Getting a Faculty Job in Academia

Focusing on less well-known advice

Published: September 28th, 2022 | Last Updated: September 28th, 2022

Getting a faculty job in academia is an incredibly difficult process, and for many of us, it's what we spent >10 years training and working towards. The process is also extremely opaque, and it can seem daunting when we go on the job market. I just went through the process in 2021-2022 before landing an amazing job at UVA. I've put together a quick read for some of the most important things you should know when applying for a faculty job. I will split my advice into major categories in the process: the application, the "screener" interview, the "on-site" interview, and negotiations. I have also provided some very useful links and some important terms to know at the end. This advice is probably most relevant for my field of neuroscience, and R1 universities (i.e. research-focused schools), but I imagine many of these tips are applicable across most biomedical disciplines and institutions.
 

The Application

My stats: 65 applications, 19 "screener" interviews, 10 "on-site" interview, 8 offers

1. Don't self reject - apply even if you may not be perfect for the job

When going through job ads, you're going to see ads looking for specific people doing specific things, as well as very broad biology searches where anybody who has touched a cell at any point in their career is invited to apply. The key is - don't self reject - apply to any ad that has any relevance for what you want to do. My job offers came from traditional neuroscience departments, but also 2 pharmacology departments (including the one I accepted), a Psychiatry department, and a Psychology department. If you had asked me what kinds of offers I'd be getting at the beginning of my job search, this is not what I would have guess. I would have thought I'd be more competitive in more computational departments or engineering schools, but that was not the case. If I had limited myself to only job ads that I thought I was perfect for, I would have missed out on many great opportunities. Oftentimes the search committee may not be entirely sure what they're looking for, even if the job ad seems very specific, until they see the applicants they got. If you're a really strong applicant, even if you're not what the search committee initially thought they were looking for, they might still be very happy to have you there.  

2. Advice from people OUTSIDE your immediate field is more important than advice from people in your field 

This is especially true for your research statement. While you're working on your research statement, what's more important than getting people who know what you do to look at it is getting people who have no idea what you do to look at it. Remember, the department you're applying to - neuroscience, biology, psychology - are very diverse. You're going to have to explain why your work is interesting to the molecular biologist AND the human cognitive scientist in your audience. Really nail down that first paragraph so that your audience knows right off the bat why what you're doing is interesting. Leverage your friends who are outside your immediate field to go over your research statement with you. They're your friends, so they're incentivized to try to understand you. If they can't understand you, a busy search committee member will definitely not understand you.

3. Save yourself time by putting together a modular application

I didn't know this before I started applying, but while schools have different emphases in what they're looking for in a candidate, it generally comes in the same flavors. They may emphasize teaching, or their graduate students, or their DEI Initiatives (also called EDI or JEDI at some schools, but it represents the school's commitment to justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion), or a specific research topic like addiction or autism or decision-making. You want to prepare your materials such that you can quickly put together a cover letter that focuses on each school's particular interests. If you write your application in a way that you have modular pieces, i.e. paragraphs or sentences, that you can shuffle in and out of your application materials, it will save you a lot of time having to rewrite a cover letter for each new job ad. Also, make sure to have 2, 3, 4, and 5 page versions of your research statement. If you're doing a wide job search, you're going to be using all those versions - I did.

 

The "Screener" Interview

Usually departments will do about ~10-20 of these to figure out the final ~3-5 candidates (per position) to bring on-site. They are strictly timed, usually ~20-30 minutes, and there are likely people scheduled immediately before and after you. You get ~10-15 minutes of uninterrupted time to tell them everything they need to know - which is essentially answering these two questions:  

1. Why us? Why you? 

Why is this program/department/institution that you're applying to the perfect place for the kind of research you want to do, and why are you exactly the person that they're looking for. 

          - Essentially, what they want to know is that if they bring you in for an on-site interview (a big commitment for the search committee), your experience will be so perfect that you'll sign the offer on the spot. They don't want to waste their time if they feel like the match isn't that great.

          - Marketing yourself is the greatest skill you need in this entire job search process. Obviously, of the ~50-60 applications you might send in for a wide search, only a handful are truly going to be 100% perfect fits. Regardless, it's your job to convince the committee why the match is "perfect".

2. If it's a school with an emphasis on teaching, be ready to answer which courses you'd like to teach and why 

I think this is a big reason why I got screened out of a lot of schools with heavy teaching loads. I was NOT a good candidate for these schools. I had very little experience with teaching and was not prepared to speak about teaching in an effective way. So if your goal is to land a job at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution), which generally emphasize teaching much more than R1 schools (research heavy places), you'll need to prepare differently than I did. One key thing to do would be to get more teaching experience as a graduate student or postdoc.

3. Don't take this stage personally - it seemed SUPER random to me

I came out of some screener interviews thinking I crushed it only to find out I didn't make it through, and I came out of others thinking I bombed it only to get invited on-site. I felt pretty destroyed after my first few rejections, but my mentors told me that this is probably the most random step. One common thing that happens is that search committees already have people on their short-short list, but they invite some extras to the screener interviews in case their short-short list candidates turn out to be terrible or massively incompetent compared to their written applications. In those cases where short-short list candidates struggle, the extra folks have a shot. But in cases where their short-short list candidates perform up to par, the extra candidates had no chance. So don't take it personally - sometimes, you might already be on the outside looking in.

 

The "On-Site" Interview

This is the step where the power dynamic somewhat shifts. 

At the application and screener phases, the school has most of the power. At this stage, the school has identified the final ~3-5 people that they're seriously interested in, and they've committed significant resources to invite you "on-site". At this point, they're not just evaluating you, but recruiting you too. Depending on how the Covid situation evolves, this may change, but in the 2021-2022 cycle, some of my "on-site" interviews were completely on-site, others were purely virtual, and some were hybrid, where I'd go on site, but do some of the talks or 1-on-1 meetings over Zoom. Understand what your situation will be and be prepared to handle both virtual and in-person conversations and presentations, especially handling questions that are coming from both in-person and virtual attendees.

1. Here's what your 1-on-1 meetings will be like

I promised to skip the obvious advice, so I'm not going to talk about how you should practice your job talk and chalk talk over and over with different audiences... Instead, here's an idea of who you'll meet at these interviews (I had no idea what to expect before I started the process). 

Before I get there, I want to say that you DO NOT have to study each of the faculty members you'll be meeting in detail or read their papers carefully (caveat: unless you know you're meeting with a difficult person). Sure, if you have a lot of extra time, by all means go for it because it can't hurt, but who has extra time? I was very nervous and did this for my first interview and learned that it was completely unnecessary. You just need to have an idea of what their interests are (skim their website or read a few abstracts) so you can guide the conversation if things start to slow down. 90% of the people you meet will be completely happy telling you what they work on.

2. Breakdown of people you'll meet at your 1-on-1 interviews

          - (30%) They'll ask you about your research. They're excited about what you're working on and they have questions from the job/chalk talk that they really want to get answered. You know your own work, so these are a lot of fun.

          - (50%) What do you want to know about us? Remember they're recruiting you too at this point. You should have questions ready to ask about how they like their department, what the collaboration culture is like, what starting their lab was like (if they're junior), how the department has grown (if they're senior), quality of grad students, how easy it is to recruit postdocs, life in X city, etc. I found that most faculty I met were incredibly honest. They want you to like being there if/when you come, so they'll tell you if grad students are hit-or-miss or if postdocs are hard to recruit there.

          - (15%) Let me tell you all the ways we're amazing and why you should come here! Let me also tell you all these stories from our department's storied history. These are the people who probably already love you and are doing their best to convince you to come and convince the search committee to give you an offer. They're a huge resource - don't be afraid to ask "inside scoop" questions, like "why hasn't there been a junior hire in the last three years?".

          - (5%) I don't like you and everything you stand for. I had one of these at pretty much every interview. Maybe there's something they just can't stand about you, or your advisor, or your research, but they're going to make that 1-on-1 incredibly uncomfortable. The first time it happened, I was really upset, but then it kept on happening, and I just got over it. Some people are just like this, and you just do your best to stay positive.

3. Be strategic about letting departments know who else you're interviewing with

At this point, they are trying to gauge how likely it is that you will take the job if they offer it, and where else you might get offers from is going to play a huge role in that decision. One of the worst nightmares for a department is to extend offers to several candidates and have none of them take their offer. A "failed search" is a huge drain on department resources with nothing to show for it. In fact, I've heard that departments can be "penalized" for failed searches, in that the Dean or Provost may not be as enthusiastic about letting them run a search if they've failed before. They want to avoid this at all costs. At the same time, YOU want to avoid a situation where your higher tier schools pass on you for stronger candidates and your lower tier schools pass on you because they thought you wouldn't accept their offer. That's YOUR worst nightmare. Learn to be comfortable deflecting questions you don't want to answer and answer at times when it's beneficial for you, i.e. like knowing when revealing the other places that are interested in you can drive up your stock.

BONUS. Certain personal questions are illegal, but they're asked regardless

There are rules around asking job candidates questions like whether they're married or if they have kids. Regardless, people will still ask. My take on this is the same as above - learn to be comfortable deflecting questions that you don't want to answer and answer at times it may be beneficial for you.

 

Negotiations

My stats: $1.1M-$2.4M startup, $90K-$145K salary (12-month adjusted), ~800-2000 sqft lab space, 0-3 courses taught per year, sign-on bonuses and relocation reimbursement. 

This is honestly the most OPAQUE part of the process that you'll have nearly no experience with. I'm going to try to really drive home some key points. 

1. Take all the time you need - you are in the driver's seat

The best piece of advice I got at this stage was to take as long as I needed to negotiate and not rush the process. If you're lucky enough (there is a TON of luck involved) to reach this stage, that means you've gotten at least one job offer. At this point, the power dynamic shifts to one where you are in control. They've identified that you're their top choice, and it's up to you to decide if the offer is right for you. This is one of the stages that we're the LEAST familiar with as a postdoc, and we all have this desire to take the first offer we get because we don't know how to negotiate and are most likely undervaluing ourselves. You're also going to be so tired from interviewing at this point that the desire to just finish off the process will be strong. This is a simple concept, but hard to follow due to our own insecurities and lack of experience - the longer you negotiate, the sweeter the deal. My spouse works in industry, and she's "ruthless" when it comes to negotiating - I say "ruthless" because it feels like that to me, but in essence, it's just plain "effective" negotiating. Here's two things she taught me that really helped:

          - They are EXPECTING you to negotiate. What this means is that the first offer you get is their opening bid. They are expecting you to ask for more. If you don't ask for more, you're leaving things on the table. And what's the worst that can happen? They say no. No one is going to rescind an offer because you asked for an additional $10K a year in salary.

          - It seems "ruthless" or "cutthroat" to be negotiating with your future chair, but being good at negotiating is a strong skill to have. You don't want to seem like a pushover at this point. Sure, what you're asking for may seem a bit aggressive now since you're on different "teams", but once you're a part of the department, i.e. on the same "team", now your negotiating skills will help the department get more grant money and get better deals on equipment. It's also a demonstration of what you're bringing to the team later.

2. Provide a detailed line-by-line budget of what you're requesting for your startup

Ask your friends and mentors who have just landed their jobs in the last few years to see what kind of budgets, i.e. wish lists, that they've put together for their negotiations. Having a very detailed and well thought-out budget means that the department has to justify why they think you don't need something if they don't offer your full ask. There's nothing wrong with this - sometimes there's shared equipment you can use or department training grants for students/postdocs to help pay for your lab members, but in either case, the department is taking over those costs. Putting together the budget carefully also shows that you're prepared and you know the true costs of the science you want to do. They've given you an offer because they want you to achieve the goals you set out, AND do it in their department, so they will provide you with the resources (that you've justified) to accomplish that.

3. There are multiple pools of money

The amount of money that a chair has to offer is often highly variable, and this is something that I learned from experience. The dean likely allotted a certain amount of money to make this specific hire - this number is often around the first number you'll hear. However, if you're a top candidate and it's clear your research is going to cost more than that first number - a savvy chair will be able to find more money. That money can sometimes come from the department itself, or it can come from other departments that you might benefit, or it can come from "institutes" at the school that might have their own pools of money. In any case, don't give up or become disheartened if the first number you get at your dream school seems too low. Ask about different ways (and suggest them) that the chair might be able to find more money for your key pieces of equipment. 

3. Negotiate all the "toggles" together

Some departments, like those at public schools, may have salary limitations since salaries are public information. Other departments might have hard caps on startup money offers to maintain parity for recent hires. Some places are way more expensive to live. Some places might have lots of recent retirements where lab space is not an issue. When negotiating, make sure you consider all of these toggles together. For example, maybe there is a cap on salary, but the department can offer a sign-on bonus. Or maybe there's a cap on startup money, but the department can guarantee you two spots on training grants for your students. Make sure you allow flexibility in your negotiations to get yourself the best package possible. 

4. Time > Space > Money

I honestly had several perfect dream offers. Like if you had told me at the beginning of the process that I was going to be getting any one of these offers, I would have been ecstatic. I was still ecstatic when I got the offers, but then came the dread of trying to figure out how I was going to choose just one of the offers. Speaking with some of my mentors who've been faculty from a few years to a lifetime, the end result was a simple concept. Your time is more valuable than lab space, which is more valuable than money. In effect, it ranks based on how easy it is to get more of the thing. 

          - It seems like the startup money is all-important for starting a lab, but once you have what you need, that's really enough. You'll have to write grants to get more money anyways, so money on top of what you need to get off the ground is not as valuable. 

          - Space is more important than money because it's a limited resource in whatever building you're in. If the building is packed and no one is retiring soon, you're not going to get more space no matter how stellar you are. But, as with money, once you have enough space to do what you want to do, space on top of that is marginally useful. 

          - That's why time is the most important. This was a hard decision-making factor for me because I had one very strong offer in a location that my family really wanted to be in, but the course load was high. My mentors all basically agreed that if research was my focus, even if I had the money and the space, if I didn't have enough time to get my lab off the ground, it was all for nothing. And time in our profession, as we're all aware, doesn't have diminishing returns.

5. Use your other offers to negotiate for you

I was extremely lucky to have gotten multiple offers, and if you find yourself in that situation, use that to your advantage. If a department really wants to hire you, and they see that another school has made a stronger offer, they have concrete evidence that someone else thinks you're worth that much. And importantly, this gives the chair a lot of extra power when negotiating with their higher ups as well. If they can talk to the dean and make the case that they're about to lose you to X university because of a simple difference in salary or start-up, the dean will be more likely to up the offer. This is related to the first point of taking all the time you need. Inevitably, as time goes by, offers get stronger - settling too early could really hurt your future lab.

FINAL POINT. Negotiate in good faith

It was very difficult for me to negotiate because it was truly my first experience doing it. As members of academia, we never negotiated our graduate stipends or postdoc salaries. We just took what was given to us. This is the first time we have the ability to negotiate for ourselves, and many of us are underprepared. If we had spent the same number of years in industry, we would probably be on our third or fourth jobs and would have negotiated every single one of them. So make sure you negotiate and do it well. However, academia is not industry (obviously). You likely know people in the departments you're interviewing in, and you'll have many interactions in the future. We're all colleagues, so negotiate in good faith. Don't test the limits for the sake of testing the limits. Don't waste anyone's time because you wouldn't want anyone doing that to you. All of the chairs that I met honestly did their best job to get me everything I asked for (and more in many cases). If it's a good chair and a good department, they want you to be happy signing the offer and be happy in the department. So be competitive and negotiate well, but do it respectfully.

 

Conclusion

Hopefully, this has been helpful. Feel free to tweet me or email me if you have any comments or suggestions for improvement. My goal was to provide some insight into a historically opaque and daunting process. I'm imperfect, and some of the situations may be more specific to myself than I know, but hopefully knowing my experiences and the lessons I learned will help, even just a little.

Important Terms

An ever-evolving list that will be updated as I learn myself. My best attempt at casual definitions. Disclaimer: I'm new to this, so these definitions are likely imperfect!

Hard vs. soft money - Hard money is salary that is paid for by the department, and soft money is salary that is paid for from your own grants. In general, positions with more teaching have more hard money, while positions focused on research, especially at medical schools, have more soft money.

Indirects - When you get grant money and spend it, you not only have to pay for the thing, you have to pay indirect costs to the university for stuff like electricity and infrastructure (~60% of the cost). Some grants, like R01s have a different pool that's used to pay indirects, but others, like R00s, use the same pool to pay both the real cost of the thing (direct) and indirect costs. For example, if you pay your salary from your R00, you will have to pay indirects on top of that.

Exploding offer - Some departments will make you an offer and then give you a very tight deadline, like 2 weeks, to either accept/reject or they'll move on. This is a negotiating strategy that I have seen happen to friends when they were on the market, so I was terrified it would happen to me, but then it didn't really happen. I had one offer with a somewhat hard deadline, but they were willing to extend the deadline when I gave them a good reason, e.g. I had a second visit at another institution to complete before I could make a decision. I don't know if this was the reason I didn't get any exploding offers, but I made it clear at each interview that I had other interviews that I had to do because I wanted to make an informed decision.

 

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