September, here we go….Always sounded like “back to school” to me. Always having the same meaning of novelty and the start of a new academic year. For postdoc aiming an academic career, it is the quest of the Holy Grail: “tenure-track assistant professor” gained so much value in the last decade that what was considered acquired by our mentors is not anymore.
Look at the numbers, only 18% of postdocs will enter an academic career. In other words, only 18% of us will succeed in obtaining this golden ticket. And there are other frightening numbers outside.
If september marks the beginning of the hunting seasons for some, for academic-aspiring postdocs it sounds like the “academic job hunting season”. If I have to reword it, I would say “The Hunger Games season”. It is brutal, bloody and messy and only a few reach the finish lane.
I survived, I made it to an academic institution and so far I have high spirit on my tenure clock (it is also just started and I will likely blog my retrospective in a year). But it has been a journey through the valley of sorrow and cries. Looking back, I have learned a lot about the recruitment process and many peoples on my journey helped me survive and kept me with hope.
I thought to share these notes and tips to all outside now cramming in preparing the application package. Here are my useful points as you would have in your package. This is my experience (I am in the Biomedical Sciences) and what I thought helped me succeed in it.
Foremost, I would go aggressive and jump over the black hole represented by the online application system. If you can identify the department recruiting, go straight to the department chair to get a first contact and show your motivation by email. If any institutions are reading this blog, please close these abominations that are Taleo or such recruiting tools for academic positions. They are a waste of time for you and you may wasted the most fitted persons because the algorithms decided it was not a match.
1. Cover letter: the most despised document and usually written down at the last minute. This is your golden ticket for raising the chance of getting a phone interview. You slop, you miss it. Put yourself in the search committee facing hundreds of application. Imagine how to catch attention in 30 seconds. That makes your first impression about your seriousness and motivation. Be personal and highlight how your experience will fit the department need. Try to bond with the reader. Be courteous and not entitled. Remember you may facing at this point up to 500 other competitors. I would go one page, one and a half page at best.
2. CV/Resume. Thats a very important piece. I would not recommend the NIH Biosketch at this point as it does not include extra-curricular achievements (yet). Be sure you mention your publications and the metrics. Create an ORCID Researcher ID, that allows you to track your bibliography record but also to obtain useful metrics such as number of citations per articles. Also this is a good time to show yourself on the Web. Brush up your profile on LinkedIn, set your privacy settings on Facebook, create a blog that is instructive. In brief be your own PR firm! A good tool I found was the Google notification tool on academia.edu (a sort of LinkedIn for academic but maybe more for non-scientists academics like humanities) that send you when and where someone Googled your name or your publications. Also tailor your CV to your targeted institution. A big research university may not found valuable your adjunct teaching time as valuable as a four-year college.
3. Teaching philosophy. The big and essential piece if you are aiming small universities, in which the teaching load is higher than Tier 1 institutions. Make it personal and time to use all the knowledge you have learned during teaching workshop and extra teaching activities you have achieved. At this point you should have brushed up some TA work, but really you have to have a track record of teaching workshop that shows you take the teaching duty at it best. DELTA program and CIRTL network should sound familiar. Active learning? Peer-learning, Bloom’s taxonomy? You should be familiar with that…otherwise you will be in trouble to have a solid teaching philosophy.
4. Statement of research. The big piece for Tier 1 and 2 research institution. I saw many different styles but one redundant pattern I have observed is the following. Summarize your research interest (and at this stage you will need one) in few lines. Explain your training from your graduate and postdoctoral work and how it fits the qualifications requested by the job description. Then transition to your research interest and describe it almost like you would do in a grant in a 2-3 pages maximum. That includes the main thematic, the objectives, how you will achieve them and how this will be different from your mentor. Remember, you have to be different to your mentor but trying to adventure into new worlds without any previous experience is dangerous and means you are taking too much risk for the search committee and may end in deep failure. So use your experience as a solid base and propose to slightly outgrow into a undocumented area. And yes, one project at the time! Do not try to think starting twenty ideas at the time. Also consider adding a bibliography section but maximum 10-15 references.
Now you should be ready, give you enough time to do some homework on the institution and the department. If you think you will be an outlier with your stem cell derived neuron among a department rich in structural biology, you will and you have almost no chance unless the department specifically was looking to attract such skills.
Once you have double-checked the grammar, writing style, be sure you package this into a PDF and have all the documents requested uploaded as required. If you dare to omit any document, you have signed yourself the death sentence of your application.
Good luck and let the game begins!