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THE BLACK HOLE

The academic job search – getting your foot in the door

By JONATHAN THON | November 16, 2015

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else. – Albert Einstein

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:

When you decide to launch your career search, it is important that you make it a concerted effort. The predominant questions you should be asking yourself is what you want and need from you career, and why? Experiences will vary and I can only speak to mine.

Know what you want

Academically, there was no question I was looking for a tenure-track assistant professor position in a tier 1 academic institute where I could devote myself exclusively to research. My heart was in Canada – preferably in or near Toronto or Vancouver – but I was willing to entertain attractive options in the United States. A prerequisite for me was a strictly urban landscape. My wife, also Canadian although unequivocally not a city girl, was beginning her second year of a four-year medical degree. She was interested in pursuing an exclusively clinical practice in family medicine and was therefore uniquely amenable to working wherever I happened to land.

Set a realistic timeline

To align our respective timelines, I gave myself one year to secure an academic offer, and a second year to negotiate the terms of my appointment (see: Commencing the academic job search – impetus and deadlines). My wife, for whom securing a residency position would be significantly easier, would follow me. If I received no hard offers before her match list of putative residency sites were due, I, in turn, would follow her. I would not consider extending my postdoctoral fellowship further, and on the realistic possibility that no academic offer would be forthcoming I was prepared to transition into secondary areas of interest.

Learn what is out there

It is important to note that most academic positions are advertised in the fall, with the assumption that the job will start in summer or fall of the following year. As a result, I began my job search the spring of my first year by creating a spreadsheet of every research institute I was interested in joining (regardless of whether active searches for new faculty were ongoing or scheduled within my allotted window). In it I listed the department heads, my personal contacts in each department, and their respective contact information. I did the same for my other career options.

The following months were spent reaching out to each and every person on that list (which, at its peak, was 28 research institutes and 22 firms) to get the word out that I was looking for a job and inquiring after current/upcoming opportunities. Included were my CV and a one-page cover letter specifying the position to which I would be applying, my background/experience, my career aspirations, the reasons for my interest in their department/firm, and the underlying fit. Within months that list had dwindled to seven research institutes and two firms. My postdoctoral work had also stimulated interest in me from a pharmaceutical company with whom we had been collaborating closely; while initially I had no desire to pursue a career in industry, in a broader sense, few major decisions in my life have been planned, so I was willing to entertaining a particularly attractive offer.

I found informal sources to be more valuable than print announcements in major scientific journals, institutional/departmental websites, and employment bulletins published by professional associations and postdoctoral mail listservs. That said, a few career-related web sites were worth searching:

Narrow your search

The institution/department’s mission, values, political and social climate, and quality will all factor into your decision making, so it is often a good idea to constantly reassess and rank your choices accordingly. Moreover, the parameters and expectations of available offers may vary, as will the personalities within the department and how receptive they are to your work, and you to theirs. It doesn’t benefit you to strive for a job for which you are clearly not qualified, are not really that interested in, or for which the department is not interested in you. Doing so wastes others’ time and your own, and can damage your credibility.

My interests outside of Academia, while significant, were secondary to my ambition to advance what I felt was ground-breaking research that no one was doing at the time, and I decided to put these other options on the back-burner. Professional careers outside of universities tend to move very quickly, and given my schedule, I felt there would be sufficient time to pursue these if a full-time research position at a university did not pan out for me. I was, however, quite certain of what it would take for me to remain in academia or leave the profession outright, and made it a point to set my price early on. Opportunities all have their particular strengths and weaknesses, and knowing what you are worth, and where you draw the line – regarding fit, departmental support (financial and otherwise), and salary – is crucial to career advancement.

The next step is putting together your application package and my following post will walk you through this process.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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