The Academic Hiring Season Doesn’t Have to be The Hunger Games

I have a confession. I kind of like applying to jobs.

It scratches the same itch as applying for grants. I enjoy thinking about all the cool new things that I could do next. Back to the Arctic? Working in coastal ecosystems? Turn my focus more to nitrogen or microclimates or long-term trends in biogeochemical processes? Try something entirely new? How might I apply my existing skills to a new, local ecosystem? Who might be my next collaborators, what fun intersections are there between our sciences? What courses would I get to teach – seminars, where upper level students delve deeply into a topic? First-year, introductory courses, where students first learn and get excited about how our planet works?

Figuring out potential answers to some of those questions makes me eager for each position. But it also decreases the stakes, just a little. Yes, I’m on pins and needles, waiting to hear back from each job. If I don’t hear back, or am rejected, it is disappointing – I wanted that job! But I also know that it is not the One True Job for me. There are other positions out there, ones that I would be happy in.

This attitude also helps me avoid seeing my colleagues as competition, which I think is essential to be in academia and avoid bitterness.

Postdoc applicant pools might be tiny (just a few) or large (dozens). Faculty pools even more so. I’ve heard of job ads that got only 20 applicants, for specialized positions in fairly rural areas, to 400+, for broad ads in ecology at major R1 universities in desirable places. And, yeah, you are being measured against others. But viewing the other applicants as your competition doesn’t really help. For one, you don’t know who they are, unless you have a couple friends applying for the same position. For another, those “competitors” are also your potential collaborators and long-term members of your academic community. Why waste the energy resenting them, when you might want or need their cooperation down the line?

A few months ago, one of my good friends had a string of well-deserved success – a paper published in Nature Geoscience and faculty offers from two R1 universities. When Amy told me about the first faculty offer, I immediately high-fived her and gave her a hug. She’s awesome, and I was psyched for her!

A little later, I think when the NG paper came out, I did the same – a high-five and a congratulations. She mentioned that some of her officemates in a different department had been…a bit begrudging their congratulations. As if they resented her success a little bit, when she was just hoping that her friends would be excited for her.  A high-five was perfect – celebratory, satisfying, short. This wasn’t about making a big deal, just about appreciating each other’s success.

Amy and I applied to some of the same faculty positions (though not the ones she was offered), and worked in the same lab. We applied for a (rejected, unfortunately) grant together. There is plenty of overlap in our interests. But I never thought of her as competition for jobs. We were at different career stages, had different goals, and different priorities for what we wanted in a faculty position. The hiring committee who hired her would not have considered me. And, likely, when (if) I get a faculty position, that hiring committee would not be interested in someone like her.

The things you can do get a faculty position, to increase your chances, are not about competing against each other in a zero-sum fashion. You publishing in a high profile journal does not mean there is one less spot for me to do the same. There are always more students you could mentor, more ways to demonstrate your commitment to teaching or outreach or inclusivity. Grants are competitive, but in some ways similar to faculty applications – there are so many high quality proposals, that it often comes down to whether you catch the interest of someone on the panel. Getting a grant – and getting a faculty offer – is some mixture of your qualifications and skills, your ability to sell yourself, fit, and a healthy dose of luck.

I’ve only been part of one faculty search committee, as a grad student representative almost 5 years ago. I’m not exactly speaking from a deep well of experience. But if you read all the blogs, and twitter, and talk to faculty, many will say the same thing. “Fit” for a position ends up being highly important, as does luck. There are issues with that, as people sometimes will think that an applicant won’t “fit in” if they are from an underrepresented group(s). But, no matter how explicit the ad is, you can’t predict exactly what the search committee is looking for. It’s not just a matter of how many papers you’ve published or how much grant money you’ve received or whether you got your degree from a top university. If faculty hiring isn’t just a measure of those quantitative things, then comparing yourself – and competing – against others doesn’t really help. Danny* might have more publications than you, but maybe they only worked on one project for a long time. Elise* was a co-PI on a grant, but isn’t down to teach that introductory GIS class the department has been trying to offload. You can’t predict how a hiring committee is going to weigh those different strengths, so why worry about it?

My point: when I apply for jobs, I tailor things to highlight why I’ll be an asset, what I plan to achieve, and how my achievements thus far demonstrate that I will succeed. I don’t worry about whether I stack up against other applicants. I don’t stew about why I wasn’t invited to interviews, if I hear that someone else was. Maybe I’m wrong – I don’t have a faculty offer in hand to back up my way of thinking. Maybe I would be more successful if I had more of a competitive drive to beat colleagues in the academic hiring game. But I think I would be less happy, less satisfied.

So, when my friends get faculty offers – I’ll offer more high-fives.  



*Made up people

Note: This whole thing was sparked by a twitter thread, but these are issues I’ve been thinking about more broadly and wanted to expand upon. This is not meant to be a pointed criticism of Michael Hoffman’s tweet – the academic job search can feel cut-throat, and he’s wishing luck to all. But I’m hoping that we can push-back against the idea that it’s a to-the-death competition from a dystopian society. We all will do better if we celebrate each other’s success and pull each other along.

Thread linked below.