Academic job hunting: resources and advice
My goal here is to compile a set of resources for postdocs going on the academic job market. This can be a lonely and isolating process, but it can be much easier if you are prepared. Here, I have tried to put together various sections that are relative cohesive. I am not posting any of the stuff I wrote for my own applications, but if you want to see them, you can contact me.
Obviously, I am not the first person to have thought of such a thing, so here are some links to sites I used when I was applying:
This has lots of resources from lots of different people. I generally found the links to ‘Physioprof’ aka Drugmonkey to be quite good.
This is a document written by Erik Lee Snapp, who is now Director of Student and Postdoctoral Programs at Janelia. It is really useful because it has several real examples of each elemnt of your application package. His page on the Janelia website also has a bunch of useful links.
The process in the UK tends to take 2 forms: you either apply for a Lectureship, where you have a lot of teaching responsibilities but your salary is guaranteed from the beginning, or you apply to be hosted by a Univeristy for a Fellowship. This fellowship essentially acts as your startup and buys you out of having to teach for the first ~5 years of your appointment. Most funders now require Universities to offer their Fellows a permanent position at the end of the fellowship.
4. Where to look for job advertisements
The big journal websites - Cell, Nature, and Science - have job posting aggregators, which are fairly redundant with one another. It is useful to check on these regularly (e.g. twice a week) in the late summer/early fall as jobs are being posted. I kept a google sheet with all the adverts, deadlines, and requirements, so that I could check things off as I applied.
The other best place is probably twitter, especially if you can find someone to follow who keeps an annotated list for your field.
5. Postdoc seminar series
Lots of places run seminar series specifically for postdocs that you can use to practice giving job talks. Look for these in your field. Below, I provide a list of neuro-centric links that are largely based on a twitter thread I came across and the ensuing replies. There are lots of these seminars, they invariably have some cringy neuro-acronym, and everyone I know who has done one raves about how they are really good practice. The best time to do these if you want to use them as practice is the year before you will apply, since many of them run in the spring (at the same time that you will hopefully be giving your actual job talks).
List of Neuro-centric seminar series in the US and Europe:
Brown BrainExpo - deadline 29 July, 2022
Max Planck Florida NeuroMEETS - deadline 10 August, 2022
NYU SPiNES - deadline 9 September, 2022
Sainsbury Wellcome Centre ENSS - deadline 10 August, 2022
Syracuse Early Career Research Seminar Series - seemingly no specific deadline
Your application package will consist of several items that you will mostly be able to reuse with personalization for each institution. This site has a pretty good breakdown of what you need.
1. Cover letterIt is probably best to try to fit this on a single page. The layout for this is pretty standard:
(1) Opening paragraph describing (a) the job you are applying for and (b) what you plan to work on. Set the tone early and make sure your one sentence summary is compelling.
(2) Background - 'As a postdoc in prestigious institution X with renowned Professor Y, I discovered Z...Prior to this, I was a PhD student with...'
(3) Future plan - 'As an independent investigator, I will..."
(4) Departmental Fit - 'Your world-renowned Department would be the ideal place for me to forge an independent career path. My scientific program would complement the ongoing work and generate collaborative opportunities...'
(5) Community - 'Critical to my motivation for become a group leader is my desire to teach and mentor the next generation of young sceintists. I have served as a teaching fellow in contexts A and B and mentored a number of students in contexts C and D.
(6) References - 'Professors Belichick, Brady, and Vinatieri will submit letters on my behalf. Please feel free to contact me if you have any further questions.'
*If you are short on space, you can probably leave off stuff about the referees. A lot of these things are automated now through 3rd party sites like interfolio, so it will be obvious who is writing your letters. Same goes for things like 'Please find attached my CV, research statement, etc..'.
(7) Sign off -
[imported signature image]
2. CVKeep this simple, clean, and full of white space (don't crowd your sections). Whenever possible, try to have sections that stay on single pages. Although this is pretty self-explanatory, here are the sections I would include:
(1) Contact info - name, institutional address, email, website, etc.
(2) Education - one entry for each degree
(3) Research experience - one entry for each lab
(4) Honours, awards, and fellowships
- I have seen others suggest that it's important to list monetary amounts with your fellowships, which seems like a good idea.
(5) Publications (6) Ongoing projects - I used this section to emphasize that I had projects that were mature but not quite written up. Probably only worth doing if you have multiple entries to put in.
(7) Invited tasks - name of institution, location, and date.
(8) Selected conference presentations - be selective, include enough to show you're productive but not all of them (hence the 'selective')
(9) Teaching experience - in formal setting e.g. TAing, practical courses, workshops, etc.
(10) Mentoring - if you have it, including students you have mentored and what they're doing now (if it's good)
(11) Service to community - can include volunteer experience, society memberships, reviewing papers, etc.
(12) References (maybe) - sometimes, these will be a totally separate section in the application, so you don't have to add here.
3. Research statementGeneral tips
(1) Get several (e.g. >5) people whose opinion you trust to read this statement. When you first write it, it will be filled with things that are only obvious to you and your brain. It will require substantial simplification and clarification.
(2) The best 'pro tip' piece of advice I got about this before starting was to make sure I had a statement in different lengths.
(3) Keep feasibility in mind when writing this. Is your project going to require an army of postdocs working shifts? Scale the project to the lab you think you will have in the first 5 years. The key is for everything to fit together like a puzzle.
The most common format: a 3-5 page research statement consisting of
(1) An overview statement - (~1/3 page) - Set out general question, the gap in our knowledge, and how you will address it,
(2) Your research accomplishments (2/3 page) - if possible, include a pretty summary figure for your major PhD and postdoc accomplishments, and
(3) Your research vision (2-4 pages, depending on the institution) - Writing this document competently is difficult. I would think of it in the structure of a grant proposal, but with fewer experimental details. The point really is to convey your vision for what you will do in the next 5 years. Mine consisted of a general layout of the question, 3 aims with 2-3 subaims each, and a summary statement. I also had some figures but they were more conceptual than filled with experimental minutia. The aims and subaims should read more like 'I will record from retinal ganglion cells and present visual stimuli to ask X, Y, Z.' and less like 'My intracellular solution will consist of 120 mM K-Gluconate, 10 mM Hepes, etc.'.
(4) A concluding statement - summarize what you will learn from this work and give it context. If you are in a biomedical field, mention something about human health/disease. It cannot hurt.
* For my own convenience, I assumed that references did not count against page limits but never saw this stated explicitly one way or the other. Figures definitely count towards your page limit, so put them in line rather than at the end.
The short format: a single page (no figures or references) consisting of
(1) Some general background laying out research question (< 1/3 page),
(2) Relate the general problem to your work and identify gap in knowledge (1/3 page),
(3) Your research aims (1/3 page) - Write these out and bold them, then write 1-2 sentences describing how you will accomplish each aim.
(4) Concluding statement (a few lines) - as above.
* Note that if you have to submit a single page research statement, you will also probably ahve to submit another single page Research accomplishments statement.
4. Teaching and Diversity statementsYou should use both the teaching and diversity statements as opportunities to personalize your application and cater a bit to the institution.
Teaching statement (about a page)
I found it helpful to break this down into 3 sections - teaching philosophy, teaching experience, and teaching interests. Most departments have course listings available. Seek these you and make references to specific things that you think you would be qualified to teach.
Make this statement specific and personal. Mention courses you taught and what you learned from teaching them. Mention specific students you've mentored and how this experience shaped your mentoring philosophy. Mention a quirky idea you may have for a course or seminar. The more that 'you' can come across, the better.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion statement (about a page)
First and foremost, no matter who you are, acknowledge that this is a problem (it is) and hurts us all as a community. People from all background can be informed and valuable members of the scientific community who work to make science a more inclusive place.
Apart from this, I think this is an opportunity to reveal who you are to people. Talk about the things that have influenced you. I wrote a lot about being a serial immigrant. This is the personal thing that informs my experience. Think about what yours is and share it.
Finally, read up on what the department/univerisity to which you are applying is doing to address DEI issues. Most departmental websites have a DEI section. Read it, think about it, and volunteer your time. Genuinely.
5. Additional documentsThis is a non-exhaustive list of other items you may have to provide:
(1) Contact info for referees, usually 3.
(2) Separate list of publictions.
(3) 200 word explainers of your important papers.
After submitting a bagillion applications, hopefully you will get some interviews. From the applications I submitted, I got a few interviews, several rejections, and didn’t get a reply at all from about half of the places. Gird your loins.
Your interview(s) will consist of some or all of the following items: a job talk, a chalk talk, 1-1 meetings, and a panel interview. All of these parts will include direct interactions with your future colleagues, so be collegial and polite. Coming off like a jerk - by insulting your former boss, your future bosses, or anyone else - is the surest way to not get a job. Just be kind, even if you get a mean question in your seminar.
Here are some thoughts on each and links to good resources:
This will probably be one of the most general talks you ever give to a scientific audience. Respect people’s intelligence but don’t assume they know what you are talking about. It is not a lab meeting (where hopefully everyone knows a lot about your project), and it is not even a conference talk (where everyone works on similar stuff). It is more general than that. Start with a big picture intro, use simple slides or diagrams that make your point. Use color and pretty pictures. Ruthlessly cut data/experiments out of your talk, even if you worked really hard on them. This is not the time to be sentimental. Most of all - practice in front of others.
Unless you are explicitly told not to do so, add your future aims into the last 1/3 of the presentation. Finally, finish on a visual summary slide after your acknowledgements (discussed below in Random advice). This will help you field questions more easily.
Here, I think the key is also to keep your presentation simple by conveying your overarching theme, your open questions, and your approaches. However, I found that giving chalk talks required having a lot more detailed knowledge on hand. If you bring up an experiment you want to do, you should be ready to answer detailed questions about how you envision it working.
Here are some example chalk talk videos and links:
Interviews questions and answers
Different departments have different ways of asking your a series of questions. Some places have a formal panel interivew while others task the folks in your 1-1 meetings with asking you specific questions. Regardless, the questions are generally quite simiar across different places.
Specific notes on panel interviews:
The panel interview will usually consist of a short, rapid-fire set of questions. Try to answer concisely. There is never enough time, and the panel has a set of questions they want to get through. It’s ok to take a second to think of an answer, but once you start talking, try to finish quickly. Finally, keep im mind that there are good cops and bad cops on your panel (discussed below in Random advice).
Master list of questions you may get asked (with answer suggestions):1. Who are you? or Give us a brief summary of your research goals
- This should be a 2-3 sentence summary of your biography and research goals.
- Example: I am a developmental turned systems neuroscientist. Over the past several years, I have been studying cerebellar computation during goal-directed behaviour. Going forward, I want to learn more about how the cerebellum collaborates with the forebrain in the learning of new skills.
2. What attracted you to this position? or We know we're awesome, but why do you think we're awesome?
- Need to compliment the department and say why it you think it would be a great fit for you.
- Example: I was attracted to the Department because I think it would be an ideal place for me to fluorish and grow as an independent investigator. I have great admiration for the members of the Department, in particular Professors X and Y, whose work has been influential in my own research. I think that my research program would both compliment the ongoing work in the department and also provide ample opportunities for collaboration, especially on topics A, B, and C.
3. How will you distinguish yourself from your current supervisor?
- The key here is to emphasize your uniqueness without saying anything derogatory about your supervisor. On some level, I think every postdoc feels like all of their good ideas are theirs, and that they shouldn't have to change. However, this is not the right answer. The goal here is to show loyalty and gratitude towards your previous advisors, and then state how your unique training and vision will lead you towards new discoveries.
- Essentially, the right answer is “I have developed a research plan that bridges my interests (maybe PhD work + postdoc, if you can sell it) and will allow me to forge a unique research path. I have great respect for my postdoctoral supervisor, and we have a great working relationship. While I anticipate that our research paths would diverge anyway (especially in the context of this new wonderful department), I also plan to continue to communicate clearly with my previous advisor to assure our mutual success.”
4a. Which fellowships/grants will you apply for and when? (UK edition)
- Remember that in the UK, you are essentially applying for your startup with these fellowships. Find the funding schemes that fellows apply for in your field (e.g. the Wellcome Trust Career Development Award, UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, etc.), and make a list of the upcoming deadlines for them. Also, read up on the fine print - How many positions can you fund? Can you use the money for PhD students? How much overhead do they pay? What is the required institutional contribution for big-ticket items? Knowing these things makes you sound serious and informed, because you are so.
4b. Which fellowships/grants will you apply for and when? (US edition)
- In the US, it is assumed that you will be applying for R01’s by ~year 3 and potentially some vanity fellowships before this. For these vanity fellowships (e.g. Sloane, Klingenstein, Searle, etc.), you should look up what recent hires have gotten. Usually, the departments have connections to some of these and win them consistently. This is another way to show that you’ve done your research on the department.
With regard to the R01s, you should have a sense of the preliminary data you would want to have in order to apply for a grant. This would also inform how you would allocate your startup. Be aware of the connections between these things!
5. With whom in the department/university would you collaborate?
- You should have specific names ready and be able to discuss why! Stating 'I would collaborate with clinicians studying schizophrenia' is insufficient. Detail is important here, so do your homework. I found this particularly important when discussing the ways in which my work would have disease relevance.
6. What is your greatest scientific contribution to date?
- Pretty self-explanatory, but make sure you can give context to why this is important and (ideally) informs your research plans. Whenever possible, present an interally consistent vision of your achievements and goals.
7. What would you do to promote Equality, Diversity, and Inclusivity in science?
- I cover a lot of this in my discussion of the diversity statement. It is likely that someone on the interview panel is there specifically to ask you about DEI stuff, which is a good step. Again, read up on the initiaties at the place you are going and think about how you may be able to contribute and augment these programs.
8. What courses are you qualified to teach?
- Like with the DEI question, there is likely to be someone on your panel who is specifically interested in hearing what you have to say about teaching. If you've gotten to this point, you probably wrote a teaching statement with your ideas.
9. What will the first paper out of your lab be? aka What project will you give to your first grad student/postdoc?
- This is a way to demonstrate that you have a practical grasp of how to execute the projects you are proposing. If one of your aims depends on another, then you need to take that into account when planning your projects. Also, consider how things will fit into your funding plan. If you have applied for a US job where you need to get data for your first R01 by year 3, then your first project should be constructed with this goal in mind. If you are in the UK and you will have access to your Fellowship funds from the outset, then maybe you don't need to be quite as strategic. The advice I got once from a senior PI was that your path to success requires that you have one project that is definitely going to work and be publishable. You will likely not do all the things you propose in your aims, but there should be one thing that you can definitely do.
10. What is your approach to mentorship?
- Pretty straighforward. Just think about the fact that you will be mentoring a bunch of eager but likely inexperienced people. How are you going to get the best out of them?
11. What would you bring to the department administratively?
- Think about things you would like to do to be a good colleague. What don't you like about your current department? What resource do you wish you had as a student/postdoc but it wasn't available?
12. What equipment do you think you will need?
- Think big ticket items here - e.g. lasers. It's not a bad idea to have a sense of the essential items you will need to carry out your work. Similar to the advice about your first paper, think about when you will be able to buy stuff to use it.
Ideas for questions to ask them:1. Can you please explain the details of the appointment? Would I be affiliated with other departments/institutes? For how many months would my salary get covered (US)? What happens at the end of my fellowship (UK)?
2. What would teaching requirements be like - are there any in each program?
3a. How are PhD students recruited? Is it all through programs or are there internal positions available?
3b. Is there high demand or competition for students? How do junior people go about getting their lab staffed up?
4. What space is available - is it designated and who would be nearby?
5. What is the timeline of the recruitment process?
6. How much institutional funding would there be? Would it be possible to get contributions for big ticket items?
Meeting faculty 1-1
Honestly, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect in these meetings. Some people will want to shoot the shit, others will want to talk about your seminar/chalk talk, and yet others may have specific questions that they have been tasked with asking you by the search committee. The key is to do your research on everyone you are speaking to (you will likely get a list ahead of time), and to be able to hold a conversation for the 30 minutes. These folks are evaluating how you will be as a colleague, so you should try to leave them with the impression that they wouldn’t mind seeing your face every day for the next decade. Read their websites, know what they work on, figure out how they get their funding, see if you know people in common. You never know when this may come in handy.
Also, don’t forget that this is an opportunity for you to ask questions about the department and get a sense of what it’s like to work there. It’s not a one way street!
Honestly, the best advice here is: GET MULTIPLE JOB OFFERS. I know, useful.
My more specific advice is to remember that science takes resources, so you should maximize what you can get. Once you sign on the dotted line, you lose your leverage, so hold out for more. Also, keep in mind that you won’t get anything unless you ask, so be bold. Think about what you want to achieve, think about the people and stuff you will need to achieve it, and then ask for that much.
Random advice that I got and found to be useful
Assembled in no particular order:
1. Write research statements of multiple lengths
Different universities will require research statements of different lengths - some ask for a single page, others give you up to 5 pages. Write multiple versions that can fit into these different formats. I would suggest starting with 1, 3, and 5 and then using formatting to get you to the right place as needed.
2. Identify the advocates and detractors in your interview
If you are lucky to get an interview, there will likely be people on the panel that are your advocates and others that are going to ask you ‘gotcha’ questions. Usually, the advocates will ask you direct questions that you can answer easily, while the detractors will start with a preamble and ask you something very detailed/mean. Do not take the bait with these questions and get defensive - just answer as quickly as possible and move onto the next question. Interviews always fly by, and your goal should be to answer as many of their questions as you can.
3. Final hiring decisions are all about fit
Once you get to the interview stage - it’s all about making the case that you are the right fit for the place. Do your research on the people interviewing you, and the place. This will help.
4. Practice giving talks early and often
Get into the habit of giving talks early. Just do it! As soon as you have a story to present as a postdoc, go share it with the world and work out all the kinks. Think of it like a stand-up comedian working the small clubs before they get to the big stage.
5. Make a graphical summary slide
Don’t end your job talk on the acknowledgements slide. This is so boring! Make one additional slide with graphical summaries of your research accomplishments and your future aims, and put it at the end of your presentation. Once you are done with your talk, flip to this slide and solicit questions. This will allow the audience to ask you clearer, more directed questions.
6. Utilize your university’s resources
Many universities offer workshops for people in these positions, but they are not always advertized well. Keep an eye out for them - they are probably somewhere in the spammy administrator emails you have been ignoring during your whole postdoc.
7. Remember that you are an awesome scientist.
It’s probably true. Be proud of yourself and your work.