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"Apply to everything" is terrible advice

May 12, 2017

 

Being on the job market is stressful. There are a limited number of jobs and many, many applicants. So, how should you go about applying for jobs? One piece of “terrible advice” that made the rounds recently is that you should apply to everything. This advice came, most recently, from an article by Jeremy Yoder (@JBYoder) describing his path to getting a tenure track position. First of all, huge congratulations to Jeremy! I am glad he shared his experience and I am super happy he got a job at a fantastic place! This is by no means a criticism of him. He didn’t think up this piece of “terrible advice”, I have heard it a lot of places. When I was a post-doc at Washington University at St. Louis, I was chatting with someone after a seminar and I said I had applied to 5 jobs this season and this person told me “you need to apply to more jobs, I applied to 75”.

 

What frustrates me about this the advice (and what was the impetuous for this blog), is that it leads people to think that this is the only approach to get a job. If you read through the twitter comments on Jeremy’s (@JBYoder) post, among all the well-deserved congratulations you’ll see things like:  

 

“so this is what I need to do to get a job”.

 

“I think this should be put on the first page of every single PHD program handbook”

 

“Nice to see what I need for the future, even if it is pretty daunting!”

 

“Wow. Good to know I have another decade of research to go before landing a tenure position. *weeps uncontrollably*”

 

“this is scary”

 

It’s comments like these that frustrate me. I feel that we often do not get to see the full picture and we rely on anecdotes. More often than not (in my opinion) these anecdotes focus on the outliers, not the mean. Sharing your experience is great, but it is your experience. You can’t generalize from a sample size of 1 [side note - If you are a new parent like me, you will find it funny/annoying how many parents generalize based on their sample size of 1 or 2] and I would argue that basing any advice off of a sample size of 1 is “terrible advice”. Apply to everything isn’t the only way to get a job in academia, please don’t think that you have to apply to 100+ jobs. You don't. I did a small poll on twitter and asked how many jobs people applied to before getting a Tenure Track position. While it only had 44 responses, 48% applied to 1-10 jobs, 36% applied to 11-50 jobs, 9% applied to 51-100 jobs, and only 7% applied to over 100 jobs. The majority of people applied to 10 or fewer positions. You don’t have to Apply to everything to get a job, but it is one approach.

 

So, let’s contrast Jeremy’s experience (Apply to everything) with my experience (Apply to a few).

 

  • Over a two-year period, he applied to 112 job, had 17 interviews, 11 campus visits, and 3 offers. Prior to the two years highlighted in his article he applied to 44 additional positions for a grand total of 156 positions.

 

  • Over two years I applied to 13 jobs, had 3 interviews, 2 campus visits, and 1 offer. Prior to those last two years I applied to 7 positions for a grand total of 20 positions.

 

Why are our numbers so different? I am not a better scientist (full stop). Jeremy has more publications, a higher h-index, we were post docs for a similar amount of time. The difference comes down to a difference in approaches. As Elizabeth Sbrocco (@EJSbrocco) nicely put it “it’s like k-selection vs. r-selection”. Both Jeremy and I got tenure track jobs, so the question remains - is one approach better than the other? “Apply to everything” worked for Jeremy and “Apply to a few” worked for me. Let’s break these two approaches down a little.

 

Applying to an academic job takes a lot of time. My first year as a post-doc I applied to one job. I knew I wasn’t ready, but it was a dream job at the time (TT alpine ecologist at University of Denver) so why not? Putting together my first application materials took a long time and looking back on them now, they are garbage. Here is my first research statement and here is the one that got me the job at UC-Riverside. That first one is basically a list of what I have done. Still, it took me a few weeks to put my application materials together. Of course I worked on other things, but I still put many hours into this. As I became more experienced over the years I refined my materials, but putting everything together still took a lot of time. Even this last job season applying to each different position, with a slightly different call, meant tailoring my application materials to the call. Last year, the positions I applied to were listed as: Conservation biologist, Integrative plant biology, Environmental science, Terrestrial ecologist, Ecologist, Climate change biologist, Quantitative Ecologist, and Ecologist. Most of these are pretty different and required me to tweak my research statement to focus on slightly different aspects of my research. I also looked at the faculty in the department I was applying to, to make sure there wasn’t too much overlap between my work and someone else’s work – no one wants a redundant hire. For the teaching statements, I also took time to see what courses were offered at each institution, what gaps I could fill, what service courses (big bio major’s classes) I could help with. For all institutions, I looked at existing outreach activities and if there were any I could participate in.

 

Long story short, I did my homework and tailored my materials to each job call. The last two years of my job search I had my application materials pretty well refined, but I estimate that I still spent between 3 and 5 hours on each application (let’s say an average of 4 hours). This is a rough estimate and I may have spent longer or shorter, but let’s just use this number to do a little arithmetic - let’s compare time investment between the Apply to everything and the Apply to a few approach using our two case studies (Jeremy and I)

  • Apply to many – 112 applications x 4 hours/application = 448 hours (assuming a 40-hour work week = 11 weeks and 1 day)

  • Apply to few – 13 application x 4 hours/application = 52 hours (assuming a 40-hour work week = 1 week and 1.5 days)

Let that sink in for a minute…almost 3 months spent just on job applications going with the Apply to everything approach. The difference between the two approaches is 396 hours. I am not going to advise you on how to spend your time. But those 396 hours could be spent writing manuscripts, writing grants, mentoring, outreach, all of which improve your chances of getting a job. Personally, I spent 319 of those hours playing the video game Destiny (a fantastic way to kill some time and relax if anyone is looking for a new hobby).

 

Was this the “best” use of my time? Probably not. Do I regret spending my time this way? Absolutely not. For me, applying to 100+ jobs was too daunting of a time commitment. On top of those applications you still need to do everything else: research, grant applications, manuscripts, mentoring, outreach, going to seminars, sleeping, eating, relaxing, breathing. There is a trade-off, the more time you spend on applications, the less time you have for other things. And since you need manuscripts, grants, teaching, outreach, etc. to get a job, I would imagine the things you end up sacrificing are exercise, spending time on hobbies, non-work relationships, sleep. That is a trade-off I do not want to make. That doesn’t mean it is wrong. If this is how you want to spend your time, don’t let anyone make you feel bad for spending it that way. Just, don’t think that it is the only way to a tenure track position. 

 

So, the Apply to everything approach is a huge time commitment. On the other hand, I spent 5 years as a post-doc going with the Apply to a few approach. Not everyone has the luxury or willingness to wait that long. If you need a job soon due to personal or professional reasons, then you will probably have better luck landing a job if you apply to as many positions as possible. I was a bit more restrictive on where I applied geographically (mostly in the west – 8 of the 20 jobs I applied to were in CA), and I largely (though not exclusively) applied to “R1” schools. I may have been able to get a job sooner, had I applied more broadly, but I was willing to wait a bit longer. Not everyone is willing to wait, or can wait. Take some time and think about where you are and where you want to go. For me, it was helpful to develop my research program a bit more, but others may have it figured out better than I did. There are some people are able to Apply to a few and get a job right away. Just because you Apply to a few, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be on the market a long time. It all depends on your CV and the ever-hard to define “fit” for the position.

 

The other thing about the Apply to everything approach that I am not sure would work for me is the incredible amount of rejection. Getting rejected as many time as Jeremy did takes a pretty thick skin. We all have different capacities for dealing with rejection, and as you think about which approach you want to really reflect on your capacity to absorb that much rejection. It can be rough. “Rejection is the rule” in academia, so yes, we all deal with some rejection on a regular basis, but if you have trouble with this, really think about how it will affect you. In 2005, a study found that 10 percent of graduate and professional students at the University of California at Berkeley had contemplated suicide. Depression is a serious condition that affects a lot of academics (grad students, post-docs, faculty), so don’t take this lightly. Meghan Duffy has a nice post about this.

 

One last thing is that the number of jobs I applied to increased over time.

 

While I never really made the switch to the Apply to everything approach, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people started with the Apply to a few approach and slowly transitioned to the Apply to everything approach. The more applications you put together, the less time investment on each application.  You don’t have to commit to one approach, you can be flexible and try different things and see what works for you.

 

So, in the end which approach is better? I can’t (and shouldn’t) answer that question for you. I can leave you with a few questions:

  • Do you have the time to commit to Apply to everything, or will you increase you odds of landing a job by spending that time writing grants or manuscripts (this will likely vary depending what stage you are at)?

  • How much rejection can you handle? If it starts to weigh you down, talk to someone.

  • Do you feel like you have a well thought out research program for the next 5-10 years? If not maybe take the time to figure that out before applying.

  • Do you need stable employment soon, or can it wait a while?

  • Do you care where you live?

Honestly answering these questions (there are probably more I am not thinking of) should help you decide. There are many paths to success and a to tenure track position. I have highlighted a few of the differences between the Apply to everything and the Apply to a few approaches. Importantly, BOTH CAN LEAD TO A TENURE TRACK JOB. If you are on the job market, or going to be soon, take some time and think about which approach would work best for you. Both approaches have pros and cons and these two approaches are two ends of the spectrum “r vs. k selection”. There is also a middle ground between the two. My one recommendation is to start early on your job materials and to have your mentors and colleagues give you feedback. It takes a long time to write a good application and you can start putting it all together even if you aren’t applying for a job soon.

 

The next piece of “terrible advice” to tackle is “work more” - brought to you a R1 university in the Midwest whose Graduate Polices include the following text “Most academics devote 60+ hours a week; students should expect to devote similar hours. Consequently, students should expect to be engaged in their academic pursuits on occasions at night and during weekends.”

 

 

 

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