Prospective Professor: Against All Odds

[Editor’s note: another guest blogger has joined our team…]

Posted on behalf of the Prospective Professor:

After eleven years of being entrenched in higher education, I am finally making a break for it. It’s my big moment to chase my wildest professional dreams! Yes, I am looking for my first job… But instead of being deterred after many years of late night studying, failed and repeated (and repeated and repeated) experiments and even after writing that several hundred page thesis (ugh!) I find myself overwhelmingly drawn to the world in which I have been trained. That’s right, I plan to be a professor.

I am currently a post-doc working in a chemical biology lab. Earlier this year, my advisor and I decided that I was ready to start the search for my independent position. Since then, I have attempted to gather as much information as possible about the academic job search process. Despite my best efforts, I’ve only been able to accumulate a collection of rumors, hearsay, and gossip. A few weeks ago, I was lamenting to a friend about the lack of information for those of use who have chosen to pursue a professorship, “Wouldn’t it have been helpful if someone had documented this whole crazy process??” Two days later, I got an email asking me to do just that. So, I hope that I will be able to offer some useful information, tips, and impressions as I make my way to the ultimate destination – a research laboratory of my own.

The first question to ask is: how do I find the open positions? I have been most dependent upon the job search engines available on the websites of a number of journals. For example, see Nature, Chemical & Engineering News, Science, and Cell. As far as I know, these sites post the same jobs that are printed at the back of each journal. However, the online postings appear up to a week before the print version. I have also used several other websites including ChemJobs and Academic Keys.

With each job posting, I was filled with both excitement and dread. I was simultaneously amazed at how many jobs I could apply for and terrified at the thought of attempting to decide which schools were the best fit for me. There are so many variables to consider, from the reputation and funding record of the department to the location and size of the university. And then there was that quiet (and often not-so-quiet) voice inside my head saying, “But what if you don’t get a job?! You must apply for ANYTHING and EVERYTHING!”

The rumor mill tells me that for every open position there can be from 100 to 1,000 (and possibly more??) applicants. So each of us must find the balance between having confidence in our academic record and being practical about the level of competition. I’ve heard rumors of people who have applied to more than 100 positions and I’ve also heard tales of the bold scientist that applied to only one. Personally, I feel a bit like I am playing the lottery. How many jobs do I have to apply for to guarantee that I will get an offer? Not surprisingly, I’ve concluded it’s rather difficult to play the odds when I have no idea what the odds are.

In the end, I have decided to apply only for the positions that I could actually see myself accepting. This might seem obvious, but trust me, that not-so-quiet voice can be rather difficult to drown out. For me, the magic number is 43. Only time will tell if I have correctly predicted the probably of success.

(ed’s note: I also found the Chronicle of Higher Education helpful in my job searching.)