The Academic Job Search — My Quest For a Fancier Title

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It strikes me, not uniquely, that life in science comes with a high frequency of hearing the word “no.” I don’t suppose this is domain exclusive to science, but it may be the breadth of ways one can hear “no” and from the range of sources that sets science apart. For instance, in the past week, I’ve been told:
-no, your paper isn’t good enough for this journal to publish it
-no, your model doesn’t explain the really interesting phenomenon
-no, your session isn’t going to be held at the conference
and, most alarmingly,
-no, your application was insufficient for us to offer you an interview
It is for the last one that I’m breaking my too-long hiatus.

I write this from somewhere between the second- and third-mile post in my hunt for faculty jobs. From the number of times it’s needed explaining to my friends and family, I thought I might outline what the hunt for an academic position looks like from someone trying to get one. Take all of this with a grain of salt, as I haven’t completed the process, much less successfully.

I am seeking a position at a university or cancer center where I can build my own research group and teach courses. The common title for this is “assistant professor,” though other terminologies exist.

The first stage of the process involves augury. I spent a year or so agonizing over a set of documents that would make me look appealing to employers and help me to stand out. Standing out is a big component because, thanks to the glut of researchers who want to be academics, competition is stiff. (ProTip: Get advice from at least two people, so their conflicting suggestions can lay a really nice base layer of fear and confusion; acclimating to this helps.) The set of documents varies from employer to employer, but they generally include:
-Curriculum Vitae (aka CV), which is largely a reprioritized resume
-Teaching statement outlining my hypotheses about how one ought to teach courses
-Research history statement describing what I’ve done in my career-to-date in a narrative that makes every project seem like an obvious follow-up from the chronologically previous. Also, each one has to be the most important research ever to be researched, NBD
-Research proposal that plans the first few projects my hypothetical group would tackle
-A cover letter that states I am the best sciencer without using any of those words.
-Letters of recommendation from collaborators/mentors that say I’m a human person who researches science for a living and does it goodly. Also, you probably have to write at least one of these recommendations about yourself yourself.

It can be a challenge to do this on top of the 80 hours you’re already doing science. I have no witty advice for how to deal with that.

The second stage of the process involves screaming into the wind. Every person asked about how many jobs one “should” apply to will give a different number. Literally every person. It is not uncommon for a researcher to apply for 50-60 positions because of that glut I mentioned. These opportunities can be posted on sites like NatureJobs or Science Careers or individual institutions’ websites. From these postings, applicants navigate to ~1.2 billion different websites (c.f. “Standards.” XKCD.com) to upload those documents or some fraction of them or some fraction of each document because every employer wants a slightly different page count for each. (ProTip: Tailoring your materials to the potential employer can be either incredibly useful or an abject nightmare.)

An intermission occurs when, over the holidays, the academics comprising hiring committees enjoy their lives away from their email. After returning to normal life, the committees unleash a torrent of “thank you for your application, however…”s. This is where I’m at today. Notification that the committee has decided the applicant is not a good human being and shouldn’t be allowed to do science anywhere is not guaranteed.

The third stage of the process involves auditioning. Should any potential employer agree with my recommenders that I do the science good, they may invite me to spend a day with their department. I would, hypothetically, give a talk to the faculty and students in that department where I describe my past research and propose what I would do if I joined that department. (Those who have been successful tell me they did not answer this question by screaming “Yo Adrian” or weeping with gratitude.) Some employers will ask the candidate to teach a class or speak with students as well.

The fourth stage of the process involves negotiation. There are two distinct audiences with which a candidate can negotiate.

1) Once the candidate is successful at convincing an employer that said candidate is superhuman and would turn every grad student that enters their lab into J.B. Biggley, the candidate has some ground to negotiate. They can take or reject or twist the arms of prospective employers who really want them. Savvy candidates use the offers from different institutions as ammunition in these negotiations– “I’d better get new shelves in my lab space or it’s off to Grand Old Ivy University.”

2) The more likely scenario, given the plethora of candidates and paucity of jobs, is negotiation with the self. “Do I do another year of training?” “Do I join another lab?” “Do I try again the next cycle?” “Do I beg collaborators to send my materials?” “Do I finally enroll in clown college?” For more about what the majority of folks trained as scientists do when they realize academia isn’t for them or doesn’t want them, have a look at FreeThePhD.com.

(ProTip: the opinion of non-scientist partners is of limited use; they tend to think you’re great even if Hicksville Community College and Laundromat wouldn’t offer an interview)

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