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I'm an established, normal, non-stellar postdoc in computer science, several years after my PhD defense, and am going now for higher-rank academic positions. A particular university in the US offers both assistant and associate professor positions in my subfield. These are two different positions, but the announcements are copy-and-pasted with small adaptations. I would like to apply for both, since I wish to maximize my chances at a small additional cost (about an hour of adapting the cover letter and submitting).

  • Is it normal to apply for two positions simultaneously?
  • Is there anything particular to be paid attention to in the application documents (cover letter, research statement, teaching statement, reference list, publication list)?
  • What are the typical pitfalls of job seekers in such a case?
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    From my understanding, the chances of getting an associate professor position (in the US) without being a well-reputed assistant professor or having a stellar resume (in terms of publications, grants, industry, committee work etc.) is very small. But, you can always apply to the assistant professor position :) – The Guy Sep 21 '17 at 16:36
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First of all, are you sure you have a clear idea on the distinction between an assistant professor and an associate professor at a US institution, and in particular at this US institution?

The majority of associate professorships come with tenure, so that's the first thing to find out. To go from a postdoc position to a tenured position on arrival is possible but really rare -- this is something that happens to someone because they're a superstar, not because they went the extra mile in applying for more positions. To apply for both a tenured position and an untenured position sounds a bit weird to me: are you qualified for and desiring of tenure on arrival or not? If the associate professor position does not come with tenure, it is not completely clear what the advantage to you in taking it is. At all US institutions I know, the responsibilities and rights of all tenure track faculty are essentially identical (exceptions include certain faculty votes). Moreover, in my department the average salary for assistant professors is sometimes higher than that for associate professors, because the annual raises do not keep up with market value. At most institutions I know of you get a fixed, automatic raise upon promotion from assistant to associate and from associate to full, so arriving as an assistant professor with a short tenure clock might be more lucrative than arriving as an associate professor.

I would recommend against doing this "just to economize." To address your specific questions:

Is it normal to apply for two positions simultaneously?

It is not so abnormal, anyway. I have often seen people apply for both postdoc and tenure track assistant professor positions. Actually though this makes more sense to me, because these are both natural continuations of a PhD or postdoc position. But I can't think of anyone who has applied for two positions and been awarded the higher position. (I applied to my present institution for a postdoc the year before I applied as a tenure track assistant professor. I didn't get the postdoc position, but I did get the tenure track one the next year!)

I think most people's reaction to that will just be to consider you for whichever of the two positions seems most appropriate to them. Conversely, if multiple positions are available and you apply to one position, if those who read your application think you are better suited for another position, they may invite you to apply for it or even just carry over your application.

Is there anything particular to be paid attention to in the application documents (cover letter, research statement, teaching statement, reference list, publication list)?

Presumably the documents would all be identical except for the cover letter. If you actually have a good rationale to apply for both, the cover letter is a good place to explain this.

What are the typical pitfalls of job seekers in such a case?

The main risk is along the lines I outlined above: it makes you look a bit naive and unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of academic jobs. But most young academics are this way to some extent, so I don't think it's a terrible risk. On the other hand, I don't see much reward either.

All of this is a great thing to talk to your advisors / mentors about, by the way. If you're really a good fit to go straight to an associate professor job, they'll know and be happy to tell you.

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    I know a number of people who have applied to joint assistant/associate level searches without specifying which level they want. They were either assistant coming up for tenure or associate willing to take a step back (to step up) and willing to take a position with a short tenure clock, but wanted to use that as a negotiating point (if you are not going to give me tenure, then I want more money). – StrongBad Sep 21 '17 at 17:25
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    @Axel yes, in that I know people who have gotten appointed with and without tenure. In some departments hiring with tenure is much harder to do and the Dean's like to see short tenure clocks, other departments do not care. Letting departments have what they want means you can get more of what you want. – StrongBad Sep 21 '17 at 17:40
  • @StrongBad: Yes, that's a good point. If you're already a tenure track assistant professor with some time served, it makes much more sense to consider positions at both levels. In my own experience this would not really be done by applying for two separate positions but by applying for a position and then negotiating the particulars, but surely it works that way at some institutions. – Pete L. Clark Sep 21 '17 at 18:57
  • @PeteL.Clark I agree about the one application, single departments running two searches in the same area is a rare thing, at least in my field. – StrongBad Sep 21 '17 at 19:03
  • I know cases of people hired as associate professor, tenure track. – Martin Argerami Sep 21 '17 at 21:27
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I'm going to answer for the general case (applying for two positions) and then touch on your specific case.

Is it normal to apply for two positions simultaneously?

In a general sense, it is normal to apply for two or more open positions for which you are otherwise qualified. For example, my current position was one of two that were similar in broad strokes, but had somewhat different spins on what they were looking for. In these cases, candidates are often shuffled into the position that the hiring committee thinks is the best fit, though with the possibility of being moved around if the short list of people who "naturally" fit in Position A happen to be better than the people for Position B.

In your particular case however, those two positions are based on rank. Unless this university has an unusual definition of associate professor, that's a tenured or at the very least "established researcher" position, and I'd peg your odds of being able to move into that position as being indistinguishable from zero.

Is there anything particular to be paid attention to in the application documents (cover letter, research statement, teaching statement, reference list, publication list)?

The cover letter, research statement and teaching statement need to speak to the specific position. This often doesn't have to be much, but they should not be whole-hog duplicates. For example, your cover letter should mention the specific position, and why you think you're qualified for that position.

In your case...you'd need to justify why you're appropriate for an associate professor rank. While there are some people just entering faculty jobs who I could see articulating such a case (senior quasi-academics in government or private industry moving into academia) I have a hard time envisioning such a case for you, given the information we have.

What are the typical pitfalls of job seekers in such a case?

As long as you're qualified for both positions, and speak to them, I don't think there are major pitfalls.

However, if you aren't really well suited for both positions, you run the risk of your applications coming off as "spammy" and wasting the search committee's time, even if you might have been an okay candidate for one of them. And in your case, you'd be coming off as worrisomely naive about how academia actually works for someone expected to be running their own research program in the very near future.

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    +1 worrisomely naive as usual, you put into words what I am thinking in a much clear way than I can. – StrongBad Sep 21 '17 at 17:43
  • @StrongBad Very kind of you to say. – Fomite Sep 21 '17 at 17:47
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I'm an established, normal, non-stellar postdoc in computer science, several years after my PhD defense

Then you might be qualified for an assistant level TT position, but unless your subfield is really unique, then I do not see how you would be qualified for an associate level position. Promotion from assistant to associate usually occurs somewhere between 5 and 7 years after starting. Even in a hot field where your years as a post doc might count towards the tenure clock, I don't see how someone who describes themselves as a normal, non-stellar postdoc would be competitive for an associate level position.

What are the typical pitfalls of job seekers in such a case?

The major pitfall is that by applying to both people conclude that you do not understand how the academic system works and that you are unaware of the work that it will take for you to eventually get promoted to associate. At some point, if you are "lucky" your application will be looked at relative to other associate level applications. This can result in nasty things being said about your qualifications (e.g., the funding record is really weak or the references make you sound inexperienced) to move you down the rankings. These statements may then carry over to the assistant level search even if they might be completely untrue at the assistant level.

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    @Axel: I can't tell, but it seems you may still be missing the point. The discussion about "normal, non-stellar postdoc" is coming up because unless your letters of recommendation will say "This is the single strongest postdoc in the US in the last 5 years" then there is no way you will jump straight from a postdoc to a tenured position, and applying for one looks naive. – Tom Church Sep 22 '17 at 4:10

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