Sunday, April 28, 2013

Alan from Apex With a Query About His...Cough...Friend. No, Really. Srsly.

So, this friend of mine has this problem… Wait, that’s too transparent.

I know this guy who… Ughh… Really?

Here’s the deal. It’s not me, it’s not my field. It’s about a job. Two jobs, actually, it’s a tale of two jobs. One is at a Big-State-Satellite campus. We’ll call it University of Somewhere at Else. Not tenure track, but renewable, with reasonable, but not awesome, Big-State Salary. Oh, yeah, and it’s service classes. All service, all the time. University of Somewhere is well known and generally respected, but the Else campus is probably not recognizable unless you really enjoy geography.

The second job is temporary. It’s an accursed visiting assistant professor at mediocre-but-not-bad private, small-town SLAC part way between Somewhere and the West Coast, let’s call it Losttown College. Same load, smaller school, lower pay, temporary, mostly service classes, but with some upper level classes in the right field. Rumor (with some identifiable data to support the claim) suggests a similar full time job may open for the following year. Someone’s retiring, or hasn’t made it back from sabbatical and is presumed dead, lost in the archives of Internationally Famous Library. Unless you grew up in Losttown, or drove in from the boonies to watch a movie on the weekend, you've probably never heard of the town or school, but it's solidly above the "Rank Not Published" crew at some horrid ranking site.

I won’t ask what you would do. Primarily because if I did, you’d ask all sorts of other questions like, “What’s the weather like?” or “Do they have a good mascot?”or “Are there any good coffee shops in town?” and “Where is the duck?” Also because I don’t care what you would do.

Q. How would these two places appear to future schools? Would Losttown VAP appear any better to another SLAC than being untitled at U. of Somewhere – Else? Would the brand value of U. of Somewhere outweigh the better position at Losttown to another Big Uni?


  1. I'd say the two schools are a wash in terms of reputation, at least without knowing more. What you might focus on more are: (a) are there faculty members at one of the schools whose good opinion of you would be more useful for networking, and/or (b) which one will offer more time and/or resources for publishing. Without knowing the answers to either (a) or (b), or assuming they're a wash, I'd say that the renewable job is a better choice, if only because the lack of pressure to get on the job market in the next cycle gives you some breathing room to focus on research. Particularly if you feel good about the job being renewed for you, I would take the renewable job and wouldn't even divert time and energy to a job search in the next cycle - research and write.

  2. I would agree with Wylodmayer. Do you already have reasonable teaching experience? If so, the brand value of the schools wouldn't make much difference, so selecting the job based on what you can gain in the next year would be smart. The better salary and renewable service position would be a good branch to apply for TT jobs. You could still apply to the SLAC position this next year if it in fact opens up.

  3. I think a better question to ask would be what kind of job you want. The "default setting" seems to be that everyone assumes we all want a job at a research university. If you do, then definitely take the renewable position with only service courses (which you've probably taught before), give those courses as little attention as possible, and focus on your research for a couple of years. Be VERY good at it. Publish a LOT. Fly under the radar and get a book out, a GOOD one at a good press.

    However, as someone who's been on many a hiring committee at a SLAC, I would definitely look more favorably (all things considered) on the candidate who had experience teaching at another SLAC, and experience teaching a wider variety of courses.

    I think in the end, though, you should go with your gut. I wouldn't turn my nose up at either candidate, though I have to admit that a candidate for a job at my school who'd spent two years teaching service courses with the majority of your time spent working on a book would not be hired. That candidate would not be a right fit for my university. Just as, I'm sure, if I were at a research university, I would not be impressed with a candidate's excellent and varied teaching experience if their research wasn't up to snuff.

    Which way do you want to go? Decide, and then go there.

    1. Stella brings up an excellent point, but I should note that in my field at least, even most SLACs are winnowing applications by who has publications and who does not. It was confided in me that a recently-minted fellow from my old grad program lost (though narrowly) a SLAC job this past cycle because he had no pubs, despite having an excellent service record and a fair variety of classes under his belt. These things do tend to vary by field, though, I've noticed.

    2. We wouldn't hire anyone with zero pubs either--at least I don't think so! But an article or two in so-so journals would be fine by us. Just a sign that the applicant is professionally engaged.

    3. Well, I was assuming this correspondent doesn't have any pubs yet and needs time to get a few. Admittedly, I did not check this first. But I figured that ought to be first priority, which is why I suggested the most secure job. Without some time to research and get those pubs - even mediocre ones - the relative reputations of the two institutions he's choosing between won't matter a bit. I should have been more clear about that.

  4. In my field, U of Somewhere at Else would look much better on a CV when applying for a TT job, since it would be presumed (rightly or wrongly) to have more people trying to stay active in research. As long as the job was held for no more than (say) three years (before getting/applying for a TT elsewhere), it would look just like another postdoc. If your friend managed to publish something good in the meantime, the fact that they were all service courses would not matter (and at least the prep time is much shorter.)

    Having written this, I read Stella's comment and realized my own comment is biased in just the way she describes, assuming a TT position at a research place is what everybody wants. And she's right, if your long-term goal is teaching at a good SLAC, a not-so-great SLAC would be a reasonable place to start. (And now I'm wondering if S is "small" or "selective", not exactly the same.)

  5. I'm with Stella: What kind of a job do you ultimately want? If it's to work at a SLAC, go with that. If it's research, go with the other one (even if it's all service; those are the courses that will get you hired elsewhere because that's marketable). The SLAC job sounds promising as a place that WILL open up into a full time position, but you sound like you absolutely hate the place already: as if it's not even worth mentioning because it's so bad, so would you even want to continue teaching there?

  6. Another vote for considering what you ultimately want. I've never been on an academic search committee (I'm a dozen years into the close equivalent of the University of Somewhere at Else job). However, I've had (and overheard) enough conversations at conferences with people with jobs (TT or otherwise) at Losttown College equivalents to know that there are very real differences, especially in research resources (conference travel money, and, most important, at least in my field, library resources, including access to key electronic databases). At Losttown, you'll also undoubtedly be expected to pitch in with, or at least attend, all sorts of extracurricular activities (and if you go with the intention of possibly staying, you'll want to say yes to all these requests). So Losttown seems like a pretty bad idea if you're hoping to get and keep a job primarily on the basis of your research (but quite possibly a good idea if what you need, or suspect you need, is SLAC experience).

    Other things to keep in mind:

    --moving costs money, and energy (both somewhat variable depending on your resources and temperament: could you move to Losttown with a minimum of furniture and belongings, leaving other things behind in paid storage or with family? Are you energized or drained by dealing with new situations?). Factor that cost in.

    --if you go to Losttown, make sure you have a clear picture of your options should you not get a TT job there (and not get an academic job elsewhere), and have/save the resources to put one or more of those plans into operation. You need to plan for the very real possibility that, come this time next year, you'll have no job.

    --on the other hand, if you take the University of Somewhere at Else job, take it with the full knowledge that this sort of job is probably the future of academic employment. It might be a stepping stone to a tenure-track job elsewhere if you play your cards right, but, well, did I mention that I'm 12 years into a similar job? And that colleagues who have worked far harder to make themselves eligible for TT positions (i.e. have books -- in some cases multiple books -- out) are also years in? And that our salaries still seem to be predicated on the assumption that ours is a post-doc (or perhaps spousal) position (I'm still not making as much as an entry-level TT professor)? And that it's frustrating to teach the core curriculum while somebody else gets to design that curriculum? And scary to realize that my job could disappear if someone decides to restructure the core curriculum for greater "efficiency"? This job might just prolong the agony by forcing you to decide when an academic career has become untenable (rather than having the decision made for you because you can't get a job at all, and/or can't support yourself on adjunct wages). If you take the Somewhere at Else job, you need to have a Plan B, and a clear sense of your boundaries as far as remaining in a dead-end job go. It sounds like you're asking the right questions given your career stage, but make sure that you don't get stuck in an endless loop of searching and hoping, when in fact you're occupying one of the (better) jobs that replaced the TT one you hoped to have.

  7. Tell Losttown College that you love them, but you need a two-year contract. If you have the Big-State-Satellite offer, then use it as leverage.

  8. The comments and ideas and alternative perspectives are exceptionally appreciated by my friend, who is very much aware that renewability is incredibly and amazingly valuable in the current market.

    Some clarifications... I'll call my friend Dr. Doe... Dr. Doe also thought I was a bit harsh on Losttown in my description. The location is out of the way, but not undesirably so. Dr. Doe would prefer not to be in a big city (as in, hasn't applied to some well fitted jobs in NYC), and has very fond memories of undergrad years spent in a small liberal arts college in a nearly-small town (multiple stoplights and 2 (two!) interstates.)

    Some background on Dr. Doe... Reasonable, though not great, publication record (no book yet, tea-partying publisher only wanted to keep 3 chapters of the offer). Reasonable breadth in teaching, and a short time demonstrating ability at a full load of service courses. A permanent Losttown position is close to a dream job, and a full career of service teaching at U. Somewhere-Else makes jumping off cliffs sound fun (no offense, Cass).

    As Dr. Doe and I see it, the choice is one of risk. The Losttown position has the chance of a follow-on position, which would be highly desirable, but also the chance of that position not showing up, or not being as indicated, or whatever else. Losttown would mean another year solidly invested in the job market. Somewhere-Else would mean a temporary break from the job market(or only focusing on better jobs), and the opportunity to focus on something else, and possibly the expectation of staying in one place for a more than a year. Dr. Doe has moved more times than there are years in recent history, and the poor plants are really hoping for a bit of time in one place. Quantifying the odds between these two positions is hard enough, deciding if the risk is worth it is a whole 'nother story.

    Again, I relay thanks. In particular, the vantage point from a SLAC hiring committee and the notion of asking for a 2-year VAP contract are useful, as are reminders that plans B and beyond should be pondered and breakpoints identified. Even the ideas that Dr. Doe had encountered before are useful to hear in a different voice and from a different perspective.

    While you may infer that a question of jobs may suggest some kind of timeline, you'll forgive me for not getting back to you any time in the near future with results. Asynchronicity is a wonderful helper to anonymity, but I will endeavor to fill you in at some suitably removed time in the future.

    1. No offense taken; for one thing, it's not actually a career, and for another, it wasn't deliberately chosen, more stumbled into (with the thought that it would be temporary, and without a clearly defined get-out point, or plan B. I'm probably past the former, but don't have a plausible-enough version of the latter to know in which direction to jump).

      For whatever it's worth, for all the negatives of my present job, I regret turning it (or, rather, a very similar version of it) down a few years before I accepted it. The alternative was trying to "get my foot in the door" at a SLAC that had had a resignation. Of course the SLAC job was only one semester(! -- yes, I was really young and naive). Somebody else got the TT position (and several other somebodies have held it since then), and they were only able to offer me a 3/4 load (at adjunct wages) the second semester, and after that I went back to adjuncting, for them and for others. It sounds like Dr. Doe knows for sure (s)he'd have a full year, which is a slight improvement over that situation (and it also sounds like (s)he's well ahead of where I was in terms of degree, pubs, etc.), but asking for a 2-year contract sounds like a very good idea to me. Among other things, it would clarify whether they're expecting someone to return (from abroad, or death's door, or a tryout at another institution, or whatever), or whether they really do expect to have an open job (subject, I'm sure, to approval by Deans, etc.).

  9. Sorry to chime in like this, but Wylodmayer has it basically correct. Apply for both. If you're offered one, wait as long as you can if you haven't heard from the other, but take the bird in the hand. The thing that will matter most to future employers (aside from where you did your Ph.D., which you can't change now) are publications, evidence that you can teach competently (decent evaluations are enough; one or two really successful classes can help), and a reference from the chair (if you can trust him) saying you've done well and been a responsible member of the department. If I had to reduce that to one thing: if you have the choice, go wherever you think you will find it easiest to do research and publish.