One topic represents a common problem of science today: the academic faculty job market. The competition for an assistant professorship in cell biology in a middle-sized university in the United States results in a clash of approximately 300 applicants warring against each other for ONE position. In times of impact factor dominance, limited fellowships, and fewer grants, the focus has shifted from creativity to irrational productivity, sometimes measured by the number of CNS (Cell, Nature, Science) papers published. Even though the career transition from postdoc to assistant professor is broken now, how can you proceed to the next academic step if you really want to?
Here is some advice that can be helpful to start your academic job application:
1) Self-evaluation and career advice. Are you ready to change gears? Do you feel you can be an independent investigator? Does your CV tell a compelling story of scientific maturity? Do you have a competitive CV, with publications, fellowships, awards? These questions are tough to answer sometimes, but you should self-evaluate and find people who will give you candid feedback. Mentors, bosses, and colleagues can discuss if you are ready for an academic position. In particular, people with hiring power (department chairs, deans, managers) also can be helpful in giving career advice, especially as they are the ones hiring personnel and they know what is required for specific positions.
2) Academic position. Which and where? Think about what type of academic position you want. Staff scientists, research scientists, research assistants, and many other research positions are options for those who prefer to be a "career scientist" or who need a temporary position to extend their research time and make their CV stronger. If you are looking to be a professor, consider which type of professor? Assistant professors in medical schools are highly devoted to research whereas assistant professors in small colleges have a smaller research load but often have bigger teaching loads. Another decision is where. The bigger the university in terms of reputation and fame, the more competitive you need to be. Job search websites, such as Science Careers, Nature Jobs, Academic Jobs Online, Higher Education Jobs, and the ASCB Job Board are useful for finding faculty position openings.
3) Show your credentials: the CV. Show all of your relevant academic credentials. Education and publications are obvious, but make sure awards, fellowships, memberships, and honors have a special and prominent place. The ASCB has a CV review service for all members, free of charge. More advice on CVs can be found here and the ASCB CV review service can be found here.
4) Tell your story: the cover letter. Tell what you want to do: the research proposal. These are the places where you need to tell a prospective employer: (1) why your academic story matches what they are looking for, and (2) what are you planning to do when you get the position. Job openings are not specific most of the time, but your academic profile and plans need to match the interests and objectives of the position you are looking for. A visit to the prospective department's website is pivotal to know what faculty are doing over there and how scientifically strong they are. Your cover letter should clearly communicate your biggest career achievements and why you will fit well in that work place.
The research proposal should be written as a small grant, and innovation and relevance must have a special space right at the beginning. Employers want to know if you have an idea that can be funded, and how well you could execute it in a given amount of time (like before your tenure review). Some universities and colleges request a teaching philosophy statement, which is an explanation of your teaching experiences, abilities, and your plans for successful teaching. The University of Michigan's Center of Research on Learning and Teaching is a great source of information about teaching statements. You can get your teaching statement reviewed by an ASCB member.
5) Pick the names for reference letters. Select people who are / were connected with your scientific story: mentors, collaborators, colleagues. But before writing people's names as references, talk to them first to make sure they will be able to convey your best qualities, which match your CV and cover letter contents. Suggesting references who are not formally connected with your work does not help as much as a reference who knows you well as a scientist. Most universities ask for a minimum of three letters of reference.
An assistant professor candidate probably applies for 20 to 50 positions so your references will receive multiple requests for letters. It can be time consuming for them to respond, so you should let them know in advance how many requests they will receive, when to expect them, and give them as much time as possible to send the letters. Some application systems allow you to monitor the receipt of the reference letters. If they are not received, you will need to send gentle reminders to your references.
6) Some extra little things: Other items can be requested during the application process, such as copies of your diplomas, undergrad and graduate transcripts. Demographic questionnaires are also common in applications.
Most position openings start to appear in June and July to start working in the following year. Understanding these recruitment cycles/rounds is crucial. If you apply for a position in August - September, universities will initially shortlist the applications to around 20%, based only on the written application. Most applicants will be cut before any interviews. Thus, the strength of your written application package can define everything! After that, usually in December, internet or phone interviews will take place to shortlist the more appealing applications. Finally, usually in February to March, between 5% and 10% of applicants will be invited to visit the university, interview with multiple faculty members, and give seminars and chalk talks. If all works well, you will start your new job the following August. The interviewing process, per se, is a story for another post.
Sounds tough, and it is. It is common to hear nowadays of people going for "round two of applications," meaning they are trying more than one professor application cycle per year.
Ultimately, funneling is the only way universities can conduct mass recruitment. There are hundreds of applications for one or two positions. However, science is a special type of job. It requires toughness, passion, and commitment to pass through such murky waters. Self-assessment throughout your career is the best way to guarantee the right track for the academic success.