Random observations on the academic-scientific job search

Written without any bitterness at all
  • Maintain employable, valuable skills. Never evince any technical skills. Never casually offer to help a colleague with computer problems, etc. First you'll end up being known for that. Second, people will keep asking you to encrypt their hard-drive, build a database, etc. Third, technical matters are low status "working class" issues to academics and will lower your standing in their eyes, no matter how complex or difficult the tasks are. (This point and some of the wording borrowed from Kevin Boone.)

  • Make your job search as frictionless as possible. Don't let it take over your life. Use alerts, RSS feeds, automatic mailouts.

  • Recruiters mainly deal in the commercial / industrial sector and tend to throw a lot of random random jobs at you. But (a) they have occassional academic / government / non-commercial job, (b) some commercial jobs can be very interesting indeed, and (c) if only one-in-ten of their jobs are useful to you, it's still worth your time.

  • A large number of job opportunities (I'd guess at least a third), don't really exist. They're earmarked for someone else, there's an internal candidate, the funding isn't actually pinned down, they aren't as advertised ...

  • Once you add in jobs that are no good but that's only obvious after the application / interview (e.g. pay too low, project different to advertised, unpleasant co-workers, goalposts shifted, ineffable weirdness about job), that will cross out maybe 2/3 of all jobs.

  • ... and sometimes you have an off day, sometimes one of your interviewers is having an off day ...

  • ... but instead of being depressed, look upon this as liberating. Yes, applying to these jobs wastes your time. But your "failure" to be selected is not really your failure. It's out of your hands.

  • In any event, if you're not being rejected from most jobs you apply for, you're not aiming high enough.

  • In many ways, a job search is like dating:

    • Desperation is a turn-off. Looking like you have other opportunities and alternatives only attracts more opportunities and alternatives.
    • If they like you, you can do no wrong. If they hate you, you can do no right.
    • ... and they can like or hate you for almost random reasons.
    • That first impression (the application and interview process) is them on their best behaviour. They're never going to treat you any better.
  • Any institute that feels it has to mention a "lively social club" in job ads is admitting they're in the middle of nowhere.

  • You can learn a lot about a workplace just by looking at their kitchen.

  • If your job title includes the words "manager" or "coordinator" or "administrator" but you're not actually managing / administrating / coordinating people and have no formal management / administration / coordination / powers, beware.

  • As the old saying goes, if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.

  • To paraphrase Emma Kennedy, according to stats, 3.5% of PhD's will end up in an academic job and 0.45% end up as Professors. An academic career is already your Plan B. Have you got a Plan A?

  • If a job description mentions an unpleasant or irritating task (e.g. sysadmin, register new users, training) that is only supposed to take up a small part of your time, it will actually grow to encompass almost all of your time.

  • There's so much godawful advice about CVs out there that I can only counteract the most egregious points. So:

    • Keep it professional, no one's interested in your hobbies or personal life
    • Reverse chronological format, role-focused
    • Short, bullet points, lots of headings or sections
    • Keep a master version but tailor it to every application
  • Senior academics will often wring their hands and bleat that HR won't let them advertise the job they want / give you the right salary / employ you long-term etc. I'm torn between wondering (a) who is really running universities and (b) whether HR is just a convenient scapegoat.

  • Having said that, what is it about university HR departments that they see a job description for a research software engineer / bioinformatician / computational scientist, and feel compelled to label the position "data manager", "web developer" or some other random IT title? In fact, why should HR even care what a job is called as long as funding is provided for it?

  • You'll see people showing up to interviews in comfy jumpers, T shirts or even jeans. They're usually internal candidates. Don't try this yourself.

  • You can find out a lot in an interview just by flat-out asking, "What's the big problem here? What's the worse thing about working here?"

  • Join your local union. It doesn't cost much and basically serves as insurance for Bad Job Stuff. If you need it, you'll be grateful.

  • If an employer brags about their "generous" salaries but makes it hard to find out exactly what it is, this doesn't inspire confidence.

  • A job application, interview and offer are transactions. What are you offering? What are they offering? is that good enough? Be prepared to walk away.

  • A phrase that you can safely ignore or mentally elide is in the first instance. For example: "Funding is for 9 months in the first instance" means "Funding is for 9 months".

  • Universities keep advertising jobs with a salary band and then insisting they have a "policy" of appointing at the bottom of the band. In which case, the advertised band is essentially a lie.

  • If you're the only acceptable candidate that applied for a position, there's something wrong with the job.

  • Modesty is not career enhancing. Narcissistic grandiosity sometimes is. Go figure.

  • "Unfortunately your application was unsuccessful. We had many excellent candidates ...": Feedback is essentially bullshit and an ass-covering exercise where the employer seeks to post facto justify why they selected the person they did.

  • If you're employed on a support or technical band, you'll still be expected to work scientist hours, just without any of the benefits or recognition.

  • Time is a strange thing. Some jobs take months to accept applications, shortlist, interview and make an offer. Others can do it in weeks. Both will expect you to be waiting, available and eager to instantly leap at their callmail.

  • Get and check your contract before the first day. Always.