Open Letter for a Job Candidate

I wrote this note originally as an email message to a finishing PhD student in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at IU who was applying for jobs and postdoc positions in spring 1995. Although this letter was written specific for Devin McAuley, most of these comments have analogs that will be relevant for others. Perhaps you will find this letter useful as well.

Bob Port

From: Robert Port
Dept: Linguistics, Comp. Science, Cognitive Science
Inst: Indiana University
Date: February 15, 1995

Subject: Advice about Candidating

Devin, a few weeks ago at our society's annual meeting, with several colleagues from my department, I interviewed 12 candidates for our assistant professor position in just two days. This intense experience suggested many thoughts that I offer to you to think about as you get ready to apply for jobs in computer science and cognitive science. Many of my comments and suggestions are derived from the kinds of questions we found ourselves asking while interviewing and the kind of information we wanted but weren't always able to get from our half hour interviews. Whatever the time constraints on an interview, you basically want to convince them that you fit their needs. The more you have thought about this issue before you start talking with them, the more efficiently your communication with them will go. Of course, you cannot generally know exactly what they want, so you can only try to maximize the likelihood of a fit. These suggestions are just ways of maximizing the mutual discovery of a fit.


What do you know about the places you have applied to? Do you know how many faculty they have? Their web page is the first place to look. Who in each dept would be most likely to be interested in your work? and what do they work on? Have you read anything by them? (You can't read everyone, of course, but it is good to know something about the research of one or two of them who will be your closest colleagues. They are the ones whose opinion will probably count the most in departmental discussions.) What degrees does the department offer? How many grad students? Do they have an engineering computer science department too? Or any associated engineering school?

If you don't know the answers to all these questions, then get busy -- at least for the departments you really want to get hired at. If you can't find the information on WWW, then contact the department by email or phone and ask the secretary to send you the information they send to prospective students. Indicating that you know a lot about them is one way you show them you are serious about their job -- that you have thought about how you would fit in and it will greatly help you to demonstrate that you would fit it.

Make sure you have in mind very clearly just what they said they wanted in the job ad. But also listen very carefully to how they describe the job verbally (which will not necessarily be the exactly what the advertisement said). For example, they may or may not be interested in you as their ``cognitive science person'' or AI person or whatever. Think in advance about which of their regular courses you could teach if they really needed you to, as well as the courses you would be most suited for.

At the end of our interviews, we often asked, `Are there any questions you would like to ask us?' The majority of our candidates asked "How many students do you have?" DUMB!! They should have been in a position to ask things like: `Has Fred Householder retired yet?', `Roughly how many of your Phds get postdocs each year?' `What kind of lab facilities are there besides Port's phonetics lab?' `Do junior faculty get some release time to help them get research done before tenure?' `Will the department staff help with faculty grant proposals?' `Would it make sense for me to also have an appointment in department X?' etc. Such questions would show both that they knew us and that they knew where they were going. But few of them asked any questions that revealed they had given any consideration to the kind of work environment we would offer them at Indiana.


I have a couple questions for you to think about because they may be asked by someone. We asked our own variants of these over and over last week - and got very interesting and often revealing answers.

If you happen to have any information about it, you might even offer a comment on how and where you would seek federal funding for your research program, or mention any special grants that might be appropriate for you.


The first rule is, make sure you can give your talk in 50 minutes without being rushed and not a moment more. That's the only way you can be sure to have time for questions. Many people have other things on their schedule and will have to leave. You should give at least two practice runs of the talk in order for it to be smooth and confident with all the bugs worked out. Ideally, I'd recommend that any job candidate do two practice runs for a selected audience of close student and faculty friends and then do one more with a broader local audience before taking it on the road.

My second rule is inspired by a couple job talks I heard recently: Do not give a job talk that `presents your thesis'! That is NOT the point. You should just design a really dynamite research talk that speaks to a very general audience in your discipline. Don't try to tell them too much. Make sure they understand what the issues are early on and what you learned from your research. Present only as much as you need to from your thesis. Talk about `my research' not `my dissertation'. The audience doesn't really care much about what exactly the thesis was. My advice is not even to mention the word in your talk. They just want you to present a clear and compelling research story.

Well, that's about it. Show them you are listening to them when they describe their needs. Convince them you fit in. Then if you can give straightforward answers to questions about your needs, AND if you give them a dynamite, well-rehearsed talk, you will have a really great chance at any job.

Good luck,


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