Applying for academic positions

AUGUST 17TH, 2019 AT 4:00 PM

Prerna Bhargava is the manager of the MIT Biological Engineering Communication Lab and an Instructor in the department. She did her PhD at Harvard and postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. Prerna now spends her time thinking about how to help scientists communicate their science and advocate for themselves. She has gone through the faculty application process herself and supported many people on their journey as well.

The application process for an assistant professor position is daunting, to say the least. The content below is meant to provide an overview of the process and give you a starting point on this career journey. Over the course of your journey, you will get advice from many sources that you will need to apply to your individual circumstances. The advice provided below is for US-based institutions but may be applicable to international applicants as well.


A great starting point in the process is to answer several critical questions for yourself.

  1. Why do I want to be a PI? This may seem like a very basic question, but it is an important question to think about and can help shape critical decisions. What about being a PI excites you? Doing the science? Getting the funding? Teaching? Mentoring?
  2. What type of PI do I hope to be? Do you hope to be a hands-on PI, working alongside your students? Do you want to have a large lab? Do you want your lab to be mainly graduate students? Undergrads? Do you want to be known for your science? Mentoring? Teaching?
  3. Do you have any physical or personal obligations? Perhaps you need to be in a certain geographical area. Or your partner needs to get a job too. Maybe you want to be in a big city. Or you need a specialized research facility.


Once you’ve spent some time thinking about why you want to be a professor and what your constraints are, you can begin thinking about the type of position you are looking for. Below are some of the various positions that exist.


  1. Teaching Assistant Professor: This position is typically not a tenure-track position, but tenure-track teaching positions do exist. Your primary responsibility is to teach and you are assessed on your teaching abilities.
  2. Research Assistant Professor: You will have no formal teaching responsibilities in this position. Many hospitals and institutions have positions like this and are listed as “assistant professor” positions.
  3. Assistant Professor: You will have a mix of teaching and research responsibilities and the balance depends on the institution. This is the most traditional type of role that people think about when they think about a professorship.


For all of these positions, you need to think about the logistics associated with your research. This will influence where you apply.

  1. Resources available for research: What type of research will you be doing and what resources are available to do that research. Will you need animal facilities, and do they exist? A specific type of computational cluster? A specialized microscope or core facility?
  2. Trainees: Is this a place that has undergraduate students? Graduate students? Postdoctoral fellows? Do people typically have very large labs, or would you have a smaller lab?
  3. Environment: What type of environment do you want to be in? Do you want to be at a University? Institute? Hospital? What type of department? Do you want to be surrounded by engineers? Scientists? In a department where people are working on similar things or an interdisciplinary department where everyone has their own lane and are open to collaboration? Do you like being in a competitive environment? A collaborative environment? One that has both?


Most of the positions listed above are on a similar hiring cycle. Jobs are typically posted in late summer/early fall with deadlines in late fall/early winter. Interviews happen early in the new year and offers are sent out with an anticipated start date of later that year (September or January usually and definitely negotiable). There are, of course, off cycle jobs that are posted and networking can also lead to the creation of a position that suits your needs and the interests of an organization.


Tangible Tips


  • Set up a job alert. It is worth setting up a job alert through Indeed, Glassdoor, Google, Higheredjobs or other similar job resources. Search terms like “PhD”, “professor”, or {field of interest or popular buzzword of the year} are helpful to identify jobs that might be of interest to you.

  • Networking is SO important. And it starts early. Going to conferences. Learning names in your field of interest. Building your connections. Establishing collaborations. Meeting editors from journals. These are all tasks you will be doing as a PI and by starting to do these things now, you build your network for prospective jobs and you also create a name for yourself.

  • It is important to brand yourself. Having a quick way to describe who you are as a scientist can be extremely helpful in preparing your applications and having people remember you. One way to identify your brand is to think about how you want to be known in 10/20/40 years. In a really clear and succinct way, how would you state the problem/solution/technology that you are most excited about. Are you a fungal CRISPR scientist? A nano-synthetic biologist? The mRNA therapeutics engineer? How would people describe you in 3-5 words?

  • Once you have done the upfront work of identifying why you are excited about being a professor, what type of professor you want to be, and who you are as a scientist, you can begin thinking about putting your application together. When you sit down to write your application, make sure that all the components highlight and make clear the answers to the questions above. Each application you prepare should also be tailored to the vision of the department and institution. This will give you the best chance of getting invited to an interview. 

  • Your application strategy can depend a lot on your individual circumstances. Generally, it is better and more productive to apply to a few schools that match your interests and goals most closely.

  • Start early. Begin as early as possible. Start writing down ideas. Talk to people about your ideas. Get feedback. It can take several months to come up with a research proposal that you are happy with. And that is not the only document you have to write. You will also need to compile or write a CV, cover letter, and several recommendation letters. You may also be requested to submit a teaching statement and diversity statement.

  • For many people, the first time they apply, they gain a lot of experience but are not successful. Do not get disappointed if it doesn’t work the first time. The faculty search can be a long and difficult process, but it is not a hopeless one and many people need a round two or three to find success. 


Useful Resources


This link provides some nice insight into the process and each of the components of a faculty package. Be sure to do your research about your field, to make sure there are no field-specific expectations.


This is a nice compilation of resources and examples for the application.




The faculty job search is a stressful process that combines a LOT of hard work, a little bit of luck, some good timing, and some smart strategy. Do your research. Talk to people. Learn about the process. And put your best foot forward. At the end, you will have a lot of advice to give to the next person. It will be exhilarating and exhausting and eye-opening. Through the process, you will define who you are as a scientist, you will make new friends and establish new collaborations, and you will refine your own work. Doing a lot of honest thinking up front will help you to save a lot of time and effort, but most importantly it will help you to be successful on this journey.

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