Academic job hiring: a letter from the trenches


In this academic job season, both applicants and employers could try some things differently.

The ‘fall job season’ is about to start again (side note: I’ve only recently gotten used to it being autumn in September-November; the fact that the academic year is partly governed by the Northern Hemisphere is another thing to adjust to all together).

This year marks the start of entering the final phase of the process: I am advertising to hire a postdoctoral research assisstant, after being on the job market myself for faculty jobs last season and postdocs the years before that since obtaining my PhD. The idea that I will hire someone to work with me is incredible and exciting, but is also a daunting prospect for me; I want to do a good job of hiring someone.

Luckily, I’m close enough to the ‘other’, or applicant side of the hiring process on a variety of levels. I can express (and remember) how painful this time of year can be for the applicants — and how, largely, our job searches are designed with little or no thought to the applicants themselves, and which benefit largely the employers. I don’t think it has to be like this.

Don’t get me wrong, we have lots to be thankful for: in some STEM fields (e.g. Mathematics) postdocs can often be one year posts, which make the transitions between jobs more rapid and with even less security, and in the Humanities the ratio of jobs to applicants can be even more severe than in STEM— so I know that largely we have it good.

That being said, a few things I’ve noticed in my field make this process very painful, and I feel could be changed without making the hiring process any/much more difficult for those doing the hiring! Some of my thoughts may sound extremely obvious to some — but I’m shocked at how many places I’ve interacted with display really careless and harmful practices just because they haven’t thought about it.

So this year, I am going to do something about it personally. Below is a list of things I think need fixing, and my vows to do it better.

Things that (I think) are wrong with our current job-hiring model in Astrophysics

  1. The Astrophysics Rumour Mill. As an applicant, there is no good news you can get from the rumour mill (except at the beginning of the season — it is a great place to see what jobs are out there!). If you have a job, you know about it. If you don’t have a job, you are not going to miraculously get one from news on the Rumour Mill (I remember thinking/wishing/hoping that they’d just forgotten to email me with a job offer. They hadn’t.). The only thing you will learn, is who does have a job when you don’t. My first round of job applications was particularly stressful in this way. January 2011 was not a fun month for me. The only people that do benefit from the Rumour Mill are the employers, and the community, who then fill the air with talk that sounds like the NFL draft or a stock market of human beings. This year, I will not use the rumour mill in decisions of who to make offers to. If you are a candidate I am interested in, I will make the offer as soon as I can. I won’t make it later because you don’t have another offer yet and I can ‘wait around’ without fear you’ll accept something else. Because no job applicant wants to wait by the phone/email knowing that I’m dragging my heels. I also won’t post the names of those who I’ve made offers to. If names appear, they will be posted by the candidates themselves.
  2. No responses to those who didn’t make a short list. I realise that there are typically many applicants to each position, and that this can completely overwhelm one. But you know what? The people applying to the jobs are human too. And in the case of ‘long-list’ rejections — it is possible to send these out through a list of emails collated in a spreadsheet. I realise that one cannot typically give feedback about why you didn’t get a position, but to be honest at the time of rejection you don’t really want that. You just want some recognition that you exist or that they even knew you had applied (I have still not heard any sort of rejection from some places that I applied to in 2010!). It is worth noting that here the Rumour Mill actually helps — because sometimes it is the only indication you have that the post has been filled. Still, it isn’t the nicest way to hear the news. I will send out rejections to all those people who applied for the job but did not make the shortlist. They won’t contain detailed information about why not, but they will hopefully at least allow people to know that they aren’t getting this job and so that they can rely on information rather than rumour. Also, as soon as I know you aren’t going to be considered, I’ll let you know. I won’t wait until after the position has already been filled.
  3. Standard/cold replies to those who did make the short list, but didn’t get the position. This kind of shocked me the most in a way, as it was the case in which I least expected a ‘cold’ response. Sometimes you make it through the final round (yay!) and have great conversations with people in the department, and really bond — and then you get a bland: “Dear so-and-so, you were not successful, we look forward to watching your career with interest” kind of mail. That really sucks. The shortlist couldn’t have been longer than 10 people. Maybe there are legal reasons why you need to send out a more formal letter, but even a one line “Hey, sorry you didn’t make it” human-to-human email would have made all the difference. The sad thing, is that I think when this hasn’t happened it was not out of malice. The people just didn’t think about how I might feel, or maybe felt uncomfortable that they had to reject me after meeting me and knowing I was excited about the position. But in my mind, that discomfort is attached to the power you have in making the decision about the job in the first place. So those doing the hiring should deal with it. So, if you’ve made my shortlist, I will contact you personally if you don’t get the job. Like a human. Again, I was always less concerned as an applicant about why I didn’t get the job (just like we don’t always want information about why someone doesn’t like us etc.) — but would like some human interaction, especially given that a shortlisting typically involves an interview during which you build a closer relationship with those involved in the hiring process. We can do better than a ‘mail-merge’ reply in these cases.
  4. Pressuring people to make decisions when they don’t have all the options. I realise that there are timelines and deadlines. In our field, however, there are guidelines about this sort of thing from the AAS. It feels horrible to know that someone is pushing you to say yes to one position before the other place (that, hey — you might want more than my job!) makes you an offer. Sometimes (who would have thought?!) you just want all the information at hand before making a decision. I will stick to those guidelines and ask you to be honest with me about other offers and timelines, but not pressure you beyond that.
There is a power associated with hiring someone. That power should be balanced by empathy for those applying. Figure credit: Death to the Stock Photo (http://deathtothestockphoto.com/)

That’s what I feel is at the heart of all of this — people applying for jobs and people offering jobs sometimes seem to be from different worlds. Those offering jobs have (more) stable jobs themselves, and take for granted what that comfort can feel like. Especially since we understand the pain that our graduate students or postdocs (if we have them) feel — so why not make the experience better, rather than just chalking it up to how it needs to be? I think our field could do with a little more empathy.

It shouldn’t be that hard.

Finally, advice for those applying to jobs this year. Or rather, advice you may not get from other people.

I got a lot of advice from people on how to craft my application and think about what I needed to do to get a job ahead of time, and this was very useful [On a side note: get someone other than your family/friends to read your application! Don’t try and just do it yourself, ask for help from people who have done this before]. But I was wholly unprepared for the months between submission (mid-November) and when the dust settled more on the job market (mid-late February). Here’s some advice I now give to students that I wish I had received at the time.

  1. Realise (honestly) how your self-esteem at the moment might be coupled to your ability or not to get a job. I thought I was much less connected to this and so got a bit of a shock when it was initially a little difficult for me. There were lots of moments to feel unworthy of being a scientist.
  2. Realise that it is correlated randomness. No, really. There will be some superstars that get many, many jobs. And you may not be one of them. I wasn’t. That’s the correlated part: fantastic people get lots of jobs. But there are lots of great people with excellent research skills that struggle to find jobs because of the somewhat random nature of the process too. You may not always be what people are looking for right now, you may not be the right fit for just this job (especially if it is specific or on a particular grant), but that doesn’t mean you won’t be a good fit for another job or at a different time. I was once rejected twice on one day, once for being too broad and once too specialised. Sometimes you just aren’t the right fit.
  3. Don’t hold on to too many offers at the same time. This is advice that I’ve seen given to other candidates (I’ve never had fistfuls of offers to worry about). Choosing between 1 or 2 (or maybe 3) places is I think a decision every one can make. But having 4 or 5 offers (congrats!) means that you will almost certainly have a top tier and then a few that you really aren’t that interested in. Saying ‘no’ to those offers rather than clinging to all of them until the deadline keeps the job circulation flowing. In my mind, empathy should go around in all directions here.
  4. The market (appears to be) somewhat dominated by the North American market, but there are other jobs (e.g. in Europe/the Southern Hemisphere) that operate on different timescales. If you can, don’t give up right away. Some of these jobs come about as late as April, or are linked to a different academic calendar and can be incredibly rewarding and amazing positions that get needlessly overlooked.
  5. You may get rejected a lot more in a short time period than you have ever been before. In my first round I applied for 36 jobs and got two offers. I once racked up 10 rejections in one day. Needless to say, that wasn’t my favourite day ever.
  6. Find something fun to do (research based, obviously you need to be near a computer/email) in December/January. Now is NOT the time to debug some code… try a new idea, read, think, be crazy. Remind yourself why you love what you do.
  7. Find someone that you can complain to, no matter what the issue is. That person may not be your office mate — be sensitive that those around you may also have job issues that mean they don’t want to hear you struggle to decide between many jobs, for example.
  8. It’ll mostly be over by March. Until then, here is a cat video compilation. Because: cats on the internet.

Good luck.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Renée Hložek’s story.