Demystifying the Faculty Hiring Process

Faculty jobs! The pinnacle of career success in academia (please read with sarcasm). It’s a career path that many undergraduates and graduate students want to go down, but how exactly does one get a faculty job? And I’m not talking about the pipeline of first undergrad, then grad school, then postdoc number one, then postdoc number two, etc… No I mean where specifically does that application road lead? What actually needs to happen for you to get hired as faculty at a college or university? 

The first thing to know about faculty job offers is that they’re incredibly stochastic. More often than not it’s a roll of the dice to see which institutions post openings each cycle, and much like graduate and postdoc positions, those openings are dependent on how much funding each department has. And unfortunately, just like for graduate and postdoc positions, this also usually means that there’s never enough positions to go around, a fact investigated very well in this post. This can be very anxiety-inducing, as much like in the rest of academia, in our field there’s certainly subtle pressure to follow that “traditional” career path. However, beyond understanding that I needed to go to grad school and do a postdoc or two to become a professor, the process of actually getting a job as a professor was never made very clear. So let’s break it down nice and simple. Disclaimer: This is a guide for faculty jobs in the USA, other countries may have very different procedures. However we hope to cover more one day!

A Quick Detour

Now there have been numerous excellent Astrobites in the past discussing leaving academia for industry jobs ranging from engineering, education, data science, and the space industry. There have also been numerous posts discussing the process of getting admitted to graduate school as well as a couple on the postdoc process (here and here). All of these are excellent resources and I strongly encourage you to look through them! But because all those authors put in such excellent hard work, we’re going to start on the actual faculty application process and go through the steps one by one until (hopefully) we all have jobs. 

1. Where do I even start?

Great news! This part is honestly very straightforward. Most every faculty job opening will be posted on the AAS Job Register. This registry includes listings for R1 tenure-track jobs, nontenured positions, teaching faculty, and even non-faculty but kind-of tenured positions like those at Space Telescope Institute. Basically if it’s an astronomy job it’ll be found here. Job openings can be posted at arbitrary times, but generally they have application deadlines in the fall, sometime in October or November.

2. The Application Materials

So once you have your list of jobs, what do you do then? Well much like for undergrad and grad school, you need to put together all the application materials. However the requirements here are slightly different than at previous career stages, so let’s break them down one by one.

The Research Statement

Your research statement needs to discuss all of your scientific accomplishments since entering the field either in undergrad or grad school, but with an emphasis on recent accomplishments. In particular you’re going to want to talk about how your research achievements are significant to the field. So far this sounds much like previous research statements you’ll have written. Things get a little different from here though. Because you also want to discuss how your research field, and style of research will fit into the institution. In particular you don’t want to be applying for a faculty position somewhere where someone is already doing your research. Rather you want to emphasize how your work will compliment the existing research at an institution. Knowledge about the culture of the place you’re applying to is important here as well. Does the department like having lots of collaborations? If so, you should emphasize how you can contribute to those. The lengths of these statements vary from place to place, but generally they’re between three to six pages long.

The Teaching Statement

Unlike in previous applications, faculty applications don’t have a personal statement, rather they have a teaching statement. This is usually a little shorter than a research statement, being around two pages long. Here you need to discuss classes you’ve taught in the past, as well as your teaching philosophy. Many people applying to faculty positions have at least some experience as a TA, or in some cases even as an instructor of record, and here’s where you discuss what you learned from that and how you intend to apply it to classes you’ll teach in the future. This is also the place where you bring up classes that you would like to teach in the future, and in particular bring up ones that you would like to teach that aren’t offered by the institution you’re applying to. The importance of the teaching statement can’t be overstated, especially if you’re applying to positions that aren’t at R1 institutions, especially for teaching and liberal arts colleges.

The DEI Statement

Short for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement the purpose of this is to show the institution and department that you’re a person who cares about all of your students and colleagues, and it usually runs about one page. Unlike in undergrad or grad admissions though, this isn’t a place where they’re very interested in your experiences as a minority (if applicable), though that can certainly be relevant to the overall message of your statement. They’re far more interested in things you’ve done in the past to foster an inclusive environment in physics and astronomy, particularly for underrepresented minorities like women, people or color, or members of the queer community. This statement probably has the most variance across different institutions due to the slate of anti-DEI legislation being passed in many states, either limiting or outright banning their inclusion in university hiring.

3. The Visit

The Chalk Talk

The “chalk talk” is arguably the most important talk. (Historical note: It got its name because it used to involve faculty candidates physically scribbling all their research and plans on a chalkboard, but unfortunately many departments nowadays opt for slideshow presentations. Certainly cleaner but less cool in this author’s opinion.) This is the most direct interview part of your visit. You’ll be in a room with the hiring committee (usually comprised of faculty, some administration, and maybe the dean), and you’ll need to talk about what you plan on doing as a professor. Generally it’s good here to focus on a five year timeframe and talk about what you intend on doing to get tenure (if applicable). This involves what research you’re doing now, what research you intend to do in the future, what computational/lab resources you’ll need, how you intend to fund your research group, sample grad student projects and thesis plans, things like that. If you’re applying to jobs at smaller liberal arts or teaching colleges, they may also ask for a demo lecture on your research, and discussion on which classes you’d like to teach or offer.

The Seminar

In many cases you’ll also have to do a seminar or colloquium presentation. This part has much more flexibility in what you can discuss but most commonly people talk about their most recent research and the immediate future directions they plan to take it. Frankly the most important part is the fact that the audience here includes the entire department  (including grad students, and sometimes even undergrads). This means you can’t go deep into the weeds on anything you do, it’s far more important to stick to the top level science takeaways so that everyone can understand. 

The Student Visit

Many places will also include something like a candidate lunch with grad students. This is a good way to get a vibe on the department and to see what issues it has, without talking to the people who are directly in charge of your hiring. It’s lower stakes for sure, but the students attending also have a vested interest in making sure that you’re a person who cares about their wellbeing and won’t sideline them in favor of research. And it is worth noting that impressions from students who go to these meetings are usually included in the evaluation as well.

4. The Final Negotiation

Once you finish your visit, there is a final waiting period before hearing back about an offer. The wait times vary wildly, in some cases you can hear back within a week, but in a lot of cases you’ll probably wait at least a month or two before you find out if the institution is going to offer you a position. This usually happens sometime during the spring semester. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume they did offer you the position (yay!). Now comes the scariest part to this particular author, negotiating your contract. In essence this is like any job negotiation where you and the institution haggle over salary and healthcare, but because it’s academia it has a couple of added quirks. 

Firstly, you can usually negotiate your startup fund. This is money that the department just gives you to do whatever you need to in order to start up your research group. Usually it comes with some stipulations and a time limit of use (2-3 years is common), but it’s a pretty sizable chunk of cash (think upwards of $10,000) that you can haggle over. 

Secondly, you can discuss your teaching load. These are usually talked about in the number of courses per semester. Naturally since teaching is time intensive and being a new faculty already comes with a large number of responsibilities you can also discuss how you want those allotted. At R1 institutions it’s more common to see lower teaching loads like one course per semester, and at smaller colleges those numbers go up to 3-4 per semester. 

Thirdly, you can negotiate your travel and relocation funds. Travel funds are dollars your institution gives you to go to conferences and travel (for academic purposes only unfortunately). Relocation is just what it sounds like, departments usually give some amount of money to you to offset the cost of upending your entire life and moving across the entire country (or world in many cases!). 

Finally the last thing that some candidates can negotiate is a spousal hire. Many academics end up finding partners who are also in academia but unfortunately the academic job market itself isn’t very forgiving, giving rise to the “Two Body Problem”. So what many candidates in this position do is ask the department whether the institution has the funds/ability to hire their spouse as well. This is usually only brought up at the final negotiation because by this point the department REALLY wants you, and as a result you have a reasonable amount of leverage. It doesn’t always work out, some institutions even have formal rules banning spousal hires, but in many cases it does! 

5. What Then?

But once all that is said and done, and you’ve signed the contract, what next? Now you’re done and a faculty member! You can finally take a deep breath and relax, because academia leaves so much room for that of course. I joke, but honestly anyone who can make it through years of grad school, postdocs, and then all of this deserves a break. In any case, naturally there’s a lot of nuance that has to be glossed over to highlight the various steps in this hiring process, and every institution does their hiring a little differently. But at least now you have a better  idea of what the end of the long academic road might look like, and hopefully this guide can help you along your own academic journey.

I’d like to thank Dr. Sarah Blunt and Dr. Natalia Tapia Arellano for letting me interview them about the faculty job search process. Dr. Sarah Blunt is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern/CIERA. Dr. Natalia Tapia Arellano is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah and has accepted a faculty position at Agnes Scott College in Fall 2024.

Astrobite edited by Storm Colloms

Featured image credit: Amaya Sinha

About Amaya Sinha

I'm a 4th year graduate student at the University of Utah. I'm a galactic archeologist, and my specific research focus involves using stellar populations within the Milky Way to study its chemical and dynamical history!

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