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Facing facts: the harsh realities of the academic job hunt


A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough. Joys are found in it, not pleasure. What is pleasant belongs to dreams. – Simone Weil

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

There are many bottlenecks during an academic job hunt, but the fallout from your first year of interviews is by far the most trying. In my experience, it was between the initial interview and the tentative offer of employment that I saw the majority of my options fizzle. While there will be a lot of competition (typically hundreds of applications per tenure-track position and increasingly high expectations of the applicants), it should be noted that many universities unofficially screen desired candidates before posting academic job searches.

In an earlier post I recommended applying to appropriate academic departments even when they are not actively recruiting new faculty, and this is why. If you are invited to interview at a department that has not yet posted a job search, you might fall into this first category and can expect to have to return for a second “official” job interview once the faculty search commences. If your first interview is in response to an active and ongoing recruitment that has been posted on the university website, it is possible that a desired candidate has already been chosen and you are merely helping the university adhere to its hiring policies.

While this should not discourage you from going to the job interview and giving it your best, you should be aware that this happens. I speak here from experience, having been on both sides of this coin. Although the ethics of how universities adhere to their hiring policies will not be discussed in this post, I have included links to McMaster University’s policy and procedures on employment accommodation and the University of Windsor’s faculty recruitment program as examples of the administrative requirements academic institutions are under to meet Canadian employment equity policy.

Another interesting bottleneck I discovered in my own job search was that while many host institutions will invite you for “informal” (not publicly posted) job interviews, there is sometimes a disconnect between your host institution’s desire to have you join the department and the actual resources available to create a new faculty position (e.g., startup costs, lab space, salary etc.). As a result, many of the recruitment conversations I entertained and some of the interviews I went on were non-starters before I stepped foot in the door.

While the responsibility is on the institution (or recruiting faculty member) to communicate this from the beginning, it pays to do your homework. In the United States, this has become complicated by transitional grants such as the K99/R00, which are limited in number and due to ongoing funding constrains are presently among the sole mechanisms biomedical research departments have to support new academic hires. This can be incredibly frustrating and especially discouraging when your options are limited. My only piece of advice here is to take it in stride and set your expectations appropriately. Until you see an official job offer on paper, remember that words are wind.

This is especially true for humanities PhDs who have it harder than most today. David and I agree on a lot, and while every word of his article last week on keeping your academic job hunt simple is true, David’s experience is not the rule. I hope mine isn’t either. Because experiences vary so much, my advice is to keep your employment options broad within the narrow scope of what you want, and actively entertain backup solutions should the academic job search not go your way. You can typically expect to hear from the chair of the search committee or the department chair within one to three months of your interview with a tentative offer for employment, or at least notification that you are the top candidate for the listed position. If you receive this notice, it is cause to celebrate! You are now in a position to negotiate your appointment and can be assured by the knowledge that the search committee has invested sufficient time and effort in choosing you that they are unlikely to want to start over. This is where it gets interesting, and we discuss the specifics of this negotiation in the following post.

For postdoctoral fellows interested in pursuing a faculty appointment in academic research, I strongly encourage the following resource, alongside which this article should be read: Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. Burroughs Wellcome Fund / Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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