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.