Why Are You Asking Me?

I've found myself in the weird position of giving career advice twice in the last week and a half. Once was to a former student, which I sort of understand, while the second time was a grad student in my former research group, who I've never met. I still don't really feel qualified to offer useful advice-- I haven't even come up for tenure yet, after all. I might have something useful to say next year at this time-- that, or you'll know not to listen to anything I have to say.

Anyway, since I'm thinking about this, and since I'm otherwise afflicted with motivation-sapping medical crud, I'm going to recycle the post from my old blog that I wrote the last time I had this issue. You can find the original here, but the comments are shut down, so I'll reproduce the full text below the cut.

So, if you'd like to hear the exciting saga of how I got my current job, all you have to do is click "Read On"...

In the previous post, I commented on disciplinary differences in hiring, and how that can make it difficult to give advice to people looking for liberal arts college jobs. Of course, that doesn't really account for the trouble I have with the idea of giving advice to other atomic physics types-- after all, my own experiences ought to be relevant there, right?

The other big problem I have with being asked for job-hunting advice is that I really don't feel like my own experience is much of a guide. I managed to get a tenure-track job at a good school, but I'm not entirely sure my experience in the job market is typical enough to be any use. My approach to the whole thing was a little idiosyncratic, and even talking about it runs a significant risk of making me sound like a complete jackass, and an arrogant one, at that.

It's probably worth talking about a little bit, all the same, just to be clear on where I'm coming from. This will necessarily be pretty sketchy, but I'll provide at least the broad details of my job search. Please do not take anything herein as gloating-- in retrospect, it's clear to me that I was very lucky in many ways, but at the time I didn't really know any better.

1) The Pool. I knew from the minute I began thinking seriously about grad school that I wanted to pursue a faculty job at a liberal arts college. I loved the atmosphere at my alma mater, and I really enjoy both teaching and research, so the chance to pursue both was very attractive.

The year I applied (2000-2001) was a particularly good one for college jobs in physics. The dotcom boom had inflated the endowments of most of the good private colleges out there, and they were all looking to spend money on new faculty. One of my current colleagues drew up a list of openings, and came up with something like 35 positions roughly comparable to the one I have now, and there were probably another few dozen at schools in the next tier down.

Of those openings, I applied for 15 jobs (based on counting the cover letters on my hard drive). This was largely due to the experience of a guy who was a post-doc when I was a graduate student, who applied for something like 40 jobs, and only later realized that probably 35 of them were jobs that he wouldn't take if they were offered to him. I figured there was no point in wasting my time and the time of the hiring committee, so I only applied for jobs I was sure I would want.

I narrowed the list down using a few fairly arbitrary factors. The most significant cut, somewhat ironically, was based on the infamous US News rankings-- I only applied to schools in the upper portion of the National Liberal Arts Colleges rankings (I don't recall if it was the top 50 or the top 100). I ruled out at least one other school on the basis of geography (there is no way I would be happy living in Mississippi), and a few more because they had an explicit religious affiliation, and I wanted no part of that.

(This is the part that sounds horribly arrogant, given the number of jobs that a lot of people wind up applying for, and the fact that many people are very happy at schools I rejected out of hand. But those are the schools I was really interested in, and I figured I could always extend my post-doc by another year if I needed to, and widen the pool the next year.)

2) The Timing. I applied kind of late in the process-- my applications went in the mail in early December. I actually flat-out missed the deadline for one school, and sent materials out after the "we will begin reading folders" date for some of the others. My recommendation letters were even later.

This was a ridiculous thing to do, in retrospect, but I thought I had a good reason for it at the time. We were working on a paper, and the "paper torture" process kept dragging on. I didn't have any other publications out of my post-doc, and this was a big one, so I thought it was important to be able to mention it. At the beginning of the application process, I thought that we could get the article accepted by the time I needed to send stuff out. By the end, I was happy just to be able to write "submitted to Science" on the publication list.

I should've just bit the bullet and sent the materials in on time (though the letters still would've been late). I had enough invited talks on the CV at that point to indicate that the work was significant, and I'm sure my tardiness got a number of my applications summarily trashed.

3) Research Proposal. The work I proposed doing (and have been working on ever since) was more closely related to what I did in grad school than what I was doing as a post-doc. This was a calculated risk-- the post-doctoral stuff was much sexier, but I didn't have any good ideas in that area that I thought were feasible in a small-college context.

(Of course, there are days when what I'm actually doing now doesn't seem feasible, but I get over that eventually.)

That's another thing that probably hurt me a bit. Also, what I proposed is expensive-- I've burned through well over $100,000 putting together my lab, which is on the high end of the start-up budgets available at small schools. I've been able to get grant money to fill out the budget, but that's not a sure thing, and a cheaper research program would've been an advantage.

4) Teaching Statement. This was by far the weakest part of my application, as I had basically no teaching experience. This wasn't entirely my fault-- I had a fellowship in graduate school that paid me a modest stipend, and that put me at the bottom of the priority list for TA jobs, and I never got any. I probably could've arranged something, though, either as a student or a post-doc, but I made research a higher priority.

I tried my best to finesse my lack of teaching credentials by talking about my experiences as an undergraduate, but I'm sure this got my application tossed aside with great force at several school. Including the nameless school whose rejection letter said "After reading a great many applications, we have decided to close our search for this year, and offer the position again next year"-- in other words, "We decided that not hiring anybody at all would be better than hiring you."

My one real hope was that I would look strong enough in other areas to get called in for an interview, at which point I could demonstrate teaching ability by giving a really good job talk. This is not an approach I would recommend.

5) The Results. I had two phone interviews (one went well, one went... less well), and one campus visit (not at either of the places I did phone interviews). I got two more requests for in-person interviews the day after I accepted my current job.

Having been on the hiring committee for a couple of visiting positions now, this suggests that I was in the mid-to-high "B" range-- a candidate who looks good in some areas, but has a significant weakness or two in the file. These are the people you call in when you need to go to a second round of interviews, after your first choices either wash out or turn you down.

This is borne out by things that I've been told about my hiring here. I apparently just barely squeaked onto the short list, and then jumped ahead by giving a really kick-ass job talk (if I do say so myself). So my brilliant plan did work in the end, but once again, I really, really don't recommend it.

So, there's the capsule sketch of how I got my job. If you're currently shaking your head and saying "This clown is the luckiest sonofabitch in the world," well, yeah, I feel the same way sometimes. Particularly when I talk to people in the humanities, with their cattle-call interviews at the MLA meetings and so forth. Also, you really don't want to ask how I got my post-doc job.

That's why I'm uncomfortable giving job-seeking advice to other people. I've got a little more perspective on the process now, so I can sort of see what the "right" way to do things would be. But looking back at things, I did just about every step in the process about as wrong as I could, and I ended up with a good job at a good school. So, who am I to give anyone else advice?

More like this

Actually, I do want to know how you got the post-doc. I've always thought it was really...well, not serendipitous, actually, but ...cool, if nothing else, that you and Kate managed to get to the same place at the same time. How'd you manage to swing that, if you don't mind my asking?

By Trent Goulding (not verified) on 24 Apr 2006 #permalink

Actually, I do want to know how you got the post-doc. I've always thought it was really...well, not serendipitous, actually, but ...cool, if nothing else, that you and Kate managed to get to the same place at the same time. How'd you manage to swing that, if you don't mind my asking?

That part was purely serendipity-- Kate got into law school, and Yale was one of the places I asked about post-docs, and they were the one that came through with an offer. I might just as easily have wound up in California or Virginia.

The "you don't want to know" referred to the job-hunt process I used there, which consisted of sending half a dozen emails to people I knew who did interesting research, and asking if they had any post-doc jobs available.

"...consisted of sending half a dozen emails to people I knew who did interesting research, and asking if they had any post-doc jobs available."

Isn't that how everybody in physics lines up a post-doc? That's certainly how I did it as a theoretical chemist.

By Grant Goodyear (not verified) on 08 Nov 2006 #permalink