Thursday, March 18, 2010

Absentee Faculty: The Curse of Email

I find myself in the awkward position of stalking one of my committee members. And why am I spending five or ten minutes at a time loitering in a public hallway, trying to ignore the stares of passerby as I wait for this one faculty member to emerge from a meeting or an office so I can force her attention on me? Believe it or not, I blame this on email.

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

Massive Dissertation Changes, And Advisor Confrontation

The excitement of having a job interview, the stress of deciding, and the thrill of accepting the job offer were just about my entire life for a month, but they didn't change one pesky fact: I still have to finish my dissertation. Oh, the job offer isn't contingent on the PhD, but it does bring a better salary, and I will need my terminal degree if I ever want tenure.

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.

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

Job Search Saga: The Aftermath

When I decided to accept a job offer, the thing I hadn't prepared for, or even thought about happening, was having to respond to interview requests from other colleges. It was one thing to say "I'm considering an offer from another college"; it was quite another to be faced with saying, essentially, "I know my cover letter made it sound like yours was the only college for me, but actually I've already accepted a job somewhere else."

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

Job Search Saga: The Decision

I accepted the position I was offered, at the first college that granted me an interview.

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

Job Search Saga: The Dilemma In Brief

The second phone interview with the second college had the same effect as the first; here was a cool college, one I could see myself at, so what am I going to do about the offer from the first college? The dilemma came down to this:

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

Job Search Saga: Assessing Start-Up Funds

As a graduate student, I'm used to surviving on a small stipend. Budgets, and denial of certain fun expenses, are a way of life. So I was surprised to find how quickly I could spend thousands of dollars when calculating my lab start-up expenses. An amount to me that first seemed, if not extravagant, then at least reasonable, turned out to be just sufficient.

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.