This post is from an anonymous professor who has served as the chair of a faculty hiring committee.
I recently completed the experience of serving as a hiring committee chair for a research university. I hope you’ll consider advice from this hiring committee chair (to be considered in complement with many other similar pieces of advice). My main piece of advice is to seriously consider great jobs at places like my university, even though it is not one of the top ten schools in our field. There are many research-active institutions with great positions that would make you happy, even though they are schools you have never heard of.
Part of the problem is that we need to eliminate any classification in our own minds that certain careers in our fields are intrinsically better than others and are therefore much more desirable. It is not practical to ignore the broad continuum in research/teaching/service balance expected of faculty at a wide variety of institutions. Thus “R1” or “first-tier” become convenient shorthand for “at the research-heavy end of the academic spectrum.” Since astronomers love doing research, very naturally you might have a goal to work there, which is perfectly fine. The real issue is that R1 positions are perceived as being somehow “better” than positions at universities with slightly smaller research expectations and slightly larger teaching loads. Landing a faculty position at the research-heavy extreme of the spectrum is NOT necessarily better. We should replace this ranking mentality with how well certain careers match our needs and wants and provide us and our (current or future) families with overall happiness. (More on that below.) We can and should still rank job prospects and maybe R1s still pop up at the top of your list, but at least the list is now truly tailored to you.
As you make this list, you might be concerned about “settling” for a position lower than you desired. Ask yourself, though, whether you don’t like settling because you really won’t be happy or whether you just don’t like settling just because. As an undergraduate, I benefitted from an ecclesiastical leader who helped me realize that working super hard as an undergraduate would get me admitted to a great program where I would be expected to work super hard as a grad student which would get me postdocs where I would be expected to work super hard as a postdoc which would get me faculty jobs where I would be expected to work super hard to get tenure, and so on. Thus, the time to set and decide work-life expectations was early in life, not after the mirage of “paying your dues and then being able to relax.”
Based on the above advice, I set my work-life expectations a little lower as an undergraduate, anticipating that I would aim high, but be fully satisfied with a “R2” faculty position down the road. It was and has been difficult for me to “settle”; like many astrophysicists, I was used to working hard, striving for, and often achieving the top positions in school. But it was liberating to realize that I did not need to be the top student merely to be the top student. I still was able to receive top notch doctorate and postdoctoral positions that were superb matches for me. And now I very much enjoy my junior faculty position. Our faculty are research active, only teach 3-4 classes a year, and are expected to publish and get grants with tenure expectations that are reasonable in each of these categories.
There are many advantages to a position at an “R2” university and I strongly encourage you to consider whether such a position would make you happy. You might have a love for teaching that takes you to a college on the other end of the research/teaching spectrum with minimal research expectations and teaching 6-8 classes per year. Though our community is judgmental about such positions, if they make you happy then that should be your primary concern. And we should all try to be less judgmental about decisions that make others happy. For example, if you read this and decide that you want a top faculty position because you love to work hard on research, then I am happy to support you in that goal!
Instead of imagining the perfect position, focus on identifying opportunities. Although my institution is not widely known, our position was well advertised. Supposedly, there is an astronomy jobs crisis with way too many highly-qualified individuals and way too few positions for them. Yet all of my colleagues were shocked to find that our applicant pool seemed well below average. And our first offers all declined to accept positions. Of course, just like you should anticipate not getting your top ideal positions, we should anticipate not getting our top ideal candidates. Still, careful consideration between me and my colleagues indicates that part of the problem might be unrealistic expectations among job seekers. Hence this blog post.
In the end, you need to find an existing job that works best for you. There’s rarely a perfect match, but take a step back and take time to think about what it is that you are really want from your job. An interesting insight into what makes people happy at work is based on research from a manager’s perspective of how to make employees happy and productive. It’s not perfect, but it helped me to understand why I was happy being a scientist when I would be paid much less than I could earn in another field. Similar reasoning helps me understand why working at a university with a more balanced research and teaching load was the right choice for me. It might be the right choice for you as well.