The words stick in my head because of the fury they inspired when they were uttered. One of my closest academic mentors gave me advice about job hunting during my postdoctoral fellowship: “Don’t mess about with lots of possibilities. Just apply for what you want and then get it.” Sounds simple, right? I didn’t think so. But, as it turns out, after considering a lot of possibilities, there really weren’t that many jobs that I did want within academia and messing about with the sub-optimal job applications would have wasted a huge amount of time.
When reading Jonathan’s excellent series of articles on the academic job hunt over the last few months, I felt tired for him – what an enormous effort. I guess it’s a matter of preference and everyone goes for a slightly different strategy – Jonathan’s was extremely organized and his net was cast wide in order to assess what possible opportunities were potentially available. Mine was a little different, much less formalized and much more haphazard. I spoke with lots of colleagues over my entire academic career, sought general advice, and ended up putting in a formal application to one position that I interviewed for (twice) and eventually got.
Some of the advice I received was from some pretty high-up people in my field and it was a lot simpler advice than I would have suspected. One of the most important for me was: “The real thing to consider is whether or not you want to (or are willing to) move. If you are able to move, the next question is where – which of course includes where would you like to live? Would you like to spend your weekends walking in the mountains or stuffing your face with artisan cheeses and visiting art exhibitions? Do you want a three-bedroom detached house or an urban apartment?”
Understand what you want
It turns out that the scaling down of possibilities was a “me” thing and didn’t rely on the opportunities presenting themselves, but rather relied on me determining what I wasn’t willing to do. I didn’t really want to leave Cambridge and I wasn’t keen on commuting to London from Cambridge (although I could have tolerated this and did consider some options). I considered whether I would like to move to Germany, Sweden or the U.S. and none of these particularly appealed to me at this stage of my life. If anything, I would have moved back to Canada, although this presented its own set of challenges.
Don’t waste other people’s time
In the end, it did not feel “worth it” for me to apply for jobs in cities that I simply did not want to live in. In the penultimate year of my postdoctoral training, I was giving a talk at a research institution and ended up in the department head’s office afterwards. He asked whether I was looking to set up my own group, I said “yes, eventually.” He asked if I would like him to consider me there and I said not just yet because I wasn’t quite finished in Cambridge. Realistically, I respected him and the operation he was running – I didn’t want him to have to set up a day’s worth of interviews, pay public money to house me and move me around when there was a low likelihood of me actually considering the position. Some people think this is crazy, I just think it’s realistic (and efficient).
It turns out that life advice did a much better job of narrowing down my search than anything scientific could have ever done – scientists are people, too. This allowed me to focus my efforts on making things work where I wanted them to work. It also saved an incredible amount of my time, as well as the time of those that would sit on panels evaluating my formal applications.