How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number


November 25, 2002
Volume 80, Number 47
CENEAR 80 47 pp. 60-64
ISSN 0009-2347

Hiring committees pay close attention to all parts of the application package


An advertisement for a faculty position in chemistry or chemical engineering in the U.S. results in anywhere from 100 to 300 applications, three to five interviews, and one hire.

It stands to reason that to get an interview, your initial application must present you as an individual with great potential to succeed in an academic setting. Practicing professionals trying to move to academia can be at a particular disadvantage because they are unfamiliar with the expectations for an application package and less likely than current Ph.D. candidates or postdoctoral researchers to have a mentor in academia to advise them. Your application should set forth your plan for your future research, state your intended contribution to the teaching mission of the department, and demonstrate your qualifications to conduct research and teach in your chosen field.

Tenure-track appointments in the U.S. are rarely pure teaching or pure research these days. While the institution or the department may select certain research fields for concentration, each faculty member is expected to independently identify promising directions for research and obtain funding to pursue them, while simultaneously supporting the department's mission to educate students in the core competencies of the discipline.

COUNSEL Young encourages chemistry faculty applicants to find a mentor who will give honest, constructive criticism.
THE HIRING DEPARTMENT is looking for evidence of a self-starting, independent researcher with good prospects for external funding who can teach any of several core undergraduate courses in the department and develop an elective or two. The applicant whose stated research goal is to "work on whatever the department wants" is not attractive. It is frustrating for members of the search committee to find someone whose experience suggests a great deal to offer the department but whose application conveys no specific plans for the future.

The search committee typically consists of current members of the faculty who volunteer to review and rank applications in addition to their regular duties. If the advertisement solicits applications in specific areas, the search committee may consist of one currently active researcher in each.

Often the committee selects the top applications, then the entire department agrees on a handful of interviewees from that pool. This process can take time, so a lapse of several weeks from application deadline to first interview is not unusual. ?

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the committee's first impression--the application package. There are five components to a typical application package for a tenure-track faculty position in chemical engineering or chemistry. They are the cover letter, curriculum vitae (CV), statement of teaching interests, statement of research interests, and list of references.

A word on the overall appearance: Science and engineering departments tend to be somewhat conservative. Crisp black print in a standard font such as Times New Roman on good-quality white paper is your best bet. Fancy fonts, wild colors, or bizarre formats may draw attention--but not necessarily positive attention--to your qualifications. Unless otherwise specified, a paper application is expected.

The cover letter introduces you and your qualifications. Allow one page, perhaps two. Tailor the cover letter to each position you pursue. A sentence or two explaining why this particular position is for you goes over well. If you see a match between your work and that already being done in the department, highlight it, but only if it's real. Anyone can spot the candidate who clicked through the website and pulled off half of the faculty names.

The cover letter is the place to explain gaps in your professional experience. Regardless of what happened, you need to present the truth as concisely, matter-of-factly, and positively as possible. An unexplained gap encourages the search committee to imagine you were up to something too horrible to discuss, and your application will probably slide down in the rankings.

If you have changed your career path or your research field, briefly give your reasons. Keep a positive tone; neither whining nor bitterness impresses. It is also appropriate to request confidentiality if your current employer is unaware of your application. If you are among the top candidates, however, the search committee may insist on contacting your references before offering an interview.

Let the committee know if you will be attending an upcoming national professional meeting and how to find you. Set off the session number, time, and title of your presentation at the meeting with plenty of white space so it can be found easily.

If your formal education is outside the department where the position lies, explain why you are an appropriate match. Research often crosses departmental boundaries, but describe how yours fits, since those who review your application may not be experts in your field. Also, formal education in a discipline is generally equated with qualification to teach it, so the search committee will want to know how you will share the department's teaching load.

THE CURRICULUM VITAE emphasizes your past accomplishments. Both technical capabilities and management experience can be valuable. Particular assets would be study or work at well-respected institutions or with well-known researchers, leadership on a high-visibility project, wide publication (particularly in top-tier peer-reviewed journals), prior experience in securing external funding, and high productivity (measured in publications and funding) relative to your time in the profession. If the advertisement specified particular areas for teaching or research, your CV must indicate capability in those areas.

Your CV consists of your résumé and list of publications. Allow two or perhaps three pages for the résumé portion. Sections titled "Education," "Professional Experience," "Awards and Recognition," and "Professional Service" are common. Within the first two sections, entries are generally organized chronologically. Unusual ordering or omission of dates to try to hide your age or a gap in your résumé is usually ineffective and perhaps counterproductive. The search committee's imagination can be worse than reality.

Under "Education," show degrees and institutions where earned (with years), and give the titles of theses or dissertations and the name(s) of your adviser(s). Under "Professional Experience," describe how at each job you developed skills and expertise that prepared you to achieve your research and teaching goals. Treat your time as graduate researcher and teaching assistant as jobs.

The second part of your CV is your list of publications. If your list exceeds half a page, divide it into sections such as "Patents," "Book and Journal Publications," "Reports," and "Presentations." The search committee will categorize your publications similarly when they review your CV anyway. If you are in industry now, this list can be problematic, since many of your publications are internal reports containing confidential company information. In this case, list any publications you have in the public domain, then include a paragraph acknowledging the importance of publication in academia and describing how your experience in industry has prepared you to be productive in academia.

The common advertisement phrasing "include a statement of teaching and research interests" leads some to the mistaken conclusion that the two topics should be given equal space, and perhaps treated in one document. In fact, the typical successful teaching statement is only one or two pages long. List the two or three undergraduate courses you would most like to teach. Describe one or two elective courses in your research field that you would like to develop (about one paragraph per course). Most universities provide course catalogs on the Web, so use the institution's own course titles and avoid duplicating elective courses that already exist.

Set forth your "philosophy of teaching"--the particular principles and approaches that you believe will help students learn in your classroom. Discuss any prior experience or preparation you have for teaching. If you have won teaching awards or received good student evaluations, include them. All teaching experience does not come from academic environments. Conducting training within your company (group-based or one-on-one) or coaching youth athletics, for example, can help you develop teaching skills.

An earned degree in a particular discipline is generally taken as evidence of qualification to teach in that discipline. If your formal education is in a discipline outside the department to which you are applying, it is particularly important to identify courses within the department that you believe you are qualified to teach and perhaps explain how you are qualified. Departments must provide instruction for all of their courses and seldom see any advantage to providing instruction for courses in other departments. An applicant who offers to teach quantum physics is not attractive to most chemical engineering departments. An applicant with a physics education and appropriate experience could be well-qualified, however, to teach fluid dynamics and heat transfer, or physical and inorganic chemistry.

THE STATEMENT of research interests emphasizes your ambitions, not your accomplishments. Descriptions of your prior work should be included only to provide background for your future endeavors. Lengths of five to 15 pages are common. Crafting a good statement of research interests is difficult, because some reviewers may be experts in your field who expect to see depth and detail, while others will be unfamiliar with what you think of as fundamental principles and issues. Based on your statement of research, reviewers will try to predict your future success in generating innovative ideas and approaches, attracting funding, and getting published.

As an academic researcher, you will be expected to set your own research direction, obtain your own funding, manage your own research group, and develop a positive reputation for yourself and your institution. Your statement of research interests should be a specific, forward-looking document that demonstrates your potential to succeed in all of these areas. The two most common mistakes are describing general areas of interest without proposing specific work, and describing mainly prior work with the assumption that it alone will indicate future success.

Open with an introduction that describes the importance of your research field and explains the contributions to be made in your particular area of emphasis. Then get specific. One successful strategy is to discuss in depth two to four student research projects in your area of emphasis. Whether these projects are geared toward Ph.D. or M.S. students will depend on the institution to which you apply.

Increasingly, purely undergraduate institutions are expecting significant research efforts from their faculty, in which case descriptions of undergraduate research projects will be expected. For institutions with graduate programs, focusing on graduate student projects, but mentioning how undergraduates could also contribute, will probably be viewed favorably. Finally, name the organizations to which you will apply for funding and the journals in which you expect to publish. This is particularly important for applicants who have been away from academia for some time, because it shows awareness of "the way the system works."

The final application component is your list of references. Some departments request letters of recommendation with the initial application, while others expect only the names and contact information for people who will act as your references if you make it to the next round. As references, choose people who can speak to your ability to be creative and innovative, to manage people and projects, and to teach. Include at least one research-active faculty member on your list. Normally, supervisors for your Ph.D. and postdoctoral research are expected to be listed.

THREE ADDITIONAL STEPS may increase the chances that your application will lead to an interview:

First, read the ad. Be sure your application includes all of the requested components and is responsive to the ad. If the ad requests something you can't provide (for example, transcripts are requested, and your alma mater doesn't provide them), explain the omission in your cover letter and hope for the best. If applications are requested in specific research areas, realize that even a high-quality application in another area is a long shot. Frequently, funding for the position is conditional on the research area.

Second, research the position. Determine what makes this the right position for you, and highlight it in your cover letter. Look at the department and institution Web pages, as well as published guides for selecting colleges, universities, and graduate schools. Look at the number of faculty compared with the number of students at the undergraduate, M.S., and Ph.D. levels. Look at the publications and funding secured by current faculty at your anticipated level (typically assistant professor for those new to academia). Which are the most active fields for research? Look at the location and the other programs offered by the institution. Are there opportunities for collaboration within the department, across departments, or with nearby industry?

Third, get a mentor. Get someone currently in academia in North America to read your application package. Ask your Ph.D. or postdoctoral supervisor, a favorite professor from your undergraduate days, or just anyone on the faculty at one of your old schools. Get over feeling funny about calling them because you haven't been in contact in years. People are surprisingly willing to give help if you ask for it, and most programs consider that it enhances their reputation when their graduates secure faculty positions elsewhere. Ideally, you want someone who has served on a search committee in the past five years, so you might ask your initial contact to recommend someone.

If you earned much of your education or experience abroad, seek a mentor well steeped in U.S. or Canadian culture to read your cover letter, in particular, for appropriate tone. What seems polite in one culture can come across as obsequious in another; what seems businesslike in one culture can come across as rude or abrupt in another.

You need honest, constructive criticism, so remind your mentor that sparing your feelings will not help you get the job you want. Then when the criticism comes, accept it graciously, not defensively. Remember that your application must speak for itself; you cannot expect a chance to explain to the search committee what you really meant.

Now slide your application into a big envelope, mail it away, and wait. Keep a list of contact information for all of your applications. In four to six weeks, follow up with a note to remind the search committee chairman you are still available and interested. Hopefully, you are on your way to a demanding and rewarding career in academia.


Valerie L. Young is an assistant professor in the department of chemical engineering at Ohio University. She has served on three faculty search committees. This article represents her personal opinion and not the official policy of any particular institution.



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Writing a successful application requires attention to detail.

Two foundations help young faculty gain necessary skills.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

Special Report

Tips on choosing the right place for future study.

One professional association for minorities shares its approach.

Writing a successful application requires attention to detail.

Two foundations help young faculty gain necessary skills.

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