In May 2020, the EECS Comm Lab, in collaboration with Prof. Saman Amarasinghe, hosted a seminar series for MIT EECS PhD students and postdocs who wished to learn more about what it’s like to be a professor and how they can prepare for a career on the tenure track. You can find an overview of the event here, and a summary of each session is available:
Session 1: Being a Professor is the Best Occupation
Session 2: Getting Through the Junior Faculty Years
Session 3: Getting a Faculty Job
Session 4: Preparing for Your Own Faculty Application
Session 3: Getting a Faculty Job
Session 3 included the voice of a junior EECS faculty member as well as those of candidates who were successful in securing faculty job offers during their 2019-2020 search. These individuals shared personal experiences and advice about the faculty application and interview process. The panelists were:
There’s no doubt that the faculty application process is a lot of work. But just how much work? Enough that all four panelists suggest making it your sole focus when the time comes. Jelena, in particular, recounted being told to start working on applications early and encourages participants to heed that advice. The faculty application and interview process takes the better part of a year, and this is not a good time to be trying to focus on research. Riyadh cited his experience of trying to submit papers in November as faculty application deadlines approached. His conclusion? “This was a mistake.”
While starting early is crucial, it takes more than time to prepare a faculty application. According to Stefanie, two critical elements to securing a faculty job are 1) doing great research and 2) letting people know you do great research. The key to both of these tasks is having a plan.
At every stage of your graduate or postdoctoral career, it’s important to take time to set short-term and long-term goals. These goals should inform the choices you make now: Which faculty do you want to meet? Where do you want to do an internship? Which conferences do you want to attend? What projects and activities do you want to take on?
Do great research
Work closely with your advisor to set research goals. Think about what you want to work on and where you want to publish. Choose research problems that you genuinely think are interesting, then think about how to get other people excited about them too. How does your research connect to other fields?
Seek out the right experiences
Use your goals to determine what you take on outside of research. Stefanie suggested adding something to your CV before saying yes so you can examine the impact. Ask yourself if this opportunity is worth the time or if you should invest elsewhere instead. Jelena found that roles that gave her experience with leadership and mentorship had a big impact on her successful faculty applications.
Build communication skills
The audience for a faculty application is a whole department, which usually includes people from a broad array of areas. Sara cited the necessity of knowing how to communicate with people outside her subfield in her own faculty application and interview experience. As someone who works in a niche domain – compilers for analog computers – she didn’t face a lot of direct competition in the interview process. But that also meant convincing search committees that they were looking for someone like her. Jelena echoed the importance of explaining her research in an approachable way – focusing on the context and impact, not just the technical detail – to appeal to a whole department.
Communication skills are fundamental to letting people know why your research is exciting and why they should hire you, and the best way to get better at communicating is to practice.
Network, network, network
You’ve probably heard it before – the key to a successful job search is building your network early. But what does that actually look like?
Goal-setting applies to conference attendance as well. Be as specific as possible when determining a plan of action. Not only should you be prepared to step outside your comfort zone of friends and colleagues but also know who you want to talk to and do your homework about them ahead of time.
Even in the largely remote world of 2020, there are still virtual events happening. Leverage these to your benefit. Participate and reach out to people you want to talk to with a personal message via Slack, Zoom, email, or wherever event conversations are happening.
Contact people directly
Networking isn’t just for conferences. Riyadh had success in reaching out to people he wanted to meet when he was going to be in their area. If you’re travelling for work or personal reasons, see if you can meet a potential colleague or mentor for coffee or lunch. Not travelling? You can also ask to connect via phone or video call.
From collaboration to conference organizing, the best way to meet people is to put yourself in situations where you can meet people. Ideally, letters of recommendation will come from people who have worked with you, including during internships or external collaborations. In some cases, though, your champions will be people who know you from committees, conferences, workshops, or other professional events.
It’s not just building professional relationships that is important but maintaining them. Stay in touch with your committee members and others in your network. People, especially faculty, often appreciate opportunities to mentor. Reach out to ask for low-effort advice when you come across a technical problem. However, make sure to keep it short! If your ask requires sifting through paragraphs or writing more than a few sentences in reply, your email is likely to be ignored.
Preparing to apply
Perhaps chief among the pre-application decisions is choosing where to cast your net. Often candidates apply to 20-30 different positions. Stefanie recommends applying to as many as you can. To do this, get onto mailing lists for job postings early so you can see what’s out there. Ask your mentors where they think you should apply. If your list includes institutions in other countries, make sure you know how the system works; both the faculty application process and the job description may look different than what you expect.
When you’re on the job market, get the word out. Being on a conference committee can be helpful with this, as can recruiting assistance from your mentors. Don’t be afraid to lean on your community for support.
Preparing your application
Key to preparing your faculty application package is remembering your audience. Consider the position and department you are applying to. A search committee of 4-6 faculty from that department are the gatekeepers. Remember that these individuals probably do not work in your specific area. While they may consult someone in your subfield, you have to get past them first to make it to the interview process.
It’s never too early to start writing a research statement. Your first version should not be your last, so even if you’re years from the application process, this will be good practice. Remember that this document can evolve over time. Show your research statement to people in other subfields. The best way to know if your research and your writing are understandable and compelling is to ask.
One final word of advice during the application process: Track whether your letters of recommendation have actually been submitted. You don’t want your application to be discarded on a technicality. Get on the phone with someone at the institution where you are applying to make sure letters have actually been received.
Preparing for interviews
Before interviews begin, do your homework. Whether a virtual interview or an in-person one, prepare for the people you will be meeting. If you’re not given the information up front, ask who will be present for the meeting or call. Then read up on their backgrounds. Try to draw a connection between their research and yours.
Whether in a group interview or 1-on-1 meetings, you should also be prepared to answer some common questions. Riyadh shared the most common recurring questions from his recent interviews:
- What do you do? What’s your research about? Be prepared to explain not only what your research is but what makes it unique and impressive. Be ready to talk about your past research and your future research. Think about answers to questions about grant writing, funding, and collaborations.
- What do you want to teach? Make sure you do your homework about the classes offered at the institution where you are interviewing. Be as concrete as possible. Don’t just talk about the subject matter – consider the students who do or would take the course. Be prepared to talk about your teaching and mentoring experience.
- What’s your service record? Have you reviewed papers? Organized conferences and workshops? Participated in university committees?
- Why this institution? Why do you want to work here? Universities want to know that you are a good match, and that you are not looking for just any faculty position.
- What are your questions for us? In a 1-on-1 meeting, it might be easy to talk about research if there is significant overlap. If not, conversations might center more around teaching or university life rather than research. Be prepared with questions that are more than logistical. Use your questions as a chance to show that you are serious about this opportunity.
Preparation is crucial to a successful faculty application and interview process. Throughout your years as a graduate student or postdoc, think ahead about what experiences will prepare you to apply for faculty positions and ultimately, to be a professor. Start preparing application documents as early as you can. Don’t forget that the preparation doesn’t stop once you’ve been offered an interview. Make time to think about your experiences and your vision for the future regularly to make sure you’re staying on track to meet your goals.
Blog post by Deanna Montgomery, MIT EECS Communication Lab Manager