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Finding Success in Failure: Navigating the Job Market

SoAP Box: 
Finding Success in Failure

Fall 2022

Jennifer Fillo, PhD, MPH

Please tell us about the challenges you encountered on the job market, how you handled it, and what perspectives you could offer to other early career folks who are likely experiencing the same right now.

Applying for jobs in any sector isn’t particularly pleasant, but in academia we seem to turn that unpleasantness into an Olympic sport. In the 7 years (5 job market cycles) between my first and last job applications, I faced more than my fair share of challenges. In truth, my job market journey sometimes feels like it was written by J. R. R. Tolkien. Reflecting on this time—with a little cognitive reappraisal—I can see ways in which these challenges were also important learning experiences.

Challenge: Wasting time applying for jobs I was not competitive for.

Across my 1st and 2nd cycles, I applied for a total of 42 faculty positions. This resulted in zero preliminary interviews and months of wasted time. I now understand why. The market was shifting. What it took to land the positions that used to be attainable right out of grad school now required post-doctoral training. Publication and grant funding expectations were increasing rapidly. I just wasn’t prepared. However, I did end up getting multiple post doc offers each cycle.

What I learned: The process of applying for jobs has benefits even if you don’t get them. My postdoc applications were significantly better for having written the faculty applications. I have learned so much in those postdocs—especially in an NIAAA T32 program—and developed professionally in ways that I don’t think would have happened otherwise. So, don’t be afraid to initiate a frank conversation with your mentor(s) about what it takes to be competitive for the kinds of jobs you want. If they’re not a good source for that information, talk to someone who is (e.g., people who have recently gotten similar jobs are a great resource for advice and example materials).

Challenge: Going on the market as a new mom.

My 3rd cycle on the market was much more successful, but also stressful as a new mom. Writing the applications was a serious struggle while either very pregnant or very sleep deprived. I got my first phone interview invite only a few hours after an emergency cesarean. I went on to completely bomb that interview. Things improved from there, but I was still nursing when I went on two on-campus interviews a few months later. On-campus visits are stressful and exhausting enough without having to also spend any shred of break time frantically running off to pump. And don’t even get me started on finding interview clothes postpartum…

What I learned: Don’t be afraid to ask for accommodations. I should have asked for more time before doing the phone interview. Sleep deprivation and strong pain medication are a dangerous combo at a time when you need every ounce of executive functioning you can muster. As soon as you’re invited for an on-campus interview, let the chair know that you will need breaks to pump. Be specific! “I will need 20 min breaks every 3-4 hours.” “I will need a private space to store my supplies throughout the day.” If a search committee won’t accommodate you, that’s a huge red flag. You don’t want that job anyway.

Challenge 3: Pandemic curveballs.

The start of the Covid-19 pandemic fell right in the middle of my 4th and 5th cycles. I went on one on-campus interview in early 2020, and had another scheduled for March 23rd-24th 2020. Needless to say, that visit was postponed, and the search was later frozen. Ongoing searches at most universities were frozen. Job prospects looked pretty bleak. But I was fully funded off of my K01, so I still had some time. Instead of assuming I wouldn’t be in my current city much longer (as I had for the previous 3-4 years), I shifted to making decisions assuming I’d be there through the end of my K01. Following a summer living with my in-laws in another state so we had childcare (our daycare was closed for 4+ months), we bought a house. The week we closed on that house in late August 2020, I got an email from the search chair that it had resumed. A month later I interviewed on zoom, and about 6 weeks after that I had an offer. We had to sell that house and move 700+ miles away.

What I learned: Crazy stuff is going to happen that you do not have control over. Take what solace you can in the knowledge that with things like the pandemic, your peers are also being affected. You’re not alone in this. But even more importantly, don’t let academia get in the way of living your life. An ongoing stressor as a postdoc was feeling like I couldn’t make any longer-term life decisions because “I’m probably not going to be here much longer”. That kept us from moving into a larger apartment for years and was a huge source of stress.

In the end, my job market journey took 7 years, 5 cycles, 80+ applications, 10 phone/web interviews, and 4 on-campus interviews, resulting in 2 job offers. While those numbers can sound scary, this time was also hugely impactful on both my professional and personal life. In those 7 years, I completed 5 years of postdoctoral training, spent 2 years as a research assistant professor, and earned an MPH. I gained knowledge and skills that have laid the foundation for continued growth throughout my career (shout to NIAAA T32s and K01s, all my amazing mentors, and my peers on the same journey). My identity as a researcher evolved substantially, and I gained confidence in the value of my unique skills and perspective. I built not only professional relationships but close personal relationships that I hold dear. I became a mom.

In many ways, “failing” on the job market was probably one of the best things to happen to me.

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