The Academic Job Search Epic

A few months ago my (first) academic job search epic came to an end. In January 2016 I will start the Kryazhimskiy Lab at UCSD, in the Section of Ecology, Behavior and Evolution. I thought it might be useful for the next generation of applicants to summarize my experience. So, here we go.

Some stats

Let’s start with data.

2013 2014
Applications 20 29
Interviews 1 11 (+1)
Offers 0 3 (+1)

I applied for jobs two seasons in a row. I started applying in the fall of 2013 and continued throughout the fall of 2014 (I also sent out a very small number of applications in 2011, but I was clearly not ready then). My applications in the two seasons were essentially identical: same CV, same recommendation letters, same ideas in the research statement. For complete disclosure, I did rewrite my research statement in 2014 and I do think it became better. The main difference though between applications was a single line in my publication list. In June 2014 our Science paper came out. Importantly, by the time of my 2013 application, all experiments were finished and data were largely analyzed and described in my research statement. In other words, my case is a nice test of the effect of a single Science paper on academic job search performance.

The effect is striking. In 2013 I sent out 20 applications and got 1 interview. It is at that time that I wrote this depressing post. In 2014 I sent out 29 applications and got 12 interviews, one of which I declined. In fact, there were 4 departments to which I applied both in 2013 and 2014, and I got an interview at 2 of them in 2014 but none in 2013. As a result, I got 3 offers in 2014. One additional university was prepared to give an offer, but came through too late in the game. From what I hear from other colleagues who recently applied for jobs in biology, an overall 10% success rate is pretty reasonable.

What do we learn from here? I think two lessons.

First, it appears to be very important to have a major paper from your postdoc published. Not in preparation, not on bioRxiv, not in review. Published. Preferably in Cell, Science, or Nature. I guess we all know that by now.

Second, even if you have a major paper out, you should send 10+ applications to ensure a decent chance of success.

There are certainly exceptions to these “rules”. I think there are essentially two “tracks” for getting a job. On the slow track (which is what I did) you do a regular postdoc (or multiple), where you obtain a solid if not stellar publication record and get your name recognized in the field. To start on the fast track, you have to have a stellar PhD (i.e., one or more high-profile papers). To continue, you need to get a prestigious independent postdoc position, e.g., Harvard society fellowship, Miller fellowship, etc. Then you might be able to get a tenure-track job after just one or two years of this super-postdoc even without major publications.

Time investment

One important thing to consider in applying for jobs is time investment. Putting together an application takes a lot of time. I spent 2 to 3 weeks working full time on my research statement in 2013 and another 2 weeks in 2014. Plus one week on teaching statement. Plus 3-4 days crafting an effective cover letter. You may be able to do better than that if you are a fast writer, but even then conceptualizing your research program, coming up with specific projects, and going through two or three feedback/re-writing iterations still takes time. Adjusting your statement to different page restrictions is another time-sink factor. Finally, you might want to tailor your statement to different types of departments. For example, I applied to ecology and evolution departments and to systems biology departments. Even though all core ideas and proposed work of course remained the same, I did frame them in different ways.

Once I had a couple of versions of the research and teaching statements and the cover letter backbone, it took me about 1 day per application. I looked up the department and carefully re-read the job ad trying to understand what kind of person they might want. So, I tried to place appropriate accents in the cover letter and to a lesser extent in the research statement to make my application slightly more appealing to a particular department. I have no idea whether it played any role or not. According to this post, it might. If I read my application, I would probably conclude that the person took the application process seriously.

Given this considerable time investment, the major question is: is it worth it? If you have a good chance of getting a job the answer is obviously “yes”. The answer is not necessarily “no” even if think that your chances are not great. There are three reasons for that. First, you never know your chances until you try. Second, if you get even just one interview, it is a very valuable practice for the future. Third, even if you do not get any interviews, going through the process of writing the research statement is not a complete waste of time. Conceptualizing your research program takes a lot of time, and I truly believe it is helpful to start writing early. My current research statement is compelling, but the one I wrote back in 2011 is much less so. And I arrived at my current level of conceptualization through multiple iterations which were spaced out by several months and interspersed with reading and digesting new papers and talking with smart people. In short, writing your research statement is a fairly useful time investment. However, it has to be weighed against the time investment into actual research and paper production. And the equation is simple. If you have awesome papers, you will likely get by with a poor research statement (I know of such precedents). If you don’t have papers, a fantastic research statement will never get you even an interview.

A couple of notes on how I wrote my research statement

There are probably good guides for writing research statements out there, but here are my five distilled ingredients.

  1. Vision. In my mind, vision encompasses a deep scientific problem and a series of approaches to attack it. This is the glue that holds the whole statement together.
  2. Focus. I tried to structure my statement so that it feels like every proposed project fits with the vision rather than goes off in a different direction. The reader should feel that if you accomplish all these projects, the field will advance in a major way.
  3. Clarity. Keep in mind that the first reading will unlikely take more than 10–15 minutes. So, better to assume too little knowledge on part of the reader than too much.
  4. Expertise. I tried to demonstrate that I have enough expertise to accomplish each proposed project. In parts where my expertise was clearly lacking, I explicitly mentioned relevant collaborators at the particular institution.
  5. Scope. I was given the following advice. There have to be enough ideas in the proposal to fuel a lab for five-seven years. Estimate how much work each project will take. There should be more work than you can accomplish yourself, but not so much that it will require a whole institute.

On the importance of networking

Everybody says that networking is very important, but it is actually pretty hard to pinpoint how it actually plays in. Here is my data.

Departments Got interview Did not get
interview
With direct connection 7 7
Without direct connection 5 10

I am showing here the numbers of departments to which I applied in 2014 stratified by the presence of at least one faculty member who knew me personally (“with direct connection”; NB: I have no information on whether this person was on the committee or not) versus no such faculty members (“without direct connections”). So, it looks like the chances of getting an interview at a department with a direct social connection are a bit better (50% vs 33%). Still, publishing (at least in high-profile journals) is a much better way to improve chances of success than networking.

Interviews

My interviews began in November and finished in March. There are a couple of interesting things that I learned, both about myself and about the process.

First, the delivery of my talk varied a lot, and the only predictor that I could come up with is whether there were people in the audience who intimidated me on a purely subconscious level. The presence of such people sometimes caused me to fluster. I noticed that this behavior was aggravated by lack of sleep suppressed with coffee. The lesson is: Your body and mind can behave in unusual (annoying) ways under stress, lack of sleep, and various kinds of intoxication. These undesired behaviors can be controlled, but it is important to pay attention and not to aggravate them.

Second, the variation in the quality of the departments is staggering. I applied only to places where I could potentially see myself work and my family live. Even so, the departments where I interviewed varied from absolutely stellar (which is what I got used to during my PhD and postdoc years) to I-would-rather-quit-science-than-go-there kind of places. It’s good to keep in mind that before a physical visit you have no idea of what the department is like. Some places that you think are not even worthwhile applying to may turn out to be really great, and vice versa.

Third, my ability to predict after the interview whether I would get an offer was close to zero. The only exception were failed interviews, i.e., if I thought the interview went bad, it most certainly did. The converse was not true at all: interviews that I thought I nailed did not necessarily result in offers. After each interview, just for fun I wrote down my perceived probability of an offer (either 10%, 25%, 50%, 75%, or 90%). The average value of this probability for places that did indeed offer was 63% (±20%); and for places that did not offer it was 44% (±15%). So, barely better than coin tossing.

After the offer

I was lucky enough to receive the first verbal offer after my second interview in early December. You might think that this alleviated much of the stress of subsequent interviews, but it actually did not because the offer was from the place that was not number 1 in my internal preference list (which was misguided, see above). Moreover, when most of the interviews started, the soothing effect of the offer wore off. By January it seemed more like a distant dream than reality, and since it was a verbal offer I had no document to convince me otherwise.

In any case, in the first week of March I received two more verbal offers. After that the negotiation process began. There are several important things that I learned in this process. First, until you have a written letter in your hands, nothing is certain. I have heard of multiple cases when the unofficial offer was withdrawn. So, work towards obtaining a written letter from the first phone conversation.

Second, as in any negotiation process, it’s very important to know what you want. You have to have a very clear hierarchy of priorities. And I think it is best to put out all the “deal breakers” right out on the table. This way, it will be no surprise and hopefully no bad blood if you fail to come to an agreement.

Third (and this is an advice from a senior colleague), if you have multiple offers, you have one “trump card”. You can say “If you make X happen, I will come here”. It is likely that X will happen if it is at all in Chair’s power. Obviously, you can only say this to different places with which you negotiate sequentially.

Fourth, the success of your negotiations depends heavily on your Chair. It’s Chair’s job to convince the School (the entity that has the money) to satisfy your needs and to do other things that go beyond the University (e.g., contacting potential employees for your spouse). If the Chair is doing a great job, you will receive positive enthusiastic responses to your requests. The enthusiasm of responses is probably the best predictor of how the school and the department will treat you if you actually join. If you have to beg for every single thing (lab space, startup amount, equipment, job for spouse, housing, etc), chances are that you will have to swim against the current during your whole appointment, and you won’t get tenure without competing offers. At that point you will probably ask yourself: would I really want to be in such a place?

That’s almost all I wanted to say about my own experience. Good luck to all of those who are embarking on this miserable journey this year!

NB: I was asked a couple of specific questions which I did not answer above. Here are my answers

  1. Where did you find job ads?

I used alerts on Nature Jobs and Science Careers, I was subscribed to EvolDir, I occasionally looked through postings on AcademicJobsOnline and Vitae. In my experience, most job ads are posted in multiple venues, so missing a relevant ad (at least for US-based jobs) is almost impossible. I also was incessantly looking (and contributing) to the Ecology Wiki, which I highly recommend for maintaining sanity.

  1. What would you do differently?

If I knew my chances, I would not have applied in 2013. This would have saved some of my nerves and a lot of my time.

  1. How important is teaching experience?

Not at all, at least at places where I applied (R1). But you should still put some time in writing a good teaching statement.

  1. Is outreach important?

No, unless they specifically ask for it.

UPD (27 Aug 2015)

5. What did you do after the interview? Did you follow up or just wait for an offer?

All places where I got offers contacted me themselves. When I got the offers I informed the search committee chairs of places that have not decided yet and that I would seriously consider if they did offer.

6. What were the red-flags that led you to identify “I-would-rather-quit-science-than-go-there kind of places”?

The following questions might help.

1) Do you sense or know of any inter-departmental conflicts? 2) Are theres some awesome people, or does the place feel “stale”? 3) Are there any people who you could collaborate with (or at least talk to about your science) or will you be completely isolated? 4) Are faculty excited about their grad students?

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Arkadii Kryazhimskiy: Memories of My Father

On 24 March 2015 Russian newspaper Troitskiy Variant published my article about my father. Here is my English translation of it.


Arkadii Viktorovich Kryazhimskiy, mathematician and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, passed away on November 3, 2014. This was my father. He was an exceptional scientist, a talented painter, a poet, and a writer. He was a true artist, a man with boundless imagination and a charge of warm optimism. As for me, he was my principal teacher, my point or reference, and my major supporter.

Now, after he is gone, it is impossible to fully reconstruct his personality or recreate his thoughts, feelings, goals. One can only hope to put together a coarse vastly incomplete portrait from disarrayed snippets of memory. Nevertheless, I will attempt to capture his image here for us and for our descendants.

Arkadii Kryazhimskiy

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On the illusion of clarity

The teachings of Don Juan cover

At the top of my list of favorite books are Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” and its sequels. I think they contain a tremendous amount of wisdom. This passage is among my favorites in these books. Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian shaman and one of the main characters, describes to the author, his apprentice, the four obstacles that a person encounters in a pursuit of a long-term goal (such as becoming a shaman). These four enemies are fear, clarity, power, and old age.

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Four enemies of a man of knowledge

A quote from Carlos Castaneda’s “The teachings of Don Juan”:

A man of knowledge is one who has followed truthfully the hardships of learning, a man who has, without rushing or without faltering, gone as far as he can in unraveling the secrets of power and knowledge. To become a man of knowledge one must challenge and defeat his four natural enemies.

When a man starts to learn, he is never clear about his objectives. His purpose is faulty; his intent is vague. He hopes for rewards that will never materialize for he knows nothing of the hardships of learning.

He slowly begins to learn–bit by bit at first, then in big chunks. And his thoughts soon clash. What he learns is never what he pictured, or imagined, and so he begins to be afraid. Learning is never what one expects. Every step of learning is a new task, and the fear the man is experiencing begins to mount mercilessly, unyieldingly. His purpose becomes a battlefield.

And thus he has stumbled upon the first of his natural enemies: fear! A terrible enemy–treacherous, and difficult to overcome. It remains concealed at every turn of the way, prowling, waiting. And if the man, terrified in its presence, runs away, his enemy will have put an end to his quest and he will never learn. He will never become a man of knowledge. He will perhaps be a bully, or a harmless, scared man; at any rate, he will be a defeated man. His first enemy will have put an end to his cravings.

It is not possible for a man to abandon himself to fear for years, then finally conquer it. If he gives in to fear he will never conquer it, because he will shy away from learning and never try again. But if he tries to learn for years in the midst of his fear, he will eventually conquer it because he will never have really abandoned himself to it.

Therefore he must not run away. He must defy his fear, and in spite of it he must take the next step in learning, and the next, and the next. He must be fully afraid, and yet he must not stop. That is the rule! And a moment will come when his first enemy retreats. The man begins to feel sure of himself. His intent becomes stronger. Learning is no longer a terrifying task.

When this joyful moment comes, the man can say without hesitation that he has defeated his first natural enemy. It happens little by little, and yet the fear is vanquished suddenly and fast. Once a man has vanquished fear, he is free from it for the rest of his life because, instead of fear, he has acquired clarity–a clarity of mind which erases fear. By then a man knows his desires; he knows how to satisfy those desires. He can anticipate the new steps of learning and a sharp clarity surrounds everything. The man feels that nothing is concealed.

And thus he has encountered his second enemy: Clarity! That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain, dispels fear, but also blinds. It forces the man never to doubt himself. It gives him the assurance he can do anything he pleases, for he sees clearly into everything. And he is courageous because he is clear, and he stops at nothing because he is clear. But all that is a mistake; it is like something incomplete. If the man yields to this make-believe power, he has succumbed to his second enemy and will be patient when he should rush. And he will fumble with learning until he winds up incapable of learning anything more. His second enemy has just stopped him cold from trying to become a man of knowledge. Instead, the man may turn into a buoyant warrior, or a clown. Yet the clarity for which he has paid so dearly will never change to darkness and fear again. He will be clear as long as he lives, but he will no longer learn, or yearn for, anything.

He must do what he did with fear: he must defy his clarity and use it only to see, and wait patiently and measure carefully before taking new steps; he must think, above all, that his clarity is almost a mistake. And a moment will come when he will understand that his clarity was only a point before his eyes. And thus he will have overcome his second enemy, and will arrive at a position where nothing can harm him anymore. This will not be a mistake. It will not be only a point before his eyes. It will be true power.

He will know at this point that the power he has been pursuing for so long is finally his. He can do with it whatever he pleases. His ally is at his command. His wish is the rule. He sees all that is around him. But he has also come across his third enemy:Power!

Power is the strongest of all enemies. And naturally the easiest thing to do is to give in; after all, the man is truly invincible. He commands; he begins by taking calculated risks, and ends in making rules, because he is a master.

A man at this stage hardly notices his third enemy closing in on him. And suddenly, without knowing, he will certainly have lost the battle. His enemy will have turned him into a cruel, capricious man, but he will never lose his clarity or his power.

A man who is defeated by power dies without really knowing how to handle it. Power is only a burden upon his fate. Such a man has no command over himself, and cannot tell when or how to use his power.

Once one of these enemies overpowers a man there is nothing he can do. It is not possible, for instance, that a man who is defeated by power may see his error and mend his ways. Once a man gives in he is through. If, however, he is temporarily blinded by power, and then refuses it, his battle is still on. That means he is still trying to become a man of knowledge. A man is defeated only when he no longer tries, and abandons himself.

He has to come to realize that the power he has seemingly conquered is in reality never his. He must keep himself in line at all times, handling carefully and faithfully all that he has learned. If he can see that clarity and power, without his control over himself, are worse than mistakes, he will reach a point where everything is held in check. He will know then when and how to use his power. And thus he will have defeated his third enemy.

The man will be, by then, at the end of his journey of learning, and almost without warning he will come upon the last of his enemies: Old age! This enemy is the cruelest of all, the one he won’t be able to defeat completely, but only fight away.

This is the time when a man has no more fears, no more impatient clarity of mind–a time when all his power is in check, but also the time when he has an unyielding desire to rest. If he gives in totally to his desire to lie down and forget, if he soothes himself in tiredness, he will have lost his last round, and his enemy will cut him down into a feeble old creature. His desire to retreat will overrule all his clarity, his power, and his knowledge.
But if the man sloughs off his tiredness, and lives his fate though, he can then be called a man of knowledge, if only for the brief moment when he succeeds in fighting off his last, invincible enemy. That moment of clarity, power, and knowledge is enough.