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Speculative applications, i.e. application without a job announcement being published, are common (well, at least normal) in non-academic jobs. But I am not sure the situation is the same in academia. Somebody has suggested me to send speculative applications to different departments for teaching or research jobs. I was thus considering the pros and cons of this type of applications.

The pros are almost evident (more exposure). However, I worry about potential downsides. In particular, how would potential employers look at such an application? Could it make me look bad? Is there any other downside I haven't thought of?

  • This reads too much like an invitation to discussion, I'm afraid: particularly, but not only, the final sentence. – 410 gone Mar 24 '13 at 17:25
  • I am gathering information about the subject. – user4511 Mar 24 '13 at 17:27
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    Would you please explain precisely what you mean by a "speculative application"? – Anonymous Mar 24 '13 at 18:22
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    By a speculative application I mean an application before a job announcement. In this kind of application, the applicant voluntary contacts the prospective employers and describes his qualifications and what he/she can contribute to the organizations. – user4511 Mar 24 '13 at 18:28
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    Almost all my (academic and non-academic) jobs so far either found me (ideal), or I carefully found them and got in via a "speculative" application. For me it's a perfectly viable way to get the job I want and not make too many compromises by accepting tangentially relevant positions as advertised at the time I need a new job. Hence +1 for JeffE's answer and -1 for EnergyNumbers'. – walkmanyi Mar 24 '13 at 22:33
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Here is my standard advice to PhD students applying for academic jobs:

  • First, look for departments that are advertising for faculty in your subfield. Apply there.

  • Second, look for departments that are advertising for faculty, but not in your subfield. Apply there anyway. There is no way to tell from the advertisement whether the listed fields are requirements, preferences, or mere examples, or if they just recycled last year's ad without reading it first. (Yes, I have seen all these alternatives.)

  • Third, look for interesting departments that are not advertising for faculty. Apply there anyway. There is no way to tell from the lack of advertisement whether they are really not hiring, or they just aren't advertising widely, or they just haven't posted their ad yet, or they thought they posted the ad but didn't. (Yes, I have seen all these alternatives.)

Before anyone objects: Obviously, I'm not talking about your department. Everyone knows that your department's advertisements are precise, timely, and highly visible. I mean other departments.

Of course, if you're thinking of applying to any department, whether they're advertising in you subfield or not, it's a good idea to contact someone you know in that department to find out what they're really looking for. If your contact says "No, really, we aren't hiring X," you can save yourself the trouble. But if you (or your advisor) don't know anyone well enough to ask? Fire away.

7

This answer is based on mathematics in the U.S. (I have no idea about other scenarios).

Before electronic job applications, submitting speculative applications was common. It never had a high success rate, and it would be foolish to waste time carefully customizing an application for a job that probably doesn't exist, but occasionally a job opens up unexpectedly. For example, a temporary replacement for someone going on leave. Last-minute openings generally aren't great jobs, but the job market is tough and it can be worth positioning yourself for whatever is available. Receiving speculative applications was only a small burden for the department, since there's no need even to read them unless they are needed.

However, now that most departments have moved to electronic applications, often centralized through mathjobs.org, speculative applications seem to be much less common. One reason is that electronic applications often require the applicant to specify which positions they would like to be considered for. If there's no appropriate opening, then it may not be possible to apply at all. (Another option is to apply for an inappropriate position and indicate a willingness to be considered for any other openings that arise, but this is rude and counterproductive since it wastes the time of the search committee for the position that actually exists.) Most departments still accept paper applications, but they are much more painful for everyone involved, so I would not recommend sending out speculative paper applications. Another reason for the decline in speculative applications is that mathjobs.org makes it much easier to advertise a position on short notice in a location every job seeker is aware of, so speculative applications are simply less helpful than they were decades ago.

4

As an employer, I'll give a feedback somewhat opposite to EnergyNumbers: if I receive what you call a speculative application[1], I will not consider it spam as long as it is relevant, i.e. if I would really consider the candidate if I had an open position. I have a ready-made reply for such cases (I must receive one or two a month), and I add these people to the email list to which I send announcements of job openings.

The best inquiry, though, is indirect: if you know someone in that department, ask them rather than the other professors.


[1] which I call a “job inquiry” or “spontaneous application” (the later is the common term in French, but probably not used in English)

2

One thing you could do that's similar to a speculative application, but better in some ways, is to email people in your field to express your interest in their department and ask them to keep you in mind if there are any openings. This can be helpful if there's a late opening, a visiting position which is not widely advertised, or even just to keep people aware that you're interested in case they have an opening the next year. Furthermore, they may be aware of jobs at other schools that opened late or were otherwise poorly advertised. My impression is that this approach makes sense if you are willing to consider a temporary job and if it is relatively late in the hiring cycle. It also can be more effective for your advisor to make these inquiries on your behalf.

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I have a specific email folder for speculative applications, whether it's for jobs of any grade, PhDs, or Masters courses. It's called Spam, and all the speculative job applications go in there.

If I'm feeling exceptionally generous, I reply with a link to the University vacancies page.

And that's because one of the defining elements of academia is rigour. That means, among other things, being able and willing to follow experiment protocols. If the first thing I learn about a potential colleague is that they can't be bothered to follow our recruitment protocols, even though they're well-documented and linked to from our recruitment pages, they've pretty much already disqualified themselves from being an interesting candidate, unless they're really exceptional. (And as we know from Dunning & Kruger, the ones who think they're really exceptional, typically aren't; and the ones who are, typically think they're not.). Those guidelines are derived from legal advice in the jurisdiction of England and Wales. Other employers in the same jurisdiction might interpret the law differently; other jurisdictions will have laws with different implications.

So, as someone sending out speculative applications, at best you spend a lot of time (that could have been better spent researching, publishing, networking at conferences) customising your CV so that it's targeted uniquely at each recipient, taking account of their unique position, and eventually you find a place that has slacker rules, or you find someone willing to break them. At worst, you send the same application to dozens or hundreds of recipients, showing each of them laziness and contempt.

If someone wanted to get on my radar in a positive way, they wouldn't send a speculative application. They'd send me some research they'd done that was likely to be of particular interest to me. They might ask for feedback on an article before submission, or flag it up to me after publication, in a short, concise, email with a link to the article. They might arrange to bump into me at a conference or seminar. They might invite me to work with them on a paper they have in development, that overlapped with some work I'm doing or have done.

  • It seems you are talking about speculative applications for research jobs as a post doctoral researcher. What about teaching jobs or jobs as a senior researcher? Do academics generally consider a speculative application as a sign of laziness and contempt? – user4511 Mar 24 '13 at 18:48
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    @VahidShirbisheh it does not matter whether academics consider speculativve applications as a sign of laziness and contempt. The only thing that matters is whether they read them or not. I gather from EnergyNumbers answer that he does not read them at all. So if someone did send a speculative application and also send some research that was likely to be of particular interest, EnergyNumbers would not hold the speculative application against the applicant. – emory Mar 24 '13 at 22:01
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    “[if someone wanted a job from me] they might offer co-authorship on a paper” — be careful how that sounds – F'x Mar 25 '13 at 8:32

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