Observations from the Academic Job Market

  • 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

Stage 1: Looking for job postings

  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

Cover Letter



Research Statement

Teaching Statement

Other Random Stuff

Stage 3: Wait

Stage 4: The interview

The Skype Interview

  • 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


Bring supplies

  • 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 Chalk Talk

One-on-one Meetings


Inappropriate Questions and Caveats for Women and Minorities

  • 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?

Stage 5: Wait again

Stage 6: Negotiate

  • 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.
  • 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




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

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Talia Lerner

Talia Lerner

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

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