Have you looked on Evoldir?

Reflections on the academic job search

For those who don’t know, EvolDir is a worldwide mailing list on evolutionary biology that has been running since approximately forever. Everyone who works even vaguely in the area of evolution subscribes to it. Every day It typically carries several posts on conferences, book announcements, funding opportunities and job ads.

I first signed up to EvolDir 20 years ago, looking for a postdoc position. Despite shifting fields and disciplines, I stayed subscribed because because you never knew what might turn up, because for 20 years I was looking for the next job. When I secured a new position (invariably on contract, temporary), I started thinking about the next position. When my contract was extended or topped up, I just shifted the time window for which I thought “what next?”

A few months ago, I unsubscribed from EvolDir. Shortly I’ll start a new job, a permanent one. For the first time in 20 years, I will not be looking for a job.

This is an attempt to distill that experience, a loose set of reflections and thoughts on the academia job search. There’s no clear take home message, and I’m unsure if I can give any advice or recommendations. I think my experience has been fairly typical, at least for the life and biomedical sciences, but I can only write what happened to me and what I saw. I made good and bad choices, I was helped and hindered, I was lucky and unlucky.

I won't mention specific names or institutions. In many cases they’re not difficult to work out but my attention is on the overall scheme and trends not specific instances.

I have some (many) other thoughts on the evolution of the university but will save them for another post.

Useless advice and survivorship bias

At first blush, it’s astonishing how much advice I received which was dated, irrelevant, bad, well-meaning but pointless, and sometimes bordered on rank superstition:

  • Faced with an impending end of contract, academics would frequently advise me to “apply for a grant”, failing to consider (a) grants required a permanent member of staff heading them, (b) the success rate even for established academics was poor, and (c) even if successful, it would take 12-18 months for the money to arrive.
  • For a while I used to ask senior academics for advice or job pointers. I lost count of the number that would frown and darkly mutter something like “Hmmm, it's tough …” before brightening up and quipping “Never mind, I’m sure something will turn up!” then consider the discussion resolved.
  • Likewise, a large number would advise me me to consult job ads or mailing lists (“Have you looked on EvolDir?”), like it was some sort of hidden power move I might not have otherwise considered.
  • Career and funding workshops were replete with advice that “I thought I’d never get a job but look at me now” or “good work will be funded”, ignoring that if they hadn’t got that job or that grant, they wouldn’t be in front of an audience talking about it.
  • Several candidates for a certain fellowship swore that it was only awarded on your second attempt as the panel wanted to see if you “were serious”. In reality, the panel itself was ignorant of this tradition.
  • "I never look past the first page of a resume ... You should include all your education, jobs, papers, teaching experience, hobbies, a proposed research project ..."
  • A commonly repeated piece of advice was to get some teaching on your resume, because committees would be looking for that. In reality, committees (at least in the UK) seemed to be unconcerned with teaching and regularly hired lecturers with little or no experience. But the advice-givers did get you to teach their courses …

In the light of such useless advice, you could get bitter but perhaps it’s no surprise. Permanent academics have little or no insight on how or why they got their jobs, often having obtained them years ago in a different environment or simply didn't understand the complex melange of forces and chance that secured them a position. This is not to say that the hiring process is entirely random, but it is complex, inconsistent and unexamined. In the words of William Goldman “no one knows nothing”.

Most positions don’t exist

Once, I applied for a job at a department of Classic U. which is in a neighbouring country. Oddly and archaically, they asked for hardcopy: a physical cover letter, a CV and a form to be supplied in triplicate and mailed in.

I posted my application on a Monday.

I received my rejection letter on the Wednesday.

I like to think the same postman carried them in and out on a single visit.

A few months later at a conference, I got into a conversation with someone from that department. “We really could use people like you,” he enthused. “You should apply for a job with us.”

I explained that I had.

He blinked when I described the position. “Oh yes, but that wasn’t a real job. It was earmarked for someone but HR forced us to advertise it. Anyway, you should apply for a job with us ...”

Hard experience like this and from the other side of the hiring process has convinced me that most jobs don’t exist as advertised. They’re earmarked for someone, the funding isn’t secure, they’re advertised in anticipation, a decision is made behind the scenes that fellowships won’t be awarded that year, the advert doesn’t describe what they’re actually looking for, they’ll be overwhelmed by applications so your application won't even get looked at, the selection process will get pushed back, the actual salary will not be as advertised ...

I estimate that the fraction of non-existent jobs is about 1/2. This insight lead me to develop a Job Search Drake Equation which assessed the chances of being offered a job I wanted based on compounding circumstances. (Chance of the job actually taking applicants, chance of being shortlisted for interview, chance of being made an offer …) It resulted in the grim maths that to have 50% chance of being offered a job, I needed to apply for 11 positions. To have 90% chance, I had to apply for 23 ...

It’s poor odds but it also perversely heartening. Little of the process is in your control. You cannot control the fraction of real jobs or whether you are shortlisted or offered a job, beyond applying or performing competently. Those are controlled by other people and circumstances and are not your fault. You cannot do anything about them. You may be personally brilliant and wonderful and you're still going to fail. You going to fail more times than you succeed.

Hustling costs everyone

I was once talking abuot opportunities with a more senior - albeit un-tenured - colleague when they stopped and sighed. “I’m so sick and tired of hustling, " he said. "Can’t I just do my job?”

During one position, I spent three months doing nothing but searching and applying for jobs. I did no research, no actual work. It embarrassed then and still does now but I made a series of flimsy excuses to my increasingly angry line manager why research projects weren’t progressing. It's no excuse, but I was staring down the imminent end of my funding. Yes, a paper might have helped my employment prospects ... next year. I was worried about being employed in three months, cognizant that it would a lot harder to find work if I was out of work.

During another extended bout of job searching, over 18 months I sent off 100 applications. Each of those applications needed a proposed program of work, a cover letter as to why I was the perfect applicant (and why I’d always dreamed of working at Institute X), a customised CV, forms, statements of teaching philosophy … Even if you suppose each application took just a day to prepare, that’s another 3 months I took from my then employer.

(Incidentally, only 16 of those applications are acknowledged. Only 1 resulted in an interview. No job offer ensued.)

This sort of poor return on time spent is fairly typical. The academic job search is grossly inefficient, for job seeker, for their current employer and for the employer offering jobs. Precarity leads to staff spending a large amount of their time hustling: hustling for the next position, hustling to raise their profile, hustling to escape the hustle. This "robs" their current employer and results in potential employers being bombarded with applications. Even tenured staff are keenly aware that they’re only as good as their last grant. One distinguished and tenured academician confessed to me that if he failed to keep large money coming in “the university will find a way to get rid of me."

Things are better (and worse) than they were before

It used to be that those who departed the university for other fields were spoken of as if they they had died: “Oh, they left science.” Part of it was, no doubt, was from lack of obvious alternatives. (What do you do with a PhD in French medieval literature or hymenopteran social systems?) But part was also due to a pervasive feel that leaving was failure, unthinkable, excommunication. Leaving was death.

Thankfully, the intervening years have seen a relaxing in this attitude, I posit due to a number of trends:

  • The odds have got so bad that “alternatives” had to be acknowledged. As someone said, if less than 1% of PhDs are making it to tenure level, a permanent academic career is already your Plan B.
  • The opportunities for STEM graduates have grown. This was always the case for programmers and engineers, but broad opportunities for other graduates (genomics, pharma, data science) have grown.

Leaving is no longer unthinkable. For STEM graduates at least, universities are now talking openly of the “brain drain” and what to do about it.

Conversely, the internal bars have been raised and the rewards less appealing. Where it was accepted that PhD students would sometimes graduate without any publications, now they are expected to have to have multiple high-standard publications. It has even pervaded down to the pre-doctoral level. Applicants for PhD positions are expected to have a masters already and are sometimes asked what publications they have. University holidays are full of summer schools with “networking opportunities”. All of this works to crowd out those from the working class or with an atypical background. I have a creeping fear that if I was starting over now, I’d unable to compete.

Even if you make it, you haven't made it. While lectureships used to be the recognised prize, these have increasingly become contract positions themselves. In effect, they are post-docs with teaching and admin responsibilities. Meanwhile wages have been stagnant. One second-tier London university advertises for lecturers with a demanding set of requirements but lists a salary that would have their new employee living in shared accommodation.

If I had to do it all over again

I’m not sure what I would do. There is a lot to be said for experience, for working with the life you have, but the grotesque levels of inefficiency, stress and chaos in the academic career give me pause. Was it a good use of my life to spend so much of it not in training, not even in paying dues, but in preparing, waiting for my turn, waiting for lightning to strike? Is this the best we can do? I don’t have a comfortable answer.