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Bench & Cubicle

It’s time to reenvision the faculty hiring process

Chemistry can learn lessons from the academic hiring practices of other disciplines

by Chemjobber, special to C&EN
September 26, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 37


Illustration of a woman wishing for a match with her dream university.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Could chemistry faculty hiring benefit from a bit of matchmaking?

The good news first: tenure-track positions in chemistry are being posted this year to hire assistant professors for fall 2021 positions. As longtime readers of this column know, I have helped run the Chemistry Faculty Jobs List with Andrew Spaeth since the fall of 2016. Each year for the past 4 years, a total of 550–600 positions for the subsequent academic year have been posted on the list between June and March.

The bad news: the number of jobs being posted for 2021 falls far short of those numbers from the previous 4 years. By this time, we would expect around 250 faculty positions posted to the Chemistry Faculty Jobs List. We currently have 88 positions posted. The types of positions being advertised don’t look too different than normal, but this is a significant drop from what we would expect for this time of year. We don’t know when tenure-track academic hiring will recover.

It comes as no surprise then that a recent American Chemical Society survey shows most of its members think the economy is getting worse (see page 26). Part-time workers, younger members, and Black chemists in particular are feeling the pinch.

For those who are interested in faculty careers, I would encourage putting at least some effort into applying this year. Take a look at the listings and see if there are any positions that interest you. Going through the lengthy process of applying is not easy, but it is the best way to work out the kinks in your various documents like cover letters, CVs, and research proposals. The odds may not be in your favor, but take advantage of this opportunity to familiarize yourself with the application process.

The current faculty job market’s structure is simple, if chaotic. Universities will post an advertisement in the fall, review applications, schedule interviews, select candidates, and ultimately offer a job in the spring. This is a long and expensive process. What other approaches could we imagine to make the process more efficient and transparent?

I’ve always been intrigued by the field of economics, which has a very different process for hiring faculty. First, most initial communication between candidates and universities is done through their professional society, the American Economic Association, which takes a more hands-on approach than other associations do with hiring. There is a bit of matchmaking, where academic candidates can send a message (which they call “the signal”) to departments that they are particularly interested in speaking with. Because candidates are limited to contacting just two departments, this approach encourages applicants to carefully contemplate their value proposition to a specific college or university. Employers may often think, “This is simply another person who wishes to work at our school because we have an opening,” but this signal can give departments a chance to look more closely at candidates who are truly interested in working for them. ACS could set up a similar website to offer universities the opportunity to receive these signals from faculty candidates.

Faculty applicants, like all applicants, dread the silence that can come after an application. Much of the discussion on my blog is about which universities have extended offers for phone or virtual interviews or extended offers to their desired candidates. Rather than this being done via the internet rumor mill, these notifications could be provided in a more formalized way. The American Economic Association has a website that offers universities the ability to publicly communicate to the job market when they have extended in-person interviews and job offers and when they have closed their searches. This too can be adopted by ACS. After 5 years of watching faculty candidate chatter, I believe these status updates would be invaluable. While rejection is painful, it sends an important message to the applicant: think about what’s next. The lack of a status update often allows applicants to delay moving to the next opportunity, and prompt notice can help candidates avoid that procrastination.

According to the ACS member survey, we’re not particularly hopeful about what is coming in 2021 for the economy. But we can give ourselves hope. For job seekers, this is an opportune time to do good science, network, and improve our job applications. For those of us in the broader chemistry community, especially employers, we can offer hope by structuring our hiring systems to be more efficient and transparent. That’s something that can’t be changed by economic outlooks.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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