So you got an email inviting you to apply for a tenure-track ecology faculty position. How should you interpret it?

So you got an email inviting you to apply for a tenure-track ecology faculty position. Perhaps from the search committee chair, perhaps from someone on the search committee, perhaps from someone in the hiring department. How should you interpret it? In particular, does it mean you’re a shoo-in to get an interview?

A similar question could be asked about responses to informal inquiries with the search committee chair. Say you email the search committee chair with your cv, asking if you fit the position, or if your application would be competitive. The search committee chair replies that yes, it looks like you fit the job ad, please do apply (or words to that effect). How should you interpret that?

Unusually for me, this isn’t an ecology faculty job market question that I can address with data. So what follows is just me speaking from my own admittedly-anecdotal-but-not-inconsiderable experience, and from what I’ve learned from speaking with more experienced colleagues (who aren’t responsible for anything I say). Hopefully commenters will chime in.

The goal here is just to share a bit of information about one narrow aspect of the ecology faculty job market. The purpose is descriptive, not prescriptive; I’m not here to judge the practice of inviting people to apply for faculty positions.

If you are on the faculty job market, I can’t promise this information will make you happy (sorry!). I would never presume to tell anyone how to feel about being on the very competitive ecology faculty job market.

There are three main things you need to know to interpret these emails (or responses to inquiries to the search committee chair). First, part of the search committee’s job is to drum up the biggest, strongest applicant pool they can get. Everyone in the hiring department wants that too. So you almost certainly are not the only one who got an email encouraging you to apply for the position. Possibly, many people got the same email.

Second, these emails don’t prejudge the search outcome in any way.* How could they? Nobody even knows yet who’s going to apply. That’s why invitations to apply are being sent out! So nobody is in any position to even roughly guess how “competitive” any particular applicant would be relative to the other applicants. Which is the only measure of competitiveness that matters. So no, I’m afraid receiving an invitation to apply does not mean that you will likely be interviewed. No, not even if the invitation says you have a “strong cv”, or says the sender would “love to have you as a colleague”, or etc. All it means–at most–is that whoever sent the invitation thinks that you’re a good ecologist and that you fit the job ad. Which in turn means that any application from you is likely to receive a careful look, rather than being binned after a quick glance at your cv reveals that you’re obviously unqualified or obviously a poor fit. So receiving an invitation to apply is good in the sense that it wouldn’t be a waste of time for you to apply for that position. So if it’s a job you might want, by all means apply! Just remember: “good ecologist who is qualified for the job and fits the job description” is a phrase that might well apply to many more applicants than can be interviewed (on campus, or even by phone/Skype).** Which is why being invited to apply is no indication that you’re likely to be interviewed.

Third (and this is a less important point than the first two), keep in mind that different search committee members, and different members of the hiring department who aren’t on the search committee, maybe have somewhat different “search images” for what the ideal candidate looks like. So just because whoever sent you the email thinks you’d be a “good fit” for the position doesn’t mean that the entire search committee would agree. Plus, even if everyone on the search committee agrees you’d be a “good fit”, well, remember what I wrote in the previous two paragraphs: the search committee wants the applicant pool to include many good fits, and the applicant pool is likely to include many good fits.***

One implication of this is that you shouldn’t be discouraged if you didn’t get an email inviting you to apply. In general, only a fraction of all ecologists well-qualified for a given TT faculty position will get an email inviting them to apply for it. And while I don’t have data on this, I can tell you that TT ecology faculty positions often are filled by people who weren’t invited to apply–even if other applicants were invited to apply.

*Saying or doing anything that appears to prejudge or bias the outcome of a search is a huge no-no for the search committee.

**Ok, not always. Not every tenure-track faculty position in ecology gets hundreds of applicants, dozens of whom are well-qualified. Number of applicants varies widely. But it’s certainly common for the applicant pool to include more qualified applicants than can be interviewed.

***Which as an aside doesn’t mean there are no meaningful distinctions among the many applicants who are “good fits” in some absolute sense. See here and here for information on how search committees go about their work.

2 thoughts on “So you got an email inviting you to apply for a tenure-track ecology faculty position. How should you interpret it?

  1. That’s all very sensible with a clear ring of truth, but if I were applying for jobs and got such a letter, id still be secretly pleased. I could convince myself that, at the very least, its better to be known than unknown. 🙂

  2. Our comment threads are clearly going downhill if even *Meghan* is choosing to comment via Twitter rather than here!

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