LANDING AN ACADEMIC JOB: The process and the pitfalls

Jonathan A. Dantzig
Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Over the last several years, the University of Illinois's Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering has been actively recruiting and hiring new faculty members. During the same period, a variety of factors have combined to make competition for faculty positions very stiff, so that even relatively small mistakes on the application or during the interviewing process can eliminate a candidate. Other institutions nationwide report similar experiences in their hiring processes.

As chairperson of the department's Faculty Recruiting Committee, I observed that potentially able candidates damage their chances through a lack of understanding of the recruitment and hiring process. I have written this document to help you - the new PhD or postdoc without faculty experience - to understand that process so that you will have a fair chance of success.

I am not trying to tell you how to prepare for an academic job, just how to apply and interview so that you may improve your chance of getting the job. I want to help you avoid making the simple mistakes that obscure your professional qualifications.

Application Basics

Table I shows the usual steps in the application process, along with the written documents associated with each one. Each of these steps will be discussed in detail later, and sample documents are included in the Appendix.

Table I. Steps and Documents

Steps in the Application Process Documents Required
Initial Application Letter of transmittal, curriculum vitae
Request for transcripts and references Transcripts, list of references
Interview Seminar abstract, brief bio, follow-up letter
Offer Accept/decline letter

There should be no typographical or grammatical errors in any document you send in connection with a job application. These kinds of errors cast your application in a poor light, and must be avoided at all cost! Run a spell checking program, get a friend to help you proofread - do whatever you have to do to get it right.

What Professors Do

A few words are in order about the job that you are applying for. Professors are expected to -
Teach undergraduate students and graduate students with enthusiasm and popularity;
Cheerfully serve on committees that further the aims of the institution (the more the merrier!);

Different institutions place different weights on each of these tasks, and they expect faculty members to carry differing loads in each, as well. The institution's job in the hiring process is to try to find an individual who will achieve the expected results in each area, under the assigned loads. (Sounds a little like a statics problem.)

Your tasks in the interview process include determining whether the weights the institution puts on the various parts of the faculty member's job are consistent with your interests; convincing them that you can succeed; and deciding whether the loads they apply are consistent with the results they expect. This latter point cannot be overemphasized. No one is able to teach three courses per semester, manage a $250,000/year research program, supervise seven graduate students, write four important papers per year, go to five national meetings per year, serve on six committees, and do an excellent job in every category. Nevertheless, there are institutions that expect this kind of performance. Do you want to work for one of these?

Enough preliminaries - on to the details.



You see an ad in Mechanical Engineering that seems to fit you perfectly, and it's time to apply for the position. (Sample advertisement) Don't be deterred from applying even if the fit isn't perfect, however. The institution will let you know if you don't match its search criteria. Typically an institution will receive 150-200 applications for a position. (You didn't think you were the only one who read ME, did you?) You want to distinguish your application from the others. Forget about fancy stationery, colored resumes, etc. Only your credentials will help you here. You can make sure that the people who read your application see those credentials, however. To this end, you send a letter of transmittal and your curriculum vitae (CV). Instead of a resume, academic positions require a CV, which is described below. Make sure your application is complete. If the advertisement asks for names of references or transcripts, include them. If official transcripts are required and they are to be sent directly from your university, then arrange for it and so state in your letter. Apply as soon as you see the ad. If you wait for the closing date, you could end up in the second group of applicants to be interviewed.

The letter of transmittal should be brief. Remember - whoever receives your letter will be receiving 199 others. Letters longer than one page will not be read carefully. The first paragraph should identify the position for which you are applying, how you learned of it, and that you are, in fact, making an application for it. The next two paragraphs (no more!) should identify salient points in your curriculum vitae that the reader should know about, because they make you the most appropriate candidate for the position. The final paragraph requests the next step in the process; i.e., an on-campus interview. (Sample letter of transmittal)

Your thesis research is very important to your application, so your thesis title and your advisor's name should appear on your curriculum vitae. (Sample Curriculum Vitae) Publications and presentations are also important, but don't try to pad your publication count! Several articles listed as 'in preparation' only means you tried to make the list look longer. However, if you have an article that has been accepted for publication, you should definitely include it, listed as "to appear."

What to Expect

You should receive an acknowledgment of your application letter within a few weeks after you mail it. If you have not heard anything by the end of three weeks, it is not unreasonable to call the department and ask if it has been received. However, phone calls should be kept to a minimum. Understand that the process moves slowly because of the sheer number of applications that have to be dealt with, and the fact that people are busy. If you do end up calling, don't try to ask questions like "How does my application look?" Insecurity does not get you an interview. Besides, you will probably be speaking to a secretary who either doesn't know or is too smart to tell you anything.

Given the large number of candidates who apply, there are typically several cutting processes which take place. Usually, official transcripts and letters of reference are requested only for candidates who are on the first "short list." Thus, if you are asked for transcripts after a delay of several weeks (or even a few months), you can assume you have survived the first cut. Request your transcripts from your institution(s) right away. You should also contact your references to make sure they send their letters. It can happen that candidates will miss the early interview list if their letters of reference are late. Reference letters are very important, and it is therefore necessary that you choose your writers carefully. Before you supply a name as a reference, you should ask the potential referee for permission. Ask people who know you well enough to comment on your technical expertise, experience and work style. Letters from non-technical "character witnesses" should be avoided. Make sure that your potential referees have an up-to-date CV and copies of publications so that their letters can resonate with these other materials. If a referee suggests that you write the letter and he/she sign it (yes, this actually happens!), gracefully decline. You should probably try to find someone to replace this referee, as any letter you would get is likely to be useless.



A long time may pass between the transcript request and your next contact. This is neither a good nor a bad sign. Don't keep calling the department; if they had something to tell you, they would have done so. If you are to be invited for an interview, the invitation will likely come by a telephone call from a member of the search committees. Try not to act too excited. After all, you are the best candidate for the job, aren't you? You expected to be selected! You should recognize that most places will interview fewer than five people, so your chance of receiving an offer is now much better. During the conversation, you and the faculty member will settle on the day(s) of your visit and other details. You will be asked to present a seminar, for which you will need to provide a title and an abstract. The best way to handle that is to say that you will mail or fax them. Do this right away. (You should have started working on your presentation as soon as you put your initial application in the mail.)

What to Expect

The interview trip is obviously the most important part of the process. You will be there for at least one day, and often two. They will reimburse you for all expenses. Do not offer to pay for anything yourself, because it makes you look like a beginner. They will expect you to make your own travel arrangements, at least as far as their local airport; you need to inform them of these arrangements. You will probably have to purchase your own airline ticket, and perhaps cover your hotel bill. You will be reimbursed for these later, of course, but you must save all receipts for airfare, hotel, taxis, etc. (This is a good time to apply for a credit card, if you don't already have one.)

Try to arrive the evening before your interview begins and arrange your departure for after 5:00 p.m. on the last day. If necessary, leave late in the evening or the next morning, as you may need the flexibility. Do not buy a first-class ticket, but don't take some inconvenient flight just to save a little air fare. The institution will invest several thousand dollars to find the right person; it won't quibble over reasonable expenses.

You can expect your hosts to make your hotel reservations, and to handle all of your transportation in town if you ask them to do so. Transportation to and from the airport is a grey zone - some hosts will pick you up and drop you off, others may ask you to take a taxi or limousine. Make sure you know what the arrangement is before leaving home, and make sure you have enough cash to cover unexpected minor expenses. Since your hosts may meet you, look professional on the flight: Obtain a briefcase and suitcase. You don't want to look like a vagabond with a backpack and dry-cleaners bag when you meet your hosts.

One more piece of advice - always carry the slides for your seminar with you on the plane. Maybe you can interview in your jeans and joke about your lost luggage, but you NEED those slides.

You will likely never be alone and awake at the same time during your interview trip. The institution will arrange a series of visits with individuals, or small groups of faculty members. (Sample itinerary) Ask for a copy of your interview schedule before you go. Also ask that catalogs, research summaries, and other publications be sent to you so that you will know something about the people you are going to meet. Some places won't send this material unless you ask for it.

How to Dress

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys was America's Team and Tom Landry was the greatest coach on earth. A young receiver playing in his first game caught a touchdown pass. He then broke into a wild victory dance, spiked the ball, and generally carried on for several minutes. When he left the field, Landry motioned him over. "Son," he said, impassive as always, "This is the Dallas Cowboys. When you get to the end zone, I expect you to act like you've been there before."

The same rule applies to the clothes you wear during your interview: You should look like you belong there. You are hoping to become these people's colleagues, and you should dress the way you would expect them to, if they came to your campus to give a seminar: businesslike but not overdressed. If your clothing is suitable for a formal wedding, it's too dressy for this purpose. Your clothes should not draw attention to themselves; this is not the time to demonstrate your fashion sense or your disdain for convention. Men should wear either a suit or jacket and trousers, a white shirt, and a conservative tie. Women should wear a businesslike suit (skirt or pants) or dress. Jewelry should be discreet.

Finally, remember that you will be on your feet, standing or walking, a great deal, and that generally you will be under stress throughout your interview. Be very careful that uncomfortable shoes or clothes do not undermine your well-being. Fidgeting with a tight collar or a skirt that rides up will distract from your professional image. If you buy new clothes for your interview, make sure they are truly comfortable and wear them - especially shoes - before the big event.

When You're There

While you are there, someone will be your host and will take you to dinner at least one night. Your host is not your friend. Don't ask how you are doing, and do not confide in your host. Do not drink alcoholic beverages while you are there, even if everyone else does. Your friends will forgive you for saying something stupid - your interviewers will just remember it!

You will be meeting people who are knowledgeable in your research area, and you should therefore expect to have detailed technical discussions with them. For this reason, you should ask that they schedule your seminar early in the visit, if possible, so that you do not end up giving it individually fourteen times before you actually present it. There will also be people on your schedule who are not familiar with your research area. These people are probably in some position of influence in the department, perhaps on the recruiting committee, perhaps powerful faculty members, etc. Study the material that you requested to help you talk to these people. (Sample "who's who" list.)

Invariably, there will be someone on your schedule with whom you have absolutely nothing to discuss. Ask these people for coffee, or ask about teaching loads, teaching assistants, graders, library facilities, the weather, what it's like to live in the town, how long have they been there, to visit the lavatory ... ! Everyone feels uncomfortable with long periods of silence, so have a couple of ideas for topics ready for these moments.

Expect to be asked (often) about your plans for future research, and where you expect to receive funding. If you fumble this one, you will not get a job offer! People especially like to see some ideas which do not just continue your thesis work.

The Seminar

Your seminar is the single most important thing that you will do on the interview. Some people in the audience will know very little about what you do, and some will know a lot. Make sure that everyone who attends your seminar learns something. The people who know very little about what you do will probably be trying to judge how good a teacher you are. The people who know a lot about what you do will be judging how deep your knowledge is. Your seminar should answer the following questions: Prepare carefully for your seminar by making appropriate visual aids. Do not make word slides with sentences on them, because you will invariably turn your back to the audience and simply recite them. Instead, make each point with two or three words. These will mean something to you, but the audience will have to pay attention to find out their meaning. Try to have no more than three or four points per slide. If you make color word slides, make sure you use no more than four colors on any slide, lest they look like ransom notes. The slides should be consistent; i.e., the title on every slide should be in the same place, and the same size, font and color. If you use bullets, they should all be the same color, perhaps different from the title. Do not use fancy or shaded backgrounds, or other meaningless adornments. They make the slides look overly produced and detract from the content. Be sure to let the institution know ahead of time what audiovisual equipment you will need.

Practice your seminar before you go. Practice in front of your adviser, some fellow graduate students, and at least one person who knows nothing about what you are doing. Get their comments, and practice it again. Make sure that your seminar is at a level where each of these people comes away with a good understanding of the issues and the approach that you took. Practice it again with a different audience, if possible. Make sure that your seminar lasts no more than forty-five minutes, because it may take longer when you present it for real. Practice it again. Figure out which slide corresponds to halfway through, and learn to notice the time when that slide appears. That way, you can tell whether you are going too slowly or too quickly - while you still have time to do something about it! Have a few slides that can be put in or left out, according to how your time is going. Don't plan to tell jokes; you never know who might be offended.

Shortly before you give your seminar, ask to go to the room where it will be presented. Make sure that the audio/visual equipment that you need is there, that it works and that you know how to use it. Run through some of your slides to see how they work in the room; make sure there is a pointer; and stand where you will stand to give your presentation so that it will not feel foreign to you when you actually begin. If they haven't provided a time for you to do this, ask for it. If you use 35mm slides, make sure they are loaded properly in the carousel before you begin.

Table II. Suggested Structure for the Interview Seminar

Content Time (min) Target Audience Detail Level
Background/ motivation 15 Everyone in the room Your parents would understand it
Your approach 10 People in related fields Show you know the field
Your results 10 People who work in your particular field Show that you are the world's expert on something
Summary 10 Everyone in the room Relate your results to the big picture

Your Responsibilities in the Interview

You should recognize that, while you are selling yourself on the interview, you are also buying. You need to find out whether this is a place you would like to work. Ask to meet some young untenured faculty members and some graduate students. Ask for a laboratory tour. Ask someone (in a tactful way) early in the interview what the problems are in the department. Every place has some problems. Ask what percentage of the assistant professors have been getting tenure. If this number is 100%, they are probably not very discriminating; if this number is 10%, this is probably an uncomfortable place to work.

Except in rare instances you will visit the dean or associate dean sometime during your stay. This conversation is important because deans always have veto power, even though they usually do not have the power to force your being hired. Some deans are more technically oriented than others, so be prepared for anything. When you go to the dean's office, there are two possible settings - the "official" one, where you sit in a chair in front of the dean's desk and he sits behind it, and the "colleague" position, where you both sit on a sofa or chairs arrayed around a coffee table. The latter may be more common during an interview, but don't take that to mean that what you are doing is informal.

You will want to show the dean your intellectual abilities and excitement for your work. However, some deans are more technically oriented than others, and this may not fill your time. If the conversation lags, the dean will probably ask you if you have any questions for him. Think of something beforehand for this eventuality. Samples of questions you could ask the dean:

  1. Where is the institution headed (under his steady hand and brilliant leadership)?
  2. What, in his view, characterizes the contributions of an outstanding faculty member? This is a good question to ask the department head, as well. Compare their answers! A big difference could mean big problems for you.
  3. How does the tenure process work here?
  4. What is the role of the department in your scheme of things?

Do not ask the dean or department head about benefits such as health care or retirement. You want to look like a go-getter, not someone who is going to retire in place. Both of these are nonnegotiable anyway, and may have been included in the packet of information about the institution.

Negotiating the Startup Package

Universities tend to use one of two administrative structures for their departments. In one structure, departments have chairpersons who are elected by faculty members, usually on a two-to-three-year rotating basis. In this structure, the dean usually has more financial control than the chairperson, and you will likely negotiate the startup package with both of them. In the other structure, departments are administered by heads appointed by the dean, and the department head usually has a great deal of autonomy. In this case, you might negotiate your startup package with the department head only.

You should expect that, when they hire you, the institution will want you to succeed. Ask for the things you will need to do so. Remember - you get what you negotiate, not what you deserve. You should be able to get most of the following:

  1. A reduced teaching load for the first year or two.
  2. Support for at least one graduate student for at least one year.
  3. Paid attendance at a meeting in the first year.
  4. Summer salary for at least the first summer, or a guarantee that they will pay your summer salary if you don't have a grant by then.
  5. Funds to start up your laboratory. Beware of packages that require you to get external funds that the institution matches only if you get them. There may be a board at the institution where you apply for funds that departments match. Success rates there should be high, but ask about recent history for other candidates.
  6. Laboratory space of your own.
  7. An office computer.
  8. A return trip to find housing - usually available only if you accept the job.
A typical startup package should be worth from $25,000 to $50,000. Be suspicious if the package is much smaller than that.

Before you leave, make sure that you ask when the hiring decision will be made. If there are two more candidates to be interviewed, you probably will not hear anything for four to six weeks. Telephone calls do not help now, either.

After the Interview

When you get home, think about the interview for a day or two. Then write a letter to your host and/or the department head thanking them. If you want the job, ask for it. If you don't want the job, tell them. Mention a couple of things that you saw while you were there which make the place desirable. You should do this even if you are telling them you are not interested.

The Worst Case

The worst case scenario would be receiving a letter that states "Best of luck in your future endeavors" or "I am sure someone with your qualifications will be able to find a suitable appointment elsewhere." Although you will feel bad, remember that at least you made it to the short list, and resolve to do better on your next interview. Write a letter to your host and/or department head thanking them for considering you.

Note that not being offered a job does not necessarily mean that you did anything wrong. Many departments are looking for very specific research and/or teaching specialities, even if the ad doesn't say so. You may just not have been a perfect fit.

The Best Case

You receive a phone call, either from the department head or dean, saying that they want to offer you a job. Do not immediately say yes. You need to find out the particulars of the offer. Refer to your notes about the negotiation session you had with the dean or department head (you did make these notes, didn't you?) and ask specifically about each one of the key points. Your negotiating position will never be stronger than it is in this phone call. There is usually little room for negotiation on salary, but all of the issues related to the startup package (teaching load, lab space, startup funds, research assistants, summer salary, etc.) are negotiable. These items must be spelled out in an offer letter. Until you have the letter, you do not have an offer. If the offer letter does not include the things you negotiated, you do not have them. This discussion can become somewhat delicate, because the caller may feel that you are questioning his/her honesty by asking for these items in writing. Try to say you feel most comfortable doing it this way so that there will be no misunderstanding later about what was agreed to. He/she may ask you to write the letter yourself. Always accept such an offer.

The letter may take a few weeks to arrive, since many approvals are needed, so ask when you should expect the letter. When you receive the letter, check it carefully against your notes from the call. You may need to clarify any omissions. (Sample offer letter)

What to Do If You Are Entertaining Several Offers

This is a highly personal decision, of course, and your decision process should be one that fits your personality. However, you may find it worthwhile to make a list of attributes important to you, and to compare the institutions in each area. Some things to consider:

Do not neglect this last one; it often represents your subconscious integration of the rest.

Once the department makes you an offer, they expect an answer within a few weeks. If you have several things going and this is not your first choice, then try to delay their formal offer. This will usually work for about one month, but you need a good excuse (your spouse needs to find a job in the area, etc.). Once you receive the offer letter, you can ask for a month or so before replying, but usually not more. Imagine the situation from their point of view. They need to fill this position, so they cannot wait forever for you to decide.

What to Do When You Want to Accept the Offer

Write a letter back accepting the offer, repeating the salient points from the offer letter. Congratulations!

How to Deal with a Spouse Who Needs Employment

This should not be a primary discussion point in your interview, because you are the one being interviewed. However, if you would take the job only if your spouse finds employment, you should mention to the department head that your spouse will be looking for a job. Don't expect a great deal of help in this matter. Although times are slowly changing, academic departments are still rather limited in what they can do. They may offer to pay for a return trip to help your spouse find employment. Anything more is highly variable among institutions.


Last updated: 8/4/95
For further information contact Jon Dantzig at