Reality check: Applying for the Dream Job: Part 1


This post is from a good friend of mine. They are on the job market and I asked them to write what it’s like to currently be on the market. The answer is: bleak. So they agreed to write an anonymous post describing their experience and offering advice to those of us currently out there pursuing the dream tenure-tracked job:  

Dear reader,

I imagine you’re a graduate student or a postdoc aiming for a tenure-track academic job. Here, I present a case study of that endeavor, from my own experience on the job market. I present it anonymously because that feels like the best approach. I want to offer general advice, not just draw focus to my specific situation. Names spark a search for idiosyncracies and contingencies, whereas I hope you are able to see some generality and applicability to your own path. In that way, perhaps you can glean some wisdom from this, even if I’m not sure what it is.

I’m going to do this in two parts. In Part I, I will describe my situation, factually, from the point of view of someone whose sole goal is to get a tenure track job. Who am I? What have I done? Why haven’t I succeeded yet? What do I need to do to succeed?

In Part II (next week), I will consider my situation as a human being, discussing family goals, work-life balance goals, and non-academic desires and ambitions.

None of these are ground shaking revelations, and I don’t know if I have any answers, but it never hurts to have one more case study out there in the ether. If this helps one person better understand their career and life, then I’ve succeeded.


My academic history

  • Field: evolution, ecology, genetics
  • Current employment: Post-doc since early 2013
  • Publications: >20 total, 2 first author glossy papers (e.g., Nature, Science, PNAS etc.), 1 first author high-impact review paper (e.g., TREE, AREES, etc.), several first author field specific papers (e.g. Ecology, Evolution, etc.), several papers with undergraduate advisees as first authors. My H-index is between 6 and 10.
  • Grants: NSF GRFP, NSF DDIG, co-author of a full NSF grant during my postdoc.
  • Teaching: Instructor of record during my postdoc, plenty of TAing in graduate school
  • Future projects: Solid (admittedly not spectacular) project ideas in model eco-evo-gen systems with strong potential for grant funding, student involvement, and new research trajectories
  • Toolkits: Ecological genomics, field work, lab work, organismal biology, museum experience, multivariate multi-level statistical expertise, outreach
  • Pedigree: Top 10 EEB program for undergrad, graduate school, and postdoc, with nationally recognized letter writers. Pedigree shouldn’t matter in an ideal world, but to the extent that it does in reality, mine is objectively excellent.

Application History

I got my PhD in early 2013, and a I published 1st author glossy paper from my graduate work in time for the 2014 job season. Since then, I’ve applied to ~ 7 jobs per season at a mix of R1s and SLACs, for a total of 26 applications. Overall, I’ve gotten zero interviews (phone, skype, or in person), hearing only that I made one long-short list (though I wouldn’t necessarily have heard about others, depending on grapevines at each school).

Real talk

I’ve had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about my job search, and I’ve come to a stark realization, which my graduate advisor put most bluntly: “My CV is not as strong as I think it is”. That is, I’ve never really been competitive enough at any one time during my postdoc to land a choice tenure track job. Here’s why.

  • Early in my postdoc, I didn’t have my graduate work published.
  • In the middle of my postdoc, I didn’t have enough first-author postdoc papers, and my graduate papers, including that glossy, were getting old.
  • By year 5 in my postdoc, I finally had that 1st author, glossy postdoc paper, but too little too late.
  • During my entire career, I haven’t done enough to distinguish myself from my advisors.
    1. My graduate system was too similar to my advisor’s: I’ve actually had people confuse my work for theirs.
    2. My postdoc position was initially a hired position on a pre-existing grant, rather than a system I developed and funded.
    3. It is unclear how much of the second grant that I did co-author during my postdoc are my ideas versus my postdoc advisor’s, as the work is an extension of our previous work together.
    4. I may have a massively multivariate dataset from my postdoc that will churn out papers for years, but my publication record hasn’t proved that I can write those papers on my own.
  • Though the strong letters from my advisors address these concerns and promote my intangibles and other skills, the letters will not stand out because every advisor writes a glowing letter for their student.

In short, I’ve gotten stale, and I don’t have enough publications or independence to compete with the younger postdocs who have their own system and a higher rate of publication. My graduate advisor, at least, was thus not completely surprised that I haven’t gotten any interviews.

What have I done wrong and what do I need to do?

  • Publish or perish: I haven’t published enough. This is clear and not surprising. My h-index is decent and growing, but currently not competitive. More importantly, perhaps, my rate of publication is too low, despite the high profile, complex papers and datasets I have produced. Before the 2018 job season, I need to get two or three more 1st author manuscripts at least in review.
  • Numbers game: I haven’t applied broadly enough. Successful tenure-track job procurement requires an appreciable amount of luck (as discussed by Jeremy Yoder). Even with a strong CV and research program, many other factors need to line up just right to get an interview: who is on the committee, what are the final parameters of the job search, who is in the applicant pool, how many are in the applicant pool, what are the diversity goals, etc. Thus, one has to apply very broadly to increase the chances of success during a low probability process. Again, perhaps not surprising, and I need to be applying to 40 jobs per year, not 7.
  • Jump start: I took too long to get papers out as a postdoc. My main projects had long gestation times—2.5 to 3 years of data collection, plus a year in review for my big paper. I should have focused on taking other datasets to publication in the meantime, but did not. Thus, for a 5-year postdoc, I haven’t produced enough. One bit of advice I received recently was to take any sub-optimal (per my parameters) tenure track job and use that to jump-start my career (see point 2: Numbers Game and applying broadly). In that way, my productivity clock could restart, and if I was productive during the 3-4 years of being an assistant professor, then I’d be competitive again for my preferred jobs.
  • Move around: The jump-start, sub-optimal assistant professorship would make me competitive enough to land the choice faculty job at the close-to-perfect university for me. Apparently, plenty of people move several years into a professorship, as they are way more competitive than any postdoc who will not have shown yet that they can successfully run a lab. Maybe instead of looking for the “right” position, I need to look for the “right now” position, without the intention to stay where I land forever.


To paraphrase Cersei Lannister, in the game of academia, you publish early, apply broadly, jump-start your productivity clock if you need to, and move around a lot, or you die.

In Part II, I consider the implications of these rules for me.


2 comments on “Reality check: Applying for the Dream Job: Part 1

  1. With respect to the last item on the list, about taking what you think is a crappy faculty job, with plans to move to one you really want later on:

    • cej9f says:

      I am not the author, but I think their comment was less that it’s a “crappy” job, but not the one they desires and has been working incredibly hard towards. They will address some of the reasons it’s not ideal in next weeks follow up post.
      Also, cool (and very thorough) post!

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