Applying for an Academic Job in the US: Differences and Similarities

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

Following the previous article about working in the US, this article advises you on some of the advantages and challenges of the American academic system and offers some guidance for those outside the US who want to move there for work, specifically in a higher education environment.

US college system

The college system is very different to that in the UK. Almost all undergraduate students stay at university for four years, not three. They have a ‘major' subject, but overall get a much broader education than British universities offer because they are encouraged to take classes outside their major. This means as a lecturer you could be teaching students from many different faculties with different skills and educational backgrounds, not just those with specialisms in your area.

The most prestigious universities are the Ivy League colleges (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and Yale) but these are closely followed in reputation by private research institutions such as Duke, Emory and the University of Chicago. All states have their own public education system, which is where the majority of American college students go. These vary in quality so make sure you research an institution's strengths and weaknesses should you apply for a job in a ‘state school'. Many states also have community colleges which offer access programmes that lead to a degree course at a university.

Career ladder: terminology

As there are so many types of college, and varying departmental and faculty structures within them, it is difficult to generalise about academic life in the US. Almost any claim of a typical experience would only ring true for a small number of academics. However, the overall pattern is that most doctoral candidates in the US take much longer to complete their research than in the UK (around eight years instead of three or four in the UK). This is partly because ‘grad students', as they are known across the pond, are required to take taught elements, and also because many are employed nearly full time as teaching and research assistants or ‘adjuncts' to the full time professors. In the US everyone with a permanent (or ‘tenure track') job is known as a ‘professor', a system thus far only employed by a few universities in the UK such as Warwick. Once you have your doctorate you will begin to apply for ‘tenure track' posts, but these jobs in good universities are incredibly competitive and many academics find themselves working on short-term (non-tenured) positions for several years. According to a Cornell education journal, less than 40% of all faculty positions are now tenured, so well over half of the members of academic staff are on short-term contracts. See for more information.

Achieving ‘tenure' is not an exact science and the experience is different everywhere. It usually takes between six and twelve years, with some academics never achieving it. A faculty will offer tenure to those it considers to have an outstanding research and teaching record. Each department has slightly different assessment criteria for awarding tenure, and in fact, if you are in the job market and get offered an interview for a tenure track post then it is worth asking your potential employers how this would work.

Application packets: what do I need?

Applying for a job in the US is a time-consuming business. You have to put together an entire application packet. This can include a cover letter (specifically tailored to the job you are applying for), a résumé (this is the US word for a CV, covering similar points: summarising your teaching, research and administrative experience), a writing sample, letters of recommendation from your referees, your university transcripts (i.e. a record of your marks achieved at undergraduate and postgraduate level), and testimonials from students as to your teaching quality. Not all of these are required in every case, so check each job advertisement carefully to see what is needed. You may also be required to send multiple copies of your packet, so be prepared to send off large packages when applying for US positions.

The interviews

There are several rounds of interviews to get through for many academic positions, so be prepared for a long haul. The first stage is often a telephone interview, which has the advantage of allowing you to have notes in front of you as you talk, but makes it harder to convey such personal attributes as enthusiasm because of not being able to use visual cues. Also you will have to cope with conference call technology where you have to chat to several people at once, which can be disconcerting.

A second interview stage is conducted at a large conference. In many fields, large organisations hold their annual conferences which double as interview opportunities. These can be very stressful with long queues of candidates waiting to see each interviewer. People also find it odd being interviewed in a small booth in a conference room, or even in a hotel bedroom! However, these interviews are designed to help universities pick the best few who will then be invited to the university itself.

The university interview is longer than in the UK, partly because of distances travelled to reach interviews. You will probably find the process continues over two days offering opportunities to meet with students and other colleagues in social as well as more formal settings. This part of the process is as much for you to check that you want the job as for them to check that they want you. If you are lucky you will then be offered the position. In some cases, if you are rejected your details will be kept on file by the institution and they will contact you should they want someone with your area of expertise in the future.


There are several different ways to enter the US as an employee and, of course, the procedure differs for people of each nationality. You have the chance of applying for a green card, the number of which is strictly limited every year; this is an identification card for permanent resident ‘aliens' (or foreigners). This is seen by many as a step on the road to becoming an American citizen, although there is no definite need to do this to work in the US.

If you do not want to move permanently, there are temporary employment visas available, depending on your profession and how long you want to stay. The United States visa system is one of the most complicated in the world, so allow plenty of time to conduct your own research on what you will need. Your new institution's Human Resources department will be able to offer guidance on procedures too.

Related articles:
7 Top Tips for Job Hunting in the U.S.

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