So, you are an astronomy postdoc. You have spent the past three to seven years doing research, attending conferences, and building up your resume. Now is the time for you to dive into the search for a tenure-track faculty position. This is a guide to help you navigate that process.
The Year(s) Before Applications
Ask around. If there are places you particularly want to work, find out when/whether they'll be hiring. Anywhere that seems like a good fit: invite yourself to give a talk there in the Spring or Fall. Stay a few days. Talk to everyone.
Summer Before Applications
Faculty positions generally start in the Fall semester, in August or September. The application process starts around October the year before, as the first set of faculty job announcements comes out. However, you need to be prepared prior to that point. During the summer before you apply, contact 3 or 4 people to be your letter writers. These should be professors, staff scientists, or other equivalent senior people who know you and your work. They should not all be from the same institution, and it would be useful if at least one of them can speak to your teaching experience. They will be spending a lot of time getting your letters ready, so you should make sure they know your application deadlines. The more well-regarded the writers are, the more it helps. The prestige of the writer is no substitute for knowledge of you, so you only want to select people that can speak knowingly of your skills and accomplishments. However, at least some people have great success when receiving letters from prominent names in the field with whom they have never worked closely.
Types of jobs
At this point you also need to decide when sort of position(s) you are looking for. Although there are many types of jobs astronomers can look for, this guide focuses on what are transitionally considered tenure-track faculty jobs, or the equivalent. These jobs tend to come in three flavors:
Research Faculty Position – These are jobs at universities with graduate programs and robust research activities. In these jobs, you will typically be expected to divide your time like so: 50% research; 40% teaching; 10% service. In this context “service” represents faculty meetings, serving on committees, and similar administrative work. A typical teaching load is one class each semester, or one class one semester and two the next semester. That load is described with the shorthand 1:1 or 1:2. For this position, your accomplishments as a researcher is the dominant issue in your tenure review.
4-year College – These are jobs at smaller schools or primarily undergraduate institutions. There will be no graduate program or a very small one. In these jobs, you will typically be expected to divide your time into 60% teaching; 20% research; 20% service. In this context, service also includes additional university work such as direct student advising. A typical teaching load is larger, ranging from 2:2 to 3:3 or even more. For this position, your skills as teacher and advisor are the dominant issues in your tenure review, although research accomplishments are considered too.
Research Institute – These are permanent jobs at public or private institutions where the main focus is research, and there are generally no full time students. Examples of these include Lowell Observatory, the Carnegie Institution, NASA centers such as Goddard and Ames, and National Observatories such as NOAO or NRAO. In these positions, research is your main focus, although many of these places have mechanisms to advice local graduate students in some capacity, and classes are rarely if ever taught.
The type of position you want will depend greatly on the mix of teaching and research you want to do. In past, positions at 4-year colleges were often considered less prestigious (a mostly unjustified sentiment), and also easier to obtain. That is no longer the case. The level of competition for permanent astronomy jobs has made those jobs just as hard to get in most cases, and there are enough postdocs with extensive teaching experience for these schools to select applicants who are already accomplished in both research and teaching. It would be a mistake to apply to these schools expecting they are easy jobs to get.
A good resource for understanding a particular school's place on the research-teaching continuum is the Carnegie Foundation's "Classification of Instutions of Higher Education". You have probably heard of a large research university being referred to as an "R-1" school. "Research-1" or R-1 was a cateory in the Carnegie Classification scheme. The current classifications are somewhat complex, but the "basic" categories are most helpful. Schools are broken down by their highest degree awarded (Doctorate, Masters, Bachelors). Be aware that "Doctoral" schools only technically have to award one doctorate in any single field to make this category. The Doctoral schools are then sub-divided by research activity. You can expect "RU/VH" schools to emphasize research far more than the "DRU" schools. Roughly 90% of the PhDs awarded in the US come from the 108 "RU/VH" schools, so chances are you did your graduate work at one of those places. Schools in the "Masters" group are subdivided by the size of the school, which somewhat follows the expected research and teaching load. "Bachelors" instituions are essentially all lumped together in this scheme, though the teaching and research expectations can vary significantly in this group. While physicists and astronomers don't spend much time thinking about these classifications, administrators and deans do. These classifications will give you a good idea of a peer-group for any given school. If you are applying to several "Masters/Large" instutions it makes sense for those applications to emphasize the same things.
You should evaluate your track record. The kinds of professional preparation that lead to faculty positions are:
- Writing papers – At most institutions, your research record is crucial to getting the job. Search committees are looking for both quantity and quality of papers, and signs that you have a strong research program and goals of your own, with a decent number of first-author publications.
- Teaching classes – Teaching experience is necessary for a job at a 4-year college. It is also a great boost for an application for a research faculty position, where you will still be expected to teach (and teach well!). TA experience in grad school is not really noteworthy – everyone has that. As a postdoc, if you have the chance, take the opportunity to teach a class. It is not too common, and is certainly not necessary, but it can boost your application if you don't have any other teaching or mentoring background.
- Doing outreach – Outreach activities look good on a CV, but will generally not substantially boost your job prospects (unless you are looking for a job in that area, such as at a planetarium). However, the benefit of outreach work is that it gives you the skills to talk about your research to a variety of non-astronomers, and forces you to justify your work in common English and explain complicated concepts in simple language. This work will have a lasting positive impact in many other professional areas, such as teaching, serving on panels, and writing proposals.
- Attending conferences – By the time you are a postdoc, you should be regularly presenting posters and talks about your work at conferences related to your research. You should also be mingling with other astronomers, learning about their work, and letting them know about yours. Use this time to gossip; find out which programs people enjoy and which ones they don’t. This kind of networking opportunity will help you learn where you might want to work for the next decades of your life.
- Giving colloquiums – You should also be giving colloquiums as a postdoc. Take the initiative. Ask your other astronomy friends to invite you to talk at their institutions. You can even cold-call a department and let them know you would be happy to talk there. Don’t be reluctant to accept an alternate slot – if their colloquium schedule is filled, maybe you can talk in a journal club or seminar. If you are going to be passing through a city anyway, so that the institution will not have to pay any of your expenses, that is a perfect opportunity to ask to speak. These talks allow you to get your name out, to practice your talks, to meet new people and share ideas. When it comes to talks, the more the better.
October through December
Creating your application list
You are now ready to sit down and look through the job announcements. There are several places to look. The first place should be the AAS Job Register. You can also check the Physics Today job listings, and the Chronicle of Higher Education job listings. You should also always be on the alert for advance notice of jobs by word of mouth.
Prior to deciding where to apply, figure out what your constraints are. Would you be willing to take a job overseas? In a non-English-speaking country? What about where the winters are dark and long? How about where you will never see a mountain or the ocean? Do you have a 2-body problem? Would your spouse be happy living there, and/or be able to get a job there?
Once you have decided on your constraints. Ask yourself this question: If the only astronomy job you get is at an undesirable location, would you be ready to leave the field of astronomy forever? If you are 100% certain the answer is “yes”, don’t apply to those places. If you are even a little bit uncertain, still apply to those places. You can always say no later.
This is crucial! There are way more qualified astronomers out there than astronomy jobs. You should therefore take every opportunity to apply everywhere you can. Be catholic about your selections. Given the reality of the numbers of applicants and the numbers of jobs, you do not want to limit yourself to ideal jobs. Anything that you are not manifestly unsuited to should be on your list. You can always decide later to abandon a given application, but if you miss the submission deadline you will not have a chance to find out that you might have been a good fit. Your attitude through the entire process up to receiving an offer should be: SAY YES. Apply everywhere within reason to give yourself as many chances as possible to make it to the top.
This is not like applying to colleges or grad schools. There are no safeties. Unless you are a superstar you have zero certainty of finding a permanent job. Each institution is hiring one person per slot, so if you are better than 190 out of the 200 people to apply for the job, you are still unlikely to even land on the short list. Think about that. This is not the post-Sputnik 1950’s, where universities were hungry to find qualified applicants. It is a buyer’s market, and every single permanent astronomy job, even at small, obscure places, will have a surfeit of qualified applicants, and you cannot assume that you will be the best one.
Be aware that although October, November, and December are traditionally the months when most jobs are announced, small numbers of jobs are continuously announced throughout the year. Until you have a signed offer, do not stop checking the announcements, and keep adding to your list and applying.
Your application consists of 5 items:
- CV: The standard astronomy CV. At this point you should have a pretty refined one. It is useful to combine your CV with your publication list. In that list, feel free to include submitted/accepted papers, with their accompanying astro-ph information. Be cautious about including papers in prep. A list with a large number of in-prep papers looks suspicious. If you include any of them, include a mention of the status of that paper and expected submission date. You can include non-refereed publications too, but be sure to list them separately.
- Research statement: An essay describing both your past research accomplishments and your future research plans. Even if you have a diverse research track record, if you can present a coherent narrative tying together your skills and goals, it will illustrate your potential as a budding faculty member. Any way you can customize this essay to address the particular institution is good. Will you be able to make good use of local resources like computer facilities, or telescopes? Are there existing faculty or research groups that your work will complement? Typical length, 3-5 pages.
- Teaching statement: An essay that is usually called a statement of teaching experience/philosophy. Most universities, even research universities, will ask for this. List your actual teaching experience (being a TA in grad school should not be more than a passing mention – everyone has this). Feel free to describe the classes you taught in detail, describing their sizes, levels (undergrad or grad, intro or upper-level), and the amount of work that went into them. If you designed the curriculum for a class, make sure to say that. If you have any teaching evaluations or demonstrations of how well your students learned, include them. You should also describe your teaching philosophy. Do you find lectures or seminars to be a better format? Do you like frequent homework assignments, group projects, essays? This is also a good place to describe how student research can tie into classroom learning. Typical length, 3-5 pages.
- Cover letter: Most places will be expecting a 1-page cover letter. This will often be the first thing the search committee members will read. Introduce yourself, and in the letter specifically address why they should hire you. Here is a good place to summarize what makes you a good fit for this specific institution.
More resources on cover letters." rel="external nofollow">More resources on cover letters.
- Recommendation Letters: You will have to submit 3 letters of recommendation. It cannot hurt to submit one extra letter, especially if that letter addresses some aspect of your skills that the other writers do not know about you (like teaching).
The more you can customize your application to each institution, the better. Research all your application schools. Find out what their specialties are, what resources they have, and how you would fit in. Reach out to anyone already there that you know: faculty, postdocs, or grad students. Departmental websites are notoriously poorly updated, so if you mention a person that you plan to work with or a telescope that they have, verify that the people are still there and that access to the telescope still exists. Also, specifically address qualities or skills from the job announcement.
Most places ask you to send your application in PDF form to an email address. Some will ask for each document in a separate PDF file, and some will ask for the whole application to be in one file. The cover letter should not be in the body of the email, but rather included like all the other documents. Each document should have your name at the top on the first page, so that they can be easily identified after being printed out.
Some places are asking applicants to submit through an online application system. Some of those are internal university systems, and others are third-party sites. These sites can often be buggy, so make sure that you have a clear confirmation that your application was successfully processed. It is not unreasonable to send a separate email to the application contact person to verify that your application was received and is complete.
Apply early! It can’t hurt, and it can help. Some places will start reviewing applications before the final deadline, and if you apply early you may get more people spending more time looking at your materials. Submitting shortly before the deadlines is risky, especially if there is an online portal that you need to use that has bugs or shuts down.
Carefully revise your statements. It is not a problem to have essay templates that you revise and customize for each institution, but you do not want to embarrass yourself by botching a “search and replace” task and including the wrong institution name in an essay or cover letter.
Notify your letter writers of all application deadlines well in advance (at least 6 weeks). Send them reminders of each specific deadline as they come up at least a week ahead of time. Emailing your letter writers a list of places and institutions months in advance and expecting them to remember and meet each deadline is a bad policy.
January and February
It is not uncommon for each institution to receive hundreds of applications for each faculty slot. Each search committee operates differently, but usually they will do a quick cut to whittle the entire list down by a factor of three or four by eliminating incomplete, unqualified, or clearly low quality or incompatible applications. That still leaves dozens of essays, letters, and CVs to read. Typically around January or February, the committee will settle on a long list or short list. A long list might have 10-20 names, and the committee will conduct Skype or phone interviews with each applicant. That will then generally be winnowed to a shorter list of 3-6 people that will be invited to visit. Other institutions skip the long list and compile a short list of 3-6 people that will be invited to interview on campus.
You might be asked for additional materials before a list is made, and you might be asked if you would consider a change to the job description, like being a joint appointment with another department, teaching more than was indicated, or filling a different role in the department. If you are asked anything like this, SAY YES! You can always say no later, and even if the change sounds impossible to you, sometimes it might not be as severe as you think. Don’t lie, but be as accommodating as possible. Your response should be something like: “I definitely want to continue to be considered, even with this adjustment. Although I do not have as much experience in X, I believe I will still be a good fit, and when I visit I look forward to exploring how I will best deal with this change.”
Sometimes, an institution might have a shorter list for interview visits than typical, like only 2 people. That could be driven by budgetary constraints. If you have any contacts in the institution and can get an indication that you were only one or two notches below the cutoff, let them know that you would be happy to pay your own way. A $300 plane ticket and a $200 hotel bill is a small investment for a chance to get a faculty job offer. Do not do this desperately for all institutions where you were left off the short list – only for places where you have clear information that you just missed the cut.
Visits and Interviews
If you make the short list and visit the school, you now have a chance to make your case directly to the faculty. Hiring a new faculty person is a Big Deal. It is an investment of literally millions of dollars by the department and institution over a career. These are not jobs that turn over often – the current faculty is looking for someone that will be a core part of their lives and work for the next 30-40 years; someone they will see every day, serve on committees with, work with, and teach with. It is not facetious to say that hiring a new faculty member is as serious as deciding who to marry. You will therefore be evaluated in every way – not just your research and teaching skills, but your potential as a developing professional astronomer, your friendliness and pleasantness, your ability to be a valued and trusted colleague. You should dress professionally and conduct yourself with the utmost respect and friendliness.
A typical interview visit consists of one or two days of one-on-one meetings with most or all of the current faculty. You will give a colloquium about your work, and might be asked to teach a class on some topic of your or their choosing. You will probably meet with the search committee as a whole, as well as the dean of the college, and possibly the provost. Finally, you will have a private meeting with the departmental chair.
Before your visit, thoroughly research the department. Make sure you know the names of all or most of the faculty, as well as their research specialties. Learn what classes are part of the curriculum, and which majors are offered. It can help to bring along a portfolio in a binder or folder that includes copies of your published papers, nice copies of your CV, course syllabi for classes that you taught, and brochures, press releases, or news stories that highlight your research. You may not need it at all, but it can come in useful in a particular discussion, and is a convenient way to take notes.
Make sure your talk is fully prepared. This should be a version of your standard colloquium talk, customized to the topics that would be of greatest interest to the department. You should be able to give this talk in your sleep.
The actual interviews with all the faculty and deans will involve them asking you about your research and teaching, about the future direction of your research, how you will conduct it, and how you see yourself fitting into the department. You should know your own research backwards and forwards, and you should be prepared to give 30-second, 5-minue, and 30-minute versions of your basic “elevator pitch”. Examples of questions you can be asked are:
- What are you an expert on?
- Why is that scientifically interesting?
- How will you be getting your data?
- Where will be getting your funding?
- How do you see your research progressing over the next 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
- Can you teach X?
- How would you handle X teaching situation?
You will also be expected to ask questions yourself. Examples of your questions could be:
- What is the research direction of the department?
- How does astronomy fit into the broader physics program? (if it is a physics or combined physics and astro department)
- What is the teaching load?
- How are graduate TA positions allocated to faculty?
- Are there internal sources of funding?
- What is the level of IT support?
- What is the level of grant administration support?
- How is the department situated in the college?
- What are the requirements/process for tenure?
All these questions on both sides also apply to remote interviews that you might conduct for a long list.
Finally, you will have your talk with the department chair, who will ask you about your startup needs. This is where the interview gets down to the details. (These questions might also be brought up in your meeting with the dean). When faculty members are hired, they are given a bundle of money/positions/resources to help them set up their research program in their first few years, after which they are expected to support their research through external funding. The details and ranges of startup packages for junior faculty range enormously. A very rough rule of thumb is that research universities and institutions will have startup packages in the range of $200,000, while 4-year colleges will be more in the range of $30,000 to $50,000.
You should decide before your visit what your startup package request will be. You should not approach this with the attitude of “What can I get?”. You should ask yourself, “What will I need to be a successful professor of astronomy?” You should think about:
- Telescope time
- Grad students
- Summer salary
- Teaching buyout
Be able to justify each element of your request if asked. When you are first asked, give them a best estimate of the package, but also have in your mind a minimal version, below which you will not be able to be a successful scientist. During the visit you may or may not be given feedback about the package request.
After the visit, you will wait to hear if they make you an offer. As soon as you return home, make sure to thank all the people you talked to. If you have new information in this time relevant to your application (such as more papers published, or grants received), feel free to send along that information to supplement your application.
If you are lucky enough to receive an offer from the department, it will usually come in the form of an email or phone call. You will likely be presented with a startup package offer, along with a description of your teaching and other responsibilities. At this point, the dynamic of the application changes. Now the ball is in your court. You first response should be, “Thank you very much! I am honored by this offer, and I will careful consider it and give you a reply soon.” Then, you need to decide if this offer is what you want. Everything is now open for negotiation, including the elements of your startup package, your teaching load, your start date, your salary, everything. You can ask for changes to the offer, within reason. If you do so – justify it. The fact that they have made you an offer means that they want you, and they will be willing to accommodate reasonable requests if they think that you are asking for things that will make you successful, not trying to just squeeze money out of them. It is inadvisable to ask for a huge increase in the startup package that you outlined during your interview, but specific improvements for concrete reasons are fine.
This discussion will typically take place over email. In this situation, the departmental chair is now on your side. She or he wants to hire you, and you are both effectively negotiating with the college and the dean, who is the ultimate distributor of faculty positions and startup funds. You will be talking to the chair, but you are essentially giving them the positions and arguments that they will be taking to the dean.
If you have more than one offer – congratulations! You are in an excellent position. You now have the ability to talk to each institution and see which will give you the best offer. You do not want to be crass or mercenary about it, but it is fully appropriate to say to school A, “School B offered me this. It will allow me to be a successful astronomer because of X. Can you match that?”
At each step in the negotiations, every time you send a counteroffer to the chair, you should do so confident that if they agree to everything you ask for, that you will be prepared to accept the offer. The only exception is if you are still waiting to hear from another institution that has made you an offer.
When you have reached the end and accepted an offer. Pat yourself on the back, go out and celebrate, and prepare for the next 5 hardest-working years in your life.