Monday, March 28, 2022

How to get hired in academia

 I've recently left my job as Head of School to become a lecturer in AI and software engineering. After nearly ten years as Head, I have had to go through the process of hiring academic staff several times. Now that I am no longer involved in doing this, I am able to write this post about how to get hired as an academic, from the point of view of the one doing the hiring. Bear in mind that this is what worked for people to get hired by me, and might not work with other managers.

Firstly, I need to say that if you're looking for an academic job, don't bother with the "blanket bombing" approach of just emailing every Head of School / Head of Department that you can find in a simple Google search, asking them for a job. Every time I received one of these emails, I deleted it. This was especially true for new PhD graduates looking for postdoc positions. Firstly, the institution I was at did not have funding for postdocs. Secondly, most of the emails I received were from ecology graduates. Yes, I have published a number of papers in ecology, but anyone who had spent more than 30 seconds investigating my institution and myself would have found out that I'm not an ecologist.

The first part of the hiring process, from the point of view of the applicant, is advertising the position. Places advertise because they have a hole in their staffing, so they need to hire someone to fill that hole. If they don't have a hole, they don't need to hire anyone. If you see a position advertised that interests you, make sure you do two things:

  1. Read the position description. 
  2. Follow the application process.
The position description lays out everything about the role: what qualifications the applicants will have; what experience is required; and what specific skills the employer is looking for. This is a wish list. While someone who genuinely meets every one of the criteria will have a better chance of being successful, employers can be a bit flexible in that an applicant who is otherwise outstanding but doesn't meet all the criteria could also be attractive to them. On the other hand, if someone does not meet most or all of the criteria, then they won't have any chance at all. Their application will be skimmed and discarded. Applying for a position "on the off-chance" that you might get somewhere is ill-advised and mostly leads to wasted time. This is especially true if HR is doing the initial evaluation of the applications, as HR is less likely to have the domain knowledge to tell if an applicant is worth interviewing. In other words, HR will be looking for keywords and rejecting applications that don't have those keywords. I always reviewed applications myself, but being at a smaller institution I could do that.

Applicants must follow the application process. I have encountered cases in the past where the applicant sent their application to me directly. This is a big no-no, as recruitment is handled by HR, so HR should be receiving the applications. It also shows me that the applicant is either too careless to read the instructions for the application process, or they think the rules don't apply to them. Obviously, the rules apply to everyone, and any deviation from them is a bad thing as it opens the employer up to accusations of bias or favoritism, which can have legal consequences.

The process of reviewing applications is intended to identify the few (five or six) applicants who will progress to the interview stage. This really means that for each application, the reviewers need to be able to answer one fundamental question: can this person do the job?

When reviewing applications I always liked to read the cover letter first. This means that your cover letter should address the selection criteria for that position. If you can explicitly address every criterion in your cover letter, do so. This will help to make the point that you are able to do the job and make it easier for the application reviewers to answer the question above. While one page is best, close to two pages could be acceptable if you have a lot to say about your relevance to the position. Cover letters should be well-written and free of spelling and grammatical errors. After all, if I were recruiting for an academic position teaching at tertiary level, I expect someone to be intelligent enough and detail-oriented enough that they can use a spell checker and proof-read their application.

The curriculum vitae (CV) lists what you have done in your career so far. This should be up to date and detailed, however the first page should summarise the details in the remainder of the document. I never had any preference for any particular format, although I do prefer things to be simple and straight-forward. Fancy formatting never impressed me, I was only ever interested in the information contained in it. Personal statements or statements of career goals also never interested me, and in cases where these statements did not align with the position I was recruiting for they actually harmed the applicant's chances. CV should also be free of grammatical and spelling errors.

Since I was always recruiting for teaching positions, I always looked for teaching experience. This didn't mean that someone had had to already worked as a lecturer: if they were a new PhD graduate, then experience tutoring undergrads was sometimes good enough. But I would not look at someone who did not have any teaching experience at all. I also favoured people with PhDs. This was not because I thought that having a PhD made someone a better teacher, but because having a PhD showed that they could do research. It is a legal requirement in New Zealand that the teaching of degrees or above (Bachelor's or postgraduate qualifications) be done mostly by those who are research active. There is also an expectation that teaching of postgraduate qualifications be done by those with a qualification one level higher than that being taught. Since we were teaching Master's degrees, that meant the teachers needed PhDs.

The one thing you absolutely must not do is claim that you are something you are not. This can be claiming to have a skill you don't have, experience you didn't get or a qualification you don't have. This kind of thing can be found out pretty easily these days, often with a simple Google search. This also means that you should be careful about what you put online, as a potential employer will find something controversial and it will harm your chances of employment.

Be careful about bragging too much in your application. New Zealand culture especially values humility and discourages bragging. It's enough to list your accomplishments, you don't need to decorate them with adjectives like "exceptional" or "outstanding". You might think you're great, but so does everyone else applying for that job.

If your application has convinced the reviewers that you could do the job, you will be invited to an interview. These used to be face-to-face or over the phone, but now technology is good enough that an online interview is just as good. Make sure that you are on time to the interview, and do your homework first! This means finding out as much as you can about the institution, the role that you are interviewing for, and the people doing the interview. 

The purpose of an interview is to answer two questions:
  1. Can you really do what you claim in your application?
  2. Could I stand working with you?
Regarding the first question, you can expect to be asked some questions related to the topics you claim knowledge about. I always liked to gently probe an applicant's knowledge with some questions about specific technologies or approaches. If you don't understand a question, it is better to ask for clarification than to burble on with a clueless half-answer. If you don't know the answer, it is better to just say that you don't know but could find out. 

Regarding the second question, that comes from your attitude during the interview, and the way you answer questions. I once interviewed someone who was very well qualified and had a lot of experience, but their attitude during the entire interview was just screaming that they didn't want to be there. They didn't get the position, because I knew that if I had hired them, in six months either I would be trying to get rid of them, or they would move on to someplace else.  

Personally, the three qualities I value the most in someone I work with are:
  1. Competence
  2. Hard work
  3. Straightforwardness
Applicants who could demonstrate those three qualities in an interview were much more likely to be successful than those who did not. Regarding the third quality, straightforwardness, I always asked a "filter" question to establish this quality. An applicant who answered that question correctly would probably get the job. An applicant who gave the wrong answer, would not.

When all of the interviews have been completed, a decision will be made about which applicant will receive an offer. Do not email or otherwise bug the people who interviewed you about the outcome! You will just annoy them.

If the decision goes your way, then you will receive an offer. This means that they want to hire you, so now is the time to negotiate the conditions of the position. Don't be afraid to ask for a bit more money, they want you, so it doesn't hurt to ask. The worst they will say is "no", they are extremely unlikely to withdraw the job offer just because you asked for more money. 

If you end up not getting an offer, it doesn't mean you're not good at what you do, or that people don't like you. It just means that there was someone there who was better than you for that particular role. There have been cases in the past where someone didn't even get to the interview stage the first time they applied for a job with me, but when they applied for another position later on, they got the job. 

Job hunting in general is brutal and at times demoralising, and more so in academia. There are many more qualified people than there are permanent academic positions, so someone is always going to miss out. Hold on to the reasons why you want to be an academic, and keep applying.

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