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Career Advice

How job hunting criteria are ever-changing

Dealing with puzzling advice from fellow colleagues.


As I prepare applications for research and teaching positions, I have received both positive support from colleagues in my field (health research) and plenty of career advice. These recommendations have generally fallen into three categories:

  • Publish more
  • Get funding
  • Build partnerships

With these themes in mind, I’ve been puzzling through some of the confusing aspects of being in the midst of one of the toughest academic job markets.

Publish more
This is probably the most common piece of advice I’ve heard. The “publish more” mantra stems from the fact that people who are currently looking for academic appointments have CVs that were once good enough to be awarded tenure. The trouble is that no one can tell you how many “lines” your CV ought to have to be competitive. Some have told me that five articles is good, while others have said “all you need is one good piece.” It seems that what people mean by “one good piece” is actually one piece in a well-regarded publication; the prestige of the publication venue usually trumps quantity. And, one could make a pertinent, timely contribution to a major debate in the field, but if it is published in an edited collection of papers on a trade press, it likely won’t matter to a search committee as much as an article in a prestigious journal. This advice can seem confusing at first, as it doesn’t focus exclusively on the quality of the candidate’s contributions, and quantity isn’t the ultimate measure of success either.

Get funding
There seem to be expectations that people who have held postdoctoral fellowships are more likely to be successful in research grant competitions later in their careers as a faculty member, and thus will be an asset (financially) to the university. When I started graduate school, we were told that having funding during graduate training would be enough to appeal to the job market. Five years later, an extra step has been added – the ability to secure funding to conduct a research project after PhD graduation. Although I haven’t seen any job ads in my field that say that a postdoc is required, many people have told me that “this is the way to go.” This advice, however, suggests that a candidate’s desirability to search committees could be about both their credentials and revenue potential. Some consider the postdoc as another qualification – like additional training or education, which it certainly does offer – but the perceived value of candidates into the future may be a priority for administrators as well.

Build partnerships
Becoming involved in professional and community-based activities provides not only exposure for one’s work, but also a way to make knowledge contributions from outside an academic appointment. I’m not quite sure how these engagements are weighed in any singular job competition. I have heard about the need to build partnerships that will provide new and creative ways of securing funding. Furthermore, the actual effects of knowledge are considered important to measure. By demonstrating that they have a relationship with “knowledge users,” candidates can show that their work has “real world” value. This puts some disciplines at a disadvantage: not all research has an industrial application. As a researcher who is vehemently interested in public sociology – which brings sociological knowledge into the public sphere to create social change – I do not mean to dismiss the usefulness of knowledge. Instead, I wonder if “relevance of research” is held in higher regard than asking new and critical questions.

You might notice that I have not been given much advice about developing or improving my teaching, which I find curious. Survey data about the professorial division of labour has shown that full-time professors spend most of their time, on average, designing courses and curricula, preparing and giving lectures, and grading student work. I have often been told that I have enough teaching experience for the current market, and that I should focus my energies on the three activities above. It makes me wonder how much merit is given by committees for teaching experience and effectiveness in the classroom.

I suppose the take-away from all this is that there is a lot of speculation going on in the current academic job market, as we attempt to listen to and apply the advice we’ve been given. I understand that no one thing will be the sure-fire way to land a job. Despite the difficult job market, I have embraced the intellectual journey. I may never land the ideal position, but I can enjoy the projects that I create, the things that I write, and the relationships that I develop along the way.

Ariane Hanemaayer is an instructor in the department of sociology at McMaster University.

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  1. Jo VanEvery / February 20, 2015 at 14:15

    The job market is HIGHLY competitive. That’s why the bar keeps rising. No one can tell you how many publications, or make a post-doc a requirement, but the chances that those things will distinguish you from other candidates are pretty good.

    Also, the point about WHERE you publish is largely related to likely impact. It is harder to find a piece published in a book than in a journal because journals are abstracted and indexed. Given that everyone has a long to-read list, the prestige of the journal may well move you up that list and thus increase the likelihood that your publication will be read. Being read is the first step to making a contribution to the field.

    All very frustrating.

    And if universities valued teaching, they wouldn’t be delivering the vast majority of it by hiring temporary, poorly paid, sessionals to do it. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way. But your advisors are probably right that you have enough teaching experience.

  2. Reuben Kaufman / February 21, 2015 at 12:25

    Actually, when I look at the advice that you have been given, I don’t think that the bar has raised very much, if at all, since the early 1970s when I was actively looking for the academic position (biological sciences) I held from 1977 until I retired just a few years ago. I remember distinctly being advised to not bother applying for a university post unless I got at least a few years of postdoctoral experience under my belt and published at least X papers in solid journals (and this long before the era of journal impact factors!).

    In later years, I was told that having had my postdoctoral experience in England and Switzerland (i.e., outside Canada) was a positive factor as well. I would strongly recommend overseas experience if possible, not for any effect it may (or may not) have on making the shortlists back home, but for how it so much broadens one’s outlook on the world. I would not trade in those 5.5 years overseas for ANYTHING!

    “Building partnerships” was not mentioned back then, but from how you describe it in the article, it would surprise me that this would be much of a factor today either. Unless this is a distinction between the sciences and the social sciences.

    Effectiveness in the classroom is important, obviously, considering the time we devote to it. But if you have had good evaluations for the teaching responsibilities you’ve held, that is probably “good enough” to land the job, as you have been told. The assumption is that one will develop these skills more as you go along (I certainly did), and other than the references you will have gained as a grad student/postdoctoral fellow, there is no real way to compare one applicant’s skills to those of another.

    Overall, and from what you describe, it seems to me that not much has changed in 45 years!