Becoming Competitive for a Teaching (and research) Position: Part II

By Joseph Provost

Job hunting season

Chess PiecesAdvertisement an open position can be an expensive proposition for most schools, especially when most institutions will be hiring several positions each year.  To reduce costs, most schools will only advertise in one or two locations. The publications and websites most often used for PUI and teaching-centered positions are Chemical and Engineering News, Chronicles of Higher Education and www.higheredjobs.com. While some PUI and teaching-specific positions are posted alongside positions from medical, research-intensive universities in Nature and Science, most schools target Chronicles of Higher Education, which is a good place for you to start your search.  There is a predictable cycle for many PUI positions.  Openings are approved at the end of a school year or during summer and a search committee is formed to start the process at the beginning of the academic year.  Advertisements for PUI positions will begin to appear at the end of August and peak around September or October.  Summer is the time to prepare your application and start lining up your letters of recommendation.  Asking for help at the beginning of a school year is always a challenge.

There is a limit to the space allotted in advertisements and the required legal language can take up a lot of space.  Look carefully at the ads.  What discipline are they looking for?  If you are a developmental biologist with experience in tissue microscopy, submitting an application for a chemical biology position in a chemistry department means that your application will likely not make it past the first screen.  Determine the main courses taught by the position.  If you have the background to teach these, highlight your ability in the application.  Other factors to consider are: is this a joint appointment or is the position in a chemistry or biology department?  How important is research?   Is this a small or large institution?  Public or private?  Again, pay close attention to the teaching requirements if provided.  All of these points can help you focus your interest and tailor your application for the institution.  The current trend is the expectation of training undergraduates in research to support the department’s mission.  Thus, post-doctoral training is critical for nearly all positions.  The best way to understand the needs of the department is to look for the key words and go to the department website to understand the culture and nature of the institution.  Remember the earlier advice about being a utility player.  Find how you can best fit the department needs beyond the classes or discipline description in the advertisement.

Creating an eye-catching application

There is a HUGE difference in PUI applications and those for graduate/medical schools or for those looking to go into industry positions.  You will have to take time to create a specific application for these positions.  Put yourself in the position of the search committee.  In the midst of classes, research, committees and family obligations, serving on a search committee is an important but grueling task.  Looking through piles of applications is exciting and exhausting.  When I see a warmed over application for a research institution that doesn’t fit our mission or goals, it is tempting to ignore the rest of the file.  While a more careful person will give each application thorough consideration, some won’t.  If you want to get past the first cut, take time to create a PUI-oriented application and tailor it for the position.

Cover letter – The cover letter is often overlooked but one of the more critical components for a good application.  This is where your personality and interest shine.  Search committees are not just looking to fund a research project, they are looking for a good fit with interesting potential.  Show them that you know about their institution and that you are a good fit.  Write about your training in teaching and research.  Give personal antidotes about each.  Communicate your experience in mentoring undergraduates, even if slight.  Don’t worry that the information is already on your CV or in one of the statements.  Introduce your strengths and how you will fit into the department in the cover letter.  Avoid the stock phrases such as “I’ve read your advertisement” or going overboard on the research.  Your search committee will be a diverse audience.  It is likely that only a few will understand the research.  This is a place to tell them that you will be a good colleague and asset to the department.  The letter can and should be 1-2 pages long.  A formal but conversational tone is appropriate here.

Teaching Philosophy – Asking for a teaching philosophy from candidates who haven’t taught very much is kind of crazy, but is a standard part of the application.  What does a committee look for in these statements?  What is the experience of the candidate and how is this reflected in the statement?  Can the candidate communicate their teaching goals and approaches?  What kinds of pedagogical approach has/will the candidate consider using in class?  Can the candidate articulate a distinctive vision that implies passion for teaching?  Writing about your need to push students is good and an expected trait.  How will you do it?  This is where your research on teaching approaches or pedagogical methods of engagement will help.  Think of your teaching philosophy as something just as important as your research statement.  Would you ever consider creating an experiment or research proposal without reading critical literature?  What would you think of someone who wrote about a research project that was based on what they experienced as a student or thought of from the top of their head?  Such a research proposal would be found nonsensical, not based on current scientific understanding and quickly ignored.

Base your teaching philosophy on current literature and research.  You may not have used POGIL or know much about flipped classrooms, but you can certainly read and write how you plan to use them in your teaching.  Use the ASBMB’s website for information on foundational principles of a undergraduate biochemistry or molecular biology education.  Think of the statement as what you want to begin to develop as a new professor, not a history of your time as a teaching assistant.

Remember to teaching will include teaching laboratories.  Consider the opportunities you will have to teach various labs.  Can you find examples of other programs to emulate?  There are many examples of using different pedagogies in the teaching laboratory that you can include in your statement.  Imagine you had to create a new lab on your own.  Research literature on what concepts and skills should be included in such a lab.  Use these references to discuss how you might create, for example, a research or inquiry-based biochemistry laboratory.

Research Statement – There are several important points to consider when writing your research statement.  Unlike applications to a research-intensive university, the search committee will be composed of faculty from a wide range of disciplines.  Some will have little background to understand your research project.  One of the obvious and most important factors is to describe the kind of research you plan to do.  Use a little marketing here and sell the sizzle and not the steak.  In addition to describing your research, take some time to talk about the benefits of your research as much as the features of your project.  How is this project amenable to working in an undergraduate environment?  Describe the cutting edge of your work while explaining that it is “doable” with the limited time provided for research at a PUI.  Communicate how competitive your project will be when most of the work is conducted by undergraduates.  Describe two projects especially if they can be funded from different sources.

Consider the resources the university has in place.  Look at their departments for key instruments and describe how you can use these to further your work.  If you need a confocal microscope that is in another department, contact the search committee chair and ask for its availability and include this in your work.  If your project has potential for collaborations within the institution, write about this potential.  Once you understand the instruments and research capacity at a university you can consider how to shape your research.  If you need an incredibly powerful NMR, EPR or some instrument not at the university, remember that your start up may not be large enough to purchase such equipment.  A good proposal will discuss how collaborating with others in the area or other research laboratories.

Consider factors of sustainability when designing your research.  Will you need a large amount of expensive reagents?  Do you need radioisotopes or other supplies that put a demand on an institution?  Can you work around such issues?  At the same time, you are likely expected to do some level of research that may be funded and published, so simplifying your project too far can be a deterring factor in your application.  Research what kinds of science are done on campus or what nearby institutions have to potentially collaborate with to show you have carefully thought about your future with the department.  Showing your flexibility as well as fundability are going to be critical for your statement to have a strong impact on the committee.

In the part III of this blog, I will talk about phone interviews, what questions to prepare for, describe a typical interview and talk about what to do when an offer is made (start-up, teaching load, mentoring plans).

2 thoughts on “Becoming Competitive for a Teaching (and research) Position: Part II

  1. Thank you, this is very much educating. I am presently applying for jobs in research and education, am happy to have read this. looking forward to reading the part three.

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