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Straight Talk on Academic Hiring

ACS NEWS: Candid panel discussion offers strategies for landing a first job as a professor

April 11, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 15

Karukstis (from left), Burrows, Brown, Muzzi, Casey, Sigman, Yang, Francisco, and Gutierrez.
Karukstis (from left), Burrows, Brown, Muzzi, Casey, Sigman, Yang, Francisco, and Gutierrez.

The panelists taking part in the presidential event on academic hiring at last month's American Chemical Society national meeting in San Diego did not shy away from the tough questions. While providing practical insights into the hiring process, from drafting a compelling cover letter to schmoozing with the provost, the diverse group tackled such challenging issues as whether to identify yourself as a member of a minority group and when to bring up the complication that your spouse needs a job, too.

The panel discussion, like its predecessor a year ago at the ACS national meeting in Anaheim, Calif. (C&EN, April 19, 2004, page 45), was part of ACS's ongoing Academic Employment Initiative. Championed by Immediate Past-President Charles P. Casey, the goal of AEI is to broaden the process by which chemistry faculty members are hired. Institutions tend to bring only a handful of candidates--selected largely on the basis of their paper portfolios and "pedigree"--to campus for face-to-face interviews. Under those circumstances, women, minorities, and aspiring faculty members from less prestigious universities tend to have a harder time making the first cut, according to Casey.

With symposia like those in Anaheim and San Diego, AEI aims to provide job seekers with nuts-and-bolts information on what the hiring process is like. And with poster sessions at the fall national meetings, AEI provides an opportunity for prospective faculty members to present their research informally to recruiters at the popular evening Sci-Mix session. "Last fall in Philadelphia, we had over 120 aspiring faculty bring posters, and over 80 universities sent representatives," Casey said in San Diego. ACS is following up with those participants to determine what impact participating in AEI may have had. Casey invited faculty candidates and recruiters to take part in the next AEI poster session, scheduled for Aug. 29 at the Washington, D.C., national meeting.

The panelists in San Diego represented the whole spectrum of higher educational institutions, from community colleges to research-intensive universities. Unfortunately, only a few would-be faculty members turned out for the discussion. Many of the 50 or so people in the audience were representatives of the sponsoring groups, which included six ACS committees and President William F. Carroll; the National Science Foundation, which has provided funding for AEI; the ACS Office of Graduate Education and Department of Career Services; the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers; and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos & Native Americans in Science.

All of the faculty members on the panel had served on hiring committees at their schools. Several were themselves hired recently enough that the application and interviewing process is still fresh. A carefully prepared application package--consisting of a cover letter, curriculum vitae, proposal with research ideas, and list of references--is key, they all agreed.

"We get 60 to 80 applications for every opening," said Kerry K. Karukstis, professor of chemistry at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif. "It's important the cover letter be distinctive. It should clearly show you've done your homework and how you are going to fit in the department."

WHAT DISTINGUISHED the four faculty members hired since associate professor Milton L. Brown joined the University of Virginia's chemistry department in 1999 was the quality of their research proposals, he said. "We're looking at whether the research fits into university themes," he said. "Is the science fundable? Doable? Can undergrads play a role?"

Positive letters of recommendation are crucial, noted Matthew S. Sigman, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City: "If the letter is not entirely supportive, you won't make the first cut." References need to understand the type of institution the candidate is applying to; a heavy emphasis on research abilities, for example, doesn't mesh with the qualities a community college is looking for.

Casey, who with University of Utah chemistry professor Cynthia J. Burrows served as moderator, asked if candidates should explicitly identify themselves in their application packages as members of a minority group. Or, he wondered, should that issue be left to writers of letters of reference to get across?

"It's up to the individual to decide what they want to do," responded Joseph S. Francisco, professor of chemistry at Purdue University. "Initially, I didn't want my race and ethnicity identified. I wanted to be looked at based on my science and potential contributions. The name Francisco doesn't pinpoint me as African American.

"Now I think perhaps that was a misguided perspective," he continued. "People are looking at diversity in a positive way. You want to bring yourself out to give yourself a chance to be considered."

Both Brown and Burrows agreed with Francisco's current thinking. "Do whatever you can to make your application stand out," Burrows advised. "The way an application moves to the top of the pile can be capricious."

Experience as a postdoctoral researcher is important for most everyone who wants to be a professor, the panelists agreed.

"I was a completely different person in terms of maturity after my postdoc," said Jerry Yang, who joined the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of California, San Diego, in 2003 after a postdoctoral stint at Harvard University. Similarly, Sigman said: "I never would have been able to succeed as a faculty member without postdoctoral experience. Plan ahead. I think breadth of experience is really important. Try something a little different from your Ph.D. research."

YET A POSTDOC is not essential to a community college, noted Cinzia Muzzi, chemistry instructor at De Anza College, Cupertino, Calif. "We look instead for teaching experience beyond being a TA [teaching assistant] in graduate school," she said. "Programs like 'Preparing Future Faculty' look very good on your application."

Candidates who are invited for an interview should be prepared for a "two-day mental exercise session," Brown said. At Virginia, interviewees present their research proposal to the department faculty in a closed session, he noted. Later, candidates give a seminar, open to all, on their current research. They will also be scheduled for a series of one-on-one meetings with faculty and with university administrators.

Aside from community colleges, where Muzzi said interviews are likely to last just a few hours, most institutions will structure a campus visit much as Virginia does.

"Every candidate meets with every faculty member," stressed Carlos Gutierrez, professor of chemistry at California State University, Los Angeles. "Be prepared to have an intelligent conversation with each of them. You'll also meet with the provost or dean. They will want to talk about money. What will you need? What are your potential sources of funding? Be sure to have done your homework and thought about how to target your proposals."

At what point, Burrows asked the panel, do you raise the issue of having a spouse who is also a professional? Should you mention the "two-body" problem--or opportunity, as some may perceive it--in your cover letter or interview?

The best strategy is to wait, Gutierrez advised. "When you have an offer is when you are playing from strength," he noted. "Don't give people an opportunity to discount your application earlier in the process."

Sigman, however, suggested that candidates who would like the institution to help their partner or spouse find a position should inform the hiring committee early on. "Let us know so we can adjust," he said. Karukstis agreed with Sigman. "We need to know what you need so we can negotiate with the dean," she said.

After the interview, Brown suggested, send a follow-up thank-you message. Don't press, he noted, but keep departments posted as you get offers. "Use a first offer as leverage to press other institutions to commit to you," Gutierrez said.

Finally, Francisco advised careful consideration before committing to an offer. "You may be there five, 10, or 20 years," he said. "What is that institution going to do to help you develop into the scientist you want to be? Do they have the resources, colleagues, and infrastructure you need? Look to the long term."

Aspiring faculty members who would like to meet recruiters at the Washington AEI poster session should submit an abstract by April 30. Contributors can present the same posters in divisional sessions as well as at Sci-Mix, if they would like. Details are available at


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