Academic Job Market: One Experience

This post is intended as a “sample point”, and a bit of informal guidance, for people who are on the academic job market, or will be going on it soon. Throughout the different phases of the job market, I’ve relied on the experiences of many people who took the time to describe their experiences. Paying it forward, now, by describing my own.  

My application materials, as a reference:

I am writing this post just as my first semester as an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University is about to start. My office and my lab are freshly remodeled, and I’ve had fun getting the lab equipped. My graduate seminar class starts on Monday. It is all so exciting.

Getting here required surmounting the challenges of the academic job market. I would not call it the hardest thing I’ve ever done — getting the PhD, for me, was harder, for example. However, the job market months were the most intense of my life. Take your most challenging paper deadline experience, multiply it by ~ 30, and stretch it out to several months — that is roughly the level of intensity of the experience. If you are going on the job market soon, buckle up! It will be one exciting, wild ride.

Below, first, advice to folks on the job market, then my experience in numbers, dates, and pictures. 

The upside, in the long run: When I realized the intensive, time-consuming nature of the job market, I resented it somewhat — felt that it took me away from the lab, the students, the papers, the proposals — away from my real work. Only half-way through my interviews did it occur to me that job market skills are professional skills. Job market experience will make you a better scientist, in the long run. You will be better at reaching out to others, reacting to feedback, explaining your ideas, giving talks. It is counter-productive to think of the job market as the time away from your lab and your papers. It is much more than that: it is a chance to hone important professional skills. A professional skills’ bootcamp, for free, with travel and meals covered. (Sounds enticing when stated like this, – right!? Sign me up!?).

Winning strategies (1): The recommended course of action these days is applying widely, across the range of school and department rankings, and interviewing with as many schools as you can. I support this guidance wholeheartedly. There are many reasons why it makes sense to apply broadly and interview broadly, rather than have your mind set on one school or a handful of schools.

    • While you may have a sense whether you will or will not like a school, chances are, many schools will leave you with a different impression than you had before interviewing. There are both subtleties — e.g., the atmosphere in the department, — and facts — e.g., teaching loads, what is prioritized in the tenure process — that you will not know before spending a day with your potential future colleagues. Schools that you thought would suit you best may not end up being your first choice at the end of the day.
    • Likewise, it is often actually difficult to say what the school is looking for. Job ads are less telling than they seem. In the core research areas, for example — when a school says “networks”, is it systems or theory? Wireless and mobile networks or datacenter networking? Design of specific protocols, or development of wide-reaching understanding of the behavior of networked entities? There are many subtleties as well: e.g., whether the school sees postdoctoral experience as a plus or not, whether the department is evaluating you as a potential fit to a new initiative or center. A job description that looks like an ideal fit on paper may be a complete mismatch — and, likewise, what initially comes across as a less-than-ideal fit may in fact be great.

Also, it is worth keeping in mind that schools fully expect candidates to be in demand. They expect the level of polished presentations and fluency in responses to questions that comes from doing many interviews. Do not shortchange yourself by not applying broadly.

Winning strategies (2): Start early — much earlier than you think you need to. Job market starts sooner than you think. I thought I started early enough, but I actually did not, not by a long shot. Several schools had firm deadlines, for all materials including the letters, in early November. Some of those deadlines I regret not making.

Winning strategies (3): It takes a village to place a person in an academic job. The application materials and the job talk should be reviewed, multiple times, by multiple people. It helps if some of those people are faculty members who have served on search committees. Start early. Ask for feedback early and proactively, incorporate it, sleep on it, then ask another person for yet more feedback. Give many practice talks before your actual job talk. Job market skills are professional skills: your future papers, grant applications, talks will benefit from you learning to plan for feedback, ask for it, and work it into your materials.

Winning strategies (4): Be nice to yourself. Job market experience is taxing, physically and mentally; it is relatively short, on a multi-decade career scale, but is mercilessly demanding. Be nice to yourself. Establish healthy habits going into it, if you can. Anything that you can do to be nice to yourself helps. Drink lots of water. Rest when you can. Carry and use hand sanitizer. Get lots of sleep. Eat vitamins. Spend time decompressing, with people, animals, movies — whatever helps. You are asking your body and your mind to perform at their very best for you — treat them with respect they deserve.

My experience, in numbers and dates:

    • Applications: I submitted 48 applications, for positions in Canada, USA, and Switzerland, in ECE and CS departments. I have submitted my first application on November 15th, and my last one on January 22nd. My applications required up to 5 letters of reference. As I am a bit more senior than some other applicants, I submitted more than 3 letters for nearly all applications. I applied widely, across both rankings and geographic locations. I did not apply to schools in locations where there would be no opportunities for my husband (he works in industry; there is work for him in all metropolitan areas but not in college towns) — I would have applied to ~ 15-20 other schools, if this was not a concern.
    • Skype and phone interviews: Several schools invited me over right away, but quite a few had a screening, Skype or phone, interview as well. I had 11 such interviews, out of which 10 turned into invitations to come to an on-campus interview. My first interview was on January 11th, and the last one on February 9th.
    • In-person interviews: I received 15 interview invitations and went to 13 interviews. Out of the 13 interviews, 5 were with ECE departments, 5 with CS departments, and 3 with both. I received my first invitation for an on-site interview on January 22nd, and the last one on February 23rd. My first interview was on February 8th, and my last one was on April 9th. I had an interview scheduled later in April as well, but cancelled it after receiving several offers.
    • Seminar talks: Throughout the course of 13 interviews, I gave 16 talks: one “extra” talk for a school that interviewed me across two campuses and requested different presentations at the two locations, and two additional talks for schools that asked for a separate presentation on my research vision.
    • Offers: I received 6 offers, 5 from ECE departments and 1 from a CS department; 2 offers from Canada and 4 from the United States. I received my first offer on March 19th, and my last one on April 20th.
    • In pictures: I’ve managed to take photos of the views from all but one of the hotel room I’ve stayed in, during my in-person interviews. Here they are.

What it feels like to be done: I wrote the following after I signed the offer to join Duke: First and foremost, I am deeply grateful, to everyone who helped me along the way, — my mentors, hosts, supportive friends, and understanding colleagues. And also, I feel satisfied with my ability to achieve the things I set out to achieve. I came to Princeton, from an industry position, with an eye on a faculty position in 2 years. I now have a deep sense of personal satisfaction that comes from setting a complex long-term goal and achieving it.

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One Response to Academic Job Market: One Experience

  1. Viktor Barkar says:

    Wonderful summary, Maria – thank you for sharing! The guiding principles are universal and could also be applied to a variety of fields. If I may add one more – be kind to people you meet along the way – you never know where and when you’d meet them again 🙂 knowing your balanced and kind character I recon that was a huge factor 🙂

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