The Academic Job Search: It’s Not You, It’s Them.

Casey Fiesler
Sep 24, 2018 · 6 min read
Image: public domain, by burak kostak, via pexels

When I was on the academic job market, I was fortunate enough to have a number of wonderful people give me excellent advice. I had sample application materials, and received feedback on my own materials, and did practice job talks in front of colleagues, and had tips on everything from where to find job postings to how to organize a spreadsheet of applications to how to personalize cover letters to whether to accept a glass of wine at dinner during an on-site interview. I’m always happy to share any wisdom I might have — and in fact, here is my research statement, my teaching statement, and my job talk slides (or at least, versions of them) from 4 years ago in case anyone finds it useful — but this post is more about what I realized later.

My first year as faculty was out of the ordinary for a number of reasons (all due to the fact that we were founding a brand new department from scratch), but one of them was that our entire faculty were the search committee that year. We ended up hiring four awesome people (two junior, two senior), but the entire process was incredibly eye opening for me, having just gone through it myself a year before, from the other side. It was a bit like seeing how the sausage is made.

At some point during the search process, I said to myself, “Wow. I no longer feel bad at all about some of the places I applied that I never heard back from.”

We all get our feelings hurt during the job hunt process. I won’t name names, but there were a couple of universities I applied to where it stung at the time when I didn’t hear back from them at all. In total, I applied to about 25 jobs. I had a total of 5 invitations for on-site interviews (one of which I declined because I already had a job offer I was excited about), and 2 additional phone interviews that did not turn into on-sites. I want to emphasize that I realize this is good — better than I expected, honestly. I also want to emphasize that I was applying to jobs primarily in Information Science and Computer Science departments, and that the market in 2014 was decent. Your mileage will vary, particularly with respect to the discipline you’re in and the kind of work you do. Advice #1: Do not metric yourself against other people! Everyone is different!

Despite everything turning out great, and feeling that I’d done pretty well, I still had some hurt feelings. OMG Department X, I would have been perfect for you! How did you not see that! I mean, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job anyway because I love the one I got but WHY DIDN’T YOU WANT MEEEEEE?

Here is what I realized after seeing the faculty search process from the other side: Much of the time, seriously, it’s not you, it’s them.

The thing about faculty positions is that there a hundred things about what they need or want that you just don’t know. Maybe Professor Whats-Their-Name just retired, and what they desperately need is someone to teach that one specific class that no one else wants to each. Maybe the search is open rank but they really need someone senior; maybe the search is open rank but they know they probably can’t actually afford someone senior. Maybe your research area is too far away from everyone else in the department and they can’t see you as a collaborator; maybe your research area is too close to someone else in the department and they can’t handle the repetition. Maybe there’s a huge demand for X kinds of classes and not enough people to teach them. Maybe last year they hired 5 people who do Y so they just don’t need more Y. Maybe they are doing a cluster hire in Y so they need more. Maybe there’s a special pot of funding for research area Z. The thing is, you just don’t know.

Having seen multiple searches from the other side now, I can’t tell you how many conversations there are about how much we like someone but just can’t seriously consider them for X, Y, or Z reasons. All of which are despite of how awesome that person is. The wonderful things we say about you that you never hear.

So much of academia is about rejection, and the job search is perhaps the worst of all. There are so very many constraints, and none of those constraints care about how great someone’s work is or how much you like them. Just like there’s a great deal of randomness in the paper review process (mostly re: who reviews your paper), there is perhaps even more randomness in the job hunt. For example, the year I was on the job market, one of my dream schools/departments had hired five or six people the year before, so they weren’t hiring that year. This year, my department isn’t hiring, despite there being awesome people looking for jobs and I wish we could hire all of you. There is so much you just don’t have control over, and that can be frustrating.

When I was a PhD student, friends would ask where I wanted to work when I was done. It’s sometimes hard to explain to a non-academic how pointless this question is. Like, sure, you can give them a list of your dream places, but the answer is really “it depends on who’s hiring the hear I happen to be on the market.” Partway into my Phd I was in a bad car accident and was laid up for almost an entire semester. Maybe if that hadn’t happened I would have been on the job market a year earlier — and if so, the job I have now wouldn’t even have existed yet. Also, when I was on the job market there wasn’t a single call that mentioned data ethics, and now I see it all over the place. Randomness! (For what it’s worth, the best way I’ve found to explain how this works to non-academics — or at least, my family — is to compare it to an NFL draft. You know how football players just go wherever there’s a team that wants them? You can’t magically make an empty spot appear in the Falcons roster just because you really want to stay in Atlanta? It’s like that.)

So my biggest piece of advice is to remember how many things you don’t know, and as a result, that a “no” or a “nothing” could mean one of a thousand things. Don’t assume that because you don’t hear from a place you applied that it means they didn’t like you. It could very well be that in somewhere in a small room where a search committee met, there was fifteen minutes of conversation about how great you are and how much they wish they didn’t have all the constraints they do.

I know that in some ways, this advice isn’t helpful at all. It isn’t the kind of advice that helps you get a job. But I hope that it might help you keep your chin up — because no matter was constraints there are now, there will be a whole new set in the future.

If you’re reading this because you’re on the hunt yourself, I wish you the very best of luck. May the force be with you, may the odds be ever in your favor, and may your dream school be hiring someone just like you!

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Casey Fiesler

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Faculty in Information Science at CU Boulder. Social computing, copyright, ethics, women in tech, fan communities, geekery. www.caseyfiesler.com