14

I am applying for faculty jobs. As you all know, it is a stressful and frustrating experience. Many institutions explicitly state that they will not contact candidates who were not selected for an interview. It is like feeling my way around in the dark: I do not know if I was already rejected, I can only suspect it. If I was rejected, I can never be certain about why this happened, and whether it is because of a reason that I have any control over. Is my application simply weak, and if yes, can it be improved at all? Did they have a particular profile in mind even if they did not state it? Did they already have a preferred candidate? Am I too old, in real or academic years (it matters, regardless of what they say)? Am I being disadvantaged by not having networked enough (which does not come to me naturally)?

I have not yet managed to secure any interviews. I am losing hope that I will ever succeed. I have no doubt that this is what I want to do, and I think that I am capable of doing it, but I find it more and more difficult to believe that it will work out for me. This causes a psychological block that makes it difficult to keep going, to keep rewriting applications, to keep working over weekends to get papers out in time to include in applications, etc. Don't get me wrong, I am not consciously giving up, but again and again I find myself having spent a day in front of the computer trying to work but not making much progress. This should not happen, it's been a while since I was a student. Yet writer's block and unintentional procrastination are worse than ever. By the end of the day I loathe my documents and find it hard to trust that they are any good, and just can't make yet another revision. What makes the application experience stressful is that I do not have a very solid basis to judge how realistic my chances are. My supervisor is generally encouraging, but that is not sufficient at this point.

To make this question concrete: I am certain that my problem is far from unique. How have you dealt with this, and how did you manage to keep positive and keep pushing forward? How do you decide in a non-emotional way when it's time to stop and give up?

I sometimes wonder if the fact that I am affected so badly by the situation, up to some psychosomatic symptoms, is a sign that I am simply not suited for a career in academia. One must have better resilience to stress and a better fighting spirit. A professor is responsible not only for themselves, but also for their students, and must support their students and postdocs through similar crises. If I cannot manage myself, how could I support others? This thought does not help at all.

3
  • +1 for username
    – The Guy
    Nov 16 '20 at 23:07
  • 1
    How is that about Academia rather than stress, please? Nov 16 '20 at 23:39
  • "...again and again I find myself having spent a day in front of the computer trying to work but not making much progress. This should not happen..." If it's any consolation, I've been a faculty member for a couple years and this still happens to me some days. Nov 17 '20 at 4:30
21

I'm in a field where some positions get close to 1000 applications. Here are the two pieces of advice I have for everyone on the job market.

  1. Probability does work. If you're a slightly above average applicant, the odds of getting any job from your point of view (in other words, not having any insider information) are at most 5%. For most jobs, it's considerably lower. However, if you send out 100 applications, all those 2-3% chances, plus all those 0.5% chances, actually do add up to something approximating a pretty good chance for a job. (In particular, they are actually pretty close to probabilistically independent.) This means you really should not think about any particular job; your chances of that job are tiny. It's the mass of applications that gives you a chance.

  2. Before the whole process even starts, you should have some idea what you will do if you don't get an academic job. Having a plan is more reassuring than having no plan. Also, having a plan gives you some baseline to compare any prospective job against, so that you don't end up in an unsuitable job.

As a professor at a university with a low-ranked PhD program, I make sure students understand how bad the job market is before agreeing to advise them. I will only agree to advise a student after I've made sure they understand they most likely will not find an academic job after their PhD.

10
  • 7
    In the year 2020, there are not 100 jobs advertised. Nov 15 '20 at 22:47
  • 11
    "I will only agree to advise a student after I've made sure they understand they most likely will not find an academic job after their PhD." Well done. Nov 15 '20 at 22:48
  • I understand that a faculty search is not a one-dimensional horse race, but if we stay in the framework you mentioned, a "slightly above average applicant" has in fact a 0% chance of getting the job (on merit). Because if the position has a 1,000 applicants, you still have 400 in front of you that are much "better" than slightly above average. There's no chance by accident your number gets pulled. That's probably even true if there are 'only' 100 or 30 applicants per job... In such a scenario increasing the number of times you play this game will not really improve your chances much. Nov 16 '20 at 16:46
  • And yes, I totally agree that the "quality" of an application is hard to judge and depends on many random factors as well as a mysterious "match" with what the search committee wants (without knowing it themselves...). However, it is important to keep in mind that in order to win in the game of job applications you actually have to land in the top three or so, not just decently high up in the field. That extremely non-linear payoff is important to keep in mind. Nov 16 '20 at 16:51
  • 3
    @user2705196: You are very much not understanding how different the preferences of different positions are. When 100 US universities hire, their top choices will be 70 or 80 different people, not the same 5 or 10 for all of them. Nov 16 '20 at 17:23
8

Applying for jobs is a stressful job in itself, especially during a time like this. You're certainly not alone in your concerns and anxieties.

In terms of the lack of response/feedback from potential employers, it can be frustrating to not know whether or not you should write them off. Unfortunately, it's just the way it is, and not only in academia. In my own experience on the job market (3 years in a row), if I didn't get a response 4-6 weeks after applying for a job, I would assume that they've moved on to other candidates. In terms of figuring out if there are ways you can improve your application materials, I would suggest having someone (like your supervisor) look over your documents. You can also consult resources like The Professor is In. For example: https://theprofessorisin.com/2017/11/18/your-academic-cover-letter-dont-fall-into-the-cliche-trap-about-teaching/ (though there are a ton of helpful posts about different types of job documents, so spend some time on there searching if you haven't explored her website before) I would say, however, that more often than not, rejections have more to do with fit than qualifications. I've served on a job search committee before, and you get so many applications for a single job, many of which reflect extremely qualified and experienced candidates, but they simply don't match up with what the search committee is looking for, or at least they don't match up nearly as well as other job candidates. So, please don't think that a lack of response necessarily reflects deficiencies on your part.

Coming to some of your concrete questions: for me, it was definitely rough-going, but I kept pushing on because I was certain that I wanted a career in academia. However, I was also certain that I didn't want to suffer financially/get stuck in unstable positions for it, so I was also resolved to leave academia if I couldn't find the right job. In my case, it wasn't until my 3rd year on the market that I had made that decision, and it was only because at that point, I finally had my PhD in hand but had a job where my contract wasn't going to be renewed. My mindset was that - as much as I love teaching and research - I wasn't going to be forced into unemployment or into an underpaid, exploitative job just to stay in academia, because I'd rather be able to pay my bills. In my case, I did end up finding a tenure-track job just as I was starting to prep for non-academic job applications, but I was definitely ready to leave.

Regarding the question of being able to help students when you're struggling yourself: I understand that, but we're all human. We all struggle, and no one is in the position to pass judgement on that. I'd also add - while you might be struggling now - with time, you'll learn to manage, and you'll come out of all of this a bit wiser and in a better position to support others based on your experiences. If anything, the people who offer the best support or the ones who've actually experienced struggles themselves.

2

Apply for a position in Norway (or Sweden)

As a matter of politeness: Please don't apply to positions that are you not interesting in taking if offered.

Every time I have applied for a position in Norway I have received the report of an external committee that has given a ranking of the candidates with a more-or-less brief description of every candidate; whether they are qualified or not and how strong they are (perhaps in comparison to the other candidates), with more attention on the top candidates. I have not received such a list consistently in Sweden, or maybe I have forgotten an instance.

This list gives you an idea of your strength as an applicatant. If you were lucky enough to have some other people you know apply for the same position, you can get an idea of how they compare to you. Furthermore, you may get an idea about how well you managed to communicate with your application materials.

This applies to permanent faculty positions on assistant/associate professor level (førsteamanuensis in Norway), at least.

This does not remove all the stress

There is still the matter of being called or not for interview, how did the interview go, and even if they say they would like to offer you a position, there is still a commitee meeting where they usually check that the recruiting process has followed the relevant laws. And the process is not fast. But at least you get some information.

7
  • 1
    Would they really do this for, say, 500 candidates? Nov 16 '20 at 8:36
  • @AlexanderWoo I guess it is required by law. The amount of (qualified) applicants has not been as huge as 500 in the situations I have seen. Maybe on the order of 100 at most, but I am not going check particular numbers.
    – Tommi
    Nov 16 '20 at 12:24
  • 1
    Thanks for the tip. In fact, I did apply there and received a rejection with no other information than that I was too old in academic age, and therefore disqualified. Sweden seems to have a hard cutoff on the time since obtaining one's PhD. I do appreciate that they at least emailed me about the rejection. Nov 16 '20 at 12:39
  • 1
    @Tommi The rejection letter also stated the number of applicants, which was in fact over 500 ... Nov 16 '20 at 12:42
  • 1
    @AlexanderWoo Yes, they do (by law), but in my experience the "detail" and usefulness of these reports isn't what you would hope it is. I.e., you should not expect a review report but rather a couple of generic bullet points, and more often than not the real reason why you were not selected gets scratched by HR :)
    – xLeitix
    Nov 17 '20 at 8:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.