Archive for the 'applying for an academic job' category

Academic Fish Ponds

This is a recent e-mail from a reader, but it's a topic I was thinking about in a related context, so this is timely (for me):

I'm a grad student in a respectable PhD program in the physical sciences here in the U.S. (ranked by U.S. News as either in the low teens to mid-20s, depending on the particular year of the ranking).  I didn't realize until I was knee-deep in grad school just how tough the academic job market is (like, I think I know more PhDs without permanent jobs than I know with jobs!).  I'm starting to get very nervous about my job prospects.

While mulling over my options--Take the Master's and run? Switch to a different field?--it occurred to me that I could always apply to higher-ranked grad programs (you know, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and their ilk).  Graduating from a Top 5 school would surely increase my prospects of getting an academic job, right? Provided, of course, I could get admitted to one of those programs...

I haven't asked too many people for advice (I don't want my professors or advisor to know that I'm considering leaving), but the one person I asked said it was better to be a big fish in a small pond (translation: stay where I am and try to stand out among my cohorts).

As an aside, if you look at the most recent faculty hires for my department, you'll see that they're all Harvard/MIT/Berkeley/Caltech/Stanford grads; there's not a single graduate from a 20-ish rank school in the bunch. We're good enough to be their grad students, but not good enough to be their eventual colleagues???

This e-mail raises many interesting issues, in addition to the usual ones involving stress about (potentially) seeking a faculty position in a field that seems to have an oversupply of PhDs. [insert required mention that academia isn't the only option for PhDs, there are many excellent careers in industry/business/government etc.].

I am going to ignore the issue of whether rankings have any merit and whether the Prestige Universities deserve their high level of prestige etc. Let's just take these numbers (Top-5, Top-20 etc.) at face value for now.

An important question for the person who wrote the e-mail is: In the context of thinking about possible future jobs in academia, do you think you would only be happy in one that is a research-ranking peer of your current university (or one more highly ranked)? I know it can be hard to predict (as a grad student, I was completely wrong about what kind of job/place would be best for me), but it's worth thinking about other options within academia: teaching-focused schools (small colleges, universities that are focused on undergraduate education, community colleges) or research universities other than the top-ranked ones. These jobs are difficult to get as well, but overall you may have more opportunities than you would if you only consider major research universities of a certain rank as job prospects. Perhaps you know some people who work at these types of institutions and could talk to them about their jobs, or you could do some investigating/mingling at conferences to interact with a broader group of academics and others.

But let's say that you are quite sure that you want to be at a major research university, a peer to your current university or better (in rankings), and jobs are extremely scarce in your field. I don't know about your particular institution/field, but from what I've seen over years of serving on various committees and panels and such, top graduates of top-20ish schools can compete with those from top-5-10 schools for academic positions. If you do interesting research, give conference presentations, publish, and put together an impressive application, you could be competitive with the top-5 people.

The person you talked to was right to mention the 'big fish' scenario; if your department/advisor are respected in your field and your advisor writes reference letters saying you are the best student s/he has ever had, that can count for a lot. You may have to work harder to be perceived -- on first impression -- as just as good as the top-5 people, but it's doable.

Important considerations in whether you stay or try to move could include:

  • the nature of your research project (is it exciting? significant? can you play an important role in it?),
  • the reputation of your advisor as a scientist and mentor (will s/he write you awesome letters if you do well?), and
  • your assessment of your abilities (difficult to do..).

When you consider those (and other) factors, maybe you will decide that the best place for you for research and career development is a top-5 department, maybe it's another place, or maybe it's where you are right now.

Another question: Have you been around for any of the searches that resulted in the recent top-5 hires in your department? It would be interesting and instructive to look at the applicant pools (were all the interviewees from top-5 departments, or just the person who got/accepted the offer?). If you attended the interview talks and/or met the candidates, what were your impressions? If there are any upcoming searches, it would be good to take a close look at the process and the people involved.

And if you look at departments in your field at peer institutions of your current one, do you see a similar preponderance of top-5s on the faculty? That is, is your department typical in this respect? If so, and you want to try to stay in your field, perhaps you should send out some applications..

If you have the time, it's worth doing a bit of 'career field work' before making a big decision. There may be more options than you know about now, or you may find you are in the best place for you already.

26 responses so far

Taking a Chance

Feb 01 2012 Published by under applying for an academic job

Several readers have written for advice about complex situations involving making major career decisions before all possible options are known. Most of these e-mails are very long and detailed, and I am not going to include any one e-mail here, but will just present the general situation for discussion.

What do you do if you have an offer for a job (e.g., a tenure-track position) that is not your dream job (for whatever reason: location, resources, colleagues, family/life issues etc.) and you also have some indication that you might eventually have more/better offers, but nothing is certain (e.g., you have other interview invitations). You have to give an answer to the place that has offered you a job before you will know all your options. (Let's assume that you asked for more time to make a decision and maybe even got some, but it's not enough; the hiring department can't wait any longer.)

Do you accept the offer that is in-hand and withdraw from the other search(es) or do you turn down the in-hand offer and hope/gamble that you will get something better?

First let me say that I know that discussions of such topics are painful for those in fields with no/few job options, but in fields with job opportunities, including tenure-track positions, this is a common 'problem'.

You might think it is a simple decision: If you are lucky enough to get a job offer, take the job. And yet: the reason that the e-mails to me on this topic are so long and complex is because this can be a difficult decision, particularly if you (and any partners/family involved in the decision) are not thrilled about Job Offer #1 and would be thrilled if you are so fortunate as to get an offer from another place that might be an option if you wait a bit longer.

I hope everyone agrees that it is important to conduct discussions in good faith with all concerned, but beyond that generic statement, it's worth discussing some of the gray areas.

For example, what if you accept Job Offer #1 and then renege if a 'better' offer comes through a month or three later? That's not good, especially for the institution that has invested time and money in hiring you, but is it more or less bad than accepting the offer, starting the job, perhaps spending your no-doubt considerable start-up funds, and then leaving as soon as you can get something better?

Or: what if you decline Job Offer #1 and then nothing else comes through? That's not good for you, but is it more or less bad than taking a job that you know will make you (and/or your family) unhappy? (I would caution here that we can't always predict these things. I left what I thought was my 'dream job' for another place I didn't think I would like nearly as much, but the new place turned out to be even better than my first job.)

You might be wondering: Why would someone apply to Job Offer #1 University if they think they will be unhappy there and don't really want the job? This is a good question, but such situations are quite common for a variety of reasons, including (1) Some people send out applications to every possible job for which they are even somewhat qualified, not knowing how well they will fare on the job market; and (2) Some people might apply for a job that they think might be OK, but after they visit for an interview, realize that working there would not be so great. So, it happens, and as long as different institutions conduct searches at different times and rates, these situations will arise.

What to do, what to do? You can weigh all the pros and cons for your career/life, try to guess what is the 'best' place for you, and maybe flip a coin or consult an oracle, or something. Can the blogosphere help? I don't know, but I hope that readers who have been in this situation -- either as a job candidate or as an administrator trying to recruit top candidates -- will weigh in with comments and advice.

25 responses so far

Must-Have Letter

Over in FSP a few weeks ago, readers and I obsessed about many different aspects of Cover Letters. And yet, there are still aspects of this topic that remain unexplored. Here is another interesting one from a reader:

I have a letter of reference question that I haven't seen addressed on your blogs, but (to me) seems like a fairly serious, and not uncommon, one.  I did not have a particularly close relationship with my thesis advisor, a prominent figure in my discipline.  Instead, another a postdoc in his research group was my de facto advisor.  While I suspect his reference letters for me are largely positive, I know that there are others who would willingly write letters that more accurately reflect my abilities.  I have had minimal communication with my advisor since completing my PhD several years ago.

I am currently in a non-tenure-track research professor job, and am contemplating applying for jobs with a short-track to tenure.  My question is: Would my application be discarded or flagged as suspicious if it does NOT include a letter from my thesis advisor?  Would it be sufficient to list him as an additional reference?

I think you should list the advisor unless there is some extreme reason not to do so. In that case, you need to try to have another letter writer address why there is no letter from your advisor (not your fault etc.). If your relationship was overall good, just not close, you should still list your advisor as a reference. Even if the advisor's letter is perfunctory, it is better than no letter. A really positive letter from a postdoc won't make up for a missing advisor-letter.

Also, I would make an effort to get back in touch with the advisor, especially if you are going to be asking for letters. Bring him up to date on your work, send him your CV, and explain about your upcoming applications.

Does anyone disagree with this? I did not have a close relationship with my advisor, so I can relate to this issue, but I still asked for a letter from him. Did anyone make the opposite decision, and live to tell the tale?

8 responses so far

The Ask

Here is an interesting question from a reader:

I was wondering, how to ask the faculty search chair, "why was I not invited for an interview?" and if this is a reasonable thing to ask ?

First, the second question: Is this a reasonable question to ask? My first reaction is: sure, go ahead and ask. It is not an unreasonable question in the sense of being unprofessional, strange, or obnoxious; it is a perfectly natural question, and I don't think search chairs will be annoyed by being asked this.

Correct me if I am wrong, search chairs of the world. Certainly no one would want to get 300 of these questions, but most applicants don't ask, so it doesn't seem like a problem to me if a few do ask.

In terms of how to ask, just do it, and keep it simple, without any long, sad explanations about why you want to know. That is, just a "I was wondering if you could give me any information.." kind of question; concise and polite.

In my opinion, however, the real question is whether you are going to get any useful information from this query. In fact, I rather doubt it. Some searches involve so many applications, even if every one is given due consideration, the search chair might not be able to give you an answer. Then there is the issue of what a search chair can say, not to mention will say.

I tried to think of all the possible answers I might give someone if I were asked this question. Note that I have never been asked this question by an applicant who was not interviewed, so I am just imagining what I might say. I have been asked a similar question by unsuccessful interviewees, wondering why they were not offered the job, but that situation is only semi-analogous.

We can classify possible answers into categories: reasons you might actually be told, and reasons you are unlikely to be told.

In the likely category, I think you might well get the vague answer "We had many excellent applicants and could only invite n to interview, so we had to make some tough choices." That could well be a completely honest answer, and it might make you feel better, if you believe it. If, however, you are looking for some magic answer to help you improve your application, it's not so useful.

It is very unlikely that a search committee chair is going to say something specific like "You might want to ditch Professor X as a reference; you will never get an interview with a letter like that" or "We are all still laughing about your absurd and pathetic research statement" (or a more polite equivalent of that comment).

It is also unlikely that you are going be told something specific like "We all hated the fact that you mentioned that your favorite hobby is fishing. We think that is a boring and anti-intellectual hobby, and we would never consider hiring anyone who considers fishing an acceptable leisure pursuit."

Likely or unlikely?: Would a search committee chair tell you that you don't have enough publications (in top-tier journals) or you don't have as much postdoctoral/teaching/whatever experience compared to other candidates? Maybe, but these seem like obvious things you should know or infer about your record compared to your peers. These are questions you could ask an advisor or mentor before asking a search committee chair. Maybe you can find out the interview slate and the identity of the person offered the job and compare your record to theirs; then you will know the answer to some basic questions about how your record stacks up.

Keep in mind, though, that it's not always something obvious, like number of papers. You might have more publications than someone who was interviewed, but perhaps there was something about that other person's research and/or teaching or ideas for future research and/or teaching, that caught the interest of the committee/department. That can be hard to explain, much less infer from a list of interviewees.

If you are wondering about technical aspects of your application -- i.e., whether your application needs a bit of technical fine-tuning in terms of how you constructed your CV, statements, cover letter etc -- these are things to ask mentors or friends who have successfully navigated a job-search, not search committee chairs.

What are some other possible answers to the question of why someone was not interviewed, whether likely or unlikely to be uttered by the search chair to an applicant? Perhaps the committee/department decided to interview only people with a particular research focus or approach (different from yours), but only decided this once the applications were in? That is within the realm of possible explanations you might be told, but it is also something you could figure out by knowing the identity of the interviewees.

I am sure I am missing some possibilities here. If you are a search committee chair and have been asked this question by a non-interviewed applicant, I hope you will leave a comment based on your experience: What did you say, if anything? Similarly, if you are/were a non-interviewed applicant who asked this question, did you get a response, and if so, what was it and was it useful?

 

20 responses so far