Are you looking for a faculty job? Make sure to read the various guides available online; they’re packed with useful information. Their shortcoming is that they’re but entirely focused on the North American/US job market. If you’re interested in knowing how things work on the other side of the pond, read on.
The following notes are mainly based on my experience during the academic year 2014–2015, when I’ve been searching for a faculty position in Europe. Each section describes a particular aspect of the whole search process, and tries to compare it to the US experience which is generally documented more broadly elsewhere. Whatever aspect I do not comment on, you can assume it’s quite similar to the situation in north America. Keep in mind that, besides the desire to remain in Europe, I was a candidate with significant experience: I completed my PhD in 2007, and I’ve spent several years as senior researcher — a position comparable to assistant professor without tenure. This entails that I was looking for more senior positions, tenured or with a well-defined not-too-long path to tenure. These requirements turned out to be not overly constraining for the European job marked, but they may have skewed may perception of some aspects. Your mileage may vary.
The overall process is the usual one. You apply for an advertised position by submitting all required application material by the deadline. After a while, shortlisted candidates are invited for an interview. Following the interviews, selected candidates receive offers. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you get to negotiate your position until you reach an agreement and sign an employment contract (or decline the offer).
The timing and transparency of this process vary wildly between institutions. First, application deadlines are spread out over the whole year. While the majority of deadlines are from September to the following February, several continue well into the spring, and some may even be during the summer. The other phases also follow asynchronously: in some cases, I haven’t heard back for 8 months after submitting the application; others informed me about every step in the selection process, and even shared with me the evaluations of the hiring committee (sometimes about all candidates) before interviewing me. Shortlisting was sometimes done in stages, with a longer list of candidates who are passed on to the next filtering stage. In all, you have to be flexible, and be ready to prioritize the positions that are more interesting for you. Checking with the hiring committee about tentative dates does not hurt, if it can reduce the uncertainty.
What goes into the application material is roughly similar in all places, but different institutions often use different different formats or just different terminology. The cover letter may not always be explicitly required, but make sure to include it anyway as it’s your chance to customize the application and present an overview of your profile that is sufficiently short to be read in its entirety. The research statement (also research plan, research highlights) is a combination of presenting your research in a convincing frame and outlining future work. The latter part is normally the shorter of the two, even though some advertisements seem to suggest that it should be organized like a full-fledged research grant application. I took such notes as a suggestion to be concrete in outlining future work; but I would still recommend to give enough space for describing what you have already done, since that can be much more compelling in a hiring context. The teaching statement is not always required; in a few cases, it had to follow an elaborate format used internally by the organization. I always tried to stick to the format (within reason), but I never had the impression the teaching statement was given much attention. For both research and teaching statement, always stick to the given page limit if they give one (if there’s no page limit, still don’t overdo it; at least, length should be commensurate to achievements). The CV is probably what the hiring committee goes through once they get past the cover letter. It’s important that it’s carefully organized, not just to highlight your achievements but also in a way that it can be skimmed through efficiently. The publications list is another part that may have to stick to a given format (for example, journal and conference papers in different categories). I sometimes took the liberty of ignoring the requirements when I had a good reason to do so; in particular, I listed conference and journal papers in the same category because that’s how we roll in computer science. Make sure publications are numbered in a way that makes it easy to count them — at least until we stop the numbers game (don’t hold your breath).
The practice of requiring (or not) reference letters is customary in English-speaking countries. While it’s catching up in most of Europe as well, there are some countries where referees are not used at all. My suggestion is to include the list of referees in your CV regardless of whether they are required or not. In places where officially using recommendation letters is not customary or not permitted by the regulation, the hiring committee may still decide to get the same information informally by talking to your referees. When I’ve be involved in hiring decisions (in my case, regarding PhD students), I’ve always found that recommendation letters can play a big role especially in the case where the competition among candidates is strong.
Frustratingly, some institutions required applicants to jump through some additional hoops, like requiring to fill in a Word form (so poorly designed that even copy-pasting into it was a challenge), or using a poorly-designed submission system that asks you to enter the publication information using online forms (needless to say with no BibTeX import options). My policy has generally been to ignore as many as these artificial requirements as possible, unless they were relevant to the specific application or there was no other way of providing that information. In one case, I just wrote something like “See the attached material” in the first input form on the online application, and attached a single PDF with my actual application material. Result: they soon invited me for an interview. Provided you have carefully prepared your standard application material and you have a competitive profile, no reasonable person will desk-reject you just because you didn’t use Word. Indeed, sticking to your format and your story may even show some independence and that your time is valuable too (that’s my opinion at least). In any case, make sure to leave enough time before the application deadline to go through the submission system and check any unusual requirements.
The interview may turn out to be interviews (plural): some places do selection in stages, and may organize a presentation and informal discussion with a few shortlisted candidates, and then invite half of them to a formal interview at a later date. To my great surprise, there are a few places that refuse to reschedule an interview if the invited candidate is not available on the suggested date. This strategy is clearly detrimental to getting the best candidates; it’s a mystery to me why some practice it against their self-interest. Of course you should try to clear your schedule as much as possible during interview season, but complete inflexibility on the other side is not an inviting sign.
The actual interview typically follows a talk by the candidate on their research, teaching, or both. The talk’s length changes wildly — from ten minutes to one hour. Whatever your time budget it, stay within it — you do not want to be cut off. For the actual interview you usually sit around a table with the hiring committee. Unlike what is described about north America, you do not typically get to have one-on-one meeting with administrative figures; everybody sits around the same table and they all take turn asking you questions on their specific area of interest or expertise (research, teaching, career, and so on). It’s useful to have answers to most “standard” questions rehearsed in advance (but not rigidly memorized), so as to be assertive and to-the-point.
In most, but not all, places you also have a chance to have some informal contact with a small number of faculty members, typically those who are closer to your research interests and you may already know. This step is very important because, if no one in the hiring committee has a direct interest in what you do, the chances that they’ll hire you are dim. I also believe that this part of the interviewing process is about you getting to know the place and your potential future colleagues too. If a place does not give you any chance to chat with the faculty over lunch, or to get an idea of how the department works “from below”, it’s hardly a good sign. If you do know somebody on the faculty, you should also go ahead and contact them proactively in advance to make room for such informal meetings.
With few exception, the decision comes in one or two weeks after you interviewed. It’s unlikely that you have a lot of time to decide: this seems in contrast to the US where offers are often extended without time limits. Still, you should be able to take at least a couple of weeks after the negotiation ends. Thus it’s quite likely that, if you applied to numerous places, you will not have a chance to line up all offers and decide. To prepare for that, it’s useful to rank the places where you applied from best to worst (according to your preferences), as well as according to an estimate of how competitive getting that position is; the rankings will change interview after interview based on your refined impression of each place. Then, if you have to decide on an offer, you can base your decision on which other options are still open or may become open later on. If you feel creative, you may use an optimal stopping strategy :-).
Negotiation is often not a big deal, because conditions tend to be standardized by age and experience. Most of the negotiation is actually learning in details about the employment conditions. But what is offered is not the same everywhere. For instance not all places have a starting package or pay relocation costs. Directly comparing salaries in Europe is also difficult because the cost of living changes significantly from country to country, and so do income taxes. Related to this, it is important to learn about each country’s national research funding system. This also varies considerably from country to country, and it can make a big difference in how many resources you will be able to raise on top of whatever the university grants you.
In hindsight I was invited to interview wherever there was a clearly good match between my profile and the advertised position in terms of research area and expected seniority. While you cannot pretend you are younger than you actually are (academic age starts running when you get your PhD), some people try to change the research statement to fit some of the topics highlighted in the call for applications. I never did that, and I suggest against doing it. First, because writing a strong research statement requires time and a lot of polishing; tweaking it last-minute for each new application runs the risk of becoming less readable and compelling. Second, because the research statement should present your research according to your vision; feigning expertise in topics that you’re not really expert in is unlikely to convince the real experts who are hiring. However, do customize the cover letter with a few strategic sentences where you show that you can clearly make a connection to the specific topic, and that you have genuine interest in making it. Also, don’t be shy in applying broadly — within reason — without necessarily waiting for the perfect match: a strong application is always well received, even if it does not get you an interview or an offer (I’ve had a couple of cases of positive feedback about my profile, who clearly said that they were not following up because they were looking for a different profile but appreciated my application nonetheless).
While academic job search involves a long and stressful process, you should also have a chance to enjoy some moments of it. In fact, interviewing is not that dissimilar from meeting people at conferences and other scientific events. The interviewing panels where you find the most at ease may also provide a strong indication of which places you want to work for. In any case, good luck!