Preparing Your Application

This portion of the guide describes the materials needed for applications as well as some tips for their preparation.

Your application will almost invariably consist of a resume, a teaching statement, a research statement and a cover letter. Some schools also request up to three “indicative publications.”

Letters of Recommendation

You will need four letters of recommendation, one of which will come from your advisor. The typical dilemma here involves finding the other three. You may well have only published papers with your advisor and the supervisor from you summer internship. Where do you find two others?

Start now! Email some of the other professors in your department and make appointments to talk to them about your research and your plans. Ask them if they have any ideas, talk about possible collaborations, convince them to critique drafts of your papers, whatever. The more they know you the better and you may even get research ideas out of it.

If you plan to do your job search interviews in the Spring of Year X, talk to your advisor about who should write your letters in the Summer of Year X-1 (or earlier!) and then ask them by the end of that summer. Give them plenty of warning.

  • Wes Weimer Wes Weimer

    At the end of the day, I can only offer myself as a data point for what was "good enough". I had never written a paper with Alex Aiken but I had corresponded with him since the end of my undergraduate days. We had similar research interests, I almost ended up as his advisee, we got along well at research group lunches, I went to his office more than once to talk about research and ideas, and he invited me to Stanford to give a practice talk. I had written a paper with Tom Henzinger, sat in on one of his classes, and visited his office once or twice to talk about things and ask for advice. I had never written a paper with Jim Larus but he supervised my internship at Microsoft Research and was familiar with my research work. Left to my own devices, I would have chosen Sriram Rajamani (also from my internship) instead of Jim since he knew me better personally, but it was suggested that Jim's more senior position and experience in both industry and academia would lead to a more useful reference. Talk to your advisors.

  • Claire Le Goues Claire Le Goues

    Wes's advice about letter writers basically guided my selection thereof: Wes was my adviser; Stephanie Forrest and I have worked and written papers together for many years; I have taken classes, written at least one paper, and supported grants with John Knight throughout my graduate career; and Mark Harman and I have been in contact about my work since before I received my Masters. I was told by at least one department chair that the strength of my letters was critically important to securing the interview(s) in question. I encourage you to select your letter writers carefully.

  • Zak Fry Zak Fry

    The jobs I applied for required a maximum of three letters and I was fortunate enough to get letters from a subset of Claire's letter writers: Wes Weimer (primary advisor), Stephanie Forrest (mentor and co-author on three papers), and John Knight (with whom I took a class and often solicited advice from throughout my grad career). To highlight a potential pitfall, I will note that one of my undergraduate advisors (with whom I was co-author on several papers) agreed to write me a letter of recommendation, but noted that it might be somewhat weak because of the time that had lapsed since our professional interaction. Wes's sage advice was that anyone who flat-out admits that they may not be able to write you the strongest recommendation letter should be used as a last resort. While I very much appreciate the generosity and honesty of my previous advisor, I am glad that I eventually chose someone with a more comprehensive knowledge of my most recent work.

Organizing Things for your Letter Writers

The standard practice these days is to make a web page or chart listing all of the places to which letters must be sent as well as the due dates.

As of 2013, most schools use some kind of special online web-system for applications. If you are like Claire at all, you will be annoyed by the fact that the systems are all basically the same, and yet you still need to generate a new account at every one. A few use academicjobsonline.com. These are by far the easiest positions to apply for.

Regardless of system used, schools typically accept letters of recommendation via email (i.e., “please submit letters to the following address.”; make it easy to cut and paste the addresses on your web page) but they may issue an email to your letter-writers instructing them to use an alternative form. As of 2013, no positions required letters to be sent physically, and most expressly disallowed it. A couple of schools ask for letters only after a first cut of applications, in which case they will contact your letter-writers directly.

Loosely, your letter-writers will write the letters a day or two before the first one is due and then send them all out.

You can see Wes’s letter-writer chart here. It’s not perfect and I’m sure you could improve on the format but no one complained. It should also give you an idea of how the due dates vary between top-tier teaching-ish schools (e.g., Oberlin at November 19) and standard research schools (e.g. CMU at January 15).

As an aside, it is very common for letters of recommendation to fail to make it all the way to the people who need to see them. It is typically very difficult to distinguish between a world in which your letter-writer did not submit a letter despite a request from a school; a world in which no such request was issued; a world in which the letter-writer submitted a letter but for some reason it was lost; and a world in which letters were all successfully submitted. Wes had at least six places email to say only one or two of his letters got through, and asking to have the others emailed directly to some address. Some UC-system schools are infamous for letter mishaps (e.g., losing more or less every letter from one year’s worth of applicants). It is quite reasonable to send follow-up email to your target departments asking if all of your letters have made it in to your applicant file (this also shows interest in the position, but it’s unlikely anyone will notice at this stage).

Cover Letters

The cover letter is the least important element, but if you get it wrong your entire application may be mistakenly misfiled and not considered.

Cover letters should be brief, and quickly help the reader figure out who you are, what job you’re applying for (include any special numbers), and, at a very high level, what type of research you do. Keep this last part to a few sentences; your research statement is the place for detail. This is particularly important when applying to large schools, that may have many independent searches but only one application portal. Make it easy for a hiring chair in your area to quickly realize you’re one of theirs!

(Related: if a portal asks you to select research area keywords, please be accurate. Selecting them all does not help you.)

If someone on the inside told you to apply, mention that in your cover letter.

Here are concrete examples (though note that not all of these include content on research area, as suggested above):

Preparing Your Resume

Resume-writing is well-established, although many of the standard techniques aren’t as applicable at this level (e.g., it is our personal impression that your previous work experience doesn’t really matter). You want to emphasize your publications and any teaching experience you might have. Also list all of your references one more time (sometimes people actually call your references to get more information). If Wes were doing this again he would list publication venues all at once in some topic sentence (e.g., “I have published in POPL, PLDI, TOPLAS, OOPSLA, …”) because he saw people at interviews skim his resume for exactly that summary while he sat before them.

Along these lines, more than one person advised Claire to organize her publication list by “type”: “Journal Articles,” “Refereed Conference Publications,” “Invited Articles”, “Workshops,” etc. She was told that listing all publications chronologically without distinguishing by venue type can appear disingenuous, and that it is annoying for the reader (who must evaluate dozens of applications at once) to spend time mentally sorting the list (since workshops “count less” than other venue types). She included journal impact factors and conference acceptance rates. She highlighted venue acronyms and applicable awards in the left-hand column of the publication list. These decisions were intended to make her CV easier to scan for this type of information, because interviewers look for it.

At many places the resume appeared to be the only thing that actually made it through the application bureaucracy to people. At least four times, Wes saw people explicitly looking over his resume either as he was coming in to the interview or while he was sitting down. By contrast, he never heard anyone mention his research statement. Claire had similar experiences, but notes that at at least two schools, at least one interviewer had read at least one of her publications before sitting down with her.

Anyway, here are our resumes from when we were applying, which again serve largely as a lower-bound on required content and style. Also included are a few other examples.

Note that if you are applying for any sort of teaching job (e.g., top-tier teaching academia, small liberal arts college, instructor position) your teaching qualifications (courses taught and letters talking about it) should be at least as good as Wes’s and hopefully much better (more like Andy Begel’s above, say). Wes’s were the bare minimum required (e.g., they sufficed to get him an interview at Wesleyan) but they were mentioned as a concern (until he was able to convince them with his presentation) and he has no doubt that other teaching places rejected him because of them. Teaching jobs will also want multiple numerical evaluations (e.g., Wes was asked explicitly what his numerical teaching evaluations were at Wesleyan, and we imagine that they’re even more serious about it at other departments).

Preparing Your Research and Teaching statements

The traditional approach here is to craft your research statement by summarizing your thesis proposal and to craft your teaching statements by looking at what others have written and fumbling around. Here are some concrete examples:

References aren’t required in a research statement, but they don’t hurt if you feel better with them (or if you have a bunch of publications and want to highlight that).

Almost all teaching statements seem to end up looking somewhat identical (see Lerner, Jhala and Whaley above). At Wesleyan, the only place Wes went that mentioned his teaching statement at all, they mentioned that it was creative and the best one they had seen in a while. Given how interesting his isn’t, that gives you a good idea for how low the bar is set if you want to do something personal with your teaching statement. Being yourself is still key, however. Not everyone should go for a teaching statement in which they claim not to be nice. Andy Begel’s emphasis on education results in something of an upper bound on teaching statement impressiveness (unless you’re actually in CS education), and a statement like his would fit in well if you’re aiming for a teaching job.

It’s worth noting that many people feel that their statements don’t really reflect who they are as people. Some are of the opinion that job application materials necessarily adopt a “putting yourself forward” or “please hire me” tone that’s not indicative of how the person really behaves in general. Writing these statements can take a surprisingly long time because your own draft efforts will invariably sound stupid to you.

Aside from asking your friends to show you their statements, a good way to get these things is to download them one year early. Almost everyone puts their job application materials up on their web page when they are applying for a job. In May/June, Googling for programming languages "teaching statement" yields hundreds of results. Just download some and save them. Of course, if you get random people from the Internet you probably won’t have heard of them and thus won’t know if they are good or bad examples. So try to soak up all of the documents from people in your department that you can get a read on.

As of 2013, there exists a larger collection of such materials floating around in the email archives of recently-hired junior faculty in Software Engineering. Contact Claire if you’re seriously on the market, and she will see if she can access it for you, so long as you solemnly vow to share your own materials after your search concludes.

Make sure that yours are available on-line as well. Many places, even places to which you have officially sent materials, will get the versions off of your web page because the official application materials get lost in the bureaucracy or were printed out somewhere or somesuch. Wes was involved in multiple phone and sit-down interviews where people mentioned reading the materials from his web page as they were talking. Half of your interviewers will look for/at your materials the day/hour before they speak with you, and they will look on your website first.

While we’re on the subject, people will, in fact, read the details of your web page when they are considering you as a candidate. For example, Dave Evans at Virginia mentioned (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, somewhat not) that one of the reasons he knew Wes would fit in and be a solid hire is that he read and liked the parody programming languages examination test on his web page. Both Wes and Claire had multiple people comment on the photos or hobbies mentioned on their web pages, even if those mentions were exceedingly brief (such as Claire’s involvement with her local roller derby league).

Submitting Your Application

Nothing surprising here. Email it in or otherwise make use of the online form system in question. Often they will ask for everything to be in PDF format. Sometimes they’ll even want everything in a single PDF file, so be prepared to achieve that.