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Pandemic creates hurdles for academic job seekers

23 April 2020

Canceled conferences, virtual interviews, and hiring freezes make the already stressful search process even more challenging, particularly for early-career researchers.

Stanford campus in March.
The typically bustling Main Quadrangle at Stanford University has been quiet since last month. Credit: Andrew Brodhead/Stanford News Service

The economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic is affecting employment across the US in nearly all sectors, and academia is no exception. Early-career researchers are particularly vulnerable to interruptions such as research delays, conference cancellations, and job shortages because they typically go through multiple employment changes in quick succession, moving within a few years from graduate school to one or more postdoctoral positions before finally settling into their first faculty job. Now closures, delays, and economic uncertainty are derailing that process for some of them.

Since the last-minute cancellation of the APS March Meeting, a growing number of conference organizers have made the difficult decision to postpone or cancel events scheduled for the spring and summer or to hold them virtually. Fall conferences are also in question: Even if social distancing measures have relaxed by then, researchers may not feel comfortable attending large gatherings. Those cancellations limit researchers’ abilities to share new findings and build their professional networks.

The loss of networking opportunities particularly affects graduate students and postdocs trying to publicize their work and find their next position. “I was planning on going to a bunch of conferences this year to meet potential advisers,” says Danny Seara, a physics graduate student at the Lab of Living Matter at Yale University who is seeking a postdoctoral position for spring 2021. Even with virtual conferences, he says he will probably end up reaching out to potential advisers via email. Sam Wilken, a graduate student at the Center for Soft Matter Research at New York University, had five meetings with potential postdoc advisers planned for the March Meeting that had to be rescheduled and conducted over Skype.

Those looking for jobs are also likely to encounter a bigger hurdle: hiring freezes. With facilities closed, events canceled, and some campuses planning for closures possibly extending into the fall, universities are facing significant losses in revenue. Hiring suspensions are being implemented at all types of schools, including statewide systems such as the University of Maryland, large research institutions like Virginia Tech, small private universities such as Lehigh University, and Ivy League schools like Columbia University.

The Career Network maintained by the American Institute of Physics (AIP, publisher of Physics Today) has seen a 15% drop in online job postings on the Physics Today and American Physical Society job boards through 15 April compared with the same period in 2019. One employer removed all its online job postings because it has instituted a hiring freeze, says Bonnie Feldman, the Career Network manager. However, there is evidence that many employers are still hiring: When AIP offered those with active listings a free 30-day extension, almost all accepted. The platform that hosts AIP’s job boards and others has seen a 16% drop in job postings so far this year in the life, physical, and social sciences compared with the same period last year, according to data from TalentNeuron and Naylor Association Solutions.

Some universities are continuing faculty candidate searches that are already in progress. But with so many campuses closed to nonessential workers, interviews are being moved online. Nuris Figueroa-Morales, a postdoc in the department of biomedical engineering at the Pennsylvania State University, had her most recent interview for a faculty position moved online at the last minute. “The most challenging thing was trying to keep the audience interested during my presentation,” she says. “Online speakers do not get much feedback.”

Some departments had already interviewed candidates in person when their searches were forced online, notes Arnold Mathijssen, a bioengineering postdoc at Stanford University. “There may have been some advantage to people who interviewed earlier in person, and candidates that came in later and had to do it online may have had some disadvantages just because it’s harder to express yourself,” he says.

On-site interviews are more than just job talks, and many other parts of the process are impossible to re-create online. Candidates must consider relocating to a place they may have never visited. They also miss out on informal interactions that would normally provide a sense of the department’s social dynamics. “We missed out on some needed, less formal situations, like lunch or dinner with faculty,” says Figueroa-Morales. “There was no visit to the experimental facilities.” And for their part, faculty may feel hesitant to make offers to candidates without meeting them in person.

Forgoing an on-site visit is particularly tricky for experimentalists. Mathijssen notes that not being able to visit a department’s lab spaces was the most challenging part of interviewing and negotiating offers online. He saw floor plans and pictures, but that didn’t provide the same level of detail as an in-person tour, and it was difficult for him to envision turning the space into a lab tailored to his research.

The current economic and overall uncertainty may push both candidates and department heads to make quick decisions. “Some chairs, they’re hoping that the search won’t be canceled,” says Mathijssen. Other department chairs have informed Mathijssen that they are putting off making offers, which increases the pressure to decide whether to accept an existing opportunity.

Job seekers who did not receive offers before universities closed may not get any until campuses reopen. Wilken’s May graduation date at NYU has been pushed back to August to accommodate the expected delay in his postdoctoral search. His adviser was able to extend support to compensate for the unforeseen circumstances. But not all are so lucky. “In my case, there could be a gap of employment,” says Figueroa-Morales. “It is especially unfortunate now, since some universities have canceled hires of external postdocs.”

Such gaps are difficult for anyone, but they’re particularly problematic for international scholars. Graduate students on F-1 visas often use an Optional Practical Training extension to stay and work in the US after graduation, but that allows only 90 days of unemployment before the holder must leave the country. For a postdoc whose position ends, the J-1 visa allows only 30 days. A J-1 visa can be extended for up to five years if a position is renewed, but the Department of State has suspended routine visa services, which could delay the renewal process. New postdocs entering the country on J-1 visas will likely see their start dates postponed.

Not all postdoctoral hiring has been sidetracked by the economic slowdown. “I haven’t noticed my ability to get a postdoc being affected yet,” says Wilken. “I’ve been told by potential employers that funding will be moving forward as expected.” It’s also more common for postdoctoral applications to be due in the fall, and in some fields that timeline is explicitly set.

According to ChangHoon Hahn, a postdoc studying cosmology and galaxy evolution at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, most institutions hiring astronomy postdocs select candidates in January–March, as per the American Astronomical Society’s hiring cycle guidelines. The funding for those positions—including Hahn’s at Princeton University beginning in the fall—is already allocated and shouldn’t be affected by changes in hiring. The high-energy theory community also has an agreed-on schedule: Cristina Mondino, a graduate student at the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics at NYU, says that most applications are due in early December, with acceptances going out in late December and early January. “Institutions in the US and most of Europe follow the agreement, so nobody is applying for postdocs right now.”

Although many of the current year’s positions are secure, Mondino and Hahn agree that next year’s hiring cycle will be likely impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout. Says Hahn, “I would be very surprised if next year’s job market isn’t seriously limited.”

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