A friend shared the following with me, and with his permission, I’m re-sharing it here at Crooked Timber. It concerns the rationality (and indeed the ethics) of applying for academic jobs. Some of the detail is UK-specific, but I’m sure it will also resonate with people who live elsewhere.
Here’s my problem. I’m not very happy in my job. Five employers, within 50 miles of where I live, are currently recruiting in my field.
So what’s the problem? Well, let me tell you about those five employers… But first, a bit of background. The days when the main qualification for an academic job was being considered the right sort of person, and fellowships were awarded by means of a chat after dinner, are long gone. (At least, I assume they are. Maybe I’m just not going to the right dinners.) These days, if you’re going for a post in Medieval European History, you had better make sure your c.v. positively reeks of the history of Europe in the Middle Ages – and even then, if you aren’t already lecturing in Medieval European History you’re liable to be at a serious disadvantage relative to other candidates.
The higher education sector is much bigger, much more professionalised and much more closely managed than it was even twenty years ago. What this means, though – particularly with the added competitive pressure created by the shakiness of the current job market – is that job-hunting in HE is a weirdly straightforward process, with minimal search problems. If you’re a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, you know you’ll have a chance of an interview if the job title advertised includes the words “Lecturer”, “Forensic” and “Psychology”. And if not, probably not.
The other distinctive feature of the British academic jobs market is its geographical spread, which is at once clumpy and thin. For HE jobs to be concentrated in large towns and cities isn’t particularly unusual; what is unusual is that (outside London) most places can offer an effective choice of at most two HE institutions, one of them generally a lot more desirable than the other. If a job in your field is advertised, you’ll know it’s there (or be able to find out very quickly) – but you’ll also know it’s unlikely to be in your home town, making job-hopping after about the age of 25 quite a big deal.
For myself, I came into academia fairly late in life, with roots already put down. I’d welcome a change of job, for a variety of reasons – my current post is part-time, apart from anything else. But I’m not looking to move house any time soon – and I’m not crazy about taking on a massive commute, either. (I currently get to work on the bus, on the days when I’m not working from home. As unsatisfactory jobs go, this one definitely has its advantages.)
Those five jobs being advertised are all full-time, which is good, but they all come with issues. One of them would be perfect, if only it weren’t a short fixed-term contract to cover a teaching buyout – not worth leaving a permanent job for, however unsatisfactory that job might be. One’s at an institution I don’t rate; two more are at places I do rate, but which have other issues – major financial problems in one case, staff retention problems in the other. (When what appears to be the same job is advertised in January, April and July…) The fifth passes all of those tests, but it’s at the very limit of that 50-mile radius and would probably take an hour and a half to get to (and from), which just looks excessive. All this seems sensible enough, until I step back a bit and realise that I’m looking at five jobs – count ‘em – and seriously considering not applying for any of them. On that basis it seems as if there aren’t that many jobs I ever will apply for – and I don’t get many dinner invitations, either.
So here’s the question – or rather, two questions. Even if I’ve got no interest in actually taking these jobs (and I’ve got no interest at all in at least two of them), should I apply anyway, for the sake of interview practice – and, for that matter, making sure that my c.v. is good enough to get an interview? In practical terms I’ve got four choices:
- Apply for none of them. As a rule, only apply for jobs I definitely want to take; if necessary, hang on until the right job (or promotion) turns up.
- Apply for all of them. As a rule, apply for everything that’s going, knowing that I might not take the job if offered, for the sake of c.v.-polishing and interview practice.
- Apply for some of them (two or maybe three of the five). As a rule, apply for all jobs except for ones I’m absolutely sure I would refuse if offered, keeping an open mind about whether to accept if an offer is made.
- Same as 3., but telling myself that I would accept if an offer was made, and to hell with the travelling time (hence giving an impression of commitment, going in with a positive attitude, etc).
Secondly, suppose I stick with option 1. (which is currently looking very tempting, I’ve got to say). Might I actually have arrived at – or backed myself into – a reasonably sensible job search strategy: work on making myself ‘recruitable’ in the job I’m in (getting grant money, networking etc), and wait for the right opportunity to come along? Or am I just being beguiled into career stasis, the bus to work my Calypso?
I’d be interested to hear of anyone else’s experiences, whether good or bad, whether of changing jobs or of hanging on for the right opportunity. It’d also be interesting to hear from the other side of the desk – can interviewers identify, and weed out, candidates who are only there for interview practice? (Come to that, is this something people actually do – apply for jobs with no intention, or only a vague intention, of actually taking them?) And does anyone have a fellowship awarded by means of a chat after dinner, or know someone who does?