I got my PhD recently. I applied to many tenure-track positions and got selected for several onsite job interviews. Yay. However I have actually been told in no uncertain terms by several trusted people that this year, my chances are extremely close to zero, considering my short track record.

I cannot help but get my hopes up. How do I deal with this upcoming unavoidable failure and put a good spin for myself on my situation?

It may sound stupid but like many people in academia, so far I have been quite successful and have not had to deal with professional failure much... (Consider this: good in school, good in university, graduated with honors, got accepted to masters, got accepted to PhD, got the PhD - most people in academia follow this kind of path. I hope this does not come across as immodest, I am very aware that I am just a cog in the grand (grant?) scheme of academia. I am good at what I do but not at the rest.) Of course I met failure very often in my private life, but this does not feel the same.

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    At least in my field, it's quite unusual to land a tenure-track position right after PhD --- usually, one or more postdocs is the norm. Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 16:56
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    I'm not sure this is on-topic, as your basic question (how to deal with failure) is not really specific to academia. My advice is to go and play some sports, hang out with friends, watch your favourite TV show, call your mum, let yourself feel sad for a while. Failure is an important part of life as an academic and you kind of just have to get used to it. Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 17:02
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    It is contradictory that you say this question is not on-topic and at the same time failure is an important part of being academic.
    – user91750
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 17:04
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    In my field (mathematics, U.S.), also, it would be unreasonable to expect to get a tenure-track position immediately after PhD. Happens to virtually no one. Post-doc first. Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 17:12
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    grant scheme of academia -- that's beautiful. Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 19:58

8 Answers 8


I suggest dealing with the situation by revising your (misguided, IMO) definition of “failure”. Even if it is, as you say, “ineluctable”, that you will fail to land a tenure-track position this year, you will still be a highly qualified and highly successful person with excellent career prospects. To refer to this as a failure is itself a failure - a failure of the imagination, that is.

I and most other successful academics had to spend multiple years after graduation to get a good tenure-track position. Almost all of us struggled with repeated rejections, job uncertainty, and geographic dislocation before arriving at a good place career-wise. Keep your eyes focused on your long-term goals and on the fun and passion of doing research, and given your description of your situation I predict that you will be fine. Regardless of what happens with your current job search, a “failure” you most certainly are not.

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    +1 It is especially misguided to consider it a failure if most people eventually getting those jobs have held postdoc positions, and you (i.e. OP) haven't. If anything, it's an achievement to get to the interview stage without that background.
    – Anyon
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 19:54
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    Those initial years of uncertainty and dislocation can be rough. I've known a few people who otherwise seemed to be great (or at least good enough) researchers who enjoyed being in academia that couldn't handle those years and left. Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 4:14

I cannot help but get my hopes up. How do I deal with this upcoming unavoidable failure and put a good spin for myself on my situation?

One way to put a good spin on this is to consider these interviews as free practice with no real cost associated. If your chances are basically zero, you have nothing to lose by attending, right? But you have a lot to gain: experience with how such interviews go, what to do and what to avoid, how people respond etc. It's also an opportunity to make all the first-timer errors in a situation where they don't matter much (because they can't really lower your chances).

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    This is absolutely the right spirit. Unless you have a great mentor training you for interviews, your first few job talks and on-campus interviews will be miserable, and just getting the chance to train this while you are still young is already a big success.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 13:48

At some point, someday, everyone fails to meet their highest targets and is disappointed. Even the most successful people. Don't worry. Keep doing your job and setting high targets for yourself.


A tenured position is a senior one and – as everyone has said – it is not available for new PhDs.

Apply for junior positions – "Assistant" Professor/Lecturer or Research Associate.

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    There are tenure-track assistant professor positions. That said, I agree with the general point that it is rare to get such a position straight after one's PhD, although I do now of some cases
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 3:23
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    I just edited OP's question to reflect "tenure-track" rather than "tenured," an important distinction you picked up on. (Mentioning in comment so no one asks you, "What are you talking about? The question clearly says...") Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 3:44
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    Apparently, i'm not a mind-reader. I didn't know what you two seem to.
    – Martin F
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 4:19
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    This advice doesn't apply everywhere. In France for example, there is nothing between "postdoc" and "maître de conférences" (a permanent position, just below full professor).
    – user9646
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 16:40
  • Mind reading here at Academia SE will come with practice. It's such an international site, with all flavors of English. You'll get the hang of intuiting what the OP meant (often but not always). Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 3:00

"I cannot help but get my hopes up. How do I deal with this upcoming unavoidable failure and put a good spin for myself on my situation?"

Part of the difficulty is that the process of applying and interviewing is selling the employer on what a good match you are for them, and how well you will do there. To see and describe that match requires you to spend time imagining your future there, and it would be extremely hard to sell the employer on that future without selling yourself on it and getting your own hopes up.

Perhaps you can deal with managing your expectations by telling yourself, "Wow, I really can imagine working in a place like this." There's a whole collection of colleges or universities that will have similar attributes to what you like there, and your interviews this year will help you recognize and appreciate what you're looking for in the future. (You can similarly be excited about the people you meet and like at your interviews. You're lucky to have people like that in your field, and you will hopefully cross paths again.) Good luck!


Don't consider the reject a failure at all. Careers are built step by step. Accept the fact that you may not get right now the position you look for.

The number of rejects you got may be statistically insignificant. Also, it may be that in your field, tenure track positions are usually given after postdoc. Understand the supply and demand of your field.

Consider alternatives:

  • Postdoc, as obvious as it sounds.
  • Employment in industry. May pay better than academia and may give you a fresh perspective. Won't recommend freelancing until you are not accustomed with the "ways" of industry.
  • Own business: have you developed something during the PhD that may be of economic value?
  • My assumption is that you are in the US. Other countries may need people like you, and a few years abroad would open up new perspectives. While abroad, understand the new culture and keep publishing with the help of the people around you.

No matter what, even if you got underemployed (I'm assuming you have debts and you need to pay your lodging) do not give up, keep researching or at least yourself up-to-date with your field.

I'm doing data mining. Sometimes, we do everything by the book and we figure out we did it wrong. This is good, because by understanding what we did wrong, we have the chance to do it right next iteration.


Are you a bigger failure if you do not get it than if you had not applied at all?


Well, then that is really your answer: You gave it a shot with a high risk of failure, and you are not worse off because of it.


There are two possible ways you can approach this.

  1. Trust the multiple trusted people, and don't apply to positions that they say are beyond your reach at this stage.

  2. Or, you could use the applications as a barometer, a measuring stick. If you get offered a job of the type you would like, then you are one in a million. If you get shortlisted but not hired, then you are pretty close to your goal. If your applications don't resonate with anyone yet, that shows you your next steps to take, to work towards your goal. It's like the elves cutting out the leather for the shoemaker to sew together the boots. Once you have that feedback (the lack of resonance), that gives you the cut of the cloth. You know what to do next. You know how to sew the boots together -- that is, you know how to find topics, do your research, do your writing, submitting, revising.

    Focus on those things. Focus on the timeline that you are ineluctably marching along. Focus on goals and work and progress.

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