Rejections, Resilience, and Rejoicing: Getting a Tenure-Track Position

Tags: musings, academia

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Soon, a new chapter in my career as a researcher beckons: I will join the Institute of AI for Health, an institute of the Helmholtz Zentrum München, to lead my own research group, the AIDOS Lab. I intend to use this position to reify my vision of topology-based methods for addressing challenges in biomedicine and healthcare. In this post, I want to briefly detail the long, rocky, and certainly winding road that led me to this position.

A winding road through a mountain landscape

This is what it felt like traversing academia at times. In the end, I hope we all arrive where we want to arrive, even if it might take quite long. (Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash)

But why?

The social media streams are chock full of people winning awards, prestigious grants, and getting coveted professorships. Most of us tend to craft an image of perpetual success, soaring ever higher. Few of us tend to discuss the path that led to these successes. Like the proverbial iceberg, we only observe a fraction of the things that were required to get to a certain point. I want to give you the ‘full scoop’ here, in the hope that people find inspiration in it. I will also use this post to express certain misgivings about the application process. As for myself, I certainly learned a lot while applying to tenure-track positions, and I intend to improve the system as much as I can.


Let’s start with the raw stats. Like Derek Sivers, I assume that I am below average, so your numbers will hopefully look better. Over the course of 2020, I applied to 20 different institutions1 with 23 individual applications.2 Here’s a summary of all the feedback I received, shown as a Sankey diagram that was built using the awesome SankeyMATIC service:

A Saneky diagram of all my applications

In the following, I will briefly discuss a few aspects of this diagram.

Getting an interview (or not)

About 30% of my applications led to an interview. I count such an invitation as a roaring success because it means that my application materials made the cut! If you are at this point, I would suggest that you briefly celebrate this achievement because it means that you are being noticed by potential employers.

At the same time, 30% of my applications led to a direct rejection. There are many potential reasons for a direct rejection:

  1. I might have been too inexperienced for some positions. If the administrative bar for applying to a job is sufficiently low, I tend to send in an application anyway even though it might be a long shot. This is a delicate balance, though: I am strongly opposed to wasting time by applying to positions that are probably not attainable for me. For instance, if a position is looking for an established professor with more than 5 years experience leading their group, I am not (yet) the target demographic. This attitude sometimes surprises people, but I can only recommend to ‘know thyself and thy market value’ before investing too much time.

  2. My research output might be considered insufficient for certain places. Some places required me to enter my bibliometric information, i.e. the number of papers, the number of citations, and my h-index, using a service called Web of Knowledge. This service is utterly useless and should be avoided at all costs. It does not even index most machine learning conferences, leading to an extremely skewed profile of anyone’s research (at least in the field of machine learning; I can only hope that it is better for other disciplines).

    If you as a department feel you have to rely on such statistics, consider using Google Scholar. It is infinitely better at keeping track of publications.

  3. Competition might have been too fierce (which is somehow related to my first point) with many excellent people applying to the same job, forcing the hiring committee to weed out applications rather strictly. I did my homework for all positions and only applied when there was a non-zero chance of success without divine intervention but I do not know who my competitors were.

  4. My research agenda might not have been aligned with what a department was looking for. With many departments implementing a strategy for cutting-edge machine learning methods nowadays, in a diverse field such as ours, it is never clear whether your research goals are a perfect fit for a certain place. As someone with a rather unorthodox research vision, some departments might be reluctant to invest time in reviewing my application further. That’s okay!

Almost 40% of my applications, however, resulted in no reaction at all. Not even a rejection (but at least an acknowledgement of the receipt of my application materials, so I guess, in some weird quantum fashion, I might still be in the race for certain positions) letter. Of course, I believe that I am sufficiently smart to know that after six months, it is unlikely that I will hear back, but I must say that it is disappointing to jump through a lot of administrative hoops in preparing your application materials just to be ghosted in the end.

If you are responsible for the hiring in your department, please heed these words: every candidate, in my opinion, deserves at least a rejection letter (even a canned response is fine).

Lessons learned

For most of us, multiple applications are needed in order to get a positive response. Try to treat every invitation to an interview as a ‘win,’ because fundamentally, this means that your application materials were sufficiently good. Plan for rejection letters to be largely devoid of content. Due to legal reasons, no place will be willing or able to tell you why they rejected you. You might inquire about this through the grapevine, but you will never (well, hardly ever…) get an official justification.

Nevertheless, I always send a polite message thanking the organisers for considering my application at least. For some places, I asked about the number of candidates they invited and how many applications they received. This gave me a way to update my perception of my own chances at these jobs. In fact, I treated any such rejection as a ’near miss.’ For instance, one position received over 60 applicants, but only 6 were invited for an interview. I therefore—probably incorrectly, but full of vim and vigour—concluded that I was ‘obviously’ placed at rank 7, rather than rank 60.

I would suggest that everyone includes such statistics in their rejection letters. That way, we few, we happy few, at least get a rough feeling about our chances.

During the interview

The interview process itself was relatively standardised: a few slides are prepared in advance and later on, you have one-on-one interviews with faculty members. I enjoyed this part of the process the most because it forced me to sharpen my skills when it comes to discussing the merits of my own work. Since faculty members might not all be familiar with the particulars of what you are doing, this is a great opportunity to improve your pedagogical skills!

All in all, interviews were really enjoyable. I particularly appreciated the fact that all the places I interviewed at accommodated my time zone requirements when having virtual interviews. This really made the process less stressful.

When it comes to one-on-one interviews, I enjoy tough questions the most—this demonstrates that a person is genuinely interested in your research and wants you to convince them!

Don’t forget that these interviews are two-sided: you are applying at the department, but the department is also trying to convince you to join them, so make use of this time to ask all the questions you had in mind. My most favourite question to ask faculty members is ‘Given that you also started out on a tenure-track position at some point, what advice do you wish you would have been given?’ This question was universally appreciated by all, and I like it because it is rather open to interpretation, making it easy to segue into other subjects.

Lessons learned

Prepare your materials well in advance, of course, and be sure to know how the respective presentation app works. I would also suggest to invest in good lighting and a good microphone, but this is more for the convenience of your listeners. I doubt that it makes a large difference in the outcome but a good microphone at least makes it a joy to listen to someone.

If you are not the interviewee but part of the department, please make sure to follow common virtual conference etiquette and keep your microphone muted when not talking. I had few instances in which I could hear faculty members doing something else in the background while I was talking (such as listening to a soccer game at full volume). I do not expect people to listen to my talk or engage with my ideas, but at least be a decent ’listener’ and mute yourself, please!

When participating in such a virtual meeting, I always appreciated the places that had dedicated persons for making sure that the candidate is in the right meeting, their audio works, etc. This can make all the difference between an average interviewing experience and a stellar one!

After the interview

As you can see from my own stats above, I received three offers in total, but also two rejections. A rejection at this stage usually means that they found someone whose research agenda is an even better fit than yours. For instance, one place was looking for someone with a better track record of industry collaborations; my profile was slightly leaning towards ‘blue skies research,’ so I was not the perfect fit. It is part of the interviewing experience that you learn about your own fit only during the interview, so rejections are also par for the course.

I always make sure to write honest ’thank you’ notes because everyone invests a considerable amount of time into interviewing you. In some cases, I received additional feedback along the lines of ‘Your profile is great, but it is not what we are looking for right now.’ I appreciate this type of feedback a lot because it proves that I did a good and convincing job.

To reiterate what I wrote above: given the diversity of research directions in our field, it is often unclear what a particular candidate brings to the table. The interview stage can be very helpful in that regard, and I certainly do not want to be a part of a department where I would not be a good fit. The idea is to build something splendid here, and if my goals and those of the other department members are fundamentally misaligned, life is bound to become rather tedious.

Concerning the offers that I received, I was of course over the moon for each and every one! It is so great to see that my work paid off. Notice that I did not get all the offers at the same time—I therefore had to think and deliberate quite a bit before sending in my final answer.

If you are part of a departmental search committee, it might seem like a foolish or ungrateful move for a candidate to reject an offer. However, I can honestly stress that I had valid reasons for each rejection. I can only speak for myself here, of course, but I wanted to ensure that the position would be an excellent fit for me, enabling me to pursue my research agenda and build a group that does marvellous science. If I felt that it would be impossible for me to fully commit—for whatever reason—I turned an offer down (in the spirit of open and honest communication). I rather want to commit to one thing that makes me say ‘Hell yeah!’ rather than being lukewarm about something.3

Parting thoughts

As you can see from my own case, it takes a certain amount of resilience—to stomach all the rejections—before you may finally rejoice. Make sure that you apply to positions that entice you even if you do not think you are the ‘perfect’ fit.4 However, also be realistic in your aspirations; every application requires you to invest some time, which could also be spent doing other things.

Be prepared for rejections, but also be prepared for some weird requirements (looking at you, Web of Knowledge…) or some weird conversations about your CV (at one of the places, I got criticised quite harshly for having ‘only’ top-tier ML conference publications, but not a lot of ML journal publications; I still don’t know what that was all about).

Finally, be prepared to have amazing in-depth discussion about your research. Even for the places that ultimately rejected my application, it was fantastic to be able to discuss my research agenda with such eminent scholars! A big ’thank you’ to everyone that had to deal with my applications. I am grateful for having come this far, and I look forward to an exciting future.

Until next time, dear reader, I wish you all the best for your own job search. ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place and you shall not fail!’

  1. I shall refrain from naming all of them because this post should remain generic. The job market is in constant flux, and your profile for potential positions is probably a lot different from mine. ↩︎

  2. Certain institutions had multiple positions at multiple departments, necessitating, you guessed it, multiple applications. ↩︎

  3. I will maybe discuss the reasons for my own decision in another post. For now, let me just say that I am very excited about the new opportunities my upcoming position will entail. ↩︎

  4. Remember that ’the perfect is the enemy of the good.’ ↩︎