Faculty Job Search Season: Casting A Wide-Ass Net

Oct 02 2008 Published by under Conduct of Science

Dr. Brazen Hussy posted yesterday about her faculty job search this season, and made the following remarkable statement:

This is about 1/3 of the job listings that I could conceivably apply for, but I am restraining myself and only applying to jobs I want - and only to jobs with a description that is reasonably similar to what it is I actually do. I'm keeping an eye on the job listings but I don't anticipate applying for more than about 10 jobs.

This is fucking crazy talk!!!1!1!


You must apply to every single possible faculty job out there for which you are even remotely qualified, and regardless of whether you would ever take the position.
There are a number of reasons to do what I am saying:
(1) Frequently, the job ad does not really reflect what the department will end up realizing it wants out of the search.
(2) You need practice giving job talks for realz, and the lesser institutions that you wouldn't necessarily want to take a position at tend to interview earlier in the season.
(3) Offers beget offers.
(4) You need other offers to give you a strong position to negotiate the offers you really want.
And don't be afraid that people, departments, or institutions will be "mad" at you if they figure out that you are using their search in this way. Everyone understands that this is how things work.
And less prestigious departments/institutions figure that by bringing some out-of-their-league candidates in for interviews, they do have a chance to dazzle them with their whatthefuckever and score one. And less prestigious departments/institutions protect themselves by also inviting candidates they know they have a decent shot of recruiting.

44 responses so far

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Good advice and with all the correct explanations.

  • Alright, what the fuck did you do with Sol!?!?!?

  • LH says:

    I just went through a 2 year job search, and I completely agree with PP (not the first time).

  • whimple says:

    I also agree. You apply to anything and everything that even might make it into the parking lot of your ballpark.
    Here's a question I never got figured out: When you apply to 200 places, do you ask your references to send letters to all 200 of these places, or do you go with the "please don't hesitate to contact my references" text in your cover letter? Presumably there might be a downside to pestering your letter writers to send out to University of Irrelevance 59 of 371. I know I'd be annoyed when aspiring young investigator figured I didn't have any better use of my time than sending out the 700th letter on her behalf.

  • yolio says:

    Chandler et al. in the book "Landing a job in academic biology" give the exact opposite advice. They liken the issue to broadcast spawning versus the intensive wooing associated with lifelong monogamy.
    Their point is that in order to stand out from the rest of the gigantic application pile, you need to put together a targeted application packet crafted to the individual institution. This is a time consuming process, and thus there is a limit to the number of targeted applications that can be done.
    I think that what an individual job searcher should do depends somewhat and the specific vagaries of the job market they are in and how desperately they need to line up a paying job (any job, please). At minimum, I would suggest a hybrid strategy of writing targeted aps for the jobs that you really want coupled with a general announcement application that may be impersonal but states "I am available."

  • Odyssey says:

    Comrade PP is right. Apply for everything you're remotely qualified for. I did. When I got an interview here at Big State U. I came thinking I was just doing it for the practice (although I tried hard not to make that obvious). I came away impressed with the place. When they invited my wife and I back for a second visit my wife told me there wasn't a hope in Hell that she would live here but she would come along on the visit for my sake. We both came away impressed. And here we are. And have been for eleven happy years.
    Yolio #5 wrote:
    Their point is that in order to stand out from the rest of the gigantic application pile, you need to put together a targeted application packet crafted to the individual institution.
    True. It's a balancing act. You do want to try to target your applications as much as possible. It's a lot of work, but you do want that TT position, don't you?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Here is how we did searches. First the job advertisement was carefully crafted with the necessary qualifications spelled out. There were faculty discussions as to whether "Postdoctoral experience preferred" or "Postdoctoral experience necessary." When the applications came in, the search committe would break up the task and each member would go through the applications and toss the ones which did not have the particular set of qualification they were looking for. In fact, if you hire someone who does not fit your specifications, you can be sued. It has happened. So I would not bother applying if I did not meet all, or almost all (maybe someone does a more sloppy search?), the specified criteria.

  • Sven DiMilo says:

    a targeted application packet crafted to the individual institution. This is a time consuming process

    Nah. What's so time-consuming? You have 5 or 6 variable sentences in the cover letter. You're not "targeting" your CV or your pub list; maybe you're listing specific courses at each institution in your teaching statement, but it's no big deal.

  • Kim says:

    As former search committee member (six different committees), I've got to say that we throw out a lot of applications that were clearly doing the "broadcast spawning" thing. Maybe there's a distinct difference between small liberal arts colleges and research universities in this. But if you don't write a good letter, one that makes it clear that you're capable (and ENTHUSIASTIC) about teaching every single course the department needs, your application won't get more than a quick glance (and maybe some ranting about lousy applications in the department meetings). (And it's not just cover letters - it's statements of teaching and research.)
    And I remember the good applications that I've read - people who seemed like they would be perfect for a slightly different position, or who just needed a year of teaching experience to make a short list.
    People complain about how many applicants there are for every position, but sometimes you get more than one hundred applicants, and none of them seem to be the least bit interested in actually working at your institution. It's really annoying to put in the hours reading applications from people who seem to think that all institutions are carbon copies of one another. (Or that teaching institutions are just places for mediocre researchers.)
    I targeted my applications, and got interviews or offers at six of the ten positions for which I applied over the years. Maybe this wouldn't work now, but this was during a time when there was a serious oversupply of PhDs in my area. (Fifteen years ago for geologists, things were as bad or worse than they are for biomed types today. Oil had fallen apart, mining wasn't hiring, and academic departments were shutting down - it was a lousy time to be a geologist.) I got a job the first time around, and then I only applied for jobs when I wanted to move.

  • kiwi says:

    So, is the approach likely to change with the sub-discipline? I am an ecologist and have also taken a fairly conservative approach with targetted job applications. . .still looking.

  • TreeFish says:

    I have heard a hybrid version: I was told that, if you are really good, you should only apply to places that you would go. Then, you can bring your A-game, receive offers, and play the letters from competing U's against each other.
    I have some colleagues that received offers from very good places like UC-Davis, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, Emory, WVU, U Tenn, UAB, IU, UIowa, and Michigan State...only to end up at places the next tier up. Their major reasons were the start-up packages. For example, some of the aforementioned institutions were offering $400-500k. They received the offer letters from these places, took them to the places they really wanted to go, and received better offers (~$600k). Incidentally, the Chairs at the better places (4 in all), all said, "Here is what we're giving you. No negotiations. Take it or leave it. If you can't get your lab going with this, then maybe you're not the right guy/gal."
    Moral of the story, from my perspective: apply to places in two tiers-- the acceptable and the ideal.
    One final comment: I was told that, when tenure review time comes up, apply to other places. Your home institution often uses others' assessments of you to determine how good you are (e.g., if other places of similar/better stature want you, you should be retained). Some U's have an entire pool of money set aside explicitly for retainment packages! Tap that!
    However...I also know some tenured people who really cockteased other institutions for competing offers, only to ultimately accept their home institution's retainment package (I think the readers would appreciate DM and PP's perspective on getting tenure and retainment packages). The competing institutions pulled out all of the stops, even getting permission from the VP to institute a research core for the people to head...only to be burned in the end as the victim of hard-core negotiating. To a T, the people burned several personal and professional bridges in the process, but got some dope (i.e., phat) retainment packages.
    I presume that a similar risk is taken when hard-core negotiating takes places for your Asst Prof job (though I will default to DM and PP on this).

  • pinus says:

    I applied to many places...including some long shots (going both ways). I went to every place that invited me for interviews (about 30 percent). I don't see what is lost in doing this...other than time spent in the airport.

  • dajokr says:

    Let me simply add another endorsement of the lottery principle that one cannot win if one does not enter.
    I spent about 18 months on the academic lab and science writing job market, applying to almost every position I could find except those I thought were over my head or otherwise beyond what I thought my CV might attract. After about 6 months of no bites, my brilliant wife kicked me in the ass and told me to apply for some of the more lofty positions that she had been e-mailing to me but that I had immediately disqualified from consideration. Remarkably, I scored three interviews and got offered one of the positions.
    So, I agree with the DM's recommendations to apply early and often. More specifically, I strongly endorse points #1 and #3: 1) you never know what a search committee will be looking for relative to the content of an ad and 3) the longer you are on the market, the more of a network you will develop of people who might be able to steer you toward other more suitable positions that might not be posted widely.

  • dajokr says:

    Sorry, Physio, I meant *your* recommendations above, not DM's. The near-absence of profanity threw me for a moment.

  • River Tam says:

    kiwi- this advice does not differ for ecology. Our search committees are just as prone to randomness as everyone else's - and my guess is there are fewer jobs in general for us than for the medical/suborganismal crowd, making the advice even more important. The only difference is I don't think we care as much about specifically tailored cover letters - but a couple of sentences never hurts!
    Yolio- I advise every new postdoc to hit the market immediately. Getting a job is a numbers game. It may happen on the first interview, but it might take a while to find a department that is looking for your skills. There are two problems with the "less picky later" strategy - 1) there is real merit to getting some interviews under your belt at less ideal institutions - I had my first interview at one of my dream locations and I really wish in retrospect that it had NOT been my first! 2) You never know if you might actually really like someplace. More places have surprised me (good and bad) on interviews than I can even recount. Some places I knew I would hate I loved and some places I thought I would love I hated.
    Finally, I am curious about how other places deal with the "matrix" for a job search that Jim Thomerson referred to. In my experience all sorts of "code" gets put into these ads to give the search committee wiggle room - "must complement departmental research strengths", "may be expected to teach specific course X, Y, or other course related to hiree's research area" I know more than a few people (including myself) who have been hired for research areas that they only tangentially have strengths in. It's the wiggle room that can allow people who do not fit everything in the ad to a T to get the job offers.

  • River Tam says:

    Oh, and I forgot -
    TreeFish, I know of postdocs negotiating for Asst Prof jobs who have had offers rescinded for being really greedy and obnoxious jackasses in negotiations. I don't think it happens often and I think it has to be pretty egregious. If you try to brow beat and insult the poorer state institutions by telling them that Harvard routinely gives $X for startup and their offer is insulting and shows they are not serious research players (not far from a direct quote), it may not go well.....

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Comerade Physioprof (response #2),
    Agreeing or disagreeing with someone should be based on the issue being raised, not on the beauty or ugliness of the person who raises it.
    I bet you're going to vote for McCain-Palin no matter how many lies these two spread, simply because he is ugly and she it pretty 😉

  • Now, now, now, Sol. Let's not be so narrow-minded about things. Dr. Isis is unbelievably beautiful and, yet, Comrade PhysioProf never cuts her any slack.

  • neurolover says:

    I was all set to complain about "broadcast spewing" but I think the "Apply for everything you're remotely qualified for", has the appropriate caveat (i.e. "remotely qualified for"). I think it's foolish to apply for something you're really not qualified for. But, really, search committees are used to weeding out the applications that they don't want, and there's always a possibility, say, that they'll buy a magnet for you when they don't have one, because you are just that awesome.
    And, yeah, the offers from places you *think* you don't really want to go can help you get other offers. The key thing you owe those places is to go to them with an open mind, and with the hope that they wow you about the place. It can happen. If you go with that attitude, you're giving them a chance, and that's all that's required.
    The one caveat is that people sometimes start their search a little early, getting their feet wet, but not really planning on searching yet. At that point, it's not unreasonable just to pick the jobs that sound great to you, because you're not really on the market yet.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Isis, of course you are beautiful, but you are not a Republican!.

  • pinus says:

    Sol
    You should check out PP's other blog. He is one of the most anti-republican people out there.

  • Odyssey says:

    Neurolover at #19:
    ...the "Apply for everything you're remotely qualified for", has the appropriate caveat (i.e. "remotely qualified for").
    The "remotely qualified for" is absolutely key. I hope I didn't give anyone the impression I was advocating broadcast spewing. I wasn't and don't. If you don't fit the position in some way, don't waste your time or the search committee's by applying.

  • Alex says:

    You can't turn down a job that you didn't apply for.
    Physics is a little bit different, because regardless of your specialty the bread and butter of the department is teaching introductory courses--regardless of how big or small or science-oriented or non-science-oriented the school is, the majors will be heavily outnumbered by non-majors taking intro courses and/or GE courses. This means that teaching statements don't require as much tweaking from one school to the next. It's all about the research area.
    I had the option to spend at least one more year in my postdoc position. I was unsure whether I wanted to go to a research university or a primarily undergraduate institution. Yes, I know, it really ought to be obvious which way you should go, but I saw advantages to both. Anyway, because I had the option of time, I applied widely but selectively at the same time: I applied to many different categories of schools, but within each category I only applied to schools that looked interesting in some way.
    Also, I declared victory after my first phone interview. Because I had the luxury of time, I looked at it as a learning experience, and declared that if I got just one interview I'd learn something useful for the following year. Well, I got my phone interview, it went well, that led to an in-person interview, and then interviews at two more schools, and finally an offer from a school that I liked.
    Finally, don't be too snobbish: Even at the less prestigious departments, you'll find good colleagues and good students, and perhaps a bit less stress and arrogance than in the pressure cookers. (Then again, arrogance can be found anywhere.) Plus, if you absolutely must be a bit snobbish about things, keep in mind that at the slightly less prestigious places you might be able to be a star. Now, don't get too arrogant about that, because it will just screw up the work environment, but there's nothing wrong with taking a job where you're highly confident that you'll be able to exceed expectations. (Just make sure that you do indeed exceed those expectations rather than being lazy, and make sure you don't become insufferable about it.)

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Pinus,
    I checked, I saw and you missed the 😉

  • drdrA says:

    PP-
    You and I have posted at length about why it is a terrible, awful, no good very bad idea to limit your search to particular positions from the beginning. Let me repeat this- IT IS A TERRIBLE USELESS AND BACKWARDS IDEA to limit where you apply. full stop. period. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP UNLESS YOUR HEART'S DESIRE IS TO GO THROUGH THE JOB SEARCH AGAIN NEXT YEAR... APPLY ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE THAT LOOKS EVEN REMOTELY APPLICABLE TO YOU.
    I think I've made my point.

  • 7 applications, 1 offer says:

    Best piece of advice I ever got: Don't apply to any place that you can say in advance "there is no way in hell I'd ever want to live there," even if (perhaps especially if) the job ad reads like your CV. Because guaranteed that is the one job offer you will get. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life in North Dakota? Or LA, or Cleveland, or wherever it is you're applying? Even worse than no offer at all will be to only have offers in places you wouldn't want to visit, let alone live in. I'd rather go through the search again, quite frankly. The search only takes a few months, that is a worthy investment when you're talking about the rest of your life. Be picky!

  • cashmoney says:

    Isis, of course you are beautiful, but you are not a Republican!
    How do you know who is and is not a Republican?

  • Alex says:

    7 applications, 1 offer-
    If you know for sure that you'd never want to live there then you're right, don't apply. But if you are open to changing your mind based on your experiences with a place, then apply.
    The college town may be quite nice and quite different from the stereotypes of the state.
    The scenery may be really enjoyable and the people nicer than you realized.
    Or that big city that you swore you'd never live in may be a lot more varied and interesting than you realized.
    The state school that you looked down on may be getting better students than their old reputation suggests, and the faculty there may be great people to work with despite (because of?) the fact that they aren't elite superstars with egos as big as the football stadium.
    If you don't approach opportunities with an open mind, you'll see far too few opportunities.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    How do you know who is and is not a Republican?
    The same way you know who's an idiot and who's not!

  • AB says:

    "UNLESS YOUR HEART'S DESIRE IS TO GO THROUGH THE JOB SEARCH AGAIN NEXT YEAR"
    That's an important caveat though. What do you do if you're at an early stage in your postdoc and wouldn't mind doing another year or two? You might only get offers from those places that you were thinking of as interview practice and negotiation leverage. How is it viewed if you turn down offers in favour of more postdocing and another round of applications the next year?

  • whimple says:

    What do you do if you're at an early stage in your postdoc and wouldn't mind doing another year or two?
    Uh, the sixties and early seventies of biology are over. In 2008, you take any job you can get.

  • drdrA says:

    7 applications, 1 offer:
    Congratulations on your offer- but in my opinion geography is one of the silliest reasons for excluding places to apply. You DON'T KNOW in advance if a place is in a place you can't stay, unless you apply and ARE INVITED TO ACTUALLY VISIT THIS PLACE IN PERSON. You certainly won't be invited to actually visit this place in person unless you apply.

  • River Tam says:

    I agree with every word from drdrA (from both in #32 and #25). When I was on the market there was a job at a location I made considerable fun of. Before the interview I joked about how my only offer would probably come from this armpit place. Turns out it wasn't anything like I thought it would be and after the interview, I would have given a body part to get an offer from that same place!

  • 25 applications, 1 offer says:

    Do you really want to spend the rest of your life in North Dakota? Or LA, or Cleveland, or wherever it is you're applying?

    It may have a bad rep, but Cleveland's actually a pretty great place to live. Have you ever been there? You may be dismissing it on completely unsubstantiated grounds---always a problem with geography-based pruning. Especially if (as you say) you think you wouldn't even want to visit there.
    (On the other hand, I didn't apply anywhere in the deep south, mainly because I cannot tolerate humidity and I love cold weather.)

  • drdrA says:

    I started writing another comment, it got too long... so I just made it into a post:
    http://bluelabcoats.wordpress.com/2008/10/03/unsolicited-advice-geography-and-the-job-search/

  • Arlenna says:

    I specifically got the job I have now because I applied for a position that wasn't really about "me" and "what I do," but that had themes that were similar enough and the department looked really cool. I made a very clear note of that in my cover letter, explaining that I realized I was not "Certain Particular Skill" person, but that there were elements of my research plans that would fit nicely in both with that and with other things going on in the department.
    They agreed, and found a way to create another position for me even though they hired someone entirely different from me for the one I actually applied for. And while my CV is fine, I'm not SUPERULTRAMEGASTAR or anything. I was just what they never even knew they were looking for until they saw me. So don't lose out on the opportunity to be that by not applying to things that you don't think you fit perfectly.

  • drdrA says:

    Arlenna-
    This is a very good point. I was recently on a search committee and we ended up making a strong case to the chair to create two additional positions- and one of them turned out to be for someone we didn't even know we were looking for... similar to your case.
    These things do happen and they are not all that rare.

  • Sven DiMilo says:

    Many good points above and I'm in agreement with most. My perspective: Now on my fourth (4th!) Assistant Professorship--long story--and I have also done 3 or 4 unsuccessful interviews. On the other side, I've served on at least 5 or 6 search committees at various places. The job market from the applicant's position is purest crapshoot. My first faculty job was deep in the heart of Bible-belt flyover country, a place that I applied to because I needed a job that year (soft-money postdoc over and kid on the way) and shotgunned applications to everywhere remotely appropriate (I do old-fashioned small-bioscience organismal stuff and have successfully framed myself as a physiologist...I have to say you Big Bioscience types have me shaking my head sometimes...turning down $400K in startup??? I can barely type, my head's shaking so much). Anyway, I was surprised to get the interview (one of only 2 that year), even more surprised that I liked the department and the island-of-relative-sanity college town. Got the offer, had no alternative, so twisted my all-metropolitan wife's arm and moved my little family to Bumfuck Egypt for 6 years, and it was OK! Great place to raise a small child, I did some interesting research on some interesting local fauna, mentored some great grad students, and eventually engineered an escape from the cultural milieau for which, it turned out, we were indeed a poor match. It was a great place to start a career, and I'm glad I'm not still there. Both are true. If you accept an offer--and in my view anyone who rejects an only offer is nuts--it DOES NOT lock you into place forever. $.02 deposited.

  • Dave Munger says:

    When Greta was applying for jobs we said we'd go anywhere but the south. But she decided to apply to Davidson, Davidson was by far her best offer, and in the end, we realized we should go to Davidson.
    Some aspects of the south have been eye-opening (like working with a person who admitted to attending KKK rallies), but in the end we like it here. We have great friends and a good life, and Greta has the job of her dreams.
    And heck, now even North Carolina is starting to change: there's a not-unreasonable chance that Obama will actually win the election here.

  • I completely agree with PP -- I can't believe that this day and age someone would still write stuff like that.... I applied to every single possible positions myself, and when I hear postdocs say "I only apply for those jobs for which I am a good fit / I won't apply where I don't want to go / I keep my bar high/ etc" I can't help wondering how many of them, who then lament not being able to have a "career in science", do the same type of "selective applying"... folks, being a scientist is a privilege, it seldom comes with the view of the ocean...

  • A says:

    Someone's got to be positive.
    I have a chronic illness and disability that makes it difficult to impossible for me to live in certain climates. I'm not being picky or romantic or sacrificing my career for XYZ. I'm fuckin disabled and believe me I did not "choose" this...
    5 applications, 4 interviews, dream job landed.
    Yes it was very stressful. If you're doing the narrow application thing: CYA. Best thing to CYA is a kickass list of pubs. But invest as well in some postdoc funding of some sort in case it doesn't work out.
    Meantime: for everone who told me this was impossible! (I guess this blog doesn't allow links but here's how I feel: http://torkunc.files.wordpress.com/2007/08/nanik.gif )
    RO1's impossible to get? I don't think so!! Bring it on.
    Go for what you want!

  • This is very true, often the work you will be doing will have nothing to do with your qualification. So even if your not qualified you could still do a good job.

  • k elliott says:

    Hi PP and DM,

    How about a repost on the topic "Faculty Job Search Season". It's been a while since you first wrote it. And there might be a whole bunch of people who might benefit from an update discussion. Thanks

  • k elliott says:

    OOps, particularly on the negotiations side of the job (e.g., teaching load if the institution you are aiming at concentrates on teaching, part-time vs full-time and viceversa, salary etc).

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