Back in April, when I presented a breakdown of my efforts on the tenure-track job market, I did not quite anticipate how widely that post would be shared and discussed. The 112 applications I submitted over the course of two faculty-hiring seasons were, not surprisingly, what drew the strongest reactions.
Graduate students saw that number and despaired. Other postdocs and many faculty nodded wearily. Still others were incredulous: What kind of a search strategy could possibly involve submitting that many applications?
I tried to make clear in that essay that my experience was just one data point, not a complete description of a highly stochastic process. Since that post went up, the responses to it have provided a somewhat fuller — though still far from complete — picture of the tenure-track market. I asked other folks who’ve been through the faculty-hiring mill to post their own job-market counts (their numbers of applications and interviews) on Twitter with the hashtag #TotalToTT (for “Totals To the Tenure Track”). More than 100 academics did just that — not nearly enough for a really in-depth analysis, but enough for some descriptive statistics.
The overwhelming majority of respondents were biologists, and the others were scientists of some type, so I feel moderately secure in treating them as a single population. The numbers they provided suggest that although 112 applications is indeed unusually high, it’s not unheard-of. Here are the results:
- Eight people (besides me) reported submitting 100 or more applications.
- Ten participants said they had landed a job with a single application.
- The median respondent reported sending in 19 applications.
Some of the Twitter respondents reported sending in their first tenure-track applications as far back as 1986. Interestingly, though, when I excluded those pre-2006 searches from my calculations, that didn’t much change the summary stats of applications and interviews.
I strongly suspect some self-reporting bias in these numbers, given the public nature of the hashtag “survey.” I also find it a bit difficult to believe — though it’s not impossible — that almost 1 in 10 tenure-track professors landed a job on their very first try. If nothing else, assuming that about four candidates are interviewed for each open tenure-track position, every professor who gets hired on the very first try represents at least three other people who cannot have done so without violating the laws of causality and arithmetic.
The other source of bias here, of course, is survivorship. As I noted in my original post, it’s problematic to assess the tenure-track market only from the perspective of those who end up with an assistant-professor job. I’d hoped that my Twitter question would attract responses from folks who were still searching for faculty jobs or who had found other career options but, by and large, that didn't happen, and I mostly heard the tenure-track success stories.
We know there simply aren't enough assistant professorships for the U.S. population of Ph.D.s. For every hopeful who finds a tenure-track job, there are many others who don’t. Maybe a lot of those people go directly to nonacademic careers, or maybe they spend a few years trying the academic market first.
Not all of us have years to put into the tenure-track quest. Christie Bahlai, a newly minted assistant professor of biology at Kent State University, makes that point in a very important column written for American Scientist as a response to my original post:
“The opportunity cost — the time spent applying and interviewing for jobs — can be significant and costly and may not be necessary for all (further exacerbating inequality),” Bahlai wrote. “Costs of the job search are both professional — measured in lost productivity — and, quite substantially, financial. For example, travel costs are most often paid up front by the candidate, and later reimbursed. This setup can be a real strain for a postdoc living close to their financial edge, and multiple interviews in a single season add up. Further, reimbursements don't typically include indirect expenses of traveling for interviews, such as childcare costs.”
She adds: “The reality is that many brilliant scientists cannot afford to take this costly ‘marathon’ strategy to job hunting.”
Indeed, I managed to put in 112 applications over two years in no small part because I had the advantage of a stable position to support me while I did it — and a CV that legitimately fit that many opportunities. Depending on how you slice my publications list, I am an evolutionary biologist, a plant biologist, or a population genomicist, with research interests in climate-change adaptation and interactions between species. Those keywords came up in a lot of faculty searches in the last few years — both at undergraduate colleges and research universities — and I had on-campus interviews for jobs matching all of those descriptions. I never applied for a position if I didn't think I could make an honest case that I fit what the search committee said it wanted.
Was it a lot of work, writing specific cover letters and adjusting my statement of future research plans to accommodate all those different institutions?
Reader, it was. I put in the work because I was coming to a point in my career — my fifth year as a postdoc, almost as much time at that stage as I’d spent in grad school — where I was ready to move up or move on, to find a promotion or start looking outside academia. In retrospect, of course, it only took one application to get the job I will start this fall. But the way to give myself the best possible shot at finding that job was to take every chance I could.
This is why advice is such a dangerous thing to give: The goals and challenges faced by any other Ph.D. biologist contemplating a tenure-track position are probably very different from mine. Are you content with the options available to you if you don't get an offer this year? Do you want to establish a home address that lasts beyond the current grant? Do your expertise and track record fit what lots of departments want, or are you more specialized? Depending on the answers, you'll probably spend your efforts differently than I did.
Really, the best that anyone can do in approaching the faculty job market — or any major career transition — is to get the broadest possible picture of how other people have experienced it. The best those of us who’ve been on the tenure-track market can do is to be forthright about how it worked out for each of us.