Ask us anything: taking a “starter” job

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to the next question, from Mason. Question is paraphrased for brevity, click the link for the full question.

Any advice on applying for and accepting positions that aren’t ideal from the perspective of the applicant? For instance, what if you accept a position because its your only option at the time, but then later get a better offer? Should you mention at the interview stage that you’ve applied for other positions that you’d prefer?


I think it depends on how the starter job matches your ideal target job. If it is the same kind of job, just in the wrong city (or wrong part of the country), then yes this is a good idea. A surprising number of people make lateral transfers to improve their geographic fit in their first 3 or so years tenure track. However, I think taking a “starter” job that is drastically different in nature than your ideal job, it can be hard to make the switch. And it doesn’t matter which direction. If you want to end up at 4-year liberal arts college teaching, those 2 years at research university where you are supposed to be putting a lot of attention into research with resulting compromises in your teaching and teaching evaluations isn’t going to help your CV for a teaching job. And if you’re in a 4-4 teaching (teaching 4 classes per semester, or even a 2-2), you’re not going to have time to keep your research publications up at an R1 rate (probably more than one per year) and people will notice this even in just 2 or 3 years. I will say that although there is variation from job opening to job opening, it is often much easier to get hired as a tenure track person with a few years experience than as a postdoc. So that aspect of a starter job has some truth to it.


What Brian said. I’ll reinforce and build on his comments.

A point of reinforcement: a “starter” job is “a less-than-ideal version of your ideal job”, whatever your ideal happens to be: liberal arts college, community college, R1 university, R2 university, whatever. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise–that you’re failing or settling or whatever if you don’t seek/obtain a job at an R1 university.

Less than ideal geographic location is one common reason why you might consider a job a starter job, but there are others. For instance, maybe no one in your department works on anything related to what you do, so ideally you’d like to move to an otherwise-similar department with more close colleagues.

If you ever do try to switch to a very different sort of job, you and your references will need to explain why you want to switch and why you think you can pull it off. For instance, if I were ever to apply to a job at a primarily undergraduate institution, I would probably talk about how my microcosm-based research program is well-suited for undergraduate participation (indeed, it’s largely been undergrad-based at Calgary). Similar advice applies if you don’t yet hold a faculty position. For instance, we just interviewed for a teaching faculty position at Calgary, and got some applicants with impressive research track records. One natural question for such applicants is “Why are you applying for a teaching position, given that research seems to have been a strong focus for you so far in your career?”

Re: mentioning at the interview stage that you’ve applied for other positions that you’d prefer, I wouldn’t, and there’s no expectation that you would. If you don’t yet have a faculty position, whoever’s interviewing you will assume that you’re applying for other positions. Unless and until you receive another offer, you don’t need to say anything about other places you’ve applied to. And if you want to get an offer, you can’t say “I don’t really want this job, I’m hoping for a totally different sort of job”! Here’s some further advice on this issue.

Finally, be prepared to let a “starter” job grow on you. It might turn out to be your ideal job. You might think you have very specific professional or personal requirements–“I could only be happy doing research”, “I could only be happy in a small town”, “I could only be happy close to the mountains”, “I could never live in another country”, “I have to be close to family”… But lots of people who think that X is a dealbreaker for them later discover it’s not a dealbreaker at all. For instance, my wife and I didn’t realize that we could be very happy living in a big city or outside North America until we did both for my postdoc. As an aside, the same thing applies for academia as a whole. If you think you can only be happy as an academic, well, are you sure about that? Conversely, what you thought was your ideal job might turn out not to be ideal, perhaps because some aspect of the job that you never thought about turns out to be a dealbreaker for you.

18 thoughts on “Ask us anything: taking a “starter” job

  1. Note that the same advice applies to postdocs and temporary (fixed term) faculty positions: if you take one that’s very different from your “ideal” future job, you’re probably closing the door on that ideal. For instance, if your ideal is a job at an R1, don’t take a 1-2 year teaching faculty position.

    • I actually don’t think the above advice applies to postdocs as much. Postdoc positions are typically quite short-term (1 or 2 years seems average these days). And so it’s NOT a big deal if you spend a year or two doing something quite different than what you want to do later — especially if you keep your contacts and network open. You may find that doing something a bit different opens new doors just because you’re exposed to more people.

      I read the original question, though, as being about postdoc positions in particular. When you don’t get to direct your own research agenda, the questions is a different one than you guys answered. Say, for example, I have the opportunity to take a 1-year postdoc doing something that I’m pretty good at, but don’t find the most exciting thing ever — not something I would want to do as my primary thing long-term. And say it was my only option at the time, but there was the possibility of a 2-year postdoc with my idol doing exactly what I want to be doing, but I won’t find out if that’s a possibly or not for six more months. *THAT* is the sort of thing a lot of recent PhD grads face.

      My advice would be to not sweat it and go ahead and take the only offer on the table. Don’t feel (too) bad about switching to your dream position later. I know many postdocs who have done this. For example, one acquaintance did 6 months of a 1-year postdoc and then bailed for the perfect 3-year one. (This person now has a faculty job.) For me, taking a postdoc doing citizen science (which I like, but I’d prefer spending more of my time on the science than the outreach) allowed me to get into a better position for a more research-oriented postdoc afterwards.

      • Thank you Margaret, I actually agree with your advice. I perhaps should’ve made clearer that, in giving the advice I did on choosing a postdoc, I was implicitly imagining someone taking a *very* different postdoctoral position from one that would prepare them for their “ideal” job. Say, taking a teaching postdoc instead of a research postdoc. As opposed to, say, taking a research postdoc on a somewhat different topic than the one you’d ideally like to be working on.

      • I still maintain it would be fine to take a teaching postdoc for a year if it were a 1-year gig and you wanted to eventually go into research. It would probably mean you would need to do a research postdoc afterwards, but it would likely put you in an extra-good position for places that are research-oriented but strongly value teaching. Likewise, I think you could do a AAAS policy fellowship and then follow up with research. Or a Mozilla Open Science fellowship and then go back to research. The key thing being that if it is *very* different, you probably want to make sure it’s a year or less and that its different-ness contributes in some positive way to your ultimate goals.

        Or not. Someone wanting to do research ultimately who took a year to do a very different sort of job wouldn’t lose any more progress than those of us who are biological moms. I easily lost a year of research productivity with both children. My advice remains the same: do what makes the most sense for your life now if your options are limited, and be persistent in working toward your ultimate goal however you can.

      • I just want to note my surprise that someone who considers moving the worst part of academia would advise anyone to consider a 6-12 month gig.🙂

        In seriousness, I agree that taking a very short postdoc doing something quite different from what you ultimately want to do probably won’t close any doors for you, and that ideally it will contribute to your ultimate goal in some way. I’d only add that you often can achieve much the same thing in other ways. For instance, you can often arrange to teach a class or take a pedagogical training course while doing a conventional research postdoc.

      • Holy Moly, Jeremy… your line of thinking concerning short-term gigs seems antiquated, to me, anyway. There is a movement afoot globally to change the face of science and engineering. And that new model is steeped in cross-disciplinary experience.

        We are, at long last, realizing there is not a “one size fits all” approach to academia (or anything else, for that matter). Of course I am aware of the current model, and its entrenchment in academia. Get your degrees, ASAP. Never diverge. Grind away and become a world authority in your chosen slot. Secure tenure at Generic U, then migrate to division one.

        Mind you, I do not object to the model per se, because it works well for many people. But not everyone- and likely not most everyone. And I know that the imposition of this model has, until very recently, excluded many CREATIVE AND ORIGINAL thinkers from academia. One of the great fears in academia is being perceived as a willy-nilly, unfocused flim-flam. The frosting on this cake is the almost ubiquitous scorn and rejection of anyone offering-up novel and creative ideas in one field, while drawing upon the other for such insights.

        How dare you, really, tell me that I am myopic by suggesting something so far off in left field has any relevance. It’s been nice knowing you chap, but for reasons beyond my control, the dean has rejected the department’s vote to grant you tenure. While I know this may come as a shock, do not fret, as the world remains open to you.

        OK, OK, enough of the sarcasm. But these are the painful realities of the current academic model. It’s changing, though, and relatively soon those persons with richly diverse academic experiences will be the ones running the show.

        I guarantee it.

      • Um, I’m not quite sure how my advice to not spend several years at one type of job (say, an R1 job) if what you ultimately want is a very different type of job (say, a 4-4 teaching position) turned into an attack on creativity or interdisciplinary work in your eyes…

        As for whether academia overvalues depth over breadth, well, I suspect that’s often in the eye of the beholder (

        I’d also say that increasing specialization of individuals is a long-standing and probably inevitable trend. The last person to know everything about everything was probably Leibniz.

        I’d also say that there are better and worse versions of both broad thinkers and narrowly-focused thinkers. There is such a thing as an unfocused dilettante. There’s also such a thing as an overly-narrow, one-trick pony. Neither is something anyone should want to be.

  2. A related question lurking in the background here is “Should I take an academic job that’s less than ideal for me, if the alternative is leaving academia”? Here’s an old post on that: Also check out our various posts on non-academic careers for ecologists, and my post on how I almost quit science:

  3. I would worry about angering the department that put time, money, and effort into hiring you. Is this something to worry about? Or, is moving around after 2-3 years common enough that the cost if “built-in”?

    In the long-run, I would probably do whatever is best for me personally, but I am curious about any potential downsides in terms of burning bridges.

    • Obviously, nobody wants to hire someone who’s planning to leave in 2 years. And nobody likes to see someone they recently hired move on (unless that recent hire wasn’t working out, of course). But people move. Your old dept. might be sorry to lose you or puzzled that you’re leaving or whatever. But nobody’s going to get mad at you just for moving. I’m sure nobody at Georgia Tech is mad at Meg, and nobody at McGill or Arizona is mad at Brian.

      You might create some hard feelings depending on how you go about it. For instance, if you tell your dept. in mid-Dec. that you’re starting a new position as of Jan. 1 (“Bye folks, good luck finding someone to teach my classes!”), you’re going to upset people. Or conversely, if you sign a contract to move to a new job, and then at the last minute get cold feet and decide to remain in your current position (which does happen), you’re going to upset people.

      But even if you upset some people, it’s not likely to have any tangible consequences for your career going forward. People get over stuff; they mostly don’t hold permanent grudges. And even if they do, they lack both the willingness and opportunity to act on them. You’re not going to get a bad review on a paper or grant as revenge for leaving abruptly or anything like that. I suppose if you handle the move very badly, word might get around and it might make it harder for you to move again in future…Anyway, I say this not because I think you shouldn’t care about upsetting others, but just because anecdotally it seems like lots of junior people really worry about the abstract possibility that they’ll screw themselves career-wise if they ever annoy anyone senior. That worry reflects a serious misunderstanding of how professional reputations are formed, and how they affect (or don’t affect) your career.

  4. I think you need to be a bit pragmatic about what your chances of getting your ‘ideal’ job are. Those of us that can say we have our dream job are lucky indeed. When I finished my undergraduate degree, the economic situation at the time meant I was lucky to get any job. While the job I had wasn’t a perfect match for my interests (pest management research rather than conservation), I learned a lot of skills and made useful connections that served me well down the track. However, I did find it subsequently hard to get work in conservation, and it wasn’t until I returned to university to gain higher degrees in conservation-focused research that I was able to make the switch. Regardless, if I hadn’t taken the starter job I may not have even ended up in science, which would have been very sad as I can’t think of any alternative careers that would have been anything close to as fulfilling.

  5. A related question I have is whether one solicits reference letters from your current co-workers when applying for new jobs. If you’ve been at one institution for a few years, it may have been a long time since you last worked with a PhD or post-doc adviser yet you will have had many recent interactions and maybe even collaborated with other faculty in your department. However, by approaching those faculty members you would then be letting everyone know you are keen on leaving, perhaps at a very early stage of the application/switching process, before your mind is truly made up. I’m not sure I’d want to ask a co-worker to keep a secret. (And, by the way, is there any set limit on how long it’s been since you’ve worked with someone whereby it’s no longer cool to ask them for a reference letter?)

    • In my book a commitment to be a reference is forever once I’ve committed to write a reference. If it is the right person, they will be able to give you an up to date reference letter even if they last worked with you a while ago (they will probably ask for your CV so they can keep it current).

      You don’t want to broadly go around asking for references from your current job (and hiring committees don’t expect you to). But you probably have one especially close colleague that is more a friend than a co-worker. And it is probably a good idea to ask them to write a reference. Most people I know go this route.

    • In general, there’s no expectation that any of your reference letters will come from people in your current department, at least not if you’re applying for research university jobs. In general, for applications for research university jobs it’s best to have letters from good people who know your work well and know you reasonably well (e.g., from having supervised or collaborated with you recently, or even just hung out with you at conferences). Those people may or may not be departmental colleagues. If you’re a current student, postdoc, or new prof, it’ll look very weird if your PhD supervisor isn’t among your references. And if you’re a current or recent postdoc, it’ll look weird if your postdoctoral supervisor isn’t among your references. There are some people who still use a former supervisor as a reference even many years after finishing–I did. That may be a bit unusual, but I’m not sure. Once I got close to tenure, my PhD supervisor started encouraging me to cultivate other references. He was happy to keep writing me letters if I wanted him to, but felt that there might be others who could speak more effectively about my current research. EDIT: And as Brian said, someone who’s able to write you a good reference now can probably keep doing so in future if you give them an up to date cv.

      If you’ve been a prof for more than a couple of years, but you don’t feel like you have anyone who can give you good references besides people in your own department or your former PhD and postdoctoral supervisors, that’s a sign that you aren’t sufficiently well-known and well-networked in your field (at least when it comes to applying for research university jobs).

      If you don’t want it to be widely known that you’re applying for a job, obviously don’t tell your departmental colleagues you’re doing so. And you can say in your cover letter that you’re applying in confidence, and tell your references that’s what you’re doing. Of course, it’s possible that word will get out. Particularly if you get to the on-campus interview stage because at that point your job talk will probably be listed on the department website. And if you keep leaving town for interviews, at some point your departmental colleagues are likely to guess what’s going on.

      • Along these lines, do you have advice on the best time to tell your current department that you might leave? Do you tell them as soon as you start submitting applications, and risk resentment if you stay? Or do you wait until you have an offer in-hand, and risk leaving your department and lab unprepared for your departure?

      • I don’t see what you accomplish by telling your department you’re looking to move before you actually have another offer in hand. It’s not like your department is going to offer you an incentive to stay just because you’re *trying* to leave. And typically, you would receive an offer months before your official start date (which itself is almost certainly negotiable). So all concerned should still have sufficient lead time if you wait until you have an offer in hand before you tell your department.

        All that said, I have little actual experience to draw on here. I know of many people who’ve changed jobs or applied for other jobs, but I don’t know when most of them told their current departments. So hopefully Meg and Brian will chime in.

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