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Looking for a job in academia?

Teng Li's picture

Finding an academic job is like finding a perfect match. Universities advertise openings, you choose a list of places to apply. Nowadays an opening can easily attract hundreds of applicants, of which several are invited for on-campus interview. When the whole process is over, there might be a perfect match between you and a department (Congratulations!), while sometimes there is not.

I have just served on an advising panel in my department recently. The panel aimed to advise graduate students and postdocs on how to secure a faculty job. The crying needs for advice reminded me of the same situation when I was looking for a job. So I'd like to bring this issue to iMechanica for discussion, for the benefit of our students -- future mechanicians.

Here are some of my own observations:

  • Start to prepare as early as possible. The application process takes time and energy, so start early. Even at the early stage as a graduate student, you may want to start to explore what an academic job is like. For example, you may want to start from reading some background materials on academic job search (see a list of books in this comment).
  • Talk to people for advice. Your advisor is of course your best choice for the following reasons: 1. She knows you the best, both your strength and weakness. Your advisor can more accurately position where you stand in the job market. 2. She was once in the same boat as you are now. You can get advice from a successful former applicant. 3. She must have served in faculty search committees. You can then get advice from the side of search committees. You may also talk to other faculty members for general advices.
  • Take advantage of local career services. When I discovered and used such services from the Career Office in my previous institution, I was amazed how much I could benefit from them, and also was very surprised how poor such excellent services were used by job applicants. A series of workshops addressing different issues along the application process make you feel more confident. A career advisor who has reviewed thousands of CVs can definitely improve yours (which is very critical. Think about how to stand out of hundreds of applications!) So go search your institution for career services and make best use of them.

If you are looking for an academic job, please feel free to comment and ask questions. More experienced mechanicians might be happy to share their thoughts and experience.


Teng Li's picture

Following are some books I read and found helpful on search for an academic job:

  • Cracking the Academia Nut: A Guide to Preparing for Your Academic Career by Margaret L. Newhouse, Ph.D. © 1997, paperback, 173 pages Office of Career Services, Harvard University
    • Written by former director of Harvard University Office of Career Office, this nice little book provides guidance from the early stage as a graduate student to the first years as a junior professor. It also includes sample CVs and cover letters. Not exactly targeted for students in engineering field, but the general advice is still valuable. It seems out-of-print on Amazon, but you can purchase from Harvard University Office of Career Office for $15.00 ($5.00 for Harvard College/GSAS students and alumni) (617) 495-2595.
  • Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering by Richard M. Reis, Stanford University New York : IEEE Press, c1997. (Thanks Ting Zhu to bring this book to my attention)
    • Well-targeted for applicants in science and engineering. Concise structure and writing make reading pleasant. Case examples of real applicants are another shining point of this book. $11.53 on
  • The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars From Graduate School Through Tenure, by John Goldsmith, John Komlos, and Penny Schine Gold (University of Chicago Press, 2001)
    • A panel conversation style book by three professors somewhat associated with the University of Chicago. The book is not well-organized but includes some helpful hints. If you're very short in time, you may skip this one.

This list is by no means complete, and you should use it with caution (for example, see here for a critics on the Chicago book).

Comments on the above books and/or recommendation of more references are welcome.

MichelleLOyen's picture

A very useful document is, "Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty" available on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website. It focuses on biomedical topics but is full of general advice.

Zhigang Suo's picture

Thank you, Teng, for this very helpful post. Here is something a friend observed a while ago. A key part of an academic appointment is recommendation letters. You want to make sure that good people can write good letters for you. To do that, you have to do good work, and let good people know about your work. This has to be done way before you need letters. So one more reason to start early.

Zhigang Suo's picture


You are an exceptional speaker.  So far as I can recall, the seminar given by a candidate is the highlight of every interview. 

You may remember that a few years ago Howard Stone and I compiled a list of suggestions for the speakers of our Friday Study Group of Applied Mechanics and Mathematics.  I looked at the list today, and found it relevant to your post.  Of course, the list was not specifically written for a job interview presentation.  Please feel free to adapt it and post a version that is specific for job interviews.

In any case, here is the list compiled by Howard and me.

Dear Speaker:

You will speak at the Study Group this coming Friday. Howard Stone and I have a list of suggestions for our speakers, which we hope will help in your preparation.

1. Print this list.

2. Try your laptop with the projector in Pierce 307 before Friday. There is a class in that room right up to 2 PM on Friday. You will have no time to experiment just before your talk.

3. Make an appointment with your advisor or friend now. It's a good idea to go through your slides with someone before the talk.

4. Prepare your talk for less than 30 minutes. For Zhigang that translates to 30 slides, each with no more than one difficult idea. For Howard that translates to more like 20 slides!

5. Select your material with care - just enough to tell a good story. No more. You don't need to include everything you have done lately. Just try to get a clear message across - you can always speak another time about the topic but we have to understand the basic ideas first.

6. Our audience has a heterogeneous background. Assume as little background knowledge as possible, preferably no more than that of an undergraduate senior. Remember, few people have a graduate degree in your field. If something takes you a year to learn, it's unrealistic to expect others to learn in five minutes.

7. If a piece of background knowledge is essential to your talk, and you don't have time to build it up from scratch, apologize in a good spirit.

8. If an idea is inexplicable in the time available and is not essential, neglect it completely. For Zhigang, an idea is inexplicable if it cannot be put on one slide.

9. Enlighten the audience. Avoid trying to impress the audience with weighty, meaningless words.

10. Use the pointer. The audience cannot see the imaginary pointer in your mind unless you physically point to the EXACT location on the screen.

11. Look at the audience.

12. Our audience likes to ask a lot of questions in the middle of your talk. If you have a quick and clear answer to a question, then answer it. If the answer is lengthy or not so illuminating, say so and don't waste time. Save the pain after your talk. You are in control, not the audience.

13. Smile. At least laugh at your own jokes. If people see you enjoy your topic, they may enjoy it, too.

14. Give an interesting talk. Learning is hard, particularly from a boring teacher.

15. Make your audience excited about your work. In return you will get useful suggestions.

Good luck. We look forward to your presentation.

Howard and Zhigang

Teng Li's picture

I agree with Zhigang's observation on the role of seminar presentation in job interviews. Giving an excellent job presentation cannot guarantee you a job offer but certainly is a huge plus, while a bad presentation will just kill your chance to win for sure. Job presentation is a way to show both the depth and the breadth of your knowledge. The search committee can also tell your teaching capability.

I've benefited a lot from the above list of suggestions on improving presentation skills. The following are some more suggestions I found helpful:

  • Make eye contact with your audience. This is a tip I learned from a communication professional: let your eyes flow around your audience at least once or twice during your presentation. Try to make eye contact with each person in the room (unless you're talking to hundreds of people). Let each individual audience feel the communication between you and her. This way, you have the attention of all your audience. Of course, you should stop your eyes at more interested audience for longer time.
  • Practice, practice, practice. An excellent presentation takes time to prepare. Your first time presentation on a topic can hardly be perfect. Practice your talk to people who are not familiar with the topic, and ask for their feedback. Whenever I prepare a new talk, I always first present it to my wife (her major is totally different from mechanics). If she has no idea I'm talking about, it's hardly a good presentation.
  • If possible, videotape your presentation at least once then watch it. This is a tip I learned from former Harvard President Larry Summers, who once served in Bill Clinton's administration. He said, every month, Clinton spent one hour watching videotapes of his own speeches to further improve his skills. Watching yourself giving a presentation is a unique way to find the weakness in your presentation, and help improve your presentation skills. Try once, you'll see how effective it is. Plus, if you're not as busy as Clinton was, "that's just waste of time" is not a good excuse.

Good tips,

Thank you! 

Daniel S. Balint's picture

Further advice to job-seekers:

Although word-of-mouth is perhaps the best way to find out about very good openings, the following web sites are also extremely valuable resources:

Tell the most influential people you know in the field that you are looking for a position. Many of the best jobs are first announced to the elite members of the community (verbally or via email). If you know one of these people, they may forward the announcement to you, or better yet, notify the search committee that they know of a very good candidate (you).

I believe all academic openings in the UK must be posted on by law as an equal opportunity measure. Almost all US openings are posted on academickeys.

But by all means, make use of influential contacts.

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