On the Academic Job Market? Here's How to Write a Winning Application Package

It’s that time of year again when thousands of grad students and PhDs begin applying for academic jobs.  Having been on the academic job market, we know how hard this can be. We decided to reach out to people at couple of folks on university campuses and asked them to put together webinars for us on preparing academic job applications.

You can catch both of these webinars, one for STEM by Dr. Dave McDonald of Duke, and one for Humanities and Social Sciences by Dr. Dan Olsen-Bang of Syracuse University.

When should you go on the market:

A lot of grad students wonder if they should delay going on the academic job market until they are finished.  Dan’s advice for social sciences or humanities grad students was to go on the market when you have about half or just under half of your dissertation finished. (Dan calls this the 40% rule). If you get a job offer, you’ll be able to wrap up your dissertation before taking up the new position.

In STEM, it differs by field, so make sure to ask your faculty mentors and others in your lab.  In some STEM disciplines, it is common for people to begin tenure track jobs right out of grad school. In other fields, the overwhelming number of new assistant professor hires are post-docs. It can also depend on the type of academic job you’re applying for: research or teaching. Teaching focused institutions might be more open to hiring a newly minted PhD, where as research-focused institutions will tend to want someone with a postdoc. So, ask around.

How should you approach your application?

The biggest piece of advice our presenters had was to tailor your application materials to the specific needs of the organization.  This means you can’t and should not apply for every job you see posted. Focus on applying for jobs where you can make a strong case.

The first step when writing job applications is to do a lot of research on the institution and department.  Universities have mission statements on their websites. Read these carefully.  Make sure to research the department: what kind of people do they hire? Would your research be complimentary or would you be directly competing with current someone already on faculty? What topics do people teach? What subjects do they publish on?

For STEM PhDs, it’s important to know if you can actually do your research at that institution? Do they have facilities, resources, labs, and budgets to support the research you do? If not, then you’ll need to rethink your application.

What goes into an application?

The standard job application materials are CV, cover letter, teaching philosophy or statement, research statement, and diversity statement. A successful job candidate will tailor all of these documents to the specific needs of the institution. This isn’t as simple as just flipping a teaching and research paragraph in the cover letter.  This means doing a deep-dive research on the institution and learning about their mission statement, their values, and priorities. It means spending time on department websites to learn about members of faculty – what do they teach? What do they research? How would you fit into this department?  Where is your niche? Do you compete with anyone on faculty? How do you compliment what they do?

Then, make strategic decisions about what you include in all of these documents. Dave spent considerable time talking about all the choices you can make in writing your CV. You choose what goes into a CV – Dave listed 23 possible sections! If you have questions about writing a CV, no matter your academic discipline, watch Dave’s webinar. Dan and Dave both emphasized that this is the document most search committee members will read, so you want to make sure that you craft a document that shows you understand the needs of their organization.

All committees will be interested in your academic pedigree – where you studied and who you studied with, so lead with your education.  After that, they want to know if you’re any good as an academic researcher or teacher. If you’re applying for research positions, highlight evidence of scholarly productivity by listing publications, grants, and awards.  If you’re applying for a teaching position, highlight evidence of teaching experience and effectiveness up front. Maybe you earned a teaching certificate, or perhaps you won a teaching award.

This strategy – of crafting a document aimed at the specific hiring committee for each job – carries over into all the other documents.  If you’re writing a cover letter for a teaching institution, the majority of your cover letter should focus on pedagogy, experience, and evidence.  Dan had a lot of great tips for how to write a teaching-focused letter, and strategies for people who haven’t done a lot of teaching.

Other documents – teaching and research statements – should also be curated to meet the expectations of the hiring committee.

Tips for Teaching & Research Statements

For both teaching statements and research statement, avoid summary. For your teaching statement, avoid regurgitating the job requirements of teaching. Dan’s advice: teaching is an activity, so show the reader what it is like to be in a classroom with you. Dave echoed this advice in his webinar.

When you write a research statement, don’t just summarize your dissertation. Dan suggests writing a narrative that outlines a three-year plan. Assistant Professors have two important reviews: the first is at the three-year mark, and the second is when they go up for tenure.  Your research statement should outline your plan for getting to, and through, the third-year review, by outlining your goals for publishing books and articles. Write a narrative that traces a path through your current and future scholarship, and reflects an ambitious but doable agenda for the next three years. Dave has a great list of questions to help you frame this document.

Both Dave and Dan touched on the thorny issue of diversity statements. The goal of the diversity statement is to demonstrate that you can provide space and support for students of diverse backgrounds. It is up to you to include your own diversity(ies), but you don’t have to. Their suggestion is to research what the department considers diversity to be and if they have particular efforts in place, and then write how you’d support their efforts.

With all this tailoring, researching, editing, and modifying your application package, you’re probably wondering “how can I do this for every job!?!” Dave and Dan both argued that you should focus on the quality of applications over the quantity.  Don’t apply for jobs where you are not a good fit.  Focus on the jobs where you can make the strongest case for your value to that organization.

Final Thoughts!

Remember that the purpose of the application is to get an interview not the job. You want to provide enough compelling evidence to the hiring committee to be invited for those first-round interviews.

Watch Dave and Dan’s webinars in the community.  No matter if you’re from STEM, Humanities, or Social Sciences, you’ll benefit from their advice and write more compelling, and successful, job applications.

Beyond the Professoriate Community Members attend events like this for free each month and access replays free for two weeks. Ready to launch your next great career? Join the Online Career Hub for PhDs.

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