Preparing for an academic interview – a survey (Part I)

EMBL recently organised the conference ‘The Next Generation in Infection Biology’ to provide a platform for late-stage postdoctoral scientists to showcase their work and connect with leading European faculty hiring institutions in infection biology.

To complement the cutting-edge science presented and networking sessions, the EMBL Fellows’ Career Service organised a session focused on the academic job market. We aimed to bring some clarity about the hiring process and what is needed to secure a faculty position. We invited 4 principal investigators (PIs) from France, Spain, Malta and the Netherlands to participate in a panel discussion and share their expectations when interviewing candidates. To animate the discussion, we also presented the results of a short anonymous survey we had completed with other PIs. The survey included questions related to the most common uncertainties postdocs share with us when they are preparing to apply for PI roles. Twenty faculty members responded, 6 of whom have been involved in search committees for more than 10 years. Further survey responses are welcome!

This blog post focuses on the conclusions we drew from the survey responses and related data, and also provides a set of key resources for navigating the early stages of the job application process. A summary of the panel discussion will be provided in an upcoming second post.


  1. There is little consensus amongst PIs on when to start applying.

One of the most common questions that we receive in the career service from late-stage postdocs is when to start applying for faculty positions. This is a complex topic with many factors coming into play, including status of postdoc work, career stage, publication record, future research plans, and field, among others. We included a question in the survey focussing on the status of the postdoc work; the responses suggest that you can be a good candidate if, by the time of application, the major findings of the postdoc work are published (15%), under review/in revision (25%), or available as a preprint/draft (15%). However, and as highlighted in the open comments (see below), 25% of surveyed PIs would also consider candidates with a solid project proposal that fits the institute, regardless of the status of the postdoc work.

Open-box comments:

  • A good candidate might be at the stage of three first options. Recently published work in a journal, preprint or share main findings through a manuscript draft.
  • Preprints are much preferable over drafts.
  • We look for a consistent publication record (including PhD period).
  • As soon as possible, also applying is experience. They likely will not be successful until they have a few years of postdoc experience, but it is never too early to start applying.
  1. Most group leaders are happy to be contacted by prospective candidates.

In the EMBL Fellows’ Career Service we are often asked if they can proactively reach out to departments where their future research proposal fit particularly well.  To this question, the majority of surveyed PIs are happy to be contacted by potential candidates, though in most cases (70%), institutions are only in the position to hire through open calls.  Our survey complements the findings of an eLife paper (Fernandes JD et al. eLife. 2020;9:e54097) based on a survey of more than 300 applicants on the faculty job market and interviews with 15 faculty members, where applicants reported finding networking, conferences, and connections helpful during the application process.

If you want to proactively network with group leaders to increase your competitiveness and/or prepare for a potential job interview, but do not know how to start, check our blog post on informational interviews as well as some of the key resources provided at the end of the post.

  1. Your track record of past achievements is critical but do not underestimate the importance of the research proposal.

A topic frequently discussed with our senior postdocs, is the role of the job application materials beyond the publication record. The typical job application materials for faculty positions in Europe include a cover letter, curriculum vitae (with a list of full or selected publications), research proposal, recommendation letters, and in some cases a teaching statement. When asked for key words that best summarise what group leaders are looking for in these job application materials, the most common words were proposal and fit. This is in line with findings reported in the above-mentioned eLife paper, where faculty members stated that they wished that more candidates were aware of the importance of the research proposal when submitting their application materials.

  1. The expected content and length of a research proposal vary by institution.

A common frustration shared by our postdocs when applying to faculty positions is the lack of consensus regarding the length and content of the job application materials, particularly for the research proposal. In addition to carrying out our survey, we also analysed 68 faculty vacancy advertisements that had been posted on our internal jobs board in 2016-2022. The analysis suggests that the most common request in job adverts is for a proposal focused on the future research, but that many also require a summary of past achievements to be included.

For those asking for a future-focussed proposal, the length requested ranged from 2 to 5 with the most common request being 2 pages. Examples from the job advertisements included:

  • “A brief outline of future research plans”
  • “A two-page statement describing an ambitious research programme in Microbiology and Infection…”

For those asking for a summary of past achievements and future research plans, the length requested ranged from 2-10 pages with the most common request being for 5 pages. Examples of the job advertisements included:

  • “Summary of scientific achievements and proposed research programme (max. 5 pages)”
  • “Summary of major research accomplishments (approx. 250 words) and summary of your ongoing and planned research programme (approx. 1500 words with intermixed figures)”
  1. Group leaders are looking for enthusiastic colleagues whose future research fits their department.

Once our senior postdocs progress in the hiring process, their main concerns revolve around what are search committees looking for at the interview stage. When asked for key words that best summarise what group leaders are looking for in a candidate at the job interview, the same words as for job application materials came up: project and fit. A wide range of other keywords was provided, with enthusiasm also being commonly mentioned. This emphasises again the critical role of carefully crafting a realistic and compelling research plan tailored to the institution’s needs, but also the ability to convey enthusiasm. Fernandes et al. also highlighted that search committees find it easy to identify good candidates from the job application materials, but not so easy to find good candidates that also perform well at the interview stage.

* Key words were duplicated in two cases where respondents specified that they look for the same as in the question for job application materials.


Resources

Putting together the job application materials for faculty positions requires significant planning and time commitment. To facilitate this task, we have gathered a set of key resources. Note that these are not exhaustive but can serve as a reference point for you to get started.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.