a deadline. Make it easy. Remind them. Get their administrative assistants, if they have them, on board. It is your responsibility to make sure everything is submitted properly.

Research Statement

If you’re applying to R1 institutions, the research statement is the core of your application. Spend lots of time on this statement. You may even want to personalize it a bit for each institution, or at least the ones which are your top choices. Some places did not give a page limit for the research statement. Others on my list gave limits of 2, 3 or 5 pages. I ended up making a 2 and 3 page version of the statement, then just using the 3 page version for anything with a higher limit, however I would recommend also making the 5 page version. That said, 3 pages worked just fine. Remember that the search committee has a huge stack to read and they likely aren’t obsessing over every detail. Some may even appreciate a shorter statement that gets to the point. In fact, what I would have done to create my 5 page version is to add more interesting visual data not more words. Unless the application gives explicit instructions to the contrary, the research statement should include some short descriptions of your previous work as well as your future plans. Try to connect the dots, illustrating (show don’t tell) how your experience thus far has made you uniquely prepared to tackle your future research program. Make sure to include your Big Vision at the beginning and end. Ask for recent examples from people you know in your field to help you get started. Definitely ask for lots of feedback on your drafts from as many different peers and mentors as possible before finalizing. Don’t be shy — ask these people to be as critical as possible. Maybe even see if you can go to a writing coach to address style issues. If English isn’t your first language (or even if it is!), make sure someone checks your grammar. Here’s your chance to make an impression and it’s entirely within your control. Do everything you can.

Teaching Statement

Not all applications will ask you for a teaching statement, but many will. The importance of a teaching statement varies depending on how heavily the job will rely on your teaching prowess. I only have experience applying to R1 institutions and in this case my impression was that no one paid much attention to the teaching statement. Really, you just have to write something plausible about how you love communicating science and want to have a hand in training the next generation of innovators. Keep it short and sweet (<1 page). I divided mine into an “experience” and a “philosophy” section. I got no feedback on this from anyone, even when I asked. Like I said, no one seemed to care. If you’re applying to teaching positions, however, then obviously the situation is very different. Here, experience will be key. You will actually want to show that you know how to teach and communicate science. You may even have actual pedagogical training you’ll want to talk about. I apologize I know nothing about this side of things, but please go ask for help at your Career Center!

Other Random Stuff

There may be other small things required for specific applications. For example, California public schools require a “Diversity Statement.” I also had to write some short lay summaries of my publications for one app. Take these as they come! Mostly, they won’t require a huge amount of work each, but you do want to note that you’ll need to create these app-specific materials in your spreadsheet so you can budget time for them.

Stage 3: Wait

Emotionally, waiting can actually be the hardest part of the application process. You put quite a lot of yourself into your applications. You know they’re out there in the world somewhere, but you have no idea who’s reading them or if they’re impressed or maybe everyone’s just having a good laugh at your naiveté and oh my god you’ve totally embarrassed yourself you should just quit now and see if you can move back in with your parents. [Takes a deep breath.] Unfortunately, there’s no way to know. In most cases, you won’t hear back negative news, so it’s hard to know when to give up hope that you will hear good news. I got my first interview invitation in November and my last in March, so that’s a pretty huge span of time. You might want to think about taking up meditation.

Actually, while you’re waiting, you can prepare yourself for the stress of traveling by getting TSA pre-check (or Global Entry if you’re applying internationally). You’ll be flying a lot soon, so consider it an investment in your sanity. The job application process is stressful enough; minimize what you can. While you’re at it, sign up for frequent flyer programs (why not see if you can earn yourself a vacation at the end of all this hard work?).

Stage 4: The interview

Interviews! Getting an interview is a huge first step. My understanding is that many academic job postings will be getting something like 300–500 applicants. They might interview ~1–3% in person. Getting an interview, in other words, is harder than getting into an Ivy League college. And that’s starting from a pool of applicants who’ve made it relatively successfully through a Ph.D. and postdoc. That’s just crazy. So, if you got an interview, even just one, pat yourself on the back. Celebrate! But then get down to prepping because there’s a lot to do. This is probably where I have the most to say.

The Skype Interview

Before I get into my advice for the in-person interview, I’ll just comment that more and more places now are doing Skype interviews as an intermediate stage. Here, they might interview 20 or 30 people, then decide to invite 4 or 5 of those. I only did one Skype interview, so my experience is very limited. My impression was that the main purpose was to screen out people who are rude, extremely socially awkward, not truly capable of thinking on their feet, or simply not that interested in the position. There are also other possible reasons, like assessing if you have a particular technical skill used in your paper (was that you or your collaborator?). Now, that doesn’t mean if you don’t get an in-person interview after Skype, you were horrible. It means: the search committee had an idea of the 4 or 5 they wanted to invite, but they figured they’d check first whether or not they were making a mistake. If you were pick 6 or 7 on their list and one of the already preferred 4–5 did not live up to expectations, then you’re in luck, but otherwise the committee will just go along with what they already decided. There’s no way to tell where you stand, so just do your best to act like a normal human and be honest but confident about your abilities. Know who you’re going to talk to and study their pictures so you can recognize them easily on the Skype call. Have answers prepared to basic stock interview questions:

  • How will your research address key questions in your field? What is your long-term research vision?
  • How will your research benefit from being done at University X? What interests you about this position?
  • Any questions for us? (Try to ask something that indicates your knowledge and interest in the specific job)

The in-person interview

Ok, now the fun stuff. Seriously. Although interviewing can be stressful, this is probably the first time in your career you will really be treated like faculty. It’s great! You get picked up at airports in private cars, put up in nice hotels, taken out to gourmet meals. People give you complimentary introductions before your talks and seem genuinely interested in what you have to say. Try to envision yourself as faculty as you interview. That was actually very hard for me (especially when I interviewed at my undergrad institution where I distinctly remembering being a shy and confused 19 year old), but once I got the hang of it, I felt more relaxed. Like I was actually meant to be there. And you are. Recognize and manage Impostor Syndrome. Remember that 1–3% number and repeat this mantra in the bathroom mirror every few hours: “I am awesome and people are excited to meet me. I am awesome and people are excited to meet me.”


What do you wear to an interview? A tricky question. You’ll need at least three reasonable outfits to make it through an initial dinner and two day interview. You might want an extra outfit in case something gets torn or stained and you might want sets for warmer and colder climbs. Most interviews are in winter, so unless you’re interviewing only in California or the South, you’ll also want to have warm stuff like a nice coat and dressy boots. Pack an umbrella. Remember that the east coast tends to be slightly more formal than the west coast. I think the aim is to dress at the same level or perhaps slightly nicer than the faculty. You want show you care (and in some cases may want to come off as older than you are), but science also judges people for being too formal. Business suits are overkill. Guys can probably wear a collared shirt and nice sweater. For ladies, I prefer skirts or dresses to pants, but it’s your call. Don’t show any cleavage or bra straps and keep skirts or dresses knee length or maybe just above. Remember that you’ll need to give a very important talk (the job talk!) in your interview outfit. Don’t wear anything that will have you twisted up and awkwardly pulling something back into place up there in front of everyone. Don’t wear anything that will show nervous sweat stains. If you never wear heels, now is probably not the time to start. Try not to wear brand new shoes and bring bandages for blisters in your bag (I definitely had an unfortunate and stressful search for a Walgreen’s one morning before a big interview day). Also relevant to the talk: most places will want to mic you. Try to wear something that has a non-awkward place to clip the microphone battery pack. For most guys’ clothes this isn’t a problem, but for a lady wearing a dress, it can be. Finally, you’ll want to stay on time during your meetings and can’t be looking at your phone every 2 seconds, so wear a watch you can check discretely. I don’t have a smart watch, but they seem like they could be useful in this situation (could you set it to buzz your wrist 2 min before the scheduled meeting end without you actually having to look at it?). Practice a couple gracious ways to remind your current meeting person that you need to get going. You won’t have to keep track of time at all your interviews — some places have a person showing you around who’s responsible for that — but you need to be prepared in case it falls on you.

Bring supplies

The circumstances of each individual interview can vary and you have to be ready to adapt. It helps to bring your own supplies because even though most places will have stuff for you, there could be a random one that doesn’t or where something is broken. Bringing your own supplies is just a small way to make things more predictable. Bring:

  • Laser pointer/slide advancer (one you’ve practiced with!)
  • VGA/HDMI adapters for projectors
  • Laptop and charger
  • Phone (on silent) and charger
  • Printout of your schedule
  • Phone numbers in case you’re lost or locked out (yes, this happened to me a couple of times)
  • White board markers and chalk
  • Your first aid kit: cough drops, eye drops, spare contacts, mints, lip balm, ibuprofen, bandaids/blister stuff
  • Energy bars — because apparently some places like to make your chalk talk during lunch?!? Which means you cannot eat. Which means you will be hangry. Which, if you have an energy bar, means you can go to the bathroom and eat it as fast as possible before anyone gets suspicious.

The Job Talk

The Job Talk is probably one of the most important talks you’ll ever give, but format-wise it is like every other talk you’ll ever give. Usually about an hour is scheduled. You’ll want to have a talk that takes about 45 min to give so that there’s time for starting a few minutes late and having ~10 min of questions at the end. Do not go on too long and leave no time for questions. No. Questions are incredibly important. Nothing is too precious to get cut from your talk if it’s going to push you over 45 min and take away from questions. You can have a few extra slides at the end that were cut from the main talk in case someone asks a question. Also have a few slides near the end of your talk that you have already practiced skipping in case time is running short.

Like any talk, the biggest key to acing your job talk is practice. Practice a lot. Practice for different people. Practice for your lab, but also scientists outside your immediate field. Practice, if possible, for a communications coach who can give you style tips. Practice on video and watch yourself. Starting to feel bored of your talk? Ok, stop practicing. Save just a smidgen of nervous energy so you can be enthusiastic.

For question time, the key is to stay calm and non-defensive. Engage. Be excited about people’s feedback on your work! Be ready to speculate about the future directions your work could head, perhaps musing on how great it would be to have University X’s resources to do so.

One difference between this talk and talks you may have given previously is that you must talk like a PI. Not a graduate student, not a postdoc. You’re a PI now. Everyone in the audience is evaluating whether you will be a good PI, so act like a PI. This means taking some more ownership of your work than you may be used to. Use “I” instead of “we” sometimes, especially when talking about intellectual breakthroughs in the project that you led. It’s a careful balance where you don’t want to sound too egotistical. However, my suspicion is that most of us who are used to being grad students and postdocs err in the other direction. We act too differential to our big shot PI and forget to make clear how much of our own personal blood, sweat, tears and (most importantly!) intellectual creativity went into the work.

Finally (again like for any talk), consider your audience. Giving a talk to a neuroscience department is different than giving a talk to a psychology department is different than giving a talk to a biology department. Adjust. Your. Background. You want to engage everyone. Drop data slides if you have to; a key person on the search committee who is outside your subfield cannot be left feeling baffled by your talk.

The Chalk Talk

The Chalk Talk is not like any other talk you’ve ever given. There’s no obvious format, it varies a lot from place to place, there will be many interruptions and you never know what will get thrown at you. No lunch? Deal. Chalk board to high for you to reach? Deal. None of the markers work? That’s why you brought your own! To be honest, I don’t think I ever mastered the chalk talk. I could have done a lot better. But in any case, I’ll do my best to give advice here. Also please do check out Leslie Vosshall’s excellent advice: http://vosshall.rockefeller.edu/assets/file/ChalkTalk.pdf

The main advice I have is the same advice I gave for the Job Talk: talk like a PI and stay calm and non-defensive. Other than that, I can say that I think most people err in their Chalk Talk by not giving enough big picture. Resist the temptation to jump into the details of which restriction sites to use for your cloning, or what virus serotype would work best. As people who’ve been at the bench all our careers, it’s where our minds are used to spending a lot of time, but it’s not where a PI spends their time. Have a vision statement and then some plans as to what your first R01 would look like. Go over the aims broadly, only delving into details if specific questions are asked. Manage your time so that you make it through all your aims. Have a sum up statement ready to go for the end so you can leave everyone with a strong parting thought. And practice, practice, practice. Know what you want to draw to illustrate each point. Practice drawing it. Make sure to keep drawings simple and written words short — it takes a lot longer to write than to speak and you don’t want to leave boring awkward silences while you’re writing. I did not practice enough, in part because the format made me feel so awkward that I avoided it, but of course that means I needed to practice way more.

One-on-one Meetings

One-on-one meetings are one of the funnest parts of interviewing. You will get to meet a lot of amazing scientists and they will be giving you their full attention for 30–60 mins. You really will start to feel like a PI. My first bit of advice here is to try to accept coffee or tea or any other treat they offer you. Often times, they are asking because they really want an excuse to have some themselves, so let them! Also, you often get interesting stuff like fancy exotic tea. Next, ask about their science. Scientists love nothing more than their science. You can also ask to see their lab space, particularly if they have cool stuff. One of the most fun things I got to do on an interview was hold one of Elena Gracheva’s hibernating squirrels. It was awesome! Finally, be prepared to give a quick spiel about your science and possible common points of interest (though if it’s too much of a stretch it’ll be obvious, so don’t push it). Have some questions to ask them about what it’s like to work at University X. Don’t ask things you should probably already know like “is there teaching?” If you know there’s teaching, though, you can ask “What do you teach?” or “How do you like teaching the students here?” As much as possible, try to relax and be yourself. Ask what interests you. Talk PI to PI. If the idea of these one-on-one meetings stresses you out, know that you can practice for them as well. Ask your mentors or someone at your Career Center to give you a mock interview so you can get used to the format and types of topics that might come up. Just mentally getting in that space and trying it on for size may help you relax and enjoy yourself.


Dinner is usually also very fun. It’s more informal than the one-on-one meetings and the faculty will be looking to show you a good time. Often, they will want to drink. Unless you don’t drink (which is ok, but say so), my advice is to drink with them, but be careful not to get sloppy. Try to stick to a drink per hour or so (obviously everyone has their own personal limits, so know yours). For food, I found it very hard to read and wisely consider the menu while also keeping up with the conversation. Then, I realized that you will often know the restaurant ahead of time because it will be printed on your schedule. Therefore, my advice is to read the menu beforehand and have already decided what to do. Just pretend to look over the menu when you get there. This way, you can be sure not to impulsively order something crazy messy or awkward to eat in front of people who (let’s be honest) are still judging you. Finally, listen carefully. People let their guard down at dinner, especially after a drink or two. Listen to what the faculty are griping about: these are the real cons of the place that no one will tell you about otherwise.

Inappropriate Questions and Caveats for Women and Minorities

It totally sucks that I have to write this section, but I think I do. Inappropriate questions are going to happen during your interviews, more so if you’re not a white male, and you need to be prepared. I’m a white female, so I can’t speak directly to the minority experience, but I imagine a lot will translate from the female experience. Real examples of questions I received during my interviews:

  • Are you married?
  • What does your husband do? Will he be able to move?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Do you want more kids?
  • Who is taking care of your baby right now?

Unfortunately, I only realized at the end of my interviews that the best way to respond to these types of questions is truthfully but as succinctly as possible, before turning the conversation back towards science. Let’s take the question “Are you married?”

You want to say: “Yes, obviously you can see I’m wearing a ring, so why are you bothering to ask? Did literally no one tell you can’t ask me that?!?”

You might actually say: “Oh yes, I have a great husband. We met at a friend’s birthday party and really hit it off talking about how we both like chocolate. Then, for our first date…” (i.e. nervous blathering)

You should say: “Yes. It’s great to have a partner that’s really supportive of my career. Speaking of which, I think we could have some great collaborations…”

Another type of sexist thing to be prepared to respond to is comments on your dress or appearance. In this day and age, it’s unlikely someone’s going to whistle and yell “Nice gams!” but other more subtle stuff will happen. One important PI who shall remain unnamed looked me up and down and said “You’re taller than I thought you’d be.” I mean….how tall did you think I’d be? Why did you have any preconception at all? Why would my height be a thing to comment on since it has no relevance to my ability to do the job? After some thought, I think the best way to respond to this is to basically ignore it. Smile and say, “Great to meet you.” Move on. Then file “creepy dude” under your list of cons for the place. I know, I know. My advice amounts to “just take it,” which isn’t great. But if you really want the job, what other choice do you have? If the offense is bad enough you now don’t want the job at all, maybe you can be more forceful. Otherwise, try to get in and change things once you have power. Side note to anyone with any power reading this: Please have your department briefed by HR before your next round of interviews. By not doing so, you may be undermining your best intentions to recruit women and minorities to your department.

Finally, one other way being a woman or minority could affect you is that you may be afforded fewer assumptions about your technical competency. It’s hard to say since you can’t know what questions are being asked of other candidates. However, in some interviews I was asked to explain and defend some very basic technical stuff in a tone which led me to suspect the person might be assuming I didn’t do or understand the experiments myself. There’s pretty much nothing you can do about this except remember that you know your science damn well. Answer with confidence. Try to assume they’re just curious or ignorant themselves rather than jumping into a defensive mindset. Maybe they question everyone that way. But don’t be caught off guard.

Stage 5: Wait again

See Stage 3. Waiting is hard. Try not to review the thousand tiny things you should have done differently. Now might be a good time to binge watch Westworld? Make sure to write thank you notes to the people who invited you or to anyone you particularly liked talking to or have a need to follow up with (e.g. to answer one of their questions more fully). What can make Stage 5 particularly hard is that it can bleed into Stage 6. That is, you may get an early offer. Even if this early offer is fantastic, unless it’s just absolutely no question everything you want without negotiating at all, you’ll want to sit tight. You can start some tentative negotiations, but ask the offering institution to wait until your interviews are complete for a final answer. Proceed to Stage 6!

Stage 6: Negotiate

First of all, if you made it to this stage, congratulations! It’s a job, a real-life job you can write home about. If you followed my advice in Stage 1, it should be a job that you’re excited about accepting. Maybe you have just one job offer or maybe you have more than one. Either is great. My opinion, now that I’ve gone through the process, is that the two situations aren’t as different from each other as you might think. Why not? A few reasons:

  • Leverage in a negotiation comes from a willingness to walk away. If you have one offer or ten, you have to be willing to walk away. Now, it’s easier to walk away from one job offer if you’ve got others to turn to (although only if you’re also excited about those offers!! These shouldn’t be fake backup “safeties” you don’t want to accept), but you can walk away even if you have only one offer. Not only that, you should have a point at which you’ll walk away no matter what. Remember you’re a smart, competent person who can always go get a nice non-academic job or maybe try the academic job market again next year. You can’t accept an offer that sets you up for failure. Think carefully about what you need to succeed before you say “yes.”
  • The department doesn’t want their search to fail. In most cases, the department can only make one offer at a time, so if they’ve made an offer to you, there’s a huge opportunity cost. Other folks they could have made an offer to are making other plans and they’ll soon lose their ability to make any other offers this season. In other words, once the department makes you an offer, they will be very reluctant to walk away. That gives you leverage regardless of how many other offers you have!
  • Most departments probably have a budget in mind anyway. A department might try to see if they can get a “deal,” but ultimately they probably have a cap on how much startup they can give. If a department has $1M to give it’s hire in startup, that won’t suddenly double to $2M because you have a counteroffer. No matter how many other offers you have, you should push a little to see what the most you can get would be, but making outrageous demands beyond what the department could possibly afford won’t get you anywhere no matter what.

Going into the negotiation, you need to be prepared with numbers. What major equipment do you need in your lab and how much will it cost (round up)? At the same time, you’re going to need to be sensitive to the finances of the department. You may want to ask around quietly about what other recent hires were given to get a sense of what’s reasonable. For the most part, keep in mind that medical school departments will have more money than undergraduate departments. However, at a med school you’ll probably be on soft money for your salary, i.e. you’ll have to pay yourself, so keep that in mind when comparing packages.

In general, it’s best to focus on mutual benefit during a negotiation. The school should want to set you up for success because it will provide them with a return on their investment. You should want to have enough equipment that you can accommodate all the exciting collaborations discussed during your interview. Etc. Keep discussions cordial; these people will be your colleagues soon.

As you negotiate, remember that you can ask for plenty of stuff other than startup money. Here’s some other things to consider negotiating for:

  • Space: Space is the number one thing my postdoc adviser told me to ask for. If your startup is a little small, you can hustle a little extra hard to get grant money, but if your space is too limited, it’s going to be very hard to change later. Ask for more space, ask for better space, ask for renovations (never let renovations costs come from your startup). Ask for office space, ask for animal space. If at all possible, get room numbers and square footage specified in your offer letter so there’s no questions about it later.
  • Core equipment usage: If you can use core equipment, then you don’t have to buy it yourself. Check whether the cores at your potential new institution have what you need. If not, ask if they can buy it (make a case as to how the purchase could be useful to the school at large). Ask for preferential access to sign up for time in the cores or free hours of usage.
  • Lighter teaching load: Some schools really need you to teach immediately, but some have the flexibility to give you a break on teaching in your first few years.
  • Spots on training grants: Guaranteed spots for your students on training grants, or any other financial support for your future lab members, is money in your pocket.
  • Saving your startup: Make sure you can keep startup money indefinitely if you haven’t spent it in the first 3 years. These funds are special because they’re unrestricted. According to my postdoc advisor, unrestricted money is worth 3x NIH money just because of how hard it is to come by. Don’t give it away.
  • Start date: Research-heavy positions should be flexible on start date. Teaching positions, on the other hand, may need you to show up at the start of a semester. In any case, know that you can discuss when the best time to start would be. If you can, consider taking a bit of time off before starting your faculty position. It’ll be your last chance to veg for awhile since you’ll soon begin the race for tenure. A mental health break might be a really really good idea!
  • Housing/mortgage assistance: If your offer is in a place where housing is relatively expensive, financial assistance with buying a home is something to consider. Chances are that schools in expensive areas have already thought about housing affordability and may have some official programs in place, but if they don’t, ask. Ask around to see what other recent hires may have gotten.
  • Perks: Are there any perks available that would help you out? Can you get a parking spot? Can you make sure there’s a daycare slot for your kid or get childcare assistance?
  • Help for your spouse: If the department really wants you, they should try to help your spouse relocate with you. How much the department can do will depend a lot on what your spouse does for a living. It might be very hard to come up with a second tenure track faculty position, but maybe they can offer some other position with the potential to turn it into tenure track later. They can’t directly get your spouse a job in a nearby law firm, but who knows, maybe someone has a personal networking connection they can give you? Communicate with the department about what you’re looking for.
  • Moving costs: I believe most places should pay your moving costs, but there are different ways it can work. Clarify and try to make sure you won’t be left with any big unexpected bills.
  • Salary: Salary…there’s a reason this is last on my list. It’s the most uncomfortable thing to ask for and can also be the trickiest. The best situation is if you know what other assistant professors make, but often times people don’t like to talk about their salary. Know that salaries at public schools should be available as a matter of public record. You can also look at sites like Glassdoor.com to get a sense. Finally, here is a bit of advice you can check: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/400-the-professor-is-in-ok-let-s-talk-about-negotiating-salary. My advice would be not to push hard here. Do make sure you are being paid fairly in comparison with your peers (ladies, don’t become a wage gap statistic).

The Final Takeaway

Going on the job market can bring the highest highs and lowest lows; it’s quite a journey. I hope this guide helps others through it more smoothly! As always in life, remember to be kind to yourself. Good luck!!!



Talia Lerner

Mostly a neuroscientist. Sometimes I do other stuff, too. Check out my lab at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine: lernerlab.org