Q. What is the process for acquiring an academic job and what skills besides my physics research would make me more marketable?
by Prof. Eric R. Bittner
A. Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to this question. The first thing to do in applying for an academic job is to do some serious self-reflection. Go to as many seminars and conferences as you can to try to get to know some of the leaders in your field. Give as many posters and talks at local and national meetings as you can. One of the keys to success is to know how academics interact, what’s expected in a good talk, and how to engage your peers in your research. If there is a particular seminar visitor you want to meet (especially if he or she is in your field), ask your mentor or advisor to set up a meeting. One way you know you’re doing well is if your mentor or advisor is talking about your work when he or she goes to meetings and gives seminars.
When you’re ready to begin the application procedure, read over the job advertisement carefully and include every thing completely. It’s also a good idea to specifically state in your cover letter and in the research proposal how you think your proposed work would integrate well with current research directions in the department you’re applying to. You will still need to be able to establish yourself as an independent investigator. However, given the current funding climate, it’s good to be able to immediately join in on collaborative projects and centers.
Be realistic. Hiring committees are wary of proposals that are too flashy and overloaded with hype. Write a solid proposal, one that will serve as the basis of proposals sent to NSF, DOE, NIH, etc over the first two or three years of your appointment. Most departments want to see that you have a clear plan for getting preliminary results that you can rapidly turn into a funded proposal.
Understand that education is an important part of your job as a professor. You need to be able to communicate clearly. If you are thinking about a job in the US or UK, you will need to be able to teach in English (if it’s not your native language). If you are not a native speaker, take an ESL class and use English as much as possible in your daily life. It’s common for students from the same country to congregate and only speak to each other in their native language. Make it a habit that when you talk about science even amongst your friends you do so in English. Even if you are only interested in going back to your home country, being fluent in written and spoken English is essential if you intend to publish papers and give talks outside your native country.
Be aware that the top 10 to 15 or so candidates for most academic jobs are more or less equally qualified. If you’re on a “short list”, then your outside letters of recommendation, personal contacts, field of research, etc. will be carefully considered by the hiring committee. Usually, 3-5 candidates will be selected for an interview visit.
If you are called for an interview, realize that you have been vetted from a deep pool of applicants and have risen to the top of that list. If you are still interested in the position, be sure to communicate that interest to the person who called you. If you are really not interested or have an offer you intend to take, politely decline the interview so the hiring committee can move on to the next person. Don’t string things along hoping to leverage a better offer from some place else.
Typically, you will be asked to visit for 2 days. This is your chance to learn about the department, the university, the location, etc. You will typically meet with several members of the department. They will be interested in finding out what kind of colleague you will likely be. If you are hired, you’re likely to be in the office next door for the next 25 years. During the interview visit, you will be asked to present a research seminar to the department and give a proposal talk to the hiring committee. You need to practice each and make sure each is well presented, carefully crafted, and exudes the excitement you have for your research projects. It’s a good idea to practice your talks in front of a group that is not in your specific field. You need to communicate your science to an educated group of non-experts. If you have been involved in a large collaboration, be absolutely clear and honest about what work is yours and what work was done by others. If your proposal talk involves collaborations, be up front about your role in this collaboration. If your work involves making measurements on materials provided by another group, specifically spell that out and be clear about how that collaboration might progress with you as an independent researcher. Your work will need to stand on its own when it comes time for a tenure decision. If your collaborator is someone significantly senior (or a former mentor), then your contributions to that project–no matter how significant–may be entirely overshadowed by your more famous collaborator.
Be realistic in negotiating a starting package. Deans and Department Heads have a good idea of what’s going to be required to get you going. If there is a specific piece of equipment, ask for it. If you need time in a specific facility, ask for it. This start up is what you will use to build your lab and get it up and running so that you’ll be able to acquire the funds to sustain your research program. Don’t under estimate what you need thinking that it will make you somehow more attractive, in fact, it may hurt you since it would appear you really have no clue about what you need to do your work.
On the other hand, asking for everything under the sun is not going to work either. You need to have a realistic list of the equipment and supplies you will need to get you going for the next 2-3 years. You’re only going to get one startup package. Going back to the Dean or Dept. Head in two years to beg for more money will generally not get you another dime.
If you have multiple offers, make a decision and move on. Don’t string things along hoping for a better offer from a better university. This only serves to upset your future peers and colleagues. Most offer letters come with a “time-bomb” of 2 weeks. Be aware this is a “buyer’s market” and offers can be withdrawn.
Ask about the promotion standards. Know up front what will be expected. There are three basic criteria: Research and Scholarship, Teaching, Service. In going up for tenure at a research-level university, you will need to have an established record of publications and funding for your research—typically this means you are the PI on at least one major federal grant. You will need to have demonstrated competence in the courses you have taught as based upon the student’s evaluations. Also, you will have to have been a good departmental citizen. At most institutions, you will prepare a “tenure package” at the end of your 5th year. This is sent out to various “arms length” reviewers (i.e. people in your field who are not your former mentors). Their comments are important since they should be able to provide an unbiased assessment of the impact of your work to date. The department’s tenure and promotion committee will consider these comments carefully and make a recommendation to the department, which begins a sequence of events and decisions going all the way up to the top. Most places will provide a specific time-table for when all this will occur along with a well-defined appeal process.
Eric R. Bittner is Professor of Chemical Physics at the University of Houston. His research focuses upon quantum dynamics in condensed phase chemical systems. He is the author of 70 publications and two books.