I haven't done one of these myth/reality posts in awhile, but came across something today that reminded me of one I've been meaning to briefly discuss.
Myth: As long as you don't shoot too high (for example, trying to get a job at Harvard when your Ph.D. is from a low-ranked regional university), you have a decent shot at getting any job you apply for.
Reality: A not-insignificant number of academic jobs posted on job banks will either not be filled, or are reserved for a designated candidate.
I've mentioned earlier that some institutions will post faculty jobs, only to ultimately cancel their searches. So you'll spend hours or even days carefully crafting an application packet for a particular job listing, only to ultimately learn that the search was cancelled and the search committees never so much as brought people out for interviews. Indeed, it's not clear whether anyone at those institutions even looks at the application packets they receive.
Don't believe me? Go look at some of the job market rumor mill blogs out there for the past few years, or the job market forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education. It happens all the time.
Along with the cancelled search, though, a certain percentage of the jobs that you will carefully construct applications for will be listed only because universities are often required by law to post public job listings for positions that are not really available to the public.
Who are these jobs really for? Usually spouses of current faculty members. Occasionally for a visiting professor currently working in the department (although I know of at least two occasions where the VAP in question didn't get the posted position,* so don't be dissuaded from applying for a job in a department with a VAP who you suspect may be the actual target of the job ad). But most of the time, a not-insignificant number of tenure-track jobs will be pending spousal hires that are only listed publicly for legal reasons.
So along with truly available job listings in your chosen field will be a number of jobs that are really intended for spouses, and that are NOT truly publicly available.
"Well............" you may be thinking ... if I wow them with my job talk and my research is better than the spouse's, they'll just hire me, right? Well, no. If the department has authorized a spousal hire, they are clearly interested in retaining the existing faculty member they initially hired. Therefore, they are not going to seriously consider another candidate for that position, since doing so would likely cost them their already-employed faculty member when their spouse would have to go elsewhere for a job. So in exchange for hiring the outside candidate, they'd be down another faculty member and would have to start over with a new search the following year. Most departments aren't going to do that.
But they will bring you out for an interview. I know of three instances in which a search was publicly listed that was really for a spousal hire. In all cases, the departments brought out three candidates for interviews, while it was clear to all involved that as long as the spouse didn't completely tank their job talk, they'd be the one who was hired. And in all three cases, that was what happened. Two candidates were flown out, wined and dined, and left campus thinking that they had a reasonable shot at the position ... when in reality, they did not.
"So what?" you may be thinking. Undoubtedly there are jobs in private industry that are only listed as a courtesy, and that are really intended for an inside candidate. And certainly there are countless examples in all industries of candidates being brought out for an interview only to have the job go to someone else.
But the difference, in my opinion, is that in academia the jobs are few and far between, and the hiring season is just a few months long. It's ridiculous for candidates to waste valuable time applying for jobs that they don't stand a chance of getting ... time that they could have spent on another application, or on a research project or grant application. And it's awful for campuses to bring candidates out for interviews who they know ahead of time will not be getting the posted job. That means that the candidate will spend valuable hours and days doing interview prep, when they could be doing something more valuable with their time.
In reality, the public posting of jobs that are not truly publicly available makes the academic job market seem wider and more reasonable than it actually is. It wastes candidates' time, and it contributes to the hopelessness and sense of failure that candidates who fail to land an academic job feel.
And again, it's something no one talks about. Your advisors will tell you that you have a shot at any job that's out there - that every job is a possibility for you. I'm here to tell you that it's not true.
* Remember how I said that temporary faculty positions are problematic and lack respect? This is an example of that - one I will discuss in more detail later.