How’s the academic job market?

So, how’s the academic job market?

This is the first question I asked the minute the end of my PhD was in sight. The process of finding a job in the Ivory Towers of the world seemed to be cloaked in mystery. Just as I was asking this question, serendipitously this study “Insights from a survey-based analysis of the academic job market” came up on my twitter feed. Below I will summarise the main findings, but I thoroughly recommend checking out the paper.

Fernandes and colleagues collected data from 317 early career researchers in the STEM fields (51% were male) most of which (82%) were applying for jobs in the United States. They define early career researchers as “anyone engaged in research who is not recognized as an independent leader/investigator of a research group. This includes graduate and postdoctoral researchers; junior research assistants, associates, and staff scientists.”

  • Men reported significantly more first author papers, more publications, and more citations than women as well as having a significantly higher h-index. All of these increased the chances of receiving an offer.
  • Women had significantly more fellowship funding than men. Qualitatively, the impact of funding on research career success was recognised both by applicants and members of hiring committees.
  • Collectively, the 317 participants had submitted a total of 7,644 job applications (an average of 24 per person [median of 15]). 
  • 42% of the sample had received no offers, 33% received one offer, 14% received two offers, 6% received three offers, and 6% received more than three offers
  • Typically, candidates who received offers had submitted more applications than those who did not receive an offer.
  • Hiring committee members noted that it was easy to identify good candidates from their submitted applications but that there were simply too many good candidates or that they often underperformed in the interview.
  • Nearly half of the sample had posted preprints online of research with several people suggesting that it provided evidence of productivity outside of the formal publication process.
  • All the participants in the study were highly qualified according to the metrics yet they reported high stress and frustration with the job application process. Many perceived poor mentorship as a major obstacle to their applications.

Overall, the paper concludes that the faculty job search process is not clear. Of all the people they surveyed, there wasn’t a single positive comment about the process.

“Our findings suggest that there is no single clear path to a faculty job offer and that metrics such as career transition awards and publications in high impact factor journals were neither necessary nor sufficient for landing a faculty position. The applicants perceived the process as unnecessarily stressful, time-consuming, and largely lacking in feedback, irrespective of a successful outcome.”

In short, the results confirm what we all know to be true. There is no one clear path after the PhD. The path is covered in obstacles and may be biased against some of us for a multitude of reasons. But this also gives me hope. There seems to be flexibility and room for creativity in terms of carving out a career in academia. Let’s see how this goes.

– Alessa Teunisse


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