Five tips for surviving the academic job market

“I’m going on the job market”—me, May 2018. At the time I had no idea of the gravity this statement held. Like during most of my career, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. As a first-generation college student, I moved through grad school and a postdoc without any of the insider information I felt like everyone else had. I describe each transition and new event in my career as “just going for it.” So that’s what I did, I went for it and tried to become a PI.

One year later I have survived. I have chosen the word “survived” carefully. The academic job market is intense and seemingly designed to challenge you not only as an academic but also as a human. What are the goals for your future research program? How would you design an undergraduate course? How many new cities can you visit in one semester? How much money can you dedicate to the interview season up front? What do you do when hear absolutely nothing from 75% of your applications? There were serious consequences to undertaking this endeavor. My mental and physical health has suffered, but I have survived and I start as an assistant professor next month. I want nothing more than to pass on as much advice as possible to prep the next round candidates. A disclaimer: this information, while still applicable I hope, is very North American centric. Here are five tips for surviving the academic job market.

Know the terms and the basic process: A PhD and a postdoc did not actually teach me how universities work. First, know the type of university you want to work at. Small liberal arts colleges (SLAC) or R3s (based on Carnegie classification) are very different from research-intensive institutes or R1s. Second, postings will start appearing in July and continue through the fall (to start the following fall). Many people spend multiple years on the job market and the average number of applications submitted is field specific, but can range from ~20 to more than 200. Oh and each application probably takes at least 1-3 hours to put together. Third, you will never hear back from a majority of these institutions. Committees cancel their searches all the time, and if you didn’t make the short list you will likely never receive an official rejection.  Fourth, you will probably receive an invite for a remote/Skype interview first and then, if selected, you’ll be invited for an on-campus interview. On-campus interviews vary broadly, so ask what is expected of you. Last, you’ll receive a verbal offer of the position first, likely a phone call from the chair. Then you negotiate the terms of this position and finally, you sign an official offer approved by the chair, dean, and whoever else from the university.

Find a supportive community: I would literally not know any of the above information if it weren’t for Future PI Slack. This group of over 1,000 postdocs aimed at academic careers was my life support. Collectively we anonymously tracked application stats, asked and answered each other’s questions, and most importantly provided group support. Some of the most important threads for me were centered on “How are you dealing with the anxiety?” and “What are your travel tips?” It was essential for me to have others to talk to who were going through similar experiences, not just for concrete advice, but to uplift and inspire me.

Develop some chill: The absolute worst part for me was the waiting. Fill out numerous applications, and then wait. Schedule and attend several remote interviews, and then wait. Go to a couple of on-campus interviews, and then wait. Send your negotiating terms, and then wait. During each of these waiting periods, you’re also supposed to be a functioning postdoc, completing experiments, writing, etc. Most of the time, though, I felt frozen. I would catch myself spending hours obsessing over what I did for my seminars or the mistake I later found in my cover letter. I’m not sure I ever truly mastered “developing some chill” but I did try to be kind to myself. There’s just no way to be as productive as you were before being on the job market. Plan for this and do your best. Find something that gets you out of your own head.

Ask all the questions: As a first-generation academic, I have never felt the unspoken rules of universities and higher education more than during this job application process. It’s important to remember that everyone you will interact with on the university side is either a PI who has been through this and has likely served on a search committee, a chair who has hired multiple PIs, or a secretary that has seen everything from start to finish multiple times. They are going to assume you know what you’re doing at each step. If you’re like me, and you actually have very little idea what you’re doing, just ask! You need the details of what they expect for your job talk, you need to know where your hotel is and your travel confirmations, you need all these things. I may have annoyed a secretary or two throughout the past year, but I can confidently say I have never regretted asking a question.

Be prepared: The most obvious tip for surviving the academic job market is to be prepared! But be prepared for what? The question of what it takes to get the elusive PI position remains, with many controversial opinions floating around. When do you know that you’re ready? How do you assess your chances? Yes, asking around and talking to your network helps answer these questions, but no real collective or quantitative data exist for comparison.

Some of us at Future PI Slack seek to fill this very gap. If you were on the job market for the 2018-2019 cycle please consider spending five minutes to fill out this survey!

We hope to gain insight into what it really takes to land a PI position. All data will remain anonymous, but we will release an open-access analysis of the survey once all results are in. The last day to submit results is May 15, 2019.



About the Author:

Amanda Haage is a newly minted assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. She previously trained as a postdoctoral fellow in Guy Tanentzapf’s Lab at the University of British Columbia and received her PhD in 2014 from Iowa State University in Ian Schneider’s Lab. She is generally interested in how the microenvironment regulates cellular behavior as well as promoting diversity and inclusion in science. Twitter: @mandy_ridd and Email: