Getting an Academic Job

by Dr. Mark MacLachlan

Working as an academic can be a great job. But landing a position is arduous, and hard studying alone is not going to get you there. You need a plan.

Dr. Mark MacLachlan, of the UBC Chemistry Department, facilitated a workshop on Getting a Job as an Academic. Be aware that different disciplines have different ways of doing things. Use this material as a base and then talk to graduate advisors and other specialists on the best way to look for work as an academic.

Advantages of a Career in Academia

  • Often very rewarding. You are able to pursue research and study in a field that interests you.
  • Academic freedom. You are less bound by commercial considerations or social norms while pursuing your research.
  • Job security. When professors achieve tenure, they enjoy enhanced job security.
  • Flexible hours. You work the hours required to get the job done.
  • No dress code. Suit and tie are optional.
  • Teaching. Academia gives you the chance to share your interests with others and expand the field of knowledge.
  • Leadership opportunities. You hold a position of stature and get to make a difference in your community.
  • No boss. The people you work with are your colleagues.

“Okay I want an academic career, what is the next step?”

Start early! Start obtaining the experience and CV required to get an academic job as early as possible! The review committee will look at research accomplishments, teaching experience, and service for graduate studies and post doctorate.

You want to have the research record, teaching experience, et cetera that makes your application “special”. A department will often have over 50 applications—sometimes over 100—for a single position, all with a PhD and post–doctoral experience.

There are many places to look for an academic position:

  • Departmental websites. If you scan university websites, there will usually be postings on the faculty’s website.
  • Specialty publications. Magazines and journals in your field will advertise available positions. For example, chemists would find postings in Chemistry Engineering News or ACCN, the Canadian Chemical News.
  • Word of mouth. It is important to network at conferences!
  • Network. Ask your advisor to keep you aware of openings.
  • General postings. Many institutions will not post in every publication. The larger the circulation, the more expensive the ad. Widely advertised positions will also be more competitive. Some good sources of academic job postings are the following: Canadian Association of University Teachers, The Chronicle of Higher Education, University Affairs, individual university human resources and department websites; major newspapers, such as Globe and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun and others; and online job boards.

View the Academic Job Search Sites in the Helpful Links section

Typical Application

Three letters of reference.Choose people who will write good letters! The people you choose should be relevant referees, such as supervisors or department heads. Letters are sent directly to the department from the referee. When requesting a letter of reference, it is a good idea to provide your referees with a copy of your curriculum vitae and proposals so they can comment on your abilities relating to the research proposal.

Letters of reference are taken VERY seriously by hiring committees.

Covering letter. The goal of the covering letter is to introduce yourself and your application package. You should briefly highlight aspects of your CV and your proposals. You should also indicate who will be sending letters of reference. The covering letter should be BLACK, TYPED, UNIVERSITY LETTERHEAD—No exceptions. Use a normal letter format; consult a style book if necessary. Always address the person by name if possible, otherwise by “chairperson of search committee” et cetera. This is a formal position. Be professional and courteous.

Curriculum vitae.The CV should be neat and organized. Use bullets, spaces, bold and italics to emphasize. There should be no spelling or grammar mistakes. List all relevant experience and expertise. List awards, accomplishments, presentations, professional memberships from undergraduate and graduate studies, as well as post–doctoral work. The publication list should use a standard reference style. Omit papers “in preparation” since submitted papers may dilute real accomplishments.

One to three research proposals. Depending upon your field, the research proposal is usually just one page. Summarize your research showing how it all fits together. Categorize yourself, such as organic materials chemistry or laser spectroscopy. Use a title that will summarize how others in your field will describe you.

Teaching philosophy. The goal is to summarize your teaching experience. Tell your reader what types of courses you'd be interested in teaching. Don't be too specific. Willingness to teach first year is a plus. Convince the reader that you will devote time to mentoring grad students and teaching courses. To accomplish this, use expressions like “I enjoy teaching”, “I value graduate student education” rather than “I think teaching is the most important aspect of my job.” The emphasis will depend on where you are applying. Many small schools highly value teaching while others give it little or no emphasis. The teaching philosophy is usually only one-page and is worthwhile including in every application package.

Research proposal. The research proposal is one to three pages, describing what you would like to do. It should be written in such a way that someone who's not an expert in your field would understand, but with enough substance to appeal to an expert. It should show that you are a scholar and know the field–reference appropriately. The proposals should be original and distinct from your PhD or post–doctoral supervisors’ work. Emphasize the distinctions if it’s not obvious. Your proposals should be exciting and feasible! When writing, be neat. Use Times New Roman, minimum 10 point font. Use standard referencing. (I recommend ACS style.) Figures can be helpful and enhance the proposal. Double check all structures and spelling and abbreviations. Consider using a style guide from your area.

Transcript. Some universities may ask for grades, but it is not common. Grades must be official and from the registrars office.

More on the Research Proposal

The research is the meat of your proposal. You want to spend the most time on this

Content. Be positive. You don't want to offend anyone. Discuss possible problems and solutions. Addressing these is better than leaving the reader thinking you haven't thought out the problem well enough. Talk about characterization, equipment and techniques you will use.

Scope. Each proposal should discuss a viable series of experiments. For example, someone applying for a position in chemistry should aim for a submission in the Journal of the American Chemistry Society and two to three full papers. Each proposal should be somewhat related, but distinct. Describe future directions you anticipate the research will take you. You want the reader to believe that your proposals will work, and you will open a new area of research. 

Most importantly, have others read your research proposal and give you feedback!

Application Review Process

The committee will examine the applications after they arrive or after the closing date. They will quickly look through the pile and separate into three categories–interview, maybe and flush. It is worth keeping in mind that each application probably receives five minutes of attention on the first read–through. The committee is only looking at pictures and reading summaries at this stage. Often an intermediate long list of 15 or so applications is read in closer detail. The committee will shortlist the applications to about four to 10 and invite these for an interview.

What the Committee Looks For

In the five minutes of attention your application receives, the reviewer will likely read the cover letter; skim through your curriculum vitae to determine your pedigree, experience, awards; measure your publications for quantity and quality; read the reference letters carefully; and flip through your teaching statement and proposals. That's it! The hiring committee is looking for these qualities:

  • Is this person motivated? A superstar?
  • Will this person succeed?
  • Would this person's research interests be a good fit to our department?
  • Would this person meet faculty approval?

Booking the Interview

Interviews are a great opportunity to see new places and meet new people. Take advantage of the opportunity. Try to book a weak one first, not your favourite. The interview process lasts several days and is very tiring. Try to give yourself a little time after the first interview, such as two-three days, to recover and make adjustments to your presentations.

Before the Interview

Do a little research! What are the faculty research interests, department facilities, names of the faculty in your area, and the names of the chair and head of the department?

Prepare a list of questions. The university is not just interviewing you to see if you are compatible; you are interviewing the school to see if it will meet your needs. Some questions to consider are the following:

  • How are graduate students selected?
  • Where do graduate students come from?
  • How much does instrument time cost?
  • Do I have to pay students’ tuition?
  • Is the lab equipment hands–on or technician operated?

Check out this list of typical interview questions.

Prepare answers to common questions. A common set of interview questions are available online. Prepare your answers so you make sure you highlight the best points.

Have your best clothes (suit /tie or dress) cleaned!

Prepare a list of anticipated start–up expenses. Usually plan that you may not have additional funding for two years. You need to request everything necessary to get you off to a running start. Here is what a typical budget might look like:

Typical Research Budget Example

Item Cost
Two Grad students at $17,000/ year for two years $68,000
Two summer students $10,000
Infrared spectrometer $30,000
Glassware $30,000
Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy time at $10/hour for 1000 hours $10,000
Post–doctorate for 2 years at $30,000/year $60,000
Spin coater $8,000
Glovebox $30,000

Preparing for the Interview

You will need to prepare a one–hour research talk and one–hour defence. Some of the things they are looking for are the following:

  • Are you ambitious?
  • High energy?
  • Can you handle speaking in front of a group?
  • Are you scholarly?
  • Will you get along with the other faculty?
  • Will you contribute to the atmosphere in the department?
  • Will you be able to succeed?

The hiring committee is preparing to make a HUGE investment in you. You should strive to do anything in your power to make them feel comfortable making a decision in your favour. Some schools may ask you to teach a class or give a mock lecture.

If you are asked to come for an interview, expect a tiring one to three days.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday
  8 am  8 am
  Breakfast with Prof. W Breakfast with Prof. Y
  9 am  9:15 - 9:45 am
   Arrive at Department Meet with Dean
7 pm  9 am - 5:30 pm  10 - 11 am

Arrive.Meet Prof.  W after 4-hour flight

One-on-one meetings with professors and department heads. Lunch at noon with students.

Department Seminar
8 pm  6 pm  11 am - Noon
Dinner with Prof. W Dinner with several professors Research proposal defence
10 pm  9 pm  Noon
Retire to Hotel  Return to Hotel  Lunch with professors, then airport

Research Talk

This is always one hour, including questions. Faculty and students are invited. Faculty from every division will attend. The following tips are recommended:

  • Be prepared. Plan for a presentation lasting 50 minutes.
  • Be professional. Use a slide projector, PowerPoint or overhead
  • Be polished. Practice this talk ahead of time

Make sure the talk has depth. Include post doctorate and PhD work. If you have been a post doctorate for one year or longer, you must include some of your post doctorate work.

Don't include too much information. You want to tell a nice, understandable story about your research. Eliminate parts that don't fit or summarize on one slide.

What The Research Committee is Looking for

Normally, all faculty are permitted to comment on candidates. Many will only attend the research talk, so it is important to leave a good impression. The research committee will be looking for the following:

  • Are you able to teach?
  • Are you able to communicate in English?
  • Are you able to answer questions?
  • What is your scholarly aptitude?
  • Do you have the background knowledge and experience, particularly if needed for proposal writing?
  • Are you high energy?
  • Can you handle speaking in front of a group?
  • Are you organized?
  • Will you be a good teacher?
  • Will you be a good researcher?
  • Research Proposal Defense

Also referred to as the “round-table discussion” or “informal research presentation”, it can be the toughest part of the interview. You must present and defend your research proposal(s) for one to two hours. Only faculty attend, often from a cross–section of disciplines. Many are young faculty. The research proposals you discuss do not have to be the same as the written ones, though they should certainly be similar. You must convince the audience that you can do the research that you are proposing. You must also highlight the significance of the research. Typically, the speaker is interrupted constantly with questions.

I recommend doing this part from overheads—it doesn't need to be as slick as the research talk and, as time permits, you can jump ahead or backward as necessary. Give relevant background info and distinguish your research from others in the field, i.e. former supervisors! Make bold speculations about the significance of your research. If you are under prepared, this can be a grilling.

What the Hiring Committee is Looking for

Normally, only faculty in your field and on the selection committee attend the research proposal talk. They will be looking for the following:

  • Will you be able to make an impact on your field?
  • Are you clever and able to think on your feet?
  • Are you really prepared to do this job?
  • What is your scholarly aptitude?
  • Are you high energy?
  • Are you creative?
  • Are you organized?
  • Will you fit into the department?
  • Will you be a good research mentor?
  • Will you be a good researcher?

Meeting with the Faculty

Most of your time is spent meeting with faculty one–on–one. These will be about 30 minute slots. You will meet with most or all of the faculty in your discipline, as well as the hiring committee and anybody else who wants to meet with you. When you meet faculty, please pay attention to the following:

Be yourself. Don't put on airs or force yourself to be someone you are not. When you shake hands, have a firm handshake!

Dress for success. Make a good first impression by wearing a suit.

Don't be controversial or over agreeing. Don't suck up. Don't make racist comments, tell jokes or do things in bad taste. If they do, just shrug it off

Be prepared. Be ready to answer questions about possible collaborations, your proposals, group size, instrument needs, start-up requirements and your pedigree; they will often talk about their research.

Be inquisitive. Ask questions about the city, housing, seminar programs, department, instrumentation, tenure process, and students. Show interest in their research and ask good questions.

Try to get along with everyone. In most departments, everyone votes. You don't want any enemies. Many people don't receive a job offer because of some silly personality trait or weakness that shows through.

Meeting with the Head

The head of the department will try to provide you with information about how the department operates, discussing teaching and tenure. She will often ask you for a list of your start–up requirements. You should have this ready! It should list all of the items you will purchase, along with personnel and operating expenses to get your research started. Discuss facilities—is there space available? Where would it likely be? Tell the head about the physical requirements of the space, how much and what kind of physical requirements you will need, such as synthetic, physical or fume hoods.

Don't be shy—if you need $1 million to start your research program, ask for it. If you need $1 million and you ask for $40,000, you will probably get $40,000. These numbers are all negotiable once an offer is made, but many department heads will ask for a list at this stage. It also looks good if you have clearly thought out your start-up plans such as equipment, space, personnel and operating expenses.

Typical start–up packages for assistant professors are the following:

Canada — $50k – $500k
USA — $200k – $750k

Meeting with Students

Usually, you will have lunch with students. This is a good opportunity to find out some of the department dirt. Take advantage of the opportunity and ask questions! Students often provide feedback to the faculty—they are interviewing you. They want to know whether you would be a good supervisor.

Meeting with the Dean

At some schools, the dean will meets with job candidates. This is a good opportunity to ask about the tenure process. Usually the dean is meeting you to get an impression and to tell you about the administrative aspects of your position, such as tenure, salary, and benefits. The dean must approve any appointment.

Landing the Job

The head of the department calls you two weeks later and says, “Are you still interested in a position at the University of Mycareer? We'd like to make you an offer.” Over a short period, you negotiate—by phone or email these days—the job offer. You discuss salary, start–up package and teaching space.

Most schools will invite you for a second interview if you are trying to decide between multiple offers. This is the time that you interview them while they try hard to persuade you to come. Ensure that the space you require is guaranteed and sort out any doubts. You may want to look at housing in the area. Get everything in writing!

Important Factors

Probably unlike all of your previous jobs, this is a career—it is semi–permanent. You want to make the best choice you can. Consider the following:

  • Do I want to live here? Would I be happy raising a family here?
  • Is the space okay?
  • Are these colleagues I would enjoy working with?
  • Will I be able to get funding and students to help me?
  • Will I have all of the equipment I need to do my research?
  • Is the start–up package adequate to get started?
  • Is the teaching load reasonable?
  • Will I be happy to start my career here?

Final Points

If you receive an offer, talk to an unbiased mentor or faculty member about it. Consider if there is anything missing. Details should firmed up with the department head. Once you’re happy, accept the job by either email or phone.