Professional Development Forum

So you want to be a professor? Perspectives on the academic job search process — Part I

An overview of the stages of the job search process for prospective faculty

By Amanda L. Sullivan and Bryn Harris

The process of obtaining an academic position in school psychology is challenging and exciting, and differs substantively from that of more traditional employment. For many individuals interested in pursuing academic careers, the process is quite a mystery. In this two-part series for the Professional Development Forum, we provide an overview of the stages of the job search process for prospective faculty. In Part 1, we describe the university hiring process, considerations for candidates entering the job market, and the typical components of an application. Our advice here is based on our own experiences as job seekers and members of search committees. We attempt to provide an overview of the job search process, while recognizing that there may be substantive differences from one institution to the next.

The university faculty hiring process

As you go on the market for an academic position, it is helpful to understand the basic hiring process for faculty positions. It generally begins with upper administrative approval to conduct a search for a new faculty member. The goal of this search is often to recruit a diverse, competitive pool of qualified candidates from throughout the nation, and sometimes even abroad. To do so, the administration will convene a search committee, a group of faculty and staff charged with conducting the major activities in the search. The duties of the search committee may include developing a position advertisement, crafting and implementing a dissemination plan, screening and selecting promising applicants for preliminary interviews and/or campus visits, coordinating selected candidates’ campus visits, and recommending to administration (e.g., college dean) whom should be offered the position.

The committee may be comprised of individuals from the school psychology program, the broader department or college in which it is housed, and others as determined by college or university administrators. A central objective of this committee is to identify compelling candidates who meet specific research, teaching, or administrative needs of the program and who would make strong contributions to the program, department, college and university through research, teaching, mentoring and service.

As suggested, a position announcement will be developed to describe the position; required and preferred qualifications; required application materials; the primary contact person for the search; and timeline/deadlines for applications and consideration of candidates. There may be a firm deadline for applications to be received for consideration (e.g., Nov. 1) or rolling review (e.g., the first of the month until the position is filled).

Positions are commonly posted in the fall with deadlines in late fall or early winter. Once the application materials have been received, the search committee will review application materials to identify the top candidates for further consideration. In some cases, phone interviews will be conducted with several individuals before final candidates are selected. In other instances, the committee will select immediately the most promising individuals, usually three to five people, to participate in campus visits. These visits often take place in early to mid-spring.

After all candidate visits are complete, the committee generally will review the feedback from faculty, staff and students who interacted with the candidates and/or review their application materials and make recommendations to the administration about hiring, often in the form of a rank ordered list and/or description of candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. The administration will make a decision regarding who, if anyone, from the pool to offer a contract. At that point, the candidate can accept or decline the position, or enter into further negotiations with the university regarding the details of the contract. If the candidate declines the position, the administration can choose to offer the position to one of the other candidates, request that new candidates be considered, close the search without a hire, or continue the search the following academic year.

Planning the job search

Thinking about your preferences. Beginning the academic job search can be an intimidating process. Few people will move into positions exactly like that of their advisors or exactly like the programs from which they graduate, so it is helpful to think about what one might look for in an academic position. There are numerous considerations to be made before applying for a particular position. At the most basic level, prospective academics could consider the following broad questions:

  • What do I know about potential academic careers and what additional information do I need?
    Because of the variety of opportunities available in school psychology and higher education, it is important to think carefully about the options available and to engage in some fact-finding. Talk to your professors and other academics. Make use of the networking opportunities provided by local, regional, and national conventions to meet people who work in different types of positions, programs, departments/units, and universities

  • What are my long-term goals? Where do I want to be five, ten, twenty years from now?
    These goals are important because, ideally, you will pursue opportunities consistent with or conducive to those goals, particularly as they relate to research, teaching, and service as these are the primary domains of academics’ work. If you are dedicated to being a worldclass instructor and supervisor for practicum students, you want to focus on positions where those roles will be valued. If there’s some educational problem you want to commit to cracking though years of incremental studies, you’ll be better served by a position that allows ample time and support for scholarship. Thus, this question is related to the preceding ones. Different types of positions and institutions place varying degrees of emphasis on research, teaching, and service. If the idea of spending the majority of your time running studies, preparing grant applications and research publications, and  presentation at conferences nationwide is thrilling, a research position or traditional tenure-track position at a researchintensive university might be a good fit. Conversely, if you have little interest in conducting research, a faculty position in a professional school or smaller liberal arts school might be a great fit. After these big-picture questions have been considered, there a number of more narrow considerations that might be made. For example, prospective faculty might ask themselves the following questions:

  • What types of positions will I consider? This leads to a number of more specific considerations, including:

- Am I interested only in traditional tenure-track faculty positions or will I consider other opportunities (e.g., non-tenure-track instructor positions, visiting professorships, adjunct positions, fellowships, research positions)?
- Will I seek positions only in school psychology training programs, or will I consider positions in related disciplines (e.g., educational psychology, psychology, special education, interdisciplinary)? 
- To what types of training program(s) am I interested contributing (e.g., master’s, specialist, PhD, PsyD, EdD; APA and/or NASP-accredited)? 
- What level of research productivity is attractive to me? 
- How much teaching am I interested in doing? 
- What, if any, administrative tasks am I interested in taking on?

  • What institutions will I consider? Specific considerations might include university size, mission, type (e.g., public/private, level of research activity)? 

  • What, if any, are my geographic restrictions (e.g., region, state, weather and urbanicity)? 

  • What other personal considerations (e.g., family, partner, lifestyle) will influence my search?

The goal is to identify your parameters for the job search. Everyone’s goals, priorities and preferences will be slightly different and will likely fluctuate through an initial job search process and one’s career. It can also be useful to talk through some of these considerations with advisors, mentors, and peers. Be prepared to be flexible. The available positions will be different each year and while you may have a handful of preferred universities or programs in mind, it is unlikely that all (or any) of them will be hiring in a given year.

Timing the job search. Prospective faculty should plan to begin a job search 9 to 12 months before they anticipate beginning a position — that is, the fall semester of the year before they would like to begin a position. It may also be helpful to engage in strategic networking (e.g., participating in division activities at the APA convention) in the year before one plans to apply for positions. Applications likely will be submitted in fall, although some positions may not become available, or will remain unfilled, until the winter and spring. Occasionally, positions will even be announced during the summer.

For applicants entering the job market as they complete their degree, this means that they will be submitting applications while on internship, while completing their dissertations if they were not completed prior to internship, or while completing a post-doc. Prospective faculty will likely find it helpful to discuss potential timelines with mentors well in advance to plan how to structure best research and field activities.

Locating open positions. Once you have thought about what you want out of this process, the next step is to locate open positions. Positions may be advertised in scholarly journals, but are increasingly announced via email listservs of professional organizations in school psychology, such as Division 16, Trainers of School Psychology, and the Council of Directors of School Psychology Programs. Such position postings may be forwarded by faculty to advanced graduate students. In addition, there are several higher education websites where positions from a variety of disciplines may be posted, such as:

If applicants are interested in positions outside of school psychology, these sites, and other resources such as the APA Monitor will be useful. Graduate students are encouraged to speak to their program faculty about other means of identifying potential positions.

Dissecting job postings. Before applying for a position, it is important to review carefully the job description. Most postings will include information specific to the position, such as:

  • Official position (e.g., assistant professor, lecturer, clinical instructor) 

  • Duration (e.g., 9-month contract, 12-month contract, tenure-track) and start date (e.g., fall 2013) 

  • Teaching load (e.g., 2 courses per semester, 3 courses per year) 

  • Expectations for research productivity, including publishing and external funding 

  • Advising, administrative, and service expectations 

  • Required qualifications 

  • Desired qualifications 

  • Required application materials 

  • Timelines for review of applications 

  • Contact person for the search committee

These should be reviewed to determine fit with individual preferences and qualifications. The information in the published posting may be sufficient to inform the decision to apply. When it is not, consider contacting the search chair about any key information not included in the posting or available on the website.

Careful attention should be paid to the required and desired qualifications, as these will drive the applicant screening process. Generally, prospective applicants should only apply when they can satisfy the required qualifications, although occasionally search committees will make minor exceptions (e.g., considering the application from someone who only needs supervised post-doctoral hours to be license-eligible, when the posting specifies that the applicant be licensable as a psychologist in the state). When there is doubt about one’s eligibility for a position, the search chair can provide clarification. It is important to pay careful attention to the posting because the specifications should be followed when submitting application materials.

Additional information about the program, department/college and university can be obtained by exploring their respective websites. When available, program handbooks and faculty webpages and vitas can provide valuable insight into various facets of a position. Applicants should also demonstrate a basic familiarity with the unit and institution when applying and interviewing for positions, so this early fact-finding can be valuable throughout the process.

Application basics

When submitting application materials, it is essential to follow the directions in the posting. Failure to follow instructions can undermine an otherwise strong application. Components typically requested include a cover letter, curriculum vita, letters of reference or contact information for references, and transcripts. Search committees may also request items such as representative publications, syllabi of courses taught, summaries of course evaluations and teaching portfolios. The materials required may reflect the priorities of the program, college, and/or university. For instance, research-intensive institutions may be more concerned with reviewing examples of applicants’ scholarship while teaching institutions will likely place greater emphasis on documentation of teacher experience and effectiveness.

Crafting an effective cover letter. Cover letters should be crafted to match the posting of each individual position to which one applies. Generic cover letters are generally regarded negatively by committee members because they may be interpreted as a lack of interest in or knowledge of the institution. The point is not to pander or implore, but to communicate one’s qualifications for, suitability to, and familiarity with the position.

Effective cover letters should demonstrate fit with the posted position. Applicants should use the letter to communicate clearly how they meet the required and desired qualifications. Headings can be used to indicate explicitly where each qualification is addressed. In addressing the qualifications, applicants also should strive to demonstrate fit with the position by showing their familiarity with the program, unit and institution. They should articulate what they can bring to the position while providing a cogent presentation of their scholarly identity.

Preparing your research statement. For positions where research is emphasized, it may be particularly important to provide a clear statement of one’s research agenda. This may be incorporated into the cover letter or submitted as a separate document depending on the application requirements. The research statement serves three district purposes:

  1. Describe your scholarship in general terms that can be understood by all members of the search committee. That is, what do you do? What are your major accomplishments? What gaps in the existing knowledge base does your work address? 

  2. Describe the broader context of your work (i.e., Why is your work important to both scientists and lay people?). 

  3. Provide a road map for your future research. Simply put, what do you expect to accomplish in the coming years?

For early career scholars who have few independent projects beyond their dissertation, this statement can be particularly important to communicating your next steps and demonstrating that you have a coherent program of research that can carry you to tenure. This statement can also be helpful to reviewers when your research experience is limited or disjointed because of required projects undertaken through assistantships and other experiences that were directed by others.

Fine-tuning your CV. Your curriculum vita will be scrutinized thoroughly. It is important to be comprehensive without appearing to pad your experiences with irrelevant or misrepresented activities. Be prepared for your CV to be circulated throughout the unit if you are invited for a campus interview. It is also increasingly common for search committees to distribute electronic versions of candidates’ materials via email or intranet sites.

A CV typically includes eight main sections with several potential subsections depending on one’s experience.

  1. Contact information: full name with credentials, mailing address, email, phone number, fax number 

  2. Educational background: degrees received with institutions, major, location, and year awarded; thesis and/ or dissertation title, advisor names, program accreditations 

  3. Professional experiences/positions: titles, institutions/organizations, dates, locations, duties 

  4. Honors and awards 

  5. Research: peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, technical reports, other publications, funded projects. 

  6. Teaching: courses taught, identifying roles (e.g., instructor, lecturer, teaching assistant), titles, dates, and evaluation summaries; research advising 

  7. Service: editorial work, professional memberships, leadership positions 

  8. Fieldwork/practical experiences: predoctoral practica and internship with site names, locations, dates, duties, supervisor name

Although contact information, educational background, and professional experience should almost certainly appear at the beginning of any CV, the remaining sections may be best ordered according to the priorities of the position to which you are applying. For example, if applying for a position for which research is emphasized heavily, the research section should appear earlier in the CV than teaching and practice, whereas for a more teaching intensive position, teaching, service, and practice would be better foregrounded. Typically, you want to match the order of the section to the priorities of the institution. It is generally best to use APA format when listing publications and presentations because it is familiar to most academics in school psychology and related fields.

Preparing your teaching materials. Search committees may require a variety of different materials that demonstrate teaching experience and effectiveness. Some, such as syllabi, summaries of teaching evaluations, and samples of student work, require little preparation. Others such as statements of teaching philosophies, require more consideration. A teaching statement can be quite challenging to prepare because few of us have formal training in pedagogy and mentoring. Length may vary depending on whether you address both classroom instruction and graduate research advising, but the purpose of this statement is to describe the basic principles guiding your teaching and how they are reflected in your course planning, instructional practices, and learning activities, as well as your efforts to improve your teaching and mentoring.

One way to structure this statement is to describe what you consider effective teaching, the corresponding practices in which you engage; provide examples from specific courses you have taught (or, if you haven’t taught yet, specific examples of what you would do), and evidence of effectiveness (e.g., summary data from course evaluations, students’ qualitative feedback). Whenever possible, try to link your teaching and research (e.g., howsimilar goals or principles underpin both domains of work), and strive to be factual rather than sentimental.

Postings may only provide a vague request for “evidence of teaching effectiveness,” in which case you have to decide what information and documentation to provide. In these cases, you may submit a list of courses taught, a summary of student evaluations or unsolicited student feedback, a sample syllabus, and a brief teaching statement which may be a separate document or a paragraph incorporated in your cover letter.

References. Reference letters should be sought only from individuals who are willing and able to provide a strong, positive recommendation. Lukewarm letters of recommendation can be just as damaging as blatantly negative. Because search committees are invested in identifying individuals who may become long-term colleagues, positive recommendations are highly valued. Applicants should be careful to provide their reference providers as early notice as possible and should provide the job posting, an up-to-date CV, and cover letter so that they can also provide a letter that speaks to the specific requirements of each position. As with cover letters, reference letters tailored to each posting are generally more appropriate than generic letters. Some postings will require that reference letters be submitted with the applicants’ other materials while others will ask that they be submitted separately. In general, it is preferable to give as much notice as possible so that materials are submitted by the necessary deadlines.

Sending out materials. Review the job posting again before submitting applications materials. Proof-read all of your materials multiple times and get others (e.g., peers, your advisor, a friend willing to provide constructive criticism) to provide feedback to ensure your materials are error-free, coherent, and compelling.

After applications are submitted, they are reviewed by the search committee to identify candidates for further consideration. Part 2 of this series will provide an overview of the campus interview process. We welcome your questions and comments about this article. Please direct them to Amanda Sullivan.