The process leading up to your first faculty job is almost guaranteed to be a nerve-racking ordeal. Many applicants don't know how to make a good first impression. It is common--and reasonable--to question whether you have the right set of skills and credentials for a particular faculty job.

Whether at a large research-intensive university on the West Coast or a small teaching college in New England, the recruitment process is much the same all across the country. Search committees receive scores of applications, which they whittle down by a variety of means to a half-dozen or so serious contenders. The lucky ones can expect a grueling 1- to 2-day campus visit that usually involves presenting a mock lecture and a research talk and a marathon series of one-on-one meetings with faculty members, staff, students, and administrators.

But there are many differences in what search committees at different types of institutions look for in an applicant and an application and in the qualities that make for a good fit. The faculty members we interviewed--from institutions large and small--revealed some substantial variations in how the recruitment process works and in which factors most affect applicants' chances of getting a tenure-track offer.

Amherst College

One of the nation's top-ranking liberal arts colleges, Massachusetts-based Amherst College has about 1600 students and 177 full-time instructional faculty. The biology department has 12 faculty members, four of whom were hired in the last decade. Despite the institution's focus on teaching, says Ethan Temeles, an associate professor in the biology department who has been on search committees for many years, teaching isn't the only factor in screening applicants--or even, necessarily, the main one. Teaching is a very high priority at Amherst, but like other top liberal arts colleges, Amherst's biology faculty maintain active research programs, their labs staffed mostly by advanced undergraduates. So applicants to Amherst need serious research credentials.

In particular, Temeles looks for evidence that applicants have a background that will allow them to set up and maintain a research program that's appropriate to the institution--and to keep the research going while managing a teaching load that's much heavier than most research institutions require. "We want to see evidence from our candidates that they are able to keep their research going while they simultaneously develop their teaching," Temeles says.

"In the past decade, our hires average 3 to 5 years' postdoc experience to allow them to reach a certain level of maturity," says Temeles. That maturity, he says, helps on the teaching side, too. "We feel that the postdoc experience helps a candidate with both teaching and research. The more experience a candidate has in research and teaching, the more successful they would be in their pursuits here."

This maturity, for Temeles, often is apparent during interviews. Those interviewing for a faculty position at Amherst should come prepared not just with answers but with questions related to both teaching and research. A bit of research on the interests of an individual professor in the department can assure better conversations with the faculty members who control your fate.

As for teaching expectations, Temeles says, he and his colleagues are looking for evidence of genuine interest in teaching. So they ask applicants to submit a general teaching philosophy and a synopsis of their teaching experience, whether it was instructing and organizing lab courses or course curriculum development. Amherst hiring committees like to see evidence that a faculty candidate can teach courses in areas that are not currently being covered by the department. He advises that people looking for a job at a small college need to market their teaching interests and experience in a way that complements what faculty members are already doing: "If you can do that plus teach in the area that's being advertised, then that's a big advantage."

Although it helps to present cover letters and statements of teaching and research that are well-written, what is most important in the application package, Temeles says, is how they are conceived and laid out. "It helps to be a good writer, but at the same time, you don't have to be a Richard Dawkins. What is important is that you have a good idea of where you want to go and can lay that out clearly," says Temeles. "Applications like that can really jump out."

The biggest difference between a small college like Amherst and a major research university, Temeles says, is in the extent of the professional interactions among staff. "At a university, you could be a behavioral ecologist interviewing for the department of ecology and evolution where there may be 20 people doing the same thing, so having a conversation is relatively easy to do, but at a small college you may end up meeting people who work on molecular and cell biology, and you need to be able to talk to them about common teaching interests."

Swarthmore College

Michael Brown, an associate professor of physics at Swarthmore College, which is located just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says that any new addition to their small faculty--the physics faculty has nine members--has to buy into Swarthmore's style of teaching and show a real commitment to educating undergraduates. "Candidates must be cognizant of what this job really entails," says Brown. "If we see they are pushing their research side too much and if there is no teaching experience, then this is a red flag."

During the interview, candidates are required to give a seminar that draws students in. "We like to see them engage the students in some dialogue," says Brown. "Our classes are small, with only about eight students, so we look for someone who can be quick on their feet and can answer questions."

Looking back over the 12 years he has been involved in hiring at the college, Brown says that he has often been surprised by the candidates when they meet in person. Reading through their CVs, teaching and research statements, and letters of recommendation, he says, offers a very limited view. Some applicants who rise to the top of the pile because their dossier looks strong can sink back down again in face-to-face interviews, and vice versa. "In an hour of private discussions, a lot can come out--personality, enthusiasm, and passion for science--or not," says Brown. "While the tangibles are on paper, all the intangibles come across in the interview"--and those intangibles can have a big impact on Swarthmore's hiring decisions.

Most of Swarthmore's recent physics hires have been temporary. Swarthmore's tenured faculty members are granted a sabbatical leave every 4 years, so each year the department has two or three temporary positions to fill. These opportunities, Brown says, offer great training for young graduates who want to find long-term employment at a teaching college. "While these positions are not permanent, they provide very good experience that will bring you forward to a permanent position somewhere else," he adds.

Whether they are filling temporary or permanent positions, Brown and his colleagues look for much the same thing: 2 to 3 years of postdoc experience during which the candidate clearly demonstrated a commitment to research and a passion for teaching and interacting with students. Although letters of recommendations carry weight, Brown doesn't care whether you worked for someone famous or at an elite institution. "We don't look for pedigree except for if somebody is a candidate that comes from a similar college as ours; that's when we know without question they know what we are about."

University of California , Berkeley

"It's not about being a good salesman; it's about being an intelligent, mature scientist," says Marc Hellerstein, a professor in the department of nutritional science and toxicology at the University of California, Berkeley. Hellerstein, who has helped hire 15 professors over the last 13 years, says that although a slick cover letter and well-written work statements are impressive, the outcome of a job search is likely to depend on a handful of other key factors: the originality of a candidate's research, evidence of persistence and sustained effort, funding potential, and references from well-known scientists in the field. "The main thing I want to see is quality and productivity," says Hellerstein. "We not only have to judge what they've done, but what they will do--and that's the hard part."

Evaluating a candidate's potential for continuous, sustained research productivity is not easy for hiring committees, he says, but he tends to rely on two indicators: a proven track record in getting financial support, and a background that demonstrates collaborative potential within the department. "We look for something that broadens the capability of the existing faculty and can fill a niche."

Although funding is important, Hellerstein says, it isn't necessary to have a high-profile award--any competitive new investigator grant from a government agency or nonprofit foundation support would suffice--but fellowships are not as effective in making your case. The point is for the candidate to prove to the committee members that he or she can successfully put together a grant proposal that can stand up to scrutiny and win funding. "Having achieved getting funding is important because you can demonstrate that you can do it."

Hellerstein says that the decision usually comes down to the in-person interviews. Being able to explain the logic behind your body of work and to clearly state long-term research goals is the way to get high marks when doing sit-down meetings with individual faculty members. Also important, according Hellerstein, is making research connections with faculty members and offering opportunities for possible collaborations. "If you can engage somebody with your work and say, 'We can work on that together,' then you're in good shape," he adds.

Columbia University

As chair of the psychology department at Columbia University, Geraldine Downey has been involved in hiring junior-level faculty every year for the last 5 years, and she expects that streak to continue. The key to getting hired in her department, she says, is publication in top journals. Downey and her search committee usually make their first cuts from the 200+ applications they receive for every opening on this factor alone. "We want to know that this individual can take the paper right through the publication process and get it into a top journal before we really look at them as a viable candidate," she says.

Once the pool of applicants has been narrowed to 20 or so, Downey looks for succinct cover letters with a logical flow of thought showing a strong, logical line of research that complements her department's existing specialties. "I'm looking for somebody who follows their first idea with a second, related idea," she says. "And I expect this to come across very well in a cover letter, just in a couple of sentences."

For the handful who make it to the interview stage, doing homework can make the difference between an offer and a trip home. Instead of obsessing about how many hours you will be asked to teach each year, ask about the department and how well it is supported by the administration. Discuss the work done by other scientists within--and outside--the department. Demonstrate an interest in the world around you.

An applicant is expected to be an asset to the department, says Downey, so she or he should be interested in the future of the department at a broad level: "What we're looking for is someone who sees the forest from the trees."

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Science Careers and may be reached at andrew.fazekas@sympatico.ca.

Updated, 13 February 2008

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Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.