Friday, October 28, 2011

Advice from a postdoc panel: What do I have in my pocket?

Er... Packet.

This is the third and last in a series summarizing the questions and answers given in a panel about hunting for postdocs. The previous posts can be found here and here. The content of this post may be more field dependent than the content of other posts in this series.

To my more senior readers: If you have ever been on a search committee in a non-lab science, or a search committee at all, please give your two cents on anything I say below. This is the part of the process I know the least about.

There is a standard list of things that go into a job packet in my field: CV, Statement of Research, Teaching Philosophy Statement, Letters of Rec. Cover letter.

Let me start with the Cover Letter. From what I could tell, this is just a fancy way of saying "give me the key words to put you into the correct folder." It is worth the time to customize the coverletter to each school. The one member of the panel who had recently chaired a search committee said that he would scan a cover letter as fast as he could to determine who's pile to put the packet in. The letter should be short. It should contain your field of interest, and the people with whom you want to work. However, choosing the correct key words matter. In my department, subfields A and A' work as mostly disjoint groups. In another department, A and A' may involve strongly overlapping groups of people. If you do A, but say A' in your cover letter, you would get shuffled off the the wrong subfield, and the person looking at your file may or may not take the time to correct the mistake. How to avoid this? See the previous post about contacting people in departments you will apply to.

You have little control over the content of your letters of recommendation. Choose wisely, and you trust your writers. One piece of advice that I've heard everywhere, and true as far as I can tell, if you are asking someone to be the (n+1)th letter writer make sure he/she will write a strong letter. A weak letter, even if it is one that goes beyond the requirements for the position can sabotage an application. Also, for the female applicant, make sure your letter writer is not inclined to write about your personality traits over your research ability.

The document about your teaching philosophy does not need to be long if you are applying to a research school. I have heard elsewhere that if you are applying to a school that really cares about the quality of teaching, then you may have to write a document that is tailored for that school in particular. But I am wandering deep into hearsay at this point. The standard length for a research position in my field is 1-2 pages.

The document about your research should be 3-5 pages, and written for the person in your subfield on the search committee. (There are a few exceptions to this, where the application specifically says that the research summary should be directed at a more general audience. These are a pain in the ass and need to be dealt with differently.) It should be full of "I" statements. While you may think that the results you built your research on is the coolest thing since sliced bread, they do not deserve the same amount of ink that your own research does. Judicious use of bold, italics and headings will make it easier for the reader to figure out what you have done. It is tempting to define all your terms and techniques before stating your results. However, you want to get to your results early in the document, before your bore your reader. There is a balance to be struck. As for what makes a good research statement, I found that googling around for research statements in my field gave me a good idea of what a well put together statement was. (After all, your research statement is on your website, right? Other peoples' are too.) While I could not vouch for the importance of the results in the statements, after skimming a dozen, I got a feel for which styles and presentations read well, and which did not.

CV: In my field, this should include undergraduate and graduate institutions, publications, preprints, awards and honors, talks given, conferences attended, pretty much in that order. Some people like to mention their teaching experience. Other work experience is probably not relevant, unless it ties into your teaching or research. There is no page limit on this. The emphasis is on keeping it easy to read. Some places (like Europe) require that you put your age down. In the US, it is illegal to ask this question.


  1. All of this is good advice. It's interesting to notice how things change with the field (but not too much). Apparently, in Experimental Physics/engineering, you would write a more detailed cover letter, while in Pure Math you would follow the instructions in this post.

    I totally agree about the comments about recommendation letters, teaching statement, and CV.

    For the research, if you're applying to postdocs in Pure Math in the US, I'd definitely recommend starting with a paragraph or two that are introductory to your area of research and are directed to people outside your field, because many postdocs in Pure Math in the US are university positions that are chosen by a random department committee just like a tenure-track job. And yes, definitely use "I", or make your own contributions very clear. Don't shy away from this.

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