I'm getting way ahead of myself, but being nervous on the job market I asked an advisor what happens should a candidate receive zero job offers. To which the reply was, "That never happens."

I'm sure that some people have had this experience before. I'm in the social sciences in a discipline that is very competitive with fewer than normal options outside of academia. I still have a ways to go time wise for job expectations, but I am curious about what options others may have gone for in situations where they either received no offers or none that were more appealing than something else that wasn't planned.

My assumption is that people will shoot for adjunct positions or similar options should nothing else come along, and try again in following years. Can anyone speak to being in this kind of position, or knowing someone who has gone through it?

Of course I expect and hope not to be in this position, but I am planning for everything. Others have told me that they apply for upwards of 70 positions in a year, which to me is insane (I don't know how assured I could be in the quality of that many applications). I have probably applied for 20-25 positions thus far, so I don't know if I should be approaching the process differently. And in the worst case situation, where to go from there?

Edit: Thanks all for your sensitive and helpful comments.

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    This is a very wide and open question, but the first thing to do is to get advice from somebody else. I would not trust somebody who claims that "this never happens" to know the first thing about the academic job market.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 16:23
  • 4
    Simply as a matter of numbers, most PhDs do not end up in an academic career, or even in a career that is related to their degree. Take this as an opportunity to think about what you should do with your life. Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 17:11
  • 1
    Is a postdoc an option in your field? That would be the standard alternative in my field (computer science).
    – Thomas
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 19:07
  • "Others have told me that they apply for upwards of 70 positions in a year" Just in the last 2 or 3 days I made a comment here about applying for over 100 positions during 5 separate hiring years between 1993 and 2001, and I know many others did similarly. This may depend on the field, but my 1990s experience in math is you apply to tenure-track positions from November to around March, then in late March to early April (unless things look pretty good) you start applying for visiting positions, and then as the summer drags on, what would have been deal-breakers begin being considered . . . Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 20:25

4 Answers 4


It certainly does happen. And when it does happen, people tend to leave academia for a job in industry, commercial sector, retail, etc.

Unfortunately, the current culture of academia still tends to focus on success stories and turns a blind eye to unlucky candidates, almost treating them as they never existed. Your supervisor's response falls is this sad mainstream paradigm.


It certainly does happen. I have a friend who, in the 70's, took 7 one-year adjunct positions consecutively before he got a tenure-track job. That means he kept U-Haul in business during that time. (That's 8 moves in 7.1 years.)

Also, in the late 80's, the US had a large influx of Chinese grad students (when China was trying to repair the damage the Cultural Revolution did to their education system.) Half of them didn't get jobs the first year out. Many of them were offered one-year "assistant lecturer" positions at their Ph.D. schools, to tide them over and give them another year to apply for jobs.

So that's two things that can happen. The other non-ideal situation is that you paint houses to feed yourself until you can find the academic job you want. Not ideal, but it can be cathartic. There's nothing wrong with any kind of honest work. Just keep applying and keep your attitude up. Be like Dory: Just keep swimming, just keep swimming....


I am also in the social sciences, and I do know people who didn't end up with a tenure-track job upon completion. At this stage, you are not totally out of luck for a tenure-track job (mine came through later than this), but you should be keeping your eye out for suitable alternatives. Talking with your cohort peers might reveal if there is still movement on the primary market at this stage, or if everyone is working the secondary markets now.

Suitable alternatives (secondary market) would include: visiting assistant professor jobs, lecturer/adjunct jobs, postdocs (including in your current institution at centers etc.), government or thinktank research jobs.... Sometimes these are posted in the same places as TT jobs, but they can also be on other websites (especially gov't and thinktank websites) or found through networking. You also might have the option of stretching your PhD an additional year and redoing the search next year.

At this stage, I would send an update to all committee members and ask to meet with each to discuss strategy. At the meeting you should ask them to reach out to their networks for you and especially ask them to help you network for things like post-docs.

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    As a follow-up, I think 20-25 applications is pretty light. I really focused my applications and I did around 40.
    – Dawn
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 20:21

Some humble (and maybe too obvious to state) suggestions from personal experiences.

Tailor your CV and cover letter according to the position requirements
This is usually underrated. But helps a lot. In the last decade, the interest to the academic jobs increased dramatically. Thus, some job advertisements receive abundant number of applications. As a result, some really good candidates get eliminated in the first stage due to their lack of presentation.

Lower your standards
Yes, it might not seem too attractive to apply for a position in a low-tier university. But you have to start somewhere. At the end of the day, your work speaks for itself, not your institution. If you are a good scientist, you will conduct quality research wherever you work. My favorite professor used to tell me that "a pen and a bunch of paper is enough to be a good mathematician." It is not the same thing for social sciences, but the core message, I believe, applies to every field.

On the other hand, you may adopt a mission for yourself: improving the institution from low-tier to higher tiers.

Networking is important
Academia mostly works with references. Therefore, no matter how good you are, it might be the case that people who have strong references get ahead of you. So, try to attend some events, and get to know some people. They are way more approachable than most people think. And believe me, most of them really appreciate ambition. If they have no openings available, they will surely lead you to some good possibilities.

I wish you the best of luck while going through these tough times.

  • a pen and a bunch of paper is enough to be a good mathematician in the 21 century? .. Not so sure. Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 21:53
  • Why not? Mathematical facts do not change by time, I think.
    – padawan
    Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 21:57
  • I am constantly reading in papers and references. I think they'd be needed quite as well. Commented Feb 17, 2018 at 22:48

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