My university department is hiring – two positions at once, which is unusual and extremely exciting for us (both positions close February 29, 2020, if you’re interested). We’re looking for a food web ecologist and a neurobiologist. Except that if you read the job ads, we’re looking for those things with the usual laundry list of preferably subdisciplines, study systems, and techniques. Not long after the ads posted, a colleague of mine described the neurobiology one as “so focused… cannabinoids in zebrafish?” and wondered if there was any point in anyone else applying; indeed, wondering if the ad might be targeted at a single individual. This raises a question that’s much more general than our Neurobiology ad: when you see a job ad with a preferably, how much should you read into it?
The short answer: not much*. I’ve been involved in a lot of (university professor) job searches – both from the candidate’s side and from the hirer’s side (as a department member, a search committee member, a department Chair, and a Dean). I’ve see a lot of preferablys.
A preferably (or an equivalent especially or desirable or for instance) in a job ad can come about in a lot of ways. It can be a political tool to link a position to a university strategic plan (or to demonstrate the existence of a departmental one) so that administrative higher-ups will approve the position. It can be a political compromise within a department, so that those who wanted to prioritize Position A can be brought on board with a decision to prioritize Position B instead. It can be a similar compromise among members of the search committee. It can be inserted to signal strengths in the department. Or, of course, it can actually mean the department would prefer to hire someone working in the listed subfield, using the listed study system, or expert with the listed technique. All these origins for preferably are, in my experience, common.
You simply can’t, from reading a particular job ad, know which of the possible origins I’ve listed (or which of the others I’ve surely missed) is the actual one. That might seem to matter, because of the five possibilities I’ve listed, none of the first four actually means the hiring department is serious about the expressed preference – but the fifth does. But even if the preference is real: so what? I may prefer guava juice with my breakfast; but if there isn’t guava juice in my refrigerator, I’m very happy with some mango, or lychee, or orange, or soursoup. Not only that, having tasted the mango, I may decide I was wrong about wanting guava in the first place. The same things happen in searches: perhaps a department would prefer someone using tritium-labeled starch to study metabolic rates of booklice exposed to paper-mill effluent. But their refrigerator – I mean, their pile of applicants – may not include any such person. Or perhaps it does; but it also includes some exciting candidates doing things the department didn’t know about, or didn’t think to list. The unforeseen-exciting-candidate thing, by the way, happens in almost every search. In other words, whether the department is serious about its preferably or not, what you should do as a prospective applicant is the same: if you’re interested in the job, apply.
I mentioned that I’ve been involved in a lot of searches. I think it’s safe to say that very often – perhaps more often than not – the person who ends up in the job doesn’t exactly match the ad’s preferably. If you don’t match a preferably, and you don’t apply, you’ve deployed an excellent strategy for not getting jobs. Apply**, and tell the search committee why they should interview you; if you’re invited for an interview, tell the department why they should hire you. (Whatever you do, don’t follow my example). Don’t pretend you have the preferably; sell yourself as you are. Will this work every time? Of course not. But it will work significantly more often than not applying at all.
The academic job market is tough. It’s been tough at least since I started paying attention to it, in the 1980s; it was tough on my two trips through it in the 1990s and early 2000s; and it’s tough today. It can be frustrating to deal with a process that seems opaque at best and unfair at worst (and it can indeed be both of those things). I’m not here, today, to fix the academic job application process. But perhaps in one small way I can help: whether it’s sincere or not (which you won’t know), ignore preferably. And good luck!
© Stephen Heard January 14, 2020
UPDATE: Jeremy Kerr points out (via Twitter) that narrowly drawn job ads can be a problem because they tend to work against diversity in hiring. This is absolutely true, and is one of several reasons that when I’m involved in drawing up an ad, I prefer it broader. It’s somewhat beside the point of this post, though, which is about how you interpret an apparently, but likely not really, narrow ad once it’s drawn up.
*^Nothing in this post should be taken to imply anything about these particular job searches, which are ongoing as I write. If I knew anything about how they were likely to come out, it would be highly inappropriate for me to share it here.
**^You can of course take this too far. Don’t apply for jobs in clinical psychology if you’re a hard-rock geologist. Although it might make for an entertaining job-talk series…