Tomorrow is my last day with Max Planck - day after, I will join King's College London. This is exciting in many ways - and it will be the first time that I am permanently employed. In academia, this means I won the jackpot, cracked the lottery. How did I do it? That's what today's post is about. Four insights:
The first truth is that I did not do it. Means I did not crack the lottery - I just got lucky. After 68 permutations, resulting in six shortlists and 67 rejections. Consequently, the most important lesson of the last two years is that the faculty job market is completely crazy. Does excellence count? Yes. Do publications count? Oh yes (but not in Germany - see below). Is teaching really irrelevant? Sadly yes, at many places (luckily not at King's). Do you have to network? But of course. Do you need to fit the expected profile? Kind of, but not always.
But the bottom line remains: none of that guarantees a job. The competition is just way too intense. The kinds of jobs that I targeted - entry-level but permanent or tenure-track faculty positions - routinely attract well over a hundred applications. Up to four hundred in one case that I got to hear about - and that was the exception: a six-month postdoc. Not everybody will be qualified, but assume that at least ten people will be perfectly capable of doing the job. They will fit excellently, publish frequently and high-profile, be engaged teachers, and only a few years out of the PhD. Who among them gets invited is a matter of chance. Who gets appointed, too. That does not mean that one should stop being productive - to the contrary. But productivity only gets you so far - and often not even half into the door.
What this means is, secondly, that I firmly advise to apply early and often. Of course only to positions that look like a reasonable fit. But cast your net wide. Draft multiple versions of your short (!) application materials, adjust them to each new job opening in your field (initially, this will take a day - in the end, it took me an hour per application). And send them off. One by one, and then the next one. That's the only way you gain traction, will eventually be invited, can practice interviews, and - if you are as lucky as I got - you eventually may win the jackpot. One could assume that an overcrowded market means that only those who perfectly fit the job ad get lucky. The opposite is true: an overcrowded market and overworked selection panels often mean more randomness in the whole process. I got interviewed in religious studies, big data, south asian studies, religious studies again, sociology and finally development studies - where I landed. Yes, I had something to say to all these fields. But no, I wasn't an expert fit in any of them.
Thirdly, therefore, I think it is important to do what you believe in. Not necessarily because it would get you closer to a job (though conviction in interviews is an important part of an effective habitus). To the contrary: because, if nothing gets you much closer to a job, you may as well decide to do something that you really, really, really love. Because that will at least keep up the morale. And that's important. For most of my job search, I was stay-at-home dad. Kids are a great way to boost morale (and if that fails, I had the privilege of being married to a licensed psychotherapist). You will have your own method, but do not underestimate how psychologically crushing it is to be rejected. Not once or twice, as may happen wih a paper - but over 60 times. Basically once a week for a whole year (though sometimes the letter come en bloc, which can make it either harder or easier).
Last but not least, do your homework. Practice your job talks. Get acquainted with the various systems and conventions at the places you are applying to. The UK values brevity and factuality. The Netherlands value students (partly because they determine departmental budgets) and teamwork. Denmark values internationality. Germany values patronage (no matter what else you may here about excellence - more on this in a later post). All systems that I encountered valued a clear research agenda, many high-quality publications, and a well-networked and collegial personality. None really wanted to see more than a basic ability to teach. If your CV contains only book reviews, or page after page of adjuncting, you got your priorities wrong - which will be noticed. Always perform for the job that you want to get, and get out of the grad student habitus (unless in Germany - again more on this later).
That's my two cents for today: the market is brutal, and hence random, hence you should apply as often as you can, and can do whatever you like, because that will keep you mentally sane - and allow you to do your homework. I may amend this post as time passes - but now, I am very excited to leave all this behind me, and dive into the next big adventure. May it last forever!