Who’ll Make It and Who Won’t

During a decade or so in academia, I have seen many, many faculty applications. A typical broad search in my field will have several hundred candidates, of which there are probably 20-30 who are highly qualified. The rest are eliminated after a quick scan of the CV and don’t get much of a second look. We faculty usually agree to a surprisingly high degree as to who the noncompetitive applicants are; yet, I think we generally overestimate our ability to predict who will be successful and who won’t.

Most of the noncompetitive applicants will never get a faculty position at any university, so it’s perhaps tempting to advocate tough love towards your own advisees who think about going on the academic job market. Say, you have a student who has a weak publication record and isn’t very driven, it’s probably a good idea to tell them that you don’t just stumble upon a faculty position and that they have to be deliberate about this career path. But I think there are many truly driven individuals who don’t seem like they are to their advisors, perhaps because they are minorities or come from different cultures, so discouraging people from applying is too rife with potential bias. Instead, a) matter-of-factly tell the candidate what their record would need to be competitive or refer them to example CVs of others, b) write them the strongest letters of recommendation you can, c) help improve their application package to bring out the best aspects of their record, and d) help prepare them for interviews. If you have given your advisee the information that they need, they will position themselves correctly with respect to competition. You don’t need to dissuade them explicitly if their record is noncompetitive; with any analytical skills, they will quickly figure it out on their own. If they decide they want to go for it anyway, then support them the whole way, 100%.

I think we need to unconditionally support the people we advise in their career paths even if we think they won’t be successful in whatever they are choosing. First, we faculty have huge egos; we don’t really know everything, not even about our own jobs, as much as we like to tell ourselves that we do. (If we knew everything, nobody would never write a grant without getting it funded; 10% funding rates tell you we don’t know squat.) Other people’s careers are really where we should stick to facts and then follow up with unconditional support for whatever the advisee decides. Second, I have real examples of people who I didn’t think would ever be faculty, yet they are and they are quite successful. I know of a phenomenally productive faculty member at an R1 who got his PhD at a so-so school and thus had a really rough time getting a faculty position because of his lack of pedigree; many told him not to bother, that no one gets a faculty position at an R1 from that school, yet he did eventually, and he’s superb. I can also think of at least two of my peers, who I really didn’t think were particularly promising when we were going through undergrad or grad school together, but who come out on top. They are faculty teaching at R2 or teaching-focused schools and doing very well, publishing, advising students, getting grants. In contrast, some of the most promising people didn’t get faculty positions even though they attempted to; often, the issue was that they never actually wanted to be professors, other than in the abstract; many were really great at doing the work in the trenches but were disinterested in  becoming the boss; some wanted an R1 position or bust. Some didn’t put forth very strong applications because they didn’t ask for feedback on them. Most were simply unlucky in their searches.

I don’t think for a second that not being a professor is a failure of any kind. This post is about how we in the position of power over someone’s future really should act primarily as sources of information and encouragement, rather than as some sort of weed-out stage. Even if you think you know better, maybe you do, but maybe you don’t. None of us ever really know what potential another person has in them.


  1. I would be very interested in reading a professional mathematician’s (a math professor’s, to be precise) version of this post!

  2. “10% funding rates tell you we don’t know squat.” Really? I thought the low funding rate was a result of a broken system. People don’t get funded because people are unlucky or another of many other issues. Many good proposals don’t get funded.

  3. Any mathematicians out there who would care to respond to math gradstudent?

    math gradstudent, I will write something later based on my observation of mathematicians “in the wild” and people from neighboring disciplines like theoretical physics.

  4. I can think of many examples to bolster your point. The most recent was my colleague who was told by a senior professor that she shouldn’t apply to the department faculty job because she was not faculty-ready. She was promptly short-listed at six places and received two offers.

  5. From where I’m sitting now (4th year tenure track faculty), the other side of this story is who makes it through tenure and who doesn’t. And unlike who gets a faculty job and who doesn’t, it seems to me that the second half of the story is much more predictable. The colleagues and friends I’ve seen who’ve had the most trouble on the tenure track all fall into at least one (usually more) of the following categories: (1) they are women in the “hard” sciences, (2) they are a member of an underrepresented group (by race/ethnicity or first-gen college student), and (3) they are moms. This trend is bumming me out. At my own university, in the past two years we had a chemist mom barely squeak through her tenure review after a herculean effort to bring up her teaching evaluations, a first-gen physicist mom not make it through reappointment (a decision that was ultimately reversed, but probably too late to keep her), and our one female computer scientist leave before going up for tenure. All three had no research issues, but had issues with student evaluations of teaching, which are basically the only way teaching is evaluated at my university. I think this is crap: there is clear evidence of bias in each of their individual sets of evaluations, not to mention the general evidence of bias against women in teaching evaluations from social science research.

    So, it’s one thing to think about who makes it onto the tenure track, but it’s another thing entirely to think about who makes it through tenure. Both have their biases, but it’s extremely discouraging to see women beating the odds and getting that awesome job only to lose it a few years later because of crappy biased mechanisms of evaluating their teaching.

  6. lyra211: Ugh. Is it a private teaching-oriented school? I have heard those stories, that undergrads at private schools in particular are atrocious to female faculty. One of my female friends from grad school left such a post after 2 or 3 years. Comments on teaching evaluations included statements such as “She’s as dumb as a brick.” (She is most definitely not.) It was a soul-crushing experience. She left and found an excellent job in industry. I don’t know what one can do really. These are institutional issues, as well as issues of physical-science fields in their entirety. People outside of the physical sciences really don’t understand the extent to which misogyny is rampant in these fields; it’s really, really bad. (When are you going up for tenure? Year 6? I am happy to take a look at your records if you would like an outside opinion on how they objectively look. Feel free to email me.)

  7. Yes, you nailed it: private, teaching-oriented school. A very research-focused one, but you wouldn’t know it based on tenure decisions over the past few years. While it does bum me out to see these things happening to my friends, I’m in the fortunate position of getting the highest student evals in my physical science-y department despite being the only woman, so at least I’m safe there (unless something changes in the next few years; while I’ve taught upper-level intro courses before, my first time teaching the non-calc intro for nonmajors will be this fall, and I’m expecting to get harsher evaluations in that class).

    We don’t typically go up until year 7, and I have the option of going up after that point because of our parental clock-stoppage. If things keep going as well as they have been I’m considering going up “early” (i.e., what would have been on time without the clock extension). But I’d be happy to get an outside perspective, particularly as I consider going up early — supposedly they judge you by the same criteria no matter when you go up. My chemist-mom friend waited the full 9 years that her two clock extensions gave her, which made sense in her case, but when you watch men (dads and non-dads) going up for tenure at the regular time and the women advancing slower because of their parental duties… well, that’s another thing that bums me out.

  8. I agree….it is sad to see people who don’t make tenure. At my institution, it’s happened to men and women approx equally.

    The common trait in those who don’t make it is that they are committed to a fantasy version of their job and are either unwilling or unable to change when given advice about how to improve.

    They have difficulty managing their lab personnel effectively because they don’t want to be “mean” to their students by asking them to come to work before noon, write papers, or get anything done, they often spend too much time traveling, and they indulge in poorly-thought out (or unaffordable) research initiatives that they then cling to tightly and defend bitterly on idealistic grounds despite highly negative comments from colleagues, accountants, and grant and paper reviewers.

    I think perhaps that they are copying how they saw their former very senior professor run his lab? It’s really different when you’re an Assistant Professor with a limited budget and an eye on the tenure clock. Also, times have changed–that senior professor might have had a very hard time getting his grants funded if he had to start his lab now.

  9. “I think we need to unconditionally support the people we advise in their career paths even if we think they won’t be successful in whatever they are choosing. First, we faculty have huge egos; we don’t really know everything, not even about our own jobs, as much as we like to tell ourselves that we do.”

    Wow, I am impressed! As someone who has been reading here (and before) for a long time, who at times violently agrees with you, and, at other times, violently disagrees, I am surprised to read these words here. Not what I thought you’d say on this topic at all. So I am curious: have you always felt this way, or is this a view that you came to after many years as a prof? (Completely honest question here — nothing negative intended!)

  10. tos: 🙂 Did you think I’d say some have “it” and some don’t, that PIs can just smell “it” in those who do, and that brave PI’s guardians of the academic universe have a duty to weed out the “it”-less weaklings?

    Joking aside, to answer your question about how I came to think what I think: the short answer is experience, both with advising students and with parenting. I have realized that I don’t even know what my own kids are capable of, and it can be argued that I know them very well. I think it’s a sign of respect to let people make their own choices and their own mistakes. And it turns out most people know themselves and what they are capable of much better than I (a semi-random person who is decidedly not them) ever could. So I share the info I have, as in “What do you want to do when you grow up? Okay. This is what I know you would need to be competitive, and here are some materials and some links/resources,” and then I read their application materials (CVs or resumes, cover letters, research and teaching statement if applicable) and comment on them as best I can, write the strongest letters of recommendation I possibly can while being honest, and cheer them on/give feedback on their talks come interview time. If someone is graduating with me, that means they can count on me to be in their corner 100%. There are plenty of other people out there who will judge and reject them and bruise their egos; I will provide support instead.

  11. @Xyk: thanks for your response! I have 2 more questions if you’ll indulge me:

    1) Do your students know that this is what they can expect from you? There is *so* much grad student anxiety in general over potential mentor support, recommendation letters, etc., in my opinion.

    2) What percentage of your peers would you say share your philosophy on this?

  12. @TOS: 1) Do your students know that this is what they can expect from you? I am pretty sure they do. I frequently nominate them for awards and fellowships; we have dry runs for anyone who is about to interview for jobs and all people chime in; when they get awards and accept job offers I proudly post that on our group website; I have provided letters of support for their permanent residence applications. And I tell them every so often that they can count on me writing letters of recommendation and/or award nomination for as long as they want or need them. We discuss how people’s interviews went in the group meetings. If I plan on bringing someone new in, the new person spends quite a bit of time with my students alone, so he or she can freely ask questions without me interfering; I assume this is a chance for this type of information to be communicated to new students.

    2) What percentage of your peers would you say share your philosophy on this? I don’t know. I think the vast majority of professors will write good letters for all their students, but the rest varies. There are definitely people who are active proponents of all their students and work their connections to help place students in all lines of work. Others are much more hands off and their involvement is restricted to providing a reference.

    Are you worried about something in particular with your advisor? (I am assuming you are a seniorish grad student thinking about the next stage.)

  13. @Xyk: Thanks, and no, I am a (newish) postdoc. But I still remember very well what grad school was like and the wide variety of experiences that my fellow students and I had. It’s hard to know what’s “normal” or “average” from the other side — no pun intended 🙂

  14. I agree 100%, Xykademiqz. It is not for me to determine who gets to try and who doesn’t, since I am no better at picking winners than anyone else. I nominate my students for everything they are eligible for. I give my students as much information as possible and help them prepare for their next step, whatever they choose. We discuss career paths in group meetings, and I’ve shown them what my CV looked like at various stages in my career. I’ve helped edit applications for a variety of things, overseen as many practice talks as requested, and given as much one on one advice as needed.

    I always write the strongest letter I can (but always truthful), and happily provide as many letters or references as needed. If I can’t write a strong letter for some reason, I tell the student up front (thankfully, this has only happened for undergrads from my courses thus far), but if a weak student needs a third letter and asks, I will provide one.

    I did not want to be an academic when I finished my PhD, and I would not have been competitive for my current position at the end of my postdoc. When I was on staff at National Lab, things came together for me, and my interests change. ProdigalAdvisor was very supportive of my academic applications, even though I had left the group years before. Who am I to deny that opportunity to someone else?

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