Getting a tenure-track position when “they all get 300+ applications”

It’s easy to get discouraged about a career in academia these days. Everywhere I look (but especially on social media), somebody is lambasting it. Don’t get me wrong, there are very real issues (off the top of my head: “work-life balance” [while I understand the sentiment, what a ridiculous term, implying that work isn’t part of life], very real diversity issues, decreasing funding support for basic scholarship and an increasing tendency for administrators to equate “success” with things that they can easily count). Not a trivial list, I acknowledge, but for people genuinely passionate about lifelong learning and inquiry, I maintain that it still may very well be their right calling. So, let’s say you’re realistic about the issues mentioned, still feel the tug, but now worry about an additional perceived hurdle, which appears to go something like this: “I heard from a friend of mine that a recent ad for a tenure-track position in ecology at University X received 320 applications. How will I ever get a position with those odds?” Before I go any further, I should mention that the impetus for this post was a series of tweets among a group of us (@hormiga, @skmorgane, @surt_lab, @TrevorABranch, @subsurface_life), triggered by Terry McGlynn noting that a ridiculously small number of people had applied for a tenure-track position they are currently advertising. Some of my comments (especially about numbers) will be most relevant to those in ecology, evolution or conservation biology, but hopefully the sentiments expressed have broader application.

Here, then, are some thoughts about the process of applying for positions. I won’t go so far as to call it a list or advice, but I hope reading it will allay the concerns of at least one potential applicant.

300+ applications: Maybe the biggest one to get out of the way. Does this number have any basis in reality? Yes, yes it does. I have it on good authority that broadly defined searches (e.g., “Tenure-track Position in Ecology”) at <insert your favourite leading institution here> (e.g., University of British Columbia for me) will approach or exceed these numbers. So, if you’re set on obtaining a faculty position in Canada (as I was, applying only once to an institution abroad [Leeds]), be prepared for stiff competition if you have your eye on UBC, McGill, University of Toronto, etc.

But, seriously, 300+ applications?: Umm, see above. Oh wait, I think I know what you’re asking. No, such numbers are nowhere near the norm. More importantly, that’s a bit of a “straw person” number: a fairly large proportion of them will be whittled away in the preliminary rounds. Why? Well, some people will apply for anything. A position at a great place will only inflate this by adding, for example, those who aren’t necessarily a bad fit but way too junior. Incidentally, if you make it through all the way through the process, some day you too will receive “Dear Sir/Madam” form letter “enquiries” about openings in your lab (might as well get this out of the way now: if they haven’t taken the time to personalize their inquiry, you shouldn’t feel a shred of guilt in deleting it without a reply).

So, how many are we talking about?: In my experience, a pool of 30-80 applications probably captures a pretty healthy proportion of job ads. In fact, I am sitting on a search committee right now, and I have a list of exactly 30 applications to go through. Think about that for a second: without *any* critical evaluation (that is, perhaps an admin person chucked an incomplete application or two), somebody is looking at 1-in-30 odds for a job *for life* in a progressive city (Mayor Nenshi, anybody?) located about an hour’s drive from absolute world-class beauty (yes, Canadian Rockies, that’s a shout-out to you). But, it gets better: I have yet to be part of a search committee (or been privy after the fact to the general proceedings of other search committees) that really struggled to come up with a “long” shortlist of <<20 applicants. The hardest part has typically been coming up with the shortlist of (typically) four candidates to bring onto campus for the interview.

Bottom line: Provided you are realistic about your background/abilities/desires, meaning that you are not always applying for “pie in the sky” positions, forget the horror stories and realize that your odds are way better than all that. I think David Baltrus summed it up best: “EVERYONE I know ready/searching for jobs eventually landed one N>30”. If you heed what I started off the last sentence with, then you will have supportive referees writing good letters for you and, more importantly, not minding doing that. I know there’s some concern about “overworking” your referees — personally, I’ll never tire of promoting a former member of my lab so long as they are realistic about what they are applying for. Where fatigue would set in is if there was a repeated mismatch between, say, area of expertise of the applicant and that of the position they were going for. That said, I’ve had them write me to the effect of “I know this one is a bit of a stretch, but we would so love to be back in <insert neck of woods here>”, in which case I will roll with it.

Is that all? No, but yes (for now). I know that just putting your hat in the ring is just one step in the whole process, but memory suggests others have written at length about application packages, how to prepare for phone interviews, navigating on-site interviews, negotiating offers, etc. so I didn’t go into any of that. If I get the sense that folks would like more discussion on any of those points, use the Comments box for that, and I’ll see what emerges. Thanks for reading, and best wishes with the job search!


4 thoughts on “Getting a tenure-track position when “they all get 300+ applications”

  1. It’s good to hear this perspective, both for those currently on the market and for those of us at institutions lucky enough to be conducting searches. It’s nice to know that when our little, no-name school gets 20 – 40 applications for a position that we’re not that far out of the norm.

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