Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cynthia from the Ceeside With a Job Seeker Thirsty.

Although I am not yet on the job market, this time of year I keep an eye on the various internet forums where job candidates and search committees discuss interview/campus visits. I have noticed a trend I find troubling and want to try and address when I go on the market very soon. I’m a graduate student in a department known in the field for being full of itself, at an institution that might have plant matter covering the walls. However I have degrees from a range of higher educational institutions, and believe I have a solid grip on the way the world really works. As such I would be thankful to have a job at any range of places, if it was teaching or research. I enjoy both.

Yet I’m seeing a lot search committee venting of spleens that seem to assume people with credentials like mine are only interested in jobs at X, Y, or Z type of institution as a fall back, with an eye out the door as soon as they are hired.

I know these sorts of people exist; I see them in my graduate program. They annoy the hell out of most of us too.

Q: How do I show my sincerity to a search committee beyond researching their school and department? Should I just assume that a certain number of places I apply to are going to write me off because a few bad eggs from my graduate program have convinced them that everyone that comes from my PhD granting institution are arrogant pricks?


  1. "Dear Search Committee Members:
    Although the graduates from my program have traditionally desired and prepared for R1 positions, I am one of the rare ones that has always hoped to teach at a SLAC like yours. This is evidenced by A B C D etc...."

    Like that. Tell them the truth.

    However, you must be able to share this with the proffies who are writing letters of recommendation for you. Don't blindside them.

    To which you reply, "I would be thankful to have a job at any range of places, not just a SLAC." And this reply is not acceptable. It leaves most of us wondering how wide this range you mention is. Would you be "thankful" to have a job as a garbage collector or McDonald's clerk? No? Then what is this "any range of places" at which you'd be thankful to have a job? People want to know that. Otherwise, you'll just seem desperate for a job--any job.

    Yes, you could be a polymath. So what. Figure out what you really want. Not just for the sake of improving your chances of getting a job, but for the sake of having a better life. It will help you to know what you really want.

    It's great that you're asking these questions now rather than in your last semester. Perhaps you could discuss this with one of those career counselors at your school.

    1. Yeah, it's a more involved process than just rearranging the words in your job letter (or giving two teaching paragraphs and one research for a SLAC as opposed to 1/2 for an R1). If your letter effuses about your teaching skill, but your recs all paint you as a robotic research powerhouse and your CV is headed up with a big paragraph on your obscure dissertation, search committees are going to look at you funny.

      You should be able to develop a range of job application materials. Put together a retooled CV that emphasizes your teaching over research. Get faculty members who can speak to your teaching skill to write you letters in addition to the typical dissertation committee letters (my solution to this one was to have some faculty members sit in on classes I was teaching and then write me up some "teaching letters"). In essence, and this is going to sound pretty disingenuous, you need to be able to become a different person for each application.

    2. I agree with Dr. C. Get several packages together - research at big school, research at midsize, SLAC, etc. You are not really presenting different people but different versions of yourself. After all, you can do all these different jobs. You're not lying, you're emphasizing the qualities that each group is looking for.

  2. Speaking solely from my own experience, serving on search committees in my dear old Euphoric State U's own Department of Omnology, and acknowledging that your own field may have different dynamics. . . I can't remember rejecting any application just because we thought the applicant's background was too rich for our blood. The only times I can think of that we've written off applications in the initial review stages was when they were either shotgunned copies of the same app that the applicant had sent to fifty other schools ("I would love to engage in teaching your excellent students and collaborate on research with your internationally known faculty at your university"), or else were clearly mismatched to what ESU is and can do. ("With a startup budget of [GDP of Belgium] I will be able to train 3-4 postdocs per year." Yeah, and Ateles belzebuth might fly out of my columns of Morgagni, dude.) In other words, arrogant prickiness so great that it blinds the applicant to the realities of the job s/he's applying for.

    On the other hand, we did have an applicant once who came into the interview with the department head with a long, accusatory list of the various ways in which our university, department, and faculty were utterly failing and aggrieving the students, the taxpayers, and the entire Local Group of galaxies. There was no denying that the applicant had done hizzer research, and I think s/he meant to make helpful suggestions, but backing the department head up against the wall turned out to be counterproductive.

    Anyway. . . the best way not to be written off as an arrogant prick is, well, not to be an arrogant prick. Research the school and department, tailor your expectations and future plans to what the place can reasonably provide, and don't offer suggestions on how to reform the place unless directly asked, and even then be diplomatic. . . well, you know all this stuff already. You can't do anything about any prejudices the search committee may have. All you can do is represent yourself honestly, take the basic anti-prick measures, and hope for the best.

    1. "...and the entire Local Group of galaxies."

      Oo, that's bad.

  3. I was in a situation much like you're in. It's a tricky tightrope walk.

    I got my Ph.D. in astronomy at a place with plant matter on the walls, too. I also had three postdocs at R1s, or places like them, all over the planet. I also had "real" teaching experience, as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor at a tech school in the shadow of a NASA facility. I had projects with Hubble Space Telescope, and with other spacecraft, and with observatories on every continent except Antarctica.

    During my job search, which extended over nine years starting in my last year in grad school, I applied to over 150 places. The vast majority didn't give out much information on why they were dinging me. Two clearly let me know that they wouldn't hire me because they thought I was overqualified.

    Several other places clearly didn't mind this. Word has gotten around about how bad the hiring situation is. At least one place was quite remote, but as an astronomer, I was quick to point out that I could make good use of a dark sky at a rural campus. Two CCs where I got interviews liked how I'd published popular-level articles in astronomy magazines, and had given public shows at a planetarium in a big city. Both of them hired people with only M.S. degrees, however.

    What got me my present tenure-track job here at Middlin' State was my willingness to involve undergraduates in research, using an observatory they were building on campus. The number 2 job candidate who I beat also had a impressive background in astrophysics done with NASA spacecraft. Like most professional astronomers, he turned up his nose at the prospect of working with "amateur equipment," as he called it. The committee didn't like that utterance, so I was offered the job.

    OK, I freely confess, it is amateur-grade equipment. Still, I wish I'd had access to it when I was an undergraduate, so I welcomed the prospect. It is a big Universe, and there is publishable and sometimes even interesting research one can do on a low budget, if you have a good imagination. Since then, I've built a much nicer observatory in the mountains, with which I carry out real research. I still train students on the campus observatory, before entrusting them with the nicer one. What got me tenure was how I involved undergraduates in my research, and keeping the projects with Hubble Space Telescope rolling in, with of course the NASA funding that comes with them.

    So you see, it is a tricky tightrope walk. Do not exude an air of desperation, or that you're "settling" for any job. Chances are good that at a campus far from where you are now, you may be the first person from your plant-matter encrusted university they've ever met. They therefore may not know anything about the reputation of your university, aside from that it's supposed to be "good."

    Research every prospective job carefully, list the advantages, however slight, each job may offer you, and play up those advantages. If you can identify no advantages, that may not be the job for you.

    1. "Like most professional astronomers, he turned up his nose at the prospect of working with 'amateur equipment,' as he called it."

      Specifically, he said he "couldn't do research with amateur equipment." To be fair, he couldn't, because that equipment detects visible light like your eyes can see, whereas his research was detecting gamma rays. Nevertheless, his choice of words, "amateur equipment," damned him so badly that even I heard about it later.

    2. Not to be antagonistic, but does it really matter if you actually "discover" anything during your research? I wouldn't care if my telescope was a toilet paper roll with a lens hotglued to the end if I wasn't accountable for finding anything with it.

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    6. Yes it does, obviously. That's what makes the papers publishable.

      Specific discoveries that my students and I have made with the campus observatory's telescope include waves in the accretion disk of a cataclysmic variable, which reveal the physics of accretion disks in ways similar to how seismic waves tell us about Earth's interior (long story). We also watched three novae go through their nuclear-powered eruptions (again, long story), and did a search for exoplanets (which are planets orbiting other stars, not the Sun).

      I hope you realize that if you aren't publishing, you aren't really doing research, at least not in the sciences. University administrators love-love-love refereed publications that list students as co-authors, almost as much as external funding.

  4. As Bubba said, it's good that you are starting to think about this now. If you know what type of job you want now, start doing the things related to that job:
    1. mentor undergrads in research
    2. teach
    3. be involved in local professional societies
    4. get involved in community outreach projects

    Think of ways that you could continue your research at SLACs that involves undergrads.

    Departments want to hire people who already demonstrated talent performing the responsibilities of the advertised job.

    1. Here at Euphoric State, one of the things we always, always ask candidates is "How could you incorporate undergraduates into your research program?" A candidate who doesn't have at least two or three workable answers at the ready is in trouble. If you don't already have a program of research that you can get undergrads involved in, at the very least spend some quality time thinking hard about how you could get them involved.

      Ditto for teaching. The fact that I'd already repeatedly TA'd both Omnology for Non-Majors, and Omnology I and II for majors -- and was willing to do so again -- helped me get hired. I've seen candidates who wax poetic about the chance to teach graduate-level Post-Colonial Riemannian Omnology -- but when we ask about Non-Majors' Omnology, or Omnology for Basket-Weavers, their eyes glaze over as they robotically mumble platitudes like "i love to teach and try to engage all students". They don't get far. Get a decent range of teaching experience, be willing to teach at least some of the lower-division bonehead classes in your discipline, and think in advance about the specifics of what you'd do in your courses, and you'll have much less risk of being taken for an arrogant prick.

    2. Also have a snappy answer if asked, "What courses could you -not- teach?" Since I'm an astronomer, my answer was, "Condensed-matter physics at any level."

      (Condensed-matter physics used to be called "solid-state physics." It's a essentially how to make digital electronics. In other words, it's a commercially practical field, unlike astronomy, which is OK if it's an astronomer they want to hire.)

  5. Cynthia, are you familiar with The Professor Is In? I'm just a grad student, but I've found her advice extremely helpful.
    Not trying to start a fight, but one thing she would advise any Ph.D. is to stay the hell away from the campus career center.

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  7. Well Cynthia, either you are an arrogant prick or not. Just be yourself, it's not the kind of personality trait one can easily hide.

    Also, I see nothing wrong with having departments without a graduate program as "safety schools". Most people are able to work in a range of environments, and take the best offer they can get. (Just as departments take the best candidate they can get their hands on, and sometimes luck out and get somebody "out of their league".)

    As for perceptions/expectations of personality traits based on where somebody got a degree: it's the kind of prejudice individual job candidates are powerless to affect (and bending over backwards to counteract this possibility might backfire). If people in a given SLAC believe in this (perhaps not having been educated in plant-covered buildings themselves), it's their problem, and in the long run their department's loss.

  8. This might be discipline specific. In mine (mathematics): at the smaller "teaching oriented" institutions, you will be teaching a lot of calculus. So if you are interested in our job you might point out your experience and give some evidence that you take this aspect seriously.

    We have a publication requirement too, but you won't be doing "cutting edge" caliber research (e. g., if it is your life's goal to solve some well known open problem, you won't do it if you accept our job).

  9. You mentioned that you have degrees from a range of programs. Play that up in your letters. Say how much you got from the smaller institutions where you got your earlier education. Remind them that you have actually seen places like the one you're currently applying to, and how much you loved it and would like to find yourself teaching is one of them.

  10. You mentioned that you have degrees from a range of programs. Play that up in your letters. Say how much you got from the smaller institutions where you got your earlier education. Remind them that you have actually seen places like the one you're currently applying to, and how much you loved it and would like to find yourself teaching is one of them.

  11. I don't think that this is a real problem. It was perhaps 5 years ago, but not now.

    There is very little you can do to get attention. Either you fit or you don't. I've had to look at the parred-down 40 completely equally qualified and well-matched candidates. From those, on arbitrary terms having *nothing* to do with what is in the letter, we have to select 15 people for phone interviews, 8 of whom will get conference interviews, 3 of whom will get campus interviews.

    And all 40 would be perfect.

    It's growing into a bigger lottery every year.

  12. I can't speak to the present market, but in the (bad, but not quite as bad) market of the early '90s, as an ABD at a place that also sports vegetable matter on the walls (some of it named for the class that planted it, and accompanied by plaques recording the name/event) AND faux-gothic buildings, I had a few interviews with places that clearly had no intention of interviewing me, but just wanted to see what I looked/sounded like. Grad school classmates reported similar experiences.

    *But*, I and my classmates have also gone on to a range of positions, at a range of institutions, for varying reasons. While almost nothing can guarantee getting an academic job in this market, I'd advise being flexible, but not too flexible, and examining your strengths and weaknesses with an eye to which jobs, both academic and non-, would work best for you. Few people really would be equally happy, and equally effective, everywhere from a community college to an R1, and it pays to know yourself, and where you will be most effective. I probably spent too much time learning to teach in grad school (because I considered it the more virtuous, community-spirited part of the job, and also because, as an introvert, I found it somewhat harder to master), even though I'd gotten in on the basis of my research and writing (I was also a bit intimidated by the competitiveness of the R1 tenure track, and had shitty -- or, for long stretches of time, no -- advising, which made it hard to figure out the whole diss thing). At mid-"career" (in a full-time non-tenure-track job), I realize that I've coped with a 4/4 teaching-only job mostly because I lucked into a position that has me teaching about writing and research at a level higher than most jobs that focus on the core curriculum (I'm teaching mostly juniors, not freshmen or sophomores). I'd still like to do more research and writing myself, and would strongly consider a non-academic job that focused more on that (and still gave me the same autonomy and flexibility that I have now -- which is, of course, the rub; there are some advantages to our jobs). I could probably also manage a 4/4 of freshman comp, but it would have to be at a place with pretty well-prepared students, who would appreciate, or at least tolerate, a fairly "intellectual" approach to the course. I'm probably not cut out to teach 4 sections of remedial writing/reading at a community college (as in I couldn't hack it, partly because I'd have trouble finding common ground on which to connect with the students, and partly because the fact that I'm energized more by ideas than by social interaction would really become a liability; I very much admire those who can/do). (continued below)

  13. So, I'd say that you should do at least a bit of soul-searching (and the homework to understand what various sorts of jobs really are like, day in and day out), and narrow your focus somewhat. Are you most energized by teaching (to the extent where you'd really be able to juggle 4-5 classes and 4-5 preps, and come out of it all feeling wiped out but also cheered by the experience, and not discouraged by the fact that you haven't had time to do research in years)? Or are you most energized by a long day spent at the computer (or in the lab)? Which sounds absolutely exhausting/soul-sucking/unsustainable -- spending most of your time in the classroom (and/or in office hours/meetings), or spending most of your time researching and writing? (At either extreme -- R1 or community college -- you probably are going to have significant stretches of time when one of those two is your reality). Would you do well with a balance of the two (during the semester, or over the year)? What other, non-academic possibilities are there for people in your field, and which would play to your strengths? Then, as others have said, make sure you've developed the skills relevant to those jobs.

    Finally, I'll pass on a question which someone suggested at a MLA workshop I attended long ago, and which served me well in several interviews (well, if you leave aside the fact that I didn't actually get a job). When the committee asks if you have any questions, you ask "do you have any concerns about my candidacy that I can address?" It's a scary question to ask, but it yields surprisingly honest answers, and potentially useful information. For instance, asking it is how I found out that one of my recommendation letters focused solely on my research potential, leaving the committee to wonder whether I'd be happy at their SLAC.


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