This is the start of a series of posts on working through difficulties in finding employment following your PhD. I have previously written about my personal experience with feeling like there was this gaping space between PhD and Post-Doc, I have also written about how academic jobs are advertised in diverse places. But for the next few weeks I want to talk about some of the struggles and my personal strategies for once you have scored an interview. Today will be about the ever soul-crushing “we found someone more experienced” justification for not getting a position and some reasons why this might be. I also recommend that you read up on my resiliency and rejection in academia series on dealing with the emotions of being rejected, becoming resilient to rejection, using rejection to improve yourself, and what it is like being the rejector.
A Tale As Old As Time
I had heard the good old “we found someone with more experience” statement plenty of times throughout my life, not just in academia. But it was a statement I associated with applying for positions above your capabilities. I also knew well in advance that the academic job market has become extremely competitive, so over the 10 years or so of study I had put a lot of effort into accruing experience. By the end of my PhD I had nearly 10 publications to my name (some of which I was first author), five years of experience in a research team where I was involved in all aspects of the research process, and five years of teaching experience across all aspects of teaching which, near the end, included lecturing, content development, and co-convening. Yet despite this, I was still being told “There was someone with more post-PhD experience than you” by multiple universities.
So There Must Have Been Some Serious Contendors?
Before I go any further, it is worth noting that I did not want a post-doc, I wanted to go straight into a lectureship. Time and time again I was told that I was too junior to go straight into a lectureship, which I appreciated but I persevered. Ultimately, I received an appointment as a full-time lecturer and I am very happy with where I am. But not every job I applied for was at a lecturing level and that is not what this post is about. This post is about entry-level post-doc positions looking for people fresh out of their PhD but still saying that I did not have enough experience. I actually built up the confidence and asked one employer about what this other person had that I was lacking – I wanted to know how I could improve myself for future applications. “They had a few months extra post-PhD time than you”. Now it is impossible to tell if this person and I had equivalent pre-PhD experience, if the few months extra post-PhD trumped anything my pre-PhD experience counted for, or if this was a decoy to prevent revealing more details about the decision than needed. But this was not an uncommon response from prospective employers.
The Saving Grace
Why didn’t I want a post-doc? Because I already had my own research agenda, I had the connections, I had my own story that I wanted to tell and was ready to tell it. I just needed somebody who wanted to hear it. The place that hired me were more interested in my pre-PhD experience than the time since I had graduated. They were interested with where I wanted to take my PhD work, how I planned to do it, and did I have the necessary support or could they provide the support to help me achieve that. There was a lot more to this on than just research (in the way of service and teaching), but that was the research side of things.
We know that the academic job market is competitive, I suspect the decision between person X and person Y may not always be completely objective, particularly if two candidates are both perfect fits for the role. Nevertheless keep trying! Being told someone has more experience than you does not mean you don’t have enough experience. Keep trying!