Written by: Richard Lenski
Primary Source: Telliamed Revisited
I started applying for faculty jobs in 1983, after about a year and a half as a postdoc. The job market was tight then, as the US was coming out of a deep recession. (Sound familiar?) And faculty jobs in microbial evolution simply didn’t exist in those days. So I applied for any and all positions that had anything to do with ecology or evolution, whether at big universities, small colleges, or anywhere else. The first year I sent out around 75 applications, as I recall. And I do mean sent out, because in those days applicants had to copy things and mail them. I had one interview, but no offer. Meanwhile, Bruce Levin’s grant that was going to support me going forward got rejected.
My wife and I had one child, and our second was on the way. I wasn’t panicked, although maybe I should have been! However, I did start vaguely thinking about back-up plans. I was good with numbers, and I’d written a couple of papers on the analysis of life-table data with Phil Service when we were grad students. So when I saw an announcement for some talk on actuarial analysis, it caught my eye. I thought that might be a possible alternative career. I went to the talk, and I might even have gotten a business card from the speaker.
In the months ahead, Bruce revised and resubmitted the grant and, thankfully, it was funded, so I was secure for a while longer. The next year, I again sent out applications far and wide. I had a couple more papers, so my CV was stronger and the economy was improving, too. I got three interviews and, with my postdoc secure, I actually declined another one. However, the interviews were near the due-date for our second child, so I worried that I might have to cancel (and reschedule, if they’d allow it) the interviews. Luckily, #2 arrived in time. So I left my wife at home with a 10-day old baby and a toddler … and took off for back-to-back-to-back interviews. Soon after I got home, I got two job offers on the same day. (When it rains, it pours.) One offer was from UC-Irvine, and that’s where we went after deferring the start for a year so I could get more research done as a postdoc.
I see there’s a lot of angst out there about the job market in academics. And rightfully so. Positions are scarce, and the competition is extraordinary. I feel fortunate that I got a very good faculty position to start my career. Things were tough back in the day, but they are much tougher now. I admire all of you who are pursuing your dreams, but it never hurts to consider a backup plan – whether you need to use it or not. There are, after all, many roads to happiness and success.