The Academic Job Search, The Story of You

“You think it’s easy being the boss?”

Tony Soprano

I set up this blog with the intent of periodically writing my thoughts on a variety of topics. I haven't been able to write as much as I would have liked. Junior faculty like happened. Quoting the arguably-great, arguably deranged Tony Soprano, “You think it’s easy being the boss?”. To me, one of the hardest, yet most profound, things I have learnt about being a junior faculty has been to embrace the messiness and joy of uploading one's ideas to someone's brain and downloading the ideas from their brain. I haven't written about this previously. I have reached the point where I have put together an awesome team of students and researchers who I have an easy and enjoyable working relationship with. And now I can make more time to write about things such I am about to write about: the faculty job search!

Disclaimer: This is going to be long. I don't want the length of it to cause an "oh sh*t, this is hard" reaction. The truth is though, it is hard, but I do believe it is totally doable; many have done it and many more will. What you will find are details of how I approached the academic job search, things I learned along the way and that I hope can help others out there. What I tell people is that I learnt so much about myself during this time. My first advice is don't listen to (all of) my advice. Your field, circumstances and personality most likely are very different from mine. I do believe, however, that there are certain dimensions of the academic search process that tend to be the same irrespective of your field; they're just the nature of the beast. Now, how you (should) react to the different scenarios does depend on your field/personality. This is not a guide about the mechanics of putting together an application package. It's about all the little things, that together become big, which impact the faculty job search and that no one had told me about! It's also about a perspective that I believe can make the experience a valuable one, no matter the outcome.

1. Deciding to apply: know thou circumstances, act accordingly

One should have an honest objective conversation with oneself to gage one's level of preparedness. The keywords here are "honest", "objective". I am not speaking here of the internal conversations that are so common among academics where we compare ourselves to others. Those are neither honest, nor objective. I am speaking here about the kind of internal dialogue where, having decided that one wants to become a faculty, one proceeds to figure out concrete steps that would give one the best chance of success in the future. How do you figure this out? Everyone's process is different. Here's how I did it: I got on the market 3 years after obtaining my PhD, and yes, it was a conscious decision. When I obtained my PhD in 2011, I was very confident about my technical knowledge and my ability to take a well-formulated research problem, deconstruct and/or figure out the steps (topics to learn) that would ultimately allow me to solve the problem. The skill that I proceeded to hone over the next 3 years, and that I was just beginning to learn, is the ability to formulate my own ideas. I did a 3 year postdoc to do just that, and published a body of work based on ideas I formulated myself. To me (and that may be different for others), a well-prepared junior faculty is one able to not only generate interesting, unique ideas, but also to guide a team to execute those. I was not fully prepared at the end of my PhD to do the latter. I sat down with myself and decided to take a few years to become prepared. I was willing to walk away from academics at the end of those 3 years if I did not believe I had become prepared at the end of them. It is important, once you begin the process, to talk to a trusted friend/partner/mentor, who can help you be as objective and encouraging as possible. One benefit of having this convo with yourself is that it lays the ground work for preparing your application package!

2. Preparing the package/getting letters

The first important part of the process is putting together your application package, which typically consists of a CV, research/teaching statements, recommendation letters and sample publications. This is a very important step, for two reasons, one of which is obvious, the other less so. The 1st obvious reason is that this is your opportunity to present yourself to a search committee in such a way that you are one of 5 people to stand out in a group of 300 applications. The 2nd, less obvious reason, is because the process of putting together the application will (should) help you sift through the nebulousness of your interests: what do I want to work on for the next 5 to 7 years? are these topics that are genuinely find interesting? or are these topics that someone else (e.g. thesis advisor) finds interesting and that I have just been going along with? will I be able to raise money working on the problems I am interested in? The most succinct way in which I can summarize the process of putting together your application package is that one ought to think of it as telling a story: you are telling the story of what you've done, what you'd like to do, how you will do it? Faculty on search committees will read your application. They may not be well acquainted with the technical details of your research. Still, when the package is put together well, said faculty should get an obvious sense of the relevance and logic of the story told by the applicant. There are two other storytellers in your application package: your letter writers and your publications. You should choose your letter writers wisely and help them to tell your story. You can do this by sharing your application package with them and by having a conversation with them about your plans. I did not find out about what I am about to write until after application season: do not be shy to ask potential letter writers if they are willing to write you a stellar recommendation letter. Given the odds involved, it can be very hard to bounce back from a lukewarm recommendation letter. You should choose your publications in such a way that they complement the story you want to come across in your application package. This idea of storytelling and the academic job search can be tremendously helpful when putting together your job talk!

3. The job talk

Putting the talk together

I think of the job talk as your application package, the story of you (minus the recommendation letters) put into the form of a presentation. One thing I learnt very early on, through observations of other people's job talk, is that a successful job talk looks nothing like what most of us purists think of when we think about a successful technical/talk. You must develop the ability to communicate complicated ideas to an audience with a similar breadth in background as the members of the search committee. Unless you are one of the stars in the market on a given year, a talk that, given in your departmental seminar, will be lauded for its technical depth, can paint you as an applicant with a very narrow focus that has a poor communication style. Believe it or not, the interview process can be very taxing to the search committee. I'd like to believe that search committees spend a great deal of time and involvement to decide who they invite. Following this logic, the candidates invited will almost always be stellar technically. You then need that je-ne-sais-quoi to separate between amazing applications. That's why, a lot of qualities, absent in most technical talks (given to an audience of experts), are being judged: your overall vision (the story), your teaching style, your communication style, your level of collegiality, your enthusiasm.

Here is how I put together my own job talk. I took me a few weeks to converge to this style and a few more weeks to put the actual talk together. I believe the outline is not very field specific, though it is more geared towards an engineering/scientific audience rather than one in the humanities. The outline follows the chronological order of my talk.

  1. The Vision, imagined: The 2nd or 3rd slide of my talk was titled "The Vision". In it, there was picture of a ven diagram whose intersection summarized my interests and vision. On top of the ven diagram, was the most wordy sentence of all of my talk, which read the vision I had for my research. This was the most important slide of my talk. In one slide I told the committee that this is my story and this is what I plan to do. The rest of the talk is to support this vision.

  2. The Vision, I've done it before: Examples from my PhD and post-PhD work that demonstrates support this vision. I told the story two projects from my post-doctoral work (ideas that I belived where 100% my ideas) that I was super excited about.

  3. The Vision, spreading it: I gave examples of three exciting projects that I wanted to work on over the next few 5 years and the venues, the community, where the work would be published.

  4. The Vision, funding it: I talked about the funding agencies that would be excited about my work and how I would fund my research over the next 5 years.

  5. The Vision, how it fits in your institution: I talked about how someone with my background can fit in, in terms of research collaboration, in the institution I was applying to/interviewing in.

If you are paying close attention, the outline of my talk was centered around the vision and the story of my research. I highly recommend that you attend job talks at your institution and see different styles. I noticed there was a non-trivial correlation between job talks I enjoyed and people that ended up getting hired at different institutions where I have been. One common feature of the job talks I've enjoyed is that, whether I bought it or not, whether you agreed or not, an outside observer did not have to dig deep to answer the question: what is his/her vision? One thing that I did not understand until later is this: when you get the job, no one is going to hold you accountable for what you said you'd do in your job talk. So, what's the point? The mere fact that you were able to organize a job talk into a convincing and compelling form, about one particular research topic/direction, means that you have the intelligence and skills to do it for an entirely different research direction.

Practicing the job talk

It is importance to practice your job talk, both in front of a general group and in front of selective audiences. This is advice, based on my personal preferences, that you should feel free to throw away, but let me try to explain the logic. Practicing one's talk in front of a general group (the research group you are part of, your department's seminar series etc...). Why practice your talk in front of selective audiences? One advantage of thinking of the application, the job talk, as telling a story is that it helps you to delineate your ideas from those of others. That's why I think it's important to practice your talk in front of people whose opinion you respect. I do not mean to pick people who will only agree with you, but to practice the talk in intimate settings that will make it easier for you to receive and incorporate constructive feedback.

4. Getting invited!

This is the moment you wait for: when the phone starts to ring and the email notifications start to buzz with news that you have been invited for an on-site interview. It's a big deal, you should be excited! This is advice how I made the best of out of the opportunities to interview on-site. It will be in the form of a bulletpoint list. This advice can be summarized in one sentence

"If they invite you, they want you: focus on the process, not outcome, be selfish".

  1. One the best, most profound, pieces of advice I received on the interview trail was from a faculty on a search committee who told me [do not be afraid to be] "be selfish". The context for this comment was a discussion where he asked me what I would need/require in a start up package. I asked what they were willing to offer. His point was that, as much as they were interviewing, that I should also have been interviewing them. This led to a profound shift in my thinking about the academic interview process. Why? This was my on-site visit, and the one I thought went the best. I didn't get an offer in the end. And I did not feel bad about it. Now, before traveling for the interview, I had made all these assumptions, not grounded on reality, about the institution and city I was going to visit. The said institution is a great institution, with great faculty and arguably a great quality of life. In fact, a friend of mine is a professor and collaborator there. It just wasn't for me. But I only found later after changing my perspective. Some of you may be thinking that, I am only saying these things in hindsight, because in the end I got an offer and ended up becoming a faculty. I do not think this is fair though. Of course, I would have been disappointed not getting any offers, but I do believe that I still would have learnt a great deal about myself.

  2. One advantage of switching your perspective to "interviewing as much as being interviewed" is that it will enrich your interactions with the faculty you meet at the institutions where you are invited. At best, these faculty will become colleagues, at worst, they will become collaborators and letter writers. Some of the people I have met on the interview trail have become close academic mentors. Your one-on-one meetings are of multiple types: search committee members, potential collaborators, misc. faculty members. It's important to identify who is who and tailor the pitch accordingly. You can do this by closely studying your interview schedule and learning about the faculty on it. Group 1 (search committee members): know what you plan to do over the next 5 years, prepare an elevator pitch summary of your research plan and story, Group 2 (potential collaborators/faculty in your area): know your sh*t in and out, be ready to go on the board and be technical, show that you know the field. Group 3: Prepare an elevator pitch/high level summary of your work for a person in your `major' that does not work in your specific area of research.

  3. Beware of the quantization/analog-to-digital-conversion effect: Search committees consider 100s of applications and have to go through a process of selective reduction of the qualified applicant pool, culminating in those that will be invited for interviews. If you were invited, most likely you have a champion at the university inviting you. This person, whether or not they know the details of your work, must be able to summarize it to the faculty at large and be able to make a strong case that you will be an invaluable addition to the department. In the process, they must put you through what I call the quantization/analog-to-digital conversion effect: they must take you, a researcher with multi-faceted contributions that lie on a continuum and boil you down to your mere essentials. Think about what goes on when you compress or zip files/images or documents. Perhaps my research/accomplishments were too close to my heart, but I found myself pushing back when well-meaning, well-intentioned champions of me `summarized' me. It's not personal, and it does not define you, but that's what they must do. This is not uncommon in academia. I hear that tenure cases are often decided by the ability to say, in one sentence "Demba Ba is guy who did [fill-in-the-blanks]". And the blanks should be easy to fill.

  4. Think about answering (the plan is to give the sense you've seriously thought about these questions)

    • 5 year research plan
    • How will you raise money?
    • What do you plan to teach?
    • What's your advising style?
    • Where are you going to publish?
  5. Lunch, dinner, and being social: Make no mistake, you have to be on 100% of the time. You are being sized up (not in paranoid/ovearbearing way) all, the, time. Think about it, it's not just about the technical work, they'd like to know what type of a colleague you will be. Be yourself. In almost all of my trips, breakfast was a one-on-affair, lunch a large group and dinner a smaller group. I had a decent breakfast, kept lunch very light, and dinner more substantial.

  6. Stick to your guns, but stay professional in the face of adversity: here's a real scenario to make this concrete: one professor kept 'harassing' me about a detail of my approach, picture a lengthy question that disrupts the flow of your talk, then when you try to answer the question, the person keeps talking over you. It is important to keep your cool in these scenarios as this sends a signal to other faculty as to how you handle your self in tough situations and how professionally you can deal with tough situations. What I did was to listen to the man, without going into a shouting match. I knew the answer I initially gave to the question was right on but this faculty kept pushing the issue, at which point it was clear to other audience members that this person was being unreasonable. That is the point at which I told the faculty that I would be happy to discuss this further offline in the interest of keeping up with time and the rest of my talk. This is a perfect example, by the way, of someone (this faculty) not giving me the benefit of the doubt in that I had thought about these questions in and out for much longer than he had. It will happen. Handle it like the professional that you are.

  7. Miscellaneous

    • The interview: you can find a ton of advice online regarding how to dress. I wore a suit the day of my job talk and wore a business casual attire for dinner or days when I did not have to give a talk. It's important to be comfortable in your attire and yet professional.
    • Be enthusiastic and excited: your body language will show, show up as someone who is excited and enthusiastic about your work and ideas.
    • I got sick of my job talk: after my first interview, I was already sick of my job talk, because I had put so much time preparing and it and did not have enough distance before getting on the trail. I did not expect that this would happen. What did I do? I used the feedback I got after every visit and used it to refine my talk. I took the great questions, suggestions and advice that were in line with my story and incorporated them into the talk. The stuff I did not think was fair or in line with my story, I discarded. It made giving the same talk all over again much more fun and exciting.
    • The visit(s) can take an emotional/physical toll: the traveling, the long trips, etc..., you will get sick. It's important to take care of yourself in the process and to build a support network.
    • Keep an open mind: places you expected a lot of might disappoint you, places you discounted might surprise you.
    • Have lots of fun!
    • Follow up, follow up, genuinely, after you come back from the interview, whether you end up getting an offer or not.

5. Not getting offers

I want to start with, let's face it, what is the most likely outcome: not getting any offers. This being the most likely outcome, is why I believe that it is much more productive from a personal growth perspective to focus of the process of applying for faculty jobs, rather than the outcome. The only piece of insight I have here is that there is a lot of luck and randomness involved in getting a faculty job. I do not mean that it is not a fair process. What I mean is that a lot of stars have to align to get the best chances, the majority of which are not under your control: the area in which a given department is hiring, areas that are hot at the moment (any body working on deep learning or compressive sensing a few years ago must be smiling, does that mean you should bend yourself into the deep learning pretzel? I don't think so), your field, who is on the search committee. It doesn't make the lack of offers any less easier to get over, but I do believe it helps to put things into an objective perspective.

6. Getting offers!

You put in the hard work, you've learnt about yourself and the directions that really interest you, you told a compelling story that helped you to get an offer. What now?

  1. Arguably one of the hardest and stressful things I have had to do is to negotiate start-up packages. You will do this at most a handful of times during your life, while on the other hand admins at institutions have done this with 100s of people. The knowledge gap in this game is so one-sided that it makes in intimidating from the perspective of you, trying to negotiate that start up package.

  2. You can ask for anything, just make sure you can justify it: I am paraphrasing what I was told by an administrator. There is ton of information online about how to negotiate a start up package. The one I remember the most is that you only do this once, so you should make sure you do it right. You will need money for grad students, postdocs, traveling, equipment, you will need space. These are just examples of some of the things that comprise a start-up package. The tricky thing is how do you figure out how much of each you need, and how do you translate that into an amount? This is where you have to do your homework: talk to faculty friends about how they negotiated their own packages, find out about the costs of grad students/postdocs at the institution of interest (yes, it's ok to ask them to put you in touch with the people that have this information in the institution), finding about the cost of traveling to the conferences in your community, how many times a year will you be travelling? how many grad students will you need and for how many years until you can sustain them with grants? Again, this is a process of figuring yourself out. Your start up package is about asking for the money that will maximize your chances of success, while being reasonable and within the limits of the institution you are interested in. Do not sabotage yourself by asking for too little. Preserve your credibility by justifying any amount your ask for in terms of your vision and in a manner that shows you've done your homework.

  3. Negotiating your salary: talk to faculty friends, find out how much new professors in your field make, and about the cost of living in the city you would be moving to. No amount is unreasonable as long as you can logically justify it. Just remember that your starting salary will determine your future earnings. Do not sabotage yourself by asking for too little or for too much. I personally believe that you should negotiate your salary, whether you are successful in securing the figure you ask for, because it sends the message that you've actively thought about the issue. In other words, do not accept the first figure you are quoted. I know colleagues who disagree. You should use your own intuition here.

Disclaimer: This is not professional advice of any form. This perspective is based on my own experience, reading I've done while I was on the academic job market