The hunt: preparing my tenure-track application

This is the second in a series of posts about my hunt for the tenure-track. Since I have no idea how much my decisions, persistence, and luck played into my fortune, it is not purposed as a guide for how to secure a tenure-track position.  Rather, the series is highlighting the steps I took, starting with my postdoc search. I’ll leave it to others (as well as my future, tenured self) to clarify what it was that I did right.

So you’ve been a postdoc for about 2-3 years, and gotten one or two solid publications out the door (maybe more, depending on your field). You’ve taken ownership of your project, established a small network in your field, and figured out where the lab first aid kit is located. Your life, in and out of the lab, is somewhat settled, and you finally feel comfortable in your postdoctoral skin. And then it hits you – postdoc positions aren’t permanent. Whether or not you think you’re ready to run your own lab, it’s high time to start envisioning your future research program – the basis of a tenure-track job application.

There are 5 main components to the TT job application – cover letter, CV, research statement, teaching statement, and letters of recommendation – each of which takes time to develop. Even if you don’t plan to send a single job app out for another year, you better start getting your shit together. Why? Because getting a tenure-track job requires more than publications. You need to develop a plan for your research, funding, trainees, personnel and (at some institutions) teaching. And believe it or not, some parts of your plan are actionable RIGHT NOW. So what did I do?

First, I updated my CV (really, you should be working on this all along), and had several individuals in my department and field take a look. You can find lots of advice out there on how to organize your CV, but I found it most useful to talk to faculty who had served on TT search committees in my field. On my CV, I listed my education, research experience, awards, grants, teaching experience, invited talks, society memberships, and service (committees I served on during my postdoc). I made my publications easy to find (I put them on the last page, because everyone I talked to said they flipped immediately to the last page to find the publication list), and organized them into categories: peer-reviewed articles first, reviews next. I included a submitted paper during my first round of job applications, but I never listed manuscripts in preparation. Also not making the cut: my childhood babysitting experience, the certificate I got for perfect attendance in Sunday School, and my ability to make a damn-good tomato-based pasta sauce. Keeping my CV up-to-date helped immensely when I was ready to submit grants, one of the next steps in getting myself ready to apply for jobs.

Identifying a transitional source of funding was a good way for me to get my shit together, even before I was ready to send out apps. Fairly soon after my first paper got accepted, I started working on a K grant, which was submitted shortly before I started applying for jobs. I didn’t end up securing that funding until the end of my second round of searching, but the writing and revising of that grant (including the career development section) did wonders for getting my research plan organized. For my first round of TT job apps, I used an abbreviated version of my specific aims page as the core of my research statement, with additional information on how this plan could transition into a couple of related projects. I also briefly stated how I planned to get funding for each of the projects (K, R01, private foundation grants, etc). As my job search wore on, my research statement evolved and improved. I still don’t know just how much of an impact my statement had on the search committees, but it definitely served as a crucial jumping-off point for me during subsequent steps in the job search process. Second to my cover letter (discussed below), this document received perhaps the greatest amount of my attention during my two years on the job market.

Next, I generated a standard cover letter with virtually no first paragraph, a second paragraph on my research accomplishments, a third paragraph summarizing my future research interests, and a short fourth paragraph with my (fairly limited) teaching experience. I left the first paragraph blank so that I wouldn’t accidentally send a cover letter to University of Alaska in response to their ad for a position in ice fishing research with a reference to University of Hawaii about their position for research on surf boards – I mean, can you imagine the embarrassment??? Instead, I wrote a unique first paragraph for each job application I sent, stating briefly why I was interested in the position and why they should be interested in ME!! It took a little longer, but there were no embarrassing cases of mistaken identity – especially impressive considering I was in labor when I sent out the bulk of my job applications last year. My research paragraphs highlighted my contributions to the field, the fact that I had (depending on when I sent the app) submitted, resubmitted, been scored, or secured a K grant, and what types of funding I would pursue once landing a position. My teaching paragraph, although small, conveyed that I did have some experience and that I was excited about educating grad/medical/undergrad students.

Once ads for TT positions started to appear, I contacted my references (my current mentor, my grad mentor, my collaborator, and my chair)*, informed them I was beginning to apply for jobs, asked them if they would be able and willing to send letters, and provided them with the first set of ads and due dates for the applications I would be sending out. From that point on, whenever I saw a position I wanted to apply for, I sent an email with the job description and the due date (if there was one given) to each of my referees**. Then I customized my application materials for the prospective position, proofread the materials a gazillion times, and applied. During the first round of my search, I restricted myself to a fairly narrow scope of positions, applying only for those that fit into some vision of my dream job that was stuck in my head. For the second round, I applied for everything. And I mean EVERYTHING, so long as Hubby could see himself possibly finding a job nearby. Good thing, too – the job I have now is not exactly what I had envisioned for myself a few years ago, but it’s turned out to be a better fit than I could have imagined.

The teaching statement is the last thing I will discuss here, because it is literally the last thing that I thought about when getting my application package together. Only one job I applied for during my first round asked for a teaching statement. By the time my second round began, about half the positions, even those with heavy research demands and light teaching loads, were asking for teaching statements. It’s noteworthy that a teaching statement is not necessarily the same as a teaching philosophy. Sure, I talked about my teaching philosophy, but only in the context of my experience, which was the basis for my teaching statement. I summarized my teaching experience from undergraduate and beyond, briefly noting what I learned about educating students at each step. At the end of my statement, I identified specific courses I was qualified to teach that were already being offered in the department’s graduate (and undergraduate, if applicable) programs. I also briefly described a single course, not currently offered but complementary to their current curriculum, that I could develop once my lab was up and running.

So that’s what I did. I’m sure others did lots of things differently, and I’m sure there are lots of opinions on what’s right or wrong. Please share your experiences and thoughts. Next time, I’ll be talking about the job interview.

*Most jobs only asked for 3 letters, but some asked for 4. I only had sent the number that was asked for in the ad.

**Remember – faculty get requests for recommendation letters all the time. They don’t mind sending them out, as long as they know it’s for a good reason. Just be sure to ask them what they need from you (updated CV, possibly your research statement and cover letter, information on the grants you’re applying for, etc) and be sure to provide them with pertinent information about the position (advertisement, due dates, contact name if one was provided).