Just Say "No"—Against the Silence of the Scientific Job Market

Photo by guercio.

Photo by guercio

It is not easy to get an academic position nowadays, and this is not news. The academic job market is well known to be highly competitive has been discussed in detail in multiple publications, workshops, and also in this blog. One aspect not commonly discussed is that most search committees do not inform candidates who do not ultimately get selected for a position. Why don’t they tell you when you don’t fit a position? Why don’t most search committees explain their selection processes to applicants transparently? A 2013 survey showed that 75% of people applying for jobs did not receive any employer communication in response to job applications. Statistics like these can be stressful for a postdoc finishing up and looking for a faculty position or industry job, or a graduate student looking for a postdoc position or a job outside of academia.


This problem is a reflection of modern times. People feel uncomfortable not receiving an answer from someone. This includes regular phone calls, text messages, emails, Facebook posts, etc. The no-answer situation leads to stress and anxiety, simply because it is uncertain. In a professional environment, those answers have the potential to lead to important life changes, such as moving to a different place, receiving a higher salary, dealing with immigration issues, and so on. To make it worse, young investigators and students apply for multiple positions at pretty much the same time, and so there is anxiety in waiting to hear about multiple “yes’s” or “no’s.” What can be done? I believe there are ways to think about and maybe fix this this problem—from both the candidates’ and the employers’ perspectives.


Employers, just tell us “NO”

It is not easy to chair a search committee—hundreds of applications and pages and pages of cover letters, CVs, research statements, transcripts, all of which is online, usually in someone’s email inbox. Some selection committees wait until the application deadline is over to make the first cut. For faculty or industry positions, hundreds of applications will be triaged to maybe 20. And here is the critical place in time where a very simple step—a cordial email thanking candidates for their application’ but saying “no”—would make applicants very appreciative. Timing is critical. As soon as applicants know they did not fit in an open position, they can move on—maybe improve their applications, maybe apply for other positions. Tabulating email addresses and sending a general email does not sound that hard, does it, especially when applications are being made electronically? Other actions that search committees and employers could take to help applicants is to have a planned schedule of selection. Of course everybody knows schedules can change, but it would serve as a very useful backbone for applicants to control their anxieties and understand the selection process. Plus, it would avoid emails from applicants asking about the “status of my application.”
If you passed the first cut in a selection process, it is already a big deal and communication turns slightly more personal with phone/Skype and/or in-person, on-site interviews. There is a famous golden rule for job and school applicants: After an interview, send a “thank you” email. I respectfully suggest another rule: Selection committees please send the results of your search or selection process to the applicants and perhaps some selection stats, like how many people applied or the timeframe of the selection. It would help prospective applicants to learn and understand exactly which type of faculty, scientist, postdoc, or graduate student that employer, school, or PI would like to have, making candidates better prepared for future applications.


How about us?

First things first: We need to be patient. In places like universities and academic institutions, people have other responsibilities (like teaching, writing grants, etc.), which can make selection committee members very busy, leading to delays in answering candidates. Human Resources (HR) personnel may be involved only after the selection is done. Industry employers and companies usually have HR people working on applications from the start. Sometimes they don’t want to say “no” until they know a candidate has accepted the offer. Patience is critical, but you have the right to send a message to the person responsible for the selection (chair, HR rep, director) asking about the status of your application. There is the always a chance that people have been very busy and forgot to reply to you, or maybe even that your application got lost in the person’s email. For faculty or industry applications, three months may be good timing for asking for the status of your application. For PIs advertising postdoc positions, possibly one or two months may be a good time. But in any case, be very cordial and understanding of how busy people are.


In the end, regardless of “no’s” and “yes’s,” always have plan B’s or actually other plan A’s. It is not a problem to have multiple applications; it is normal in the biomedical job market, and employers completely understand that. Also sometimes a “no” can turn into a “yes” in another cycle of applications. Thus, get career advice from people you trust, from postdoc or student offices, and also from scientific societies (ASCB has a great career help platform online), which is always critical for people interested in changing jobs or labs.

About the Author:

Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo is a Senior Staff Scientist in the Department of Biophysics at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Bruno studies the spatiotemporal dynamics of endothelial cell receptors using single-molecule imaging. He was one of the founding members of COMPASS, and co-chair during 2015-2016. Bruno was the founder and co-chair of the LGBTQ+ taskforce (now Committee) and currently is a member. He is a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce. He volunteered on the ASCB 5-year strategic plan, helping on creating the guidelines for further democratizing the society by ensuring leadership and decision making reflect the broad range of the membership and their interests and priorities E-mail: brunodarochaazevedo@gmail.com Twitter: @brunodra
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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