Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Advice from a post doc application panel: preparing for the hunt

I was asked to be on an in department post doc panel recently. The advice given at the panel I think extends to many non-lab sciences, especially those that have hiring cycles. This post only addresses issues specific to the planning for the hunt. Stay tuned for advice on networking.

Edit: (other posts in the series can be found here and here.)

When do you start planning?

It is good to have the main results from your thesis done by the time requests for letters of rec. go out. That way, when  you ask someone outside your department for a letter of rec, or your advisor does, you/he/she can say "X has found Foo and Bar" rather than "X hopes to show Foo and Bar." (While it is good to have results finished by the summer before job hunting, this does not mean having the thesis finished. From personal experience, it is a bad idea to work on finishing your thesis and job hunting at the same time, unless you enjoy 100+ hour weeks for a semester.)

Some fellowships and/or exclusive schools have very early deadline, because they want to weed out the people who are not as on the ball. Start looking early.

Many applications for post docs in the states specifically ask for a letter outside your department. Keep this in mind early in grad school. Often times your advisor can contact the author of a series of papers that are key to your work, but it works better if he/she knows you from a conference.

It is generally good form to give your letter writers at least a month to write your letters. If they are missing a deadline (i.e. its in a day or two, and they haven't uploaded the letter) you should contact them. Most US institutions are willing to wait a while for a late letter if everything else is in on time. This may not hold in other countries. (If you know the writer well, depend on your personal knowledge of the person to figure out when to bring out the cattle prods.)

How many schools should you expect to apply to?

Many. The number is field/subfield and economy specific. One post doc in a different subfield applied to 30. I applied to 88. When he applied schools had started cutting back on positions significantly. My year, most positions had already been advertised by the time Lehman's collapsed. But for both of us, we applied to the vast majority of positions available.

What should one consider when applying to schools?

NEVER apply to a job you wouldn't take. What will you do if you get offered a spot there, and no where else? However, if you would take a job, but only if conditions A, B, and C can be met by the university, apply. You can negotiate for those conditions at the time of hiring.

What considerations are important when applying to a school?

This requires some soul searching. Do you love teaching, and want to work closely with undergrads? Are you primarily in the game for the research? Look at the teaching loads for various schools. As a general rule of thumb, the greater the teaching load, the lighter the focus on research. However, not all schools with large teaching loads are schools that are interested in innovative teaching techniques and provide a great teaching environment. No one at the panel knew a whole lot about how to catch the eye of a truly great teaching institution, so I won't comment on that axis further.

Do you want to stay in a city for non-academic life reasons? Is it worth being hired by a lower tier school to do so? It is very difficult to switch from an excellent research school to an excellent teaching school, or vice versa. If you think you are interested in research, try to stay in as research focused environment as possible for as long as possible.

Does the department at the school have someone who would be interesting for you to work with? Do you know that person? If you don't know that person, send him/her an e-mail. Does your advisor or one of your letter writers know that person? If so, have them send him/her an e-mail.

Is a job listed as tenure track, but doesn't have a requirement of X years of Post-doc? Apply. Even if your field has a strong norm of X years of post-doc before tenure track.

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