what I’ve learned from a failed job search

For the last few months, I’ve been getting a steady stream of emails in my inbox that go something like this:

Dear Dr. Yarkoni,

We recently concluded our search for the position of Assistant Grand Poobah of Academic Sciences in the Area of Multidisciplinary Widget Theory. We received over seventy-five thousand applications, most of them from truly exceptional candidates whose expertise and experience would have been welcomed with open arms at any institution of higher learning–or, for that matter, by the governing board of a small planet. After a very careful search process (which most assuredly did not involve a round or two on the golf course every afternoon, and most certainly did not culminate in a wild injection of an arm into a hat filled with balled-up names) we regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you this position. This should not be taken to imply that your intellectual ability or accomplishments are in any way inferior to those of the person who we ultimately did offer the position to (or rather, persons–you see, we actually offered the job to six people before someone accepted it); what we were attempting to optimize, we hope you understand, was not the quality of the candidate we hired, but a mythical thing called ‘fit’ between yourself and ourselves. Or, to put it another way, it’s not you, it’s us.

We wish you all the best in your future endeavors, and rest assured that if we have another opening in future, we will celebrate your reapplication by once again balling your name up and tossing it into a hat along with seventy-five thousand others.

These letters are typically so warm and fuzzy that it’s hard to feel bad about them. I mean, yes, they’re basically telling me I failed at something, but then, how often does anyone ever actually tell me I’m an impressive, accomplished, human being? Never! If every failure in my life was accompanied by this kind of note, I’d be much more willing to try new things. Though, truth be told, I probably wouldn’t try very hard at anything; it would be worth failing in advance just to get this kind of affirmation.

Anyway, the reason I’ve been getting these letters, as you might surmise, is that I’ve been applying for academic jobs. I’ve been doing this for two years now, and will be doing it for a third year in a row in a few months, which I’m pretty sure qualifies me a world-recognized expert on the process. So in the interest of helping other people achieve the same prowess at failing to secure employment, I’ve decided to share some of the lessons I’ve learned here. This missive comes to you with all of the standard caveats and qualifiers–like, for example, that you should be sitting down when you read this; that you should double-check with people you actually respect to make sure any of this makes sense; and, most importantly, that you’ve completely lost your mind if you try to actually apply any of this ‘knowledge’ to your own personal situation. With that in mind, Here’s What I’ve Learned:

1. The academic job market is really, really, bad. No, seriously. I’ve heard from people at several major research universities that they received anywhere from 150 to 500 applications for individual positions (the latter for open-area positions). Some proportion of these applications come from people who have no real shot at the position, but a huge proportion are from truly exceptional candidates with many, many publications, awards, and glowing letters of recommendation. People who you would think have a bright future in research ahead of them. Except that many of them don’t actually have a bright future in research ahead of them, because these days all of that stuff apparently isn’t enough to land a tenure-track position–and often, isn’t even enough to land an interview.

Okay, to be fair, the situation isn’t quite that bad across the board. For one thing, I was quite selective about my job search this past year. I applied for 22 positions, which may sound like a lot, but there were a lot of ads last year, and I know people with similar backgrounds to mine who applied to 50 – 80 positions and could have expanded their searches still further. So, depending on what kind of position you’re aiming for–particularly if you’re interested in a teaching-heavy position at a small school–the market may actually be quite reasonable at the moment. What I’m talking about here really only applies to people looking for research-intensive positions at major research universities. And specifically, to people looking for jobs primarily in the North American market. I recognize that’s probably a minority of people graduating with PhDs in psychology, but since it’s my blog, you’ll have to live with my peculiar little biases. With that qualifier in mind, I’ll reiterate again: the market sucks right now.

2. I’m not as awesome as I thought I was. Lest you think I’ve suddenly turned humble, let me reassure you that I still think I’m pretty awesome–and I can back that up with hard evidence, because I currently have about 20 emails in my inbox from fancy-pants search committee members telling me what a wonderful, accomplished human being I am. I just don’t think I’m as awesome as I thought I was a year ago. Mind you, I’m not quite so delusional that I expected to have my choice of jobs going in, but I did think I had a decent enough record–twenty-odd publications, some neat projects, a couple of major grant proposals submitted (and one that looks very likely to get funded)–to land at least one or two interviews. I was wrong. Which means I’ve had to take my ego down a peg or two. On balance, that’s probably not a bad thing.

3. It’s hard to get hired without a conventional research program. Although I didn’t get any interviews, I did hear back informally from a couple of places (in addition to those wonderful form letters, I mean), and I’ve had hallway conversations with many people who’ve sat on search committees before. The general feedback has been that my work focuses too much on methods development and not enough on substantive questions. This doesn’t really come as a surprise; back when I was putting together my research statement and application materials, pretty much everyone I talked to strongly advised me to focus on a content area first and play down my methods work, because, they said, no one really hires people who predominantly work on methods–at least in psychology. I thought (and still think) this is excellent advice, and in fact it’s exactly the same advice I give to other people if they make the mistake of asking me for my opinion. But ultimately, I went ahead and marketed myself as a methods person anyway. My reasoning was that I wouldn’t want to show up for a new job having sold myself as a person who does A, B, and C, and then mostly did X, Y, and Z, with only a touch of A thrown in. Or, you know, to put it in more cliched terms, I want people to like me for meeeeeee.

I’m still satisfied with this strategy, even if it ends up costing me a few interviews and a job offer or two (admittedly, this is a bit presumptuous–more likely than not, I wouldn’t have gotten any interviews this time around no matter how I’d framed my application). I do the kind of work I do because I enjoy it and think it’s important; I’m pretty happy where I am, so I don’t feel compelled to–how can I put this diplomatically–fib to search committees. Which isn’t to say that I’m laboring under any illusion that you always have to be completely truthful when applying for jobs; I’m fully aware that selling yourself framing your application around your strengths–and telling people what they want to hear to some extent–is a natural and reasonable thing to do. So I’m not saying this out of any bitterness or naivete; I’m just explaining why I chose to go the honest route that was unlikely to land me a job as opposed to the slightly less honest route that was very slightly more likely to land me a job.

4. There’s a large element of luck involved in landing an academic job. Or, for that matter, pretty much any other kind of job. I’m not saying it’s all luck, of course; far from it. In practice, a single group of maybe three dozen people seem end up filling the bulk of interview slots at major research universities in any given year. Which is to say, while the majority of applicants will go without any interviews at all, some people end up with a dozen or more of them. So it’s clearly very far from a random process; in the long run, better candidates are much more likely to get jobs. But for any given job, the odds of getting an interview and/or job offer depend on any number of factors that you have little or no control over: what particular area the department wants to shore up; what courses need to be taught; how your personality meshes with the people who interview you; which candidate a particular search committee member idiosyncratically happens to take a shining to, and so on. Over the last few months, I’ve found it useful to occasionally remind myself of this fact when my inbox doth overfloweth with rejection letters. Of course, there’s a very thin line between justifiably attributing your negative outcomes to bad luck and failing to take responsibility for things that are under your control, so it’s worth using the power of self-serving rationalization sparingly.


In any case, those vacuous observations lessons aside, my plan at this point is still to keep doing essentially the same thing I’ve done the last two years, which consists of (i) putting together what I hope is a strong, if somewhat unconventional, application package; (ii) applying for jobs very selectively–only to places that I think I’d be as happy or happier at than I am in my current position; and (iii) otherwise spending as little of my time as possible thinking about my future employment status, and as much of it as possible concentrating on my research and personal life.

I don’t pretend to think this is a good strategy in general; it’s just what I’ve settled on and am happy with for the moment. But ask me again a year from now and who knows, maybe I’ll be roaming around downtown Boulder fishing quarters out of the creek for lunch money. In the meantime, I hope this rather uneventful report of my rather uneventful job-seeking experience thus far is of some small use to someone else. Oh, and if you’re on a search committee and think you want to offer me a job, I’m happy to negotiate the terms of my employment in the comments below.

20 thoughts on “what I’ve learned from a failed job search”

  1. What are the prospects for turnover? I know in computer science we have a whole generation of faculty who got started in the late 1960s/early 1970s who are now at or beyond retirement age; at some point, the prospect of getting to putter around on half salary without having to prepare those pesky grant applications is going to start looking good to many of them and the departments will start hiring again. (Everyone I’ve talked to thinks my place will hire at most one new CS person this year, but I don’t know anyone who is really in the know.)

    A lot of times faculty searches start out with a particular specialty in mind — I’m told this year our faculty wanted a machine-learning person — but of course they invite a dozen people to give their talks; I’m not sure how much of that is for appearances and how much is just a matter of CYA in case the person they thought from the beginning that they wanted decides to go somewhere else.

    1. The problem will be that universities will be looking to prune tenured positions. The last I heard *before the Great Recession* was that the norm was to replace three tenure track positions with two – one tenure track, one non-tenure track.

  2. “I do the kind of work I do because I enjoy it and think it’s important” – I think that’s great. REALLY great. And as for “I want people to like me for meeeeeee” – well, I do! (:

  3. Tal, I know we both applied for the same position at least once, because they mistakenly emailed all the applicants on the confirmation letter. I have to admit it’s encouraging in a weird sort of way to know that people like you, whom I consider high caliber, are in the same (jobless) boat as I am. I don’t think it has anything to do with your research program – just a crazy supply-and-demand situation.

  4. This is so depressing. I am about to lose my job at a top tier medical school because I haven’t secured enough funding to pay my salary and I am terrified that I will end up unemployed. My grant reviews are similar to your rejection letters, very glowing and positive, only to end with “but we don’t really care so no money for you”.

  5. During my search, I found it useful to get an idea of who was hired for the positions I (unsuccessfully) applied for. It gave me an idea of whether I was close to an acceptable threshold or not — that is, whether I was close to being in the top 5% of candidates who repeatedly got interviews.

    One question I struggled with during my search: When to compromise on the kind of job I got, just so I had continued employment? Sometimes taking a less-than-optimal job is a better option than having none at all (depending on when postdoc funding runs out…).

  6. Thanks for the comments!

    Ase, I may have taken poetic license; I think I only got rejections from about half of the places I applied to. But I haven’t really been keeping track.

    Dorothy, much appreciated–the feeling is mutual!

    Tammy, that’s also appreciated–but less so; you’re family, so you don’t have a choice about the matter. 😉

    Y, oh yeah, that was a pretty bad screw-up. Anyway, I took the liberty of figuring out who you were based on that email, and I’m equally encouraged in a weird way that people like you aren’t getting jobs!

    Amy, I’m really sorry to hear that… I hope things work out for you. The grant funding situation is in many ways even worse than the hiring market. To be honest my own situation is probably not as dire as I (inadvertently) made it sound; I have some job security here for the next couple of years, and I like where I am, so I haven’t gone all out to try and find a tenure-track job. But I’m not looking forward to having to do that at some point…

    Sanjay, thanks! I like the Greenwald paper a lot; I actually just submitted a manuscript to Current Directions arguing for more informatics in psychology, and concluded it by mentioning that paper. And that was basically the gist of it: “look, if Greenwald says so, you should probably believe it.”

    Sandeep, yeah, I think the decision as to when to compromise is a big one. Personally I’m not in a big rush to take a tenure-track position, and am very happy where I am at the moment, so I’m content to keep applying selectively for the next few years. But I can’t completely understand why that’s not an option for many people–or why people would want to just hurry up and get a permanent job even if they do have options.

  7. Getting funding for what some people regard as just tools is also a problem in geography. If you work on the GIS tools a lot of people use, e.g. in R, it is hard to get this funded as these are just tools and the real research is done in the application. At a computer science conference I also spotted the reverse. They where happy to be working on the real science, not just on the application. So much for fruitful collaboration between tools and application…

  8. Hey Tal, thanks for sharing your experiences. I wonder whether our field is disproportionately suffering from too much supply and not enough demand. If you use fMRI and want to continue doing so, there’s a limited pool of universities that can offer those resources. And there are not many (any?) obvious industry alternatives for cognitive neuroscientists that would actually use their training. Thoughts? Also, shall we start encouraging tenured professors to retire early and pursue their rock star dreams?

  9. Tal,
    I greatly admire your work and your writings. I also admire your spirit and greatly appreciate encountering a serious scholar with a fine sense of humor.
    Unfortunately, I have to say, after a 50+ year career as a (mostly) methodologist (I call myself a “content-free psychologist”) and after having overseen the academic training of a very large number of graduate students, the market for pure, and maybe even mostly pure, methodologists is limited. I cannot complain about my own career: I was lucky–more than once, I came along at the right time–before people caught on, and I masqueraded as a clinical and then a health psychologist in my early years. I was a full professor before it finally dawned on me that I had no driving interest in any specific content area but did care a lot about how we come to know things. And I had a great mentor and model in my colleague, Don Campbell.
    I have had a great career even though I cannot claim to have been myself great in any way. I will make sure that as many of my colleagues and former students as possible become aware of your work and of the contributions you might make to their programs.
    If you have any idea of how I could be helpful, by all means let me know.

  10. Paul, thanks for the perspective; yes, this is a real problem in psychology. I’ve been trying to make a case for a stronger emphasis on informatics approaches in psychology (‘psychoinformatics’, if you like); there certainly are disciplines like genetics where it seems like there’s a nice mix of people doing substantive work and tool development with mutual respect and appreciation for one another.

    Maureen, honestly I think we’re not nearly in as bad a position as a lot of the other life sciences right now. In many areas of biology people routinely do 6 – 7 years of postdocing before they have a chance at a TT job. In cognitive neuroscience one post-doc stint before a job is still probably modal. But the incentives are structured in much the same way: there’s a glut of supply, and universities don’t really have an incentive to hire people until they have a demonstrated track record that includes success at obtaining funding, so odds are things will get worse and not better. The lack of industry alternatives certainly doesn’t help things, though I do think there are plenty of jobs in industry that someone with a PhD in neuroimaging can do well and enjoy. Oh, and if you want to start sending around “please retire” card to senior faculty, I’m happy to sign it (probably under an assumed name)!

    Lee, thanks very much for the kind words, they’re much appreciated coming from you. I think you do yourself an injustice–you’ve had an amazing career, and I’ll be very pleased with myself if I end up with half of your accomplishments! To be honest I’m quite happy where I am right now, so I’m not terribly perturbed by the fact I haven’t got any job offers; I haven’t been pushing very hard. But I very much appreciate the gesture, and will let you know if I think of anything.

  11. Boy, if *you* don’t get any interviews then I have no chance in hell to get out of here. Thanks for letting us know, it may be sobering in the long term (though it feels pretty depressing right now).

  12. I, too, got a PhD in psychology from a top grade institution at a bad time — baby boom over, faculties contracting in the late 1970’s. Is it worse now? Probably, but that’s not the point.

    What I did was decide to use my research skills in the private sector. I’ve had a great career doing marketing research — mostly doing R&D around research methods. Did I sell out? I guess so, but it’s been interesting work for 35 years and there’s only so many times you can bang your head against the academic job wall before it starts to hurt. Or you want to have kids. Or you just get tired of writing the proposals and doing all the work, while somebody else gets to be ‘principal investigator’. Or you fear you will be a grad student / postdoc forever.

  13. Hi Tal,
    I was curious if you went on the market in 2012 as well. If you did, myself and some colleagues that I know would be interested to hear your opinion about whether the market was any different vs 2011 (which i presume this post was based on?). We still can’t believe that your hefty CV didn’t land you a TT job. But congratulations on the R01!

  14. BA, I did go on the job market in 2012, but very selectively. I had several interviews and one TT offer, but ultimately opted for a non-TT job (which I’ll be officially accepting in the next month or so if everything goes smoothly).

    I can’t really say that the market seemed any different in 2012 vs 2011, but I wouldn’t trust my anecdotal experience on this point. In general though, it’s hard to see things getting any better from here on out; the same trends that have conspired to make 7-year postdocs the norm in many fields of biology seem to be at work in psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

  15. I love you, Tal! Seriously! It’s Jan 2015 and I’m reading this – because I’m in the same “rejections” phase now, which you had been in.
    I’m afraid my mental tenacity is dwindling. I’m from a literature background, to add to my misery, LOL!
    Academia sucks! I’m looking for non-A jobs, too and if I get a sound one, I’m leaving A. Enough is enough!

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