Boilerplate

I have seen a lot of job advertisements in my academic life. Near the end of my Ph.D. studies and then during both postdoctoral stints, I kept huge lists of bookmarks for academic internet job bulletin boards and HR departments at a swath of universities. Even today I still pay attention to job ads (some of them still arriving weekly in my inbox because I’ve never bothered to unsubscribe from some of the mail lists), both as a member of search committees for new faculty at my institution and so that I can pass them on to various aspiring postdocs who I know.

A typical academic job ad goes something like this:

The Department of Orthonectidology at the University of Eastern West Ivorytowerville seeks qualified applicants for a tenure track position at the rank of assistant or associate professor. The successful candidate will build a internationally recognized research program in Orthonectid biomechanics and chemotaxis. Along with supervising countless graduate students, undergraduate teaching responsibilities will include BIOL 234 (Ecology of Obscure Phyla) and BIOL 432 (Advanced Ecology of Obscure Phyla).

The University of Eastern West Ivorytowerville is a nationally and internationally renowned research institution that has been ranked within the top 30 in surveys conducted by several magazines and think tanks that you probably don’t read or otherwise even know about. West Ivorytowerville is nestled among rolling hills and forests that supply ample recreation opportunities such as rolling down grass hills and gazing at the interesting shapes that clouds sometimes make. The city also boasts cultural amenities that rival those found in East Ivorytowerville, if not elsewhere.

Please submit a cover letter, a CV with references, and a teaching philosophy to the Chair of the search committee by such-and-such a date.

In other words paragraph 1 usually contains the straight-up, thoroughly pragmatic (and mainly boring) terms of reference laid out to the search committee from the Dean. Paragraph 2 often contains a few vague platitudes about the university and the urban center in which it resides. And the final paragraph tells the applicant what to submit, when to submit it, and to whom.

While there can be some variation to this formula, most search committees stick pretty close to this pattern.I know that this is the typical format because, besides reading countless such ads over the course of my academic career, I’ve also been part of committees that have “written” this boilerplate. So, it came as a bit of a pleasant surprise to accidentally (via the magic of Twitter) run into this job ad from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (archived here via Evernote).

Here are a few choice quotes:

As cell biologists, we embrace the complexity of cellular function and behavior.

We seek colleagues who share these interests, and who approach cell biological questions from any of multiple perspectives…

The ideal candidate will be evaluated only on the significance of the discoveries the candidate has made–not on the impact factors of the journals where his or her results were published–and on whether he or she is the best fit to complement and augment the intellectual creativity, skills, and innovation potential of our department.

The best candidates will also have earned the respect of their mentors and colleagues. Thus, the quality/content of your cover letter and recommendations will be our principal criteria for your further consideration.

This is, I believe, the best academic job ad that I’ve ever read in my entire life. This announcement tells me something about the UT Southwestern Medical Center. I can tell that they are more interested in impact than in prestige, that they prefer collaborative and creative approaches to research questions, that they aren’t afraid of complexity, and that they highly value collegiality. I would assume that, by writing this ad the way that they did, they are speaking to what they are and what they hope to continue to develop into. The fact that the true impact of research (rather than impact factor) and “earned respect” are the two major deciding factors in this search are refreshing.

If I were a postdoctoral cell biologist (neither of which I am) looking to land a tenure track position, I suspect that this would be my dream appointment.

So what are two takeouts from this?

First, to job seekers: What does the job ad really tell you about the department and institution where you’re hoping to work? If it’s just a standard academic job ad, how can you dig deeper to find out more and beef up your application?

Second, to faculty members on search committees: Does that job ad that you’re drafting tell the potential applicants anything about your department, or is it just a cut-and-paste effort from any number of previous job ads from your institution or department? In other words, is this the best job ad that you can write as you seek the best possible candidates?