20,000 Leagues Under the (Academic) Sea

6 Things that Helped my First Time in the Academic Job Market

Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D.
5 min readAug 7, 2020

This is part of a series tackling the academic job search from my own experience. Other posts in the series: The Application, The On-line Interview, The Invitation (In-Person Interviews), and The Chalk Talk.

In the middle of the most difficult year of my life, because of reasons that affect us all and personal reasons that make me feel like drowning, I signed the contract for my dream job.

Exactly one year ago, I was frantically finishing my package to send it to a professor who told me they were going to be looking for someone like me for an Assistant Professor position. I spent a considerable time putting said package together. This was: my curriculum vitae, my cover letter, my research statement, my teaching statement, my diversity statement, and my list of references.

That set of documents soon started growing. Of each document, there were several versions of it: the full version, the short version, the version for pure-research (non-teaching) institutions, the version for mostly-teaching institutions, a trillion versions of the cover letter,… Each application was different, some would ask for a single PDF, others for every document in a separate file, or all your papers merged in one unique document… Each application was more time consuming than I anticipated, and frankly, sometimes a bit infuriating (but this is something I could speak about some other time. Spoiler alert: it had to do with disclosing my immigration status and coincidentally getting zero calls from those places).

I truly feel like I travelled 20,000 leagues since I started.

I can go in depth in many different aspects of the application process and what comes after: the zoom interview, the rejection e-mails, the in-person interview invites, the preparation for the in-person interview, the interview itself, the follow-up, the physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from traveling and from being professionally (and possibly personally) judged for 48 hours non-stop by various faculty members and trainees. But as I can’t fit everything in one single post, I thought I will deliver it in various chapters.

To kick off the series, I’m giving you some of the most useful steps to start with your very own journey. This is all based on my recent personal experience, and it may not work for you. You will find your way of going through this process, but to me it was very helpful to listen to those who did it before me.

  1. Start writing your research proposal early

This is not a bad idea even if you’re not quite thinking about applying to the job market yet. It helps to put your ideas in order, and when the time comes, you won’t have to face the dreadful blank page.

Even before I thought I had a chance to apply to any faculty position, I had a document (and still have it) where I throw ideas as bullet points. It was nothing elaborated, but when I had to start writing the actual research proposal it felt like I only needed to fill some gaps rather than start from scratch. It made the task less stressful.

2. Network

Tell everyone you interact with that you are/soon going to be in the job market. Even if you don’t have your application ready, let them know your future plans. They may know of an open position coming up somewhere or in their department.

My first in-person interview invite came from chatting with a postdoc at a conference who minutes later recommended me to a professor who was looking for candidates for their department.

3. Get advice

Talk to as many people as you can who have gone through the process recently, and those who have served in search committees. Everyone has a different personal experience (I heard horror stories about the interview process before). I listened to everyone and took the pieces that I could apply to myself, and ignored those that were just anecdotes and giving me anxiety. I had a professor who literally told me it was unlikely that I would get a position in my first year applying, just because it took them three years to get their position. Don’t let anyone discourage you before you even start…

4. Apply broadly

…But be realistic. Most open positions receive over 100 applications for what I heard. You don’t want to put all your money on one horse. I’m not saying that you should apply to ANY position, but don’t let the job add deter you. Job descriptions are made to describe their ideal candidate. You may bring to the table other skills that they didn’t think of. Worst case scenario, you don’t get a response (which is very likely as it seems that a friendly two-line e-mail to the applicants to show appreciation for the time spent is not in style).

If you think your skills and yourself could fit, even remotely, my advice is to go for it and apply.

5. Inquire

Still have doubts whether you fit in that call, or whether you’d be wasting everyone’s time if you apply? If you are concerned about this, like I was, contact the chair of the committee or the chair of the department and ask. It doesn’t hurt, and at least it will make them take heed on your name when they go through a pile of hundreds of applications. Again, don’t let job ads deter you. Don’t be shy. Most faculty are happy to help.

6. Don’t play yourself down!

“Remember, you are the expert in the room.” This was the most valuable advice my PhD advisor ever gave me.

Ok, to be honest, I had a lot of trouble applying it to myself this time around, because I was interviewing with people I knew they were world leaders in the field. And there I was, trying to convince them that they needed me.

Even in this case, you have to realize that you are talking about YOUR project and YOUR ideas. You have thought this through, and you know every detail of how you came to that idea. Embrace the opportunity of discussing those ideas with leaders in the field. You will never get so much attention from so many faculty members, and they genuinely want to know more about your thinking process. At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie or a self-help book: You gotta believe in yourself.

Yes, there were one or two times that I felt like being attacked by the giant squid. But most faculty were kind, helpful, really supportive of my ideas, and gave me a unique opportunity to discuss and considerably improve my research plan.

These 6 things helped through the entire process: from writing my application package, to deliver my chalk talk. I will write more in detail about all the different steps in upcoming posts.

Do you have any burning questions? Leave a comment below, and I will share any insights I may have.

This is part of a series tackling the academic job search from my own experience. Other posts:

The Application

The On-line Interview

The Invitation (In-Person Interviews)

The Chalk Talk



Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D.

Neuroscientist, science communicator, ukelele player. I write about brains and sometimes other stuff.