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.