opinion
13 mins read 08 Oct 2020

Your guide to navigating the academic job market: Part One

One of the biggest challenges of working in academia, especially astronomy, is finding a job. The process can seem overwhelming to begin with, especially when you are first confronted with preparing application materials and even just finding jobs to apply to.

Lots of institutions are now offering more advice and workshops when it comes to putting together job applications. However, I think for many people interested in an academic job, finding good quality information and advice when it comes to the academic job market depends very much on having the right supervisor or mentor, or being in the right place at the right time.

I’m indebted to the advice I’ve received from multiple people over the years, including my supervisors, and the resources provided by a number of individuals including Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn, Professor Bryan Gaensler and Professor Sarah Maddison, and Professor Sera Markoff. I was fortunate to receive and come across this advice when I did, and ever since I’ve felt the need to make sure more people have access to the kind of advice I got. I wouldn’t have been able to navigate the job market as successfully without the insights these people were able to give me.

This series is written from an Australian perspective, for Australian students who may not be familiar with the ins and outs of how finding a job in academia works, just as I was. I’m sure it would also serve well for people all over the world. It is based on an amalgamation of advice I have received that served me well, and my own personal experience and opinions borne out of that experience. I encourage you to seek more opinions and develop some of your own, that you can eventually pass on to your own students and mentees. 

Happy hunting!

Timing

Whether you look on it as a positive or negative, a large part of success in finding an academic job depends on timing and good fortune. While you cannot control exactly which jobs will be posted, and whether there are suitable jobs for you to apply for, you can prepare yourself to take up opportunities when they arise. 

The majority of academic jobs are posted to job registers in the Northern Hemisphere autumn (late August - December) with the role commencing between March and September the following year (although start dates can be quite negotiable). Ideally you should start your job search as soon as you become competitive - for most Australian students who have at least a paper published or submitted, and on arXiv, the job search begins in their third year of their PhD. 

However, there is no harm in getting the feel for the job market earlier - I would recommend that students familiarize themselves with the job registers toward the end of the first 18 months of their PhD, and you may seriously want to consider sending out feelers to academics you would be interested in working with via email or a visit to an institution around the two-year mark. 

One of the surprising advantages of COVID is that it has opened up institutional visits to more people. Many institutions are now conducting their seminar series via Zoom or other teleconferencing software. Visiting institutions to give seminars has always been the primary way of advertising your wares as an academic, and you may wish to discuss with your supervisor or mentor some suitable institutions to approach about giving a virtual seminar and online meetings with potential future employers. 

Proactively approaching institutions to give a seminar is just one method of creating your own luck. I’ll highlight a few other ways throughout this series.

Beginning the Search

Before you even begin to look at the job register, it’s important to understand what you actually want. If you have peeped at the job registers, now is the time to expunge all memory of what you read from your mind. Spend some time thinking about what your dream job would actually involve. Here are some questions to get you started - think generally, not in terms of a specific research topic:

  • What would your day at work look like? What time do you start and finish? What do you spend your day doing?

  • Are you working in a team? What does this actually look like?

  • Do you supervise students or spend time teaching and preparing lectures?

  • Are you writing or programming? Applying for grants? 

  • How much time do you get to spend with your family and friends? 

The next thing to do is to realistically take stock of the skills you have. List them into 3 categories: highly proficient, pretty good, in development. You can add a fourth too, which may be helpful: skills I want to learn. Again, keep your list non-specific. For example, if you list data reduction, try to break it down into what this actually involves (calibration of CCD data, source extraction). Having a good grasp of what skills you apply in your current work can give you a very good idea of the breadth of different jobs that you could do, in academia and beyond.

Finally, I suggest you make a list of things you feel define you outside of your work. Include things like your hobbies (including ones you want to take up when you have more time), what makes you who you are (NOT work related! I know it’s hard but trust me). You can even get friends and family to write a sentence about what they love about you. Print out any emails you have where your supervisor complimented your work, or affirmed your ability. Write a list of friends you made at conferences. Do not throw this list away. You’ll need it later. Even if you aren’t applying for jobs, I recommend sitting down and doing this semi-regularly.

Only now are you ready to start considering the actual available jobs.

A WORD OF CAUTION ABOUT THE RUMOR MILL

The astro rumor mill is a website (that I will not link, but can easily be found via Google) that was started with predominantly good intentions many years ago as a consequence of a lack of transparency in the (mostly US) job market. It has a non-exhaustive list of current openings scraped from the AAS job register, and crowd-sourced information about the progress of the application process.  This includes listing of the names of shortlisted applicants, expected dates an offer will be made, and the eventual names of those who receive an offer listed in bold font. 

I chose to avoid it and would advise you to do so too, for the sake of your own mental health. It frequently seems to be the location for the embiggening of egos, is extremely US-centric, and compulsive checking can lead down the path of anxiety. If in doubt about the status of your application, you are far better contacting those actually involved in the recruitment process. A polite enquiry around 1 month post-application or 2 weeks post-interview will serve better than continually refreshing a crowd-sourced form. Just don’t constantly ask for updates - one email will suffice!

Stop! Admin Time!

Start with some basic facts about the status of your PhD. You may need to discuss this with your supervisors. Have an idea of when you expect to submit your thesis, and when you expect your degree to be conferred/pass your viva, defense or oral exam. Some jobs will require a PhD in hand by the application date, others will require it by the expected start date (which can be negotiated sometimes). 

Now comes the admin. Prepare to feel like you are herding cats. One thing is universal for job applications - you need recommendation letter writers. Try and contact them early - around one to two months before you intend to start applying, and prepare to send many follow-up emails.

While the current times make this tricky, when asking someone to write you a letter have a face to face conversation. The best way to enquire about the letter is to ask something along the lines of “are you able to write me a strong letter of recommendation for academic jobs this year?”. If someone cannot give you a strong letter, you may be best finding an alternative letter writer. 

Find 3-5 letter writers - your main supervisor, other members of your supervisory panel, or senior people who know you well and have worked with you. Depending on the jobs you choose to apply for, some may be better suited to describing your skills and ability than others (for example, if you did theory work with Prof A, and then some observations with Prof B, and you apply to do a job that is observation-based, Prof B. is a better choice of letter writer when it comes to describing your skills).

Lots of people will recommend finding a ‘famous face’ to write you a letter, especially for sought-after fellowships. Get the advice of your main advisor, but my opinion is that a good letter from your main supervisor is worth more than a half-baked letter from someone who slept through your conference presentation at the IAU General Assembly.

But where do I find these jobs?

There are generally two different ‘flavors’ of academic jobs for recent PhD graduates: fellowships (which tend to be more independent and require you to propose a specific topic of research in collaboration with someone senior at an institution of your choice or the institution offering the fellowship) and postdoctoral positions with pre-defined project descriptions. 

Australian positions may advertise specifically for a ‘level A/B’ position, which can seem confusing for the uninitiated. In Australia, your first job will probably be at ‘level A’, or ‘A7’. Academic jobs are ranked in seniority and graded in pay by letters A (entry postdoc) through E (full professor), with sublevels for different pay grades within each ‘letter’. The exact pay differs slightly from university to university, and most universities publicly disclose this information on their websites. 

Via a highly scientific polling of the astronomy community on twitter, the overwhelming answer is that the job ads were found on the AAS Job Register. Most fellowships will be here - some Australian institutions have even taken to advertising ARC Future Fellowships and DECRAs on this board in recent years. This is the largest collection of astronomy jobs that I am aware of. In high-energy physics and particle astrophysics, INSPIRE-HeP is another common source. 

Other places to look include Academic Jobs Online (common in Canada, it seems), university websites (where I found my current job, and common for university fellowships like the Sydney University Research Fellowship (note link is to an old round) and the Macquarie Research Fellowship) and mailing lists like the Astronomical Society of  Australia (ASA) or the Royal Astronomical  Society (RAS, the UK equivalent) mailing list. For the mailing lists, you must be a paying member of the society.

Earlier I also mentioned creating your own luck. A judicious use of cold email can sometimes result in finding out about a job you otherwise wouldn’t, however it needs to be used carefully. Do not scatter-gun a large number of people with a generic ‘to whom it may concern, I would like a job. Do you have any?’ email (which happens a lot). 

Target specific people (no more than 3-5) who you are interested in working with and whose work you find interesting. Email each individually (do not mass-CC people into the same email), with a short description of who you are if they don’t know you, state that you are on the job market and ask if they anticipate having any openings in the near future. While there is no 100% guarantee that this will generate a job, people may know of someone else who is hiring and point you in the right direction.

Organise your search

Once you start reading job ads, create a spreadsheet or similar document that is kept online (e.g. DropBox or Google Drive) and can be accessed by yourself and anyone else involved in your applications (your letter writers, for example). Include columns for a link to the advert, the due date, the name an email of the contact point for the job (try and get the actual person doing the advertising, not the generic HR person), columns to say whether you need a CV, cover letter, publication list, research statement, and teaching and diversity statements if they are required.

Prepare to ignore the ‘weird flex’-ers at work and on social media. It doesn’t matter if someone worked for 3 months on an app and it wasn’t long enough and they advocate doing the same, or that someone is being invited to apply for a position at university X. Writing time is individual, and a casual invitation to apply somewhere does not equate to being offered the position. At the end of the day, the process is about you. Some people are trying to bolster their self-esteem during a process that is pretty exposing (haven’t we all), some are genuinely excited, others are just trying to help. Try to look at everyone else going through the process with empathy, but avoid direct comparisons and be selective with the advice you choose to follow.

When it comes to preparing your application, focus on the things you can change. There is no point fixating on only having one publication if you aren’t imminently submitting several more, or the fact you haven’t served on multiple time-sink committees. Metrics like h-index are notoriously poor at capturing research ability and are more dependent on size of field and the number of years since your first publication than publication quality. Try not to focus too much on metrics and numbers, and instead focus on the quality of application materials, how you answer the selection criteria, and your performance in interviews. 

In the next article, I will discuss just how to write your application to improve your chances of making the short-list and getting the job you want.

Dr. Fiona Panther

It’s easy to use the things we learn and hear on a daily basis to come to a conclusion when given time to mull over the facts, but what if you needed to share your conclusion with the world within seconds of hearing new information?

Dr Fiona Panther is an expert at using computers to do exactly this. As a gravitational wave astronomer at the University of Western Australia, she is part of a team of scientists who try to identify gravitational wave signals in real time and send alerts to tell astronomers around the world that black holes and neutron stars are merging. 

Fiona received her PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the Australian National University in 2019. She is fascinated by how we use information to draw conclusions about our Universe, and how we quantify uncertainty. Fiona is passionate about getting everyone involved in science, whether it be through school visits, public talks or by working to break down the barriers to STEM careers many face, particularly in academia. 

Twitter: @FiPanther