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Preparing for a Career in Academia: Workshop Recap
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Preparing for a Career in Academia: Workshop Recap

Professors Ram Seshadri and Omar Saleh (with bonus guest appearance from Professor Craig Hawker) had plenty of helpful advice to share in the recent workshop, Taking the Leap: Preparing for a Career in Academia. The workshop was sponsored by the Materials Research Lab, Dow Chemical, and the Graduate Students for Diversity in Science.

The slides from the workshop contain a wealth of information for STEM students considering an academic path in the United States, but perhaps the best part about the workshop was the ‘interrupt us at any time’ mentality. Because audience members ranged from early graduate students to post-docs applying this year, the opportunity to learn from others’ questions was particularly beneficial. A selection of the questions raised and answers given are edited and condensed below.

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I’m not yet sure if I want to work in industry or academia. Should I plan to do a post-doc or two to help me decide?
Ideally, the answer to this question becomes clear before you defend your thesis, but certainly one post-doc position should provide an idea of which path to follow. If industry is where your calling lies, spending years doing multiple post-docs could make it difficult to convince potential employers that you want to work in R&D (they may assume you have just failed at the academic path and are looking for a way out). Some academic institutions value industry experience more than others, so keep in mind that finding a post-doc position after a year or two in industry is also possible.

During the hiring cycle, how closely do faculty members actually read application materials?
The search committee, of 3-5 people, will likely be responsible for narrowing a field of 150 applicants down to 15 candidates. The next narrowing will take the pool from around 15 candidates to the 3-5 candidates called for an interview. Finally, the decision to hire 1 person from the interviewees will depend on input from the rest of the department.

In the initial stages of down-selection, the search committee will read application material as closely as they reasonably can, but different people in the committee will take different shortcuts when evaluating so many application packages. Some committee members will search outside for the previous papers a candidate has published. Some university departments will place more emphasis on the groups where you’ve come from. Reference letters will carry different weight if department members know the letter writers professionally.

Because different committee members will have different blind spots, no application hinges on one single thing. This means it is necessary and important to put your best foot forward in each aspect of the application package. Ultimately, the application package is your first change to show that you’re a smart person doing good things, but departments will aim to truly evaluate this in person, once candidates are called for interviews. Search committees do look for “shiny” application packages, but their ultimate goal is to hire someone who will be a good colleague and produce outstanding work.

In my CV, should I list papers which are in process but not quite published when I apply?
In general, list publications first in the CV, in reverse chronological order, and be sure to link to their doi. Format them correctly, listing all names and title, with first initials only. Avoid listing publications ‘in preparation’, or ‘submitted to Nature’. If there actually are papers that are nearly ready, which you want the committee to know about, consider attaching them if the department application has a ‘miscellaneous documents’ submission option. Ignore conference proceedings, letters to the editor, h data, and citation data. As far as the professors at this event were concerned, metrics like these are never discussed.

What if I have a strong publication record, but I’m worried my recommendation letters will be sub-par?
A search committee will certainly consider why a publication record and recommendations don’t line up. Some committee members might take the time to do extra diligence, looking into your papers and background. In general, 1 funny letter out of the 3 required will often be excused. Additionally, most search committee members are likely to be understanding of the differences between recommendation letters from other countries.

If I can’t get a letter from my PhD advisor, what should I do?
Ask your postdoc advisor to mention why your application package does not include a letter from your previous advisor. If there is some nastiness that prevents it, that nastiness may have propagated through the field already, and the search committee will probably understand. However, if your advisor is a saint, or the search committee includes friends of hers, you may have a problem.

Should I include student reviews in my teaching statement?
Search committees will find it difficult to verify that actual students wrote such reviews. None of the professors present had ever seen student statements included in an application package. If you’ve won a best TA award, or some other teaching recognition, it would be appropriate to include this as a sentence in a cover letter and in your CV.

In the research proposal, is it important to have three ideas rather than two? Does one idea need be a bit of a ‘reach’ project?
When writing the research proposal, it’s most important to find a few things you really want to do. Ticking off check-boxes (e.g. 3 ideas, 1 ‘out there’ project) for the application process might seem necessary, but most search committee members are aware that junior faculty can reasonably only tackle one thing in their first year. Find a few projects you are excited about, and spend the time to fully flesh out the best ideas you have. Two strong, well-considered ideas will have more impact than three half-baked ideas. Discuss the project you’re most excited about first, and explain why each of your proposed ideas are both interesting and important. Demonstrate that the work is evidence based and within your skill-set, and acknowledge the challenges you foresee.

How strict are the length requirements on research proposals? Are figures and illustrations important?
The general rule of thumb for figures is to include 1 explanatory figure or illustration for each page of text. If a university requests a 3 page research statement and you submit a 5 page document, it’s probably o.k. – search committee members themselves may not keep close tabs on the application requirements.

How should I structure my job talk?
The best job talks convey a variety of problems and make room to delve into 1 or 2 projects. Splitting the talk evenly between your graduate work and postdoc work is not necessary. It’s most important to tell your best story, and leave ample room to finish that story. Keep an hour-long talk to 45 minutes of your own slides to leave plenty of room for questions. If you have questions about format and content, feel free to reach out to the department member who has invited you for the interview.

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