Friday, January 1, 2016

RESOLUTION – I will get a faculty position

I have already written two posts about “How to Get a Faculty Position” – the first on getting the interview and the second on succeedingduring the interview. In both cases, I noted that I would write three posts on the topic, with the last one being something like “Guaranteeing Success.” Sounds like an appropriate New Year’s resolution to me.

We can start from the premise that you have just failed in one – or several – or many – attempts to get interviews or to get job offers after the interview. This is an easy starting premise as nearly everyone will experience that state. In my first year on the market, I applied for 7 jobs and had 1 interview and no offers. In my second year on the market, I applied for 7 jobs again and had 1 interview again and no offers again. At this point, I might well have quit and gone on to something different, as many people apparently do. In my third year, I applied for 46 jobs, had 19 requests to interview, went for 9 interviews, and had 3 offers. I accepted the third offer – McGill University – and cancelled the other 10 interviews. 

Clearly I had a big shift in approach from my first two years to my third. This shift – and my experiences since – have led me to the big conclusion that you won’t hear from most others:

Anyone with a decent record can get a faculty position!

Don’t believe me? Well, perhaps it is because I need to add two major qualifiers to this assertion. If you adopt these qualifiers, which I will now outline, you will get a job.

1. Don’t be picky.

Everyone has preferences for where they want to work – an Ivy League school (Harvard!) or a particular country (Switzerland!) or geographical region (New England!) or city (Montreal!) – but restricting yourself like means that your chances go way down. In reality, you should not restrict yourself in this manner because, thinking globally, there are hundreds to thousands of relevant (to you) faculty jobs around the world each year. Importantly, many of those positions are in less desirable places or at less prestigious institutions, which means that competition for them will be lower and your chances correspondingly higher – particularly if you apply for a lot of them. 


Now, I know what you are thinking – “Yuk, I don’t want a job at the University of Southwestern Northern Nunavut.” Neither do I, but here is the important thing to remember: You are not marrying your institution – you are dating it. If you don’t like it, you can leave – at any time and for any reason. The key is to get yourself into a job where you can prove your abilities as an independent researcher, get your start-up money, get a grant, do some teaching, and so on. That can happen at nearly any university in nearly any state or country. After proving your abilities as a faculty member you can – if you want – start applying strategically again. This sequence is extremely common – many faculty members start at seemingly less desirable places and then move in five or so years to somewhere they really want to be. On the flip side, many people find that they actually do like the university or place where they start and end up having long, exciting, productive careers at places they never would have targeted at the outset. Moreover, I have found that nearly everywhere in the world has interesting aspects to commend it – nature, art, music, architecture, scenery, night life, peace and quiet, whatever – why not experience them for a while or forever.

Of course, a key point here is to make sure that you get a first position that will enable you – should you desire – to later move up your own personal preferred food chain. For instance, if you ultimately want a research position, then you had better get your first faculty position at a research institution.

2. Don’t give up.

We are continually bombarded with stats on how many people give up on their dreams of being a professor because they can’t find a job or for other reasons, such as a particular life style that is, whether real or imagined, incompatible with academia. These people are typically those that don’t follow the point above. (Note that I am not being judgmental here.) Thus, the people who aren’t picky and don’t give up are the ones that will ultimately succeed. Yes, it might take years. Yes, you might be underpaid during that period. Yes, you might have to move a lot. But, also, yes, you will eventually get a job. Thus, if you goal really is a faculty position – and that is your primary goal – then you will get one if you are not picky and you don’t give up. If you don’t want to wait it out, if you want a better paid position, if you want to live in a particular place, if whatever … great, go for it. But if a faculty position is what matters most, then don’t be picky and don’t give up.

However, note that you do have to have a decent record. That is, if you are interested in a research position, you do have to be publishing research papers – not tons, but some, and you need to do so recently – you can’t have long gaps in your publication record (see the earlier posts). If you are interested in a teaching position, then you need to be gaining good teaching experience. And so on.


If you really want an academic position (or any position for that matter), make it your New Year’s resolution to get one by not being picky and not giving up. Of course, you might not achieve our resolution for several New Years to come – but you will eventually.

Happy New Year.


My earlier "How To" posts are here


  1. Yup - I agree Andrew - My experience was similar (turned down 3 others before finding the correct MUTUAL "fit") and about 3 yrs after you. "Fit" it difficult to describe or quantify and is very personal. No place is perfect so what you are willing to trade off (location, prestige of institution, local collaborators, climate, etc, etc). There seem to be two groups of applicants - those that apply to EVERYTHING and those that are so selective it makes it a real challenge. Re your pt 1 above - I have PDFs now that have had job offers they have turned down so they are being "picky" and are confident enough that pt 2 applies. People with diverse yet balanced CVs/experience (teaching, mentoring, research, leadership/service, outreach/sci-comm) get hired! Just takes time... and more if you don't like Pt 1 above.

    S Cooke

  2. I commented over on The Lab and Field's response to this, and here's (more or less) what I said there. As so often happens online, people will overinterpret both Alex's post and yours. I would read you as suggesting ways one can improve (not guarantee) one’s odds of landing a faculty job. Alex points out that you can't extrapolate your success to everyone, although, although that’s really only a telling criticism for those reading your post as providing a guarantee rather than an (unquantified) improvement in odds.

    There are many perfectly sensible reasons that people might choose NOT to follow your “unpicky” strategy. Family, time, etc. constraints are real things and may well mean that an individual candidate simply can’t (or simply chooses not to) cast a net as widely as you suggest. Of course, it’s true and has always been true, in every human career, that people make such choices or are under such constraints, and this affects their odds of landing their desired job. So in one sense this is no insight at all… However, and importantly, we need to be aware that the average level of constraint is rising as academic (and other) careers diversify. We now have more job seekers with partners also seeking work, more job seekers already with children, etc. etc. than we did 25 years ago when I was first on the market.

    I think a really important point that is in danger of being elided is this: in ANY career, people can sacrifice a lot for their dream job or can “settle” for something more accessible. Neither should be thought of as failure. And in ANY career path, there are lots of options, and there’s no shame whatsoever in deciding to take a different kind of job (non-university, non-academic) rather than fixate on the professorship as the only meritorious thing to do with a PhD.

    1. Yes, of course, I agree. My post says nothing about the choices one SHOULD make in life - only about how one particular goal, which might or might not be good for someone, can be achieved. That doesn't mean it SHOULD be the goal.

  3. One of the criticisms of this post came from Alex Bond at

    Here is the response I posted there:

    Having written the original post that got some folks upset and having seen this one, I at first thought a clever point was being made about demography, which I respond to below. Re-reading, however, it seems that the key point is merely that my sample size is small and out-dated, which I do not think is an effective criticism. While I might be albatross J22503 and had my job success in 2001, I happen to know many other albatrosses since. Some of those albatrosses are my own students and postdocs, some of whom have gone on to faculty positions and some of whom have not. Most, however, are the students and postdocs supervised by my friends, collaborators, and colleagues. So, in fact, I have personal experience with a large community (certainly on the order of 200 or more) of albatrosses, all of whom have been on the job market post 2001 - and most post 2008, for that matter. My post, which has thus gestated for 15 years through the accumulation of "data" based on marked individuals, was based not just on my experience but on the experiences of many of my colleagues, students, and friends.

    Now let me turn to the other point that might be made about albatrosses - most die before successfully reproducing, which might have been an argument against my thesis that "everyone can get a job if they aren't picky and stick it out." It is certainly true that the number of applications for any given job is high, meaning that the success rate (hiring rate) is very low. However, if there are 100 applicants for any given job (typical and my university - I realize it is higher many places - and lower many others) and you apply for 50 jobs in each of 5 years, then your chances go way up. Moreover, the key point is that many folks give up or get jobs along the way, meaning that you aren't competing with the same pool every year - or even every job. In fact, the best people in the pool every year are removed from the pool every year because they get jobs.

    So, what happens is that attrition, especially of the "best" people, from the job pool increases the chances of the folks that remain and "stick it out" will be successful. And these chances increase dramatically if one applies to "undesirable" universities where the "best" people do not apply.

    Of course, my post should be read as an optimistic and motivational piece for those who have a career in academia as their primary goal. Importantly, however, I never said that this SHOULD be the goal. There are all sorts of reasons to not stay in the game - family, spouses, locations, stress, money, etc. For many, perhaps most, people, academia will not be place you want to be. If, however, it is your overwhelming objective, then following the advice in my post will (almost) guarantee success.

  4. Is there comprehensive data on the success rate of applicants for ecology jobs in academia pre- and post- 2008? This was brought up briefly in the response to Alex Bond, but I think it merits further study. My guess is that post-2008 success rate goes down.


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