For those PhDs graduating in the past couple of years (myself among them), competition has been fierce, with chances of a landing a full time permanent post becoming increasingly slimmer. My initial approach was to ‘spray gun’ applications in the direction of anything that cropped up, from teaching fellowships to postdocs to short-term research grants, motivated by the dread of being out of work or worse, unaffiliated. After a year of silences, rejections and a spate of unsuccessful interviews, I found myself weakened and deflated by the experience, and unsure about my future in academia.
My way out of this forest of failure (both real and perceived) was by an easier path – that of lowered expectations. The advantage of exhaustion and disillusion is that you find yourself avoiding high-anxiety situations (such as application writing and interviews), and it becomes possible to give up, at least in the short term. This allowed me to sit back, regain my strength, and think realistically about what I want to do, what my strengths are, and which jobs meet these criteria.
Many of us have learned the hard way that eligibility does not mean ticking all the essential, or even desirable, boxes. It means having an edge: access to insider information, a glowing reference from a high-profile person, or a previous track record with the department in question. Many times your fate has been decided even before you press the submit button, with internal candidates having already been earmarked for selection.
I’m not writing this to be discouraging, but to drive home an important point. When the odds are stacked against you, being ‘on your game’ is essential to standing a chance. The fatigue that sets in after months of consecutive applications (involving trawling through reams of guidelines, soliciting yet more reference letters, copy editing until your eyes start to cross, wrestling with online submission form, waiting endlessly for responses… need I go on?), does not leave you operating at your full potential.
My advice, while it runs contrary to the popular view of increasing your chances in proportion to the number of applications you submit, is to take your foot off the gas. Not to coast, but to minimise all the thinking, anticipation and stress that inevitably comes with job searching. Learn to strategically manage your expectations by considering the following:
1. Be careful what you wish for
Think seriously and honestly about what you want. Can you see yourself doing the job, and is it the right step for you at this stage of your career or personal life? The pressure to find a job can cause knee-jerk, dishonest applications that are either doomed to fail, or worse, could land you in a position that makes you unhappy. If you feel disheartened or apprehensive when writing an application, it’s usually a sign that it isn’t the right fit. If there are better options, focus your energy on them.
2. Find the right fit
Read job descriptions slowly and carefully, looking for words that stand out as particularly relevant to your skill set, specialism and experience. If there are criteria that you will have to stretch to fulfil, chances are there are others out there that can meet them without trying so hard. Save your strength, and narrow down your applications.
3. Manage your time and energy
Do not underestimate the hours of work (and aforementioned stress) that comes with application writing. Once you know which jobs you are applying for, list your deadlines and put aside enough time to work on them steadily and with your full attention. Selection committees can tell the difference between hasty cutting-and-pasting and a carefully worded application that has been catered to the person specification. The latter takes time and effort, and is therefore much more likely to get their attention.
4. Play the long game
Unsuccessful applications and interviews are not always dead-ends; they can often lead to invaluable contacts and networks. It is the quality of first impressions that count, whether on paper or in person, and it is well worth following up for feedback when available, or touching base with departments in the months following an interview – you may be offered work further down the road.
5. Give yourself a break
I, for one, believe there is more to life than writing applications. If deadlines are piling up and you are feeling frazzled, liberate yourself and let a few opportunities pass you by. Rather than forcing out a mediocre submission at the last minute that does you and your work little justice, you’ll live to fight another day in the academic job market. Often, it’s exactly the point when you stop straining that opportunities arise.