How to fail better (and even succeed!) in the academic job market

I’ve been on a few searches now, and observed a dozen or more hires across every stage in my academic career. There have been barrels of ink spilled on how to do better in today’s awful job market, and academic job consulting is now a thing (if you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with The Professor is In).

So why write (another) post on the job search? Two reasons. First, I’ve been through both processes in the last few years, so I’ve got a recenlt perspective from both sides of the process. And secondly, I see a lot — a LOT — of really easy, fixable mistakes made by people vying for academic jobs. I was almost tempted to title this post, “If the job market sucks this much, why aren’t you trying harder?” because there have been a surprising number of times that I’ve had this thought as I’ve gone through terrible cover letters or struggled through painful interviews or downright awful job talks. But the fact is, the market sucks, and a lot of the search process is out of your control. Most people are probably trying about as hard as they can. They just may not realize what they’re doing wrong, because the process can be obtuse from the outside, and a lot of us don’t get the mentoring we need.

I’m not going to talk about what you can’t control in this post, because while that will account for a number of your specific rejections, it’s not going to be the systematic cause of failure over the long-term. If you’ve been trying for a long time and you just cannot reach the next level of the search process, it’s likely to be something you can fix.

So, your goal should be to fail better. Let me explain: 

A good friend of mine is a fiction writer, and she gets rejected all the time. Apparently in the creative writing world, there are multiple tiers when you get a story or poem rejected. A photocopied form letter on a tiny slip of paper with no signature? That’s bad. That’s like not even making the short list in an academic job. A handwritten note signed by an editor that says, “we really loved this but it wasn’t quite right; please send us something else!” is like a campus interview. My friend gets really, really excited about those. She hasn’t been published yet (the equivalent of the job offer in this clunky metaphor), but she’s really proud of her personalized rejections. I’ve never had anyone want to go out and celebrate when someone didn’t want to publish something they wrote, but that’s the reality of her field.

To extend this idea further, I think it’s helpful to see the job market as a series of tiers. If you’re just getting started, don’t expect to get an offer from a top school immediately out of the starting gate. Your goal, with your first round of applications, should be to get a phone or Skype interview. Then work on getting a campus interview. Then focus on the job. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be trying your absolutely damnedest across the board; I’m saying that if you’re stuck at a particular stage, you should focus on the things you can control that may be preventing you from progressing. So, here’s a list of common mistakes that people make that I’ve seen candidates and my colleagues make in the application process:

I. You’re applying, but you’re not getting phone or Skype interviews.

1) Your cover letter doesn’t stand out. I read a lot of weak applications, especially when it comes to cover letters. Cover letters are, in my experience in the sciences, really important. They’re the first thing I read, so that first paragraph needs to draw my attention. In my applications, usually used that paragraph to identify myself — e.g., “I’m an evolutionary ecologist using molecular tools to understand behavior in endangered cetaceans.” — and to tell the search committee a few highlights about what I do, where I publish, and what I’ve accomplished. I then recommend devoting a paragraph to your research and publication outcomes, a paragraph to your teaching experience and philosophy (show, don’t tell: use examples), and a paragraph to tailor, and tell me why this job excites you. That’s just how I do things, but it’s been a pretty successful model.

2) You’re not what we’re looking for — or, at least, you didn’t convince us you are. A lot of folks take a shotgun approach to job applications, and apply to things even if they really aren’t want the job description calls for. That can be okay, as long as you can do your homework and craft a targeted application (see my point below), but it doesn’t work often. But if you have a strong CV but you’re not getting phone interviews, you may be pitching yourself incorrectly based on the job ad (this happens a lot if you recycle applications and don’t tailor). You need to learn how to pitch yourself: you can be a global change scientist, and aquatic entomologist, and a community ecologist, depending on the search. Learn how to frame yourself to best match the job: this isn’t dishonest; it’s a life skill.

3) You don’t seem ready for prime time. If you’re right out of grad school and don’t have a lot of papers out yet (or few first-author papers), you’re probably not going to be landing phone interviews right away. But! I know a number of folks who have gotten jobs right out of (or even still in) grad school, even with a lot of in-press or in-prep work. Being “ready for prime time” is as much about intellectual maturity and having a five-year-plan as it is having a body of work. If you have a lot of high-profile publications but you don’t seem to have established your own intellectual identity separately from your grad advisors, we may not think you’re ready for prime time. If you’re still acting like a grad student in your application, you don’t sound ready for prime time.

4) You didn’t do your homework. We want to hire people that will succeed — at our institution. This means you need to have a sense of what kind of university we are (public, private, land grant, SLAC, R1), what we’re good at, what resources and programs we have, what the region is like, and what we’re looking for in the job ad. If your application is generic, is cursory in its treatment of something we focus on (e.g., teaching, or outreach), mentions using facilities we don’t have, or just doesn’t tailor to our position, we’re less likely to add you to the long list. I don’t recommend naming specific people you’d collaborate with (just my advice; this sounds weird, and it’s lazy tailoring); but if you say our undergraduate STEM program is really exciting, after you worked with 4H kids during your PhD, I’ll notice.

5) You were too humble. In a job application, it’s okay to talk yourself up. Have someone help you with this if it’s hard to do for yourself at first (and don’t edit their language to sound weaker, as some of my colleagues have done!). It’s okay to say “I’ve been at the forefront of the development of a new method to understand X” — IF that’s true. There’s a fine line between coming across as arrogant or self-inflated, and sounding confident and capable. Get people to read your application so you can figure out if you’re on the line.

6) You’re pitching to jobs that don’t match your CV. If you don’t have a lot of publications (or few high-profile papers) but you’re only applying to top-tier, competitive jobs in R1 schools, or you have no teaching experience and you’re applying to SLACs, there’s a CV mismatch. This often happens not because people are unaware of their abilities, but because they have geographic limitations to their searches and they apply to anything that’s in that region. Fixing this may be impossible, but you can start by looking at the CV of the people who do get the jobs you’re a long shot for, and seeing how you stack up — then work on the part of your CV that you need to beef up, or try aiming lower or more broadly. This seems self-evident, but a large percentage of application packages I look at are what I would call CV mismatches. I have colleagues who know they have a weak publication record, don’t address it, and then get upset when they don’t get interviews. Don’t be that person. Being on the market means being really honest with yourself, and constantly checking in with where you are and what you need to work on.

One thing to keep in mind is that in every single search I’ve been on, we ended up not hiring the person with the largest pub list, the most grant dollars, the most glamor pubs, or the most prestigious affiliations, because fit and creativity and attitude and research interests and diversity and a bunch of other things matter, too. But be realistic about your strengths and limitations, work on the areas of your CV that need beefing, put a lot of time into your applications, and you should get to the next stage: the phone/Skype interview.

II. You’re getting phone interviews, but you’re not being invited for campus visits.

1) You were on the line, and didn’t quite make the cut. Typically, one or two people who make the first round of interviews are long-shots; folks we wanted to learn more about, but didn’t seem ready for prime time, or folks who didn’t seem like a good fit but we wanted to give a chance to impress us. You may not be quite ready for an academic job, but your application is crafted well enough that you’re getting phone interviews consistently but not getting the campus invite. In that case, focus on shoring up your pubs, working on your interview skills, and making sure you do your homework before the interview (hint: it’s okay to ask who’s on the search committee so you can read up about them).

2) There was a personality problem. Searches are a massive effort and expense; we want to make sure that you’ll be a good fit here, can succeed, and we’re vetting you as a colleague, too. If all else is equal, and we have a great pool of candidates, but you came across as unexcited, that may send up red flags (“Do they really want the job, or are they negotiating for a better deal somewhere?”). If you came across as arrogant or rude, we won’t be thinking of you as a colleague, especially if we’ve got a really collegial atmosphere and don’t want to ruin it with a toxic personality. If you were so crippled by anxiety and shyness that you could barely respond to questions, we may be concerned about your confidence in front of a classroom. This doesn’t mean that we don’t interview (or hire) assholes, shy people, non-emotive people, or highly emotive people, but your attitude and demeanor can influence us in subtle or overt ways. The only way to fix this is, in my opinion, to practice — or to make your application and your interview so strong that we’re compelled to bring you to campus anyway.

3) You bombed questions. I’ve seen people just blank on really easy questions (What is a challenge to teaching undergraduates and how could you overcome that?) or questions that show you don’t care about the position (What local projects might you develop?) or haven’t done your homework (How will your research benefit the people of our state?), or show that you don’t have a five-year-plan (What new project would you try to fund next, and what funding agencies would you be applying to?). You can avoid this by practicing, asking colleagues for common questions, prepping some short notes, and giving yourself time to collect your thoughts after a question. And do your homework! If we’re a sea grant university and this is a marine science job, we are likely to ask you about that (I’ve seen interviewees say they didn’t know what land grant university was, for instance, even though we mentioned it explicitly in the job application). If we’re hiring you to be part of an existing research center, we don’t want to hear that you’ve never heard of it.

And, of course, everything from the “Why you might not be getting phone/Skype interviews” section also applies. Sometimes, interviewees look great on paper but it’s clear that they’re not ready for prime time in person. We once had an interviewee say “Well, I’ll have to work outside your region, because you don’t have any ________”; except we have multiple species, two of which were endangered (whoops). Work on your interview skills. Dress professionally, even for a Skype interview. Give answers that are more than a few words long (I’ve seen that), and less than five minutes (I’ve seen that, too). If we’ve got you on our long list, there’s something about you we found interesting. If we didn’t bring you to campus, it may have been a fit issue or a really competitive pool; or, more commonly, you may just need to work on your interviewing skills and preparation. Remember: focus your effort on what you can control.

III. You’re getting campus visits, but no job offers.

1) Your job talk sucked. Crappy job talks have been, hands down, the single most common reason I have seen people fail at the interview stage. This is the stage where I most often find myself thinking, “If the market sucks this badly, why aren’t you trying harder?” You need to devote a lot of time and energy to your talk. Practice it, multiple times, in front of multiple audiences. Pay attention to slide design, and avoid crowded, text-filled slides and retina-burning color schemes. Have a cohesive narrative and a research identity, and state that clearly. Don’t feel compelled to put every single thing you’ve ever done in your job talk. Spend a couple of slides at the end telling us what you’d do at our institution, and where your research is going next. Practice your delivery; if you’re really nervous, don’t use a pointer (we’ll all be focusing far too much on your shaky dot than what you’re saying). Anticipate questions and get very, very good at handling them during Q&A — I cannot stress that enough. Pitch your talk correctly: don’t go so far over everyone’s heads we can’t understand what you do, and don’t oversimplify to the point that you sell your research abilities short (I have seen people routinely do both).

2) You alienated the grad students and/or postdocs. Often, candidates seem to forget that we talk to the students, staff, postdocs, research techs, and other non-faculty members of our departments. If you’re unprofessional, rude, dismissive, or just uninterested, we’re going to hear about it. I once had a candidate tell a group of postdocs that they frankly weren’t interested in hearing about our research; they wanted to know about the night life. At my SLAC undergrad, a candidate blew off the student-only teaching talk, apparently thinking that since there were no faculty present, it wasn’t a big deal. I’ve had candidates try to act like grad students during pizza lunches, and not have good answers to questions about mentoring style or potential courses. Bad, bad, bad.

3) You acted unprofessionally. At an ivy league school, I once saw a candidate (the same one who wanted to know about the night life above) fail to turn their Google Chat account off right before a talk, so we were all treated to a popup of “Hey, [insert embarrassing pet name]! How’s the interview going?” Later, the same candidate made a failed joke about “going to the yacht club” after his talk that did not go over well. Now, this candidate may have been a great scientist, and any one of those things may not have sunk their application, but in aggregate, they came across really poorly — ESPECIALLY in a competitive search. Similarly, I frequently observe or hear stories of people making off-color jokes or sexist comments, mocking the student body or geographic region, or other faux pas. To be fair, I’ve seen and heard of departments doing shit like this in searches, too, and that’s total crap, too (but check out our guest post on making the hiring process better).

4) You bombed the in-person interview. We’re often giving you cues, especially if we like you and we want to give you the best possible shot. Pay attention; if we’ve given you multiple opportunities to answer a question (“so, how would you fit in with our new climate change research center?”), and you still fail to answer it, that’s bad. If you don’t have questions for us that show that you’re interested and care about the position, and are thinking you’re ready for prime time, that’s also bad. If you’ve done any of the above at the on-campus stage (e.g., show a lack of readiness to succeed in a pre-tenure position, thinking like a grad student, treating certain members of the search team poorly or dismissively), if you’re acting desperate and too eager-to-please (e.g., “I can teach anything you want! I can research anything you want!”) then that can all sink you here, too. “Fit” is not just about what we’re looking for in terms of research topics or diversity– it’s also about personality, to an extent. Are you someone we want to work with on a daily basis? Do you seem dismissive or even hostile when talking about students? Are you relentlessly negative when talking about your past institutions or colleagues? Are you unintentionally sending warning signals?

Final thoughts

As  you digest all this, remember a few things about my perspective: I’m a scientist, I have a job, and I’ve been on a few search committees and sat through maybe a dozen hires. I’m an assistant professor, and I’m an outspoken feminist with strong opinions about academia. Those things are going to be lenses through which my advice passes. And, of course, there are always a lot of factors that go into searches. We consider a lot of things, and in my experience, it’s really very rarely any one thing (except a bad job talk) that will sink a candidate. It’s never something like an ugly tie, or an animation in a talk not working, or you feeling jet-lagged and forgetting a name, or spilling your soda at lunch.

If you’re on the job market for any length of time, you’ll be rejected. You’ll feel despondant, helpless, bitter, angry. And there is a lot about the situation you can’t control: the number of available jobs, what a search committee is actually looking for (and we may not even know!), how many applicants you’re competing with and what their CVs look like. What you can control are the things I’ve listed here. Focus on those things, and try to figure out what you need to do to make the next tier in the rejection ladder that, hopefully, will one day lead to a job. And as you work on failing better, remember that only good things can come from that effort (and it’s a better use of your time than worrying about the things that are out of your hands). I wish you the best of luck, and I’m sorry that it’s such a brutal process. Be kind to yourself, and to one another.

Feel free to use the comments section to share other common mistakes you’ve observed as faculty, to ask questions, or to tell me why I’m full of crap (so long as you follow our comment policy, of course). 

19 thoughts on “How to fail better (and even succeed!) in the academic job market

  1. While your advice is great, I’m most amazed with/puzzled by the context – that you’ve seen these mistakes enough times to be bothered by them and write this post. I’ve seen plenty of awful job talks, too, and assume that the person never asked for help. But the other things, like not doing a basic Google of what you’re applying for, seems like common sense. Plus, it’s like someone probably hasn’t mentioned that piece of advice before.
    Also, your writer friend’s reaction to what amounts to the campus interview stage is maybe the approach we should take in academia – becoming one of the top three candidates is saying you’ve done many things right, and it’s probably a matter of fit at that point (unless the job talk was surprisingly bad), so it’s worth a celebration.

    • To be honest, I almost didn’t write this post because so much of it feels like common sense. But I’ve been really shocked by how common some of these have been, especially after this last year (I was on a search committee and closely followed three other hires).

  2. To a large extent, many of these tips and much of this advice also follows for persons applying to PhD programs- especially in competitive departments at R1 institutions.

  3. As someone who has served on many search committees, probably the most important thing one can do to get their application noticed is to put forward your best case in that very first paragraph of the cover letter WHY you would be a particularly good fit at THAT SPECIFIC INSTITUTION, as opposed to others. If you can make any sort of cogent argument for that- up to [this is a pie-in-the-sky example] “I’m an evolutionary ecologist using molecular tools to understand behavior in [species], which is endemic to [your state]: I utilize the cutting edge Alpha Blabba Whatitsometer, recently acquired by your core instrument facility, to determine these molecular markers. What is more, I have taught classes on [specific specialty area that your department’s sole expert in just retired or left] with significantly above-average student evaluations for the past two years.”

  4. that is what i call a timely post🙂 i got an invitation for an (on campus) interview for a postdoc-position this morning and i am grateful for all this thoughtful advice!

  5. Thanks for the great advice! Can you comment on the flip side – how often do you see applicants who do everything right, and it comes down to the competition/fit? Are such candidates who don’t get an offer likely to get feedback explaining the reasons from the search committee, or must one assume that if they are not getting an offer they are doing something wrong as you suggest?

    • This happens maybe 33% percent of the time? Maybe? Sometimes, we’d be happy with all the top candidates, but there’s a clear #1; other times, it’s less clear, and there’s some debate. And other times, we’re not happy with anyone, and go back to the pool. Often, our top candidate is the top candidate in other searches, too, and we have to go down the list if they turn us down.

      Feedback is rarely given unless you’ve got someone you make a connection with or who is advocating for you on the committee. You can ask the chair, but I don’t actually know how likely you are to get feedback (I’ve never chaired!). It may vary! I’ve heard that it’s good to ask, though, so it never hurts.

  6. Thank you so much for this post!!! The reason you see so many of these common-sense errors is that most Ph.D. students get *no* help or advice on this unless they go out of their way to bug their advisers/mentors/etc.

    A question: Is it a faux-pas to ask for feedback after you’ve done a campus visit, but didn’t get the job?

    • I had a fantastic mentor and I really forget that not everyone had that experience. I had an office mate during my postdoc Who had sent out 70 applications and her advisers had never looked at them. She had gotten so little mentoring it it never even occurred to her to ask, apparently. That just blew my mind.

    • anon: I’ve chaired 2 search committees in the past 2 years and will chair another one this coming year. I don’t mind when candidates who were invited to campus but didn’t get the job ask me for feedback. (Sometimes I’ll get a similar question from someone whom we Skyped but didn’t invite to campus, and I’ll happily give them feedback too.) I don’t always have specific feedback for them, however, because often times it’s not something specific that *they’ve* done, but something on our end (fit, etc). (For context, I’m at a SLAC, so I’m not sure if the willingness to answer questions is the norm at other types of institutions—definitely a good question to ask your mentors!)

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  8. This is all good advice but it is all stuff that people who can observe the world around them and also ask for advice should have gotten on their own. If you have a supervisor who is not a good mentor , you should find good mentors in your peers or from other people with more experience. If you are afraid or too arrogant to ask for advice (and most academics love giving advice), this is not a good predictor for future success even if you can fake it for the interview. Academics need to be self-sufficient, problem solvers with good communication skills. You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel or boot-strap it, but you need to be able to make you own decisions with a little bit of help for you colleagues (friends).

  9. Once had a candidate whose entire interview scheduled got bumped due to inclement weather. Even though they had a whole extra day of sitting in the hotel (which had free wifi!), they still failed to look up the faculty members and research centers listed on their interview schedule. There’s no way to hide preparation that poor, and they bombed pretty badly on their 1-on-1s.

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