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  • Destenie Nock

4 Phases of the Academic Job Market

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

August 8, 2019 by Destenie Nock

This blog is focused on preparing for the academic job market. As a note Dr. Nock was on the engineering academic job market, so please check with other academics in your field for their perspective.


I am assuming that if you are here you have decided that it is time for you to enter the job market. Congratulations! This is a great step forward in your career. Brace yourself because this career process can be a bit of an uphill hike. I submitted my first job application in August of 2018. Received my first call for a phone interview in October. In November I got a call inviting me to an on campus interview in February, and I received a job offer in March of 2019. If you are unsure about whether to enter the job market please refer to the blog post titled "When to Enter the Academic Job Market".

While I was on the job market I found that in general there were four phases.

  1. Job Ads and Never Ending Searching - Where do I fit? How do I show people how awesome I am over the internet?

  2. Phone/Skype/Conference Interviews - Why do I only have 20 minutes to impress these people?

  3. In person (on-campus) interviews - Oh snap I made it to the top 5! All I have to do is not blow it for the next 2 days, and figure out if I can be friends with these people.

  4. Offers and Negotiation - Wait..I'm supposed to figure out how to set myself up for my actual career??? I'm just happy I got a job.

Phase One: Job ads (August - December)

I would say apply anywhere you think you qualify because it is very difficult to know exactly what people are looking for. Many people were surprised I applied to all universities ranging from community colleges to Ivy Leagues. While I was on the job market one person told me that they were surprised I got an interview at Ivy League X because they probably wouldn't have applied since it is so hard to get a job there. This is the worst mentality when looking for a job. In the words of William James, "He [or she] who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as if he [or she] had surely failed." In other words the only way you can guarantee you won't get the job is if you don't apply. You never know what might set you apart and get someone to give your application a second look. It might be your specific research application, maybe they know your adviser, perhaps your co-author is one of their former students, or they remember you from some conference where you sat at the same table for lunch.

Needs for this phase include the following: teaching statement, research statement, maybe diversity statement, resume/CV, people your trust who will write you recommendation letters (one should be your adviser). And ideas of future research. Know what type of school you want to apply for, but don't be too narrow. While I was on the job market I applied to 53 academic jobs, and 15 jobs outside of academia. The key to being able to apply to so many is trying to standardize your job materials. I had a cover letter for industry, one for government positions, one for R1 and R2 research universities, and one for more teaching focused universities.

When looking for jobs in academia I used Academic Keys and The Chronicle of Higher Ed for the search engines. Additionally I looked on departmental websites and reached out to other academics I met at conferences.

Destenie Nock - Professional Photo
I recieved this professional photo at the AAAS conference. It was free, and is one of my most used job materials. Some departments will also do these for free.

Phase Two: Phone/Skype/Conference Interviews (October - March)

These interviews typically last 15 - 20 minutes. Make sure you have your suit ready, and a short description of your research and future directions (1 min), along with an idea of what you could teach. Have a 5 min version of your research agenda prepared in case people ask you to expand on your work. To set yourself a part from the crowd you should have an idea of where you will get funding in the future (this is very important for engineering). It's best if you can say more than the National Science Foundation. For NSF it is best if you can look up their specific directorates to let people know you have seriously thought about it.

Check out this website for the most common interview questions in an academic interview. I have also included some common questions at the bottom of this blog post.

Phase 3: On-campus interviews (December -April)

On-campus interviews can last anywhere from 1 to 2 days. A typical interview schedule can go as follows: breakfast with the dean, department chair, or a full professor, followed by a series of 20-30 minute meetings, lunch, more meetings, and you give an hour long talk somewhere in there. At the end you will go out to dinner. This means that in some cases the interview can start at 8 am and not end until 9 about a marathon!

In this phase you will need a professional photo, abstract for your job talk, and an idea of some projects you want to pursue in the future. While on the job market I received 12 on campus interview invitations (of which I accepted 8), and was invited to give a graduate student seminar. The first thing people ask for is a photo, title and abstract for your talk, and a short bio. This is necessary for them to publicize your talk. For an example of a short bio please refer to the "Note about the author" at the bottom of this post.

I received my first invitation for a job interview in November (the interview was in February). Once I received the interview invitation I started preparing my job talk. That's right, I did not have a job talk prepared before I went on the job market. I was too busy writing my dissertation and applying to jobs to really work on the job talk.

Phase 4: Offers and Negotiation (March - May)

This is the "fun" part. I put fun in quotes because I found it very stressful and difficult to choose which university would be my home for the next 6+ years, but I was happy to be on the other side of the interviewing process.

When thinking through negotiating you will want to have an idea about the average salary in your field, and in that department (public universities have this info online), start up needs for building your lab, and needs for funding students. Will you need travel funds? Other things to think about for negotiations can be found here. You can also ask follow up questions about maternity and paternity leave, look up cost of living in the area, and ask if they would be willing to do a second visit to help you see the place with fresh (non-interview) eyes. I had a spouse so I asked if he could talk to the person in the spousal hire office to get a sense of his job prospects.

Ok, so those are the four phases of the academic job market. Remember preparation is your greatest defense in the art of war. Good luck out there!

Note about the author (this is the bio I used while on the job market): Destenie Nock is a Ph.D. Candidate in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, and an Offshore Wind Energy IGERT Fellow. Prior to this she was a Mitchell Fellow in Northern Ireland where she earned an MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queens University of Belfast. Her research is focused on applying optimization and decision analysis tools to evaluate the sustainability and reliability of the electricity grid in disparate energy systems. She has two B.S. degrees from North Carolina A&T State University in Electrical Engineering and Applied Mathematics. In addition, she has held internships at Argonne National Lab, the Utility Regulator of Northern Ireland, and Exxon Mobil.

Example Interview Questions and Answers:

What makes you different from the other candidates?

  • Bad answer: ‘Um, well I know Professor X is a leader in the field, and Prof Y has expanded upon that first set of work, but I combine these two sets of work.'

  • This question is not requesting that you attack the character of your fellow candidates or compare yourself negatively to them. This question is a way of asking ‘why should we hire you?' or  ‘why are you special?' To answer this question you need to give examples from your own history to support why you fit in the department. The above answer spent too much time talking about other people's work and not promoting themselves.

  • Good answer: My previous research in _____ field has prepared me to go after funding in _____ topic. This would allow me to expand the focus of the department while building an international presence. I know that one of the strategic areas of the department is _____ and I believe my work would open the doors for many collaborations within and outside of the department. [ You could also add in some details of books and articles written, prizes won etc.]

Why do you want to work here?

  • Bad answer: ‘Because I am tired of graduate school, and you guys were hiring!'

  • This question can be tough. The committee is looking for some thoughts on what you have seen and heard about the way they do things that make you want to work for them. The emphasis in the question is on the word ‘here'. So, to answer this question you need to know about the university and the department. Make sure you re-read the job ad and think about why you decided to apply in the first place. If you are in a teaching focused institution then you want to focus on why you would be a great teacher rather than an international researcher, it would be the reverse for an R1 institution.

  • Good Answer: ‘I wanted to move to an institution like this that prioritizes good teaching practice and dedicated care of students. I believe I can offer this because of [x and y examples of experience from your previous career].

Do you have any questions for us?

  • Bad answer: 'No' or 'What is the salary like?'

  • The committee wants to see that you are thinking beyond the job interview and about your career. Here you want to show you are forward thinking.

  • Good Answer: Where do you see the department going in the next 5 -10 years? What type of students does your program typically attract and where do students go afterwards? What advice would you give to someone in the beginning of their career? What is the typical class load (this varies widely by school, and its important to know if you will be expected to teach 2 classes a semester vs 1)? What do you look for when recruiting graduate students? How does student recruitment work here (at some places more senior profs get to pick students first, and at other younger profs get to have a larger say.)

More examples of questions:

  1. Tell me a little bit about your previous research and future research plans. You should have a 30 seconds, 2 minutes and 5 minutes answer

  2. What could you teach. You should have undergrad, graduate, and new classes in mind.

  3. Who do you see yourself collaborating with?

  4. What is your plan for funding your research agenda? What is one of the first things you plan to work on?

  5. For the people fresh out of grad school: You are pretty young, what makes you think you would be successful here? Are you sure you are going to be able to finish your dissertation in time?

Other questions to ask and be prepared to answer can be found here.

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