Saturday, June 04, 2011

Applying for Jobs: Application Material

This post is written by Jeff Phillips, frequent guest blogger, who will be starting as an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah (yay!) starting Fall 2011. Content edited lightly for formatting only.



Several people have recently asked me about applying for jobs, so I thought I would write a post (or a series of posts) about it. Other posts will be on:
  • Sending out Applications
  • Phone Interviews
  • On-Site Interviews
  • Job Talks
You may be saying, isn't this the wrong time to give advice about applying for jobs. My first piece of advice is: Now is the time to start planning your job search.

If you are planning to apply next year, then put together an application now. You will need a research statement, a teaching statement, a CV, and a list of 4-5 people to write letters.

The Research Statement should accomplish three things:
  1. Show you have breadth to your research.
  2. Show you have depth to your research.
  3. Show your research has potential to get funded in the immediate and long term future.
I tried to structure mine as several subareas I worked on describing one project in each area in a bit more depth (2-3 sentences worth). Then I had a section at the end outlining some future directions.

I felt it was also important to try to shape this in a single research story. This meant I left out some elements of my work. Don't try to fit everything in if it does not fit the best cohesive story. No one will have time to read through all the details of what you did, and if they did they can find it on your CV or webpage.

Also, this needs to be written at a level that is accessible to a general person in computer science - not an expert in your area. Too much technical detail will not help, the committee does not have time to try to understand technical details. Describe the motivation and the key technical insights you added to the field.

The Teaching Statement is secondary. What I have heard is it will not affect how your overall application is judged at many research institutions. And that their best indication of how good a teacher is will depend on how well you execute your job talk.

The best advice I've been given on the teaching statement is that it should support your research statement. So, discuss how you will teach about your own contributions to the field. Describe a new class or two you will teach that builds on what you talk about in your research statement. Think of this as a committee member might spend an extra 2-3 minutes reading this document. So don't waste that time on what classes you have taught, rather, use this as another opportunity to demonstrate the importance and excitement about your research direction.

Your CV should list everything you can think of. There is rarely a space limitation on this document, so go wild. List all papers, talks, awards of any kind, services. But make sure the first page highlights the most important things you want the committee to notice. And if you want them to notice it, then by all means make it bold. And of course, nice use lists, structures, and formatting so they can easily find what they are looking for. They may spend 1-2 minutes (or less) on this document, so make sure its very easy to navigate.

I also numbered my papers so I could easily refer to them in my research statement without repeating that information. Think of this all as a single document, and don't repeat information.

You will need 4-5 Letters of Reference, and these can (ed: and usually are) be the most important part of your application. Most places ask for 3 letters, and some 4. But if they allow it, as long as each letter is strong and tells a different story about you, extra references don't hurt. Also, I found depending on the job description I sometimes added a 5th letter writer who might have more connections at that particular place. You don't need to ask these people now, but you should start thinking about who would best represent you.

One person will almost always be your advisor, unless you have a unique situation. The best letter writers, I've been told, are well-respected people in your field, who you have not written papers with, and who are not at your university. But only ask for letters from people who can say meaningful things about you.



OK, so why should you be doing all of this now? Wouldn't it be more up-to-date if you prepared this material right before you applied? Yes! But getting these documents right will take many iterations. If they are done ahead of time, you can ask your very busy advisor for feedback and be ok if it takes her/him 1-2 months. If you have other friends who have recently been on the market, ask them too; and ask them for their research documents for examples. Ask professors in your department for advice; they are usually happy to give advice and it will always be different.

You don't need to ask for letter writers now, but it might be good to sit down with your advisor with an extended possible list, and plan together who would be good to ask. If there is some communication or project with someone well-known in your area who might be a good letter writer, you still have half a year to make a good impression. If you have them in mind as a possible letter writer, then make an effort to respond promptly to them when you have interactions, and try to say hi and talk to them when you see them at conferences.

When you have written your research statement now, look for holes in it. What is one more project you can complete or make significant progress on that would most enhance the statement ? I would argue that one project that fills out your research story and introduces new ideas or connects to a nice hot area is much better than two papers submitted to a journal, or an extension to a project that makes your thesis more complete but does not introduce a new idea to the field. Save this more incremental work for when you are stressed out waiting to hear back on interviews (or for future students to help them get into your area :) ).

At this stage last year I basically planned out several projects I would work on with aim of completing them in time so I could talk about this in my application. I had not necessarily published them when I applied, but I had the results. Between this time last year and when I submitted my applications, any project that was not directly influencing the main story was made secondary.


One final thing to keep in mind is that application deadlines vary greatly. Some will be due in September or October. Some not until February. A few slots will not open until March or even April. So, if you are prepared early, you will make some early deadlines that others will not.
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