How much do you–and should you–tailor your ecology faculty job application to the hiring institution? Poll results and commentary

Recently we polled people who’ve applied for faculty jobs in ecology and allied fields on how they tailored their applications to the hiring institutions (as opposed to tailoring them to the type of institution, or not tailoring them at all). We also polled people who’ve sat on search committees for ecology faculty positions on how much tailoring they like to see. Here are the results, along with some commentary!

Demographics

We didn’t get a big sample size, unfortunately. Apparently everybody is out in the field or attending conferences instead of doing important things like taking our polls. 🙂 So an extra big thank you to everyone who did take the time to respond! 🙂 We got 102 responses to the applicant survey and 35 responses to the search committee survey. Those samples are big enough to improve on anecdotes, but not by much, so mentally put big error bars around the results.

Most of the respondents to the applicant survey are currently faculty (63%) or postdocs (30%). Almost all of the respondents to the search committee survey are currently faculty (94%). Most respondents have applied for faculty positions in N. America (85%) or served on search committees there (91%), so I wouldn’t extrapolate the results outside North America.

60% of the search committee respondents have sat on ecology search committees at R1 universities or their non-US equivalents. 14% have sat on search committees at R2/R3 universities, 14%  have sat on search committees at masters universities, and 17% have sat on search committees at bachelor’s colleges. Those numbers add up to more than 100% because a few respondents have sat on search committees at more than one type of institution.

How do applicants tailor their applications?

All applicants tailor at least some applications to at least some extent, but they vary in how often or to what extent. 50% tailor their applications to the hiring institution. 32% tailor their application to the hiring institution only when it’s a job they really want. 17% tailor their application to the type of institution.

When asked more specifically exactly how they tailor their applications, only 1% said they do no customization whatsoever. 89% said they respond to any specifics in the job ad (e.g., “the successful applicant will teach course X”; as an aside, I’m surprised it’s not 100%!). 73% briefly mention how their research would make use of the facilities at the hiring institution. 69% read the course catalog and identify specific courses they could teach or develop. 53% research the student population and mission of the hiring institution and talk about how their teaching, mentoring, and research would be tailored to those students and that mission. 48% order their CV sections so as to lead with the sections most important to the hiring institution. 40% identify specific faculty members with whom they could see themselves collaborating. Other forms of customization are much rarer. Not many applicants describe in detail how their research would use the hiring institution’s facilities (15%), or describe in detail a proposed collaboration with specific faculty (5%). Finally, only 4% of respondents checked the “other” box, so the options I presented apparently covered all the bases.

Customizing an application takes most respondents an hour or more (73%). For most of the remainder it takes somewhere between a few minutes and an hour (25%).

Can doing the right amount of customization get you an interview or offer you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten, and can doing the wrong amount cost you an interview or offer? 39% of applicants think it probably or definitely has, and another 19% think it’s possible but not likely. 31% think it’s hard to say if their chosen level of customization has ever made a difference, and 11% think it probably or definitely hasn’t.

But of course, just because the majority of applicants think it’s made a difference for them doesn’t necessarily mean it actually has made a difference. Impossible to test that proposition with poll data, of course. What the poll does show is that various customization strategies can work. After all, the faculty respondents to this poll all have faculty positions! Even though different faculty respondents report customizing their applications to different degrees and in different ways. Presumably, various strategies can work because your customization strategy isn’t the only thing affecting the fate of your application.

Further, it’s not the case that people who do more customization necessarily get more interviews. In fact, if anything the trend is in the opposite direction! Now, take this with a grain of salt because the sample sizes are small. But FWIW, people who customize their applications only to the type of institution (a group that includes a balanced mix of faculty and postdocs) report receiving an average of 5 on-campus interviews (median 4). People who customize to the individual institution only when it’s a job they really want report receiving an average of 3.2 interviews (median 2). People who customize every application to the individual institution report receiving an average of 2.9 interviews (median 2). Speculation: this is a real trend, reflecting two factors. First, I bet people who customize their applications less tend to send out more applications. We know that the more applications you submit, the more interviews you get. Second, people who customize their applications less may tend to be somewhat more experienced applicants with stronger CVs, who’ve learned that spending a lot of time heavily customizing every application isn’t necessarily worth it. Of course, what worked for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. Different customization strategies might be optimal (or at least workable) for different people, depending for instance on their CVs, the types of institutions to which they’re applying, etc. But based on these results, I’ll tentatively suggest that you shouldn’t reduce the number of positions for which your applying in order to free up time to more heavily customize each application. If you feel like something has to give, it should be the amount of time you put into customizing each application, not your number of applications.

I didn’t find any association between number of interviews received and any specific ways of customizing applications to individual institutions.

How do search committee members want to see applications tailored?

72% of search committee members prefer applications tailored to the individual institution. 21% prefer customization to the type of institution. 6% prefer no customization or are indifferent to it. I wouldn’t put much stock in the exact numbers, given the tiny sample size. But it seems safe to say that a majority of search committee members prefer customization to the individual institution.

Preference for customization to the individual institution is most common at less “prestigious” institutions, for lack of a better word. This might be a blip, because the sample size is small. But FWIW, only 13/20 people who’ve sat on search committees at R1 unis want to see applications customized to the individual institution. 11/13 of the other search committee members prefer applications customized to the individual institution. I suspect that’s because search committees at prestigious research universities have less reason to worry that applicants misunderstand or aren’t committed to the mission of the institution. They may also have less reason to worry that applicants might not “fit in”.

What exactly does “customized” mean, in the eyes of search committee members? Well, pretty much what it means in the eyes of most applicants, with one exception. 89% of search committee members want applicants to respond to the specifics of the job ad (again, it’s not 100%? Really?). 63% want applicants to briefly mention how their research would use the hiring institution’s facilities. 63% want applicants to research the institution’s student body and mission and talk about how their teaching, mentoring, and research would be tailored to those students and that mission. 54% want applicants to read the course catalog and identify specific courses they could teach or develop. 34% want CV sections ordered so as to lead with the sections most important to them. Somewhat in contrast to applicants, only 17% of search committee members want applicants to identify specific faculty with whom they’d hope to collaborate. So, applicants: if you’re looking for someplace to cut back a bit on your customization, there’s one place you could probably do it. Only 14% want applicants to describe in detail how they’d use the hiring institution’s facilities. No search committee member in the poll wants applicants to propose detailed collaborations with specific faculty. So if you’re one of the rare applicants who does that, you should probably stop bothering. Only one search committee member chose “other”, so the customization options I presented seem to cover the bases in the eyes of search committee members.

Search committees at R1s and non-R1s tend to want to see somewhat different sorts of customization. Search committee members at R1 universities or their non-US equivalents are less likely than others to want applicants to research the hiring institution’s student body and mission. Only 11/21 prefer to see that form of customization to the hiring institution, vs. 11/14 search committee members from non-R1s. Conversely, search committee members at R1s are more likely than others to want applicants to at least briefly mention how they’d use the hiring institution’s facilities. 16/21 like to see this, vs. 6/14 search committee members from non-R1s.

54% of search committee members agree that the degree to which an application is customized to the hiring institution is an “honest signal” of the applicant’s interest in and/or fit to the position, and another 11% strongly agree (the remainder are mostly neutral). Which seems reasonable, given that customizing each application is costly (it takes the typical applicant over an hour), and that a substantial minority of applicants only customize their applications to the specific institution when it’s a job they really want.

But just because search committee members prefer level of customization X in a vacuum, or think that customization is a signal of interest or “fit”, doesn’t necessarily mean that level of customization makes much difference to search outcomes in practice. Search committee members vary a lot when asked how the level of application customization feeds into their decision-making. 40% say it’s an important consideration but not necessarily decisive. 34% say it’s merely one consideration among many, unlikely to make a difference except in the case of close calls. 20% say sufficient customization is essential, meaning that any application lacking appropriate customization likely or definitely won’t get an interview or offer. 6% say that the level of customization of applications doesn’t enter into their decision-making at all.

Search committee members at non-R1 institutions are more likely to say that appropriate customization is an “important” or “essential” ingredient of a successful application (11/14 say that). Only 10/21 search committee members at R1s say the same. And the only two respondents who say they don’t care about customization of applications are both at R1s.

Only a minority of search committee members (23%) report ever having seen an application for which the level of customization probably or definitely made a difference to whether the applicant got an interview or offer. Another 9% say it’s possible they’ve seen such a case. 23% say they definitely haven’t ever seen that, and 46% say it’s hard to say. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to reconcile these numbers with 58% of applicants thinking their own level of customization has possibly/probably/definitely made a difference for them. That is, it’s hard to see how the search committee members and the applicants could both be right. My suspicion is that applicants tend to overestimate the likelihood that they’ve ever gotten (or failed to get) an interview or offer because of how customized their applications were. In general, I think applicants tend to overestimate the importance of every aspect of their applications. Many applicants seem to think that every little thing matters a lot–which is of course almost mathematically impossible. If everything matters, then nothing matters all that much.

In conclusion, the poll results have caused me to partially rethink my previous advice on customizing faculty job applications. I don’t think my previous advice to customize only to the type of institution was bad. After all, it worked for me, and the poll shows that it’s worked for other people. But I do think I somewhat overgeneralized from my own example. The poll results show that a bit more customization than I advised is something many search committee members like to see (especially at non-R1 institutions), and that level of customization can make a difference to your application’s fate once in a while. The preferred form of customization also varies a bit among institutions: search committees at R1s are a bit more likely to want to hear how you’d use their facilities, while search committees at non-R1s are a bit more likely to want you to show you understand their students and mission. So with the caveats that should not cut back on applying widely in order to more heavily customize your applications, and that certain specific forms of customization are mostly pointless, it’s probably a good idea to customize your applications to the specific institutions to which you’re applying. I’ll go back and update that old advice post in light of these results.

 

 

16 thoughts on “How much do you–and should you–tailor your ecology faculty job application to the hiring institution? Poll results and commentary

  1. “only 17% of search committee members want applicants to identify specific faculty with whom they’d hope to collaborate”

    This is wonderful news for applicants because it is probably the most time-consuming type of customization. Its relatively easy to flip through a course catalogue or get a brief overview of the department, but truly getting to know the detailed research interests of multiple faculty members and saying something polished about collaborating with them takes a lot of time if you don’t know them reasonably well prior to applying.

    • Well, depending on how the department webpage is organized, it might be very easy to just skim the webpage and identify faculty with whom you share some sort of superficial interest. So that you can just stick one sentence into your research statement reading (say) “My interests in community ecology overlap with those of Drs. X and Y, with whom I would look forward to discussing potential collaborations.” That’s what I used to do. But yes, if you wanted to be any more detailed than that, it would get time consuming.

      In retrospect, I doubt this superficial statement about overlapping research interests helped me at all with most search committee members. It doesn’t add information for anyone who’s glanced at my cv. And as you say, developing a collaboration with someone usually involves getting to know them first. I doubt that the sort of superficial statement I used to write is predictive of future collaboration.

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  3. I’m an astrophysics R1 faculty member who, despite the difference in our fields, finds this blog often quite useful to my own journey through academia! Love it!

    Most of the survey results jive with my own experience (both applying for jobs and serving on search committees). Institutional customization *is* desired in applications, as it helps the committee start to weed out the spammers who apply to every job. I also agree that listing possible collaborators amongst the faculty is less important than the other aspects of customization. Once you get down to the “long list” of 20-30 top applicants, this is kind of clear already. Also, from a practical standpoint, the primary reason we hire faculty (other than teaching) is for them to build their own research groups of postdocs and grad students, and to bring in grant funds on their own merits… not to latch on to existing groups led by other faculty. Now, *should* this be the case? Probably not! My own department kind of sucks at encouraging faculty-faculty collaborations, and having more of that would certainly help the esprit-de-corps.

    • Interesting to know that these results jive with the experience of an astrophysicist. I suspect, but don’t know, that you’d get similar results in most every field of science. I have no idea whether you’d get similar results in the humanities or social sciences.

      Thank you for the kind words, glad you enjoy the blog.

  4. “But FWIW, people who customize their applications only to the type of institution (a group that includes a balanced mix of faculty and postdocs) report receiving an average of 5 on-campus interviews (median 4). People who customize to the individual institution only when it’s a job they really want report receiving an average of 3.2 interviews (median 2). People who customize every application to the individual institution report receiving an average of 2.9 interviews (median 2).”

    Another explanation is that people with a stronger CV don’t need to customize as much since they have a good shot at impressing committees with a generic app.

  5. Of course it might be that if you heavily cutomise your application that you are more likely to get the job (and therefore that approach won’t generate many job interviews as you didn’t need many!). Perhaps a good question would have been how many successful job interviews you had?

    • I highly doubt that’s what’s going on in the data, based on both my own experience and on the survey of search committee members. But of course I can’t rule it out.

    • I am struck by the extreme contrast between the fraction of poll respondents who reported looking at the course catalog and identifying specific courses they could teach or develop, and the dearth of applicants who did that for the ecology faculty search Emily Taylor reports above.

      Is that because our poll respondents are much better than randomly-chosen ecology faculty job seekers at applying for ecology faculty jobs? That could be part of it, actually, because a substantial majority of our poll respondents *are* faculty. Presumably, people who have gotten faculty positions write better application packets on average than people who have not yet gotten (and in some cases never will get) faculty positions.

      Could also be that the search Emily describes was unlucky to attract so few applicants who identified specific courses they could teach. And maybe there are other possibilities.

    • Probably the other reason Emily’s search included such a low percentage of applicants who identified specific courses they could teach is that people who customize their applications less probably apply to more jobs than those who do more customization. So applicants who customize their applications will be underrepresented in every search’s applicant pool, compared to their representation in the overall applicant pool (aggregated across all searches).

  6. To clarify something that came up recently on Twitter: I don’t think these poll results show that lots of faculty job candidates are applying for lots of jobs that they’re sure they don’t want. “Want” comes in degrees, and it’s something you often reassess at various stages of the application process (e.g., how can you really be confident you’ll like the town and your future colleagues until you see it and meet them on a campus visit?). You should definitely not infer that any application that’s not heavily customized to the hiring institution indicates an applicant who doesn’t want the job! Applicants have finite supplies of time (and emotional energy) to invest in customizing applications. That they don’t allocate that energy evenly across all applications, and that they submit more applications than they have time/energy to heavily customize, doesn’t show that they’re applying for jobs they don’t want. It just shows that they’re applying for some jobs that, at the moment, they don’t want *quite as much* as some other jobs for which they’ve also applied.

    Do some applicants sometimes submit uncustomized long-shot applications for jobs for which they are pretty obviously poor fits, and in which they’re not particularly interested? Yes, sure, that happens. But personally, I can’t really blame any faculty job seeker for casting a wide net.

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