The academic job search for the rest of us, Part III – Application materials

This is the third post in a series focusing on applying for tenure-track positions in the physical sciences at non-research intensive and/or primarily undergraduate institutions. Reading Part I and Part II is probably a good idea.  Your mileage may vary, use this information as a guideline, not as the Absolute Truth.

Your cover letter should be limited to one page.  Although people in more writing-intensive fields apparently don’t always mind a longer letter, in the sciences at non-research intensive institutions, you would probably be crazy to run on past one page [added a bit later; many people advise a 1.5-2 page cover letter, but I still don’t think that’s smart under the premise of this series of posts, especially given my truthful next sentence].  Keep in mind that not all committee members closely read these letters.  I personally do, and it does affect my perception of the candidate.  You only need an introductory paragraph, a paragraph about teaching, and a paragraph about research.  Be brief, but clear about how your experience and interests will be a good match to the institution.  The deeper I have to go into your application packet to see why you are a special little snowflake, the less likely I am to support your candidacy.  Not everybody feels that way, but you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, as the saying goes.

One problem you will face is that undergraduate institutions may have a larger variety of required application materials beyond the standard bullet-point CV, which should be about two pages, plus a bibliography.  Most institutions will want to you write something about teaching, usually involving some combination of your teaching experience, interests, and philosophy.  You have to be careful here because if you happen to be applying to an undergraduate institution with some sort of strong educational philosophy, you may need to tailor your response to incorporate that.  If you don’t have a lot of teaching experience, be honest, but do talk up how you have enjoyed working with undergraduates and make clear that you have thought about teaching issues.

Most institutions will want you to write something about your research interests as well.  If they don’t, that’s a clear indicator that they don’t value research.  However, you also have to be careful here to know something about how the department works.  In some places, undergraduate research is more or less a hit-or-miss thing that sometimes happens but often not.  If you come on too strong with your research prowess and ambitious plans, you could hurt yourself because the search committee might not know if you will be able to scale back in an appropriate way that doesn’t make you bitter.  Or, if you will spend so much time on research that you shirk your (presumably extensive) teaching responsibilities.

In contrast, at some schools, a student will be required to do some sort of senior capstone exercise under the mentorship of a faculty member, and that often means that students will also be working with faculty before the senior year.  If a department is more towards the latter case (as is mine), you need to be very clear about how you can incorporate undergraduates into your research program.  Of course, some departments aren’t very clear about this issue and one can’t always rely on the department website to depict reality.  Still, if the school wants a separate research statement they probably are serious about hearing how you will involve undergraduates in that research.  An increasing number of undergraduate institutions want their scientists to be applying for external funding.  If they explicitly mention that in the ad (as we do), make sure to be specific about what aspect of your research will be the best bet for that and mention specific funding agencies.

One big caveat: your research statement should be coherent and not all over the place.  Looking back, I made this mistake in my first tenure-track search and it still worked out, but listing every little thing you might work on isn’t so smart.  Focus on one or two things that have the best chance of involving undergrads and one or two things that have the best chance of leading to funding.  (Hopefully there is at least one overlap between those.)

Never forget that these sorts of documents are also testing your written communication skills.  For us, this is especially important because a non-trivial number of potential (and actual) faculty in physics-related fields in the U.S. are foreign-born.  I don’t mean that to be xenophobic, but you need a much higher level of English proficiency both in writing and speaking to land a primarily undergraduate teaching position than you did in graduate school and as a post-doc.  This issue is probably going to be more important than at a research-intensive school, too.  But, if it is obvious that you are a native speaker, frequent spelling and grammar issues can be even worse.

A CV tip: If you’ve done any public outreach, make sure to list it, and if you’ve done several things, make public outreach its own section.  Maybe you did a presentation at the local Junior High when you were a grad student, helped host a public observing session at the campus observatory, did a newspaper interview, etc.

A teaching statement tip: If you have some teaching experience, don’t be afraid to include some specific techniques with which you have had success.  The more hypothetical the teaching statement, the more likely those of us with lots of experience will look at you as naive.

A research statement tip: Working with an undergradute student while in grad school or as a post-doc counts just fine as experience with undergraduate research mentoring even if it was “officially” your boss’s student.

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