Tardy interview expense repayments are limiting postdocs’ job chances

Upfront costs can run into thousands of pounds, so speedy repayment is vital for equal access to permanent employment, says Eleanor Palser

February 22, 2024
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For early-career academics, there is nothing to match the nervous excitement of your first invitations to faraway campuses to interview for permanent positions. It is the point at which you feel you are about to finally begin capitalising on all the years of sacrifice and hard work.

Applying for assistant professorships or lectureships typically involves submitting dozens of applications, resulting in invitations to perhaps a handful of interviews. And although initial phone or Zoom screening appears more common since the pandemic, an in-person campus visit remains a core part of the process. As well as the interview, the visit might also include research and teaching talks, meetings with existing faculty and students, a tour of the facilities and a dinner with the search committee.

All of that is very valuable, not only to the department in deciding whether it wants to employ you, but also to the candidate in deciding whether it is somewhere they would like to work. But those applying for such positions are most often postdoctoral fellows or late-stage doctoral students. We typically live pay cheque to pay cheque, with little saved up to cover unanticipated expenditure. Yet we are almost always expected to cover the costs upfront.

If you receive multiple invitations to interview (lucky you), such costs can quickly rack up (not so lucky you). The postdoctoral employment base is predominantly international (61 per cent of UK postdocs are from overseas, for instance), so travel expenditure can be high, with additional costs around visas, embassy visits and extended stays in home countries adding to the stress and financial burden. The cost of each visit can easily total thousands of pounds – and reimbursement is rarely quick.

I recently travelled from my current institution in California to attend an interview at a prestigious university in the north of England. The travel costs were high, but the invitation arrived early in the hiring cycle and since the advertised reimbursement window was four to six weeks, I felt fairly confident that I would get the money back before any other invitations arrived. After six weeks, however, I still had not received payment and I started chasing university administrators.

After eight weeks had passed, I looped in the head of the department and communicated the challenges I was facing as a consequence of the delay, hoping they might be able to help hurry things along. Yet I did not receive a response, nor an updated timeline for reimbursement, nor an apology for my experiences. I eventually received payment after three months, but, by then, I had had to decline all further in-person invitations for this cycle. And no, I didn’t get the job.

My experience is far from isolated. In preparing this article, I spoke with countless scholars who had experienced financial hardship while on the academic job market. Most had, like me, encountered very slow reimbursement procedures, as well as opacity about what costs they would or would not be expected to cover – all of which resulted in mounting credit card debt and interest charges. Many also described having to decline some interviews due to lack of funds.

A large number of postdocs reported being required to take leave (either paid or unpaid) to attend interviews. While this – as well as being required to cover interview costs upfront – is standard practice in other industries, the postdoc period is frequently touted as a training position (which is why, it is argued, wages are legitimately low). If this is true, attending interviews and other career advancement activities should be an accepted and supported element of the position – especially as it involves sharing research findings from the lab with the wider community.

Yet despite the low wages they pay their postdocs, candidates’ current institutions never offer to help them out with interview expenses. And even when job candidates communicate financial hardship, their potential permanent employers rarely offer to make travel arrangements on their behalf; instead, the most frequent accommodation is to switch to an online format, which immediately disadvantages the candidate relative to those who can attend in person. And those disadvantaged candidates, of course, are more likely to be from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds, including first-generation scholars, or to have additional financial responsibilities, such as caregiving and parenting.

With just 42 per cent of those interviewing receiving no offer letters and only 26 per cent receiving more than one, according to a 2020 US study, success in the job market relies on maximising your chances at every stage. Having to turn down interviews due to associated costs meaningfully lowers a candidate’s chance of success and could make the difference between a successful cycle and an unsuccessful one.

The typical window for receiving reimbursements in other industries is two weeks, and I can see no logical reason why it should take longer than this in academia. Better still, some universities are now employing travel agents to make upfront bookings for job candidates, removing the need for reimbursements in the first place. This should be the norm.

Stated aspirations to increase equity, diversity and inclusion in higher education need to be backed by the removal of real barriers to participation for under-represented groups. At the moment, our hiring practices appear to be designed to tease out the most financially capable rather than those most suited to the role.

Eleanor Palser is an assistant professional researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

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Reader's comments (1)

Unfortunately, the entire recruitment and selection process, including an offer, often takes place entirely on line these days. So there are no travel expenses. If, after being given an offer, the candidate wishes to visit as part of the decision making process the university may offer travel expenses or see this as part of the candidate's decision making process and offer no support.