Advice to job-seekers

This is the first Autumn in five years that I’m not job-hunting.  So here is some unsolicited advice from 30,000 feet.  Your mileage may vary.

1.  Seek out new mentors. It’s possible that your usual mentors aren’t prepared or willing to help much with a job search.  It may be a long time since they undertook the dirty task of job-hunting!  Even if your usual mentors are wonderful, I still recommend you seek out, and be open to, new unofficial mentors as you job-hunt.  If you’re a grad student applying for first postdocs, go talk to the postdocs at your institution or nearby institutions.  They may surprise you by being very willing to help.  If you’re a postdoc, go talk to the faculty members.

Hopefully, you’ll be surprised by how much time and advice people are willing to give.  After all, you don’t work for them, and they won’t benefit directly from your success.  But they should want scientists from your institution to succeed, and they sympathize with the job-seeker’s plight.  Also, the astro job market is a spectator sport, and people like to feel “in the know”, or at least, that they learned something from their own time on the market.  Whatever their motivation, hopefully you will find new sources of advice and mentorship in the job-seeking process.

2.  Find out what success looks like. For me, the best way to visualize a successful proposal, postdoc application, or faculty application is to see concrete examples.  (This is why people give up their time to sit on telescope time allocation panels — in addition to community service, they hope it will help them write stronger proposals.)   Brainstorm the folks you know who recently got jobs similar to what you’re applying for.  Approach them politely, and ask if they would share, confidentially, their application.  They may decline — applications bear your research soul, after all!  But they may say, ‘Sure!’  I am terribly grateful to the kind souls who let me read their postdoc and faculty applications.  It helped me visualize what mine should look like.

3. Don’t be afraid to call. Faculty job applications may be vague about what they’re looking for.  If you plan ahead, you should have time to research the department, then call them.  If you know someone on the faculty, call them.  They may shift you to someone on the committee, or the chair.  Ask general questions about what their department needs.  What research fields are they particularly interested in?   That new supercomputing center they’re building — does that mean they want a numerical person?  They may be coy, but find out what you can.

4.  Anticipate the antipodes. Once you’ve written a proposal draft, try to read it like someone who’s not in your subfield.  Pick a sub-field far removed from yours: your antipode.  Work on galaxies?  Pick exoplanets.  Now, pretend you’re a researcher in that far-removed field, and read your fellowship application.  Do you understand the motivation for the proposed research?  Do you see the scope of the project, what’s needed to conduct it, the legacy it will leave?  Are you left thinking, “Wow, that’s really cool!  We need someone here who does that!”

No?  Rewrite.  Draw your antipode in.  Keep your proposal technically accurate and focused — but use the abstract, the first page, and the conclusions to draw in your readers.  Make them care.

This advice will sound obvious to more senior folks.   But I spell it out because junior people often express to me surprise that their proposals may be reviewed by folks whose expertise is far afield from the proposal subject.

5.  Ask others to read and give feedback on your application. Especially if this is your first time on the market, you may be reluctant to show your application to others.  What if it’s dumb?  (This is especially true for women with impostor syndrome.)  But face it, people are going to read your application and judge it once  you submit it, right?  So you might as well get friendly minds to read it first, and give constructive criticism.  They may find things that are obvious to you, but not explained in the proposal. ( For example, that all the data required is already public, so you can start on day 1 of your fellowship.)  Again, you may be surprised who’s willing to help here.

6.  Put your contact information, including office phone, at the bottom of every email. Suppose someone reads your job application and want to discuss it with you.  Don’t make them google for your name, wander through your badly-designed departmental website, and find your vacation photos but not your office #.  If you’re outside US/Canada, include your country code.

7.  If you apply for a job with citizenship requirements, it saves time to state your citizenship in your cover letter or  CV.

What other advice can you contribute?  Is there anything above you think is off-base?  Also, how are the job-hunting experience and best practices different for a non-US resident applying for  jobs in the US?

4 comments… add one
  • arielle Oct 28, 2010 @ 12:07

    Nice post, thank you Jane. I don’t think it is encouraged to put your citizenship (same reason you don’t put your DOB, marital status), but, if applicable, the VISA status should be noted (permanent resident, H1 VISA, no VISA currently). Some companies even refuse resumes when the citizenship is written down !

  • Matt K Oct 28, 2010 @ 13:26

    Speaking as someone who has recently seen both sides of the process, here are my comments, all prompted by real world examples I have seen. They apply equally for postdoc and faculty positions:

    Think carefully before applying for jobs that are clearly a long way from your field – why are you applying for extragalactic when you’re doing exoplanets? You’d better have a compelling reason why….

    Do look at the facilities available at the place you’re applying to, and see how your projects will mesh there.

    Don’t submit a generic application where you added the name of the institution in. It’s pretty obvious to spot.

    Talk to postdocs and faculty, see if you can find out about that institution and their general attitudes. They may well suggest someone there to phone up and chat to to get a better idea of what they’re looking for.

    Do ask other people for their successful applications, and respect their confidentiality if they give you a copy of their application. Do not forward it on!

    Do be selective (when possible) for applications, i.e. twenty five applications written at 2am is worse than five applications thought out. Yes, I know job applicants will be rolling their eyes and saying “but I NEED to get a JOB!!!”, but it’s true. And heck, this is the internet for crying out loud – feel free to ignore this one….

    Padding your CV with those 125 IAU circulars about comets/gamma ray bursters/that flash last tuesday? Save the trees and write the sentence “I have 125 IAU Circulars” instead. List the most recent five if you really must.

    Talk to postdocs and faculty. (Yes, I said it twice, because it’s important!)

    Limit your rumour mill habit to once a day, preferably at 6pm. The amount of bullshit on it is quite spectacular.

    I cannot emphasise Jane’s number 6 enough – make yourself a web page with your contact address, email address, and phone number at the office, and WITH A DATE WHEN YOU LAST UPDATED THE PAGE. If you haven’t got one, stop reading and do this *right now*. That’s all you need on it – leave your photos of your observatory trip for Facebook. Optionally link a PDF of your CV on it. Make sure it is linked form the department web site so that Google considers it valid. Don’t make anyone struggle to find your contact details.

    Okay, enough damage from me…..

  • Eric Jensen Oct 30, 2010 @ 22:34

    This isn’t completely distinct from some of the excellent advice given already, but I would add: do your homework. Make sure you’ve learned as much as you can about the institution and department to which you’re applying, and that your application reflects that familiarity. This is especially true if you’re applying for jobs at liberal arts colleges. Sending in the same application you would send to a large university faculty job is likely to raise some concerns. Take a look at Suzanne Amador Kane and Kenneth Laws’ excellent article, “Hunting for Jobs at Liberal Arts Colleges Who’s doing the hiring?”, published in Physics Today in 2006. (

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