It's funny (not actually all that funny) how the pace and timing of academic life prevents you from stopping to celebrate major milestones. When I accepted a tenure-track position this spring, there was no moment of fanfare, no shower of balloons and confetti from the ceiling, no knock on the door from a game-show host bearing a giant novelty check.
Instead, things happened gradually — first a phone call, then a few weeks of negotiation and planning and a second visit to campus, and, finally, an actual physical offer on university letterhead. Meanwhile, I pushed forward with my postdoctoral research and scrambled to meet deadlines for article submissions and grant proposals. And the culmination of 22 years of education and more than a decade of my working life became one more series of items on my to-do list.
So let me take a moment, here and now, to say: WOOHOO! I GOT A JOB!
It's a mighty good position, too, if I do say so myself — in the biology department at California State University at Northridge. I'm joining a growing program full of great colleagues on a campus that has been rocketing up research rankings, all located less than an hour's drive from Mojave Desert field sites where I first studied Joshua trees as a graduate student. I am delighted to have landed there.
Needless to say, I now feel much more sanguine about the arc of an academic career than I did just a few months ago. I can also say pretty definitively that landing this job has been the hardest thing I've done as an academic scientist. (Maybe that is as it should be: Completing my dissertation was certainly the hardest thing I'd done up to that point, and I'm sure earning tenure will be another beast entirely.) Applying and interviewing for faculty positions was a distressingly large part of my life for the last year and a half.
But, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, nothing bad ever happens to a scientist — everything is data. I kept track of the status and idiosyncratic requirements of every application I submitted over the last two hiring seasons in a carefully constructed spreadsheet. Now that it's all over, I have a lot of numbers on my hands, and I'd hardly be a scientist if I just let them languish on my laptop hard drive. I've used all of the information I tracked to create the infographic that accompanies this article.
Without further ado, let me present my search for a faculty job — by the numbers.
Even though this presentation is quantitative, it is one person's experience, and not a basis for generalization about the state of academic hiring. Think of it as a case study. Here's the context for the case: I'm an evolutionary ecologist with a pretty solid background in population genomics. Almost all of my original research has been with plants — Joshua trees, Medicago truncatula, now lodgepole pine and interior spruce. As we'll see, my focus on plants made a real difference. Going into the fall of 2015, I was in my fifth year as a postdoc, with a respectable publication record, though not a flashy one, by the standards of my field.
I applied for 60 faculty positions over the 2015-16 hiring season, and 52 in 2016-17. I applied to openings for generalized biologists, plant biologists, evolutionary biologists, and ecologists, most of which I found via the discipline-specific EvolDir and ECOLOG email listservs, email alerts from Chronicle Vitae and Inside Higher Ed, and referrals from colleagues and social media.
Results and discussion
Those 112 applications resulted in 17 interviews by phone or videoconference, 11 campus visits and, ultimately, three job offers. Applications generally came due during the fall semester. Interviews began roughly a month later and carried on into January, and campus visits were scheduled in the late fall and into the spring semester.
The amount of time it took to hear back on my applications varied wildly — from shortly after a department had scheduled campus interviews to, um, never. As I write, I still have not heard that I'm out of the running for something like half the positions I applied to last year. (Admittedly, there comes a point at which it's pretty obvious no call is coming, and I'm sure it's not trivial for search committees to have to follow up with hundreds of candidates. But the lack of response from so many places still takes me aback.)
The colleges and universities to which I applied were distributed across the United States and Canada. Perhaps I was somewhat biased toward blue states and the West Coast, but really, I think, I was tracking population density as much as anything else. The state or province that shows up most frequently on my list is California, thanks mostly to the Cal State and University of California systems.
Almost every application requested the standard cover letter, CV, and statements about teaching and research plans. More than a third also requested sample research articles. Well over half requested letters of recommendation up front, due the same day as the application, even though that means more letter writing for everyone in the field.
A few departments also asked for a statement on “leadership in equity and diversity,” or something similar — a new phenomenon since I’d entered the faculty job market. That requirement was most common in the University of California system, but far from exclusive to it. Almost every institution also had some automated method, separate from the written application, to collect diversity data (per federal mandate). They usually asked boilerplate questions about my race, ethnicity, disability, and veteran status. Only 4 percent asked about gender identity or sexual orientation; the lack of data on that front is why academe is only just starting to understand how LGBTQ identities affect research careers.
The vast majority of institutions I applied to — and the majority that invited me to a campus interview — had doctoral programs in biology. Search committees seemed to agree that I was suited for a research-centric position. Taxonomic expertise had a detectable filtering effect, though. One of my postdoc mentors has been known to say that there's a bias against plant-focused applicants in competition for generalist positions in biology, evolution, or ecology. And indeed, while only about a third of my applications were for positions as a plant biologist or a plant botanist, two-thirds of my campus interviews were for such plant-focused positions.
So after all of this, what would I tell a newly minted Ph.D. in my field about finding a faculty position?
Apply for everything. As a postdoc, you're almost certainly on a deadline — the end of a fellowship, the end of a project, or just the length of time you're willing to go without a promotion. There's only one hiring season for biology faculty across most of North America, so the time limit of a postdoc position is also an upper limit to how many shots you can take at the faculty market. Given that, why wouldn't you apply for any position that could, at least in principle, work for you?
Over the past two years, I applied much more broadly than I had in my first four years as a postdoc. Early on, I had tried to be selective: I submitted a total of 44 applications during those four years, weighing everything from geography to departmental composition to the details of the job description to try to find positions that fit me well. Going into the 2015-16 season as a fifth-year postdoc, I decided that trying to read a hiring committee's collective mind was futile, so I applied for any job that reasonably fit my expertise and publication record. It's a cliché, but that's because it's true: The only way to guarantee that you won't get a position is to not submit an application.
Job interviews are unpredictable. Even with a perfectly polished research presentation and flawless elevator-pitching, success in an interview involves myriad factors that are simply out of the applicant's control. Better to take as many chances to get it right as possible.
OK, maybe not everything. I didn't apply everywhere I could have. I skipped over a handful of positions in places where I simply could not imagine myself living. I also skipped one or two openings at departments where I've applied repeatedly over the years and never gotten so much as a phone interview. I also ruled out applications requiring official transcripts upfront — I couldn’t afford to pay those fees, and none of the openings with that requirement were exciting enough to make an exception.
I don't have a formal teaching portfolio, so that ruled out any position requiring one. I also bowed out of the running for one position when the search committee requested a video demonstration of teaching on short notice in late November, right as lots of other applications were coming due and I was traveling cross-country for Thanksgiving. I asked to submit the demo at a later deadline but the committee demurred, and I decided I was better off putting my efforts elsewhere.
Probability works. While it would be unscientific to generalize, it is striking how well my experience lines up with what you'd expect to see if you've paid attention to the state of the academic job market. I'll be starting as an assistant professor with almost exactly the publication count and the number of postdoc years of the average new assistant professor in evolutionary ecology. Likewise, the results of my search line up (within an order of magnitude, anyway) with what you’d expect to see if the average faculty opening gets at least 10 times more qualified applicants than can be invited for campus visits, and if, on average, four applicants visit for every position — it's not at all surprising that it took 11 campus interviews to get three offers. (What happened to the other two offers? One wasn’t a good fit for me; the other came after I'd already accepted the Northridge offer.)
Nevertheless, everything about this analysis is subject to survivor bias, predicated on the fact that it worked out for me in the end. The fact that the process led me to a tenure-track position doesn't mean that the way North American universities hire faculty is good, efficient, or particularly kind to applicants. In my own face-to-face interactions I found hiring committees and individual professors were overwhelmingly polite, helpful, and sympathetic, so I’m speaking here strictly at the systemic level. I think the faculty-hiring process could use a good overhaul, but I also think most of the real problems are beyond the power of any single hiring committee, much less any individual faculty member, to meaningfully fix.
It's not easy getting lucky. In the final analysis, six years as a postdoc and scores of job applications is what it took to get me the job I've always wanted — running my own lab in a public university's biology department. Was it worth it? I think so.
Nevertheless, the last two years are going to color the advice I expect to be giving to grad students and postdocs as I build my lab and begin teaching. Yes, you can secure a tenure-track job, but it takes more than a solid publication record and a good research statement. It requires you to take every chance you're offered — and even then, there are no guarantees.