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Adopting the Individual Strategy for Job Hunting

1 September 2009 1,600 views No Comment

A modest proposal

Terry Speed, Department of Statistics and Program in Biostatistics, University of California, Berkeley


Terry Speed splits his time between being a statistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley (January–May) and being the head of the biostatistics division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (June–December). He has been an editorial board member of the Journal of Computational Biology, Journal of the American Statistical Association, and the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Statistics.

jobhuntingstrategyYou are about to begin applying for your first job post-PhD. Do you have a strategy? That is, are you going to do anything that singles you out from the scores of others in the market? I’ll call this an individual strategy. Or, are you going to proceed as the vast majority of entrants into the job market do, which is to apply to many places and let the market decide? I don’t regard the second approach as a strategy, but perhaps I should and call it the default or market strategy.

I’ve been associated with the job-hunting process from most angles for the past 40 years. I don’t apply for jobs anymore, but I still write in support of people looking for jobs, sit on hiring committees, go to job talks, meet job applicants, and eat job dinners. To me, the most striking aspects of the whole process are that so many job hunters are using the market strategy, that they send out so many applications, and that so many get interviewed at each place.

My informal estimate is that more than 90% of job hunters are using the market strategy (perhaps more than 95%), that the number of applications sent out averages 10–20 (or more), and that the number interviewed for each job averages six or more. Of course, all these figures are intimately connected. I think this leads to many suboptimal placements.

My modest proposal is not as striking as Jonathan Swift’s from 1729, but I am guessing it is no more likely to gain widespread support. It is that more of you adopt the individual strategy. Perhaps, in time, those who do can change the way things are done, something I believe will benefit all involved.

How might an individual strategy work? For a start, it requires you to know the answer to a few simple questions. I have found that many people answer “Where would you like to work?” with “The best possible place among those that will have me.” This is not an answer to the question; it just tells me you are adopting the market strategy. So, here’s a game we might play to get at the matter, though in a better world, it should not be a game, but evidence of forethought, seriousness of intent, and having done your homework in this business of job hunting.

    Q1: Where would I immediately accept a job offer?

That is, without thinking of other places that might be better, without bargaining. Call this List 1. It should not be empty, otherwise what are you doing applying for a job? (Note that I’m omitting reference to details such as salary, start-up funds, etc. If these considerations preclude you from answering my question, please move on to another article.)

    Q2: Which employers would be delighted to have me on their faculty or staff?

Call the answer here List 2.

Now, let’s think about the lists and their possible overlaps. I’ve already argued that List 1 should not be empty, but what about List 2? If it is empty, perhaps you haven’t thought hard enough about the options open to you or fully explored the places that might employ you. (I’m assuming times are normal, by which I mean the absence of some common cause that might lead to there being few jobs overall, such as a deep national recession. In normal times, a high proportion of people with new PhDs in probability and statistics find employment.) Or, perhaps you’re being far too modest about your abilities. The job market is no place for displays of false modesty. Where have people completing PhDs from your university gone in the past? What do your advisor and other referees think? Is it possible that between everyone, you cannot come up with a place that would be delighted to employ you? If so, that should be a serious worry for all concerned.

If there is some overlap between lists, I’ll declare you well-calibrated and ask you to move to the next stage. (I understand we haven’t let the employers speak yet, so this is all in your mind so far. Please be patient.) If there is no overlap, then some recalibration is needed. You are in danger of committing errors of the Groucho Marx kind: You want to work at places you don’t think will take you, and you don’t want to work at places that you think will take you. The job market is not a place where your reach should go beyond your grasp—you should aspire to work places where this is a realistic prospect, if not a certainty. The best appointments are those where the job hunter is happy to have caught the job and the hunted is equally happy to have been caught.

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