The best way to not get a job: don’t apply

It’s job season. It’s that time of year again when our young scientists pour over a wide variety of job ads and ask themselves that critically important question: do I apply?

In some ways, this is the most critical step in the entire job application process. Yes, your job packet is important. There’s the goldilocks problem of conveying your awesome in the cover letter but worrying about sounding conceited. There’s writing your CV. There’s thinking about the institution your application is going to and what it values. Yadda yadda yadda. There are lots of great resources to get advice on these things. No, I’m here to talk about one of the lesser discussed issues of the job packet: Choosing to send an application in.

I’m going to give my advice through a little story. It’s a story only one other person knows in its complete form.

Many years ago, I was a young post-doc desperately applying for jobs. I had interviews, but no offers. My postdoc funding was running out (again) and I was pretty demoralized. I saw the following job ad:


Department of Biology and Ecology Center

Utah State University

 The Department of Biology (http://www. and the Ecology Center ( at Utah State University seek a tenure-track assistant professor in spatial ecology. Candidates must have a Ph.D. or equivalent in biology, ecology, or a related field; show evidence of the ability to sustain an extramurally funded research program; and be able to teach effectively at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Postdoctoral experience is preferred.  We seek an ecologist investigating the effects of global change on the patterns, processes, and mechanisms of the spatial distributions of populations and communities.  The research must complement current ecological and evolutionary research at USU.  We prefer a person that can collaborate with one or more projects in landscape ecology, conservation biology, pollination biology, invasion ecology, and ecosystem ecology and modeling. Applicants with the ability to integrate mechanisms at the organismal level with patterns and predictions of range shifts at the regional to global scales will be given favorable consideration. The teaching assignment is open depending on research specialty. Deadline: Feb 1, 2004.

The description had little overlap with what I did. I didn’t (and still don’t) do spatial distributions of anything. I didn’t do (on my own or in collaboration) any work on landscape ecology, applied conservation biology, pollination biology, invasion ecology, or ecosystem ecology or modeling. I didn’t do range shifts at any scale. My work was in the realm of understanding how global change impacts communities and I do compare community structure and dynamics across space and time. I did feel like I could make an argument that I integrated organismal level mechanisms with higher levels of biological organization. I also felt like my research was well suited for collaborating broadly with people doing landscape ecology, conservation biology, etc. In short, this job ad was clearly not a perfect match for me but I felt like I could make an argument that I fit pieces of what they were looking for.  I decided to go ahead and apply. My references sent in my letters of recommendation. But as the deadline approached, I had a serious case of imposter syndrome. I wasn’t a perfect fit for that job ad and all the rejections were really damaging my limited self-esteem. Why apply for something that was pretty much guaranteed to give me yet another rejection? So I didn’t send in my application. You heard me, my letters went in, but I did not apply.

A little while later, one of my references contacted me. Someone at USU had contacted them because my application was missing and they were worried it had gotten lost in transit.  I muttered something about that being strange, assured my letter writer that I would get on that. I was too embarrassed to admit I hadn’t sent it (this is the part that only one other person knew). So I sent it immediately so I could say I did.

How did it end?  I am now a tenured faculty member at Utah State University.

There’s a couple of morals from this tale:

1)      By not sending in my application, I was rejecting myself for that job. Plain and simple. End of story. By rejecting myself, I almost caused myself to lose a job.

2)      the job ad doesn’t have to be a perfect match for you to be a good match for the department. You’d think the job ad accurately described what a department was looking for, but a department is not a monolithic entity. Ever leave a committee meeting frustrated by the conflicting advice you received on your proposal/coursework plan/thesis?  Imagine writing something that incorporated the impassioned feedback from 20+ committee members.  That’s the job ad. Since the job ad is imperfect, this means your perfect (or imperfect) fit with it is an unreliable indicator of whether or not you should apply. Do you see something in the ad that reflects what you do? Is it a job you’re interested in? Then apply.

When I give this advice to students, I often hear, “But won’t they get mad/irritated/think poorly of me for wasting their time?” Maybe, but they won’t remember you. I have been on a number of search committees. There are always applications that have no relevance to the job description. I’ve seen medical cellular-molecular types applying for organismal evolutionary positions and landscape hydrologists applying for wildlife animal population ecology positions. I can’t remember the names of any of them. The search committee may giggle, but they’ll never remember it was you.

And, just to be clear, I’m not advocating completely ignoring the job ad. Even though no one would classify me as a spatial ecologist, there were definitely aspects of that job ad that fit me. I’m just saying: don’t be scared off by an imperfect fit.

8 Comments on “The best way to not get a job: don’t apply

  1. My experience was very similar. I almost didn’t apply for the job that I’m now in – it was for an “ecosystem ecologist,” which is quite a stretch for me. I applied because of geography and a good fit for the job in a variety of ways, hoping that the ‘ecosystem’ part of the ad wasn’t critical. You never know unless you apply.

  2. Pingback: Don’t waste at least 270 people’s time | Prof-Like Substance

  3. Pingback: What we’re reading: GWAS hits lost in translation, the mutational load of range expansions, and killing the comments section to save science | The Molecular Ecologist

  4. Pingback: Repost: Don’t waste at least 270 people’s time | Prof-Like Substance

  5. As Wayne Gretzky said ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’ And, in a similar vein, people often advice: ‘Apply for that job, what are going to lose anyway?’

    But there are costs, sometimes steep costs, of “taking a shot”. First, it takes time, sometimes a lot of time to prepare an application package for a specific position. Second, rejections is not something that most people enjoy. As Morgan said, rejections can be demoralizing, especially when you apply for a position for which you think you are a perfect match and, therefore, invest a lot of time and mental energy in preparing your application for.

    So, ironically, it costs less in terms of morale to apply for jobs, for which you are an imperfect fit and have almost no expectations to get. And, especially, if you spend little time preparing your package and just “kinda apply & forget,” which is where Morgan’s USU case seems to initially fall into.

  6. Hi Irakli, thanks for commenting!

    Like everything in life, there are tradeoffs (my students get very tired of hearing me say that, I’m sure). Everyone has to figure out what the best tradeoff is for them, taking into account their goals and how much cost they are willing to incur. This post isn’t really focused on exploring where that balance might be. Instead, it was focused on pointing out to people they don’t have to be a 100% fit to an ad for it to be worth their while to apply. There are studies that show that some people are more prone to this behavior than others (only applying if they are a perfect fit) – and many of them belong to groups that science already has problems retaining.

    But you have a good point that how many of these “less than perfect fits” people apply to has its own mental toll. The mental toll is real, and I wish I knew a way to change the system so it was less so. The postdoc years are as much a trial of emotional fortitude as they are of scientific productivity and I don’t think it’s a good thing for science that this is true. I would say that applying to only ‘perfect fit’ jobs is a poor strategy, in large part because the ads can actually be a poor indicator of what that ‘perfect fit’ actually is. But how many additional ‘non-perfect fit jobs’ one should apply for? I have no answer other than I was almost one non-perfect ad too short.

  7. Thanks for posting this Morgan. I have been debating applying for a few faculty positions as I am pretty sure they want someone with post-doc experience, but I think I will just give it a shot. You never know…

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