The process of applying for science and engineering faculty positions requires a significant time investment for both the applicant and hiring committees. Applicants face the daunting task of sifting through a seemingly endless amount of information related to crafting their application packages in preparation for a review process that is inherently highly subjective. Furthermore, while scientific supervisors are often the most valuable resource during this stage of career development, many years may have passed since they went through this process themselves, and they may not have experience with recent developments in the application process. Because expectations and job responsibilities of new faculty members are rapidly evolving, certain guidelines are often not clearly specified, and it is therefore becoming difficult for applicants to most effectively prepare their application documents. Without access to adequate information and assistance, early-career researchers in particular can be placed at a significant disadvantage in the hiring process. Several recent articles can help prospective applicants in materials science and engineering land a faculty position,1,2,3 but there is nevertheless a need for clarification on expectations for different aspects of the faculty application materials.
As members of the Early Career Professionals Subcommittee (ECPSC) of the Materials Research Society (MRS), we are committed to providing resources to help improve the outcomes of early-career professionals in the materials science community. While we aim to support and develop programs for early-career researchers across all career trajectories, there is a particularly strong interest from our audience in pursuing academic career paths. The ECPSC has developed a variety of programming related to academic career paths, including webinars (“How to Land a Faculty Position—From Application to Interview,” “Learn from the Early Career Faculty,” and “The Road to Mid-Career: Advancement for Early Career Professionals in Materials Science”; see https://www.mrs.org/webinars), Broader Impact symposia at MRS meetings (Fall 2020, Fall 2022), articles,4 and special annual poster sessions at the MRS Fall Meetings beginning in 2019 (“Meet the New Faculty Candidates Poster Session”). These efforts have afforded us with unique access to both faculty members and early-career scientists, which can otherwise be difficult to bring together through traditional channels. In this contribution, we leverage our diverse network by performing a comparative analysis of parallel surveys in order to help faculty applicants in materials research areas better understand the application review process while simultaneously helping to focus their efforts on the most critical aspects.
We surveyed faculty members who have chaired and/or served as members of hiring committees to gain insight into their views regarding the hiring process, including expectations and details about the core components of the application package: the cover letter, Curriculum Vitae (CV), and research, teaching, and diversity statements. At the same time, we provided a parallel survey to a pool of faculty applicants to gain insight into their views on the application process. By comparing and contrasting the survey results, we were able to identify areas where mismatches exist in terms of expectations between each party.
Although we acknowledge that our study may not cover all opinions and perspectives, we expect that this report, which represents the first data-driven analysis of parameters one should consider when applying for a faculty position in the materials sciences, will serve as a valuable tool for future faculty applicants. In this article, we present the findings from our survey, including the demographics of respondents and their thoughts on the application package as it relates to the CV, cover letter, and research, teaching, and diversity statements.
We polled applicants and faculty from a variety of disciplines within the materials science community. The demographics of our respondents are summarized in Figure 1 and the complete set of questions and anonymized responses for both polls can be found in the Supporting Information. Although most responses came from those located at R1 universities in the United States (doctoral universities—very high research activity), we also received responses from individuals at R2 universities in the United States (doctoral universities—high research activity), PUIs (primarily undergraduate institutions) in the United States, as well as responses from colleagues internationally. The applicants and search committee members alike come from a variety of career stages. Sixty-two percent of applicant respondents have experience from applying to positions during one or more hiring cycles. Meanwhile, 82% of the search committee respondents have served on three or more search committees, with 56% having served on at least six, which provides credibility to our study and demonstrates the broad-reaching interest of the results.
We polled both groups about their thoughts on the relative importance of the different application documents (the CV, cover letter, and research, teaching, and diversity statements) and expectations on the amount of time that would be taken to review each. In general, there was a deep misunderstanding by applicants about the amount of time that is spent reviewing each document in the application package—in all cases this was severely underestimated by the applicants. Figures 2 and 3 present a summary of these results. In the following, we analyze the responses and compare results from the prospective faculty applicants (also referred to throughout as “applicants”) and the current faculty members who sit on hiring committees.
The cover letter is the opening of most job applications. It serves as an introduction of the applicant to the search committee, and it is standard to include aspects of all subsequent parts of the application. It emphasizes what unique skills and experiences the applicant can bring to the prospective department and summarizes why one is applying for the specific position. It should provide concise background on who the applicant is, why they want to become a professor at the specific university to which they are applying, what the applicant has done in their previous research, what the focus of their research group will be in the future, and even potential mention of prior teaching, mentoring, leadership, and diversity experience. There is a lot of ground to cover in a very concise way, and based on the survey results, crafting an authentic and targeted cover letter is critical for making it to the next round of interviews.
We found that the faculty applicants and the search committee members were mainly on the same page concerning the importance of the cover letter. About half of both the applicants (60%) and the search committees (44%) indicated that the cover letter is the first part to be read in one’s application package. The next largest group, 35% of applicants and 46% of search committees, indicated the CV as the first piece that the search committees will read, and 8% of search committee members and 5% of applicants suggested the research statement is the first document. Similar to almost all parts of the application package, the applicants underestimated the amount of time that search committees dedicate to reading cover letters. However, the differences were the least for the cover letter compared to the other parts of the application package. About 70% of the search committee members indicated they spend at least 30 seconds to two minutes reading each cover letter (Figure 3). While the applicants believe publications are the most important piece of information in the cover letter, search committee members reported being more interested in reading about the applicants' major projects. The search committees ranked the mention of proposals and publications at the same level of importance after projects, which suggests a broad mention of projects and applicants’ important contributions from idea development up to publication, is useful in the cover letter.
Additionally, only ~40% of the surveyed search committee members were interested in seeing any mention of teaching or awards in the cover letter. However, many of the search committee members mentioned that they look for evidence that the applicant has knowledge of the department they are applying to, why the applicant is interested in their department, what the applicant can bring to the department that can make them a unique fit for their school, and how they can use the university resources. For example, one suggestion mentioned, “I find it impressive when the last paragraph describes how expertise and interests of the applicant will be a good fit to the department where the applicant applies.” Another comment was to “be sure to address the ‘so what?’ rather than just listing achievements, describe how you have (and will) advance knowledge, rather than listing papers.” It was recommended to “summarize the entire application package. Make it clear why the applicant is the best candidate for the position.” Some also mentioned that they read the cover letter to see the applicant’s “excitement, enthusiasm, but no hype,” their vision, and how they “differentiate themself from the crowd.” Overall, the search committee members suggested a specific cover letter based on the applicant’s strengths, achievements, and their knowledge about the applied department. Our survey results suggest that both the applicants (81%) and the search committee members (85%) agree an excellent cover letter for a materials science or related position must be one page or less.
The Curriculum Vitae, or CV, is one of the most critical documents in the application package for any faculty position. Search committee members and applicants both agreed on this point, but there is a clear misunderstanding of the amount of time that search committee members spend reviewing a CV. In total, 84% of the applicants thought that search committee members spend 2 minutes or less reviewing their CVs, whereas 70% of faculty members indicated that they take at least 2 minutes and up to “as long as it takes” to completely read the CV. As is customary in the United States, a CV can be many pages long, so this misunderstanding likely indicates that faculty applicants expect that there are so many applications that search committee members do not have time to review each CV carefully. But based on the rankings submitted by search committee members, the CV is one of the top two most important documents in the application docket.
A CV is expected to be an overview of all critical aspects of a scientist’s career. The key sections that are expected in an academic CV (in the United States) are education, professional history, publications, awards and recognition, leadership/service, and teaching and mentoring experience. Other suggested sections to include that arose from our survey are patents, grants/funding, presentations, highlighting invited talks, and independent research compared to the activities performed during the PhD work. An understanding of the priority of search committee members when looking at a CV was consistent among the two polled groups, although search committee members indicated a slightly higher priority on awards and recognition and a lower priority on funding than the applicants assumed. Applicants could consider including some of these points, such as highlighting independent research. A description of a few sentences of prior research projects was reported to be beneficial.
One applicant added some further clarification: “I believe the main project led should be highlighted in the CV for postdocs, and the thesis for PhDs. Adding more risks lengthening the CV too much; I believe that is the purpose of the publication list, in addition [to] showing where the applicant has been able to publish.” Search committee members also indicated that a short summary would be helpful, but is rarely seen, though not required or expected. One search committee member suggested that “highlighting the candidate’s independence and intellectual leadership in collaborative project[s]” would be an important addition.
It is also important to consider what not to include in a CV. The search committee members indicated that they did not want to see a skill list, any experience prior to graduate school unless it was pertinent to the scientific training of the individual, or personal information such as photos (in particular), marriage or family status, and hobbies. It was, however, acknowledged that including some of these items in a CV is common in some parts of the world (e.g., in many European countries). The main point here is that application packages should always be tailored to the location. If applying for positions in the United States, these items should not be included, whereas in some other countries they may be expected.
While the validity and importance of publication metrics are currently an active area of debate in the scientific community, the metrics of scientific publications are a critical part of assessment of grant proposals and candidates for academic positions.5 Because of this, these are important aspects to consider for this part of the CV. The inclusion of journal impact factors is largely considered to be in poor taste and indicates a misunderstanding of impact. This can be a red flag for search committee members who recommend not including journal impact factors in a CV. One important consideration that was pointed out by a search committee member is that “the journal IF [impact factor] tends to bias in favor of candidates that are in specific areas of research.” Several respondents (both applicants and search committee members) said that it could be useful to include citation numbers for a given publication in the CV. Multiple search committee members said that all applicants should have a Google Scholar page. One search committee member had an important conclusion on this topic: “Papers take time to mature and an obsession with metrics at an early age is a bad sign. Focus on the science!”
Faculty applicants assumed that journal impact factors were more important for the overall impression of their research portfolio than reported by members of the search committee. The search committee members were more interested in the quality of the papers than the journals in which they are published and suggested that one must read some representative papers in order to know the true quality. They also expressed that there are differences in expectations for PhD students than postdocs or more senior researchers. For recent PhD graduates, multiple first author publications are beneficial, whereas for postdoctoral applicants, the position in the author list becomes less critical. It was also pointed out that sometimes the ratio of first author papers to non-first author papers is important as it could be interpreted as padding a paper count if there are too many non-first author papers. In general, the search committee members tended to think that the place in the author list was less important as long as significant contributions can be explained. Corresponding authorship was not expected, except for more senior postdocs. One important comment was that search committee members did consider whether applicants were padding their paper counts by including unpublished manuscripts, as this is something that is frowned upon.
Applicants were much more interested in including manuscripts in preparation or under review than what search committee members wanted to see. From the comments, the general consensus was that manuscripts in preparation should never be included in the CV (unless specified by search committees in their job advertisements, as was found for instance in some job ads in the 2021–2022 season as a consequence of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic). This contrasts with manuscripts that have been submitted, which are acceptable to include for those applying at the assistant professor level only. In this case, the journals where the manuscripts have been submitted should never be named unless the manuscript has been accepted for publication. One search committee member suggested that “Manuscripts in preparation might be described in [the] cover letter, and would be more credibly addressed by [the] supervisor support letter. I am frequently turned off and suspicious [of] claims of manuscripts submitted and under review that surpass the candidates actual published work. The published work is what counts.” Faculty applicants were sometimes reluctant to not include manuscripts in preparation because they want to demonstrate continuous productivity. For instance, one applicant said “My postdoctoral work hasn’t been through review yet, so I wanted to make sure it was clear that I was productive.” But based on search committee responses, it is clear that this would be better addressed in either the cover letter or recommendation letters.
The research statement is a document that is intended to conceptualize the direction of the applicants’ future research. It is important for demonstrating how the proposed research can benefit the target institution through potential future faculty collaborations, how existing infrastructure will be taken advantage of, and potential student involvement. It is also a way for search committee members to see how the applicant thinks about scientific problems and to help them understand the likelihood that an applicant will be able to obtain funding for their future research directions. There is considerable spread in the expected length of the research statement, and the applicants should make sure to thoroughly read the job posting, as common page lengths can vary. Some considerations for preparing the research statement include how many different research directions should be presented, what is the most important aspect for evaluation of the research statement, what is noticed first, how different should the topics presented be from recent work, how much should it focus on integration within the prospective department, and how to address future challenges and prospective funding sources.
Typical contents of the research statement include multiple research directions or topics and may include an executive summary. Our results indicate that there is some misunderstanding between faculty applicants and search committee members on what should be included, and that a larger number of research directions or topics are not necessarily required in the application. More than half of the candidates (55%) thought that mentioning three research directions is necessary for their application, but only 28% of search committee members agree with this. Instead, 28% of search committee members said they prefer to see just one topic, whereas 34% prefer two topics. The remaining 10% did not specify the importance of including any specific number of research directions. In general, the search committee members stated that “some breadth” in the proposed research area is necessary, whereas others emphasized that more than one research topic was important because “more than one demonstrates some versatility by the candidate.” In general, “one can be enough if it is broad, other times more are needed but should probably still be somehow connected.”
Both the faculty applicants and search committee members indicated that the most important aspect is the potential to deliver impactful results. Both the applicants and search committee members preferred a solid idea very likely to achieve measurable results to be the most important parameter, followed by a hypothesis having potential to deliver impactful results. Both groups surveyed considered a plan that includes collaboration with a faculty member to be of least importance.
The expectations on the extent to which the research statement should be different from the previous PhD or postdoctoral research was relatively clear. Most of the survey participants from both applicant and search committee member pools agreed that there is not a need to propose entirely new domains, but at the same time the proposed research should not just be a continuation of the previous PhD research. The search committee members indicated that the proposed research directions should be linked in some way to the prior research areas in order to show that the knowledge and expertise of the applicant can be utilized in new directions, but that they should not compete with their PhD or postdoc supervisors for potential funding and publications. It was suggested that the applicants propose two research directions—one that is low-risk that is related to prior postdoctoral research, and one that is relatively high-risk that is geared toward entirely new domains.
When queried about the first thing a search committee notices in a research statement, there was no clear consensus, with 10% of the search committee members stating that they notice the figures, 31% check the titles, and 28% read the executive summaries. The rest of the search committee members (31%) do not have any such preferences and they read the research statement thoroughly. The applicants indicated that they thought the search committee members first check the figures (35%), titles (31%), and executive summary (31%), and none of them expected that the entire research statement is read thoroughly, in stark contrast with what the search committee members suggest. The remaining 3% of applicants did not make a selection. Even more surprising is that while about 35% of the faculty applicants thought that figures are the first thing that is noticed in a research statement, only 10% of search committee members agreed on this point.
Detailing how the applicant’s expertise will integrate within the department is another important consideration, but often it is not clear to what extent this topic needs to be addressed. Fifty-four percent of search committee members and 39% of applicants indicated that one paragraph should be used to detail this point, whereas 26% of the search committee members think that including just one sentence is enough. It is important to note that while 12% of the applicants polled feel that it is not required to mention how their expertise will fit within the department, only 2% of search committee members agreed. It is clear from the results that there is an expectation that at least part of the research statement should be tailored to the department, but only a small portion of it need be changed for each application. There was some confusion on this point between applicants and search committee members; 18% of applicants thought that the entire research statement should be tailored toward the department, whereas only 8% of search committee members agreed.
Once the research directions have been decided upon, it is necessary that the research statement should highlight a semblance of a plan for the proposed research. The majority of search committee members are interested in seeing how the research statement addresses possible challenges and resolving strategies. Other topics to consider including in the research statement are milestones for the proposed projects, the availability of necessary facilities and equipment, and suggestions for funding (one search committee member mentioned specifically looking for “potential funding sources”). Search committee members also indicated that they look for “clear elucidation of knowledge gap,” clearly defined objectives, and possible ways to achieve goals in terms of “what do you want to do, how are you going to do it, and if you do, so what.” They also expect “demonstration of critical thinking ability” of the applicant in the research statement as it is considered to be a “creative document.”
The teaching statement or teaching philosophy is a document that describes an applicant’s general approach to teaching. It is important that as an incoming faculty member, the department is confident that the new hire will be able to begin teaching courses with minimal supervision, so this document is important for alleviating any concerns that the search committee could have on this point. Although the teaching statement can explain an approach to teaching in broad concepts, it is important to illustrate how these concepts are put into practice, and ideally, what has been learned from past teaching experience. It is important that one be willing and able to teach not only the existing curriculum, but also that the applicant be poised to develop new and interesting courses that students will be excited about. Integration of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) concepts into regular teaching assignments can be highly beneficial for this document. Especially for those individuals applying to R1 universities in the United States, the teaching document is often neglected as being relatively less important than other documents in the application. While the results of our survey indicate that this could be true with search committee members and applicants agreeing that it is the fourth most important document, all applicants should keep in mind that teaching is central to all faculty positions and a well-thought-out teaching statement is critical for progression to subsequent rounds of interviews.
The majority (>75%) of both sets of respondents place importance on including specific courses in the teaching statement. Applicants remarked on tailoring the statement to the job posting or the current course handbook of the institution. Comments from search committee members indicated how including general course titles can only help, as it will show that the candidate has done their due diligence in researching the institution and department to which they are applying and give the search committee a sense of what subjects the candidate is comfortable teaching. The majority (>60%) of search committee members and applicants agree that teaching assistant level teaching experience is expected for those applying for a tenure-track position, whereas roughly 10–15% expect no prior experience and ~15–20% expect experience preparing lectures for a course.
The greatest discrepancies among search committees and applicants were in the time expected for reviewing the teaching statement during the hiring process, similar to what was found for reviews of the other parts of the application. Figure 3 shows a breakdown of the time expected for reviewing this document and highlights that applicants may be less optimistic about the time search committee members spend reviewing their teaching statement.
When asked what qualities make an exceptional teaching statement, search committee members and applicants highlighted the need to be specific and use concrete examples when discussing experience and teaching methodology. Search committee members had more comments overall, ranging from having candidates include curriculum and course development specifics to discussion on “commitment to diversity and inclusion in the classroom” to “balance of teaching required core courses as well as introducing new courses.” The majority of comments indicated self-assessment of prior teaching experience, descriptive teaching plans, curriculum development, and knowledge of modern pedagogy as key to creating an excellent teaching statement. It was also noted that portraying a passion for teaching and genuine care and interest in student learning would add to one’s statement.
Diversity statements are a recent addition to the faculty application package that are becoming more and more commonplace, particularly in the United States. Many universities and departments are actively reframing their mission statements to include a focus on diversity, and diversity statements are an important consideration for helping departments understand how applicants can help them attain these goals. These documents are critical for demonstrating that the applicant understands the importance of DEI initiatives, what activities already exist within the school or department where they are applying, and how the applicant will enhance diversity efforts on campus. They also serve as an opportunity to show what qualities the applicant will bring to the department, and often include a description of the past experiences and how these have impacted the personal and professional growth of the applicant.
Although neither the search committee members nor applicants generally believed that the diversity component played a major role in the progression of an applicant, a greater proportion of search committee members indicated that this document is important. Considering the relative importance of this document with respect to the other components of the faculty application package, 92% of faculty candidates and 78% of committee members indicated that this component played the least critical role in the entire package. It is worth noting, however, that this belief was not universal among search committee members, as 10% of polled individuals indicated that this aspect represents one of the two most important aspects of the entire package. There were similarly discrepancies in terms of expectations on the amount of time spent reviewing this statement. Namely, 79% of applicants expected that search committee members spent less than 1 minute reviewing their statement initially whereas only 55% of search committee members agreed.
Based on comments from search committee member responses, there was little consensus on the importance of this application component. Some responses from search committee members indicated that this component “contributes little to [the] evaluation of the candidate” and is “not important in early stages” of the application review process whereas other responses indicated that this component is “becoming more and more important … even during the first screening step.” With respect to what makes an impressive diversity statement, clear and attainable future goals or plans received the most votes from search committee members followed closely by previous experience in DEI matters and an understanding of the present diversity initiatives on campus. Many search committee members emphasized that they look for specific actionable items and “authenticity.”
Although each document in a faculty application docket is important for evaluating the overall prospects of an applicant, the cover letter and CV are clearly the two documents that help the other materials get a closer look. The research statement is critical for helping the search committee understand how an applicant thinks about science and whether their future research directions will be a good fit for the future direction of the department or program. Although the teaching statement is a less important document for evaluation of applicants at R1 universities in the United States, it is among the most crucial documents for PUIs. The diversity statement is currently considered the least important document, at least in early stages of evaluation, but its importance appears to increase for narrowing down applicants in later stages of assessment.
It is clear from the results of our survey that there is often misunderstanding about what makes for decisive components in different application documents. Similarly, the extent to which these documents are scrutinized is also largely misunderstood. On top of these quantitative observations, perhaps the most important findings come from the open comment fields where search committee members could give unsolicited advice and where a feeling of disquietude was sensed in the faculty applicants. While this study can still be considered subjective because it is based on the views of those who took time to complete the survey, it is nevertheless the first data-driven examination of faculty application documents. Our ultimate goal is to make these results broadly accessible to future faculty applicants as well as hiring departments in an effort to shed light on the faculty application and hiring process.
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Mazzio, K.A., Sengupta, I., Murthy, A.A. et al. Critical parameters in the faculty application process: A data-driven analysis. MRS Bulletin 48, 791–798 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1557/s43577-023-00573-w