Category Archives: academic life

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.┬áIn 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.

not really a pyramid scheme; maybe a giant cesspool of little white lies?

There’s a long tradition in the academic blogosphere (and the offlinesphere too, I presume) of complaining that academia is a pyramid scheme. In a strict sense, I guess you could liken academia to a pyramid scheme, inasmuch as there are fewer open positions at each ascending level, and supply generally exceeds demand. But as The Prodigal Academic points out in a post today, this phenomenon is hardly exclusive to academia:

I guess I don’t really see much difference between academic job hunting, and job hunting in general. Starting out with undergrad admissions, there are many more qualified people for desirable positions than available slots. Who gets those slots is a matter of hard work (to get qualified) and luck (to be one of the qualified people who is “chosen”). So how is the TT any different from grad school admissions (in ANY prestige program), law firm partnership, company CEO, professional artist/athlete/performer, attending physician, investment banking, etc? The pool of qualified applicants is many times larger than the number of slots, and there are desirable perks to success (money/prestige/fame/security/intellectual freedom) making the supply of those willing to try for the goal pretty much infinite.

Maybe I have rose colored glasses on because I have always been lucky enough to find a position in research, but there are no guarantees in life. When I was interviewing in industry, I saw many really interesting jobs available to science PhD holders that were not in research. If I hadn’t gone to National Lab, I would have been happy to take on one of those instead. Sure, my life would be different, but it wouldn’t make my PhD a waste of time or a failed opportunity.

For the most part, I agree with this sentiment. I love doing research, and can’t imagine ever voluntarily leaving academia. But If I do end up having to leave–meaning, if I can’t find a faculty position when I go on the job market in the next year or two–I don’t think it’ll be the end of the world. I see job ads in industry all the time that looks really interesting, and on some level, I think I’d find almost any job that involves creative analysis of very large datasets (which there are plenty of these days!) pretty gratifying. And no matter what happens, I don’t think I’d ever view the time I’ve spent on my PhD and postdoc training as a waste of time, for the simple reason that I’ve really enjoyed most of it (there are, of course, the nasty bits, like writing the Nth chapter of a dissertation–but those are transient, fortunately). So in that sense, I think all the talk about academia being a pyramid scheme is kind of silly.

That said, there is one sticking point to the standard pyramid scheme argument I do agree with, which is that, when you’re starting out as a graduate student, no one really goes out of their way to tell you what the odds of getting a tenure-track faculty position actually are (and they’re not good). The problem being that most of the professors that prospective graduate students have interacted with, either as undergraduates, or in the context of applying to grad school, are precisely those lucky souls who’ve managed to secure faculty positions. So the difficulty of obtaining the same type of position isn’t always very salient to them.

I’m not saying faculty members lie outright to prospective graduate students, of course; I don’t doubt that if you asked most faculty point blank “what proportion of students in your department have managed to find tenure-track positions,” they’d give you an honest answer. But when you’re 22 or 23 years old (and yes, I recognize some graduate students are much older, but this is the mode) and you’re thinking of a career in research, it doesn’t always occur to you to ask that question. And naturally, departments that are trying to recruit your services are unlikely to begin their pitch by saying, “in the past 10 years, only about 12% of our graduates have gone on to tenure-track faculty positions”. So in that sense, I don’t think new graduate students are always aware of just how difficult it is to obtain an independent research position, statistically speaking. That’s not a problem for the (many) graduate students who don’t really have any intention of going into academia anyway, but I do think a large part of the disillusionment graduate students often experience is about the realization that you can bust your ass for five or six years working sixty hours a week, and still have no guarantee of finding a research job when you’re done. And that could be avoided to some extent by making a concerted effort to inform students up front of the odds they face if they’re planning on going down that path. So long as that information is made readily available, I don’t really see a problem.

Having said that, I’m now going to blatantly contradict myself (so what if I do? I am large! I contain multitudes!). You could, I think, reasonably argue that this type of deception isn’t really a problem, and that it’s actually necessary. For one thing, the white lies cut both ways. It isn’t just faculty who conveniently forget to mention that relatively few students will successfully obtain tenure-track positions; many graduate students nod and smile when asked if they’re planning a career in research, despite having no intention of continuing down that path past the PhD. I’ve occasionally heard faculty members complain that they need to do a better job filtering out those applicants who really truly are interested in a career in research, because they’re losing a lot of students to industry at the tail end. But I think this kind of magical mind-reading filter is a pipe dream, for precisely the reasons outlined above: if faculty aren’t willing to begin their recruitment speeches by saying “most of you probably won’t get research positions even if you want them,” they shouldn’t really complain when most students don’t come right out and say “actually, I just want a PhD because I think it’ll be something interesting to do for a few years and then I’ll be able to find a decent job with better hours later”.

The reality is that the whole enterprise may actually require subtle misdirection about people’s intentions. If every student applying to grad school knew exactly what the odds of getting a research position were, I imagine many fewer people who were serious about research would bother applying; you’d then get predominantly people who don’t really want to do research anyway. And if you could magically weed out the students who don’t want to do research, then (a) there probably wouldn’t be enough highly qualified students left to keep research programs afloat, and/or (b) there would be even more candidates applying for research positions, making things even harder for those students who do want careers in research. There’s probably no magical allocation of resources that optimizes everyone’s needs simultaneously; it could be that we’re more or less at a stable equilibrium point built on little white lies.

tl;dr : I don’t think academia is really a pyramid scheme; more like a giant cesspool of little white lies and subtle misinformation that indirectly serves most people’s interests. So, basically, it’s kind of like most other domains of life that involve interactions between many groups of people.

CNS wrap-up

I’m back from CNS in Montreal (actually, I’m not quite back; I’m in Ottawa for a few days–but close enough). Some thoughts about the experience, in no particular order, and with very little sense:

  • A huge number of registered attendees (basically, everyone from Europe who didn’t leave for Montreal early) couldn’t make it to the meeting because of that evil, evil Icelandic volcano. As a result, large swaths of posterboard were left blank–or would have been left blank, if not for the clever “Holy Smokes! So-and-so can’t be here…” notes taped to them. So that was really too bad; aside from the fact that the Europeans missed out on the meeting, which kind of sucks, there was a fair amount of chaos during the slide and symposium sessions as speakers were randomly shuffled around. I guess it’s a testament to the organizers that the conference went off relatively smoothly despite the loss of a large chunk of the attendance.
  • The symposium I chaired went well, as far as I can tell. Which is to say, no one streaked naked through the hall, no one went grossly over time, the audience hall was full, and the three talks I got to watch from the audience were all great. I think my talk went well too, but it’s harder to say. In theory, you should be able to tell how these things go based on the ratio of positive to negative feedback you get. But since people generally won’t tell you if they thought your talk sucked, you’re usually stuck trying to determine whether people are giving you well-I-didn’t-really-like-it-but-I-don’t-want-you-to-feel-bad compliments, or I-really-liked-it-and-I’m-not-even-lying-to-your-face compliments. In any case, good or bad reception, I think the topic is a really important one, and I’m glad the symposium was well attended.
  • I love Montreal. As far as I’m concerned they could have CNS in Montreal every year and I wouldn’t complain. Well, maybe I’d complain a little. But only about unimportant things like the interior decoration of the hotel lobby.
  • Speaking of which, I liked the Hilton Bonaventure and all, but the place did remind me a lot of a 70s porn set. All it’s missing are some giant ferns in the lobby and a table lined with cocaine next to the elevators. (You can probably tell that my knowledge of 70s porn is based entirely on watching two-thirds of Boogie Nights once). Also, what the hell is on floors 2 through 12 of Place Bonaventure? And how can a hotel have nearly 400 rooms, all on the same (13th) floor!?
  • That Vietnamese place we had lunch at on Tuesday, which apparently just opened up, isn’t going to last long. When someone asks you for “brown rice”, they don’t mean “white rice with some red food dye stirred in”.
  • Apparently, Mike X. Cohen is not only the most productive man in cognitive neuroscience, but also a master of the neuroimaging haiku (admittedly, a niche specialty).
  • Sushi and baklava at a conference reception? Yes please!
  • The MDRS party on Monday night was a lot of fun, though the downstairs room at the bar was double-booked. I’m sure the 20-odd people at salsa dancing night were a bit surprised, and probably not entirely appreciative, when 100 or so drunken neuroscientists collectively stumbled downstairs for a free drink, hung out for fifteen minutes, then disappeared upstairs again. Other than that–and the $8 beers–a good time was had.
  • Turns out that assortment of vegetables that Afghans call an Afghan salad is exactly what Turks call a Turkish salad and Israelis call an Israeli salad. I guess I’m not surprised that everyone in that part of the world uses the same four or five ingredients in their salad, but let’s not all rush to take credit for what is basically some cucumber, tomato, and parsley in a bowl. That aside, dinner was awesome. And I wish there were more cities full of restaurants that let you bring your own wine.

  • The talks and posters were great this year. ALL OF THEM. If I had to pick favorites, I guess I really liked the symposium on perceptual decision-making, and several of the posters in the reward/motivation session on Sunday or Monday afternoon. But really, ALL OF THEM WERE GREAT. So let’s all give ourselves giant gold medals with pictures of brains on them. And then… let’s melt down those medals, sell the gold, and buy some scanners with the money.

i hate learning new things

Well, I don’t really hate learning new things. I actually quite like learning new things; what I don’t like is having to spend time learning new things. I find my tolerance for the unique kind of frustration associated with learning a new skill (you know, the kind that manifests itself in a series of “crap, now I have to Google that” moments) increases roughly in proportion to my age.

As an undergraduate, I didn’t find learning frustrating at all; quite the opposite, actually. I routinely ignored all the work that I was supposed to be doing (e.g., writing term papers, studying for exams, etc.), and would spend hours piddling around with things that were completely irrelevant to my actual progress through college. In hindsight, a lot of the skills I picked up have actually been quite useful, career-wise (e.g., I spent a lot of my spare time playing around with websites, which has paid off–I now collect large chunks of my data online). But I can’t pretend I had any special foresight at the time. I was just procrastinating by doing stuff that felt like work but really wasn’t.

In my first couple of years in graduate school, when I started accumulating obligations I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) put off, I developed a sort of compromise with myself, where I would spend about fifteen minutes of every hour doing what i was supposed to, and the rest of the hour messing around learning new things. Some of those things were work-related–for instance, learning to use a new software package for analyzing fMRI data, or writing a script that reinvented the wheel just to get a better understanding of the wheel. That arrangement seemed to work pretty well, but strangely, with every year of grad school, I found myself working less and less on so-called “personal development” projects and more and more on supposedly important things like writing journal articles and reviewing other people’s journal articles and just generally acting like someone who has some sort of overarching purpose.

Now that I’m a worldly post-doc in a new lab, I frankly find the thought of having to spend time learning to do new things quite distressing. For example, my new PI’s lab uses a different set of analysis packages than I used in graduate school. So I have to learn to use those packages before I can do much of anything. They’re really great tools, and I don’t have any doubt that I will in fact learn to use them (probably sooner rather than later); I just find it incredibly annoying to have to spend the time doing that. It feels like it’s taking time away from my real work, which is writing. Whereas five years ago, I would have gleefully thrown myself at any opportunity to learn to use a new tool, precisely because it would have allowed me to avoid nasty, icky activities like writing.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose the transition is for the best. It’s hard to be productive as an academic when you spend all your time learning new things; at some point, you have to turn the things you learn into a product you can communicate to other people. I like the fact that I’ve become more conscientious with age (which, it turns out, is a robust phenomenon); I just wish I didn’t feel so guilty ‘wasting’ my time learning new things. And it’s not like I feel I know everything I need to know. More than ever, I can identify all sorts of tools and skills that would help me work more efficiently if I just took the time to learn them. But learning things often seems like a luxury in this new grown-up world where you do the things you’re supposed to do before the things you actually enjoy most. I fully expect this trend to continue, so that 5 years from now, when someone suggests a new tool or technique I should look into, I’ll just run for the door with my hands covering my ears…