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THE BLACK HOLE

Preparing your application package for an academic job

By JONATHAN THON | DEC 01 2015

We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility. – Malcolm Gladwell

To read the previous articles in this series please visit these links:

When applying for a tenure-track faculty position, it is important to consider that there are very few of these available, and a great number of very qualified candidates. Increasingly common are adjunct professor positions which, as of this writing, comprise nearly 76 percent of American university faculty. Regardless of where you end up on the academic totem pole, your faculty search will inevitably begin with the research proposal.

The research proposal

Academic institutions typically hire in the fall, and I gave myself several months to develop a solid research plan. Competition will be fierce and it is important that your application be concise (no more than four pages including references), free of factual, grammatical, and spelling errors, and suitable for the department to which it is being submitted.

My proposal was structured as follows:

Page 1

  • 3 sentences stating the clinical problem I would be addressing and how my work in this area will contribute to human health
  • 1 paragraph detailing my career progression
  • 1 paragraph detailing my research goals
  • 1 paragraph providing background to my area of study
  • 1 paragraph detailing existing gaps in translational medicine that my proposal will address

Page 2

  • Preliminary data and innovation
  • Central hypothesis (answering the question)
  • Research approach with figure. It should be clear to the search committee what you will be taking with you and that you will not be in direct competition with your postdoctoral advisor.

Page 3

  • In my application I outlined five hypothesis-driven independent projects that fit within the larger aims of the department to which I was applying. To emphasize our compatibility, I clearly identified collaborators within the department for each project.

Page 4

  • I included here references for the above application, highlighting the most pertinent/impactful publications from my postdoctoral fellowship. These were included as PDF documents alongside my application.

Depending on the application instructions you will be asked to provide 3-4 letters of recommendation with your application. It is important you approach your graduate and postdoctoral advisors and provide your referees sufficient time to put these together. Oftentimes one of your mentors will know someone in the department to which you will be applying and can put in a call after your application is submitted to help bring it to the department’s attention. It helps to provide your referees with a copy of your application package, the contact information of the department head and search committee to which their letters should be addressed, and any information about you that they may not be aware of (recent publications, patents, courses, teaching… etc.). Follow up with them until their letters have been submitted, and check that each letter has been received.

It should go without saying, but do not ask for a reference from a colleague who does not know you well (regardless of their title), or an advisor with whom you do not have a good relationship. In the latter case, make sure you address this honestly in your cover letter and include a letter from another faculty member from the same institution explaining the situation and supporting your application. Not having a recommendation from your advisor is a red flag, and the search committee will absolutely take notice.

The CV

I don’t imagine anyone at this point in their careers needs advice on this front, but I have included below a list of point forms taken directly from Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty.

  • Your name and address
  • All higher education, with degrees obtained and dates
  • All professional positions held, with dates and brief descriptions of the work performed
  • Awards and honours, including pre- and postdoctoral fellowships
  • Major sources of independent funding
  • Publications
  • Teaching experience, awards, and interests
  • References, including names, titles, and addresses and other contact information
  • Invited keynotes and presentations
  • Board certifications and eligibility for physician-scientists

McMaster University’s CV requirements for faculty members being considered for re-appointment, tenure, permanence, promotion or as a candidate for an academic or administrative office, also serves as an excellent guide for how to structure your CV and what to include, and you should strongly consider modeling your own CV after their guidelines, excluding any categories not applicable to you.

The cover letter

I found it easiest to work on the cover letter to my application package after I had completed the research proposal and updated my CV. For the most part this letter built upon my earlier one, reminding the department how they know me, and drawing out concisely key elements of my proposal to highlight my research accomplishments, innovation/novelty of my work, research goals, and departmental fit. For two-body problems such as mine this is a good place to let the committee know about any special circumstances they will need to be made aware of. Oftentimes academic institutes are able to prepare “partner hire” packages – but these take considerable work and it is best to put this item on the table early in the interview process (reviewed here, here and here). Some departments view this as a recruitment tactic while others view it as a nuisance.

It is hard to know whether this (or any special circumstances revealed here) will eliminate you as a candidate before you are offered an interview, and it ultimately comes down to a judgment call. My suggestion is to consider it carefully, but be aware that special circumstances such as these will need to be addressed. If the department is not able to make allowances for yourself or your spouse, it is better to know this sooner rather than later and (if important enough) focus your attention on departments that can.

Last but not least: good luck!

Not all academic research departments will be hiring over the course of your search, and fewer still will do so without a candidate already in mind (you will know very early on if it is you). Nevertheless, it is important you put yourself out there while you are actively searching for this appointment, and commit to your timeline. This means giving it your absolute all when you are looking, but also being realistic about your options and maintaining a backup plan. Not finding a suitable fit in academia (whatever the reason) is not failure! Checking your own professional growth indefinitely as a postdoc-in-waiting is.

For postdoctoral fellows interested in pursuing a faculty appointment in academic research, I strongly encourage the following resource, alongside which this article should be read: Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. Burroughs Wellcome Fund / Howard Hughes Medical Institute

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon

Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

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