Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Matters in Academic Job Hunting

One of the most difficult things to deal with when looking for work is dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing where or when your next lead will come from. With rejection letters piling up, interviews few and far between and the clock counting down to the end of fixed-term employment, things can get a bit tense. Unless you have superhuman confidence, eventually you can't help but start to doubt yourself and your abilities.

The situation is doubly worse in the midst of the so-called "great recession." Funding is tight across the board. Many public institutions in the US have been hit with double-digit budget cuts, my Alma Mater, the University of Arizona included. U of A is dealing with a reduction of 13% this year compared to last and they are far from being the worst-off (look here for a full chart: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2009/11/01/education/01data-edlife.html). When I left at the end of 2008, the University was in the midst of a massive re-organization to save funds. Whole departments were being shuffled, shuttered, disbanded and combined to focus on core strengths and save on administration costs.

In Canada, things don't seem much better. Last fall, York University canceled a search for a junior planetary scientist. Within days, a job board for academic appointments which typically sported 50-100 entries fell to single digits where it remains (Note: as this was posted, midway through the fall hiring "busy season," there was exactly 1 ad posted on the York U site - http://webapps.yorku.ca/academichiringviewer/listpositions.jsp?page=1 ; Also in the interests of full disclosure, I am an unpaid visiting scholar at York).

So what's a young scientist to do? My advice: stay connected to the field, seek out opportunities to grow your craft and remember your passion.

One of the most difficult things is to remain connected to the community. Without a travel budget or student status (for grants), you may not be able to go to conferences. If you have your own money to spend here - that's great. But for those of us without that luxury, you can still participate by reaching out to other professionals, keeping up with the trade news, and especially watching the twitter posts of role models. These people have the pulse of the industry and can help direct you. This blog is, for me, a part of this process of staying connected.

Secondly, if you live near a University take the opportunity to use your PhD to gain experience. Offer to help on a field study, or at an Observatory, or in a lab pro-bono. Your high level of experience and low cost can be major selling points. Give a guest lecture or two or three! If nothing else you can get more comfortable in front of a crowd and figure out if you want to teach.

Third, go back to your roots and remember why you got into this business in the first place. Few people complete a doctorate without passion. Rediscover it. For me, this was exploring my stop and start interest in astronomical observing. If you find that fountainhead it will help give you the strength to carry on. If you don't, then perhaps it's a signal that it's time to change course.

Lastly remember that these things are cyclic. The longer slow hiring goes on, the greater the backlog of positions in need of filling will become. It's just like with the auto industry, people may be currently buying cars at a replacement rate of one per 30 years, but it won't stay that way for long since the cars they currently own can't achieve that longevity. Eventually, funding will rebound, the retirement accounts will improve for the professors who want to retire and jobs will be offered again. We may even be approaching that time with LPL recently announcing a search for three positions, amongst others.

And how you stack up against your peers for the competition lying at the end of the wait will depend on what you were able to accomplish in the interim.

As for myself, I admit that I was pretty down in the dumps earlier in the summer, but as I went through the steps above, I was able to recenter myself and focus on what mattered. Today I sit here writing as I consider my first concrete offer in my field. It didn't come from the 22 applications I completed this year, but instead I learned of it through the actions I spoke of above. And while it's not a permanent position, it would give me an opportunity to do good work and that's what matters at this point in my career. I've not yet decided if I will accept, but I hope to be able to tell you all about it next week.

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