Thursday, 7 April 2016

How many academic job applications does it take?

Following a discussion over on Twitter about whether you should apply for a particular academic job or not I decided to have a look through my archive of job applications. Having been a bit rubbish at blogging over the past couple of months, procrastination is back with a vengeance, as usual correlating nicely with many many deadlines. This analysis is something I said I would do if I ever got a permanent job - whilst the numbers are somewhat depressing, I hope it is informative. At the very least, it shows that rejection is the norm, even for someone who eventually did get a job.

I finished my PhD in 2008, though due to an unusually long time between submission and viva, then corrections, I didn't officially graduate until 2010. I began seriously thinking about applying for academic jobs in 2009 (yes, AFTER I had finished; I was clueless). Looking back my first attempts were rubbish. I got some very harsh feedback from my first proper interview in 2010, which I found very upsetting, but looking back I realize I was totally unprepared. At the time I was still bad at asking for help (I didn't, at all). My number one advice would be to ask for help from people who have been through it, and preferably have been on interview panels.

Fig 1. Number of jobs applied for
Despite the fact I applied for everything I felt qualified for (and some that I probably wasn't), it's notable that there were really not that many jobs. There were one or two that I was qualified for but didn't apply, for personal/practical reasons regarding location and where my family would be able to live, but by and large I applied for everything that matched my expertise. I applied for around 57 jobs between 2009 - 2015, with 22 of those being jobs in the USA and 34 in the UK.  The number varied hugely year to year (Fig. 1). The thing is, you never know when a suitable job might come up. One year there might be loads, the next year one, or even none, so when they do come up, apply!


Fig 2. Percentage of rejections, interviews and offers
In 2010 I actually did ok for getting interviews, but didn't do very well at any of them. This was when I was offered my postdoc at York - and that was incredibly random as I actually didn't even go to the proper interview as I was in Budapest, and did it over the phone. In 2011 and 2013 I applied for 12 and 2 jobs respectively, and was rejected 100% of the time! In total over those 7 years I was shortlisted for 7 permanent academic jobs. It didn't seem to make much difference whether I had recently finished the PhD or had lots of postdoc experience. The most interviews I ever had in a year was three, in 2012 (last year of first postdoc) and 2015 (last year of third postdoc).

I did quite well at getting long listed for positions in the USA (noticeably at institutions with a strong international research focus), but was never short listed. In the UK, it was very hit or miss whether I got an interview. Combining permanent jobs and postdocs, I was outright rejected most of the time. I was never in a position where I had a choice between jobs; if I was offered it, I took it.

My advice is, apply for everything, within reason. Obviously if you wildly don't meet the criteria then don't. But don't fall into the trap of thinking you don't have the experience or the institution is too prestigious etc. Some people get jobs straight out of their PhD, others like myself do multiple postdocs, it is so unpredictable. But the cliche is true - you only definitely won't get it if you don't apply. Rejection after rejection sucks, but it does build resilience. I would never take it as a reflection on ability (except 2010, I really did not prepare properly).

I won't deny that I had a really tough time of it when I thought I had to give up on the academic job dream, and knowing how hard (and honestly, random) it is, I find it tough telling people to choose this as a career path. It is definitely advisable to have a non-academic backup plan (this brief analysis does not even include all the alt ac jobs I started applying for from 2013). But if you are going to try, then maximize your chances. Rejected applications are not wasted, you re-use and refine the text each time, and when I eventually did get the permanent job, all that postdoc experience did count. I have the track record to apply for promotions much sooner than I would otherwise.

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