Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Comparing academic departments when deciding between faculty job offers

If you're in the fortunate position of getting multiple faculty job offers, how should you compare the departments when making your final decision? Here is one set of criteria I've developed, which are most relevant for assistant professor hires at Ph.D.-granting STEM departments in the United States.

Make a big table comparing different departments along these criteria, and then weigh each one based on its personal importance to you and your family.

Some of this information can be found on departmental websites, but you should ask about the other points during your second (return) visit or via phone calls before accepting any offer.

Note that I'm not comparing the details of specific offer letters, since startup packages and other perks are transient. I'm talking about comparing steady-state work environments and what you need to do on the job day-to-day as an assistant professor.

High-level factors

  • Location, location, location (very important, since this is the only thing that a school can't change)
  • Department ranking and prestige in your field (determines the quality of Ph.D. students)
  • General university ranking and prestige (determines the quality of undergrad and master's students)
  • Department type (e.g., computer science vs. information science vs. cognitive science), which affects what kinds of research assistants you can more easily attract
  • Is there a significant-sized professional master's program? (If so, this means that your grad courses will be far larger, and master's students are generally not as interested in research.)
  • Salary (but I wouldn't compare startup packages too much since they're transient)
  • Is this a joint position between multiple departments? (If so, there will be more bureaucratic overhead in the promotion and tenure process.)

Ph.D. students

  • When does the department pay for Ph.D. students, and when do you need to pay out of your grants? (e.g., dept pays for first year then you pay for the rest from grants; dept pays for up to 4 years because Ph.D. students need to TA most of the time)
  • How much does it cost to fund one Ph.D. student for one year? (tuition + stipend + benefits)
  • How much do Ph.D. students need to TA as a departmental requirement? Does the department fund them while they're TAing, or do you still need to fund them from grants?
  • How easy is it for you to personally recruit Ph.D. students and get them admitted to the Ph.D. program (assuming they have no major red flags)?
  • How many classes do Ph.D. students need to take? By what year do they usually finish class requirements?
  • How often are Ph.D. students funded by university-wide fellowships? (this means less fundraising pressure for you)
  • Is there a tradition for converting undergrads or master's students in the department to Ph.D. students? Or is that frowned upon?
  • What is the expected time to Ph.D. degree completion?
  • Do faculty in the department serve as the primary research advisor for master's or Ph.D. students from other departments? If so, which departments? How hard is it logistically to do so?


  • What kinds of implicit grant fundraising expectations are there to make tenure?
  • Does having a larger startup package mean more fundraising expectations for tenure?
  • If you run low on grant money one year, what backup procedures are in place to keep your Ph.D. students funded?


  • What is the “expected” size of a research group in the department?
  • How large of a range is there in research group sizes?
  • What physical research lab space (if any) will you have? How far is it physically from the “center of mass” of the department?


  • How many classes do assistant professors teach per academic year? How many do tenured professors teach?
  • How stable is the teaching assignment for assistant professors? i.e., if you create a set of courses, can you keep teaching those same ones until tenure review time?
  • How many grad-level research seminars will you teach, versus undergrad courses?
  • How big is the typical enrollment in undergrad courses? In grad courses?
  • Will you have to teach “service courses” (i.e., those that mostly serve students from other departments)?
  • How easy is it to find good TAs (both grad and undergrad)?
    • Can your own Ph.D. students TA for your courses? Can you recruit TAs from prior alumni of those courses?
  • Can you stack your teaching so that you teach more courses in a given term and then have a term off from teaching?
  • Is there the option of buying out of teaching with grant money? Is that encouraged or frowned upon pre-tenure? Post-tenure?

Department and university service

  • How many department committees do assistant professors serve on per year? How many do tenured professors serve on?
  • Do assistant professors need to serve as major/minor advisors for undergrads so that they must learn the intricacies of the course requirements bureaucracy?
  • How often do assistant professors serve on university-level committees? Are they expected to do so to get tenure?

Departmental colleagues

  • Department size: how many tenure-track faculty in the department? How many lecturers? How many adjuncts?
  • What is the seniority distribution? Numbers of assistant, associate, and full professors. This gives you an indication of whether the department is stagnant or is investing in growth.
  • Will you be the only person in your subfield in the department?
  • Are there people you can realistically collaborate with here? (If not, that's not a dealbreaker, since you'll have to make your own mark anyways and can't solely lean on collaborators to carry you to tenure.)
  • Are there peers (other assistant professor) in your subfield? If so, how will you be implicitly compared to them when you're all coming up for tenure?
  • Are there senior faculty in your subfield there who may be able to provide field-specific mentorship?
  • Do you sense any factional or ideological rifts between major groups in the department? Or do people seem to get along well from the little that you've been able to observe? (This one is really hard to determine without actually accepting the job, but if you have a bad gut feeling now, then that's a bad sign!)

Tenure history

  • What is the history of assistant professors succeeding when going up for tenure in this department in the past decade?
  • How many assistant professors have quit early and not even gone up for tenure review in the first place?
Created: 2016-04-16
Last modified: 2016-04-16