Job Search in Academia

As you climb the ladder of success, be sure it’s leaning against the right building.
Quoted in “P. S. I Love You”, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Job search in Academia is … interesting. I have frequently stressed the importance of finding a department with a good culture(*). But the process of finding a job is interesting too. I can only speak for parts of one discipline (psychology) and one country (Germany), but looking back at my own past applications and talking with others about their experiences — it is sometimes … a gut-wrenching process.

The bad thing about Academia is that almost none of the people responsible for job applications have any sort of formal training. Many professors do not see themselves as leaders and have no formal training in leadership skills — but unfortunately, some see themselves as an expert in almost anything. A big company has an HR department, even a small one has people who make it their job to improve their skills in this (vital) area. Unfortunately, for many Academics, it is blundering along with gut feelings (i.e., the brain is not involved) — which leaves many bruised applicants.

BTW, if you read “have no formal training in leadership skills — but unfortunately, some see themselves as an expert in almost anything” and you felt self-conscious, you might be safe — it’s the ones who think “Yeah, some do” or “I know better” that have to watch out … just saying.

At least one nice thing about Academia is that some things are out in the open. You can see which positions are advertised and who gets them. Simply take a snapshot of job offer and of the department staff page (before the position is filled and after, set a calendar alarm three to four months after the job application deadline). You can have a look at the person who got the job — and perhaps possible reasons why:

  • You might find that some places predominantly hire Academics who have been at that institution. Nothing against “I know this person, I have worked with him/her and know his/her quality”, but academic incest is rarely good. Personally, I think it impedes the scientific progress — e.g., a wrong theory is passed along the line despite reasons to revise it. So, not getting that job is not so bad.
  • In other cases you might find that the staff looks awfully similar, for example, a male professor with all female (and beautiful) docs and post-docs. (Personally, I can totally understand it, this person really has lucked-out. 😉 On the other hand, perhaps diversity has its advantages, and if it’s only that toilet breaks do not take so long.)

But sometimes it is really painful to see how some positions are advertised and how applicants are treated. I mean, it’s an application, it’s not panhandling. The applicant brings something to the table as well — skills, knowledge, motivation. There are people burning to invest their life in things that are meaningful, to work on things that matter, do achieve something. It is a gift that should not be wasted, or turned sour by negligence. Even if you get the person you think is best qualified, if you do not treat someone right in the beginning, you might be impeding that the person does his/her best for the project. Even with hundreds of applications by distressed students, PhDs and post-docs, the basic courtesy should be to send out an email that the application was received and when the applicant can expect a response (positive or negative). It is not that hard to set up this kind of template eMail where you just insert the name.

And it’s not only the person you select either. I never understood why it is customary (in Germany) that the travel costs to job application interviews are not paid by the university that is actively looking for a new employee. You are essentially asking all the people you invite, but who do not get the job, to fund your project without getting anything from it. (The person who gets the job “only” gets a deduction on his/her first pay check.) This is asking much. Given that applicants are frequently asked to present ideas about what they would do if they would get the job, you essentially ask them to help you plagiarize their ideas. This is asking for even more.

Sure, it’s a sweet deal (for the institution), but going — at least — for a fifty-fifty solution would be fairer. Or to offer alternative ways to do job application interviews. For example, you can easily do a job application interview with Skype. Yes, people want to met the person they are hiring in person (and smart applicants want to get a feeling for the working conditions themselves, after all, an application is a matching process what both sides must fit), but I think it’s more a “subjective validity” thing. Yes, it feels right to have met the applicant in person first, but I doubt that there is any advantage to it when it comes to finding the right candidate.

And above all, jobs should never be offered where the position is already taken, but where legal reasons require that you “offer” it to everyone first. If you do it, you are lying to your (scientific) colleagues and burning their motivation. At worst, you are losing them for science.

Hmmm … I think this is the crux here — academic departments profit from treating applicants badly — especially those they do not offer a job. If you follow a certain mindset, they are the competition. Especially the ones who are qualified (due to their research interests) to be able to apply for the job. They will be your competition for funds in the future (if they stay in Academia). But still, this is one view on the scientific process (one I do not share, e.g., you could cooperate with them) and a really bad and … dishonorable way to do business.

Anyway, not to end it on a negative note, some recommendations for applications (untested, but it might be worthwhile to think about it — I’d love to hear about your experiences/advise in the comments):

  • Always remember: Talk is cheap. Yes, every university and department is innovative, cutting edge, and has an interest in “sustainability” (or whatever the current buzzword is) — at least on paper. But what matters is what they actually do. Ignore what they have written in their advertisement or on their website unless you see living proof of it. For example, they claim to be innovative, yet do not agree to do the interview via a video call on Skype? It raises a serious red flag. They claim to occupy themselves with new technology, yet they do not use it themselves (= they do not eat their own dogfood or drink their own champagne)? Another serious red flag. You are supposed to make your own decisions, but you are invited again because the top person was not present at the first interview and wants to form his/her own impression? Again a serious red flag. Unfortunately, some institutions are really good in writing — not so good in doing (and yup, I know I am walking on thin ice here … I also do a lot of writing).
  • Look for expertise. Whenever possible, get the project proposal of the project you should be working on. Find out who wrote it — and why. Did they jump onto the bandwagon of some hot topic? Or do they really have expertise in the topic? Some projects get started because some guys sat together in a hot tub and thought “we should do something on X, we might get funding for it”. Never, under any circumstances, take a project position where there is no in-house expertise available, unless you are already an expert in the topic and can do it alone. Not only can no one help you get on top of things (and the proposal will likely be crap), nobody will understand why the topic is so hard — after all, the proposal was funded, wasn’t it? It will burn you out.
  • Looking for a PhD position? Check out which people have actually finished their PhD there and if not, why. Look for a former employees website and check out the people who were in the department. LinkedIn, Xing, or even Google is your friend.
  • Looking for a PostDoc position? Check out the people who are in the department (or have been there as PhDs/post-docs) and how they are faring now (esp. publication wise). Sure, people differ, but if three post-docs left a year or two after finishing their PhDs, and five PhDs in the department did not even finish, run like hell! Again, LinkedIn, Xing, or even Google is your friend.
  • And finally, do not expect professionalism. Some professors are really good leaders and managers. But many are not. And few know how to conduct good job application interviews (I fail with my student assistants consistently, although I think I have improved over time). And to be honest, applicants make mistakes to.

Good luck.

(*) I think it’s better for creativity, and in science — it’s this creativity, this working together that also advances your career.