10 Tips for a Successful Academic Job Search

by Dr. LaKeisha McClary

I have been fortunate to complete within one calendar year an academic job search and sit on the other side to hire a new colleague. Mentors prepared me well for my successful academic job, but I know that not everyone is fortunate to have advisers and friends in the academy keep it real. So, I was excited to be asked to write a blog post on job searches. Since my only interest was in academic positions, I will limit myself within those boundaries. I present 10 tips for a successful academic job search.

  1. Know thyself.

    Searching for an academic job requires an extraordinary amount of time. So, if you are not 110% committed to the process, then wait until you are committed. Some people will tell you that you should decide what type of school you want to work in and only apply to those schools. Before starting my post-doctoral research position at Miami University, a medium-sized liberal arts school, I was dead set on a position at a large research university. But I enjoyed the working environment at Miami and applied to a variety of positions (almost all tenure-track assistant professor positions) at many different types of schools. The process helped me decide where I fit best in terms of professional and personal goals.

  2. Customize cover letters

    I applied for 15 jobs, and I know friends who applied to many dozens of positions. Initially, I cut and paste my cover letters. When October arrived, and a flurry of interesting positions was posted on SimplyHired.com, somehow my stock cover letter seemed inadequate. My personality and unique qualifications were not evident in how I presented myself on paper. The cover letter should wow a search committee who may have to sift through dozens to hundreds of applications. I wanted to convey a message to committees that if they didn’t invite me for an interview, they were missing out.

    Also, do not just mention that you are interested in teaching, e.g., general chemistry. Include course numbers. Show that you have invested time researching the university and the department. I included 2-3 unique sentences in each cover letter that were university and/or department specific.

  3. Stay organized.

    The application process is not consistent across campuses. Some postings require online submission only, while others request paper copies. At the request of a mentor who wrote reference letters on my behalf, I created a table in Microsoft Word that contained the following: University name, Department name, position sought including any job reference number, information on how to send references (e.g., URL or email address for online applications), and due date. I also pasted the job posting below the table. I kept separate folders for each university on my jump drive, and I had plenty of resume paper for printing documents.

  4. Include copies of publications.

    Do not assume anyone will take the time to look up your papers. Mention in the cover letter that you have published articles, especially if you are applying for a position to become the only CER member of the department. Such self-promotion is even more important if you are applying for a position that is “open”, by which I mean one that is not restricted to chemistry education.

  5. When you receive an interview, be over-prepared.

    For phone interviews, dress up even though no one will see you. Stand up to project your voice well and sound alert. Of course appearances matter greatly for on campus interviews. Choose neutral colors for suits, and make sure clothes fit appropriately. You should not look like a sack of potatoes or like you’re trying to draw attention to your body. Wear comfortable shoes because you will do a lot of walking. Just because you are dressed conservatively does not mean you have to look boring. I chose a standard black shift dress and black flats. But I chose a suit jacket that had gold details and a jewel blue cardigan for when I presented my mock lecture. I even wore turquoise colored necklace and textured black tights. Looking professional is not synonymous with looking stuffy.

    Preparation also extends to the presentations you are expected to give. Request information on what kinds of audio-visual equipment are available. Make sure your host knows what you need in case they have to request certain accommodations. You should know your presentation forwards and backwards. If the animation you worked so hard fails, then will you be able to describe it? What if the department’s projector is on the fritz and colors are not true? Know your presentation so that if there is complete audio-visual equipment failure you can still deliver. Departments are looking for people who remain poised in all kinds of situations, especially stressful ones.

    Case in point: I had two job interviews in one week. I lived an hour from the airport, so I arrived home around 11:00 pm Tuesday night, went to work Wednesday, drove back to the airport for a flight Wednesday night. The Wednesday flight was delayed several hours due to weather, and I did not arrive to my hotel until 1:30 am. I took a shower and organized my belongings before I went to bed and set three alarms because my body was on the verge of revolting, and I feared I would oversleep. The interview begins the moment you shake the hand of the faculty member with whom you will have breakfast. And you have to know what you know forwards, backwards, diagonally, sideways, and upside down because you may be on autopilot due to sleep deprivation.

    Also be prepared with dozens of questions to ask faculty, the department chair, and the dean. Some questions will be the same for all groups, but others may be appropriate only for the dean. For example, I asked about the strategic plan of the university 5-10 years forward. I needed to know if I could see myself in the future university, not just the present one.

    Remember that you are interviewing faculty and administrators, too. Consider prospects reasonably good when these people start selling their department/university to you!

  6. Always present yourself as a confident, competent expert who is flexible and open to learning from others.

    It is highly unlikely you will be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, then perhaps that department is not a good fit for you. So, when students or faculty ask questions, no matter how (passive) aggressive the approach, maintain your composure. Everyone in the room knows who the jerk is, so you do not have to go out of your way to make it more obvious. 

    One thing I learned when I attended a COACh workshop was to enact a power stance before each interview. I listed all the reasons why I was qualified for the position and why I deserved the opportunity to interview. It is important to turn anxiety and fear into empowerment. Be your best you on interviews.

  7. Start to work out.

    Not only is searching for a job stressful; the actual interview process is as well. We had a candidate who just looked like he wanted to be somewhere else, probably because he was exhausted. People will cut you some slack, but you have to be extraordinary and more extraordinary than any other candidate.

  8. Thank your hosts.

    I thanked each person I met with during interviews, including the administrative assistants. Even though I wanted to personally write thank you notes to the department chairs of the two places I visited, I opted for email. I knew that I was the last candidate; timeliness was more important than etiquette. At each institution, one faculty member (usually the head of the search committee) was designated as my host and served as the contact for any questions I had pertaining to my visit. So, I emailed a thank you note to the hosts and to the department chairs. Obviously, it is important to thank them for their time, but the positive observations that you made during the visit must not be overlooked. For example, I explicitly said that I could see myself as a faculty member in their department and provided evidence from my visit to support my statement. Close by saying you look forward to hearing from them soon.

  9. Negotiate. Negotiate. Negotiate.

    Even though I attended a workshop and learned the fine art of negotiation, knew the importance of negotiations (future salary increases depend on your initial base salary), and truly felt prepared to negotiate, a dear friend had to goad me into asking for more money. I received an increase in base salary and a few other perks. I would say before you negotiate, make sure you know how much moving expenses will be. I had to wait two weeks for my furniture because it was within the reimbursement limit. I could have had my furniture within days — but I did not think to obtain quotes from moving companies.  

  10. Take some time for yourself.

    The best advice my post-doctoral adviser gave me was to take at least two weeks for myself before I started my new position. I had planned to jump from one frying pan into another before she said that. The additional time allowed me to restore my soul and to prepare mentally for the first year as an assistant professor. I also had time to navigate around my new neighborhood, the campus, and the city.

    The first year has been challenging in a number of ways: some I expected, others that never occurred to me but apparently are common. Surround yourself with a strong support network of family, friends, colleagues in your field at other institutions, colleagues in other fields at your institution. And of course seek advocates within your home department.

Dr. LaKeisha McClary is an assistant professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She enjoys the challenges and rewards of teaching undergraduates and researching methods to improve students’ learning.