Many recent articles and studies have highlighted the increasing number of STEM PhD degrees awarded globally each year; this stands in sharp contrast to the shrinking and highly competitive academic job market. Those who aim to continue in academia after their stint as a postdoc face a time-consuming and difficult application process before “making it” and reaching the ultimate academic goal: a tenure-track or permanent faculty position at a research university or institute.
However, even as the number of applicants has continued to increase, and the applicant pool has become ever more competitive and diverse, the hiring process has stagnated. Anecdotal information predominate the narrative on how exactly applicants are evaluated, and the combination of qualities hiring committees are searching for in the next wave of new faculty. Previous studies have called for more transparency in the process, but there is little concrete evidence to establish what makes a good faculty candidate. Consequently, potential applicants are often left to use their best judgment to navigate the job market. Fernandes and Sarabipour et al capitalize on the large pool of applicants from the 2018-2019 cycle to determine what the application process is really like through a survey posted worldwide via social media and university mailing lists. In addition, they surveyed faculty on hiring committees to see both sides of the process and determine what current faculty expect from potential new colleagues.
Remit/scope of the study
The lack of transparency and feedback on the job market makes it difficult to compete for academic positions. The respondents, applicants in the 2018-19 application cycle, were largely based in the life sciences and in North America. Over half of the respondents were successful in their faculty application (54%) and all were at the early stages of their careers.
Immediately, several important points stand out. 1) Candidates receive virtually no feedback at any stage of the entire process, either from the institutions they are applying to or their direct mentors. 2) No single metric alone guarantees a job offer, but some combination of metrics helps the applicant, such as having a higher number of citations or receiving postdoctoral and independent/transition funding (e.g. K99 in the US). Overall, hiring committees appear to be seeking more rounded candidates. 3) Contrary to a popular belief, a majority of applicants did not have any first author Cell, Nature, or Science (CNS) paper and that did not impede the success of their application. This demonstrates a clear mismatch of expectations, again pointing to a lack of information and communication. 4) Individuals who focused only on academic job applications rather than also applying for non-academic jobs were more prepared and had higher success rates. 5) Search committees see interdisciplinary research as a weakness even if such research is favoured by institutions and funding agencies. 6) Women fared better in securing fellowships but men outperformed them in all publication and citation matrixes, these are however influenced by publication practices which bias against gender.
It’s all about the future
Applicants often viewed a lack of funding and/or CNS papers as major obstacles to a successful application. However, hiring committees stated that the single most important factor in determining a successful application was the research proposal and future plans, which may surprise many potential applicants who consider other metrics more valued. Fernandes and Sarabipour et al provided good advice for applicants, stating that “trainees should avoid overreliance on any single criteria…but should instead focus on communicating why their proposed research program is of interest”. This should remove some of the pressure that applicants put on themselves whilst also providing a strong argument for more rounded career development/opportunities for trainees.
Increasing data has shown that preprints are accelerating the pace of scientific knowledge by being entirely open access and posted often together with submission to a journal (Abdill and Blekhman 2019, Fraser et al 2019). As preLighters and avid supporters of preprints, we were excited to see that both applicants and search committees viewed preprints favourably during the hiring process as a way to demonstrate scientific productivity. More than half of the applicants had posted preprints during their career, and 40% had one preprint that had not yet been published in a journal at the time of their faculty application. The increased acceptance of preprints in STEM fields, despite these manuscripts not being peer-reviewed, is a significant step forward for early career researchers in improving their chances in the job market.
Mentorship emerged as a key factor throughout the preprint. Applicants listed “poor mentorship” as one of the biggest obstacles to success with search committees listing it as essential to success. This preprint, in addition to others, highlights a clear mandate for institutional-level action to provide mentorship to all new trainees at every stage of training, not just for PhD students. Institutions should implement formal mentorships for trainees and applicants should investigate other sources of mentorship, such as the FuturePI slack channel or mentoring programmes run by various societies.
Next steps: How to shift the culture
Overall, it’s clear that the academic job search is an antiquated system and there is a dire need for increased transparency and communication in the faculty job search. More than 50% of the applicants were successful in receiving at least one job offer, but in the authors’ own words, “Of over 300 responses by job applicants, we did not receive a single positive comment on the process”. Search committees need to clarify what they value in an applicant, and current faculty need to be aware of these aspects when advising and mentoring their postdocs through the process. While most people are likely in agreement with the concept of greater transparency, the outstanding question of how the academic community can affect these changes remains. The issues highlighted by this and other studies, such as the lack of transparency and incorrect assumptions, remain in the spotlight. Unfortunately, even when the concept of change is widely accepted, academic culture still has not positively progressed to match expectations.
The key take-home is that even something as simple as a timely rejection email notification could save valuable time and stress for the applicant. As applicants spend three hours on average to personalize their application material, a few lines of feedback on the candidate’s application by the search committee will be a valuable practice in this confusing process. While providing feedback may be slightly more time-consuming to a small search committee overloaded with applicants, it makes a world of a difference to acknowledge the time, effort, and stress spent and could begin to improve applications with each year. As for the applicants themselves? This study highlights key metrics that will improve their chances in the academic job market. Further, this study provides a roadmap to early career trainees wanting to pursue an academic career.
Questions for the authors:
- Does the length of the postdoc impact success/offer rates? This is particularly relevant for overseas applicants who are applying to US-based positions.
- Can you speculate on other job markets outside of the US (or breakdown the data you currently have)? In addition, is it possible to determine if international applicants experience an advantage/disadvantage compared to home applicants in the US and other job markets?
- Lack of mentorship is a huge issue that appears in the data. Did the applicants propose any guidelines to improve mentorship?
- Search committees stated that there were too many good applicants for the number of positions, and that applicants often underperformed at the interview stage. Does this bias towards more confident, advantaged, applicants? Is there a disadvantage to female and other underrepresented minority candidates?
- How would you design a follow-up study to this? Is there potential opportunity to re-capture the same pool in the future for longitudinal studies?
- Abdill RJ, Blekhman R. Tracking the popularity and outcomes of all bioRxiv preprints. eLife 2019;8:e45133.
- Fraser N, Momeni F, Mayr P, Peters I. The effect of bioRxiv preprints on citations and altmetrics. bioRxiv 2019. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/673665.
Posted on: 8 December 2019Read preprint
Also in the scientific communication and education category:
Leadership in PhD (LeaP): a longitudinal leadership skill building program for underrepresented biomedical research trainees
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Addressing structural mentoring barriers in postdoctoral training: A qualitative study
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I Am A Scientist: Overcoming implicit bias in STEM through explicit representations of diversity in lectures
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