Advice on the Academic Job Search

This is the time of year when many advanced PhD students, recent PhDs and postdocs are in the midst of applying for academic jobs.  The search process for a faculty position is spread over several months and the interviews themselves are 1-3 days long.   In addition to being a scholar with an exciting research project and strong teaching experience another tool to have in your toolkit is good information.  At one of our recent Faculty Conversations, Professor Susan Margulies, SEAS, encouraged those on the job market to look at these resources:

  • The University of Michigan Handbook for Faculty Searches and Hiring which includes a Candidate Evaluation Sheet.  It gives a sense of the kinds of questions candidates may be asked.
  • Stanford University’s Dual-Career Resources can help “complex” hires, meaning those who have a significant other with job/career issues that may affect the candidate’s decision making.

Additional resources on work-life balance and dual career couples can be found on the Career Services website at

Other advice from Professor Margulies and Professor Justin DiAngelo, Hofstra University to keep in mind:

  • Candidates should look up those who will interview them and know something about them.
  • When you give your seminar or job talk, know your audience.  At a teaching-focused institution it may not include people in your field because there isn’t anyone in your field there.
  • Keep in mind that everyone you meet at the interview, including students and the person who walks you from one place to the next, matters.  Their input on your candidacy will be sought.
  • As you put together your start-up request, think about what you’ll need for 3-5 years.
  • When the interview is over, make sure you know the next steps.  If no one tells you, ask.
  • Negotiating offers usually takes place over the phone.

Students and postdocs who are preparing to interview for faculty positions are encouraged to talk with a graduate/postdoc career advisor and schedule a mock interview.  Career advisors can also be a resource for negotiating offers.

A Day in the Life: Postdoctoral Scholar

Starting the week of September 26th, the Grad & Postdoc team kicked off their annual event, the Academic Career Conference, for the graduate students and postdocs here at Penn.  The whole week, we have been highlighting resources through our social media channels on the academic job market.  To shed additional light on life in academia, we’re excited to have alum Stephen Schueller, Ph.D, contribute to @PennCareerDay on Twitter on Thursday, October 6th.   To learn more about Stephen, please read his bio below, and remember to follow him on the 6th!

Stephen Schueller (Ph.D. in Psychology, Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences ’11) is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco in the Department of Psychiatry.  He started his graduate work at Penn in 2005 after receiving his bachelor’s in psychology from the University of California, Riverside. During his undergraduate, he worked as a research assistant studying happiness from a psychological perspective. At Penn, he trained as a researcher and clinician while working towards a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Through his research and clinical experiences, he became convinced that psychological treatments reach far too few and that expanding the reach of psychology would involve not just training more psychologists but creating innovative interventions. These interests brought him to UCSF Medical School. As a clinical researcher at UCSF, he has the opportunity to conduct research in an applied setting. He provides individual and group therapy in the public sector at San Francisco General Hospital. His current research studies the use of the Internet and health information technology to provide interventions that promote psychological health and behavior change.

Are postdocs beneficial?

Dr. Joseph Barber

Many of you may be considering whether or not to pursue a postdoc after you have received your PhD. The postdoc can serve several purposes:

  1. To give you additional training in your research field that expands the sometimes narrow focus you may have had during your PhD
  2. To allow you to build and practice more technical skills that help you to be a more rounded researcher
  3.  To give you some time as you apply for academic positions in what remains a very challenging job market
  4. To give you some time to figure out what it is you actually want to do next if you realize that pursuing an academic job may not be for you
  5. To gain industry-relevant experience if you seek out some of the postdocs funded by certain research organizations and employers

There are many reasons for taking on a postdoc position, and also many considerations in terms of what you want to do, with whom, where, and how long you should stay in a certain postdoc position. You will need to think carefully about these considerations, but as you do, here are some general thoughts for you to ponder:

Diversity of research experiences:
Depending on the type of career you are seeking, using a postdoc to gain additional experience can help to fill out your skills and research experiences section on your CV/resume. So, choosing a postdoc that is slightly outside of your current sphere of research, or in a different lab, can offer you some new and rewarding challenges. You can also bring your different perspectives into this new research and perhaps contribute effectively to more interdisciplinary research (even within a subject) because of your new ideas and different approaches. Of course, the downside to switching labs or research topics is that you may have some catching up to do before you may be in a position to publish papers – something that is considered important in the selection of candidates for some (but certainly not all) careers.

Diversity of non-research experiences:
If you are thinking about non-academic careers, then it is important that you can focus on a wide diversity of experiences and accomplishments in your resume that are not all focused on research. This will allow you to think about many of the career opportunities that are available to someone with a doctorate. Some of these experiences might include having the opportunity to mentor other students, to lead a committee within a student/postdoc organization, to gain additional editing experience working with other researchers, to serve as an intern/fellow in a tech transfer office, or to join graduate student and postdoc groups that focus on careers such as biotech and consulting. Of course, all of the experiences I have listed here (and others that I have not) are available to postdocs at Penn, and it would be important to think about whether a different institution could offer similar experiences. Indeed, even having access to a Career Services office could be an important factor to consider – not all universities offer their postdocs this resource. If you are transitioning out of academia, then the more you have done, experienced, investigated, achieved, outside of your direct research, the easier it will be to convince an employer that you do have a good track record of using your skills to get things done. It is not easy – a postdoc can take up a lot of your time, but expanding your horizons (and your network) by getting involved in other activities will always be beneficial, even if you choose to continue on in academia.

Where should you look for postdocs, and how long should you stay?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but there is some interesting research out there related to these issues. In the paper: “Postdoctoral training, departmental prestige and scientists’ research productivity”, Su (2011) explores the influence that postdocs can have on ultimate career success (as it relates to academic positions in this case). In brief, some of the findings suggest that researchers are the most productive in the first three years of their postdoc post-graduation, and more so than researchers who continue on within academia but who did not do a postdoc. The prestige of the institution also seems to have a positive effect. Read this paper – you can find it on Web of Science – and I have provided the full reference below. While you are at it, do a literature search for similar papers on the career paths for researchers, whether you are a scientist, social scientist, or a humanities researcher. There are always interesting papers out there that might help you make an informed career decision. For example, here is another one: “Onto, Up, Off the Academic Faculty Ladder: The Gendered Effects of Family on Career Transitions for a Cohort of Social Science Ph.D.s” (full reference below).

These are just some general thoughts about postdocs. Chat with your colleagues, your advisors, your thesis committee, and with someone at Career Services – we can all offer different perspectives that might help you in your decision-making if you are thinking about postdocs.


Morrison E, Rudd E, & Nerad M. (2011). Onto, Up, Off the Academic Faculty Ladder: The Gendered Effects of Family on Career Transitions for a Cohort of Social Science Ph.D.s. The Review of Higher Education 34(4): 525-553.

Su, XH. (2011). Postdoctoral training, departmental prestige and scientists’ research productivity. Journal of Technology Transfer 36(3): 275-291.

The Back-and-Forth of Transferable Skills

One of the things we constantly emphasize at Career Services is how you can ‘transfer’ the skills you’ve learned during your academic career to a job in industry or consulting. I recently heard from a PhD in Biochemistry who just accepted an academic position at a Florida University that the ‘transfer’ can sometimes go the other way.
In his email, he emphasized that what made the most impact on his selection committee was what he’d said in his “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” about how to get his students to approach a research problem. Instead of using a piece of academic research to illustrate this, however, he’d used something straight out of a workshop I’d led on ‘Managing the Non-Academic Interview”—how to answer an off-the-wall quantitative question like, “How heavy is a Boeing 707?”
First, he emphasized that the wrong thing to do would be to try to come up with the ‘right’ answer, as students might be tempted to do if they were facing an academic advisor or dissertation committee. Instead, he went into some detail about how the question should be clarified (“Before or after a flight?”, “With passengers or without?” etc.) and then separated into component parts, (“Let’s see…a Boeing 707 probably has 30 rows of seats, with 6 people in each row, except for first class…6 rows of 4 seats, so that’s 24 + 144…160 passengers with an average weight of let’s say 150 pounds, and average baggage of 25 pounds, so 175 x 160 equals 28,000 pounds. Then the plane itself is pretty light—less than what a car would be per passenger—let’s say 1000 pounds for 4 passengers, or 40,000 pounds for all of them. Then a gallon of fuel is lighter than a gallon of water, and that weighs about 8 pounds, so let’s say 6 pounds x 1000 gallons…”) You get the idea.
What made this so appealing to the selection committee was that it closely matched the spirit of inquiry and cross-disciplinary thinking that were fundamental components of the University’s mission. The ‘thinking-out-loud’ aspect of the description triggered a lively discussion of the candidate’s interview, and gave him much more of a chance to display his teaching style and techniques than any discussion of his own research might have done.
So the next time you’re in a Career Services workshop on the Non-Academic Job Search, keep your eyes open for something that might be useful on the academic side as well!