Job Search Criteria: Fit Matters

Over at Terra Sigillata, Abel has a post on the limiting of job searches that is an excellent example of the problems with the academic mind-set:

The short summary: postdocs and other academic job candidates are disqualifying themselves from even applying for certain positions because:

1. they don't feel they meet the job description in the ad

2. the job is at a "lesser" institution or department

3. the job is in a place (they think) they'd never want to live

4. they'd feel bad about turning down a position at a place they know they'd never want to be.

First things first: in this climate, academic job candidates are lucky to be offered faculty positions anywhere. Community colleges big and small, Research I universities, desolate field stations of major universities, #24 of a 24-institution state university system, Bob Jones University. . .anywhere.

This is an excellent example of the toxic effects of the "If you don't get a tenure-track faculty job, you're a loser" attitude that permeates academia.

If that is your attitude, of course, then Abel's advice is spot on. If you need to have an academic position right now, and nothing else would do, you're crazy to limit your options based on geography, quality of institution, salary, benefits, or anything else.

The thing is, though, the choice is rarely between a tenure-track academic job and living on the street eating scraps from a trash can. There are other options, particularly for people with Ph.D.'s in the sciences. (If, on the other hand, you have a Ph.D. in the hermeneutics of liturgical dance in 15th century Cambodia, the situation may not be so rosy...)

The criteria Abel listed are perfectly legitimate things to take into consideration during a job search. Indeed, you'd be crazy not to take them into account, given the nature of academic jobs. Academia isn't like the corporate office world, where people naturally expect to change employers three or four times. People do move from place to place, but it's not that easy to do. For the most part, academics are in it for the long haul-- it takes seven years (give or take) to get tenure, and most people who get tenure stay where they are for another ten, fifteen, twenty years. If not more.

The current academic culture, in which grad students learn that a tenure-track position at a research university is the only career worth having, is incredibly corrosive to the well-being of academics. People end up being so desperate for an academic job, any academic job, that they go places where they are miserable, and they make everybody else miserable in the process.

Much more so than in other fields, when you're looking for an academic job, you're really looking for a place to spend your career. Given that constraint, it's absolutely right to look for a place where you fit well, and will be happy. That means thinking about geography, type of institution, type of position, the quality and personalities of other people in the department, and everything else.

The fact is, there is a certain level of happiness below which you would be better off leaving academia. It's better to have a non-academic job in a place where you're happy than an academic job in a place that you hate. The precise level will be different for different people, but it's there, and it's got to be taken into consideration when applying for jobs, or thinking about whether to accept a job offer.

Abel's right that this is not a decision to be made too casually-- you might very well grow to love a place you didn't think you would want to be-- but there's absolutely nothing wrong with taking geographic factors into consideration. In fact, I would say that there's something wrong with not taking them into consideration. The tenure process is stressful enough if you're happy where you are.

"Easy for you to say, Mr. Tenured Professor," you say. Yeah, I'm tenured faculty now, but back in the day, I was a job-hunting post-doc just like anybody else. And after watching one of the post-docs at NIST look for a job-- he said he realized after getting his first offer that he would have to turn down something like 30 of the 35 places he had applied to-- I made it a point to restrict my applications to places I knew I'd be happy.

Granted, I was applying in 2000, at the height of the dotcom boom, when endowments nationwide were flush with cash, and everybody was hiring, so it was a little easier to find acceptable options, but I applied to less than half of the 33 colleges roughly comparable to Union who were hiring that year.

I applied only to private small liberal arts colleges, because I knew that's where I wanted to be. I ruled out schools with an explicit religious affiliation, because I knew I wouldn't be comfortable with that. I ruled out one or two schools on the basis of geography-- I went to graduate school in the DC area, and the climate there was almost too much for me. I really can't imagine myself living in Mississippi.

It almost blew up in my face-- very late in the job-hunting season, I had exactly no offers. But I knew that I would rather spend another year as a post-doc than work at a place where I was going to be unhappy. For that matter, I'd look for a job in industry rather than take an academic position in a place where I wouldn't want to live.

The real problem here is that our current academic culture has built academic jobs up into something more than jobs-- a tenure-track position at a top school is the Holy Grail, the Promised Land, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This is crazy, particularly for scientists, who have other career options available to them.

The sooner we can break out of the rut of thinking that faculty jobs are the only real jobs, the better.

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By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 06 Oct 2008 #permalink

I'm looking for jobs in a specific city, now, due to the two-body problem. That city has a big state university which is advertising 1) post-doc positions 2) research associate positions 3) multiple faculty positions, all in the Physics dept. (And also 4) faculty positions in Electrical Engineering). I'd love to apply for all of them, on the theory that the more jobs I apply to, the better my chances... But it would probably be the same people looking at those applications.

If you wouldn't mind giving me your opinion, which ones do you think I should go for? I'm going to have a newly minted PhD with no post-doc experience. I'm a little worried that if I just apply to the post-doc position, though, there will be no faculty positions later -- they're doing all their hiring now!

I will also be applying for industry jobs, and I would be thrilled if I could find a small liberal arts college in the area to apply to (though it might have to wait until after I have some post-doc experience.)

It's hard to say for sure because each university defines things differently, so you should definitely talk to any contacts you have in that department. My best guess, given your experience and your two-body problem, is that you are most likely better off applying for a research associate position, assuming one of them is in a field that bears some relationship to your Ph.D. work. At most universities that have them, research associate type positions are potentially permanent (subject to continued funding). I have a similar position myself. Making a career as a soft money scientist is not the easiest career path, but it works for many people.

You may have some success with a postdoc position, especially if one of them is a better fit to your background than the research associate positions. At some but not all universities, there is a possibility for a postdoc to be promoted internally to a research associate--ask whether this is policy in the department you are looking at.

As a Ph.D. with no postdoctoral experience, you will be at a serious disadvantage applying for a tenure track position as you would be competing against people like me who have some post-Ph.D. experience and have demonstrated an ability to secure some external funding. Again, discuss with your contacts first--maybe you would be a perfect fit for one of those positions. But unless you get some encouragement from inside the department, you would probably be wasting your time applying for a tenure track job at a research university at this point in your career.

It's possible in some cases to jump from the research track to the tenure track. At least one of my colleagues has done so. You will need some luck and some timing to pull this off, but it can be done.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Oct 2008 #permalink

Academics who don't apply for jobs because of reasons 2., 3., or 4. deserve to be unemployed. We've interviewed many applicants who made it very clear that they thought they were "above" our undergraduate research university status. This is a clear route to never being given the opportunity of refusal.

However, when you've chaired a lot of search committees it gets very tiresome having to deal with so many applications of people who simply are not at all qualified for the job. I've seen a manufacturing plant manager apply to be chair of a department of biological sciences (they minored in biology 20 years ago), and in the same search, an administrative RN applied. Were they good at what they did, most likely they were quite good, but singularly unqualified to chair an academic department in biology. And since both applicants were women, their rejections had to be justified to affirmative action officers who don't seem to think academic qualifications mattered all that much. So the bottom line: applying for positions that you really don't have the qualifications for, especially experience, just annoys the search committees.

And after watching one of the post-docs at NIST look for a job-- he said he realized after getting his first offer that he would have to turn down something like 30 of the 35 places he had applied to-- I made it a point to restrict my applications to places I knew I'd be happy.

This isn't exactly usual, and thus not a great example to emulate. I sent out 25 applications in both academia (tenure-track and postdocs) and industry, and by the time I got my second offer it was pretty clear that I was going to be turning down at most two (luckily---and as hard as I worked for it, I do consider it lucky---I ended up with a fantastic offer and a great tenure-track position). Many of my peers sent out even more applications, with even less success. In fact, I applied for every research position for which I was remotely qualified, because I had already seen some of my peers from previous years limit their search by geography or ranking and get burned.

DrA wrote: Academics who don't apply for jobs because of reasons 2., 3., or 4. deserve to be unemployed.

DrA, just curious: are you saying that academics who choose to be geographically restricted (3) because they want to work within 150 miles of their spouses while they raise their children "deserve to be unemployed"? (This attitude seems more like a throwback to the days when households were expected to have just one, male, primary breadwinner, and to be willing to move anywhere at the drop of a hat.) Are you saying that those who limit their applications to community colleges, or to liberal arts colleges, because they would never want to be (4) at a large research university with little direct student contact "deserve to be unemployed"?

I mean, I get what you're saying about people who think that they are "better than" some institution -- but isn't part of the problem with the whole job search process is that so many people feel that they have to apply **everywhere** that search committees must sift through far more irrelevant paper than they would if applicants were more self-limiting with their job applications?

It seems only sensible to me that applicants have the courtesy to refrain from sending applications, at very least, to places where, if it came down to it, they would reject an offer even if it were the only offer they received. And no, those who refrain from sending such applications do not create a condition where anyone could say that they "deserve to be unemployed", if that expression means anything at all.

There's plainly unqualified and there's "maybe qualified." If they are advertising for, say, a person who works in computational biology, and you're a biophysicist who does a lot of theoretical modeling, I say go for it. OTOH, if they say they want somebody with at least 2 years of postdoc experience in a particular area of computational biology and the ability to teach courses on a particular technique, and you've never used that technique and you had to google the name of that subfield, don't waste your time.

With geography: Well, if you have severe family constraints, then that answers your question (unless your family might be able to relocate to a school that makes a point of hiring qualified spouses). But if you don't have severe family constraints, then be open to possibilities. Maybe people in Southern college towns don't fit all the stereotypes you're basing assumptions on. Maybe that big city isn't nearly as crowded and ugly as it looks on TV. Maybe that remote Colorado town has gorgeous scenery that you fall in love with. So approach it with an open mind.

"With geography: Well, if you have severe family constraints, then that answers your question (unless your family might be able to relocate to a school that makes a point of hiring qualified spouses). But if you don't have severe family constraints, then be open to possibilities."

One thing I find rather disturbing: the implicit idea that your academic job is the single most important thing in your life. More important than your family, more important than friends, more important than your place of residence - more important, in fact, than all your non-job related life.

It is a job, people. It's fun, it's rewarding, but it isn't your entire life. Or, it should not be.

I have relocated once for academic reasons, from Europe to Japan. This, I would hope, should qualify as putting my career over my own comfort, friends and relatives. To my own surprise (and that of my friends) I found life here to agree very well with me, despite rather severe language and cultural difficulties in the beginning.

By now it's not about whether I can relocate or not, it's that I simply don't want to. My life is about more than the research I can do; the life I'm living apart from it is as important to me, or more so. As long as I can get positions in this area where I can do research I'm happy to pursue them. If or when I no longer can, I will look for another kind of job. But I will never put a job above the life I share with my wife.

I'm not saying anybody should put a job above all else. But there is satisfaction to be had in this path, and if you seek it, well, be open to living in a lot of different places. I'm not saying one should move to a hellhole for pursuit of academic glory, but if one is interested an academic career and open to experiencing life in a lot of different places, there are opportunities.

Moreover, the pursuit of an academic career can be as much about the people you surround yourself with and the people you invest in as the pursuit of glory and a paycheck. Investing personally in your students and colleagues can be a source of personal satisfaction that goes beyond the glory of a title, publications, and pay.

FWIW, I share your opinion that there are plenty of good reasons to turn down an academic job if it means sacrificing parts of your life that you value too much. However, laments about "having to" move to (insert undesirable locale here) generally come from people who are willing to make the trade-off and move but also plan to complain about it. My response to them is that if they really, really want that academic job, and they're willing to move for it, then they should look for the positive aspects of their locale rather than feeling put-upon that they "had to" move to (insert place here).

"As long as I can get positions in this area where I can do research I'm happy to pursue them. If or when I no longer can, I will look for another kind of job. But I will never put a job above the life I share with my wife."

In regard to this, I totally respect your attitude. However, there are those who view it as a source of great injustice in science that one might have to give up on an academic job (or at least one's preferred type of academic job) to live in the same locale as one's spouse. To me, we are well-educated people, so we should be open to a variety of opportunities and experiences. That might mean doing what you indicated a willingness to do--trying something outside of academia. Or it might mean being open-minded about the merits of a town that one used to sneer at (the attitude of those job-seekers who say "Oh, I could never possibly live there!" when "there" might turn out to be a perfectly nice place).

I had offers in 1973, on my way from the double B.S. at Caltech, for a fellowship at the University of Hawaii, at the University of Nebraska, and at the University of Massachusetts. My girlfriend at the time preferred Amherst to Honolulu or Lincoln. So we borrowed a van, filled it up with all our stuff, and moved to Western Massachusetts (where, coincidentally, one of the few really helpful people was the husband of the great Fantasy author Jane Yolen).

When I got there, the fellowship turned out not to exist, having been a lie by one department chairman (Computer and Information Science) who hoped to use me as a bridge to another department (Linguistics). But there we were.

I've been a keynote speaker at a conference in Honolulu, sometimes wonder what might have happened in Lincoln, but I definitely loved Amherst, as a town, haunted by the shade of Emily Dickinson. I've said before what I thought of the department and the university, so let's leave it at that.

"However, there are those who view it as a source of great injustice in science that one might have to give up on an academic job (or at least one's preferred type of academic job) to live in the same locale as one's spouse."

Not an injustice but a colossal waste. Now, science isn't losing anything by having me go into another line of work, but in general the idea that "science comes first, always" is weeding out a lot of very competent people that can't or won't subscribe to this.

This "move for your career, not for your life" is really just one consequence of the mad career dash that we inflict on ourselves today between graduation and gaining a stable position in our late thirties. Another consequence is the expectation that you spend all your waking time in the lab or at the office to fill that all-important publication list and resume. This dash is a major reason people, and women especially, drop out early; you are forced to choose between a family and a career, and many sensible people find their families to be the more important life project.

As a result, of course, the upper levels of academic research will tend to be populated by the people that do choose research at all costs, and will have little understanding for those who wants a more balanced life. There is a real danger of a feedback loop that can do some real long-term damage.

Janne-

I get your point about how it can be dangerous to academic science (which is merely a subset of science, of course) if the only people who go into it are the ones willing to make the greatest personal sacrifices.

Here's the problem: There are far more Ph.D.'s than there are academic jobs. There are even more good Ph.D.'s than there are academic jobs. So there will be Ph.D.'s who can't get academic jobs. Given that, why should a Ph.D. who has a faculty spouse get preference in academic jobs in that locale? I see the strong enlightened-self-interest-in-the-long-term argument for hiring people who aren't willing to move away from family. However, Ph.D.'s married to other Ph.D.'s aren't the only Ph.D.'s who might be unwilling to move away from family. A Ph.D. might want to live near other relatives, might want to stay in a particular locale for the sake of a spouse's non-academic career, or might just want to live in a particular place because he/she likes the city and the people and all that. These are also people who value work/life balance, and I see no reason why they should get lower priority than Ph.D.'s married to other Ph.D.'s. Indeed, a Ph.D. strongly committed to living in a particular locale for reasons that don't involve a faculty spouse might have a perspective on life outside academia that a Ph.D. married to a Ph.D. might not have.

Alex, nowhere did I say anything about researchers married to other researchers - that specific situation has never even been on my mind - and I emphatically do not think they should have any kind of privilege or fast track to jobs. Are you mixing up my comment with someone else's perhaps?

I don't have a solution to this. All I can do is point out the problem. As you say, we have many more trained researchers out there than we have jobs for them. Most of us will need to go into other careers; that is inevitable. The problem, as I see it, is that the current work culture weeds out a lot of people that don't fit this culture; people that would otherwise have raised the level on academic research. Disqualifying or discouraging more than half your potential talent pool over factors that have little to do with the core activity isn't good policy, in research or anywhere.

I agree that these problems become intense when two spouses are both searching for academic jobs.

My wife (Ph.D. in Condensed Matter Physics), an experimental physicist, and I bought the home that we still live in 20 years later because, in part, of its proximity to JPL. I'd worked there before, but coulde not find another job there as it shrank. She was explicitly offered a specific job there, but they stalled her for over a month, and inserted someone better connected to management who didn't even have a Ph.D. She taught at Whittier for a semester, but I could not get a position there. She taught 5 years at Mt. San Antonio College. I was offered an Astronomy position there, when the Chairman was ill, and was given keys and parking pass -- then had the offer retracted, before the champagne even wore off.

She's now taught 7 years at Woodbury University, with one promotion. I taught 5 good semesters there, before a Psychopath dean (now deposed) ended my contract without cause, to attack my wife via the family budget.

So now I teach high school, and publish more than all of Woodbury University's department combined.

So which is it, America: Academic values or Family values? Hard to have both.

Dude, you need to work on your motherfucking reading comprehension. The whole point of Abel Phuckwit's post--and mine at DoucheMonkey--is what to do if you know you want a tenure-track faculty position. Sheesh.

Just to be clear, my post was meant to address the considerations of blog colleagues who specifically noted they were only interested in TT academic positions. In no way, shape, or form do I subscribe to the, "If you don't get a tenure-track faculty job, you're a loser" attitude. In fact, am on record as being a strong supporter of other career tracks for PhDs and almost pursued one myself.

I might also add that despite my recommendations that geography not be a driving force for one's initial independent position, a medical situation arose earlier in my career that required an extensive relocation and relinquishment of a tenured position from which I have yet to recover completely. So, I did not intend to be quite so dogmatic in my recommendations. Rather, I was trying to encourage applicants not to disqualify themselves from even applying for positions based on geography alone (or their perceptions of certain geographical areas.).

Just to be clear, my post was meant to address the considerations of blog colleagues who specifically noted they were only interested in TT academic positions. In no way, shape, or form do I subscribe to the, "If you don't get a tenure-track faculty job, you're a loser" attitude. In fact, I am on record as being a strong supporter of other career tracks for PhDs (as evidenced by my exchange here with Bruce Alberts) and almost pursued one myself.

I might also add that despite my recommendations that geography not be a driving force for one's initial independent position, a medical situation arose earlier in my career that required an extensive relocation and relinquishment of a tenured position from which I have yet to recover completely.

So, I did not intend to be quite so dogmatic in my recommendations. Rather, I was trying to encourage applicants not to disqualify themselves from even applying for positions based on geography alone (or their perceptions of certain geographical areas.).

Nice discussion thread here - lots of good considerations.

Just to be clear, my post was meant to address the considerations of blog colleagues who specifically noted they were only interested in TT academic positions.

The thing is, as has been noted lots of times, there are a lot of people out there who are interested in tenure-track faculty jobs who just aren't going to get them. Even people who have decided that they really want a tenure-track academic position need to stop and thing carefully and realistically about how badly they want that job.

When I did my own job search, I would've classed myself as someone who was "only interested in TT academic positions." I did not apply to any industry jobs, or for any visiting jobs. At the same time, though, I was not willing to accept (or even apply for) any TT job-- only those jobs that fit my personal requirements.

There's going to be some level of shit that even people who have made up their minds that they want to be in academia won't be happy with. It doesn't take a great deal of effort to find examples in blogdom of people who grasped at whatever academic job they could get, and have ended up being less happy than they would've been had they done something else entirely.

It doesn't take a great deal of effort to find examples in blogdom of people who grasped at whatever academic job they could get, and have ended up being less happy than they would've been had they done something else entirely.

Of course there are. This is true for any career or profession. None of that has any relevance to the content of blog posts that are directed at helping those whose goal is to secure to a tenure-track position to do so.

Essentially, you are complaining that posts that were written about how people can maximize their chances of achieving goal X were not actually written about how goal X isn't right for everyone. The fact that posts have been written concerning the former doesn't imply that the people who wrote those posts disagree with the latter. Frankly, I am surprised that you are having trouble getting this.

JVP:So which is it, America: Academic values or Family values? Hard to have both.

Oh, c'mon. Sure, there are two-body problems; having negotiated ours twice (or thrice, depending on criteria), I'm neither denying or minimising this. But the first move had my wife (Ph.D. Chem Eng) as first-chooser, and I had no difficulty at all (as in, it took one email per job) landing a choice of postdocs at a top-rank research university; the second I took the lead, and one of the offers had an ideal position for my wife nearby. Granted, that second move took two years of applications, but (with luck) as Chad notes, we expect to be stable here for the next twenty years or so. My new (R1) department has a large majority of family/parent types; the specific subfield has two other research-active colleagues, both of whom have multiple school-age children and working husbands.

Sorry - not much content here maybe. But the problems are real enough without overblown rhetoric getting in the way.

Two-body problems... wife... overblown... sounds X-rated to me;)

Point is, academic job-hunting and retaining and promotion can be knife-in-back intense, life or death. If anything, I'm toning it down so as not to scare anyone away from the science biz.

Take off those rose-colored glasses, I say. People will do dreadful things to get a job, steal intellectual property, sabotage a competitor.

Anyone here agree?

Janne-

Sorry, I misunderstood you.