Guide for the Tenure-Track Job Market in Computer/Information Sciences

This guide is part of my advice pages.

Read This Part First

I wrote this guide for graduate students, postdocs, and others who seek a faculty position with all of the following parameters:

Judging by the quantity of ads that appear every year, this is one of the most robust (or perhaps least anemic) sectors of the academic job market. Still, openings are very competitive, and academic job-seekers should also develop fall-back plans that they are comfortable with. Positions in government and industry are typically easier to get, and they provide different advantages. Within academia, teaching-oriented faculty positions and non-tenure track research positions also exist.

If your parameters differ from the above list, the applicability of this guide may vary. For example, hiring committees in some disciplines perform screening interviews at conferences, but in CS/IS screening interviews tend to be via teleconference. Interviews for teaching-oriented positions often require a teaching demo, but research-oriented positions do not. Universities in other countries may hire at a different time of the year than universities in the USA.

A PhD is a firm requirement for obtaining a faculty position with these parameters. If you don't have a PhD and you're interested in my research, take a look at the Guide for Joining My Lab. In the Basics section I answer some questions on what getting a PhD is like and I suggest how to self-evaluate whether you should or shouldn't pursue one.

Note that the terms research-track (often research professor) and teaching-track (teaching professor) represent other kinds of positions not covered by this guide. See my Guide for Interacting With Faculty for details. Tenure-track positions are highly sought after because of the stability, the balance of activities, and the prestige. I list some of the things I enjoy about being a professor in My Academic Journey. However, the other tracks may let you focus on the aspects of being a professor that you most enjoy.

Although this guide covers the entire arc from preparing your application materials to receiving offers, it is not comprehensive in detail. I wrote it primarily to share my experiences in this specific sector of the job market, including some observations and data that I have not seen elsewhere. (I spent multiple years on the academic job market, and I kept detailed records.) If you plan to apply for academic positions, you should consult additional resources like the archives of The Professor Is In. Also, the Taulbee Survey provides excellent data on the state of the CS/IS tenure-track job market. Additionally, you should speak with your PhD advisor and faculty members in your department who recently served on search committees.

This guide contains my firsthand observations from several years on the academic job market. The first was the 2012-2013 cycle, and the most recent was the 2017-2018 cycle. The vast majority of the experiences I describe were from applying for positions that fit the parameters I listed above. I've also served on search committees since becoming faculty, and I include some observations from the employer's perspective.

The Guide

small colorful seashells
Seashells on a beach on Isle of Raasay, Scotland.

Deciding Whether to Apply

For some people, the appeal of an academic position is tremendous: job security, flexible work hours, variation in activities, frequent contact with the research community, working with students, travel opportunities, and a mission to serve the public good. There are also drawbacks: pre-tenure uncertainty, long work hours, vague performance expectations, and frequent rejection of papers and funding proposals.

Only you can decide whether to apply for faculty positions, but here are some positive signs:

Here are some inappropriate reasons for applying for tenure-stream faculty positions:

Preparing Your Materials

An application for a faculty position typically consists of the following:

Some applications require a diversity statement. If you are asked to provide one, you should explain your experiences with supporting diversity and how you will encourage a diverse, inclusive environment as a faculty member. 1-2 pages is sufficient.

Start working on your materials several months before you apply for faculty positions. Get feedback from your advisor, from other professors you feel comfortable asking, and from your fellow students. My Guide for Scholarly Writing is applicable to some of these materials.

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yellow ginkgo leaves on the ground
Ginko leaves in the fall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Applying for Openings

Fall is when nearly all of the job ads are posted. They typically appear on CRA Jobs, AcademicJobsOnline, and HigherEdJobs. A few appear in HERC and ChronicleVitae. I recommend using an RSS reader (like Feedly) to simplify checking all these sources for new ads. If you are very interested in working in an academic unit at a particular university, you may check the academic unit's website or the university’s job site. However, take note of the posting dates for the ads you find in those places, as there is a chance that they are from a previous hiring cycle.

For openings I applied to in Fall 2017, here is an approximate breakdown of when ads were posted and when applications were due:

Month% Postings% Deadlines
August 10%-
September 30%10%
October 40%20%
November 10%50%
December 10%20%

A few ads had a posting date or a deadline outside of this range. Also, a small number of ads did not list deadlines because they sought applications as soon as possible.

Search committees' procedures vary widely. Some read applications as they come in, and some do not look at them until the submission deadline passes. (Some also read applications submitted after the deadline passes, so don't disregard openings with deadlines you missed.) Committees that request reference letters when an application is submitted may feel more or less strongly about needing an applicant's letters before considering them for an interview.

It's helpful to keep a spreadsheet with information on each opening you apply for. If you apply for ads in multiple areas of research, record the focus of each opening; if you are asked to interview, you might not be reminded what you are expected to focus upon. Similarly, it's helpful to save the application materials that you submit to each opening, to have a record of how you presented yourself.

A tense wait begins after you submit applications. It may end with your first invitation to interview, but given the competitiveness of academic positions, it's also possible that you will not receive any invitations. Spend the time developing alternate prospects, such as postdoc positions and jobs in government or industry.

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First Contact

I kept track of how much time elapsed between an application deadline and "first contact", i.e., either an invitation for a remote screening interview or an invitation to interview on campus without screening first. The mean time was 31 days. The median was 30 days, the minimum -23, and the maximum 133. 80% of all first contacts were no more than 60 days after the submission deadline.

85% of first contacts happened between the first week of December and the last week of March, with roughly even distribution across that time period. The earliest was in September. The latest was in May, from a non-US university I interviewed with.

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geometric pattern in a sheet of ice
Ice in a creek in rural southeast Indiana.

Screening Interviews

Roughly three-quarters of my campus interviews were preceded by screening interviews. Most screening interviews are conducted via videoconference, but a few happen via telephone. Typically they are a half hour long, but a few are an hour.

For videoconferences I wore a dress shirt with a tie and a suit jacket or sport coat. I often wore these things for telephone interviews as well, to get into an interviewing frame of mind.

For videoconferences, make sure that the background behind you is not distracting for your audience, and check that the lighting is appropriate. Also, use a video device that you do not have to hold in your hand, as shaky video will distract your audience.

Typically your audience will be 2-5 faculty members who are on the search committee. (On a few occasions I spoke with just one faculty member, and on one occasion I spoke with ten.) Some common questions to prepare for:

For a videoconference, consider standing up, provided that you can arrange your laptop or other device at an appropriate height to capture your head and shoulders. I found it helpful to tape my notes to the wall behind the laptop, so I could consult them while speaking.

A note for my PhD advisees: If you need a quiet, professional-looking place for a videoconference interview, ask me about using my office. I'll step out during the call.

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water reflections of the sunset and trees
Sunset reflections in Montreal, Canada.

Campus Interviews

When a screening interview preceded an invitation to a campus interview, the mean time between them (i.e., between the screening inteview and the campus invitation) was 15 days. The median was 10 days, the minimum one, and the maximum 44. Three-quarters of all campus invitations came within 14 days after the screening interview.

69% of my campus interviews were between the first week of December and the last week of March. The earliest was in October and the latest was in June, at a non-US university.

On-campus interviews are one to two days long. Throughout all activities with your hosts, behave as if you are being evaluated. Everyone on your schedule, including students, will be asked to send their comments about you to the hiring committee. However, if you are nervous about a campus interview, it may help to remember that a healthy academic unit is supportive of faculty candidates and makes an effort to find the best in them. Hiring committees want to show that they've picked excellent candidates. Administrators want to show that their academic units attract top talent. Junior faculty remember the high stakes of their interviews, and they are quietly sympathetic. Senior faculty think about the department's trajectory, and they want it to have a bright future. Your success as a candidate is desirable for all of these parties.

Here are the typical components of a campus interview:

Here are some less common items:

The campus interview is a two-way evaluation. Look for signs that an academic unit is a productive, properly functional place to work. These include:

As a job candidate, getting a well-rounded perspective on an academic unit can be difficult. Keep in mind some strategies and cautions when speaking with current faculty:

Some warning signs (one instance of any of these might be a fluke, but more than one is a cause for concern):

I dressed in a suit and tie, and I carried my laptop in a gray messenger bag.

Send individual thank you emails to your interviewers a day or two later. This reinforces their memory of you.

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colorful swirling patters in a rock face
Rock face in Point Lobos State Nature Reserve, California.


Extended silence is the most common signal of rejection for faculty applications. For roughly 60% of my applications, I never received a formal rejection.

Some rejection notices take a long time to arrive. I once received a rejection email 430 days after the submission deadline in the ad had passed.

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Totalling across all of my years on the academic job market, I received four hard offers (i.e., official letters) and one soft offer (an informal notification of intent to make an offer). Three of my hard offers arrived between 3-5 weeks after I interviewed, and the fourth was an unusual situation that took much longer. However, note that these durations included pre-offer conversations initiated by the university to determine what I would want in an offer, indicating an intent to make an offer but not yet making my selection official.

Academic units vary in how they decide which candidates should receive offers. The search committee may play a role in choosing offer recipients, or its role may effectively end after the candidates interview. Typically the faculty discuss candidates over an email list and/or during a department meeting. Afterward a poll is held, either to rank candidates or to express attitudes toward each one, and then a department head or dean makes final decisions.

Unless you have an offer from a different institution, you gain little by prodding an academic unit for updates on your candidacy. Just be patient. (This applies to all earlier stages of the process, too.) However, if you receive an offer then it's reasonable to let your other top choices know, in case they want to compete for you.

Check out TPII’s advice on negotiating, which is largely applicable within the parameters of this guide. For a startup package, it's typical to receive some funding to support PhD students, travel funds to go to conferences, equipment funds, and some summer salary. Moving expenses and a few teaching releases are also typical in an offer, though they may be technically separate from the startup package.

After receiving hard offers, in a few cases I requested to make second visits. I used the additional time to meet with people whom I didn't get to talk with during my interview and to ask more detailed questions about the academic unit.

The knowledge you gained while interviewing and negotiating could be valuable to others. Consider how you can share what you learned with your peers and with your broader academic communities.

If you accept an offer, you might want to read Tenure Worth Wanting, Guide to Professorspeak and Inglorious Proposals.

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variegated tree bark
Tree bark in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

If You Don't Receive an Offer

This section contains the most important advice in this guide. It is also the most difficult advice to follow.

If you did not receive any interview invitations, recognize that it was not a judgement on your personal worth. It might not even qualify as a judgement on your professional portfolio: departmental fit, hiring priorities, trendiness, and a dozen other variables exclude applicants according to a pattern that feels random at best. If you interviewed but did not receive an offer, recognize that you were competing in the tightest segment of the job market for CS/IS graduates. Even being a contender in this space is an achievement.

Read my Thoughts on Failure for some perspective. I describe how it took me four years on the academic job market to recieve my first offer.

If you've followed my encouragement to develop alternate prospects, it's time to take one of them. Regardless of the direction you choose, you may consider applying again the following year. If you're leaning toward a second try, have conversations with your advisor, with PhD-holding colleagues inside and outside of academia, and with friends who understand your motivations.

It's difficult to secure a tenure-track position, but for some applicants the challenges of leaving academia are even greater. Mind your personal constraints (i.e., the things that are more valuable than an academic job) and take care of yourself.

About the Pictures

I added them to break up the text; all of them are mine. I am a photographer in my spare time.

tree canopy
Tree canopy in a park in London, England.