Articles by: Kenneth Hanson

“Get a job, Ken!” Part 6: Phone and On-site Interviews

In the “Get a job, Ken!” series, I’ve so far retold my experience coming up with research ideas, writing the ideas down as formal research proposals, assembling the different pieces of the faculty job application, and submitting everything. In this post, I move beyond the waiting, waiting, and waiting that happens after submitting to the next step: interviews.

After the submission deadline, most interview offers are extended sometime between October and February. They begin with a phone call or email from a department or search committee chair and conclude with a scheduled phone interview or in-person interview. The waiting period—between the submission deadline and receiving an interview—can be daunting. Every single unknown number on my cell phone screen prompted sudden excitement and then, most of the time, disappointment.  I’ve never hated telemarketers more.

Eventually, I did receive my first call–a thrilling experience–and by the end of my job search I had one phone interview and several on-site interviews. Below I describe my experience and share my (and others) advice on the interview process.

Phone interviews

Not every University holds phone interviews, but those that do use it as a preliminary screening method. It’s a strategy for interviewing a greater number of candidates and testing “fit” before extending offers for an on-campus interview. Think of it as a asking someone out on a quick coffee date before committing to a full evening together. An on-campus interview is a lot of time/effort/money to commit to someone and it’s reasonable to take measures to test “fit” prior to jumping in.

The good news for job candidates offered a phone interview is that, by reaching this stage, they can be assured that the search committee has looked through his or her application and feel confident about the viability of their research proposals. The interview stage—whether by phone or on-campus—is more about assessing a candidate’s speaking skills, ability to run a research program, and departmental “fit.” Between my experience with phone interviews and the anecdotes I’ve heard from others, here’s a short list of example phone interview questions:

  • Who would be your primary funding sources?
  • What major pieces of equipment will you need and how much do they cost?
  • Do you have a project that you would bring with you from your time as a post doc?
  • Where do you see your research program in 5 years? 10 years?
  • Who from our department/university might you be interested in collaborating with?
  • When would you be available to begin work?
  • Are there any factors that we have not spoken about that would be important in your decision to come to X if we were to make an offer?
  • How do you feel about teaching general chemistry?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

The last question was especially important. Nothing says, “I’ve done my homework on your university/department” like asking one or two insightful questions. For example, I’d usually prepare a question about the department’s facilities, asking something like: “The department has a solar cell testing station. Would I be able to add electrochemical impedance capabilities to the system?” It helped show my seriousness about the job and genuine interest in the department while also suggesting something I could contribute.

It’s a good idea to start thinking about possible answers for interview questions as well as questions to ask the committee early. While most phone interviews are scheduled ahead of time, I’ve heard stories of people surprised with an on-the-spot phone interview.

On-site interviews

If the phone interview ends favorably then—congratulations—the next step is an on-site interview. On-site interviews are intensive. To help me organize the story of my on-site interview experiences, I’ll break the process down into five sections: a rough timeline, food, meetings with faculty, meetings with students, and post-interview follow-up.

A Rough Timeline

Many people tried to prepare me for the on-campus interview, describing it as an incredibly exhausting experience, especially the first time. They were 100% right but simply saying this wasn’t nearly enough to prepare me for what it was really like. The faculty job interview is a constant—dare I say relentless?—two and a half day series of meetings, conversations, and presentations. In retrospect, the only thing that might have helped me prepare would have been traveling back to my undergraduate university and ask them to schedule a marathon, one-day visit starting at 8:00 am and concluding after dinner at 8:00pm.

One thing that did help was that, about a week before I left for the interview, I received a schedule of events. Here’s an outline of the four-day schedule from start to finish:

Day 1: My flight arrived by mid-to-late afternoon. Sometimes a faculty member was there to pick me up at the airport. Other times I arranged my own taxi. Either way, I’d reach my hotel with an hour or so to check in and prepare for dinner with 2-3 faculty.

Day 2: The day began with breakfast or coffee with another faculty member who then brought me to campus. Most of the day (9:00-5:00) included non-stop, 30-minute meetings with faculty. There was a lunch “break” with 2-3 faculty or a group of students. Day 2 was also when the research talk was scheduled, during which I presented on the research I conducted as a graduate student and/or postdoc. That evening I had dinner with 2-3 faculty as well.

Day 3: The third day was similar. The 30-minute meetings with faculty continued and I had lunch with a new group of students or faculty. The most faculty meetings I had in one day was 11 (between 8:30 and 5:30). Also, the third day usually included a tour of the facilities (NMR, mass-spec, spectroscopy, etc.), my proposal presentation (i.e. chalk talk), and concluded with a meeting with the department chair (around 4:00 or 5:00) followed by dinner with 2-3 faculty.

Day 4: I woke up in time to take a cab to the airport, flew home, recovered, and waited.

During the entire trip I always kept reminding myself that it was a non-stop interview. From the moment I was picked up at the airport to the end of the dinner on the third night, regardless of where I was, who I was talking to, or what I was eating, I was being observed and evaluated. The entire process is designed for the department members to assess who a candidate is as a person, researcher, teacher, mentor, coworker, friend, and collaborator (and vice versa).

Quick tip 1: I always kept a water bottle in my bag throughout the entire trip. It was easy to take a few sips while walking between meetings. The last thing I wanted was to deal with dehydration in addition to everything else.

Quick tip 2: Sometimes, if I hadn’t yet received the schedule 3-4 days before the interview, I sent a friendly email to my host asking about it.

Food

Since I was the focus of attention, even during lunch, I often ended up speaking during a large portion of the meal. I made sure to avoid ording finger food because I sometimes talk with my hands and didn’t want surprise projectiles. I also tried to order something light so I didn’t feel weighed down and sleepy afterwards.

Meetings with Faculty

I have no general formula to share for the 30-minute faculty meetings. Sometimes it was just me talking about my current or proposed research. Other times it was the professor explaining his or her research to me. The best meetings I had (on my end) were more of a casual conversation about life and research.

Sometimes faculty would give me a quick tour of their lab space and equipment during these one-on-one meetings. These tours were a fun opportunity for them show me pieces of equipment they would allow me access to if hired.

The interaction dynamic during the 30-minute meetings was very unique and not something I had experienced before. The uniqueness of it comes from the short amount of time, the balance between you selling yourself, the faculty selling the department/university/town, and the constant tension of probing each other with questions to learn what each other is really like.

The only thing that was consistent in every 30-minute meeting (as well as lunch) was the question, “Do you have any questions for me/us?” I was asked this at least 20 times. I tried to have a few standard questions I asked to everyone in an effort to gather multiple perspectives. If following this strategy, be sure to keep track of who you’ve already asked so they don’t receive a double dose of the same question. As the end of the third day neared I would sometimes politely explain that many of my questions had already been answered before redirecting the conversation to avoid any uncomfortable moments of silence.

My personal favorite variation on “do you have any questions?” was “What would your significant other want you to ask?” It was a really fun question because it really got me thinking. Not only about what my wife would want to know about the city but also about other things from my potential job that will directly affect her life. It’s unfortunate that that question was asked during my last interview. After sharing the question with my wife she quickly came up with additional questions I could have posed.

Interviewers cannot legally ask questions about a candidates’ personal life like “are you married?” or “do you have children?” but they will still try to probe your personal life (hobbies, what do you do for fun, etc.). This line of questioning didn’t seem like a malicious act. It was just another way to get to know the candidate and identify key features or selling points about the university and local town. I don’t know if it was a good or a bad thing, but I decided to be very open about the fact I’m married, my wife’s occupation, and our lack of children. For me it was easier to be up-front rather than spending effort avoiding topics. Perhaps others can share insight in the comments section about how to gracefully re-direct conversations when topics considered private come up during interviews.

Lunch with Students

I was told by a few younger faculty that student lunches “were more brutal because the students were much less inhibited in their questions than professors.” Despite this ominous warning, the  students I had lunch with were great and asked interesting questions about my approach to research, teaching, and mentoring. The student lunch was, of course, still a part of the interview. The student’s advisors, formally or informally, asked them about their opinions on the candidates. For one interview I was told up front that students had formal input on hiring decisions. The ~15 students that I had lunch with were asked to fill out a questionnaire with questions like:

  • Could you see yourself working for this person?
  • Were they clear in expressing themselves?
  • How do you think they would be as a teacher?
  • Any other comments on the candidate?

Post Interview Follow-Up

Finally, as with any job interview, I made sure to send a follow-up email to my host, the chair of the search committee, and/or the chair of the chemistry department. The message to both my host and chair were pretty straightforward: “Thank you for the invitation…I enjoyed the visit…I look forward to hearing the department’s decision.”

The email I sent to the chair of the hiring committee was slightly different. After all the interviews are over, the committee and/or department members get together and compare the candidates. In an effort to clearly define myself, I sent the chair a follow-up email reiterating my defining features as a candidate. Here is an example:

Dear _____,

I really enjoyed meeting you, the other faculty and the students in the U of Y chemistry department this week. I also appreciated the opportunity to interview for the chemistry faculty position. [My host] was helpful throughout the entire process, especially with…

In case it’s helpful, I wanted to recap two of the points we briefly discussed during our meetings and my proposal talk:

  • Having spoken with many members of the chemistry department, I am especially excited by the possibility of contributing my proposed solar cell research and photophysical measurements to the U of Y’s research agenda.
  • If given the chance to serve as a professor in your department, I would be particularly interested in teaching inorganic chemistry (200, 201, 202). I would also be comfortable teaching General Chemistry (100, 101). Long-term, I would like to introduce a photophysics/photochemistry class.

Please let me know if there is any additional information you’d like me to share. I look forward to hearing the department’s decision.

Thanks again,

Ken

And so concludes my post about the interview process. In my next blog I will delve into preparing and presenting the research and proposal talks, as well as the very last meeting with the chemistry department chair.

By May 18, 2013 2 comments Uncategorized

“Get a job, Ken!” Part 5: Submitting and Waiting

In this blog post—the fifth in my eight-part “Get a job, Ken!” series—I share my experience submitting job application materials. This includes the research proposal (Part 3) and other materials like a cover letter, CV, and letters of recommendation (Part 4).

Job opening notifications for chemistry faculty positions began appearing in July and August. C&E News, indeed.com (search ‘chemistry professor’), Science magazine, and Inside Higher Education were my favorite places to watch for advertisements. I also regularly checked the chemistry department websites of the universities I was especially interested in.  Many chemistry departments will advertise openings directly on their home page.

Most, if not all, job opening advertisements say something like:

The Department of Chemistry at X University invites applications for a tenure-track faculty position in Y Chemistry. Candidates must have a Ph.D. in one of the chemical sciences and a demonstrated ability or potential for a recognized program of excellence in both teaching and research in Y chemistry.

The ‘Y’ (inorganic, organic, physical, etc.) in the advertisement usually indicates the hole a department is looking to fill in their teaching schedule or research agenda. Other Universities post open calls for all chemistry disciplines because they’re looking to hire the best of the best and don’t necessarily have to hire someone based on need.

One very important thing I was told was not to pigeonhole myself into one flavor of chemistry. So I looked for and applied to any position that used key words relevant to my area of research (like inorganic, energy, and materials). Some job posts, like energy-related organic or bioinorganic chemistry, were slightly outside of my domain of expertise but I applied anyway. I decided to let the search committees decide if I fit into their department’s needs. I rationalized that spending 20 minutes on a personalized teaching statement and cover letter for each almost-but-not-quite-aligned job opening was worth the time considering the potential return on investment.

The Aspiring Professors Support Group was also really helpful in the search for job openings. We created a shared Google Document Spreadsheet and when someone found a new advertisement he or she added it to the growing list. In addition to the university’s name, we noted its U.S. News rank, discipline of interest, requirements, deadline, and a link to the job description. Sometimes members of the group also added inside information, such as the flavor of research a department’s open call might actually be searching for or if a senior hire has already been identified for the position. Here is an excerpt from our spreadsheet:

Submission

The actual submission process was surprisingly painful because it varied from one institution to the next. Ultimately, the submission methods fell within four varieties:

  • Email
  • Department-based websites
  • University-standard employment websites
  • Third party websites

Email submissions were relatively convenient and less time consuming than the others. Email submission guidelines were typically noted in the job post and included a list of requested materials and the email address to send them to. Some asked that the materials be sent as individual attachments or compiled in one master pdf (with a specific order). Reference letters were also sent to the same email address but directly from the recommender (upon the request from the applicant).

Submissions through departmental and university websites were similar. Both required me to first type in personal information (name, address, undergrad/grad institutions, names of references, etc.) before uploading my application materials. These submission systems usually sent an email to my references with instructions for submitting their letters.

Six or seven of the positions I applied to employed a third party website, like academicjobsonline.org, to manage their submission process. These websites were convenient because I could upload a my CV and proposal as well as individualized documents (cover letters, teaching statements, etc.) for each opening. I could also simply list my references’ contact information (name, email, university, etc.) and the service would send out an automated email to request letters. My references could then upload a generic letter for all openings or a tailored letter for each university.

Regardless of the submission format, I was sure to always follow two rules. First, before submitting, I created a folder for each university to hold a stand-alone copy of each application component. I then checked and rechecked the contents to make sure they were correct. Some of the submission sites wouldn’t let me return and view the documents after uploading, so I was sure to add a lot of structure and rechecks into the material management process.

Second, I submitted as early as possible. This allowed: 1) extra time for committee members to look at my application (chances are they spend more time on early applications then those submitted en-masse at the deadline), 2) extra time for references to submit recommendation letters, and 3) extra time for me to double-check with each department to make sure they received all materials before the deadline. Most applications are considered incomplete until everything is submitted—recommendation letters included—and “will not receive full consideration until they are complete.”

Letters of Recommendation

I sent my references an excel spreadsheet (shown below) listing the universities I applied to, application deadlines, reference letter submission method (email vs. website), and whether or not their letter had been received and confirmed. Showing a reference where he or she was falling behind in comparison to others seemed to help prod them into action.

Waiting

After everything is submitted, the waiting starts. This is simultaneously a thrilling and difficult thing to do. On the best days I was overwhelmingly optimistic and my imagination ran wild creating long lists of all the universities that would offer me interviews. The worst days were depressing for me and my significant other as we struggled with the uncertainty about our future. Without knowing anything about where I might receive an interview (or even if I would receive any interviews at all) we were in holding-pattern purgatory where we couldn’t really plan for our future and just had to hope for the best.

One piece of advice I received was to not wait passively. I started to prepare my presentations and budget proposals right after submission. If I received a phone call offering an interview I’d only have a few weeks to prepare. I wanted to have my presentations done so that I could spend those few weeks researching the university and department.

Unfortunately, there are only two formal methods for learning whether or not I was in the running for a job interview. I would receive a call offering an interview or a rejection letter. Thankfully, there is an alternative method: I watched seminar schedules on departmental websites. Sometimes chemistry departments openly list seminar speakers as “faculty candidates.” Others will name speakers as Dr. instead of Prof. and a quick google search will reveal if the speaker is a post doc. One shortcoming to this method is that many chemistry seminar calendars either are not kept up-to-date or don’t include speaker’s names. In these instances I was left relying on formal announcements or snippets of information from people I knew.

Monitoring seminar schedules also showed me who I was competing with, both for interviews and in the job search in general. It is common for the same group of 4 or 5 individuals to interview at a dozen or so top tier schools (I was not one of these people).

In the next post I’ll describe my own interview experiences.

By May 11, 2013 3 comments Uncategorized

“Get a job, Ken!” Part 4: Other Content

This blog posts continues my “Get a Job, Ken!” series. My last post focused on writing research proposals. This post describes the other pieces of the application package.

There isn’t a standard, one-size-fits-all set of application materials for all faculty job openings, but the majority ask for a cover letter, curriculum vitae (CV) and three letters of recommendation. A few universities also asked for additional items like a teaching statement, a diversity statement, copies of graduate school transcripts, and/or 4-5 publications.

Cover letter

I personalized the cover letter to each university. Yet, for my own sanity, I reused the same basic cover letter structure:

Paragraph one: I included a sentence that stated my general area of research. This is important, especially for general call job posts. When search committee chairs or their assistants start organizing applications one of their first goals is to identify the correct person to review it. They—and especially the candidate—want the proposals matched with a reviewer from a similar research domain. Including a sentence that clearly defines your area of research makes the alignment process easier and avoids, for example, having a biochemist assess an inorganic proposal or vice versa.

In the first paragraph I also made sure to note any faculty or consortia at the institution whose research aligned with mine in ways that could lead to possible collaborations. I included this to demonstrate how I could fit into the departments’ research theme and to hopefully get my proposals into the right hands.

Below is the cover letter I submitted to FSU.

CV

CVs vary greatly from one person to the next. I don’t know what the ‘right’ CV format is, but in case it’s helpful I am sharing, a copy of the CV (pdf) I submitted with all of my job application packages.

Letters of Recommendation

To help give my references time to prepare a recommendation letter, I emailed them a few months in advance (July and August). Then, a few weeks before the deadline, I sent a friendly reminder.

Other Requested Application Materials

Teaching Statement

Half of the openings I applied to asked for a Teaching Statement or, as some describe it, a Statement of Teaching Philosophy. But, if we are going to be perfectly honest, teaching statements are much more important when applying to primarily undergraduate institutions. Some of the faculty that I met with during interviews said they never saw my teaching statement or new I had submitted one. Regardless, in my teaching statement I mentioned my past experiences and the philosophies that shape my teaching style. While R1 institutions are more interested in research agendas, they are also looking to hire someone to fill any departmental teaching gaps. Acknowledging this, I explicitly listed classes I could teach. That way it is easier for the search committee to see how well I fit their needs. For example, I wrote:

Envisioning myself as a future chemistry professor, there are a number of courses that–given the opportunity–I would be very comfortable teaching. These courses include General Chemistry (105a/b, 115a/b), Inorganic Chemistry (453, 515) and Chemical Nanotechnology (455).

The teaching statement is also an opportunity to share a little bit about who you are as a person. The search committee is not just hiring a scientist and teacher, they’re also looking for a colleague and possible friend.

Diversity Statement

A diversity statement was only requested by University of California schools and served as an opportunity to express my awareness of and intention to help address the disproportionate involvement of female, African American, Hispanic, and Native American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The diversity statement was the space to describe my current efforts to close this gap and how I plan to continue these efforts if hired.

While a diversity statement is currently only requested by University of California institutions, I would not be surprised if this request soon expands further. Increasing representation in STEM fields is a pressing issue. If these inequities are not addressed there will be a serious impact on the number of people prepared to enter STEM fields, especially as the demographics of the United States change. Recognizing this, the NSF has also increased the rigor necessary in the ‘broader impacts’ component of their proposals. It’s no longer acceptable to simply say “I’m going to go to a high school and give a talk” or “I am going to create a new graduate class.” Plans for expanding STEM representation are now expected to be more thought out and impactful. This is especially the case for career awards.

Rough Budget Proposal

One job application asked us to submit a rough budget proposal. This was a unique request and I am guessing the department had a limited budget and probably couldn’t support a $500,000 piece of equipment. This request, while unusual, seemed completely reasonable since departments want to optimize their time/money and only invite interviewees whose research they could support. This early request proved to be a convenience later since I had a rough budget proposal prepared before going into the interviews.

In my next post I’ll talk about the actual application submission process.

By May 7, 2013 4 comments Uncategorized

“Get a job, Ken!” Part 3: Proposal Format

Continuing my “Get a job, Ken!” series, this post builds upon the last by suggesting how to turn research ideas into written proposals.

Strong proposals contain a competitive research idea (as discussed in my previous post), clearly communicate the idea, and concisely propose a plan to pursue it. The plan being the materials, measurements, expected results, and potential complications you may run into while attempting to turn the never-before-implemented idea into something real. Finally, strong proposals sell the idea by explaining why it’s unique, scientifically significant, and attractive to funding agencies.

A large majority of job openings do not specify a page limit for the proposal component, but I followed the advice of several friends and Professors to keep it at or under 10 pages. In these ten pages I included a cover page, three proposals (at three pages each), and one page of references. Below I break down each of these sections in greater detail.

The Cover Page

The search committee members will be bombarded with hundreds of applications. They simply will not have time to read through a three, let alone ten, page proposals from every applicant. I’ve heard from a few professors that they do not look at CVs or recommendation letters until the candidate list is whittled down based on the first page of the proposal alone. The cover page may be the deciding factor between making it through the first round or being cut. This is why it’s very important to spend a lot of time making a clear and compelling cover page.

The general format I used for my cover page can be seen in the image below. Forgive me for not sharing my actual proposal cover page. I haven’t had the opportunity to pursue the ideas yet.

As shown in the image, my cover page included:

1) My name and contact information at the top of the page.

2) A Research Overview, explaining my flavor of research and what I’ll be known for in five years if given the chance to pursue my proposals.

3) A subsection for each proposal that included:

  • A title
  • Page numbers
  • A brief summary, which was structured similar to an abstract. It introduced a problem to be solved, how I intend to solve it, and the potential implications.
  • A pretty image depicting the research idea.

The images accompanying each proposal might be the most important part of the cover page. They should be descriptive, aesthetically pleasing, and eye catching. The goal is to get the search committee curious enough about the ideas so they will look through the proposals and other application materials.

The Proposals

Each proposal should be three pages or less. Since the faculty search committee may include a broad range of chemists, you should try to limit the use of jargon and not assume too much prior knowledge about your research area. Compressing this information into three pages or less sounds like a monumental task and, to be perfectly honest, it is. It will take a lot of time and effort to put a short but solid proposal together. In an effort to help, below is a generic form of my proposal format.

As shown in the image, each of my proposals were organized into the following three sections:

1) Background and Significance

  • Introduce a problem that needs to be solved.
  • Describe how others are trying to solve it.
  • Describe how I am going to try to solve it.
  • Discuss how my method is better.

In this section, I included one bold sentence that clearly summarized the nature of my proposal and an italicized sentence outlining a few specific goals.

2) Plan of Work

  • Explain the logistics of how you’ll pursue your idea (i.e. the materials, measurements, expected results, and potential complications).

 

3) Impact and Funding

  • Remark on the potential implications of the proposed work.
  • List a few potential funding agencies.

When mentioning funding agencies be very explicit. Include the agencies (NSF, NIF, DOE, ARO, etc.) as well as the divisions and sub-divisions within the agencies. An easy way to find possible funding agencies is to look at the acknowledgements section of the papers cited in your proposal. Chances are you will be applying to the same funding opportunities.

Example: “The importance of solar energy conversion research in our current economic and political climate leads me to believe my research program will appeal to both students and funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (CHE/MSN, DMR/SSMC) and Department of Energy (BES/MSE, CSGB).”

Citations

 I made sure to fit all of my citations on one final page to keep the total page count at 10. As far as citation format, I went with ACS standard formatting but others might work just as well.

 Other Formatting Notes

Although some people choose a one-column format, I decided to go with two columns because it is more analogous to many journal articles and, for me, feels easier to digest. I also made sure to include at least one pretty picture per page. It breaks up the wall of text.

Proofreading

I started drafting my proposals early (June or July) so I had time to play around with and re-write the text many times. Maybe more importantly, the time also allowed others to proofread what I’d written. Our aspiring professor support group (described in “Get a job, Ken!” Part 2) was particularly useful for proofreading.  We set up an editing rotation: I shared each of my proposals with three different people for feedback. I also read nine proposals from six different people.

After the aspiring professor support group’s initial screening and revisions, I also asked for comments/suggestions from several professors who had either been on a hiring committee before or just went through the job application process. This included my previous advisors and several Profs. at UNC. They were a big help because they let me know what they found compelling and memorable as well as where I could improve. Finally, I turned outside of the chemistry world to people like my wife to proofread for language and spelling errors.

In the next blog post I’ll share a similar breakdown for the other application materials.

By May 4, 2013 4 comments Uncategorized