Observations from the Academic Job Market

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

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

Cover Letter

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.

References

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

Teaching Statement

Other Random Stuff

Stage 3: Wait

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

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

Dress

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

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 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

Dinner

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?

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

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.

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

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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