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Long story short: I got my PhD a few years ago, and am currently in a temporary job. Anticipating future job applications, I found myself an experienced, senior local mentor. My time in this job is now almost at an end, and I've been submitting dozens of job applications, including to jobs far "below" the one I'm in now. These applications have so far all ended in rejection without interview. So I quietly reached out to some other experienced members of the faculty for their advice.

What I'm experiencing now is a case of too many mentors spoiling the broth. I have been told variously that, in order to get a job, my main, most urgent priority should be:

  • writing higher-quality papers to publish in top journals
  • polishing and publishing my older preprints, even if they're not so high-quality
  • speaking at conferences/seminars on the wider international stage
  • organising conferences / similar community admin
  • applying for more grants

etc. etc. I've also been given a list as long as my arm of things that are not my most urgent priority, but are still important. They're all great pieces of advice individually, but I'm finding the lack of coherent prioritisation overwhelming given the few months I have remaining, and I'm struggling to imagine how I could achieve some of these things even if I had a year or more left.

  1. How should I be prioritising my time in the remaining few months? (For the purpose of this question, my goal is to end up not being forced out of UK academia without another job lined up.)

  2. How should I prioritise my time in my next temporary job, if I manage to find one? (For this question, my goal is to end up with a permanent research/teaching contract in the UK within the next few years.)


Edited to add extra background information on request:

  • I'm in pure mathematics.
  • I've written several papers that have been published in good-to-very-good, well-known journals, though nothing nearing e.g. Inventiones. The preprints that I haven't yet submitted are likely to be similar. Of course, I'm working on more and better, but I am worried that I'll be forced out of academia long before any of it is finalised, much less published.
  • I have spoken at conferences and seminars internationally, a couple of times. I'm on the lookout for more opportunities.
  • I have never organised a conference or done any big admin work like that: my living situation is far too precarious to allow it, because of the lack of stable job.
  • The amount of smaller admin work (e.g. peer review, session chair) I've done is very limited. I'm on the lookout for opportunities, but not finding anything.
  • I've applied for a couple of small awards, and I'm in the process of applying for my first grant. Most of them I'm not eligible for, because they don't replace your salary, and need to be co-signed by an employer willing to pay your salary (which I don't have).
  • I'm aware that postdocs and fixed-term lectureships are different jobs. I include them because their job descriptions are almost identical and because I am applying for both. If you can only answer on one, or have to answer separately for each, please do.
  • 1
    This seems difficult to answer without knowing your particular case, and, as you have seen, even then. – Tommi Feb 22 at 13:22
  • @TommiBrander Well, I've witnessed a small number of people disagreeing over my own particular case, so I'm opening it up to SE for a more statistically representative sample. I'm happy to answer some questions on my particular case if needs be, though I'm not sure you should really need to know the details of my case to be able to tell me whether e.g. not having organised a conference is a dealbreaker for employers. – MacIntyre Feb 22 at 13:30
  • Have you considered that the advice isn't objectively 'good' or 'bad' but everyone's experience is different and different advice is good for different people / different reviewers / interviewers. Remember, it is humans making decisions on whether to give you a job and they're all going to have different decision making process. Remember when people give advice they're usually telling you what worked for them. If A works for 60% of the population and the opposite, B, works for the other 40%... does that make B bad advice? Or should you consider whether A or B will work better for you? – E. Rei Feb 22 at 13:40
  • @E.Rei I don't understand this comment. Did you just read the paraphrased question in the title, rather than the whole post? Different interviewers of course have different priorities, but that doesn't mean that there aren't general trends in the things they care about, and I am interested in maximising my chances. In that case, even if B is not 'bad' advice, switching from B to A gives me a 50% higher chance of getting a job, and I'd very much like to know that. – MacIntyre Feb 22 at 13:48
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    I'm not asking for statistics or research; the UK system seems to be changing so quickly that I doubt this exists anyway. (Though, if it does exist, and it answers my question, then obviously I would like to be pointed towards it.) I am just asking for the opinions of a larger population, in the hopes of extracting some kind of trends, rather than a small number of entirely contradictory data points. I'll edit my post to take the advice of your final sentence into account - thanks. – MacIntyre Feb 22 at 14:01
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My advice would be:

  • write more applications

Academic job hunt is a gamble. Boosting your CV does improve your chances, but it is still a gamble. There is no security in this game and no guaranteed strategies. Places which seem to be a 100% match can reject you without an interview, and places where you barely meet the role specification can shortlist you. There are often more criteria than are written in the job specification and there are often several competing agendas each Department wants to fulfil.

A few months is not enough to publish your best piece (review process may take years). Speaking at conferences may help, but realistically even if a professor will love your work and would like to hire you, they may not be able to do it immediately, unless they have funds to spare (very rare and unlikely situation in the UK). Organising a conference takes more than a year.

tl;dr: polish your CV and application pack, submit more job applications and (if you have time) prepare a Fellowship application, e.g. to EPSRC

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Priorities:

  1. Tactical execution of the job search (lots of applications, beat the bushes).

  2. Applying for grants (more work per contact than 1, thus lower priority).

  3. Racking up more easy pub count by cleaning up and publishing preprints. Need to be able to take credit for that stuff. It is low work and decent return.

I would put doing serious new papers as the lowest priority. Not sure what you are doing now, but would probably decrease the time spent on this. Don't be obvious about this--people should still think you are toiling away--but shift your focus to job search. Postdocs are not very well paid anyways and it is expected postdocs will be looking for next gig. Just think it is a lot of work and likelihood of a result is low. Plus it's very unlikely to help you in time.

I would definitely use every chance you can to do a talk (and then line up some interviews in same location). Just give your standard thesis or current research overview talk. No extra work to prepare stuff. But make sure your travel is funded. Don't fly around on your own.

  • Thanks for your answer. Can I ask what you mean by "beat the bushes"? – MacIntyre Feb 23 at 16:47
  • Incidentally: unfortunately, the first piece of advice I was given by a trusted colleague was to produce big new papers. My PhD supervisor was also very heavy on this, even going so far as to dismiss seminars and conferences and grants as "nonsense" and "a waste of time" at my career stage. So that's most of what I've been doing, until very recently, when it transpired that this wasn't working for me because it wasn't actually producing measurable outputs in the timeframe. – MacIntyre Feb 23 at 16:58
  • I disagree with your advisor. You won't have those big papers created and accepted in time to affect anything. – guest Feb 23 at 17:13
  • Do a Google search on "beat the bushes". The top result gives a definition. – guest Feb 23 at 17:16
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All advice is good. All advice is bad. Every candidate is different. Nearly every post doc position is different, at least at the hiring stage.

The important lesson is that every candidate will have to make her/his own case for the job. You will need to extract from your background all of the things you have done, as well as your basic work ethic, that makes you the best candidate for the job.

The next most important lesson, perhaps, is that you will likely face a lot of competition. But everyone in the pool will represent trade-offs. You will be (seen as) better than some on some measures, and not as good on others.

Your past is your past. You can't change it. You probably can't add enough in the short term to make much of a difference. So, just make your best case and good luck.

One thing you can do, proactively, is to make your case on paper and then have a trusted colleague give you feedback on it. Not just advice on whether it is "good enough", but what specific things might be added/dropped/changed to strengthen it.

  • I appreciate the fourth paragraph of this answer in particular, which is a very direct answer to my question. But I'm confused as to how the rest of this answer relates. On your last paragraph in particular: "have a trusted colleague give you feedback" - my post starts with telling you that I've done this, several times over, and that's where the trouble started! – MacIntyre Feb 23 at 16:57
  • Not asking for general advice. Ask for advice on a specific draft. See what they say about precisely how you present yourself. – Buffy Feb 23 at 17:02
  • Yeah, I've done that too, with CVs, research proposals, teaching statements, etc. Most people I speak to agree that they are very well written and presented and so on - they just think that I should have more on my CV. It's more of what that they don't agree on. – MacIntyre Feb 23 at 17:06
  • Be yourself. Don't be them. Build where you are most able. Make your best case. Don't think of it as a spreadsheet optimization problem. – Buffy Feb 23 at 17:11

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