2019-06-09: How to Become a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor - Part I (publications, research, teaching and service)

This is a three-part write-up, in this first post, I’ll talk about what you need to do to prepare yourself in the next 2 to 3 years for a tenure-track assistant professor job. I’ll do another blog post about how to find tenure-track positions, how to shortlist your target schools, CV, teaching statement, research statement and cover letters. I’ll do another blog post later about the interview prep (skype/phone, onsite), what to do and not to do during your on-campus interview, offer negotiations, two-body problem etc.
If you are considering a tenure-track job, start as early as possible (2-3 years before your intended job search) working on your teaching, research topics and publications. For some of these, you need careful planning like accumulating enough publications, you need to start publishing as early in your doctoral research and as often in each year. If possible do real teaching, not just a teaching assistantship. Let me get into each of these and explain how I went about doing these aspects during my tenure-track job search.
There is no hard and fast rule that says, if you publish this many papers you are guaranteed a tenure-track job. So you need to figure this out. When I went for job market in 2016, I had about 9 conference papers and 2 journal publications. Take a look at my CV, you can see the publications are all over the places, some not so good venues and few in top venues like (CIKM, JCDL, and journals like IEEE TBE and ACM TAP). Some of them are from my MS degree from another school (in different research topic). My recommendation, publish early, collaborate, and find multiple research topics (I’ll get back to this again when I talk about research topics below). As you can see from my not so stellar publication track record, I didn’t do all this, but I tried to publish as early in my PhD, easier said than done. I was the only PhD student (in my research group) on this particular topic and I was the last generation of my adviser’s PhD students working on this particular project. I’d suggest for you to ask your adviser for multiple projects or ask pair you with other students in the group. Also you can talk to other faculty in the department, especially new assistant professors, they always have new topics, and in need of people to jump start their own publication track record for tenure process. You can also start your own side project from something interesting, but always think who’s is going to pay for your publications (conferences are expensive!). Talk to others from industry, research labs, and universities you meet at conferences and meetings. Things don’t always works out as you think, especially people rarely stay true to their word of collaborations (when you meet them at conferences and workshops) if you are just a PhD student. So I’d stick with more of internal collaborators like faculty from other departments.
If you are serious about getting a good tenure-track job in a PhD granting CS department, I’d say you need about 15-20 solid publications (combination of 2 page poster papers, short and full papers and journals). Better if they are from good venues. Again, not a rule of thumb, just my personal opinion going through the tenure-track job market multiple times and being successful getting offers each of the time. Another tip, if you have a list of universities/departments you are interested in applying, take a look at the most recent assistant professors recruited and their track record. You can compare the publications, where they are coming from (tenure-track somewhere else, postdoc or direct ABD), the place of their PhDs, and if you are lucky they might have the CV so you can take a peek and see what else they did (service, teaching) to get in. Again, tenure-track hiring dynamics changes with every search committee and also will depend on the area the department wants to hire. So don’t dwell much in these but you can get a good sense about the hiring process and what sort of people the department hire. If your target is any primarily teaching institutions (non-PhD granting institutions, liberal arts schools, 4 year colleges, community colleges), you should be fine with may be having less than 10 publications, but you never know.
Teaching Experience:
You need a solid teaching experience to get a tenure track offer or at least an interview. Your teaching assistant (TA) experience probably not going to cut it. In my first 5 years of the PhD, I was pretty much a research assistant (RA), doing research related work. I was lucky enough to get into a teaching fellowship during my final year to do a real teaching. I taught for about 2 semesters as the instructor of record and I’m sure my first job offers (teaching oriented schools) and all the interviews I got were pretty much because of my solid teaching experience teaching undergraduates. Second time around I had enough teaching experience as an assistant professor of a primarily teaching school. I recommend all aspiring tenure-track applicants to find a solid teaching experiences.
Here’s few tips, talk to your department chair (or the faculty responsible for handling teaching assignments), they may need someone to take over lower level programming courses to each. Also talk to other schools around your area, like community colleges, technical schools and state schools, they always hire adjunct faculty to teach. If you are an international student, only option is to find a teaching position on-campus. If none of the above works, talk to your adviser, see whether you can pair teach. During my fellowship, I pair-taught with my adviser and also with another professor who was also a member of my dissertation committee, this I believe helped immensely to get a solid letter of recommendations. If this doesn’t work, may be ask your adviser whether you can deliver couple of invited lectures, I did this couple of times covering a class session when my adviser was on travel for a conference. You can ask other faculty in the department from any related areas too, who doesn’t love to skip a teaching duty once in a while!
Also don’t forget to collect some informal feedback from your classes. Take a look at my teaching portfolio, I regularly take feedback and keep track of what students say about my teaching in class. Especially this is important at the time when you write your teaching statement, you can talk about your formal evaluations (if you get any), and if not, some of the informal feedback you got. Also this is a good practice for your tenure-package, you can talk about what student say and quote from these informal feedbacks to write how you go about improving your classroom experiences.
Research Experience:
You need multiple research directions you want to pursue when you start as a tenure track assistant professor. Remember your dissertation topic is not going to be enough, you need to have topics that can pan over several years and interesting enough to get publications, grant money and students. Talk to your adviser or other faculty and collaborate. I was fortunate enough that my adviser got me into a secondary topic area that helped me use my experiences towards areas beyond my PhD topic. This is important when you write your research statement, having multiple topics will show the search committee that you have a well-planned direction for your future research agenda. Letter of recommendation writers: You need at least 3 solid letter of recommendations. Obviously your PhD adviser will be one of them and having a good relationship with him/her will be imperative. Make sure you are making a good progress, and this should be exemplified by your work as an independent researcher. So having multiple topics in different areas and collaborating with other faculty should give you those solid writers, you need people who can vouch for your collegiality, dedication and expertise. Remember the faculty life is sometimes more about how you work with your colleagues, so if you get an on-campus interview, this is something probably faculty who’s going to have one-on-one with you going look for (More about this later with my on-campus interview blog post).
This won’t be something as highly important as other points that I discussed earlier like publications, research and teaching, but having a solid service experiences work wonders. Service is part of the faculty life, so getting to do stuff other than just research and teaching help build your portfolio. Early you learn to juggle multiple things, will help you survive the busy faculty life of managing multiple roles. These opportunities won’t come to you, so reach out and talk to others and ask around. In early days of my PhD, I reached out to student communities like University Graduate Associations (part of student government) for possible representations. One time I held multiple university-wide positions representing the department, college and the university. Again, these are time consuming tasks, I advise you to participate for these early during your PhD career so you can focus on other important aspects (publications and research) later in your PhD life. I’d suggest you to focus more on things related to student advising (most of these committees require some student participants, see what is available on your university), these will give you good points to talk about in your teaching statement like how the life on the other side as a faculty. Also reach out and see if you have any opportunities to help the department search committee in some capacity, you get to see your potential competitors in the job market. Bonus, you get to see some of the wining candidates.
Another service activity you need to start early in the process is reviewing for conferences/journals and organizing committee activities for conferences and workshops. Do student volunteering early in your PhD career, get to know the organizing committee member for the future years and talk to them about volunteering for organizing committee activities. If you are from CS background, https://chisv.org/ lists bunch of conferences you can volunteer your time. Most of these conferences offer you a free conference registration, food, free goodies/t-shirt and some will even give you travel grants. Also look out for ACM-W, TAPIA, and Grace Hopper for travel scholarships for women in computing. If you don’t get to do student volunteering, talk to your adviser or other faculty, I got my first organizing committee volunteering opportunity by asking around. Jump into any vacant position and help out and make a name for yourself. You don’t always need to travel to conferences if you become part of the organizing committee, some positions require you to get things done before the conference starts, like publication chair (responsible for setting up the conference publishing activities), and publicity chair (twitter, and posting cfp to mailing lists). Also most of these positions come with co-chairing opportunities, so you are not the only one responsible for the activity, you get to share the work with several others. Also ask your colleagues, advisers and other faculty to recommend you to a program committee. You’ll get a chance to help the conferences reviewing papers. You can also ask your adviser for reviewing opportunities as a sub-reviewer. Go to the journal websites, most of them have a place for you to create a reviewer profile and you’ll get requests when papers are submitted relevant to your area of expertise. Again, these are time consuming tasks, you cannot build your profile overnight and need careful planning and starting things early in your PhD life.
Other Volunteering:
Volunteer for any opportunity that comes your way, departmental, college or university or external. There may be opportunities to be a judge for a high school or at an undergraduate poster competition, or to volunteer to teach something or give a lecture to local public school, organize an educational event, present a poster. Find things, all these are CV points you can add that brings the substance to your portfolio.
From the get-go, apply for internships, talk to your faculty, friends, collaborators and see if they can refer you to a company summer position. Don’t afraid to shoot high, apply for top companies like Google, Microsoft and also look out for positions in places like research labs (Department of Energy, DOD etc.) Tenure track market is very competitive, there’re hundreds of people applying for handful of the vacant positions. Keep your options open with having some industry experiences.
Student Advising:
See whether your adviser can let you co-advise few undergraduate and other graduate students in the group. You can help them with their day-to-day research work, may be showing them around during initial years, help them with acclimating to the academic life. Volunteer in departmental and college wide opportunities to mentor students. These will become handy when you write your teaching statement.

--Sampath Jayarathna (@openmaze)