Job Applications


<Begin Taka ramble>

1. When to start?

I recommend starting to put together research proposal at least a month before your first deadline (more, if you want feedback from advisors, etc.). The first big one that people usually apply for is the NSF in October. I'd start thinking about proposals during the summer.

Have your CV ready to go. Take a look at some postdoc and grad student CVs online to see what they have on there, how they format it, etc.

Employers will want either a research proposal or a statement of research interests. Most likely, you will have to prepare one of each.

Also, it is very hard to get any research done while preparing proposals and other application material.

2. Where to apply?

The AAS Job Register is a good first place to look for jobs. They update the 1st of every month.

ZH recommended that I apply to every job that is preferable to quitting astronomy. I echo that advice. It sounds like a huge pain, but it's not really. Once you prepare and submit ~10 applications, preparing and sending another won't take more than ~20 min. I think 20+ applications is normal. I applied to close to 50, and know others who applied to more.

I found that even jobs I wasn't seriously considering initially can make very convincing and alluring job offers and sales pitches, so keep an open mind.

Be aware of the odds. Popular postdoc opportunities will have over 200 applications for a handful of positions. The average success rate is on the order of a few per cent across the board, so unless you're convinced that you're a truly exceptional candidate, be prepared to send many applications and receive many rejections. The intent here is to be realistic, not to sound pessimistic; Columbia astronomy PhDs? tend to do well.

2a. Staying organized

When applying to so many jobs with deadlines all over the calendar, the people writing letters for you (usually 3) might have trouble keeping track of everything.

I tried a spreadsheet in Google Docs, with columns for Job, deadline, web link, letter submission method, etc. and boxes where references could enter initials upon submitting their letters. This worked great; two of my letter writers used and liked it (ne was super-organized and didn't need it).

3. On writing a research proposal

(This section is based on advice I got from professors, feedback I got from the NSF reviewers on my proposal, as well as after-the-fact evaluation of which versions of my postdoc research proposals did well, which ones did not, and why.)

Make sure the proposal has a central focus; it should not be a laundry list of 6 projects you could do (advice source: Greg Bryan). At the same time, it should not be too narrow; that is, it should not be the subject of one or two future papers, but rather a topic on which you can perform influential research for the next 2-3 years.

Don't be afraid of stating the obvious. You should assume that the reader will not be an expert on the subsubfield. (It's rather likely that the reader will have a shared expertise on the same broader subject as your proposed research, but be unaware of some scientific motivations/findings specific to your topic.)

If you are proposing to do "more detailed/extensive" add-ons to past research by yourself or others, be sure to spell out the specific benefits of the added detail/depth. If it is theoretical work investigating "the effects of previously un-/underconsidered mechanisms", make a strong case that the added theoretical complexity will plausibly be useful in understanding observations. (This was a very helpful piece of criticism from one of the reviewers of my NSF proposal.) Most of the proposals people read will be work no one else has done; you want to highlight why your ideas should be prioritized over everyone else's.

Be able to concisely state your qualifications for the research. You don't want the proposal to be about you, but you do want to convince the reader that you have all of the skills, tools and experience to do what you're proposing. This is especially true if your past work is not obviously related to the proposed research. (Both of my NSF reviewers very clearly noted that I am qualified to do the proposed research.)

If you are proposing to do outreach or mass-dissemination types of activities for the NSF "broader impact" component, present a detailed and feasible plan for evaluating how successful it is. This is advice I got from Marcel Agueros, and I tried to incorporate it. Both of my NSF reviewers highly praised my broader impact idea, but expressed concern about evaluating its successes. From the NSF perspective, they have to be able to justify to Congress that the money was well-spent, and have objective information to back up this claim. (This may seem obvious, but it's something grant-granters really think about. I heard from the director of the NSF EAPSI fellowship on this topic.) Similarly, if your proposal relies on getting help from others (maybe you know artists or computer programmers to help with the broader impact component), convince the reader that the arrangements are concretely in place.

4. If you make a website, make it presentable

There's a very good chance that someone will Google your name if they are considering you for a position, and/or if they see your name on the rumor mill (see below). If you have a professional/personal website, make it respectable and so that people can see info about your research and access an up-to-date CV.

Also be mindful of what might come up when people Google your name. If you have blogs or Twitter accounts where you make NSFW remarks, you might want to consider hiding those. Make sure you understand your privacy settings on Facebook. I cringe sometimes at the things some astronomers say on their public Twitter accounts.

It's a small field, and people talk. We're the first astronomers to live in an era where young professors are active gossipers on Facebook. I can name several instances of professors complaining about their grad students on FB, and of students and postdocs complaining about their advisors/supervisors; often, it's not too hard to know (e.g. by looking at coauthor lists, gender pronouns, directories) who's being complained about, even if full names aren't given. I had a professor ask me (a grad student!) what I knew about someone they were considering for a postdoc position. I heard from a research group in Europe that the possibility of my joining them as a postdoc was a frequent topic of conversation.

5. Okay, I've applied. What's the timeline?

The AAS has a recommendation that astronomy postdoc positions do not require candidates to accept or decline the offer until Feb.15. (Note that many physics and European institutions do not abide by this.)

The major fellowships are usually announced ~2 weeks after the winter AAS meeting, so in the last half of January. Most employers make shortlists and interviews in late January or early February, but many do so before the AAS meeting and sometimes as early as Thanksgiving. It's common to receive offers right before or several days after Feb.15, as people decline offers and institutions scramble to contact others on the shortlist.

Once you have an offer, are not 100% sure about accepting it, and are waiting to hear from other places, don't be shy about emailing these places as it is common practice. It doesn't hurt your application status to inquire politely about it. I've heard professors speculate that an inquiry, accompanied by information that you have another offer, could actually help your application.

There is a second hiring wave after Feb.15, with applications due throughout the spring.

6. To rumor mill or not to rumor mill?

If you don't know already, there is a website called the Astrophysics Rumor mill. It is currently hosted by AstroBetter. It is a place where people (anonymously) post and edit job openings, short-list status, offers, and who's headed where. There are several advantages to this page:

(i) It is a good place to find out if places have made shortlists or offered positions. This can be discouraging information, but it is very practical. Most places take a looong time to tell you if you didn't make their shortlist and are effectively rejected (I've received several in March). You don't want to wait forever for a place to get back to you. It's a giant, chaotic game of musical chairs, and the rumor mill allows you to play the game with one eye open, instead of playing it blindfolded.

(ii) It can be good self-promotion. People from all over the world look at this page, Google the names, look up publications, etc. When I landed on a couple of shortlists, I had an astronomer in Japan (with whom I was discussing collaborations but didn't know personally) congratulate me and tell me that many of his colleagues overseas (some of them on selection committees) have been gossiping about me. While one could raise ethical questions about employers peeking at an anonymous rumor mill to scope candidates and the job market, the bottom line is that some of them do. It is not unheard of for an institution to sweeten an offer once they learn that they have competition for a candidate's services (this has happened at least twice in the last 2 years to candidates from Columbia).

The main disadvantages of the rumor mill are the possible stress of watching the job market evolve, and the fact that occasionally some trolls will post inaccurate information. (Don't pay attention to the ~5 people whose names pop up next to every position, because they can't fill all the positions.) The page isn't for everyone, but I suggest it as a potentially useful resource. My personal recommendation is to not pay much attention to it until you are shortlisted for a position.

<End Taka ramble>

Creating and Maintaining Your CV

from Lia