Opinions Bordering on Advice:
~~~~~Statements for Academic Jobs~~~~~
I was once told that I have an awful lot of opinions for someone who doesn’t know anything. Whatever! Here are some opinions on how to go about preparing academic job application materials, from me, a person who is going through this process now, has not landed any interviews yet, and has no authority to back up said opinions.
In this post, I’m going to focus on my process for writing the various statements. I originally had many more sections here (including one about letters and choosing where to apply), but that made for a very long post, so I will focus on just one thing for now!
The three most common statements I’ve seen are: research, teaching, and diversity. I’d noticed some years ago that it was common for people (at least in PL) to post their statements online. The first step I took was three-pronged infomation gathering:
- Search the web for generic advice.
- Search the web for people I knew who were recently on the market (i.e., within the last 4 years), and “research statement”
- Contact people I know well and ask them for their statements.
(1) was bit of a mixed bag: I mostly found articles from e.g. The Chronicle of Higher Education and such. I explicitly searched Philip Guo’s blog, since he writes about all sorts of things, and I had previously been familiar with his PhD Grind memoir. There are a lot of unknowns about the academic job search, especially if you don’t know anyone who has gone through it recently, so his blog is a very nice resource.
A lot of resources can be subtly (or not!) incredibly negative. Many of the people I’ve talked to oscillate between being fatalistic about the process, and being very encouraging. The fact is, there is a ton of epistemic randomness in the process, and the anxiety that that entails leads to what I think is some rather discouraging and destructive advice. I stopped reading these things and just focused on the things I could control: putting together the best packet, given my current situation, and talking to people I trust.
Ideally, your research advisor will give you lots of guidance and feedback on this. Here is why you want that: your advisor knows how to sell. Presumably they’ve been awarded many grants, and hopefully they’ve placed students in academic positions before.
I had four meetings total with my primary advisor about my statement (three were combined with my regular advising meetings). Our first meeting was in September. During the first meeting, we talked about what high level goals the statement ought to achieve. He told me that the main message I wanted to send was, “I have lots of things to offer this organization.” The big points we talked about were to paint a picture of how I could help out stressed departments, suggest where I could get funding (and where I’ve already gotten “industrial attention”), and connect to practical questions about students and job preparation.
The next thing I did was print the statements from people I’d contacted, and people I’d internet-stalked. Then I employed those close reading skills I developed as an English major and identified the common elements of what I thought were the strongest statements:
- Organized by theme/concept, rather than temporally or by project. I identified two major benfits for this approach: (1) it allowed the authors to cite a single paper more than once, if it had more than one contribution, and (2) it showed common themes throughout the person’s research. Individual projects may stall or not travel with the graduate student, but the themes that undergird their research do. I think this makes it easier for future colleagues to imagine what it might be like to work with you.
- Key phrases in bold. No one has time for your beautiful prose.
- Length: 2-3 pages for work done, 1-2 for future. Shorter is actually better, but don’t make it illegible – this means be kind to your reader’s eyes, and don’t skimp on spelling out in English what you do.
- Focus on the facts. The best statements were about communicating a theory of what the field needs, without using too many “I” statements. This is not a personal essay.
I had the hardest time sussing out what to do about future work. There are some lines of research I’d like to pursue with friends currently on the market, or who have recently been on the market. I also looked for common growth areas and tailored my future work around that. I wanted to show that I could both continue the work I’m currently doing, as well as see how my work can mesh with others’ interests. I have a sense of where I think the field is going, but I suspect a lot of new graduate students do not – for these folks, I recommend talking with as many senior people as possible and reading publications like the Communications of the ACM to get a higher level view of the field.
At this point, I want to emphasize that writing the research statement was hard and time-consuming. The two most similar documents I’d written were a past attempt at a faculty statement for a workshop (I can’t find the draft now, and as I recall, it was quite bad, and the peer reviews we did were not helpful), and my original graduate school personal statement(s) (lost to the ages). It’s possible that if you’ve applied to fellowships that require research statements, you will have excellent foundational documents. I have no personal experience with this, though, and it was like pulling teeth writing my first draft.
So what made writing it so hard? Like a lot of graduate students, I have had limited control over what I worked on. Most of what we do is a compromise between our own interests, our advisors’ interests, and our funders’ interests. Like most graduate students, there are projects for which I no longer have funding to work on, and there are projects that are essentially on hold until I have my PhD in hand. I have other research obligations that take priority. So how did I go about writing a coherent story for my research statement? I looked at the constant thread: me. What were the ideas that motiviated the particular questions I asked for each project? What made me excited to work in these disparate spaces? What unique perspectives did I have, and how did they manifest when I moved on to work in new areas?
I didn’t have much during my second meeting with my advisor about it (about a month later, in late October) – I mostly talked about what was stressing me out about it. It’s okay to not make progress some times; just because I didn’t have words on the page didn’t mean that ideas weren’t cooking. We talked about my lack of confidence at selling myself. During this meeting, he suggested I have a diagram in my statement, to break up the typical wall of text and catch the eye.
My third meeting with my advisor about the research statement was a week later, in early November. At that point, I’d had what felt like a pretty bad draft. Fortunately, my writing meta-game is very good (i.e., I can very clearly express what I am trying to accomplish with each statement/paragraph/section), and my advisor is an excellent editor/listener/communicator. We talked about things at a high level, discussing what the objectives of each section were. The big takeaways that apply to every statement were:
- First half of the page: be absolutely positive that anyone reading this gets into the right general content area.
- Need to communicate ASAP a pithy takeaway (for me: PL+SE can be used outside typical computer science or systems domains).
- Be simple and blazingly obvious.
- First sentence must be short and easy to parse.
- Make statement “buzzword compliant” – need to know what I’m about in 30s.
- Each section title should be about a contribution or benefit of the work.
- Make my header/name BIGGER.
We also talked about specific issues, like my choice of words to make bold (I had too many, and they were not the best choices), and the fact that my diagram was terrible (diagrams are not my strong suit!).
We scheduled another meeting in two days’ time. I spent all of the time between those two points writing and re-writing. That ended up being essentially the final version.
For someone applying to research positions out of the PhD, I suspect I have more teaching experience than most. Therefore, I had quite a bit of content to select from, when writing it. I focused on management and pedagogical choices made when teaching a large class, and then described my TA and mentoring experience. I saved some space for my teaching philosophy, which show cased that I knew about some pedagogy terms, but also that I have thought deeply about the role of teaching in this field.
My main concern was to convey that I could hit the ground running in a large enrollment class. Teaching statements for R1s are always shorter, and I would worry that a longer statement (especially in comparison with the length of the researcch statement) might indicate a greater interest in teaching than research. That said, you should convey the values you want to convey in each statement, so long as you are okay with the idea that someone on the hiring committee could just not like something about your packet and use that to veto you (or however the process works).
My impression of the teaching statements of the most competitive R1 applicants was that they were fairly weak. This is to be expected if one’s teaching experience is thin. Most R1 applicants at least have some experience mentoring research students, which is a fine thing to talk about. I suspect many faculty will only skim the teaching statement. The best policy is to be honest about the experience you have. If you can take a teaching training course, e.g. from CIRTL, that can give you something to talk about. Focus on the kinds of courses you want to teach, and on the classroom environment you want to foster.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement
This is a new trend in faculty job applications, so finding good ones is hard. I’ve observed the following styles:
- “I am diversity.”
- “Some of my best friends are diverse. They tell me X, and here is what I think.”
- “I’ve mentored under-represented people in computing.” <– usually white women
- “Look at the things I’ve done/will do for diversity.”
There are a few good ways of writing these statements, many bad ways. I’ve read some earnest attempts that were sad and painful. I’ve read one or two personalized stories that are inspiring and forward-looking. I think most places prefer (4) because diversity efforts are still a contentious thing. I think it makes people less uncomfortable to think about concrete efforts, rather than the messy matters of lived experiences, even though, IMO, connecting with people and giving a voice to lived experiences are where the real work happens.
I opted to open my statement with (4) and then pivot to something a little different: a theory of the case. Diversity in academia and the professional class in general is something I have a lot of very personal feelings about and have worked on, prior to my time in computing. I also feel very weird talking about it because as an upwardly-mobile white woman, it feels absurd to be so close to power and yet so far. I think a lot about the privleges of being on the inside, and the extra hurdles of being on the outside, and how the difficulty of moving between in and out varies. Allyship is extremely important, as is ceding space to those who do not have a platform. The forces that drive us apart are incredibly strong, especially in the face of scarcity, which we have in the academic environment. I ended up writing the bulk of the statement several times before I settled on content that faithfully conveyed my perspective without being overly strident.
A conscious choice I made in my DEI statement was to make sure I appealed to two ends of the spectrum: I had keywords that someone who was just getting on board with the idea of DEI statements would want to see, while also having the kind of depth that someone who cares deeply about a the problem would want to see (I think!). Given that these things are so new, I assume that at this point, hiring committees mostly want to see that you’ve thought about the problem and aren’t an asshole.
Frankly, I don’t know how much any of these statements actually matter. I suspect letters matter more. Growth areas matter a lot. Game-theoretic reasoning about whether an applicant will actually accept an offer can matter a lot. The best thing anyone can do is to try, and not take anything for granted. The process is inherently stressful, inefficient, and likely quite unfair – to both the applicant and the committee! I’m focusing on being as emotionally detached as possible (hard!). I’m grateful that my ability to stay in this country doesn’t depend on me landing a job. I’m grateful that I have the flexibility to move to many places, have a supportive partner, and could potentially take post-doc position, should things not work out this year. I’m grateful to all the people who have helped me out along the way. No matter what happens, if this post helps someone else out, then it was all worth it!