Landing a job at a PUI – Part 2

Last week, Dr. Alex Norquist explained how think about and prepare yourself as a graduate student or post-doc for the kind of PUI job you want. In this installment, he’ll take a look at the details of the application and selection process.


My personal experience is rooted in a PUI environment that stresses research productivity, so my advice will come from that perspective.

The application package

Essentially all jobs will require the same materials, more or less. You will need a cover letter, a cv, a statement of research plans, a statement of teaching philosophy, graduate and undergraduate transcripts and three letters of reference.

The cover letter

Your cover letter will not make your application, it cannot get you to the top of the pile. It can, however, hurt you badly. If you are planning on applying to both PUIs and PhD granting institutions, don’t confuse these types of schools in your application. Also, don’t screw up the name of the school or call a College a University (or vice versa). Essentially, it should say that you would like to be considered for the department’s open position, followed about two or three sentences describing your background (general research themes, professional history).

It is always important to demonstrate that you understand what a PUI is, and what it isn’t.

A second paragraph detailing some general research plans and curricular interests is also good. It is always important to demonstrate that you understand what a PUI is and what it isn’t. Statements about your past experiences as an undergraduate at a PUI (for example) are great, but if you don’t have those kinds of experiences to draw upon, then explain how you know the PUI environment is the right fit for you.

The CV

I suggest that you write your cv to look like that of someone who already has the job you want. General sections that should be included are Educational background / professional history, research statements (a few statements / bullets about your major research achievements / interests / strategies / outlooks), teaching history (TA stuff should be included), honors / awards if you have them, publications, and names of your professional references. Your cv doesn’t need to be long, a couple pages is pretty common. I wouldn’t include a long list of techniques in which you are proficient. The bullets described your major achievements will convey this information. Make it easy on the reader, list references in some clear format, like the ACS format. Make your last name bold, or underlined or something so that the reader will see it without searching.

Research statement

Do directly address how undergraduates will be involved. State explicitly what they will do and how the chemistry is designed to be performed by an undergrad who is also taking other courses and has tennis practice.

At most PUIs, you will be expected to provide concrete plans for one project (or two similar projects). This should be written like a proposal, with motivations, specific aims, techniques, timetables, equipment requirements. We sometimes see proposals written using an ACS communications template, these look nice and professional. In this format, your proposal doesn’t need to be more than three or four pages (or about 10 pages double spaced). Think of it as your plans for the first few years, not a decade worth of work. Do include specific systems / targets / conditions. Do talk about the first funding agencies you’ll go to (for example, agencies that do not require preliminary results…which is not the NSF). Do directly address how undergraduates will be involved. State explicitly what they will do and how the chemistry is designed to be performed by an undergrad who is also taking other courses and has tennis practice. Such statements will show the search committee that you have thought about such things. You don’t really need to talk about start-up in your proposal, but statements about the instruments you’ll need everyday are important.

The teaching statement

The purpose of the teaching statement is to allow you to demonstrate that you have thought about teaching (something you’ll spend a lot of time doing). It is not a ‘I had an inspirational teacher in the third grade…’ type document. Instead, talk about the type of atmosphere you’ll hope to achieve in the classroom and the types of courses in which you are most interested teaching. Statements about pedagogy are always welcome.

This document is designed to show how much you’ve thought about the largest component of your future career.

Some nice concepts to see included are ways to make students active learners, which can included formative assessment techniques, group activities, stuff like that. A ‘I’ll stand and talk while they take notes’ approach will likely not serve you well in your job search or teaching career. This statement doesn’t need to be terribly long, two or three pages double spaced is pretty common. This document is designed to show how much you’ve thought about the largest component of your future career.

Transcripts.

You will need copies of transcripts for most applications. Many can be unofficial (photocopies) initially, with official (sealed) copies required at the end. Registrars can be slow, so I would suggest that you request a stack early in the summer before you’ll apply (assuming that you’ve graduated).

Recommendation letters.

You will likely need three letters of recommendation. More are better, assuming that the people have substantive comments to make. You will need a letter from your graduate advisor, your post-doc advisor, and other co-advisors. If you are missing a letter from a direct advisor, it will be seen as a red flag. Ask these people early, so that the letters can be drafted ahead of time. It is nice if you can send your research / teaching statement to the letter writers as well, so that they can comment directly on them (if they wish). As the job season rolls along, you’ll send emails to these people with details for new jobs as the ad appear. The letter writers send the letters out themselves, usually. You won’t see them or read them.

After applying

The last three searches I was involved in resulted in ~100 – 125 or so applications. Departments will typically interview about 10-12 over the phone/Skype and invite 3 to 6 to campus for a site interview. Schools usually start reviewing applications shortly after deadlines (which are rarely actual deadlines, more below), and the first interviews are typically in October or November. I suggest that you start preparing for interviews as you send out applications. Interviews vary a lot. Some may ask you to teach a class or two, either on a specific topic or general topic. Nearly all will want you to discuss your research. This is often past – current work, but could contain future work at the PUI. This first seminar to usually to a general, open audience of both faculty and students. Remember that there won’t be any other chemists there with your specific expertise, and many students will be at the beginning level. Provide a lot of general motivation (15 – 20 minutes) before getting into your work.

Interviews vary a lot. Some may ask you to teach a class or two, either on a specific topic or general topic. Nearly all will want you to discuss your research

There is usually a second seminar which can be less formal. This one is usually only with the faculty in the department and maybe the rest of the committee. This is where you describe what you’ll do. You’ll need to provide motivations and specifics about what exactly you’ll do. Ideas about equipment costs are good. If you’ll need a powder diffractometer everyday and they don’t have one, you’ll need to know what they cost. You’ll also have many chances to ask or be asked about courses you teach.

Be ready for questions like ‘I’m a philosopher, explain your work to me in a way that I understand.’

Be ready to discuss both majors and non-majors courses. Be ready for questions like ‘I’m a philosopher, explain your work to me in a way that I understand.’ If you can’t make your mom understand what you do / will do, then you should practice.

Final thoughts

There is a lot that keeps a candidate from the top of the pile that doesn’t reflect the quality of the person. In a department of less than 10 (usually), there won’t be two chemists with nearly identical research specialties. Departments usually like to have faculty with diverse interests, so if you apply to a place where there is already a person with similar interests, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a call. There are also often sub-disciplines in which a department is most interested. These can be included in the ad, but are often omitted to attract the most applications and best people. There is no way of knowing this stuff, and it isn’t about you.

There is a lot that keeps a candidate from the top of the pile that doesn’t reflect the quality of the person.

And those application deadlines are rarely hard deadlines. If a department is really interested in you, they will bend a deadline. They just want the best person. However, don’t push your luck. Be prepared and get your stuff out as soon as you can.


Dr. Alex Norquist is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Haverford College where his research with undergraduates investigates organically templated inorganic materials.

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