Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How fierce is the competition? Oh, it's fierce.

I don't like stock images, but I like this one.
Photo credit: centerofcompassion.org
A recent reddit pseudo-AMA with an assistant TT professor of chemistry at a "top-10 university" brings this interesting statement on finding his position:
Credentials: BS was from a top 30 public university, but not in the field of chemistry (I was a biochemist at the time). PhD from a top 20 university in chemistry (Physical/Inorganic). 2.5 year postdoc, also at a top 20 university. While, from a school standpoint, this is not a top-notch pedigree, I worked for people that are influential and well-liked in the community. More importantly, I did good work, independently, in their labs and had a very good relationship with my advisors. This, I think, is critical (more on this later). 
Competition: Very stiff. There is absolutely no way to sugar coat this. It is killer. I do not know the statistics for where I applied, but it is not unusual to have 300+ applicants for a single position. Of course, many of these are cast out very quickly. My understanding is that a typical search narrows things down to about 30 people quickly. From that perhaps 3-7 come out for visit. Then one of them gets an offer.
I'm always curious about these sorts of situations, where the competition for a position is fierce, as they say. [Sidenote: What is considered fierce? The competition to become a McDonald's fry cook, I presume, is not fierce. I'd say greater than 50% of applicants to fast food restaurants are offered a position. On the other side, the competition to become president of the United States is extraordinarily fierce, with very narrow résumé requirements and a famously brutal application process.]

Here's what I'd love to know: what are the criteria for making that 'first-cut'? If the initial application pool is 300 and there are 30 "real applicants", what distinguishes that 10% from the other ninety? How much of that 90% are people who just don't meet the requirements to begin with (i.e. how bimodal is the distribution of quality?) Presumably, there's a raw publication count and a raw measurement of university/advisor quality. Other than that, I have no idea.

Readers, what say you? At what point does the competition between job candidates leave the quantitative and become quite qualitative? Is it at the "30 candidates" phase or the "3-7 candidates" phase? 


  1. It's clear after reading that thread that students still don't have the foggiest idea how bad the job market is for chemists.

  2. One thing which is clear (but not always appreciated) is that your research should fit into the department's vision for the future. Otherwise it may not matter how smart you are, where you went for grad school or who you worked for (although these things do matter). No matter how interesting and well-published your proposal and background in bioinorganic chemistry may be, they won't be interested if their vision for a strong department includes a solar energy expert.

    I think this plays a really important role in the "first cut" and also explains the paradoxical fact of why sometimes very smart people have trouble finding positions while less accomplished ones fit right into a particular department's vision and get a position right away.

  3. I think key statement "I worked for people that are influential and well-liked in the community". To even be part of process typically comes down to networking influences as unless there is aspects that catches an eye on a reviewing CV during initial scan (or worse those of HR people/computers) the candidate will not get same attention as a CV sent from friend/co-worker/known colleague/VP.

  4. CJ, is the winner of the stock image race supposed to be a "golden child" you blogged about a few weeks ago?

  5. Yes, I think that institutional/departmental vision is key at the later stages, and that comes down to little more than dumb luck.

    And just to echo Anon 8:18, wow, they simply don't have a clue, do they? I sincerely hope undergrad advisors are getting the message out.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20