Thursday, April 15, 2010
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Email has been a wonderful tool, a leap forward in communication. It allows me to send a message at my convenience, and allows the recipient to respond at his or her convenience. It doesn't matter if that person is an evening person, a morning person, in another city, or in another timezone; we don't have to deal with the hassle of meeting in person to collaborate on a project or to sort out a trifling problem. Taken to extremes, there isn't any need for physical proximity at all. Advisors can head out for sabbatical knowing that most things can be accomplished via email. And any number of faculty appear only for mandatory meetings, otherwise eschewing their offices in favor of working from home or a coffeeshop or some other student-free environment. And it all works.
Except when those faculty decide to ignore their email. They get swamped with papers to grade, deeply involved in writing a book chapter, or buried in their research, and they cease responding to or even checking their email. But, they still maintain their habits of not being anywhere near campus unless they have a meeting, which renders them completely unreachable.
All I asked was whether she would be available during a two-week period when I would like to defend my dissertation, just to be sure that I could progress to the next step of scheduling. I didn't ask for a detailed schedule; just a basic "Yes, I will be around those days", or "I will be out of town on these days". It should take less than a minute to respond to, and my other committee members got around to it in a day. But this one has not responded in the past three days, leading me to believe the email has been completely disregarded. And so I loiter.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Unfortunately, my dissertation changed dramatically in the six months since I proposed it. Oh, the first three experiments were the same, but what I thought they said was very different, and what to do for a fourth experiment was completely unknown. I spent months trying to figure out what a fourth experiment could be, and could only come up with one idea - which another member of my committee eventually said wouldn't work, or certainly wouldn't be able to argue what I needed it to argue.
The stress of all of this planning, combined with my advisor's absolute perfectionism, seeming inability to let go of what I had proposed, and seeming unwillingness to accept my opinion on the feasibility of success, resulted in an hour-and-a-half video conference, which was emotionally exhausting. In all of that, we really covered three main points:
1) I felt completely out of control of my dissertation, that I was doing nothing but catering to my advisor's opinion of what it should be, and that she dismissed many of my interpretations. It was never the case that I persuaded her to any side or interpretation, it was that I eventually bombarded her with so much data that she convinced herself. I think she still felt, at the end, that this wasn't the case, but she also wound up with plenty of evidence that she left that impression on me, and (true) hints that it also applied to other graduate students as well.
2) My advisor's ongoing insistence on matching what had originally been proposed left me feeling that my entire dissertation hinged on a single experiment. I wouldn't have proposed that way if I had known that to be the case. She eventually got me to see that there were some bigger changes that only made it look like the original final experiment was critical, but I think I got her to see that she had essentially been making my new dissertation seem like it hinged on the final experiment, and that this position was untenable.
3) No single experiment could possibly do everything we were asking of a new fourth experiment. It was supposed to be something that added depth, but could be prefaced in the introduction without knowing the results of the other experiments, and it had to fit in with the earlier experiments without going off in a new direction. In months of trying, I had come up with exactly one idea, which turned out not to work. If there was another experiment that could do this, I wasn't going to come up with it, because I had nothing left.
All of that, and I left ready for a good long nap. But as emotionally exhausting as it was, at least it was productive. My dissertation will proceed along a new plan that I devised, and my advisor modified but agreed to. There will be three experiments, and an entire chapter addressing alternative interpretations of what those experiments show, and why I favor my interpretation. One of these will be backed up from data from a mini-experiment I am currently conducting. And suddenly, the entire dissertation seems manageable. Four chapters with minor revisions, two chapters to write, and she will even cover my tuition if I have to enroll during the summer to have my PhD in hand before my new job starts. It all seems so manageable, I have to wonder what I'm missing.
Monday, March 8, 2010
How does one phrase this. It's not like you can say "Unfortunately, I've already accepted..." because it's not unfortunate. I'm not about to express regret about something I don't regret at all, but I don't want to sound like I'm completely brushing the invitation off. It's an exercise in tact and delicacy that I've had no training for in graduate school.
Fortunately, it hasn't happened often. Within a few days of accepting the offer, I received one invitation to an on-campus interview - very awkward, because that college called me instead of e-mailing, but the close timing meant that I could honestly say that I had just accepted another offer, and let them read into that what they would. Later that week, I received an email for a phone interview, and after agonizing briefly I just said "Thank you for the invitation; however, I have already accepted a job at another college".
It seems like the academic job application process is just set up for this. Dozens of applications are sent out, responses don't come for months - and, as it may turn out, all in a rush - and who can say what will have changed in the meantime? I would feel incredibly arrogant informing the colleges I haven't heard from that I'm withdrawing my application, but instead I'm left with the mild shame for not considering their offer. At least it isn't likely to happen again.
Friday, March 5, 2010
And everyone wants to know, how did I decide? I didn't actually wait to hear the reaction from the other college at which I was interviewing. For one thing, I realized that the ongoing stress of making a decision was costing me the glow and excitement of being recognized as a good teacher and wanted for these positions. For another thing, I came to a conclusion about the one thing that was making me hesitant to accept the offer.
The visit couldn't have been more perfect. I liked the people I met with (as well as could be expected from meeting most of them for only half an hour), I liked the town, I liked the building and the setup of the offices and classroom, I liked everything I heard about the courses I could teach and the life of the faculty member. I've asked a few follow-up questions via email, and each one has come in perfectly. Even the fact that it's a 3-year visiting position couldn't detract from the offer. Sure, being offered a tenure-track position straight out of grad school would have been nice, but a lot can happen in 3 years, from economic improvement prompting them to make a tenure-track position to me discovering a wanderlust that has me happy to explore other colleges.
The only, only part of the job that made me hesitant was that it was in my less-favored sub-field. Research in that sub-field is hard, especially on a limited budget, in a small town. I've spent much of the past week chewing my lip over the question of whether I could be successful as a researcher in that situation, thinking that it would be so much easier (and cheaper) to be in my preferred sub-field instead.
First, I wondered if I was just being lazy. Then, thinking about the other position in preparing for my phone interviews, I realized that the sub-field aspect was just masking a much more general problem: I was insecure. Some part of me is absolutely terrified that when I am no longer under my advisor's continual guidance, I will cease being anything like a successful researcher; that I will stop being able to design successful experiments, write good posters and journal articles, know where to submit them. It is a terror that applies equally well to any position.
With that terror firmly quenched - or rather, with the firm decision that I would not let the ongoing terror rule my future - the decision was easy. As I wrote to the chair in my acceptance email, I simply cannot imagine a place that would be closer to the ideal I had in mind when I was deciding to apply to liberal arts colleges. There was no reason to turn this down, no possibility that a better offer could come along.Now, I have that glow and excitement about the future again. And I just have to find a way to keep the dissertation from overwhelming it.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
College A - Amazing college, seemed perfect in many ways, offer in hand, but for a three-year visiting position in my less-preferred sub-field.
College B - Sounded really good from description of two faculty over the phone, looking for a tenure-track faculty member in my preferred sub-field, but I didn't even know whether I would be invited for an on-campus interview.
Several other graduate students in my lab said they would take the certainty of a job over the stress of waiting to see if there would be a better offer. Normally, that would be my approach as well; if I hadn't be invited to phone interview with College B at the same time I got the job offer from College A, I would have accepted the offer within a few days. As it was, I had to do some hard thinking about the potential downsides of the position.
These potential downsides were two: visiting position, less-preferred sub-field.
The visiting position itself didn't seem to be a downside to me. Three years would give me ample time to get experience, and would give me several years off before I had to think about job applications again. No guarantees were offered, but several of the existing faculty in the department had started on visiting positions, which had eventually been turned into tenure-track. Oh, there would be pressure to be productive, since I would potentially be on the market again in three years, but there would be pressure of being productive enough for tenure anyway, and at least the pressure would keep me from slacking on my research in my first year.
The less-preferred sub-field was certainly a downside. It is actually the sub-field most of my research has been in, but it is much more difficult to gather data, and I hadn't really wanted to get saddled with those headaches when I began my faculty career. I wasn't too worried about selling myself in the other sub-field, which is what all my teaching experience has been in, and I was so looking forward to the less demanding line of research.
So as the days toward my decision deadline approached, I found I was really asking myself a very simple question: Did I think I could make a success of the more difficult line of research, on my own, away from my advisor? Was it worth turning down an excellent teaching college just because my research was going to be harder than I had hoped?
Monday, March 1, 2010
My line of research is not a particularly expensive one; the vast majority of the tools I need can be bought from standard stores and websites. Still, the job was in the second-most expensive sub-field (out of five) in my area, and the money was allotted to basic expenses remarkably quickly. Computers themselves were the largest expense, quickly followed by computer software - my statistical analysis package alone turns out to be more expensive than a mid-range desktop computer. (And aren't I glad now that I have the discounted graduate version?) Toss in the few specialized tools needed for my research, and suddenly there was no room left.
Normally, this would be the point to start negotiating for more funds, but the offer had been declared "non-negotiable". Neither I nor my advisor had any basis for comparing this offer to others - small liberal arts colleges will never have the start-up funds that my research-focused university-professor advisor had received. I suppose I could have dusted off some contacts I made when researching liberal arts colleges a year ago, and asked for some guidance, but I didn't do it. Instead, I started feeling a creative challenge. How could I make this amount work?
I toyed around with cutting expenses here or there, trying to figure out what would be most important purchases to get my research program up and running. In the end, I decided the only thing that there was to decide at this point: I could make the start-up funds work. If I didn't manage successful research at this college, lack of funds would not be the reason. Which meant that the offer was reasonable, and I was back to figuring out whether I should accept it.
Friday, February 26, 2010
I also had no sense of whether I had "passed" my phone interview. As with my in-person interview - less than a week before! - I had been told a lot about the position and the college, and asked my own questions, but could remember only a handful of questions that might be used to separate me from the rest of the pack, the half-dozen other people who had been asked to do phone interviews. Most of the questions felt like they were just double-checking my interest before paying for my plane ticket. Why do you want to teach at a liberal arts colleges? What do you think about living in a small town? I found myself repeating a number of things that were in my application packet, although I repeated them with enthusiasm and flair. I suppose it helps colleges save money, but I constantly felt like I must be expected to have more to say than I had said before, and I didn't - I had worked on my application packet that thoroughly.
The only question that seemed like it might actually be evaluating my credentials was the fun one: If you could teach anything, any class, any topic, what would it be? I have two or three classes I dream of putting together, someday in the future when I have tenure and time, so I shared one of those. At least here I had a sense of how I did; "wow, that's interesting" (said with the appropriate tone of voice) is a very encouraging response.
So I left my office after the interview feeling both more conflicted - how am I supposed to decide my own future? - and, after a little thought, more relaxed - there are so many places I could love working and be successful, it'll all turn right in the end. And I convinced myself that there was nothing more I could decide until my next phone interview, so there was no point stressing myself out over the weekend.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
What I had not expected, and was both very surprised and somewhat panicked to see, was an email from another college expressing interest in my application and inviting me to do two phone interviews in the coming weeks. Given the current financial environment, all my planning had been focused on getting a single job; I hadn't spared the slightest thought on actually having to make decisions about accepting interviews or accepting offers. It never rains but it pours, and there I was caught outside without an umbrella.
My email to my advisor thus became a slightly panicked request for a meeting, the first time I have ever marked any communication "urgent". I had a job offer I was supposed to decide about within the week, an request to do phone interviews the next week, and no idea how to begin to respond to either. I needed someone to stem the tide of rising stress by first, rekindling the thrill of having been given an offer and another interview request and being wanted, and second, giving me some idea of what to do next.
My advisor demonstrated just how supportive she could be by coming through for me, offering to be on Skype for a conference (from her sabbatical location) within half an hour. In this meeting I heard her vicarious thrill at my achievements, and got very soothing guidance about what I could do next. It would be reasonable to ask for an extension on the job offer deadline, up to a week. I could mention the interview when making the request if I thought it would improve my chances of negotiating the offer. It would be reasonable to agree to tell the second college that I had an offer deadline, and ask to do the phone interviews early, to find more about that college as I decided. Meanwhile, I should put together a rough budget of my start-up needs, to determine how much I could do with the package I had been offered, considering a list of the hidden expenses my advisor provided.
I still left that meeting with a hearty dose of excitement, mingled with a dash of panic, but I'm not sure I would be human if I could have been calmed so easily. Whatever decision I was going to make, I had proof now that I was qualified for my chosen career, that I had chosen wisely in choosing that career, that I could fit in as a faculty member on a liberal arts college - and that more than one college thought so. The trick was going to be holding on to that excitement while navigating the stress of simultaneous interviews and decisions.
Monday, February 22, 2010
This came to a head when the senior faculty member gave me a tour around town before dropping me off at my hotel. His comments were peppered with suggestions about local agencies he could connect me with for research, the best places to live, and included the offer to give me the name of a good real estate agent. Perhaps the jet lag and the long day contributed, but I was feeling quite disoriented by the time we turned to my hotel. I hadn't found a way to ask the chair, or anyone else, when they thought they would make a decision, and I was starting to seriously regret not trying harder to broach the subject. I was trying to get my tired brain to come up with a brilliant way to ask, when matters were taken care of for me.
Here's the deal, he said as we neared my hotel. I've talked with everyone in the department, and they all liked you. Your job talk was great, we can tell you're a wonderful teacher. We have interviewed some other people, and we think you'll fit in fine. Don't be surprised if you get an email in the next few days offering you the job. We're eager to have someone hired, so we'll probably ask for your decision in a week or so. I'm letting you know this now so you have a little time to think about it.
This was too much for my tired, jet-lagged brain. It would be inappropriate to thrill with excitement, it would be inappropriate to give much of a hint about how enthusiastic I would be before seeing the financial terms of the offer...but what would be inappropriate? I'm not sure I contributed much beyond "Ok", some random assurance that I don't linger over my decisions, and a generic nice-to-have-met-you as I exited the car.
I also had no idea what I was supposed to tell people about how my interview went. I'm too paranoid and too cautious to make much of a possibility. I'm too much of a scientist desiring facts and definite data to rely on hearsay. After all, they couldn't have gotten the Provost's opinion, and I had no idea what he thought of me or how much his opinion would weigh, or someone could change their mind or raise doubts at the next department meeting. I was ecstatic, but reserved about sharing it.
On the phone with my father, telling him how my interview went, I kept that final parting statement to myself until he explicitly asked when I was supposed to hear their decision. Stretched out on my huge hotel bed, trying to figure out how I could be so exhausted and so unable to sleep, I decided to keep that potential decision a secret from everyone else, even my advisor; I would simply say that the interview went incredibly well, that I liked the college, that I thought I would hear back soon. It was all very true, and the suggestion of an offer was just too much, too soon, for me to deal with my own reaction, let alone anyone else's.
Friday, February 19, 2010
Promptly at 11:58, I left my hotel room and headed for the lobby. I had absolutely no idea how the chair and I were supposed to recognize each other, as the college website was surprisingly devoid of any faculty images. Fortunately, I didn't have to dwell on this, as the one person waiting in the lobby took the initiative and introduced herself. I wasn't sure what the protocol was for starting an interview in the lobby, so I focused on small talk during the drive to the college, mostly about the weather. The uncertainty persisted over lunch; it just doesn't feel like an interview when you're eating typical college cafe fare with students chatting on either side. She told me in more detail about what they were looking for (a replacement for a retiring faculty member, but opening up a new line of courses and research that students had requested), and flipped through my application packet looking for any final questions she had. I think our entire meeting covered more information about what they were looking for, with me working a few of my qualifications into the conversation where I could, than any interrogative interview.
Which made it all the more jarring to be switch from this laid-back conversation to my interview with the Provost. The department chair apologized when she picked me up, because she forgot to warn me that the man had no discernible sense of humor. Here I felt like I was being interrogated. There was the time he read a particular sentence from the job listing, twice, and then asked me how I would meet those requirements. (For the record, not a single person in the department asked me about those particular qualifications). Then there was the time that he left the room to fetch a posterboard copy of the college's new mission statement, propped it up on his desk, lectured me about the design, and then asked me how I would fit in with the college's central mission. The man never smiled, not once in forty-five minutes. I left the interview seriously wondering if he would veto any decision to hire me, even though I thought I handled all of the questions well, even the one that caught me completely off-guard, "What do you think are the biggest challenges facing higher education?".
On the bright side, I did have time to ask my own questions; I learned that the Provost could name every member of the department interviewing me, and had some idea of their reputation as teachers; I also learned that faculty had a lot of freedom in setting policies and designing new courses, and that I wouldn't be expected to do much service as a "visiting" professor. Still, I had never thought I would feel so intimidated on an interview.
So it was with great trepidation that I went on to my meeting with the faculty interview committee. To my immense relief, this committee consisted of three faculty members, as laid-back as anyone might expect at the college. They asked mainly standard, expected questions, they laughed readily at jokes and entertaining descriptions of research or teaching mishaps, and generally seemed happy to chat with me for the allotted time. The most interesting question I was asked was really more of a challenge: Explain why a student who would not major in your discipline should take an intro course in it. I think that question is much like the unexpected question from the Provost; you might not have explicitly prepared for it, but if you're right for a job at a liberal arts college you'll have thought about it enough in the past to be able to answer promptly. I even knew exactly what story to tell to back up the usefulness of something that would be learned in such an intro course.
Next came individual interviews with three of the faculty in the department. Two questions were fairly standard: If you could teach any class in our discipline, what would it be?, and How are you going to arrange your research given the limited resources of a liberal arts college in a small town? I'm not sure that any other questions were even asked. I did get to learn some of what pulled my application toward the top of the pile. The newest faculty member, who started just this year, was interested in a non-academic article I had written for a professional organization's magazine. Another was thrilled that our areas of research had some overlap, more than he had with the existing faculty, which would give him someone to discuss his research with in more depth. The third was the most brusque of the bunch - not unfriendly, but definitely businesslike; I rather got the impression that she thought I would do and was otherwise busy with preparing for other classwork.
My job talk went off without a hitch. I hadn't memorized every word, but I hit every point I need to make, the demonstrations worked perfectly with enthusiastic audience response (perhaps not from the students, who had assumed their standard "I'm being lecture at" faces, not unlike the slack-jawed stare of those watching TV, but I didn't let that deter me). I ended on time, answered a few questions that were perfectly relevant and not from left field, and could only hope that I had simultaneously conveyed my research abilities and teaching skills.
My final interview was really dinner, with the chair and the senior faculty member. The senior faculty member was incredibly nice as we prepared to leave for dinner; we were a few minutes ahead of schedule, and he arranged to vanish while I took a few minutes to myself. I walked up and down the silent hallway, breathing deeply, convincing myself that the worst was over; all I had to do was avoid any major social transgressions over dinner and I would be fine. Dinner was indeed an incredibly relaxed affair, at a surprisingly fancy restaurant. I shared the story of the Provost fetching the posterboard of the mission statement, to amusement all around, but otherwise the topics stayed enough away from teaching and research that I didn't feel under the microscope. After dinner, the senior faculty member gave me a driving tour of the town, including the main downtown area and the places near the college that faculty typically lived.
I returned to my hotel room both exhilarated and exhausted. I had survived my first interview, my impressions of the liberal arts college were everything I had hoped for and enough to convince me that I had chosen the correct career path. And all I had to do now was wait.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The ego-boosting revelation was simple: They were paying to meet me. They hadn't asked for a preliminary phone interview, they just jumped straight into spending a considerable sum, over half my monthly income, on my plane tickets, rental car, hotel stay, and meals. Based on nothing more than my cover letter, teaching statement, and supporting materials, they thought that I was worth that expense. Given the economic pressures that had resulted in so many colleges canceling their searches, that seems like a big deal.
So I luxuriated in my surroundings, the incredibly comfortable bed and the cable TV and the buffet breakfast that remarkably included hot options, and not just a waffle maker. It was the perfect start to the interview, because it's incredibly easy to project confidence in your ability as a future professor when they have made you so confident already.
Monday, February 15, 2010
The main reason for this unexpected lack of stress was a simple statement by a faculty member giving job search advice: Once they've invited you for an interview, they've acknowledged that you are a qualified teacher; the interview's purpose is only to establish "fit". "Fit", that ephemeral term that tries so hard to be more mature than adolescent angst about "fitting in" but is essentially the same thing, and very important at a small liberal arts colleges. The entire department, all five of them, were going to meet with me to decide if they would enjoy working with me for three years, or if there was some dramatic character conflict, or just in general if I sounded great on paper but was a horror in person. If I were a few years younger, this might have been more stressful than being evaluated on my qualifications, but I was also looking for a great place to work for three years, which made it a question of mutual fit. I was just as concerned with whether I would like working with them as they were concerned with whether they would like working with me, and if someone took an irrational dislike to me then I wouldn't want the job anyway.
With this fact firmly in mind, the interview became fun. It was a free trip to somewhere I'd never been, including meals for three days (the interview and both travel days), at least one of which was guaranteed to be of excellent quality (the dinner with faculty members after the interview). It was a chance to share my research with a group of qualified researchers, who might have good questions or comments about things I could do next. And it would be my first visit ever to a liberal arts college, and my chance to find out more about how they really work, their personality, what I could expect from my chosen career.
Don't get me wrong; I did want to be offered the job, and I would be disappointed if I didn't get it. But knowing that I wasn't really being evaluated, and knowing that I would get so much out of this visit even if I didn't get an offer, kept the excitement so high that the stress didn't have a chance to break through.
Friday, February 12, 2010
But the Internet is vast, and as an academic I am well trained in tracking down information. Searching for information on faculty interviews, and liberal arts colleges specifically, I found a wide selection of resources. Some of these seemed rather irrelevant, designed for research universities or for departments too foreign from my own. Others, though, provided excellent leads.
The resource I relied on most heavily was actually a book, and a very old one, called "Good Start: A Guidebook for New Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges". The edition in my library was published in 1992 - and may be the most recent one - so at times is was somewhat fascinating and highly amusing to read of searching for job announcements before the age of the Internet, and of how it was a seller's market for faculty candidates, and to look at the tables of median starting salaries, which were not all that much better than what I've been making as a grad student. What sold me on the book, though, was the story used to illustrate each part of the application process and early faculty career. Gerald Gibson, the author, adapted his own life story with observations made over the years to create a series of vignettes in the life of a new faculty member that opened each chapter. I didn't read the entire book, but I did read the story, and the chapters on the interview process and the first year as faculty. Seeing a story made me feel like I had some idea what I might experience, and let me generate my own questions instead of blindly following a list.
In addition to that broad picture, and a few discipline-specific suggestions, I found two pieces of advice that would become the focus of my afternoon of interviews:
1. The interviewers are looking for a colleague, albeit a junior one. It seems like it should have been obvious, but after almost five years of graduate school, I was in the habit of thinking of myself as a student. Even when I have presented my research at conferences, or was preparing my faculty application materials, I was thinking of myself as a graduate student. Reading that one simple statement shocked me out of that self-conception and gave me something to focus on projecting during my interviews. I am not a graduate student, I am an assistant professor, and although I will need some help in my first few years, I will be an excellent colleague.
2. Ask everyone who interviews you: What do you like the most, and dislike the most, about teaching at this college. A half-hour with each member of the department is not going to give you a great idea of who they are, or what it would be like to join them, but you can get a close approximation by prompting them to name what they like and dislike. It tells you something about the college, and something about the person. Liking the students and the rest of the department are obvious plusses; like the weather and town may not be the best sign.. Disliking the pay is not to be unexpected; disliking the students or the administration will raise some red flags.
By the time I was ready to fly out for my interview, I had created sheets with the questions I would ask the chair and the provost, and had found at least one specific thing to ask each faculty member, about programs they were involved in, specific projects their students had done, or the research facilities they used. I had anticipated a wide range of potential questions about my research, my ability to mentor undergraduates, and my teaching, and I was sure that if nothing else I wouldn't be left with long awkward silences during my interviews. I'm not sure if anything more constructive could be done to prepare for the first interview.