The other day, I was talking to a friend who is trying to get a position as a computer science professor. Instead of working on his job talk (the research talk he was to give during interviews) he was looking at the profiles of his competition. They were good; he was scared.
“Haven’t you learned anything from watching The Bachelor?” I asked. “If you focus on the other women instead of your relationship with the Bachelor, you don’t get the final rose.” My friend contemplated this and decided to watch The Bachelor instead.
You may scoff, but this may have been the best use of his time. There are many similarities between the academic job market and The Bachelor, an American reality TV show where 25 single woman vie for the affection of the lucky Bachelor. Each season, ABC selects the group of bachelorettes from thousands of beautiful, eligible young women. Over the course of 12 weeks, these women go on one-on-one and group dates, facing elimination in weekly rose ceremonies, with the goal of receiving a marriage proposal. Similarly, at American research universities, each department selects a handful of superstars to interview from hundreds of applicants. Over the course of a few months, each department interviews the candidates, evaluating them through the job talk and multiple days of one-on-one meetings. The competition is intense: only one or two candidates will receive final job offers.
In addition to the structural similarities, the job search and The Bachelor both strip participants down to the primal fear of not being good enough for someone else. Participating in both games can introduce a fair amount of self-doubt and insecurity about what contestants have worked for their entire lives (marital eligibility; academic qualifications). For both, the ability to stay calm and focused is an elusive skill.
Thus, in preparing for the academic job market, we can learn from how the ladies of The Bachelor keep their cool. For those of you who do not have a few weeks to spend studying the strategies of the top bachelorettes, I provide some key takeaways here.
If you get intimidated by the relationships of the other women, you won’t get the final rose. The contestants on the show are all accustomed to being the most eligible woman in the room. In the opening cocktail party, there are always confessionals from women talking about how they are surprised and intimidated by the high quality of the other contestants. Later on, this intimidation gets worse as contestants develop relationships of varying depth with the Bachelor. This intimidation is sometimes so extreme that some women choose to leave. Other women will sulk in corners instead of pursuing time with the Bachelor in group settings. These behaviors inhibit the deepening of relationships with the Bachelor.
A similar process happens with applications for top professor positions, who can find it intimidating to no longer being the star academic in their midst. There are many similarly qualified applicants from different subareas who are essentially incomparable, making it so that hiring decisions come down to subjective factors like “fit” and who the department envisions hiring—essentially, the department’s “type.” Analogously, eliminating themselves or sulking in the corner are both unproductive strategies.
If you get involved in drama you won’t get the final rose. Some women declare they “are not there to make friends”; others develop close alliances. Every season, there are bachelorettes who like to instigate drama. Some of the contestants get absorbed by the drama. A deadly move is to spend precious one-on-one time with the Bachelor discussing drama. The Bachelor is there to find a wife, not to mediate petty fights. Usually, shortly after this occurs, the Bachelor eliminates the tattle-tale. The happiest bachelorettes are usually the ones who have the support of close allies.
Similarly, during the academic job search, it is important to walk away from flame wars and avoid getting sucked into negativity. I have friends who have gotten comments after talks along the lines of “The focus of your work is completely useless.” It is best to acknowledge and move on from a comment like this as quickly as possible. And similarly, developing friendships with your competition can be beneficial: these are the people in the world who most understand you. And trash-talking the other candidates—or anyone, for that matter—is a sure way not to get the job.
If you have no chemistry with the Bachelor, you won’t get the final rose. Being on the show can be a great time, but the premise is that the Bachelor wants a wife. If the Bachelor cannot envision a woman as his wife, he will not give her the final rose. Focusing on anything else takes focus away from developing chemistry with the Bachelor. On the other hand, if the Bachelor has sufficiently strong chemistry with you, he will forgive some drama and insecurity. Thus, the most important thing to do is to seduce the Bachelor. Simply looking good on TV doesn’t cut it.
Analogously, departments hire because they want professors to join them. And since there are many candidates who could be good fits, the choice comes down to how the department feels about having someone join their department. A professor told me that during the job search, the goal is to get your interviewers to “fall in love”—they need to be able to envision their future with you. Doing this involves understanding what they desire and showing them who you are and how you fit. As with love, seduction is easier if you feel the connection too.
It is not the end of the world if the Bachelor eliminates you. The most likeable bachelorettes get more air time and often star on related shows, for instance The Bachelorette. Many of the contestants go on to find love in other ways, onscreen and off. Furthermore, the “winners” of The Bachelor do not always end up happy. Many of the couples break it off shortly after the show ends, as The Bachelor’s wife interview process has some gaps in determining marital compatibility. The contestants who keep this in perspective—at least, during the confessionals—seem to fare better under the pressure.
In the same way, while the most likeable job candidates may not get jobs at their top choices, they can still be happy. The interview process helps build their reputations so that even if they get no offers this time, they can eventually find something they like. And just as Juan Pablo (this season’s Bachelor) may not be the best husband for many of the contestants, faculty candidates may be better off getting jobs at schools other than Stanford. There are many paths to productivity and happiness; winning this particular game may not be one of them.
Faced with similar pressures to perform and seduce, contenders on the academic job market—and similar high-pressured environments—can learn a thing or two from the strategies and fates of these admirably focused bachelorettes. And if nothing else, you can come away feeling better about the pressures of your situation. At least you don’t have to live with dozens of intimidatingly beautiful women who all share your boyfriend.