Monday, June 4, 2012

This is NOT advice about the academic job search

Last week I read Tal Yarkoni's excellent blog post on the things he learned during a failed academic job search last year (available here). Reading that piece brought me back to my own memories of the two job searches I've attempted (one successful). I remember the anxiety a lot, the feeling that there may not actually be a job out there for you (this is a common concern). Then there is also the feeling that you may not, in fact, be as awesome as you thought you were. It's classic self-discrepancy theory as the ideal you (I'm a good researcher) comes into contact with the actual you (I'm not getting a job), and you are predictably left with a sense of dejection/depression (Higgins, 1999).

Now that I have a job as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois (!!!!), many more people have been coming to me for academic career advice, and the lion's share of these career questions have to do with the academic job search. Questions like: How many jobs did you apply for? What did your research statement look like? What was the interview like? Were people hostile during the job talk? These are all great questions, and I think that when most people ask them they are looking for advice from me.

Let me be the first to disappoint you in that regard: I have no advice for successfully navigating the academic job market. Sure, I was successful in my second attempt at finding an academic job, but I couldn't tell you why that happened, or whether what I did would work for anyone but me in my unique circumstances. So, this is NOT an advice column. Instead, my hope is to shed some light on what the academic job search was like for me. In the immortal words of one G. I. Joe, "Knowing is half the battle."

What is it like searching for an academic job?
First, let me give you a sense of what it is like to search for an academic job. Sometime during the summer (and this is getting earlier each year), psychology departments throughout the world begin to post academic jobs online. These jobs are easy to find online (they typically post to the APA, APS, or SPSP job lists in my field). Once you find a list of jobs that you like, you apply by sending the institution three letters of recommendation from your various advisors, an academic resume, a research statement about your future ideas, and a teaching statement about your philosophy as a teacher. You then wait (sometimes indefinitely) for a university to contact you to set up an interview. You typically hear about your interview status about 7-10 days before you are scheduled to fly out to the university to interview for the position. On the day(s) of your interview you typically give a 120 minute presentation about your research (30 minutes for questions) and meet and talk with the members of the faculty. Then you leave and the waiting begins.

Any excuse to use Crying Dawson Face!
How competitive is this process?
While the jobs are relatively easy to find, there aren't many of them. For instance, in my first year of academic job searching, I think there were something like 20 social-personality jobs posted, meaning that 500 postdocs, newly minted PhDs, and some new Assistant Professors looking to upgrade their position were all applying to these 20 jobs. So, to answer your question, ridiculously, impossibly, heart-breakingly competitive. For me, it felt like I was fighting 500 people at once, with many of them outside my weight class.

How many jobs did you apply for?
I applied for about 15 jobs each time I went on the market. This is actually a small number, and I did this for two reasons: (1) I only applied to places where my spouse and I would feel okay about living there, and (2) I only applied to places where research is the primary goal of the faculty. This will necessarily shorten one's list of jobs. If you enjoy the liberal arts style education at some universities there are many more jobs to apply for, although it's still uber-competitive.

What did you include in your research statement?
Your research statement is really just a collection of your ideas for past and future research. For me, the statement is actually pretty straight forward because there is really only one way I am going in my research. The hardest part is figuring out what to talk about most and what to talk about least. In the end, I went with a format that highlighted the ideas and research that I am most likely to pursue in the future. According to self-verification theory (Swann, Pelham, & Krull, 1989) this is a good strategy (see here). Being verified--known and understood by others-- is crucial for long-term relationships because it helps one manage others' expectations. For instance, I don't want to pretend that I'm a neuroscientist because I don't want my future colleagues to expect me to be competent in something that I know very little about.

The mixed emotions of the job talk!
How much time do you get to prepare your talk?
When you hear that you have made the cut to the next round of interviews you experience mixed emotions: On the one hand you feel very proud because you just beat out 200 other people who wanted to get an interview. On the other hand, you are gripped with intense fear because now you've got to write a 50 minute talk about your research to be delivered to a room of brilliant (and sometimes hostile) strangers. And it's not like there isn't anything on the line during this presentation, EVERYTHING is on the line (professionally that is, you still have your dignity no matter what happens)!!!

The days between landing the job and giving the talk are frantic. You literally must drop everything to assemble and rehearse the talk. I was helped a great deal by my colleagues and fellow graduate students during this period. They were gracious enough to sit through my talk several different times. And each time they appeared just as interested as the last one! Thanks everyone from the BSI and SIR labs!

What is the day of the interview like?
When you arrive on interview day (and sometimes it's two days) things are variable from place to place but basically, the following happens: (1) Meetings with a large portion of the faculty in one-on-one meetings, (2) The 120 minute job talk in front of the faculty and graduate students, and (3) Dinner and drinks with a small group of faculty members. In any case, you are being interviewed the entire time so it's never like you can simply have a few drinks during dinner and then say "F**k it! I'm enjoying myself!" That's probably not a good idea.

My sense is that all the interviews (even the informal ones during dinner) matter, and so it's important to be alert and engaged with the conversations. That's easier said than done. For instance, at my first interview I was so exhausted that when one of the faculty asked, "So how is your theory different from theory X?" To that question, I answered, "Well... er... em... it's not really different, at all." Nice answer.

Do you know when you "nail" the job talk?
The job talk is the event that you really prepare for, and so it's packed with most of your anxiety. And no matter how much you prepare there is always a chance that you're going to say things differently than you want to say them. This is particularly true for audience questions because who knows what the heck those people are thinking about!!! I gave five job talks during my two years on the job market, and I felt I nailed the talk twice (e.g., said things how I wanted to say them, answered questions the way I wanted to).

But, I was only offered the job at one of those talks. So, for me I couldn't really tell if my talk was well received by the audience. I also felt, at other times, that my talk went horribly off script, and I was up there in front of the audience scrambling for words that formed coherent sentences. I hope my performance perceptions were off during those talks as well!

Anyway, there is so much more I could say about this whole process, but I'll stop here for the time being. If you have more questions about the academic job search process feel free to respond in the comments and I'd be more than happy to answer those questions!

Higgins, E. (1999). When do self-discrepancies have specific relations to emotions? The second-generation question of Tangney, Niedenthal, Covert, and Barlow (1998). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 (6), 1313-1317 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1313

Swann, W., Pelham, B., & Krull, D. (1989). Agreeable fancy or disagreeable truth? Reconciling self-enhancement and self-verification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57 (5), 782-791 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.57.5.782


  1. It's probably going to get worse as time goes on isn't it? What's the point of doing a phd in psych if you can't expect or hope for a job utilizing it afterwards?

    1. I think job market status fluctuates depending on the financial times, so some years are better than others.

      There are a lot of different job opportunities outside of academic life post a psych PhD. Others would be able to comment better than I would.

      Finally, I think a PhD is one of those luxury pursuits in education: You aren't going to be financially rewarded for the pursuit, and sometimes you won't get the job you're expecting. Still, there is some benefit--no matter the outcome--to having the opportunity to study people in the ways you find interesting.

  2. Michael, I completely echo your sentiment on trying to give advice on navigating the job market after going through it myself--I have no advice! It struck me also as extremely idiosyncratic to the particulars of my unique situation that probably doesn't apply to others because they have their own unique situations. The job market is a funny animal: Maybe the best advice is do your best and pray :)

    1. Hey Alex! Yeah, I'd say that there is no magic bullet in the process, though there are things that make you more v. less competitive, different institutions are likely to weigh those things differently.

      For instance, maybe you think the number of publications should matter, but that's not exactly right because an online study takes 1/25th of the time to collect in comparison to a complex physiology study, just as an example. So even the number of publications has a subjective component.

    2. Absolutely agreed! In terms of pubs, this is one element that I feel is often drilled into us during grad school as perhaps the single most important factor that will get you a job. But when it comes down to it, the people with the most pubs on the market aren't necessarily getting all the interviews--sometimes, they get very few. From talking to people who have served on committees, one thing that they consistently expressed is this super subjective, vague idea of "fit" and how that often plays a bigger role than pubs. Though I'm sure more pubs are not worse than less pubs :-p--it just may not be the great deciding force that I think a lot of grad students/postdocs think/fear that it is.

  3. impressive post...glad to read your blog

  4. If you're in grad school, lobby to have grad students included on search committees, and then get on those committees. There will be no pressure on you as a committee member, but you'll learn things you won't get any other way. Even doing lots of interviews won't tell you what a good cover letter / vitae looks like, or what odd things committees might focus on.

    1. In grad school, our searches were populated by a few students and that was helpful in learning what makes a candidate successful. However, what works for a job candidate who studies topics A & B may not necessarily work for you (who studies topic C). That includes what is written in a cover letter, CV, or research statement. Also, your department's job quirks may not be the same at another department. Something to keep in mind.

      I did get a lot of helpful from my colleagues in preparing my materials for the job market (my senior colleagues were quite generous) and I think that is a good source of help for anyone.

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