Advice: Part 1 ?>

Advice: Part 1

Getting a Faculty Job in Astrophysics – Your application materials

I’m focusing on the written part of the application process here – i.e. the stuff that hopefully gets you the job interview. I might do a second post about the job interview itself. But so far, this is already a really long post with several parts:

Short disclaimer: Please don’t vitally rely on the information I give here (deadlines, links etc.), I can’t guarantee that everything is correct (or stays correct over time).

Where to look for jobs

  • The most obvious source where astronomy jobs are listed is the AAS job register: But not everything is listed there. Here’s a couple of reasons why some job ads aren’t listed there:
    1. It’s mostly an American thing, there are a lot of institutes in Europe that just don’t use the AAS job register as their default option;
    2. It costs money (several 100$) to post a job ad there;
    3. You have to post your ad pretty early to have it appear in next month’s update of the website, and some people miss the deadline (happened to me once when I was looking for a postdoc to hire);
    4. Some astro-related jobs are organizationally placed in the physics department, and they often don’t use the AAS website at all.
  • For jobs in the UK: Look for “astronomy” or “astrophysics” in the keyword search; also check for “physics”. The “physics” search brings up a lot of irrelevant positions (at least for us) in physical education, because the site’s string search is apparently quite fuzzy. But you want to wade through that because sometimes there are jobs for physics lecturers with an astro focus that aren’t tagged as astronomy or astrophysics. You really want to find those few jobs where they mess up the keywords, because those jobs will get much fewer applications that the ones that are easy to find. Also, since this is a site for the UK, the job titles are “lecturer” (= assistant professor), “senior lecturer” (= between assistant and associate professor), “reader” (= associate professor) and “professor” (= full professor).
  • The job page of the European Astronomical Society: They have relatively few jobs on there, but often those are the ones that aren’t posted on the AAS job register. Also, it’s almost exclusively for positions in Europe.
  • The rumor mill. Ah, our favorite time sink from October to January! Here’s the link (yes I know, sometimes their database is down): Postdoc/Term rumor mill; Faculty rumor mill. What happens most of the time is that people only post jobs there after they have applied and the application deadline is over (because they don’t want even more competition). But, sometimes people from the search committees post jobs there ahead of the deadline because they want more applicants for a position (or they just missed the AAS job register deadline – ahem). Can’t hurt to check.
  • Another site for mostly US, but also some EU and other jobs: Click on “select discipline” and check out anything astro-related. I find that this site has more jobs at 4-year colleges in the US than any of the others, plus some of the less well-known fellowships in US and EU. Can’t hurt to check, especially if you can imagine to work at an undergraduate institution with some research activities in the US.
  • RAS mailing list: The Royal Astronomical Society (UK) has a mailing list where they send around job ads once per month. One has to sign up, the ads are not available on their website or so. But at least they don’t spam you with anything else. Here’s the webpage where to sign up:
  • Astronomische Gesellschaft: This is the German Astronomical Society’s list of job ads; they don’t have a lot of postings, but if you’re looking for one of those few unicorn-like permanent staff non-professor positions in Germany (“Akademischer Rat”), or for a position in public outreach in Germany, they might show up here but not on the other websites:
  • Always be on the lookout for emails forwarded to you by colleagues, or colleagues of colleagues and so on. Sometimes a search committee horribly missed a deadline to post job ads, but they’re in one of the more rigorous European countries where they can’t extend the application deadline or so. In terms of my N=1, I’ve gotten maybe 1-2 such emails per year (for faculty positions), I’ve applied to exactly 1 out of these (total), and got an invitation for an interview. So yay for small number statistics 🙂

Apart from the shiny regular faculty positions, there’s a whole bunch of job opportunities that are open to any scientific discipline, so they are generally not advertised on the usual suspect sites for astro or physics. Especially in Europe there is this intermediate-level thing between postdoc and real faculty that is a 5-year position with lots of funding so that you can build your own research group for that time (usually you can hire 1-2 postdocs and 1-2 PhD students); these positions are supposed to be fancy stepping stones to permanent faculty positions (but not actual tenure-track positions – booo!). Here’s a list of stuff like that:

  • Max Planck Research Groups. 5-year scheme, lots of money, host institute needs to be a Max Planck Institute in Germany, no citizenship restrictions for applicants. Currently the astro-related Max Planck Institutes are Heidelberg (MPIA), Munich-Garching (MPE and MPA), Goettingen (MPS), Potsdam (MPGP), Bonn (MPIFR). The positions are announced each year in September or October, check out this website from time to time: When you apply, you have to make *really sure* that your reference letter writers upload their letters on time, otherwise they will discard your application fully. If you are female, you can also apply for the Minerva program (using the same application), which is the Max Planck Society’s extra-track program for female researchers in the natural sciences. The Minerva program is practically the same as the Max Planck Research Group program.
  • Emmy Noether program. 5-year scheme, lots of money, host institute needs to be in Germany, no citizenship restrictions for applicants. You need to apply before you have completed your 4rth year after you earned your PhD. They don’t have a fixed deadline, so you can hand in your stuff very shortly before that date. But the committees will meet only twice per year, so it may take a while until you hear back from them. Here’s the link:
  • ERC grant (you will most likely be applying for a Starting Grant, unless you are an academically senior astronomer, in which case you already have a faculty position and won’t be reading this list). 5 years, lots of money, host institute needs to be in Europe, no citizenship restrictions for applicants. The starting grants (maybe also the other ERC grants?) have a kind of built-in spam filter; if your application gets a bad ranking, you will be barred from applying again in the next one or two years (depending on how low your ranking was). So make sure to make this a good one (nothing to throw together over a weekend). Here’s the link:
  • Branco-Weiss-Fellowship: 5 years, only your own position is funded (no money for minions), host institute needs to be in Switzerland, no citizenships restrictions for applicants, your PhD degree was awarded less than 5 years ago, you are younger than 35 when you apply.
  • Freigeist-Fellowships: link. 5 years, only your own position is funded, max. 5 years after PhD was awarded, host institute needs to be in Germany, no citizenship restrictions for applicants. Deadline each year in October.
  • Lichtenberg Professorship: link. 5-8 years, I don’t know if funding is only for your own position or also for your minions. Host institute needs to be in Germany, no citizenship restrictions for applicants. Deadline each year on June 1.
  • University Research Fellowships: link. 5 years, plus 3 years extension possible, host institute in the UK, applicant 3-8 years after PhD, citizenship restriction: EU or Swiss.
  • Ernest Rutherford Fellowships: link. 5 years, applicants need to have at least 2 years of postdoc experience, host institute in the UK, no citizenship restrictions for applicants.
  • Veni Vidi Vici program: Funding program of the Netherlands. Somewhat similar to the ERC grant scheme, in that the three parts of the program are targeted at researchers with different numbers of years since PhD: Veni for 0-3 years after PhD, Vidi for 4-8 years after PhD, Vici for 9-15 years after PhD. Host institute needs to be in the Netherlands, no citizenship restrictions for applicants. Deadline for Veni: January, Vidi: October, Vici (preproposals): March. Here’s the link.

What my CV looks like

Some general stuff:

  • I like to include clickable links in my CV for a few things, such as links to my papers, links to press releases, with the actual url shown. If the search committee reads everything on paper, well, then that’s too bad, but if they read it on the computer, they can look stuff up if they want to. (I use the LaTex package hyperref for that.)
  • I change a few parts of my CV depending on which position I apply to:
    • I change the wording in the research interests section accordingly (if a position is for “ground-based XYZ-stuff”, I highlight my ground-based work, if it’s for “Variability in XYZ objects”, I highlight stuff I have done in connection to that. Of course, the general gist stays the same.)
    • I change the order of sections: If a job is teaching-heavy (for example, they mention teaching expectations before research expectations in the job ad), I put my teaching and student supervising experience first, then I list my research stuff (grants, collaborations etc.)

Ok, so here’s my CV, version from mid-2016 (CV). It contains these sections:

  • research interests (3 or 4 items, a few words each)
  • education (undergrad degree, PhD degree, topics and supervisors)
  • academic positions (position title, institute, supervisor, very short description of focus topic)
  • honors and awards; make sure to briefly explain national things for international people on the committee (for example I explain what percentage of students gets accepted for a German fellowship I once got, because people in other countries don’t necessarily know how competitive these things are). You don’t need to explain what the big named fellowships are (Hubble, Einstein, Sagan), just include the title of your fellowship topic with that.
  • A short summary about my publication statistics, so that this is visible on the first page of the CV (i.e. number of papers and h-index)
  • external funding (grants), with an intro line about how much I got in total. I only list stuff where I’m the PI.
  • competitive observing time. When I had only a few observing proposals accepted, I actually listed them (when I was a grad students or an early postdoc). Now it’s so much stuff that I just list the total time, the telescopes, and the wavelength and observing technique. I split the total time into stuff where I’m PI and where I’m Co-I.
  • Conferences and talks:
    • first section is invited talks at international conferences, with titles – this is the stuff that other people consider you to be an expert on, so give some details!
    • next section is invited colloquia and seminars, select some from the last few years
    • next section is contributed talks at conferences, select some from the last few years
    • I don’t list posters or conference attendance (without presenting). But if you have very few talks and/or are an early-career person, you may want to list at least the posters.
  • Official collaborations that I am part of (proposed/accepted observing missions, large data analysis collaborations, code development etc.)
  • Supervised students and staff – summer students, REU students, students to whom you have been an advisor in their semester-long research projects; and of course BSc, MSc and PhD students, if you have officially supervised any of those. If you have supervised postdocs, list them here as well.
  • Teaching: I don’t list being a teaching assistant any more. You may want to include that if you are very early-career. I list stuff where I have actually given lectures and courses, with titles and some info about how many hours per week etc.
  • Public outreach. I think generally a few nice items are enough, unless you apply for a genuine outreach position (then list more). Press releases about your work, articles for the general public that you have written about a scientific topic, public talks you have given etc. can go here.
  • Other stuff that I summarize as “professional activities”. I sub-divide that into Reviewing/Refereeing (being a referee for journals, being on a time allocation committee, being on a funding panel etc.), Department Service (diversity work, seminars organized, being on department panels like the postdoc council etc.), and Conference Organizing (organizing conferences or splinter sessions at conferences like Cool Stars). You may have other things that go here depending on what you have done in the past.
  • References. I list 4 research references and 1 teaching reference. Even if they ask for only 3 references, always list more than that in your CV, especially if it’s for a US position! You list the 3 people in the online form and they actually upload the letters, but show the search committee that they *could* contact more people to hear more awesome things about you. Rule of thumb is that one of your references should be your PhD supervisor, and one your current boss. If you have a bad relationship with any of those, find a different letter writer who will comment on that (and that it’s not your fault) in their letter of reference.
  • Full list of publications. Some jobs want this as a separate document, but more often I just have it as the last item in the CV. I list the papers in several sections: peer-reviewed first author, peer-reviewed co-author, publications under review, other publications (conference proceedings), scientific code if you have written any that is publicly accessible (like on Github, or in the Astrophysics Source Code Library). I like to do this thing that whenever a paper has gained extra attention, like a press release or so, I add a little bullet point under that publication with some info about that and a link to the press release.

What my cover letter looks like

I try to fit my cover letter on one page, but I think two pages is also okay. I usually have 5 or 6 paragraphs. They are somewhat interchangeable in order, so if you’re applying for a teaching-heavy position, you can put the teaching paragraph before the research paragraph.

Especially for positions in the UK it can happen that your application is pre-screened by admins (i.e. not research faculty). They will compare your cover letter to the specifications for the job. Make sure to use the words from the job specifications (usually an extra document linked in the job ad) and boldface them strategically in your cover letter.

Here’s what my individual paragraphs about:

  1. intro: what position I’m applying for, what my current position is, where I did my undergrad and PhD.
  2. research: 1-2 sentences on what my research is about. This is the space to highlight how my stuff relates to the job specification (space-based observations? high-resolution spectroscopy? atmospheric modelling?). Short mention of recent invited talks about those topics. If the job profile specifically mentions that you should have peer-reviewed publications, don’t just think “duh, of course”, but mention here that you regularly publish your results in peer-reviewed journals such as ApJ or whatever. You should also mention here that you have secured external grants for your research (if true), and if you’re part of significant scientific collaborations. If this gets too long (for example if you’re in several collaborations and think they are relevant for the job you’re applying to), I usually split off the collaborations part and make a separate paragraph for that.
  3. teaching: short description of lectures/courses I have taught, how many students I have supervised, at which institutes. If the job is teaching-heavy, this paragraph goes before the research paragraph. Also, you can mention that you’re looking forward to having more opportunities to teach than your current position can offer (if that’s true).
  4. Other things: a short paragraph about stuff like management experience, things you do to enhance the astronomical community (for example diversity, outreach).
  5. Last paragraph: These may be the 2 most important sentences in my cover letter when applying for European positions! I have mainly applied for positions in Europe while I was a postdoc in the US. So I used this magic last paragraph:”Please note that I will be in Europe during (month XXX) for conferences and collaborations. Should you invite me for an interview, I will be able to come to (city XXX) without needing a transatlantic flight.”Why is this important? Because some of the smaller universities don’t have a huge budget for flying in candidates from a different continent, but they’ll pay for intra-EU flights. I actually did a job interview in Europe once where half of the candidates were there in person (including myself), and the others were only interviewed via Skype. Like, not preliminary interviews, but the actual job interviews. You don’t want that to happen to you, you’ll always be at a disadvantage against in-person candidates. So try to bundle job interviews together in the same month and try to go to Europe for a collaboration anyway.

What my research statement looks like

Most places give you a page limit of 3 pages for the research statement, so that’s my default.

I start with a general paragraph that should be understandable by any astrophysicist (think theoretical cosmologist if you’re an exoplanet observer, and the other way around). This paragraph outlines why my field of research is interesting and important, and what kind of bigger questions my specific research topic tries to answer.

Then I launch into a more specific description of my research projects (hopefully still understandable to people who are not in my subfield).

Note: There’s a divide between the Euro-style and the US-style of doing research (this is not about writing the research statement, but about what you actually work on, but of course this will influence your statement):

  • In the US, the job market tends to reward you if you are an extreme expert in exactly one thing, and you’re great at that thing. If you’re one of those people, your research statement will show your different contributions to that one thing – this can be chronological, but doesn’t have to be. You want to show how your work has improved our knowledge of that field, and you also want to demonstrate that this field in which you’re the expert is important and will stay important for the next >10 years.
  • In the EU, the job market leans a bit more towards people who have a broader portfolio of projects, as long as they form a somewhat consistent topic range. I think this is because in the EU your collaboration with your colleagues in your new department is a more important than in the US, because departments are generally smaller and more interconnectivity is required. So with a broader portfolio you have better chances to make your case that you will be able to collaborate with faculty members X, Y, and Z on topics A, B, and C. In this case, find an overarching topic for your different research projects and show how your projects attack different facets of that topic. And of course demonstrate that the overarching topic is important and will stay relevant for >10 years.

Save some space for the last paragraph of the research statement, in which you demonstrate how your research fits into the department that you’re applying to. Explicitly spell out how your work on, say, supernova remnants connects to the department’s research on how star formation is influenced by supernovae, or how you expect to collaborate with the instrumentation team because they build a transit search telescope and you work with transiting Hot Jupiters etc. Ideally find two or three different aspects how your work gels with the work at the department.

Some general stuff:

  • Have a title for your research statement! And I mean not just “Research statement”, but “Research statement: Unveiling the nature of magnetism in massive stars” or whatever your topic is.
  • Don’t use a font that is too small! Use fontsize 11 if you can manage at all. Never smaller than 10.
  • Show some figures. Figures are better than text! Well, good figures are. So make good figures. I like to save some space by using figure captions in a somewhat smaller fontsize (LaTex package: \usepackage[small]{caption}), and I also put the figures in wrapping mode (i.e. text flows around them, LaTex package \usepackage{wrapfig}). You’ll have to fiddle around a bit with where to place the \begin{wrapfigure}...\end{wrapfigure} in your text, because sometimes it puts it on the wrong page and produces weird empty blocks, but if done right by trial and error, it saves quite a bit of space and looks nice.
  • Spell stuff out instead of using acronyms (I know, you want to save space, but still), because most people on the search committee will not be from your subfield, and you don’t want to be that candidate who annoys everyone by using 10 acronyms.
  • I use references in my research statement, and not the space-saving ones like [1], but I actually use (Person et al., 2012). Why? Because then I get to say “which led to the discovery of *thing* (Poppenhaeger et al., 2013)”. Show people your cool published work! To save space, I have a \footnotesize-font section at the end of the statement where I just list the publications as “First author et al., year, journal acronym, volume”, then a bullet point or some other symbol, and then the next reference without any line break. This way I can reference 10-15 papers in 3 lines of normalsized font space.

What my teaching statement looks like

This is the document that I find kind of tricky. Probably because I write less often about teaching than about research? Hm. Anyway, my teaching statement is usually one page long, and this is what’s in it:

  • First paragraph: I start with my general background, explaining what sort of teaching I have done so far, with details about the number of hours per week and the level of the material (like, first-year astronomy, or special topic for advanced students?).
  • Second paragraph: Then I go into an example of actual teaching insights I have gained. Say you have taught an astronomy class where the students also had to code in some programming language – did the students struggle with something in particular? What was it? How did you try to make that better? What worked? If you feel bold: what didn’t work? What’s your new default for teaching that thing?
  • Third paragraph: supervising students. Short overview of what sort of students I have supervised (undergrad? grad students?) and what sort of projects (summer research project? thesis?). Then some principles that I apply in selecting projects for students. As an observer, I have to make sure that my students have data to work on. So I explain a bit how I do that – what sort of data I use, what sort of archival data can be mined if a new observing proposal doesn’t get accepted.
  • Fourth paragraph: Sometimes I write something specific about the astronomy program that is taught at the department I’m applying to. Say they have a small telescope used for student training, with a CCD camera. If you have a good idea for a small observational project that could be incorporated into an astronomy course, and it’s not something they already have in their curriculum, you can write one or two sentences about that. That’s only gonna work if you know for sure that that telescope is actually in useable shape. When in doubt, see if you know a postdoc at the department and ask them. If that’s not possible, don’t guess, just leave out the last paragraph.


Again: All of this stuff is a description of what I did, it’s not a list of what you have to do in order to get a job. That’s why I’m so specific about what I write in which paragraph of which document, I’m giving you information. That’s all. Take from this what seems useful to you. Best of luck! Hope you all get awesome jobs and we meet in 40 years at a big conference and drink lots of wine and remember the good old times when somebody burned the popcorn in the microwave at CfA and the whole institute had to be evacuated…


By Katja Poppenhaeger, 2015.
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