To apply or not to apply?

by Chris Bertram on July 14, 2014

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?



Stuart Ingham 07.14.14 at 10:51 am

I wouldn’t waste my own time or that of an institutions on an application for a job that I wouldn’t consider taking. If I were invited to interview I’d feel bad about getting it over other potentially viable candidates who are genuinely interested in the post.

This is for me the basic problem of applying for jobs in a highly competitive (i.e. both scarce and reasonably fair) market.

1) Every application takes up an enormous amount of time.

2) Any given application is unlikely to be succesful (even if you are qualified for the job and would perform the tasks it demands well).

2) Suggests that you should apply for as many jobs as possible given the element of chance involved in finding a post, add together lots of small chances and you have a slightly larger chance. However 1) means that doing so will slowly make 2) even more true as you have, before too long, devoted a lot of would-be-research time to applications.


Newell White 07.14.14 at 10:53 am

You seem overly preoccupied with what a different job would offer you.

The best lecturers and research supervisors I have been exposed to were concerned with sharing their expertise, insight, and experience with younger people.

Perhaps your talents would be better employed in a career which is more suited to your attitude.

Good fortune.


Lesley C 07.14.14 at 11:14 am

Yes, interviewers usually know when someone is just there for the interview practice. It is annoying and wasting an interviewers time. As you will be taking a place that could be used for someone genuinely interested in the job, you will be remembered for the wrong reasons. I would suggest getting interview practice by another route.

I was stuck that your focus seems to be on jobs that have already been advertised. There are jobs that have yet to be advertised and jobs that will not be advertised, but filled in some other way. The best way to develop routes to these will be to network, or to use your existing network (whether via dinners or some other route!). Good luck for your search.


Barry 07.14.14 at 12:37 pm

Chris, I’d ask that comments like #2 be deleted. It would be nice to keep this to an actual job search thread, and not drift off into the problems with academia, etc.


ah 07.14.14 at 12:46 pm

if I were you, I’d apply for no 3, 4 & 5 (in the order described). If these are all solid jobs at potentially solid places, you can see if you get an offer and find out more about the issues (which might go away).

applying for jobs you may not get / take can be useful to let people know you are on the market – it might encourage your present uni to increase your hours / change things in your favour if you have an offer elsewhere. It also keeps you thinking & keeps your CV in shape.

PS – job search is not so straightforward – I saw a job advertised in subfield A and applied even though my specialty is subfield B. They did not hire anyone, but liked me so they advertised a new job in subfield B soon after and I got it. That is why it helps to ignore subfields, apply widely and let people know you are on the jobs market.


Trader Joe 07.14.14 at 1:19 pm

Most jobs have some pros and cons. As described you seem to be comparing all of the cons rather than weighig the relative value of the pros.

The con of the current position is the part-time status – is there upside? Can it ever be the perfect position (i.e. local + full time)? If there’s the way to make the current position more perfect, you have the greatest control of that and should pursue that first. If not, then as others above have mentioned, overcome the inertia and start circulating.

The cons of the other positions were well itemized, what are the upsides? Which are the most prestigious, highest paying, most visibility, most access to grants, access to valuable mentors etc.

Whatever the answers to those questions, you should consider at least applying for those where there are worthwhile upsides – get the job first and then decide what steps are necessary to address the cons. If you know for 100% certainty you would never accept a job there, then don’t apply (employers can always spot a time waster), but if there’s a chance you’ll accept, you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about the position and add to the list of both of pros and cons – inevitably all of the positions have more of both than you are likely to realize before the fact (too low salary, no advancement, too much/too little workload etc.). Right now its doubtful you have fully enough information to make a sound choice (assuming you win a position and have a choice).

Job search in any field almost always boils down to overcoming the inertia of the known and accepting the fear of the unknown. Until one is willing to risk the former to address the later no new job will ever seem all the way good enough. In my experience, in most cases, when people contemplate these switches and accept a position that they view as a better position, even absorbing some negative aspect, they are usually happy with their decision.

Best wishes.


SusanC 07.14.14 at 1:30 pm

The nature of the academic job market is that when suitable positions come up, they are likely to be very widely geographically distributed. A move to another country, or another continent, not just another town in the UK, is quite likely. Academic + unwilling to move is a tricky combination. (Academic married to another academic, so both subject to these kind of constraints, is a common source of difficulty).

You might also consider talking to people before the job is advertised. In research, faculty are applying for new grants all the time. When a principal investigator applies for a new grant, they’re influenced by — among other things — their estimate of how easy it is going to be to hire RA’s etc. to actually do the work if they get the grant money. So knowing that there is at east one expert in X currently looking for a job may influence the decision to apply for a grant doing X, as opposed to Y.

That’s research; there’s possibly a similar effect in teaching. (e.g. the history department expands the amount of Medieval European history they teach dependent on availability of staff to teach it).

In the above, I chose “history” at random. I am given to understand that history departments, especially, have difficulty evaluating the competence of job applicants. The issue being that it’s so specialized, that existing staff don’t consider themselves competent to evaluate a candidate whose claimed expertise is in a different period – which in turn makes them place greater emphasis on the prestigousness of the journals you’ve published in. Other fields are more unified, so interviewers are more likely to actually read your publications and make their own judgment as to whether you’re any good. I don’t know if this affects job search strategy, but I imagine it might.

Oh, and finally: if the institution has difficulty with staff retention, it’s a very worrying sign. If the previous three occupants of the job role have quit after a couple of months each, there might be some common reason for their departure, and you might worry about what that reason was…


Scott Martens 07.14.14 at 1:33 pm

I tried Option 3 and now I’ve simply given up and taken a private sector job. I could have held out, but I started late too and I’m not getting younger, so I saw little point in trying when I saw little prospect of success. Plus, my work situation was extremely bad. I didn’t have your problem with mobility, but I did exclude some positions I might have gotten on the grounds that I could not imagine wanting to live in those places or because I thought it would be no more than another temporary placement with inadequate pay. I didn’t want to give up, but once I concluded it was inevitable, I couldn’t see the point of more underpaid academic work in some far away place in hopes of scoring a permanent position that I would never get.


djr 07.14.14 at 1:44 pm

Surely if the same job is advertised in January, April and July, it means they didn’t fill it in January or April? I’ve never heard of anywhere in academia that moves fast enough to have someone start within 3 months of advertising the job, let alone start, quit and have the job readvertised!


MPAVictoria 07.14.14 at 1:49 pm

You seem overly preoccupied with what a different job would offer you.

The best lecturers and research supervisors I have been exposed to were concerned with sharing their expertise, insight, and experience with younger people.

Perhaps your talents would be better employed in a career which is more suited to your attitude.

Good fortune.”

Christ. What an asshole.


Jon W 07.14.14 at 2:17 pm

As a hiring committee chair, I’ve wasted a lot of time and effort interviewing and wooing candidates whom I wanted to hire, but who — I later concluded — were never serious about the job at my school at all. If you interview at a place with no or little intention of accepting an offer, then the interviewer may not be able to tell when he’s interviewing you that you aren’t serious, but he will draw that conclusion after you turn down the offer and stay at your home institution. This will lead to great shimmering pools of resentment that will not be conducive to your moving in the future.


TTP 07.14.14 at 3:10 pm

And does anyone have a fellowship awarded by means of a chat after dinner, or know someone who does?

If chats don’t explain the many unpublished Oxbridge JRF appointees then I don’t know what else does.


Bernard Yomtov 07.14.14 at 5:48 pm

I think it is plainly unethical to apply for a job you have no intention of taking. On the other hand, if you are not sure whether you woudl take a particular job I see nothing wrong in applying.

Interviewing is a two-way street. If the institution is genuinely interested in hiring you they may do things to make the situation more attractive to you. Also, you may well learn things about the job that make it better than you initially thought. There is nothing wrong with exploring the possibility, so long as you honestly believe there is some non-negligible chance you might take it.


Andrew Fisher 07.14.14 at 9:04 pm

Your friend doesn’t specify his discipline. In English HE, at least, this is a crucial issue. A forensic psychologist can afford to be more picky than a medieval historian. Your friend also doesn’t explain why he ‘doesn’t rate’ one of the institutions. If is is just for league table reasons it is worth thinking again. There’s no particular relationship between how prestigious a university is and how nice it is to work there, and if research is important I have seen many active researchers ‘escape’ from unrated universities fairly easily when they judged the time was right.

I’d also be cautious about turning down the University in financial trouble. Unless it is London Met it just isn’t that likely to make a huge difference to your working life as an academic, unless you are in a particularly vulnerable subject area.

I’m surprised that many commentators feel it is unethical to apply for a job without a clear intention to take it if offered. If there is a norm out there that a hiring manager can legitimately expect only serious, well-qualified candidates will apply for any role advertised, then no-one has told the people reading my job adverts. I would think carefully before applying for a job you don’t want, but only because I once found myself accepting a job I’d applied for when I didn’t want it, to my subsequent regret. It is difficult to stay focused all through the process on the fact that you are only there for the practice.

Ultimately, only your friend knows how unsatisfactory his current job is, and why. All of the options (except maybe 4) are rational for the right person at the right time.


No one 07.14.14 at 10:05 pm

I’m what’s called in the UK an early career researcher, and have just gotten a post. So I’m not in the position of Chris’ friend. But talking with various academics while on the job search, it was not uncommon for them to tell me that some academics–unable to be promoted at their own universities (for whatever reason, but often it was implied for bureaucratic reasons rather than ‘legitimate’ reasons)–would seek an advertised post at another university. Having been successful at the interview stage, they would then go back to their own university and say ‘I’ve been offered this; give me something better or I leave’. Their university then does so; and the recruiting university is left to go with their second best candidate.

This apparently happens most often at the professorial level, but I have heard anecdotally it happens also at lower levels–eg., senior lecturers. I can see there might be good reasons for this practice, but it depressed me. It seems terribly inefficient in that the interviewee must spend copious amounts of time filling in forms and getting referees’ references; the recruitment panel must read the candidate’s work, references, the referees have to write the references, and so on. And that this practice exists suggests there is very little value placed on institutional loyalty.

But maybe it’s just the way the stories have been told to me. I’m not so sure that people deliberately go out of their way to ‘better’ their position by gambling on getting a post somewhere else (it’s a bloody big bluff); it’s more likely that they have mixed motives (frustration, but also initially anyway actually wanting something better).

A more acceptable variant on this is the temporary lecturer who is not guaranteed anything permanent, and does the same thing–goes elsewhere first, gets something, then comes back and says, ‘give me something permanent’. This I’ve heard of a few times now, and while I admire the temp lecturer’s toughness, it’s depressing to think that they had to go elsewhere first before their current institution finally recognised their ‘value’.

Anyway–this is all very anecdotal.


The OP 07.14.14 at 10:06 pm

Original poster here. Thanks for all the constructive comments (which is most of them).

Lesley C – “There are jobs that have yet to be advertised and jobs that will not be advertised”. Yikes. I read a very helpful article years ago about academic networking, wch basically said “if you do this, this and this, after a while you won’t have to look for opportunities, they’ll come to you”. It’s happened for me a bit with research – both my most recent publications are ‘invited contributions’ – but with jobs, not so much. But it’s difficult to let people at other institutions know that I’m looking, when I don’t want to let my own know (I don’t mind letting them know other people want to interview me, but that’s different).

Trader Joe – “As described you seem to be comparing all of the cons rather than weighig the relative value of the pros”. Good point (and good advice generally).

Andrew Fisher – “Ultimately, only your friend knows how unsatisfactory his current job is, and why. All of the options (except maybe 4) are rational for the right person at the right time.”

Interesting that you single out “talk yourself into feeling positive” as the one not to go for, although I guess it chimes with the bad experience you mention.

It’s not *that* desperately awful (…he overstated). I haven’t really got anyone to talk to about my research[fn], let alone about the research I’d rather be doing[fn], and being stuck on a part-time contract is a bummer. Having said that, actually being a part-timer is itself a ‘pro’ in certain lights (hey, free time!).

General sense that it’s not impossible that my inertia might need a bit of a kick. No takers for “hang on where you are, write the papers, submit the grant bids, add some lines to your c.v., it’ll shine when it shines”?

[fn] Didn’t I mention that? I probably should have mentioned that. So my *three* key job requirements are “both the job and the department will still be there in two years’ time (and I’ll still want to be there)”, “travelling time is OK” and “there’s someone to talk to about my research”. Possibly not in that order.


John Quiggin 07.14.14 at 11:40 pm

@15 Getting an “outside offer”. Institutions bring this on themselves, by making it clear that they will not give promotions or pay increases on merit, but will match outside offers. Worse than the waste of time is the frequency with which people end up moving, even though they didn’t really want to, because of some mis-step in this elaborate dance.


Collin Street 07.15.14 at 12:35 am

Well, matching outside offers is easier on HR staff than sitting down and doing a valuation themselves. It’s an agency problem.

[it’s possible that the whole reification of HR as a thing distinct from management is a key driver here: I’m not sure now I think about it that this was a good idea. But the “provide specialist support services to assist units to manage their own X internally” seems unstable for any X, the support people near-inevitably turn into management people over time. And support is needed, to make sure your local line managers abide by labour and general law if nothing else. So I don’t have even an outline sketch of a potential improvement let alone a solution, here.]


David Hobby 07.15.14 at 3:04 am

I agree with SusanC at 7–
Be prepared to move!

My current position is on the other coast from where I started. Yes, I could have stayed closer, but the options were definitely poorer. A radius of 50 miles seems wildly unrealistic.


The OP 07.15.14 at 12:30 pm

OP again. Moving isn’t an option – we’ve been in this house for 25 years, I’ve been an academic for less than 10. We’ve got teenage kids, my OH’s been in the same job for 30 years and plans to stay put till retirement, and so on and so forth. The 50-mile radius is the outer limit for a commute, & even that’s probably a bit far (I’ve done 40 in the past & that was both time-consuming and exhausting).

Upthread somebody said that the best solution might be to get my current job converted to full-time. I was originally told that this was possible, so I’ve pushed a bit on this front; after some prodding and much delay, the boss said No, or rather said “HR say No”. In theory this is bad and wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to stand, but in reality I’m reluctant to push any more. I think after a while it starts to look as if there must be some reason why they keep saying No to you, and a while after that both sides start to believe there is. In other words, you can create a situation where your face doesn’t fit.

Rival offers – I personally know someone who owes his professorship to an offer from a rival institution. No reflection on him in terms of merit – the other people were offering him a chair, after all – but it seems a bit like sharp practice. Whether my own institution would match an external offer I don’t know – if I was trying for another job I think I would have to really want that job (for this & other reasons). Incidentally, “apply for everything going so as to get interview practice” passes for common sense on a lot of job-hunting sites; it’s interesting to hear the downsides to it.


sean 07.15.14 at 1:32 pm

As someone who’s been working in HE for 15 years, and never had a contract longer than 3 years (and several considerably shorter) I say: apply for them all. And if you get offered an interview, go and give it your best shot (even if it’s all five interviews).

Forget the trolls, and the people trying to use guilt to keep another applicant out of the market – it’s a recruiter’s job to weed out the interview practicers just as it’s my job to weed out the students who are copying their essays off the internet.

In terms of the time needed to write the applications: once you’ve got the first one done, the rest will be pretty quick – similar positions in different institutions require similar skillsets, in my experience. Subsequent similar applications after the first one take, quite literally, a matter of minutes.

What’s the worst that can happen? That you get offered a job you turn down?
What’s the best that can happen? You get offered a position you might enjoy/ you get offered conditions not advertised/ you negotiate better conditions than advertised. None of those are bad things :)

Roll the dice and see what happens: if nothing else, you’ll get a better perspective on yourself, your own worth and what you’re willing to put up with re: career.


MPAVictoria 07.15.14 at 1:42 pm

“Roll the dice and see what happens”

I find that this is almost always good advice when it come to applying for jobs. You never know what will end up happening.


No one 07.15.14 at 1:49 pm

As a former temporary lecturer the ‘get a rival offer!’ route was suggested to me a couple of times. But like you, the question was, would the institution I work at match that offer? It’s a big bluff (they didn’t, so I went).

In my case anyway I took option #4, for 2 reasons: 1. I was sick of not having something more permanent; and 2. I wasn’t quite sure about my own ‘marketability’ and wanted to get a sense of how others saw me (colleagues were constantly telling me–you will have no problem, look at you and your publications: reader, they were wrong. It’s really tough in my field). I got something, but it’s way, way outside the geographical radius I would want, but I felt like this was the best I could do at this point. I have an OH, but she’s understanding (at the moment) and we will just have to make it work.

It was only after the grind of being shortlisted and not succeeding that I would tell myself–‘think of this as practice’. It *is* practice, but it’s also time consuming (have I mentioned I’ve done zero research while job seeking?), and more importantly emotionally draining. Regardless of whether you want to or not, as you put together the job application, prepare for the interview–and maybe do well–you start to think, ‘I could really work there!’. You just invest a lot in the process.


TM 07.15.14 at 4:06 pm

I thought the standard approach in academia was to apply to as many jobs as possible and when you get an offer, use it as leverage with your current institution.


ralph 07.15.14 at 9:50 pm

+1 on 21. But, I’d choose your 3 or 4, based on the truth of post 1. Conserve your energy and increase your own leverage by applying only to those you might consider really taking (thus avoiding the stigma of the JonW effect, at 11). You may then use any acceptance as leverage if that still seems the better option, but you will be able to leave current job of the leverage is truly insufficient.


dahl 07.16.14 at 2:37 am

+1 on 25.

Choose options that empower you, and can’t leave you in a worse position than currently. You (and your family) should be comfortable with the change and accepting of any sacrifices required for it.

And be open with your current employer about your intentions. Their reaction will tell you something valuable.


REW 07.18.14 at 1:38 am

With all respect due to MPAVictoria in comment #10, I would argue that comment #2 is no greater exemplar of assholery than the original post. Save option #1 — apply for none, the OP represents the kind of hapless applicant that is willing to waste the time of search committees, his references, and anyone who will listen. As someone who regularly donates two full weeks of time each year to service on search committees and as a letter-writer for colleagues and former students, I would probably be more sympathetic to comment # 2 that the OP.


No one 07.19.14 at 7:57 am

I would say it’s being a bit uncharitable to equate the OP with the (IMO) pompous #2. It seems to me that the OP is being pulled in different directions by his/her personal situation and some pretty mixed institutional signals from his/her current institution.

At least in my field, job adverts can be quite ambiguous: ‘we are looking for a lecturer. Having expertise in field X would be an advantage’ [which implies that you don’t *have* to have those specific requirements and could still apply]. So the messages coming from the recruiting institution are sometimes not clear.

In my field, the requirements for lecturer and senior lecturer posts is actually undergoing some fairly fundamental change (and vastly more competition than before), and many of my colleagues at my previous institution just had no idea. I might add, on top of this, that at least in the UK, very little time in PhD programmes is given over to the state of ‘the market’, and what you need to do to be hired at a research intensive university. So it’s often difficult to know what is expected.

More than this the OP makes clear s/he is in a P/T position with HR telling him/her there is little chance of F/T work. S/he also has a partner and kids, and ideally–I presume–would like something better paid, and more stable. But s/he can’t quite tell from the outside what the various universities recruiting are actually like. Presumably, at some point, given the OP’s specific situation, the OP is going to have to apply elsewhere at some point–but how are they expected to gauge their potential of success?

I mean I sympathise: I’ve done recruiting, you have to wade through some pretty crap applications, and some good ones, read everything, then argue with admin over various details, argue with your colleagues and what have you. But to say the OP is being an arsehole is to ignore his/her specific situation, and the institutional context in which s/he works.

I’m tempted to shrug and say ‘these are the rules of the game’ which really leaves me feeling sour: how did we let it get to this point?


Sam 07.20.14 at 12:31 am

I’m one of those folks who could have been the OP. Started out in non-academia, went back to get my Ph.D., looked at the academic job market, ran screaming. The folks I know who have achieved any stability in academia are not living in places they’d otherwise choose to live, or making anything near what they’d like to be making. Those are two of the reasons I chose to stay out of academia. If the OP is serious about academia, I can’t see any choice other than option 4; but it sounds, as comment number 2 has somewhat indelicately (and perhaps condescendingly) put it, maybe the OP’s heart really isn’t in it. And that ‘s OK; it took me a long time to appreciate that it’s not uniquely noble, or virtuous – it’s just another kind of job.


The OP 07.21.14 at 9:38 am

maybe the OP’s heart really isn’t in it

Hmm. What I omitted to mention at the outset is that my current job is probably the best I’ve ever had; at its worst it’s in the top three. Also, this last year in particular it’s been going really well in many ways – I’m getting support for research, I’m starting to throw more left-field stuff into lectures & getting good student feedback for it, & I’ve got some great students (really looking forward to graduation). I didn’t mention any of that because there are still good reasons for me to want to look elsewhere, and it’s looking elsewhere I wanted to talk about.

Specifically, about wanting to look elsewhere. I wrote to Chris in the first place because I was aware I was feeling demotivated about job-hunting and this worried me. (A couple of commenters seem to have interpreted me as saying “I don’t really give a stuff about working in HE, should I apply for lots of jobs anyway?”; obviously, this is not how I meant to come across.) I could feel myself drifting into a sub-optimal equilibrium – on the one hand, in my current job I’m under-employed (P/T), I feel under-valued and I don’t get many chances to talk about my research; on the other hand, the work’s easy, the hours are easy, the travelling’s easy; and in any case, the last few times I’ve tried for another job they’ve said No. (Possibly the best option of the five I listed originally is somewhere I’ve previously applied to no less than four times. The first time, they shortlisted me. That stings.)

So the real question is how I get my motivation back – and what kind of motivation. Do I want to end up saying to myself “to hell with hanging on forever on a P/T contract in a teaching-focused institution – I’m getting out of here, there is a world (of HE) elsewhere, a long commute isn’t the end of the world”? Or saying “sod the lot of ’em, I can survive on a P/T salary and in the time I’ve got free I can be getting some writing and research done, which (if I’m any good) will do more to make me employable than anything else I can do”? (Most depressing comment from a personal development reviewer: “Of course, you’re an excellent teacher.” [Pause] “That goes without saying. But that’s not going to make you promotion material…”)


The OP 07.21.14 at 9:06 pm

Can I get a ping?

(Won’t do this again – I’d just like to drive an eyeball or two to #30.)


No one 07.21.14 at 10:27 pm

going for one of these posts would certainly give you a sense of where you stand now, I guess–and maybe that would motivate you. I dunno. If you don’t get anything that might be a big motivator, but it might also demotivate you big time.

You seem quite sanguine about being P/T. Your second route seems a little problematic to me: ie., sod you, I can survive on P/T *and do unpaid research in my free time*… I’m not sure if that’s what you’re saying, but ideally you want to be paid for doing that research (I always found with P/T academic work that inevitably the desire to do research means it does seep into your spare time). Meanwhile your university benefits from your unpaid labour, but denies you full time work.

As for being shortlisted the first time and rejected 3x following, it might be because in your later applications you have not shown ‘progression’, ie., more publications/ research etc etc. Which is depressing. Because to ‘progress’ in your position that would mean doing research in your spare time: see para 2.

Sorry if I’m commenting a lot on your thread. I’ve been in a similar situation and it’s got me thinking about what the hell I’m doing.


The OP 07.21.14 at 11:52 pm

The spare-time ‘research’ in Plan B would consist of reading & writing; I’d be moonlighting as an independent scholar, basically. Although I’m sure my employer would be glad to seem me getting published, that would be their only benefit from it – & to the extent it made me more employable, it would benefit me just as much. (Mind you, scoring grant money is how you really make your c.v. look good, and I’m not doing that in my spare time. BT, DT, didn’t get the grant.)

Progression – probably right. Two publications within a year of a PhD looks a lot more impressive than three within four years, even though they could be the same person – the difference between the two is that the poor sod got a teaching job…


No one 07.22.14 at 5:09 am

I don’t now remember if I answered your original 2 Qs, but on Q2–I don’t know that it is a sensible strategy. It’s the one that I took for a couple of years, altho at a guess my P/T work was more precarious than yours is. But it took a really, really long time and far too much of my own time to work my way to something more permanent (grants–BTDT, yup, didn’t get them). I ended up applying for something else that was temporary but something I still thought was out of my reach, and got it; and then used that to get something somewhere else.

My experience is that in my field the market is grim: it’s really competitive, and, returning to the progression point, you face younger academics who are ‘more’ driven with more publications–and with less constraints on their time.


Michael Sullivan 07.22.14 at 4:33 pm

I’m seeing this late, but since OP still appears to be reading, I’ll share my comment as someone who did a lot of hiring in the private sector in the US.

People interviewing and then using their offers to get better pay/promotions from their current employer isn’t something unique to HE. I had it happen often when I was recruiting. In some cases, it’s not even clear that the candidate was specifically intending to do that, just that when they gave notice, suddenly a better offer was on the table to keep them.

I do think if you are certain that no matter what happens on the interview you won’t take an offered position that it is probably rude to go anyway.

That said, the metric to use is not whether you will *probably* be willing to take the offered job, but “is it *possible* that what I learn on this interview will lead me to want this job if offered, or lead me to another future job that I want at that institution.”

I don’t begrudge people essentially networking with me by interviewing for a job they are unlikely to want, as long as it isn’t obviously a waste a time for both of us. I wouldn’t see it as practicle, I would see it as learning as much as you can about the department/institution where you are interviewing, and trying to find a possible fit there or be a potential resource to the person you are speaking with, either now or in the future. If you can go in with that attitude, and try to find ways to be helpful to that person, then it makes sense to interview almost anywhere that will have you.

I agree 100% with what a couple people said upthread, that the winning strategy to find better opportunities is a long game of building relationships within your own and associated fields. Keep in touch with people you meet at conferences, introduce people to each other, try to be helpful to as many people as you can, and be willing to put in a little time and effort to nurture the relationships with those who appreciate it or are helpful to you. If you do this, you may hear about opportunities that are never posted, or get a heads up about a posting that is literally written for you or someone like you. Even if you never hit that kind of jackpot, you may have people in key places who can get you information about various postings/institutions before you apply or interview.

One thing to pay attention to is what kind of information your current network might have about these jobs. Have you approached people that you know who are in a position to give you more information? Just the act of asking for information will let them know that you are looking and a bit about what for, which could also lead to something down the road.


Trader Joe 07.23.14 at 11:12 am

Meant to post a day or two ago, so hopefully you’re still following.

The answer all comes down to a question you were asked when you were 5 years old – What do you want to do when you grow up? If you’re not doing it yet at whatever age you are, you need to keep moving towards that end.

Perhaps you are there or at least quite close to it and that would explain a general reluctance to depart from your current comfort zone. If that’s the case – by all means keep doing it and make the necessary tweaks to improve your positon incrementally – more research time, more writing, whatever.

If you’re not doing “what you want to do when you grow up,” and the whole existence of this strand and your interest in the topic deeply suggests to me that you’re not sure that you are – you should select one or more of these opportunities and follow them to see where they lead. There has been lots of good advice about the networking advantages and other benefits to simply making sure an assortment of people know your credentials and know you are looking.

Try it different – if you were out of shape or ill and your doctor said you need to exercise 1 hour a day until you lose 20 pounds and your blood pressure comes down, you’d likely do it. Its healthy for your body and you need good health to live.

If you think your career is out of shape or ill and a career doctor said you need to exercise your contacts and get your name out there for 15 minutes a day – its healthy for your career and you need a good career to live life to the fullest – would you do it?

As noted in my initial post at 6 above – good luck. Its your career, no one will manage it but you.


The OP 07.24.14 at 9:20 am

If you’re not doing “what you want to do when you grow up,”

There’s a big question! Here’s the thing: I moved to my current (permanent but part-time) position after several years on much more unsatisfactory contracts at a much more highly-regarded university. (We are very definitely #2 in this town; if you hear someone at a party saying they work at “the university”, they don’t mean us.) I know you shouldn’t look back & all the rest of it, but there I was working with – & respected by – people with amazing bookcases who treated working hours as strictly optional & could clear an hour to talk about their current research project at the drop of a hat. Where I am now, it’s like working in an office; people come in in the morning, do paperwork, go off to teach, come back and do more paperwork, and in any time that’s left over they hang around and talk about football.

What did I want to do when I was growing up? Maybe not at the age of five, but when I was 15 I distinctly remember telling somebody I wanted to be a university lecturer. (Meeting university lecturers – and, in particular, meeting postgraduate students – scared me away from that career path for more years than I care to mention. I was right the first time, though.) But when I said ‘university lecturer’ I didn’t mean this – particularly not this on a part-time contract. (“The food here’s terrible – and such small portions!”)

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