PhD Questions of the Month: September 2020

Welcome to the second installment of our blog series, PhD Questions of the Month, where the Grad Student/Postdoc Team at Career Services answers the top three career questions that we are asked in our individual PhD career advising appointments. Before we move on to our questions for September, we want to acknowledge the devastatingly difficult faculty job market that many PhDs are encountering. We have heard from many of you, especially those who have been on the academic job market last year, that this year’s offerings have been few for many academic disciplines. It is no doubt tremendously hard to remain optimistic given these circumstance, and we are here to support you whether you are applying for the faculty positions you see and/or thinking about postacademic career opportunities, or pursuing both paths for now. Make an appointment with a career advisor via Handshake, and we’ll be happy to help you strategize your career plans.

This month, we’ve worked with a number of PhD students and postdocs working on their faculty job and postdoc applications and have answered many questions about application documents. Here are the top three:

How do I write a strong diversity statement?

We’ve gotten a lot of questions about the diversity statement from grad students and postdocs, as more and more institutions are requesting this document as part of the application package. Before starting to compose this statement, it’s helpful to see how the institution is defining diversity, including what terms they use—for example, do they say “diversity and inclusion”? Or “diversity, equity, and inclusion”?—and what they have done to demonstrate their commitment to these values. After researching this information, you can start to think about your own experiences and actions that have enhanced diversity at your institution. If you don’t feel that your personal experiences are relevant, don’t worry. Focus on the contributions you’ve made to diversity, equity, and inclusion in terms of your research, teaching, and service. In your research, do you study marginalized groups of people who have often been neglected and understudied in the literature? Do you find ways to share your research beyond the ivory tower? In terms of teaching, what strategies do you use to promote an inclusive classroom? How have you designed and managed your courses to make it equitable and accessible for all students? In your service work, have you mentored students from underrepresented groups whether formally or informally? Have you engaged with the local community beyond your university? Answering questions like these and relating your past experiences and contributions to what you hope to achieve specifically at the institution you’re applying to can help strengthen your diversity statement. For more information, visit Career Services’ page on diversity statements.

What does a good teaching statement look like?

A strong teaching statement provides the search committee with a clear sense of what motivates and guides your teaching as well as how you would teach in the classroom at their institution. It is helpful to begin with your thoughts on how and why you teach and what you hope students will gain from your courses, and then spend the rest of the statement providing some concrete examples from your classroom experience. What was one of your most successful assignments or class activity, and why? How do you engage and interact with students? What strategies do you employ in the classroom? If you have not taught your own course yet, we encourage you to outline what you plan to do when you teach a specific course. The teaching statement should also include the kinds of courses you would be excited to teach at the specific institution you’re applying to. In addition, remember to pay attention to the prompt of the teaching statement, if there is one. Some institutions have recently requested teaching statements that focus specifically on how you have contributed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in your teaching. Read more about this document on Career Services’ page on teaching statements, and check out resources offered by our colleagues at Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

How do I tailor my CV for applying to research-focused and teaching-focused institutions?

The main way to tailor your CV for a specific institution is to figure out how much it values research vs. teaching, and then prioritize the order of your CV sections based on that balance. You can do some research by looking at their website, specifically how they market themselves: Do they pride themselves on being a top-tier research institution? Do they discuss undergraduate teaching as their main focus? Do they discuss research mostly in the context of involving undergraduates in research? You should also read the job ad very closely. Do they talk about teaching first before research? Are the job responsibilities mostly on research agendas, publication plans, and external grants, or do they focus primarily on teaching and course/curriculum development? For a research-oriented institution, we advise putting your research experience, publications, and fellowships/awards sections before your teaching experience. For institutions that clearly prioritize undergraduate teaching over research, we suggest putting your teaching experience before research and publications.


If you have general questions you’d like us to address on this blog, feel free to use #PhDQuestionsoftheMonth on Twitter. If you’re interested in talking about any of these questions in depth as it relates to your own faculty job search, make a career advising appointment with our team. We look forward to working with you!

By Helen Pho
Helen Pho Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs Helen Pho