Across the US and Canada, colleges and universities are assessing the toll that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has taken on their financial health. The University of Arizona, for example, estimates that it will lose $250 million because of the pandemic, and many colleges and universities have announced hiring freezes. Yale University has extended its hiring freeze to June 30, 2021. That’s right, 2021. Yale will not hire tenure-track professors during the next academic year.
Want a faculty position? Get ready to wait
As cocurators of the Chemistry Faculty Jobs List, Andrew Spaeth and I follow tenure-track positions at colleges and universities in the US and Canada. Since the fall of 2017, we have seen a clear pattern: positions start appearing in the early summer months and rise to a steady drumbeat during August and September, with most positions having application deadlines between Sept. 1 and Oct. 31. Each year, we’ve counted over 550 of these positions. Between June 1, 2019, and April 24, 2020, 556 positions were posted, all intended for a hire date in the fall of 2020.
With the hiring freezes, I predict that fewer than 100 positions will be advertised this upcoming academic season. What those positions will look like is unknown. Will PhD-granting institutions post more positions, or will small colleges? For the positions posted, what subfields of chemistry will be most popular? We’ll know the answers to these questions in November when some colleges and universities make their 2020 hires, but that’s not soon enough for potential applicants.
For senior graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who were planning to apply for faculty positions during the summer and fall of this year, this is unwelcome news. What does this mean for their future? Two words: more waiting. If few positions are posted in August and September, faculty applicants will have to wait another year for more positions, and there’s no guarantee that the situation will be better a year from now.
What can you do? After taking a deep breath, take stock of where you are, and decide whether you’re willing to spend a year in limbo, typically as a postdoctoral fellow. This time in limbo will not be static. Rather, chemists will be in a frantic race to get back into the laboratory and ramp up research productivity to make up for lost time from the lockdowns.
Take the opportunity now to discuss your future with your adviser. All postdoctoral fellows can typically answer the question “How much more time does my funding give me?” But you need to understand how COVID-19 is affecting that timing. Discuss your adviser’s funding picture. If it looks solid, you can breathe easy. If not, begin thinking about what is next, whether that is another postdoctoral position or something quite different. Now is an important time to apply for more grants and fellowships.
While you bide your time, consider adding to your teaching experience to bolster your CV. There are still insufficient data to indicate which positions lead to desired tenure-track positions. However, anecdotal discussions with tenured faculty have shown that hiring committees value experience from visiting assistant professorships and adjunct teaching positions. In addition, COVID-19’s social-distancing requirements emphasize online learning, and any demonstrated expertise with developing curricula for remote teaching and using them according to best practices will strengthen your faculty application.
The increased time spent in holding patterns while waiting for the faculty market to get better will create other challenges. Financial pressures—for example, those of starting a family—may make another year or two of a postdoctoral fellowship untenable. If more positions are available outside academia, it seems reasonable to pursue those positions while keeping an eye out for faculty jobs. If you find yourself in an industrial position that can expand the scope of your research interests, see where that takes you. I recognize that it is far easier for me to sit at my laptop and speculate about the possibilities, but it’s important to recognize that there are no permanently closed doors.
With a once-a-century event like a pandemic, we don’t have a lot of experience to predict how things will play out for colleges and universities. But I assert with no evidence and plenty of confidence that colleges and universities will still need to hire professors in the future. We don’t know when the openings will begin to ramp up, but you can take the additional time to prepare for when they do.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.