How many rejections should scientists aim for?

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Earlier this year an article on aiming for 100 rejections a year in literature was being passed around. The main idea is that by aiming for rejections, rather than accepted things we’re more likely to take risks and apply broadly.

Since reading that article, I’ve been pondering how many rejections I should aim for. What is a good number for a scientist? Continue reading

Confessions of an unemployed academic

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I have had versions of this post topic rattling around in my brain for many months. There are various reasons for me not writing it but ironically probably the biggest one is that I am unemployed.

My story goes like this: I had a position as an assistant professor in Sweden that came with a 4 year contract with no extension possibilities unless I was to bring in my own salary from grant money. Long story short, I applied for grants and other jobs over the 4 years and didn’t get funded or a permanent position. So in January this year the money ran out and I was officially without a paid position. It has been a complicated year since then with a mix of good and bad. Looking back some things have gone as I thought while others were unexpected. Here’s somewhat random list of some of my confessions. Continue reading

Will work for food: How volunteer “opportunities” exploit early-career scientists

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This is a guest post by Susan Letcher, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Purchase College in New York.

A recent job posting at Cocha Cashu caught my eye:

What: Co-Instructor for the Third Annual Course in Field Techniques and Tropical Ecology

Where: Cocha Cashu Biological Station, Manu National Park, Peru

When: September 1 (arrive a few days earlier)- November 30, 2015

Oh cool, I thought. A field course based at a premier research station. Sounds great. But as I read further, a sinking horror took over: Continue reading

What to do if you’re facing tenure denial

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A nontrivial fraction of tenure-track faculty are denied tenure, well over the standard 5% threshold for Type I errors that we use in the sciences. Even though academia has a love for self-scrutiny, we overlook the consequences of tenure denial. Tenure denial is not rare, but thoughtful information about tenure denial is rare. Continue reading

Chairing a search committee, in hindsight

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Last year, I had the dubious honor of chairing a search committee for two positions in my department. The speciality was open. I learned about my department and my university by seeing it through the eyes of applicants and would-be applicants. There’s a lot I’d like to say about the process that I can’t, or shouldn’t, say. But I do have some observations to share. Continue reading

One person’s story about post-PhD employment

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I’m an Associate Professor at a regional state university. How did I get here? What choices did I make that led me in this direction? This month, a bunch of folks are telling their post-PhD stories, led by Jacquelyn Gill. (This group effort constitutes a “blog carnival.”) Here’s my contribution.

I went to grad school because I loved to do research in ecology, evolution and behavior. I knew when I started that I’d be better off having been (meagerly) employed for five years to get a PhD.

The default career mode, at least at the time, was that grad students get a postdoc and then become a professor. It was understood that not everybody would want to, or be able to, follow this path. But is still the starting place in any discussion of post-PhD employment. As time progressed in grad school, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to run a lab at a research university, and that I wanted an academic position that combined research, teaching and some outreach.

I liked the idea of working at an R1 institution, but there were three dealbreakers. First, I didn’t want the grant pressure to keep my people employed and to maintain my own security of employment. Second, I wanted to keep it real and run a small lab so that I could be involved in all parts of the science. I didn’t want to be like all of the other PIs that only spent a few days in the field and otherwise were computer jockeys managing people and paper. Third, I was taught in grad school that the life of an R1 PI is less family-friendly than a faculty position at a non-R1 institution. In hindsight, now that I have worked at a few non-R1 institutions, I can tell you that these reasons are total bunk. I was naïve. My reasons for avoiding R1 institutions were not valid and not rooted in reality. Even though I now realize my reasons at the time were screwed up, I was primarily looking for faculty jobs at liberal arts colleges and other teaching-centered institutions.

We muddled through a two-body problem. My spouse wasn’t an academic, but needed a large city to work. She was early enough in her career that she was prepared to move for me while I did the postdoc job hop. I wouldn’t have wanted her to uproot from a good situation. In hindsight, our moves ended up being beneficial for both of us.

As I was approaching the finish to grad school, I was getting nervous about a job. My five years of guaranteed TA support were ending. I recall being very anxious. I landed a postdoc, though the only drawback was starting four months before defending my thesis. I moved from Colorado to Texas for my postdoc, and spent the day on the postdoc and the evenings finishing up my dissertation. As a museum educator, my spouse quickly found a job in the education department at the Houston Museum of Nature and Science.

While I was applying for postdocs, I also applied for faculty positions, even though I was still ABD. And surprisingly enough, I got a couple interviews. (I think I had 2-3 pubs at the time, one of which was in a fancy journal.) I got offered a 2-year sabbatical replacement faculty position at Gettysburg College, an excellent SLAC in south central Pennsylvania. At the same time, my spouse was deciding to go to grad school for more advanced training in museum education. By far, the best choice for her was to study at The George Washington University (don’t forget the ‘The’) in Washington, D.C. This seemed like a relatively magical convergence. With uncertainty for long-term funding in my postdoc (and also no shortage of problems with the project itself), we bailed on Texas and headed back east.

We lived in Frederick, Maryland. Which at the time was the only real city between Washington DC and Gettysburg. (Since then, I’ve heard it’s been converted into an exurb of DC.) I drove past the gorgeous Catoctin mountains every day to go to work, and she took car/metro into DC to work and started grad school. We scheduled her grad school so that she’d finish up when my two-year stint at Gettysburg would be over. I taught a full courseload for the first time, and noticed that I really liked the teaching/research gig at a small college. Grad school was great for my spouse. Life was good. In my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor, I got four tenure-track job interviews.

Through a magical stroke of fortune, I got a tenure-track job offer in my wife’s hometown, in San Diego, just 2 to 5 hours away from my family in LA (depending on traffic). The only catch was that I’d have to leave my position at Gettyburg one year early, and my wife had one year left in grad school. But, I really needed to focus on starting out my tenure-track position, and she really had to focus on grad school. She could move to DC instead of splitting the commute with me, and I could figure out San Diego without her for a year. If kids were involved, this scenario would have been a lot more complicated. If my spouse’s career was at a more advanced stage, the move from grad school to postdoc to temporary faculty to tenure-track faculty would have a lot messier and would have required more compromises. But somehow we made it work and it felt something resembling normal.

Then, after working in San Diego for seven years, we moved up to Los Angeles. I already have told that story. Which, if you haven’t read it, is a nail-biter.

As I tell the story to non-academics, they find our peregrinations rather surprising. From LA, to Boulder, to Houston, to Maryland, to San Diego, and eventually back to LA, at least for the last seven years. (In the meanwhile, I’ve been going back and forth from my field site Costa Rica on a regular basis). This frequency of moving is entirely normal in academia, even if we look like vagabonds among our friends.

What do I offer as the take-home interpretations of my post-PhD job route?

First: The geography of my tenure-track job offers was lucky. To some extent, I’ve made this luck through persistence, but having landed a job in my wife’s hometown was pretty damn incredible. And after botching the first one entirely, getting one in my hometown was amazing. Now that my spouse is at the senior staff level, openings in her specialized field of museum education are about as rare and prized as in my own field. However, we now live in a big city with many universities and many world-class museums, so we can (theoretically) move jobs without moving our home. We now are juggling a three-body problem.

Second: My early choices constrained later options. Even though I no longer am wary of an R1 faculty position, after spending several years at teaching-focused universities that is a long shot for me. (I do several people who made that move, but it’s still a rarity.) I’m confident that I can operate a helluva research program at a highly-ranked R1, but I’m too senior for an entry-level tenure-track position, and not a rockstar who will be recruited for a senior-level hire. For example, I am confident that I would totally kick butt at UCLA just up the road, but I doubt a search committee there will reach the same conclusion. I am just as pleased to be at a non-prestigious regional university, and when I do move, it’ll be because I’ll be looking for better compensation and working conditions. I’m looking at working at all kinds of universities, and I think my job satisfaction will be more tied to local factors on an individual campus rather than the type of institution.

Third: I applied for jobs that many PhD students and postdocs think are unsuitable for themselves. I spent a lot of time creating applications for universities that I’ve never heard of. I was hired as an “ecosystem ecologist” at CSU Dominguez Hills in Los Angeles. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles, the first time I ever heard of CSU Dominguez Hills is when I saw the job ad. And I’m not an ecosystem ecologist either. That didn’t keep me from spending several hours tailoring my application for this particular job. But I wouldn’t have gotten this job unless I applied, and most postdocs are not applying for jobs like the one I have now. I know this from chairing a search committee for two positions last year. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Fourth: Is being a professor my most favorite job ever? Actually, no. My employment paradise would be a natural history museum, with a mix of research, outreach and occasional teaching. I’m not a systematist or an evolutionary biologist, so getting hired into this kind of job is not likely. However, I have had a couple interviews for curatorial-esque positions over the last ten years and was exceptionally bummed that I didn’t get them. On the balance, even large museums go through phases of financial instability. It would be hard to give up tenure for a job that might bounce me to the street because of the financial misdeeds of board members and museum leadership. I’ve seen too many talented good museum people lose positions due to cutbacks or toxic administrators. I don’t know what could get me to take off the golden handcuffs of tenure. There are some university museums that hire faculty. That would be wonderful. Maybe someday that could happen. But I am pleased with what I’m doing, and I still am amazed that there are people paying me to do what I love.

Fifth: I ruled out a number of possibilities for family reasons. There are a variety of locations where I would be able to find work but would be unworkable for my spouse. Even in the depth of a job crisis, I opted against a number of options that would’ve given me strong and steady employment.

Sixth: I am not employed as a professor because I deserve it more than others. There are others equally, and more, deserving that are underemployed compared to my position in the academic caste system. The CV I had when I got my first academic position probably wouldn’t be able to do so now, 15 years later.

What kind of faculty job do you want?

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Faculty jobs involve teaching, research, and mentoring. Different kinds of universities expect faculty to conduct these activities in different proportions. What is your ideal balance? Consider the figure to find out where you belong.

ChooseYourInstittion

Figure by T McGlynn

For the uninitiated, SLAC indicates “Small Liberal Arts College.”

This figure implies a lot of mechanisms that differentiate institutions, and there are a bunch of reasons why the distribution for a regional comprehensive (where I work currently) fills in the gaps that other institutions don’t occupy.

Negotiating for a faculty position: An anecdote, and what to do

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This post is about a revoked job offer at a teaching institution that was in the news, and is also about how to negotiate for a job. I’ve written about negotiation priorities before, but this missive is about how to discuss those priorities with your negotiating partner.

Part A: That rescinded offer in the news

Last week, a story of outrage made the rounds. The capsule version is this: A philosopher is offered a job at a small teaching school. She tries to negotiate for the job. She then gets immediately punished for negotiating, by having the offer rescinded.

This story first broke on a philosophy blog, then into Inside Higher Ed, and some more mainstream media, if that’s what Jezebel is. There are a variety of other posts on the topic including this, and another by Cedar Reiner.

Some have expressed massive shock and appall. However, after reading the correspondence that caused the Dean to rescind the job offer, I’m not surprised at all. After initial conversations, the candidate wrote to the Dean:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

Here is what the Dean thought, in her words:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.

Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

There has been a suggestion of a gendered aspect. That viewpoint is expressed well here, among other places. (There doesn’t seem to be a pay equity problem on this campus, by the way.) I wholly get the fact that aggressive negotiation has been seen as a positive trait for men and a negative trait for women. I think it is possible that gender played a role, but in my view, the explanation offered by the Dean is the most parsimonious one. (Now, my opinion will be dismissed by some because of my privilege as a tenured white dude. Oh well.) Given the information that we’ve been provided, and interpreted in light of my experiences at a variety of teaching campuses, I find the “fit” explanation credible, even if it’s not what I would have done.

A job offer is a job offer, and once an offer is made the employer should stand behind the offer. Then again, if some highly extraordinary events unfold before an agreement is reached, the institution can rescind the job offer. In this circumstance, is the candidate’s email highly extraordinary?

Did this start at “negotiation” communicate so many horrible things about the candidate that the institution should have pulled its offer? The Dean’s answer to that question was, obviously, “Yes.”

I would have answered “no.” Many others have done the yeoman’s blog work of explaining exactly how and and why that was the wrong answer to the question. I’m more interested in attempting to crawl inside the minds of the Dean and the Department that withdrew the offer. What were they thinking?

The blog that first broke this story called these items “fairly standard ‘deal-sweeteners.’” I disagree. If I try to place myself in the shoes of the Dean and the Department, then this is how I think I might have read that request:

I am not sure if I really want this position. If you are willing to stretch your budget more than you have for any other job candidate in the history of the college, then I might decide to take the job, because accepting it is not an easy decision.

1) I realize that your initial salary offer was about what Assistant Professors make at your institution, but I want to earn 20% more, as much as your Associate Professors, because that’s what new faculty starting at research universities get.

2) I’d know that 6 months of parental leave is unofficial policy and standard practice, but I want it in writing.

3) I’d like you to hire adjuncts for an extra sabbatical before I come up for tenure. By then I’m sure I’ll need a break from teaching, even though everybody else waits until after tenure to take a sabbatical.

4) Before I take this special extra sabbatical, I want an easier teaching schedule than everybody else in my department.

5) I want to stay in my postdoc for an extra year, because I’d rather do more research somewhere else than teach for you. I realize that you advertised the position to fill teaching needs, but you can hire an adjunct.

While some of these requests are the kind that I’d expect to be fulfilled by a research institution, I’m hoping that you are able to treat me like a professor from a research institution. Now that you’ve offered me this teaching job, I want my teaching obligations to be as minimal as possible. Let me know what you think.

And the Dean did exactly that: she let her know what she thought. I’m not really joking: that’s really how I think it could be seen, inside the context of a teaching- and student-centered institution.

Here is a more unvarnished version of what I imagine the Dean was thinking:

Holy moly! Who do you think we are? Don’t you realize that we want to hire you to teach? I didn’t pull the salary out of thin air, and it was aligned with what other new Assistant Professors earn here. And if you want to teach here, why the heck do you want to stay in your postdoc which presumably pays less money? If you wanted to stay in your for 18 months earning a postdoc salary, instead of coming to teach for us at a faculty-level salary, then why would you even want this job at all? Also, didn’t you realize that we advertised for the position to start this year because we need someone to teach classes in September? If you have such crazy expectations now, then I can only imagine what a pain in the butt you might be for us after you get tenure. I think it’s best if we dodge this bullet and you can try to not teach at a different university. We’re looking for someone who’s excited about teaching our students, and not as excited about finding ways to avoid interacting with them.

The fact remains that the candidate is actually seeking a teaching-centered position. However, she definitely was requesting things that an informed candidate would only ask from a research institution. I don’t think that she necessarily erred in making oversized requests, but her oversized requests were for the wrong things. They are focused on research, and not on teaching. While it might be possible that all of those requests were designed to improve the quality of instruction and the opportunities to mentor students, it clearly didn’t read that way to the Dean. We know it didn’t read that way, because the Dean clearly wrote that she thought the candidate was focused too heavily away from teaching and students. I’m not sure if that’s true, but based on the email, that perspective makes a heckvualotta sense to me.

I’d would be more inclined to chalk the unwise requests to some very poor advice about how to negotiate. I’d would have given the candidate a call and try to figure out her reasons, and if the answers were student-centered, then I’d continue the negotiation. But I can see how a reasonable Dean, Department, and Vice President of Academic Affairs could read that email and decide that the candidate was just too risky.

New tenure-track faculty hires often evolve into permanent commitments. You need to make the most of your pick. Hiring a dud is a huge loss, and it pays to be risk averse. If someone reveals that they might be a dud during the hiring process, the wise course of action is to pick someone who shows a lower probability of being a dud. However, once an offer is made, the interview is over.

But according to Nazareth College, this candidate showed her hand as a total dud, and a massive misfit for institutional priorities. Though I wouldn’t have done it, I have a hard time faulting them for pulling the offer. If they proceeded any further, they would have taken the chance that they’d wind up with an enthusiastic researcher who would have been avoiding students at every opportunity. Someone who might want to bail as soon as starting. Or maybe someone who got a better job while on the postdoc and not show up the next year. The department only has four tenure-track faculty, and would probably like to see as many courses taught by tenure-line faculty as possible.

Having worked in a few small ponds like Nazareth, I don’t see the outrageousness of these events. We really have no idea, though, because there is a lot of missing context. But we know that the Dean ran this set of pie-in-the-sky requests by the Department and her boss. They talked about it and made sure that they weren’t going to get into (legal) hot water and also made sure that they actually wanted to dump this candidate. It’s a good bet that the Department got this email and said, “Pull up, pull up! Abort!” They may have thought, “If we actually are lucky enough to fill another tenure-track line, we don’t want to waste it on someone who only wants to teach three preps before taking a pre-tenure sabbatical while we cover their courses.” I don’t know what they were thinking, of course, but this seems possible.

Karen Kelsky pointed out that offers are rescinded more often at “less prestigious institutions.” She’s definitely on to something. Less prestigious institutions have more weighty teaching loads and fewer resources for research (regardless of the cost of tuition). These are the kinds of institutions that are most likely to find faculty job candidates who are wholly unprepared for the realities of life on the job.

When an offer gets pulled, I imagine it’s because the institution sees that they’ve got a pezzonovante on their hands and they get out while they still can.

At teaching institutions, nobody wants a faculty member who shies away from the primary job responsibility: teaching.

In a research institution, how would the Dean and the Department feel if a job candidate asked the Dean for reduced research productivity expectations and a higher teaching load for the first few years? Wouldn’t that freak the Department out and show that they didn’t get a person passionate for research? Wouldn’t the Dean rethink that job offer? Why should it be any different for someone wanting to duck teaching at a teaching institution?

I don’t know what happened on the job interview, but that email from the candidate to the Dean is a huge red flag word embroidered with script that reads: “I don’t want to teach” and “I expect you to give me resources just like a research university would.” Of course everybody benefits when new faculty members get reassigned time to stabilize. But these requests were not just over the top, they were in orbit.

If I were the Dean at a teaching campus, what kinds of things would I want to see from my humanities job candidates? How about a guarantee for the chance to teach a specialty course? Funds to attend special conferences and funds to hire students as research assistants. Someone wanting to start early so that they could start curriculum development. Someone wanting a summer stipend to do research outside the academic year?

Here’s the other big problem I have with the narrative that has dogpaddled around this story. It’s claimed that the job offer was rescinded because she wanted to negotiate. But that’s not the case. The job candidate was not even negotiating.

Part B: What exactly is negotiation and how do you do it with a teaching institution?

A negotiation is a discussion of give and take. You do this for me, I do this for you. You give me the whip, and I’ll throw you the idol.

In the pulled offer at Nazareth College, the job candidate was attempting to “negotiate” like Satipo (the dude with the whip), but from other side of the gap.

What the Dean received from the candidate wasn’t even a start to a negotiation. It was, “Here is everything I want from you, how much can you give to me?” That is not a negotiation. A negotiation says, “Here are some things I’m interested in from you. If you give me these things, this is what I have to offer.”

How should this candidate have started the negotiation? Well, actually, the email should have been a request to schedule a phone conversation. What should the content of that conversation have been? How could the candidate have broached the huge requests (pre-tenure sabbatical, starting in 18 months, very few preps, huge salary)? By acknowledging that by providing these huge requests, huge output would come back.

“Once I get a contract for my second book, could you give me a pre-tenure sabbatical to write this book?”

“I’m concerned I won’t be able balance my schedule if I have too many preps early on. If you can keep my preps down to three per year, I’ll be more confident in my teaching quality and I should be able to continue writing manuscripts at the same time.”

“Right now, I am working on this exciting project during my postdoc, which is funded for another year. If it’s possible for me to arrive on campus after I finish my postdoc, this work will really help me create an innovative curriculum for [a course I will be teaching]. During this postdoc, I’d be glad to host some students from the college for internships and help them build career connections.” Of course, it’s very rare a teaching institution wants to wait a whole extra year. They want someone to teach, after all! It couldn’t hurt much to ask, if you phrase it like this, verbally.

“After running the numbers, I see that a salary of $65,000 is standard on the market for new faculty at sister institutions. But from what I’ve seen from the salary survey, this is well above the median salary for incoming faculty. If you can find the funds to bring me in at this salary, I’m okay if you trim back moving expenses. Being paid at current market rate in my field is important to me, and if you let me know what level of performance is tied to that level of compensation, I’ll deliver.”

By no means am I a negotiation pro. What I do know comes mostly from the classic book, “Getting to Yes.” The main point of this book is that “positional negotiation” is less likely to be successful. This approach involves opposite sides taking extreme positions and then finding a middle ground. Just like asking for a huge salary, and lots of reassigned time and easy teaching.

Getting to Yes explains how to do “principled negotiation.” In this case, you have a true negotiating partner in which you understand and respect one another’s interests. So, instead of haggling over salary like buying a used piece of furniture at a swap meet, you discuss the basis for the salary and what each of you will get out of it.

If you are asking for a reduced teaching load, then you explain what you will deliver with this reduced teaching load (higher quality teaching and more scholarship), and what the consequences will be if you don’t get it (potential struggle while teaching and fear that you won’t have time to do scholarship). And so on. The quotes I suggested above are what you’d expect to see in a principled negotiation. The book is a bit long but there are some critical ideas in there, and I’m really glad I read it before I negotiated my current position. When it was done, both I and the Dean thought we won, and we reached a fair agreement.

If you are in the position of receiving an academic job offer, negotiating for the best starting position is critical. You don’t have to be afraid of having the offer withdrawn as long as you’re negotiating in good faith. That mean you communicate an understanding the constraints and interests of your negotiating partner. And being sure that when you are ask for something, your reason is designed to fulfill the interests of your partner as much as yourself. So, asking for a bunch of different ways to get out of teaching responsibilities is a non-starter when your main job responsibility is teaching.

It’s not only acceptable to negotiate when you are starting an academic job, it’s expected. The worst lesson to take from this incident is Nazareth is that there is peril in negotiation. I suggest that the lesson is that you must negotiate. And, keep in mind that negotiation is a conversation and a partnership towards a common goal. Even when it comes to money, there is a common goal: You want to be paid enough that you’ll be happy and stay, and they want you to be paid enough that you’ll stay.

You won’t have anybody pull a job offer from you if you’re genuinely negotiating. It’s okay to ask for things that your negotiating partner can’t, or may not want to, deliver. However, what you ask for should reflect what you really truly want, and at the moment you’re asking, provide a clear rationale, so that you appear reasonable. If you’re interviewing for jobs, then I recommend picking up a copy of Getting to Yes.

Natural history is important, but not perceived as an academic job skill

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This post is a reflection on a thoughtful post by Jeremy Fox, over on Dynamic Ecology. It encouraged me (and a lot of others, as you see in the comments) to think critically about the laments about the supposed decline of natural history.

I aim to contextualize the core notion of that post. This isn’t a quote, but here in my own words is the gestalt lesson that I took away:

We don’t need to fuss about the decline of natural history, because maybe it’s not even on the decline. Maybe it’s not actually undervalued. Maybe it really is a big part of contemporary ecology after all.

Boy howdy, do I agree with that. And also disagree with that. It depends on what we mean by “value” and “big part.” I think the conversation gets a lot simpler once we agree about the fundamental relationship between natural history and ecology. As the operational definition of the relationship used in the Dynamic Ecology post isn’t workable, I’ll posit a different one.

As a disclaimer, let me explain that I’m not an expert natural historian. Anybody who has been in the field with me is woefully aware of this fact. I know my own critters, but I’m merely okay when it comes to flora and fauna overall. I have been called an entomologist, but if you show me a beetle, there’s a nonzero probability that I won’t be able to tell you its family. There are plenty of birds in my own backyard that I can’t name. Now, with that out of the way:

Let’s make no mistake: natural history is, truly, on the decline. The general public knows less, and cares less, about nature than a few decades ago. Kids are spending more time indoors and are less prone to watch, collect, handle, and learn about plants and creatures. Literacy about nature and biodiversity has declined in concert with a broader decline in scientific literacy in the United States. This is a complex phenomenon, but it’s clear that the youth of today’s America are less engaged in natural history than yesterday’s America.

On the other hand, people love and appreciate natural history as much as they always have. Kids go nuts for any kind of live insect put in front of them, especially when it was just found in their own play area. Adults devour crappy nature documentaries, too. There’s no doubt that people are interested in natural history. They’re just not engaged in it. Just because people like it doesn’t mean that they are doing it or are well informed. That’s enough about natural history and public engagement, now let’s focus on ecologists.

I honestly don’t know if interest in natural history has waned among ecologists. I don’t have enough information to speculate. But this point is moot, because the personal interests of ecologists don’t necessarily have a great bearing on what they publish, and how students are trained.

Natural history is the foundation of ecology. Natural history is the set of facts upon which ecology builds. Ecology is the search to find mechanisms driving the patterns that we observe with natural history. Without natural history, there is no such thing as ecology, just as there is no such thing as a spoken language without words. In the same vein, I once made the following analogy: natural history : ecology :: taxonomy : evolution. The study of evolution depends on a reliable understanding of what our species are on the planet, and how they are related to one another. You really can’t study the evolution of any real-world organism in earnest without having reliable alpha taxonomy. Natural history is important to ecologists in the same way that alpha taxonomy is for evolutionary biologists.

Just as research on evolution in real organisms requires a real understanding of their taxonomy and phylogeny, research in real-world ecology requires a real-world understanding of natural history. (Some taxonomists are often as dejected as advocates for natural history: Taxonomy is on the decline. There is so much unclassified and misclassified biodiversity, but there’s no little funding and even fewer jobs to do the required work. If we are going to make progress in the field of evolutionary biology, then we need to have detailed reconstructions of evolutionary history as a foundation.)

Of course natural history isn’t dead, because if it were, then ecology would not exist. We’d have no facts upon which to base any theories. Natural history isn’t in conflict with ecology, because natural history is the fundamental operational unit of ecology. Natural history comprises the individual bricks of LEGO pieces that ecologists use to build LEGO models.

The germane question is not to ask if natural history is alive or dead. The question is: Is natural history being used to its full potential? Is it valued not just as a product, but as an inherent part of the process of doing ecological research?

LEGO Master Builders know every single individual building element that the company makes. When they are charged with designing a new model, they understand the natural history of LEGO so well that their model is the best model it can be. Likewise, ecologists that know the most about nature are the ones that can build models that best describe how nature works. An ecologist that doesn’t know the pieces that make up nature will have a model that doesn’t look like what it is supposed to represent.

Yes, the best ecological model is the one that is the most parsimonious: an overly complex model is not generalizable. You don’t need to know the natural history of every organism to identify underlying patterns and mechanisms in nature. However, a familiarity with nature to know what can be generalized, and what cannot be generalized, is central to doing good ecology. And that ability is directly tied to knowing nature itself. You can’t think about how generalizable a model is without having an understanding of the organisms and system to which the model could potentially apply.

I made an observation a few months back, that graduate school is no longer designed to train excellent scientists, but instead is built to train students how to publish papers. That was a little simplistic, of course. Let me refine that a bit with this Venn diagram: 

nathistvenndiagram

What’s driving the push to train grad students how to publish? It doesn’t take rocket science to look at the evolutionary arms race for the limited number of academic positions. A record of multiple fancy publications is typically required to get what most graduate advisors regard to be a “good” academic job. If you don’t have those pubs, and you want an academic job, it’s for naught. So graduate programs succeed when students emerge with as their own miniature publication factory.

In terms of career success, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the papers. What matters is the selectivity of the journal that publishes those papers, and how many of them exist. It’s telling that many job search committees ask for a CV, but not for reprints. What matters isn’t what you’ve published, but how much you have and where you’ve published.

So it only makes sense that natural history gets pushed to the side in graduate school. Developing natural history talent is time-intensive, involving long hours in the field, lots of reading in a broad variety of subjects. Foremost, becoming a talented natural historian requires a deliberate focus on information outside your study system. A natural historian knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things. I can tell you a lot about the natural history of litter-nesting ants in the rainforest, but that doesn’t qualify me as a natural historian. Becoming a natural historian requires a deliberate focus on learning about things that are, at first appearance, merely incidental to the topic of one’s dissertation.

Ecology graduate students have many skills to learn, and lots to get done very quickly, if they feel that they’ll be prepared to fend for themselves upon graduation. Who has time for natural history? It’s obvious that ecology grad students love natural history. It’s often the main motivator for going to grad school in the first place. And it’s also just as obvious that many grad students feel a deep need to finish their dissertations with ripe and juicy CVs, and feel that they can’t pause to learn natural history. This is only natural given the structure of the job environment.

Last month I had a bunch of interactions that helped me consider the role of natural history in the profession of ecology. These happened while I was fortunate enough to serve as guest faculty on a graduate field course in tropical biology. This “Fundamentals Course,” run by the Organization for Tropical Studies throughout many sites in in Costa Rica, has been considered to be a historic breeding ground for pioneering ecologists. Graduate students apply for slots in the course, which is a traveling road show throughout many biomes.

I was a grad student on the course, um, almost 20 years ago. I spent a lot of my time playing around with ants, but I also learned about all kinds of plant families, birds, herps, bats, non-ant insects, and a full mess of field methods. And soils, too. I was introduced to many classic coevolved systems, I learned how orchid bees respond to baits, how to mistnet, and I saw firsthand just how idiosyncratic leafcutter ants are in food selection. I came upon a sloth in the middle of its regular, but infrequent, pooping session at the base of a tree. I saw massive flocks of scarlet macaws, and how frog distress calls can bring in the predators of their predators. I also learned a ton about experimental design by running so many experiments with a bunch of brilliant colleagues and mentors, and a lot about communicating by presenting and writing. And I was introduced to new approaches to statistics. And that’s just the start of it the stuff I learned.

I essentially spent a whole summer of grad school on this course. Clearly, it was a transformative experience for me, because now I’m a tropical biologist and nearly all of my work happens at one of the sites that we visited on the course. Not everybody on the course became a tropical biologist, but it’s impossible to avoid learning a ton about nature if you take the course.

The course isn’t that different nowadays. One of the more noticeable things, however, is that fewer grad students are interested, or available, to take the course. I talked to a number of PhD students who wanted to take the course but their advisors steered them away from it because it would take valuable time away from the dissertation. I also talked to an equivalent number of PhD students who really wanted a broad introduction to tropical ecology but were too self-motivated to work on their thesis to make sure that they had a at least few papers out before graduating.

In the past, students would be encouraged to take the course as a part of their training to become an excellent ecologist. Now, students are being dissuaded because it would get in the way of their training to become a successful ecologist.

There was one clear change in the curriculum this year: natural history is no longer included. This wasn’t a surprise, because even though students love natural history, this is no longer an effective draw for the course. When I asked the coordinator why natural history was dropped from the Fundamentals Course, the answer I got had even less varnish than I expected: “Because natural history doesn’t help students get jobs.” And if it doesn’t help them get a job, then they can’t spend too much time doing it in grad school.

Of course we need to prepare grad students for the broad variety of paths they may choose. However, does this mean that something should be pulled from the curriculum because it doesn’t provide a specific transferable job skill? Is the entire purpose of earning a Ph.D. to arm our students for the job market. Is there any room for doing things that make better scientists that are not necessarily valued on the job market?

Are we creating doctors of philosophy, or are we creating highly specialized publication machines?

There are some of grad students (and graduate advisors) who are bucking the trend, and are not shying away from the kind of long-term field experiences that used to be the staple of ecological dissertations. One such person is Kelsey Reider, who among other things is working on frogs that develop in melting Andean glaciers. By no means is she tanking her career by spending years in the field doing research and learning about the natural history of her system. She will emerge from the experience as an even more talented natural historian who, I believe, will have better context and understanding for applying ecological theory to the natural world. Ecology is about patterns, processes and mechanisms in the natural world, right?

Considering that “natural history” is only used as an epithet during the manuscript review process, is natural history valued by the scientific community at all?  Most definitely it is! But keep in mind that this value doesn’t matter when it comes to academic employment, funding, high impact journals, career advancement, or graduate training.

People really like and appreciate experts in natural history. Unfortunately, that value isn’t in the currency that is important to the career of an ecologist. And it’d be silly to focus away from your career while you’re in grad school.

But, as Jeremy pointed out in his piece, many of the brilliant ecologists who he knows are also superb natural historians. I suggest that this is not mere coincidence. Perhaps graduate advisors can best serve their students by making sure that their graduate careers include the opportunity for serious training in natural history. It is unwise to focus exclusively on the production of a mountain of pubs that can be sold to high-impact journals.

We should focus on producing the most brilliant, innovative, and broad-minded ecologists, who also publish well. I humbly suggest that this entails a high degree of competency in natural history.

Coming out of the closet, tenure denial edition

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With a bit of CV forensics, you can infer a lot about the career of an academic.

One potential indicator of tenure denial is employment as an Assistant Professor for seven years, not immediately followed by an Associate Professorship. An astute person mulling over my CV would notice this.

I don’t hide this fact, but I don’t advertise it either. It’s no secret, by any means.

Volunteering this fact comes with some serious baggage. It’s not like I was denied at Harvard, where denial is the default expectation. In my last job, tenure denial was a rarity. You had to really botch it to get denied. While I had some high-performing colleagues, I also had one colleague who was tenured despite not publishing anything after getting hired. Others moved successfully through the system even though they were notably ineffective in the classroom. Even though the bar was low, I didn’t make it over.

The standard of line of thought must be that I really sucked at my job, or I must have been a major jerk. It’s difficult to argue against that reasoning.

Tenure denial is a failure. Tenure denial can be caused by poor professional performance, poor navigation of politics, or by personal faults. I would bet that, if any of you called up my former colleagues who were involved in the process, that their explanation might be evenly split among the three possible causes, and maybe a trifecta of all three.

The experience of tenure denial is extraordinarily difficult. It’s painful and lonely. There is a mixture of grief and loss, often heavily salted with injustice. Take the angst involved in the path towards a tenure-track position, and mix in six more years of effort. Then, top that with your spouse’s career and bake in your personal finances. It’s hard to describe, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

How, exactly, did this happen? I actually have already explained it elsewhere. Throughout my terminal year, I shared the story over a series of four installments in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I wrote a follow-up column a few years later, as I was waiting to hear the tenure decision at my current institution. Here are the links:

Part 1, October 2006: No warning signs

Part 2: November 2006: A way out of this mess

Part 3: February 2007: Reviving my career

Part 4: May 2007: A fresh start

Part 5, February 2010: Life after tenure denial

[update, Part 6: January 2014: Tenure denial, seven years later]

I also have another installment in the works, which I’ll probably publish later on this site. I have learned some new lessons, and new facts, since the 2010 installment. [update: here is that installment]

These articles were published pseudonymously. Obviously, at the time it would have been unwise to discuss my job search process in real time under my real name, especially in my delicate position. (The only fact that I altered in the columns was that I switched the gender of a couple individuals.) Because I didn’t use my own name, the reach of those articles might have been limited. If I want to make a bigger difference by having written these articles, then connecting my real name to them might create a better understanding because I don’t have to obscure any details about myself.

There are pluses and minuses about coming out. I’ll have detractors who claim that I deserved what I got. Others might think that I fabricated or exaggerated details. Others might think that I’m oblivious to my ample flaws. Still others might think that this fact explains more than it does. I’ll have to deal with those things, because the benefits of coming out are great. There are plenty of people who are looking for a new tenure-track job after tenure denial, but there’s little information to be found from those who have gone through the process. I think those going through this process might benefit from some of the details about the things that worked and didn’t work out for me. (They also might see some hope in my happy ending, which at the outset I never could have foreseen.)

I am, admittedly, more fond of my current job than my last one. I don’t think this difference is caused by my nasty experience, but could reflect that I am genuinely a better fit for my current job. The sources of great pleasure in my current job were scarce in my old job, and the things that I dislike about my current job were in far greater supply at my old job.

So, have at it. If you wish to leave comments about this story, I do recommend that you read the five columns to which I have linked.

Grabbing the brass ring

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Many moons ago, I wrote some friends and colleagues to let them know I was starting a tenure-track position. One of them wrote back to congratulate me on “grabbing the brass ring.”

Grabbing the brass ring involves far more luck than skill. I know this from experience.

Have you ever grabbed the brass ring? I mean, actually, a real brass ring. Do you know the origin of the phrase?

There’s a gorgeous carousel in San Diego’s Balboa Park, more than a hundred years old, with most of the original parts intact. I’ve rode this carousel on occasion. This is one of relatively few places that still runs the classic ‘brass ring game’ that used to be a common feature of carousels.

If you ride on the outside row of the carousel, then you have the opportunity to reach out and grab at an apparatus that delivers metal rings. Most of these rings are made of iron or steel. If you grab a one of those rings , then you can just toss it at a target. But if you grab the brass ring, you get a free ride. At least, that’s the prize in Balboa Park. It takes a little bit of effort and dexterity to grab the ring. You’re going by pretty quickly, and you’ve got to hook your finger in just the right spot. But it’s mostly about being at the right place at the right time. There are lots of riders who grab rings on the carousel. It’s not that difficult if you’re trying to do so and you ride several times. So, when you get the brass ring, it’s mostly luck that you happened to be there when it came down.

I used to think that “grabbing the brass ring” was a phrase that referred to some kind of prize or some kind of achievement. And it is, but for anybody attempting to grab it, whether or not you get it is mostly luck. If you keep riding the carousel, then odds are you’ll grab a ring.

This is a germane analogy for the academic job market. Of course, some people are far more likely to get offers than others, based on their application materials. But once the short list gets drafted, well, everybody’s on a horse in that carousel, and someone’s going to grab the brass ring. There are lots of things that can affect the timing of when that brass ring is dropped, but it’s not under the control of the person riding the carousel horse.

Two Tenure-Track positions in Biology at CSU Dominguez Hills

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My department is hiring two biologists. What field of biology? You name it! The department has a broad variety of needs.

Some ad text is below, which provides the basics. Note that application review starts in late October.

The Department of Biology at California State University Dominguez Hills invites applications from individuals for two Tenure Track Assistant Professor positions, open to all disciplines of biology, starting August 2014. We are seeking two biologists who have passion for teaching biology and conducting research with undergraduates and Master’s students. A Ph.D. in biology or a related field is required. The applicants must possess scholarly and professional competence as demonstrated by a record of research publications and have demonstrated potential for effective teaching of undergraduate and graduate courses. The applicants must have demonstrated ability and/or interest in working in a multiethnic, multicultural environment. Teaching responsibilities may include general education, introductory biology, non-majors courses, and upper-division and graduate courses in the candidate’s specialty. The positions require the establishment of an active research program, as well as service to the university.  The Department of Biology offers four baccalaureate programs, an M.S. program, and two Minor programs. Recognizing the crucial role of research in science education, the Biology Department is committed to offering research opportunities to all interested and qualified students.

Review of applications, consisting of a CV, cover letter, teaching and research statements and a list of 3 references, will begin on October 23, 2013. To apply, submit materials through http://www.csudh.edu/employment/ and additionally send all materials as a single file to biologysearch@csudh.edu, instructing references to send letters to biologysearch@csudh.edu.

EO/Title IX/ADA Employer

Interviewing for a faculty position in Sweden

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by Amy Parachnowitsch

Last week I interviewed for a faculty position in Sweden. Given that it is my second of such interviews and that the process has had me fairly distracted me, I thought I would write about how it works. This might be of interest to those applying for these kinds of jobs or as a comparison to other systems. I was certainly surprised by the process when I first applied because it was such a stark contrast to what I expected from North American hiring.

Applying: First, in my experience applying for a position in Sweden takes much longer to put together than a North American tenure track job. The application process is all on-line with various attachments, rules, and instructions. The general requirements are similar; you need to present your CV including teaching experience, publications (ten are attached), research plan and teaching philosophy. However, how these pieces fit into the various components can be different. The devil is in the details. For example, in my recent application there were no fewer than three places that I was to enter something about students I have supervised. It was challenging to know exactly how these should differ as well. Further, teaching was broken into experience/merits, supervision and a self-reflection on the role of a teacher (all separate sections). There was also a section where you were to describe your personality. This also came back in the interview process where all candidates were asked to describe themselves in one word. Quick, try to answer that one without dwelling on the positives and negatives of any given word too much (I answered optimistic). Another big difference in the application process is that letters of recommendation are not requested, only contact information (perhaps to avoid wasting people’s time?). Publications are of course in your CV and you attach 10 publications but you also need to describe your role in all publications you attach and your motivation for choosing those 10. After you send in your application, you wait, but we (the applicants) were given a timeline of when the decision about interviews would be conducted shortly (~one week) after the closing date. Thus you know precisely how long to wait (about three months). Unlike North American jobs where it is sometimes unclear what stage the search is in, all the applicants receive the information at the same time.

The interview/review committee: in an effort to control nepotism in Sweden because it is a pretty small country, departments do not actually decide who is going to be hired, even for permanent/tenured positions. The idea seems to be that they want the best person for the job and that an independent panel can assess that. It is also so that people can be judged fairly. At a certain point it seems difficult to do this and tough when some candidates are known in the department (with so few universities, it is not uncommon for people to have done their PhDs or post docs in a department they are applying to). So although I haven’t seen the interview process from the other side, my impression is that although fit seems to be considered, no one making the decision has a vested interest in who is hired. Depending on the university the committee can be from across sciences or a more narrow group (within biology, for example). Externals are brought in to review all the candidates first and determine the five (at least in both of my experiences) who are invited to interview. For my non-tenured position there was one external reviewer, two for the tenure-track position. The external reviewers do not have a final vote for the candidates but inform the decision. There are also student representatives on the board and others representing the union, for example. So far, one interview brought in the external reviewer for the day while the other did not.

The interview: The interview is short, over the course of a single day, with all five people interviewing on the same day. The interviews are back–to-back (with coffee breaks (fika) and lunch, of course! This is Sweden after all). You have a short presentation of your work. Seriously short—in which you should discuss your research program, short and long term goals and demonstrate your teaching abilities (“The candidates are requested to prepare a 20-minute presentation of their research program and plans for the future, emphasizing both short- and long-term goals. This is an opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate their teaching skills”). Yeah. My experience has been 15 mins for the non-tenured position, 20 for the tenured (but maybe a difference of the universities rather than the position type). In the interview for my current position, the talk was only for the committee and was immediately followed by a ~30 min interview. The one I just did had a 20 min talk followed by 5 min of questions; it was open to the public but in practice was mainly attended by the committee. The interview for the tenured position was in the afternoon for 45 mins. Fairness is taken very seriously here so they keep to the time. It seems that the same basic questions are asked to all candidates with some variation. Mostly these questions are not about your science but about everything ranging from teaching, conflict resolution, how do you see yourself in the department, etc.  Following all talks and interviews, the committee sits down and ranks the five candidates.

The day: unlike North America, you don’t end up meeting with people in the department in an official way. Both my visits included a tour of the department and meeting with the department head but the people who you meet will not influence the decision or even have an opportunity to do so. It also means that you often meet the other candidates. This last interview was even strange because I collaborate with two of my fellow interviewees. Like I said, Sweden is a small country. So all the candidates had a joint lunch together with a few people from the department.

The wait: Waiting for an answer is also short. Generally the committee decides on the day and they will let you know within the week (<24hrs for one and <48 for the other). Unlike in North America, the process is transparent. So you receive the comments by the external reviewers (this is for all the candidates that apply) and all candidates are informed of who is invited for the interview and then they also receive the final ranking of the interviewees. So you immediately know not only whether you got the position but also where you rank compared to other candidates. All the other candidates also know this about you. So that can be a little disconcerting. However, despite being transparent, you really have little idea about why you are ranked as you are. The external reviews reflect two opinions but don’t tell you how the committee considered them. As for the final assessment, there was no real indication of why they made the final choice. So similar to my impressions for NA position, you are left to wonder why you weren’t given the job and whether or not you should have done something differently.

I was the top choice in my current position (few people refuse offers here, maybe because there are so few) and I was down at the bottom for the latest (they ranked the top three). Tough to know why and now it is time to lick my wounds, reflect on what I have learned, and get back to work. I’m grateful for two more years of salary to do just that.

So, teaching is for people who have imposter syndrome?

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Isn’t it a bummer when your research is founded on an invalid premise? This can’t be a good moment for a researcher whose work was featured in Science online. This article would be just silly, if it didn’t take itself so seriously while also being offensive.

As represented in this Science “careers” article, the project was designed to understand what might cause scientists to change their professional ambitions from a tenure-track position at a major research university to, well, something other than a tenure-track position at a major university.

Apparently, that change in career ambition is some kind of flaw in performance, as the study reported these students as “downshifters.”

Apparently, a tenure-track position at a research university is “faster” than other jobs that doctoral students take. According to the study — or at least interpreted by the author of the Science article — a teaching position or policy job is is slower than a running a research lab. Maybe that’s what some tenure-track faculty at R1 institutions might think, but that doesn’t make it true.

Is it just me, or is the notion that deciding against a tenure-track position at research institution is a “downshift” is a load of crap? If you’re designing a study with this as a presumption, then isn’t that going to result in confirmation bias?

If we decide to choose an equally ambitious path in a different direction than the PI of the study, then why is it that we are labeled as having downshifted our expectations of ourselves?

In grad school, at some point, I decided that I didn’t want a job at a research institution. The job that I ended up taking, at a primarily teaching institution, is not any easier and not any slower than running an R1 lab. It’s not easier, it’s just different. There’s a good argument to be made that, after I chose against an R1 job, that I’m running harder and faster than a PI at an R1 institution.

According to this study, I’d be a downshifter. That judgment of me gives me some indigestion.

Moving into a tenure-track position at a research institution is often considered the default route for doctoral students, even if the bulk do not end up in such a position. If a doctoral student decides in the middle of grad school that she wants to pursue a different path, how is this shifting down one’s expectations? How is it that downgrading one’s expectations?

Here’s how the study identified what a “downshifter” is and what she found, as I read the article in Science careers:

The authors interviewed a whole bunch of doctoral students at one university. Only about 25% 33% had a goal of working in a tenure-track position at a major research university. (I found this rather surprising, and a form of good news, actually. Do their advisors know this?!) Of the entire pool, less than ten percent initially had an ambition to become a professor in a tenure-track position, but then changed their minds.  These were the “downshifters.” (There were gender disparities, with fewer women wanting the R1 jobs and more women who chose to against the more-exalted path.)

So, here’s what I see in these data: 75% 66% of grad students don’t want to become R1 professors. During grad school, 10% change their mind and don’t want to become R1 professors. These “downshifters” are more likely to be suffering from imposter syndrome, as it was measured in the study, and the gender disparity results in more women changing their minds about their career goals.

Note: Before going to press with this piece, I corresponded with the PI of the study. She didn’t want to write a response to be included in the original post, but she did clarify some numbers. She wrote:

As far as the numbers go – currently 22.5% of the women in my sample and 27% of men aspire to tenure-track professorships with an emphasis on research. 40% of the students have either changed or seriously considered changing career goals while in graduate school, but only 23% have actually changed. 11% of women and 6% of men were classified as “downshifters” because they shifted from professor with an emphasis on research to one of the 11 other categories. That means that *more* than that 22.5 and 27% originally aspired to the TT – about 1/3.

The take-home message is, then, that if imposter syndrome is causing a leak in the so-called pipeline, where the small fraction of Ph.D. students who want a so-called “fast” job decreases even more when they have imposter syndrome, which disproportionately affects women.

Maybe if we stopped portraying the tenure-track positions at research institutions as the idealized goal of grad school, then perhaps we wouldn’t be so worried about driving people away from academia and research? These gender disparities are real, and very concerning, and by continuing to up the stakes about how special and important R1 faculty jobs are, we’re not helping the problem.

This was not a brief rant, but it was summed up by a colleague of mine in just a few, less testy, words:

In all fairness to the PI of the study, she told me that she had no editorial power over what was published in Science careers. I’m sure the author didn’t do the PI any favors in how he represented her work, and that’s why I offered her the opportunity to clarify and rebut before going to press. She declined to offer a specific rebuttal, but did indicate that both the Science piece and this post itself were not fairly representative of her work or her views.

She did send me a link that represents her views and reassured me that the use of the term downshifter “is not meant normatively in any way and instead to capture the issue as it has been addressed in previous literature.”

Is using the term downshifter acceptable as long as it’s used only because other people have in the literature? Doesn’t the apparently broad use of this term in the literature suggest that this entire line of investigation has some messed-up assumptions built into the hypotheses being tested? If all of the research on women leaking out of the pipeline originates with these kinds of value judgements, are the conclusions trustworthy?

On the ethics of juggling job offers

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The academic job market is tilted towards the side of the supplier. As any postdoc can tell you, there is way more supply than demand for professors (who are not employed as adjunct serfs). So, universities don’t need to give much leeway to job candidates. There’s always somebody good waiting in the wings, right?

As a job candidate, it is useful to remember that departments and universities have problems when a faculty search fails. Only a few candidates are interviewed – I’ve never heard of more than five. There is pressure on the department and dean to make sure that among these interviewees, a desirable candidate takes the job, because reopening the search is usually a mess for a variety of reasons.

Universities also know that good candidates may get multiple interviews, and multiple offers. They can’t give good candidates the leeway to get away, so candidates are usually given a brief window of time to come to a decision, in the midst of a long job season.

This results in a set of dilemmas in the realm of game theory reasoning. The stakes of bet-hedging, and how one regards a bird in the hand, are incredibly high.

Once you get a good job offer or offers, at what stage do you pull yourself from the job market? This presents set of logistical and ethical questions.

Let’s say you get a job offer from your dream job, the one that you are sure you want over all others. That’s a no-brainer. Once you sign a contract you can pull yourself from the other searches.

Let’s be clear: you should keep looking for a job until you have a signed contract. At some institutions, this could take days. At others, it can take months. However, without a signed contract, no matter what anybody might say, you don’t have a job. When campuses are in times of tight funding, the faculty line might get pulled in the gap between the email conversations and the presentation of an actual contract. I know of a few circumstances in which someone has received a job offer verbally or by email, but the contract never arrived because the position was pulled higher up the administrative line. This stuff actually does happen.

The dream job is a convegence of geography, institution type, and the specifics of the institution. This is a rarity. Let’s say you are offered a job that you foresee enjoying, but you also other jobs pending that you see as more attractive. What do you do?

Here are some possibilities:

  1. Ask for more time from the place offering you’re the job (useless)
  2. Pull yourself from other job searches when you commit verbally or by email (a little unwise)
  3. Pull yourself from other job searches when you sign a written contract (makes sense)
  4. Keep actively searching for a job even after you’ve signed a contract (not necessarily evil)

Let’s size up each these options in more detail.

If you ask for more time, that might actually result in less time. Once you hint that you need more time for a decision, your negotiating partner will want you to sign quickly. If you need more time for your spouse to size up the location, then that might be received differently, but all of this will happen on a short clock regardless of the circumstances. Keep in mind that you need to be negotiating the position (salary, startup, moving expenses, resources, reassigned time, and so on) after you receive an initial offer. These negotiations usually take a couple days, maybe a couple weeks at most.

You’re not going to see a formal contract until you’ve already committed to the job verbally or by email. When you do commit your intentions, it should be entirely clear to both you and the university that you are intending to take the job. Also, it should be clear that, without a contract, that you are unable to wholly commit 100%. For a full commitment, you should have a contract. You can say that you’re excited for the position, but the only tangible commitment on both sides is a signed contract.

As soon as you agree to take the job verbally, the folks offering you the job will be happier if you drop out of all other searches, because you might find and take a better job. However, unless you’ve been presented with a signed and legally binding contract, the other university should have no reasonable expectation for you to withdraw from searching for other jobs.

How badly should you feel if you verbally/email commit to Job X, and get a better offer for Job Y before the contract for Job X shows up? You shouldn’t feel too bad. The institution offering Job X can’t reasonably expect you to commit without a genuine contract. They can’t sue you, surely.

Here is a principle for the academic job search process: Don’t hold yourself to any ethical guidelines that are also not being followed by the academic institutions involved in the search. To hold yourself to higher ethical standards than the ones your prospective employers is unfair to you, and leaves you at a structural disadvantage in the job search and negotiation process.

If chair or dean makes an offer, and then the position is later pulled by an administrator higher up the line, then they’d feel badly that you didn’t get the job but there’s nothing that they or you could do about it. Likewise, if the institution doesn’t get you a contract, and you find a better job before they get you a contract, there’s nothing that they can do about it, and of course you should take the better job.

So, what do you do if you’ve already signed on the dotted line on your official legally binding contract, and then you find out that you have interviews – or offers – from other more potentially attractive jobs? This is where I think people have strong and differing opinions. For what it’s worth, here are my opinions, though I don’t hold strongly to them.

I think it’s important to honor a contract that has been signed. I also recognize that universities typically do not look out for the welfare of their employees any more than any other employer; this is especially true for adjuncts. Universities in the US, as a class, aren’t well known for having transparent and fair labor practices. So, professors need to look out for their own interests. (That’s why we many of us have joined together in the process of collective bargaining.)

When a contract is signed, you need to have complete and specific plans for carrying out the contract. This, however, does not preclude being involved in other job interviews. Interviewing for a job doesn’t mean that you’re breaking a contract. All different kinds of things can occur on an interview. If another university calls you out to interview, you do owe it to yourself, and your family, to work to find the best job for you. Interviewing for a job even though you’re committed to someone else for the next year isn’t dishonest, unless you choose to be dishonest in the process.

Why would you go on an interview for a job at University Y if you’ve already committed to a different job at University X? Here are some things to consider. First, you only signed a contract for a single year of employment with University X. In some cases, University Y might wait a year for you if they really like you; you won’t know this unless you interview. Second, if you do get a job offer from University Y, you could indicate to them that you need to work out your relationship with University X. Then, if you approach you University X and told them that you plan to leave for University Y after one year, I am mighty confident that they would release you from your contract. Especially in the sciences, which involves startup expenses, why waste the funds on someone who is guaranteed to leave in a year? They would be downright bothered if not mad, but it’s an option available to you. I’ve been on the nasty end of the stick when it comes to university employment practices, and have seen all kinds of even worse stuff. So I’m relatively inured to the idea that someone might not choose to announce a brief term of employment before starting.

I don’t think I’d be happy telling one job that I want out of a contract once I’ve gotten a better offer, but I’ve also never been in the position in which I’ve chosen an acceptable job, and then got an offer for one that is much better for myself and my family. If I do ever move on to a different job than the one that I’m in, then I’m quite sure that when I sign a contract, that’s probably a job I’ll keep until retirement. But, my circumstances are different from a postdoc or young assistant professor with different needs.

When I’m on a search committee at University X, it’s my job to figure out if a job candidate really wants to work there for at least a decade. If the person doesn’t, then they probably aren’t a good choice.

It’s stuff like this that leads search committees from non-highly-ranked institutions to be wary of applications from awesome job candidates. Nobody wants to waste an interview slot on a person who is likely to get a better offer elsewhere. This is why “fit” matters so much in the application vetting process – because you want to pick someone who will build their career at a place, because a talented experienced professor on a particular campus is very valuable to the students and the institution as a whole.

So, this isn’t an advice post. It’s simply a reflection on the different ways that one can handle the prospect of getting multiple job offers. I’m not an ethicist by training, and morals are quite different from ethics. So, your mileage may vary.

Applying for a faculty position at a teaching institution: the research statement

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Pretty much every faculty job application requires a Research Statement. It could be called something slightly different (research plan, statement of research interests), but they’re all pretty much the same.

The research statement that you send to a research university has to be fundamentally different from the one you send to a teaching institution.

When you’re applying for a job at a research university, your research statement should explain that your research is academically exciting, you are a current or future rockstar, you’ll bring in a more grant money than a minor deity, produce a ton of prestigious publications, train amazing doctoral students and your research fits well into strategic emphases within the department. I guess. I’ve never been on a search committee at a research university.

If you sent that that message to a teaching institution, you wouldn’t make the shortlist, because you wouldn’t fit in.

What messages do you need to send to a search committee at a teaching institution in your teaching statement?

  • Your research is academically exciting
  • Your research will provide extraordinary opportunities for undergraduates
  • You have a realistic notion about the amount of research you’ll get done
  • Your work will be successful outside the context of big labs you have worked in before
  • You can get external funds, but your program won’t fall apart without it
  • Your research is complementary with the department (you fill an open niche)

You don’t need to overtly state the above points, but they all should be things that an informed reader can easily infer.

Teaching institutions want to hire the best researchers that they can. However, departments don’t want to hire someone who they aren’t sure can’t run a successful research program while teaching the standard teaching load. They don’t even want to waste an interview slot on that kind of person.

You want to make sure that your application doesn’t communicate, by inclusion or omission, that you might be someone who can’t teach a lot while doing research with students at the same time. But most applicants lack that kind of experience. This is not a handicap. Search committees can’t use past performance to evaluate how someone will do research in a teaching faculty position. Instead, they can size up the attitude of the applicant. When you write about how you mentor and do research, does your approach look like something they think would be successful? Those things matter, a lot.

Your research statement is not the centerpiece of your application, but it is important for narrowing down the applicant pool. The two major elements that the search committee will be looking for in your research statement are:

  1. Your research fits the specialty that the department is looking for
  2. Your attitude towards research fits well within departmental norms

Unfortunately, you don’t really have any control over either of those two elements. But what you can do, for the second element, is to make sure that the attitude in your application fits what you know of the institution and what might be more generally applicable to many teaching campuses.

One approach that can work well is to build your research statement around a five-year plan. You don’t have to call it that, but it should communicate the scope of how much work you’ll do before you submit your tenure file at the start of your sixth year. If you project much further into the future about what your research goals and interests are, you’ll sound unrealistic. If you don’t look ahead for multiple years of research, then you’ll appear unfocused. You shouldn’t describe specific experiments, but you should describe lines of research, where they’ll be going, and what you expect to discover.

One focal point of your research statement needs to explain the role of undergraduates. What is your mentoring style? How you do identify and recruit students for your lab? What are your priorities for student development? How do you design projects so that there are meaningful roles for undergraduates? These things are important. The fact that you place undergraduate mentorship inside your research statement is, itself, an expression of your priorities.

Like all other parts of the application, you’ll be more successful if you honestly communicate your priorities and goals. This will not only result in the right institutions picking you for an interview, but it also will have the added benefit of making sure that you will be able to fulfill the expectations that you create.

You don’t have to think too big or claim to be running a research program that will transform your discipline. You just need to get pubs out once in a while with student coauthors, mentor undergraduates in research, and hopefully get a grant. Put yourself in that mindset while crafting your research statement and you are more likely to have an ethos that will fit with the departmental mindset.

The cover letter for a faculty position at a teaching institution

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What is the role of a cover letter in the application for a faculty job?

The primary function of the cover letter is to help you make the short list. Many search committee members use cover letters to cull the tower of applications to a workable height. If your cover letter doesn’t communicate a good fit, then it’s easy for your application to be tossed aside.

Once you’re on the short list, your application will get scrutinized in more detail. Your cover letter, along with your CV, is your foot in the door, before the door slams shut.

Because cover letters are used for culling, the absence of negatives in the letter is particularly important. In addition, the there are a number of required elements showing that you are a potential good fit. Your letter can’t have things that rule you out, and it needs to have things that take you to the next level.

It doesn’t take a paleocytogeneticist to figure out that you need to identify the traits that are seen as essential, negative, and positive by the institution to which you are applying. You can do some research, but what a department thinks is often mysterious, even to the members of the department. Regardless, there are a number of commonalities among most teaching institutions in how they pick candidates, which I attempt to elucidate here. This might be an incomplete or flawed list; I’d love to see comments.

Required elements: These are needed to make the short list.

You are capable of teaching what the job requires. You have to be qualified to teach the courses in the job ad, and then some. If you haven’t taught these courses already, that’s okay. Be sure to explain what you have already taught, where you’ve taught it, and that you’re fully prepared, and excited, to teach what is in the job ad.

You are focused on teaching. There are different ways to communicate this fact, but it has to clearly emerge throughout the letter that teaching is your highest priority.

You are serious about research, and discuss it in the context of undergraduate mentorship. Be clear that student research experiences are integral to your research. This doesn’t have to be the purpose of your research, but nearly every undergraduate institution is expecting its new faculty to substantially engage students in research.

Your research program is workable on campus. Nobody is going to want to interview anyone whose research looks like it isn’t compatible with the campus. It needs to be obvious that your research can continue after you move. If your work has involved specialized locations or facilities, you need to make it clear that you have a way to continue a productive research agenda after the moving. (For example, since my research is based in a different country, then I have to mention that I always do my fieldwork in summer and winter break. Another approach would be to indicate that I’m prepared to operate my research program locally.)

You’re not a weirdo. Being a weirdo isn’t just a negative; you have to actively not be a weirdo to get on the short list. What does a weirdo look like in a cover letter? Well, a weirdo has a weird cover letter, meaning that it appreciably deviates from the norm. Be normal in the cover letter, just do it in an excellent way. One exception is if the search committee is composed of weirdoes. This is academia, after all.

Negatives: Stay away from these things in the cover letter

Research comes before teaching: At a teaching institution, teaching comes first. That means, literally, that teaching should be mentioned first. Don’t be more excited about research than about teaching.

Research gets more verbiage than teaching. You’re being hired to teach. I understand that describing your research program in the level of detail you wish might take three paragraphs. But that would require at least three, better, paragraphs on teaching. And if you did that, your letter would be too long.

Not doing your homework: There could be many small things that could suggest that the applicant hasn’t taken the time to learn the basics of the campus. Don’t mention that you really want to teach a specific class that is clearly the territory of someone else. Don’t say that you would like to teach the laboratory of a course which is offered without a lab. Don’t refer to a department-less program as a department, and don’t use acronyms or names for things on campus unless you know those are in common use.

Typos. One can be overlooked, but two is mighty bad. Be careful to avoid cut-and-paste errors that show traces of other applications. Of course everybody knows that applicants apply for many jobs, and this isn’t fatal, but it obviously doesn’t look good.

Educational mumbo-jumbo. It would be great if your teaching included quickthinks, think-pair-share, formative assessments, and uses Bloom’s taxonomy to formally establish expectations. To many scientists, even at teaching institutions, you’d be overbearing if wrote about it in your cover letter. You might not even want to mention clickers unless you know the department has already adopted them. Many scientists, even at teaching institutions, are threatened by other scientists who are progressive in finding effective modes of teaching. You can present yourself as a progressive, experienced and innovative instructor without making the recalcitrant relics in the department think that you’ve gone to the dark side of education.

Namedropping. Let your CV and reference letters speak for themselves, especially if you were blessed with a pedigree including Dr. Famous. Keep in mind that small campuses have people in such divergent fields that Dr. Famous might not even matter to your audience.

Boasting. The cover letter is not the place to mention awards you’ve received, big papers you’ve published, or big grants you’ve landed. That’s on your CV and it can speak for itself. Discuss your projects, but not the amount of money connected or who funded it. If you have a record of external funding, then say in your cover letter that you intend to continue the projects that you’ve been running.

Discussion of the nice location of the campus. Anybody can waste words about the perfect weather in coastal Southern California, the great cultural scene in Los Angeles, New York’s great bagels, that charming rural towns are great places to raise families, and that Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh. To say so is cloying, unless you’re a Warhol scholar.

The mistake that being a student informs you about the life of a professor. Many people who apply to liberal arts colleges mention that they were liberal arts college students, suggesting that this experience gives them a better preparation for the job of a liberal arts college professor. This argument is both pedestrian and non-compelling. We are smart enough to read your CV and connect the dots. It’s okay to mention it, but don’t write about the topic as if you have some magical level of understanding, unless you had attended the same school to which you are applying for a job. Being a student at a liberal arts college doesn’t help you know what it is like to be a professor at one. If imply this idea, you could sound a little naïve.

You’re coming up for tenure. The longer you are in a faculty position, the harder it is to move, unless you want to become an administrator. If you want to move from one job to another, it’s possible, but you have to convince the committee that you’re really serious about moving and that you’re not just applying for a counter offer, or to test the waters. Don’t mince words and be clear about your motivation if you want to leave. You also need to remain positive and not say anything negative about your current position. This is a delicate dance. Make sure that this is backed up by a letter-writer from your campus, who can be more frank than you. You need to bring this out in your cover letter so that the committee will choose to look beyond your CV.

Expression of negativity about anything. Don’t complain, don’t make excuses, and don’t air any grievances about anything. If your publication record is subpar, the worst thing you can do about it is to make excuses or promises. If you’re looking to leave one job for another, or choosing one career path over another, your motivations need to be positive. You might be working in a snakepit, but you can’t speak badly of your current employer if you are to land a new one.

Positives: Recommended but not required

The letter is the right length. Spilling onto a third page is too wordy, but not getting far enough into the second page is too terse. The best cover letters I’ve read (in my opinion) go some distance into the second page. Five brief paragraphs should be fine. You’re not fooling anybody by shrinking the font, other than yourself.

You communicate that you might have a realistic idea about what it is like at that institution. Many applicants for teaching jobs really have no idea how much teaching happens. If you’re smooth, you can subtly phrase things to make it clear that you won’t get sticker shock when you find out what the teaching load is like. If you can find a credible way of explaining that you are able to thrive while teaching a full course load, include it in the letter. As a drawback, I don’t know how to recommend how to do that smoothly without having already had that experience.

You are open-minded about your teaching assignments. Sometimes, new hires are stuck with the classes that senior faculty are tired of teaching. In others departments, new hires are rewarded with the opportunity to teach their specialty. You never know what the department needs, and even if the job ad is detailed and specific, the people in the department might not have equally specific ideas. In addition to explaining that you can teach the things in the ad, you should indicate that you enjoy teaching at all levels (if this is true) and that you’re open to a variety of courses that are suited to your qualifications (if this is true).

Specific references to campus-specific traits indicating that you can fit in well: These things are particular to a person and to a campus. For example, if you do work in Latin America and the university has a clear emphasis or strategic direction towards Latin America, bring this up. Another example could be that you know that the college has a nature preserve adjacent to campus, and that is the home to organisms that you study, and that working there would facilitate long-term and student-centered research. The more you do your homework, the greater the chance you might find a connection. Don’t make a stretch, but if it’s a natural fit, it’s okay to mention it in the cover letter and them amplify in the teaching and research statements as needed.

Your research is in the area required in the job ad. Perhaps this is a surprise, but this is not in the “required element” category for a reason. Job ads are forged through compromise, and are typically unsatisfactory to members of the search committee, and might be altered by administrators before going to press. You can’t put too much stock in them (Including the role of research on campus, or the role of religion on campus). You never really know what the department is looking for, from just reading the job ad. You can’t ever really know until you get an offer. If you really want to work at a particular school, it can’t hurt to apply even if you don’t fit the exact subspecialty in the job ad, except for the time spent on the application. Your odds are lower, as the job ad might be accurate about the search, but you never know if they’ll like what they see. Just don’t try to sell yourself as something that you are not. For example, the ad for my current position called for an ecosystem ecologist. I clearly am not an ecosystem ecologist. It turns out that the department just wanted an ecologist, and an ecosystem ecologist was a field that they were somewhat interested in, but they weren’t that picky. If you do fit, that’s wonderful for you, and you have much better odds. But, there is a chance you still could land an interview if you don’t have the exact specialty in the ad. Just be honest about your qualifications and interests, because the untruth usually smells a lot like bull.

Gorgeous prose. A workmanlike and sufficiently written letter isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But excellent writing will make you stand out. There are different ways to write beautifully, but they all require practice. There are lots of people and places that are pleased to tell you what good writing looks like.

You’re a member of an underrepresented group. Nobody is going to be hired solely because of ethnicity or gender. However, this can help get you on the short list. Once you get on campus, this stuff mostly doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter to the department, though it could to an administrator. (I’ve only once been involved in a faculty search in which there was a clear affirmative action candidate. Administration insisted that we create an extra interview slot for a particular applicant from an underrepresented group, who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a slot. This person showed up and was nothing short of amazing, far better than all of the other candidates. That was affirmative action at its best, in an environment where it was necessary.) If you’re a member of an underrepresented group, make sure it is overt in your application somewhere, because it could increase the chance you get an interview. It’s not cheating, and it’s not unfair. It’s giving the institution the opportunity to make the choice that it wishes to make. Once people meet you in person, how you got the interview doesn’t matter. My campus is has 50% Latino and 30% African-American students, and we need more faculty who are not only role models for our students, but also physically appear to be role models. Research shows that this makes a difference in students’ lives, and if there’s a chance that a person from one of these groups might be the best candidate, I definitely want to find that out. The best person for the job is picked, but indicating your underrepresented status could give you the opportunity to show that you’re the best.

If the job is in an unpopular or expensive location, provide a compelling reason to live there if you have one. In my opinion, it’s helpful to spend a single sentence explaining a specific personal reason for moving to, or staying in, what many consider to be a difficult place to live. For example, there are a bunch of great colleges in the Midwest, and upstate New York, in tiny towns multiple hours away from what any genuine city. Those places may have trouble recruiting – and keeping – faculty because of where they are located. There are similar recruitment problems in very cosmopolitan – but expensive – cities. If you explain that you have deep personal ties to a location, or that your spouse is interested in returning back to his or her hometown, I think it would help. For example, when I applied for a job in Los Angeles while I was employed in San Diego, I had to explain (in one sentence) that I grew up in the area and was interested in moving back. Otherwise, they probably would not think that I was serious, because San Diegans universally think that San Diego is way more awesome than LA. (When I lived there, I thought that, too. It might be something in the unfluoridated water that causes the mass delusion.) Keep in mind that your reason to bring up personal stuff has to be very compelling. Just saying that you’d like your kids to grow up in a rural town with a nice community isn’t going to cut it. The academic job scene is a seller’s market, and these personal factors matter only when you think you can prevent them from not taking you seriously. For example, if an applicant has a very strong publication record, teaching campuses might be afraid to waste an interview slot on someone who, in their view, is likely to opt for a job at a research institution.

You don’t have too many strings attached. Search committees shouldn’t – and often don’t – make decisions based on their knowledge of the personal lives of the applicants. But, if you have information, it’s hard to avoid thinking about it. The bottom line is that if you have a spouse with a portable job, and the search committee knows this, they would feel better about investing an interview slot in you. Likewise, if they suspect that you have a personal barrier that would keep you from moving, this could, unfairly, influence the decision-making process. Such possible scenarios include dual-academic-career situation when a double hire is impossible, or being single and moving to a small remote town, or having a spouse whose job cannot easily move. If you can say something to make it clear that these possible negatives don’t apply to your situation, you might be better off by doing so. Is it fair? No. But it is in your interest, and life isn’t fair. You don’t want to specifically refer to a spousal employment situation, or the lack thereof, with specifics. But pushing that borderline by saying that you ”do not have any personal or professional constraints that would prevent you from permanently relocating to the area.” (I’d like to be very clear that I intentionally work at avoiding using these kinds of data when making decisions about applications, and I honestly think that I am functionally unbiased. However, I’m going to leave it to the committee members to decide which information they want to use, and I typically lean towards sharing more rather than less if it has the potential to work in my favor.)

That’s the end of the lists.

As a guiding principle, when in doubt, be straightforward and honest. You don’t want to get a job by pretending to be someone that you aren’t, because then you’ll have to continue pretending for another six years.

As a caveat, keep in mind that all generalized advice about how to prepare a faculty job application is apt to be wrong about some things. The people who evaluate applications are normal folks just like you and me, and we all do things our own way. So, anybody who says that the cover letter is the most important part of the application, or that the CV is, or that the teaching statement is, well, they’re just making that up. The search committee is not monolithic, and every part of the application is important. I’ve already written about the teaching philosophy, and more on the other parts is forthcoming.

Applying for faculty positions at teaching institutions: interpreting research culture and opportunities during an interview

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This is a follow-up to an earlier post on how to look at a teaching institution to find out if serious research is possible on campus. One main point was that you can’t diagnose whether or not you will be able to run your research program at a teaching school until you have some direct experience with the campus, like you’d get during an interview. So, in this post, I discuss how to handle plans for serious research during the interview.

When interviewing, keep in mind five main points about research at teaching schools:

  • The culture of research on a campus isn’t predictive of how much research that you personally will be able to get done.
  • Before you interview, you need to be able to envision what your research program will look like and how it will operate, so you can know if you will have what you need to flourish.
  • At most teaching campuses, you’ll have few to no specialists in your field. So you should market your research program not with the potential for scientific discovery, but instead with the great opportunities that will be created for students.
  • The more specific you describe your plans, the more opportunity that others have to identify a perceived mismatch.
  • Ignore advice on how to succeed on a particular campus unless it comes from someone who is very successful at that institution.

(A sixth point might be that you can throw all of the preceding ideas out the window, if you happen to be the proprietor of a blog about doing research in a teaching institution. I haven’t interviewed yet since starting this site; if I am able to land any interviews this year, this could be interesting.)

The best way to figure out whether or not you could run your research out of a particular campus is to have a series of long, frank conversations with the faculty in your prospective department.

Those conversations aren’t going to happen; you can’t be that frank and I doubt your interviewers will be either. Your interlocutors may be wholly frank, but it’s not always possible to tell if this is the case. Be honest, but omit unnecessary details.

Let’s say you arrive for your interview with a very specific idea of what your research program will look like, and what it will take to succeed. Or, let’s say you don’t have a specific idea but you are open to a variety of approaches.  In either scenario, you’ve got a problem during the interview. You won’t be able to spend the 1.5 days on campus smoking out all of the details about how you would run your research program.

There is a lot of ground to be covered in an interview. You’ll be expected to talk a lot, answering questions that the department has about you. Many of these questions will be about teaching, some will be about your research, and more about how you engage students in research. You also will be expected to ask a lot of questions. However, the majority of questions that you ask should be about teaching, because the institution is, after all, focused on teaching.

Remember that your ideas about research are probably very different from the people who have worked on this campus for a while. Your definition of being an active scholar is probably different from theirs. You lack the campus frame of reference. You can’t accurately perceive that frame of reference through a mere conversations. It actually takes years to figure out a campus.

You can attempt to construct a makeshift understanding of the campus research culture by reconciling what you hear and see on an interview with external information. You should be aware of what everyone is teaching, research specialties, and levels of research productivity. You can’t look at everyone’s CVs, but you can look at their websites and do a literature search before you go on an interview.

Then, you can search for consistencies and incongruent conceptions.

In my experience, the people who spend the most time talking about research during an interview are the ones that do the least amount of research. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. Most people are excited to learn about your own research and see the interview as a learning opportunity, and this is true regardless of one’s research activity. Some people who aren’t serious researchers think that they are, and want to have a heart-to-heart talk about what it takes to do research on campus and how to overcome obstacles.

For the most part, the others in the interview are trying to convince you to take the job, assuming that you get the offer. So, they are working to make sure that you have a realistic view of the situation while also understanding the available opportunities and resources. This sales job by the department is based on their incomplete understanding of what your research program requires. The more the department knows about what you need, the more they can inform you about the advantages and drawbacks of this particular position. However, the more the department knows, the more likely they will identify ways in which the job won’t work for you.

Keep in mind that what a person chooses to discuss doesn’t communicate personal priorities. Most people are trying to provide interviewees with as much information as possible, in a positive light, to be able to help everyone make the best decision. Some might be emphasizing a sales job to convince an applicant to come, and others might be trying to be evaluative of the job candidate to see if they have the right answers. Everybody is different.

I have always made a point to ask a couple questions of many different people in the department, and it’s been very informative to see how responses vary among individuals. It might be “How do you find students to work in your research lab?” or “What is it like working with the grants office?” or something about the level and predictability of small-scale internal research funding.

Moreover, I often asked, “What is expected before coming up for tenure?” This is a totally reasonable question that everyone would expect to be asked, and it’s expected that you’d ask it several times with different people. This is an open-ended question that can help you identify individual priorities and perceptions of internal challenges. (Also, highly inconsistent answers are a very bad sign of a fractured institution.)

Be sure to listen to questions you received. For example, when I interviewed for my last job, nearly everyone asked me at one point or another, “What do you think about the idea of having a graduate program in the department?” It didn’t take long to identify the majority and minority factions in the department. This was an indicator of a division within the department that I learned about during the interview. It was complicated and I didn’t have all of the facts, but I saw that the role of research in the department was a fractious issue, and I went in with that concern in mind.

You’ll never get to understand the individual priorities that each professor has during a search. Most faculty are just looking for a colleague who can teach well, get research done with students, be effective, is easy to get along with, and won’t leave for another job. Some faculty might be concerned that junior faculty will raise the bar on research expectations. Some faculty will want new people to relieve them of teaching or service assignments of which they’ve grown weary. Others might want a friend. Too often, people want to have their own pet statistical consultants. These little quirks vary and you can’t really predict or control for them.

Regardless, you should realize this much: very few faculty at teaching institutions are actively excited about hiring junior faculty who are planning to have extremely robust research agendas. Most people at teaching campuses see those big research ambitions as a poor fit, and think that those people belong at R1 universities.

So, there is little to be gained by explaining that you have big research plans, if you have them. Of course you need to communicate that you will be getting research done with students, publishing, and plan to land outside grants. But you don’t want to make an overly big deal about research.

Why not? Having a research-serious departmentmate doesn’t really help any other faculty in the department. Some people might see it as a net drain, if the new researcher is taking away the best research students, buying time out of teaching and forsaking service for research. Even faculty who are strong researchers don’t have much incentive for bringing in additional researchers. They’ll just compete for limited resources from the Dean’s office and steal the limelight. (Those don’t matter for me, as the resources are already so limited that another mouth to feed can’t hurt me, and the research limelight on my campus is dim for all.)

Am I overstating the lack of interest in research in job candidates at teaching campuses? I don’t think so.

I’m as gung-ho for research as anybody on my campus. But whenever we get to make a new hire, is it important to me that this new person builds a productive research lab? Not really. I would like it because it would help enhance the overall research climate in the campus, but we have many more pressing immediate and long-term needs, dealing with the curriculum, departmental service, advising, vetting out jerks and finding someone who is truly student-centered. If a productive research lab run by a new hire isn’t my own priority in a search, it’s probably not a top priority of other reasonable people who aren’t working to actively promote research on teaching campuses.

Here’s another quirk of teaching campuses: Because research is mostly a solitary endeavor (because each campus typically has only one person in each specialty), then the professors on campus who talk a lot about research are prone to be seen as narcissists or out of touch with others. If you talk too much about your research during an interview, then you risk sounding like one of those narcissists.

If you’re asked about your research ideas or plans, give a 30-second summary. Elaborate when asked, but you shouldn’t be giving a reply that takes more than a minute or two unless you get clear verbal or nonverbal cues to continue. That’s true for almost every question, but it’s particularly important to remember to be brief about your research.

After you’ve done your best to understand the research culture during an interview, then you need figure out how, or if, you research can fit in on the campus. Remember that the absence of a research culture doesn’t preclude the establishment of a productive research program. It just means that your productive research program wouldn’t matter much to anybody, or it might even be threatening to others.

While all kinds of support is wonderful, it’s perfectly fine if your research program is greeted with ambivalence.

How can you tell whether an agenda for serious research will be greeted with antagonism? It’s not easy, and I got it wrong when I was interviewing.

At a distance, if you were to look at my current and previous departments, it would be easy to make the mistake in thinking that research would have been more possible in my old job. People in that department published more often, and there was a lot more talk about research. The university was able to give every professor a few thousand bucks per year for research, paid for travel to conferences, and there was a university-funded student research program in the summer. What was less obvious to the casual observer is that there was clear antagonism to big-time productivity. There was one big-league researcher in my department, and he kept all of his research almost secret.

At my current job, you might think that research is impossible. We have scant startup funds, very low rates of faculty publication, and no internal support for research or travel (though this year is an exception). However, a productive research program is far more possible in this job compared to my old one. Anybody who can build a highly productive research lab is more than welcome. That welcome doesn’t translate into more space or resources, but everyone is happy and that kind of thing is strongly encouraged. I didn’t realize this would be the case until I was well established into the job, and I’m very glad it has turned out this way.

How can you figure out if a teaching campus passes the anti-research smell test?

You need to pay attention to subtle cues, see how people talk about one another and their priorities.  If you don’t mind not getting a job offer from a place hostile to a highly productive lab, you could ask straight out, “How would you feel if I ended up getting big grants, reduced my teaching load down to two courses per semester and spend lots of time training research students and writing manuscripts?”

Or you could ask, “When is too much research a problem?” When approaching this issue, remember that you don’t want to be seen as overly optimistic, or naïve, or not interested in teaching.

In sum, you need to be all about teaching, and that makes it a tricky dance to learn about true research opportunities. Because every faculty member needs to be dedicated to teaching above all else, you need to communicate this priority in the interview. I’m all about teaching and my students, but I’m also all about research. That idea is really hard to communicate in a short interview.  You communicate your priorities with your words and your actions, and people expect them to match.

To be successful in research, you need to forge your own path. This is particularly true at teaching institutions.

To be continued: specific things to do, and specific things to avoid, throughout the job application process.

Applying for positions at teaching institutions: identifying opportunities for serious research

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Are you looking for a job at a teaching institution but and want to pursue an aggressive research agenda? Are you advising grad students or postdocs who might move into a job at a teaching school? Here are some opinions.

Let’s get two important points out of the way, that you should consider before applying for a job at a teaching school.

First, if you dislike teaching, don’t apply. This is in your own interest. As I’ve written before, if you’re going to move “up” from a job at a teaching university to a job at a research institution, you’ll have to be awesome, and to do that, you’ll have to be great at the job, including teaching. The people who leave teaching schools for research universities are the kind of people who get awards for their teaching. I have yet to see a person who doesn’t like teaching to be truly great at it, even though some have claimed it’s possible.

Second, if your primary goal is research fame, you’ll never become famous for your research while working out of a teaching institution, at least in the sciences. Even if you’re doing rockstar-level work, you won’t be a rockstar until you go elsewhere. And to move elsewhere, you need to be a great teacher. You can get excellent research done at a teaching school, but earning broad respect for your research is difficult, and fame is pretty much out of reach. A couple of my research heroes built their research careers teaching institutions. But are they broadly famous in their fields? Not as famous as they should be based on their achievements.

With those two caveats aside, let’s say that you’re focused on research and you are open to working at a teaching school. What do you need to know to figure out of a school can support your research agenda?

Before attacking that question, first let’s address a fundamental difference in culture and terminology between teaching schools and research institutions.

At most teaching-centered schools, “research” and “research active” means something different than you might expect. A typical “research-active” faculty member doesn’t necessarily publish often, and might not even be pursuing external funding. Someone with a reputation for being a strong researcher on campus might be unknown as a scholar off campus. At teaching schools, if you’re “research active,” that means that you’re doing scholarship and sharing it in some form, which in the sciences could mean training students in the lab, getting them into doctoral programs, and presenting research at local and undergraduate conferences.

What I just pointed out isn’t negative, or a dig against teaching campuses. I’m merely clarifying what “research” means at teaching campuses. If you don’t evaluate schools through this lens, you could be in for a rude surprise.

So why do teaching schools perceive research so differently than the broader research community? Isn’t research simply research? We all are used to the notion that standard measures of research success are publications, citations, and funding. Right?

At teaching institutions, it’s easy to lose focus from what happens in the scholarly community in your own field. People spend plenty of time teaching, and tenure decisions are based on what people on your campus think of you. It’s easy to focus your lens exclusively on campus culture. At any teaching campus, very few people have a well-established research presence in their international scholarly community. To do a great job, you just need to teach well, get a few pubs in minor journals, and sell yourself well on campus. It’s what most people do, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s the culture on many teaching campuses. Some of the top-notch scholars on a campus may produce little in the way of papers, but produce many new scholars. Sending many students off to good doctoral programs is, arguably, a bigger contribution to the field than publishing some papers on your own. (Is there an oversupply of scientists? Hell no.)

When you read job ads, draft your application, and interview on campus, remember the teaching school lens. If a job ad gives equal verbiage to the importance of teaching and research, and the need for excellence in both, then the be aware that teaching campuses use an entirely different measuring stick for research excellence than the academic community in general. You could be called “excellent” at research on a teaching campus but have very few publications. Most teaching schools, except some well-endowed privates, do not solicit external reviews of scholarship. (My campus actually forbids committees to contact off-campus experts for evaluating research in tenure packages!)

If you hear that that serious researchers are welcome, or that serious research is expected, what does that typically mean? That means you’re expected to have multiple publications when you come up for tenure and that you attempt to gain external funding. That’s serious research at a teaching campus. A scientist with one paper per year in a decent journal is considered to be mighty good at most teaching campuses. At very well-funded private teaching campuses, there may be higher expectations that go along with a lower teaching load. If the base teaching load is three courses per semester or higher, than it’s unlikely that “serious research” means anything more than a few pubs (though you’re usually expected to try to get a grant). If you think this is an unacceptably low level of productivity (in others), or if you think this is a sign of mediocrity, then you don’t belong on a teaching campus, because you’d get resentful of your colleagues right away.

You’ve got to be able to distinguish productivity from quality, and the fact that someone can be a great researcher while producing at a level that would be unacceptable at an R1.

What’s the best indicator of genuine campus research expectations? Look at the people who are recently tenured. What do their CVs look like? That’s what expected, or maybe just one little notch higher.

Regardless of what a campus regards as “research,” every 4-year teaching institution expects serious research at some level. All individuals are expected, at least pre-tenure, to sincerely pursue a scholarly agenda and publish. The research expectation for tenure might be just a single publication before coming up for tenure, as it was at my last job. The expectation might be 2-3 pubs before tenure (in my current position). That level of productivity might be laughable from the perspective of a research institution, but it’s serious business on a teaching campus. And when you’re teaching 3-4 full courses per semester, and your job counts on having these courses go very well, it ain’t easy.

Let’s say that you want to pursue a serious research agenda at a teaching institution, and by “serious research agenda” you mean that you want to maintain a level of research activity that will keep your CV looking like it could belong at an R1 institution. You want to publish a few papers per year and you want your research to be recognized, cited and make a difference in your discipline. Is this possible? Yes. It is common? No. Is it possible at the job to which you’re applying? Maybe. Let’s consider how you can tell if it’s possible.

If there are genuinely well-recognized researchers in the department to which you’re applying, then that’s great news for you. It’s possible! You could be one of them! That’s a wonderful sign. The flowchart ends with “sounds like a good place for research.”

What about the other branch of the flowchart? What if a department doesn’t have any productive researchers? Could a new hire run a productive research lab in a department that doesn’t have strong researchers? On some campuses this is a definite possibility; on others, it won’t be possible. How can you distinguish the former from the latter? That’s really tricky. It depends on what you think you need to run a successful research program, and if it can fit into the bounds of the institution.

A successful research lab on a teaching campus doesn’t look much like a successful lab at a research institution. Success in research at a teaching campus needs to take an entirely different route than the one that you saw in grad school. (This is a whole other long post, but here’s a start on the concept.) The things that typically result in success at research institutions just can’t happen at teaching campuses. You probably won’t have other labs with which you can collaborate. You won’t have a serious research student for more than two years, tops. You aren’t going to have postdocs to do analyses and writing on your projects, and you won’t have any single person working consistently in the lab during normal working hours. Maintaining an atmosphere of an active R1 research lab would be a full-time job, if it were even possible. You’ve got to develop a research lab that works for you on your own terms, and you need to find a campus that provides you what you need, which is individualized to what makes your program work.

What do I need to keep my lab running? Once in a while I am contacted by a colleague who wants to “visit my lab” and spend time with my “research group.” I can’t help but chuckle to myself. My lab is more often empty than not, filled with a bunch of samples that need work. When it’s not empty, it’s full of undergraduates who are more focused on studying for their exams than they are on bringing their research towards publication. (Don’t get me wrong: my research lab is critically important space, and I need more of it; I just use this space differently than R1 labs.) My students are my highest priority, but the route that I take is to emphasize productivity of my research program over providing detailed and careful mentorship to my students year-round. This might be heresy in some teaching institutions, but I think it’s a strategy that serves the interests of my students the best.

With my lab looking like I just described, how do I get research done? During the school year, aside from a few small contributions by students apart from coursework, work gets done by me. (I can’t pay students to work in my lab, and all of my students need to earn money, so they typically have outside employment.) I got to spend a few weeks at the scope this spring, to finish up a very cool project, but I’d say that 98% of my work is me sitting at a computer.

During the academic year, I’m analyzing data, writing manuscripts, and feeding collaborations in a variety of ways. This work is sometimes done best when I’m not at work. I can do some things well from home, but I might work elsewhere away from campus or home too.

The source of my data arrives in the summertime. I go to the rainforest for a few weeks, and I have 1-4 students working there for the full summer. This work, along with other small projects here and there, generates more samples and data than I can handle throughout the academic year. My manuscript backlog is substantial, and if science is going to happen predictably, year after year after year, then nearly all of that work has to be done by me.

I sometimes feel like the early British explorers of the Antarctic who brought sledge dogs but didn’t know how to use them, so they ended up pulling the sleds themselves while the dogs were running alongside without any burden. This isn’t the way things really are, and my students do make great contributions, but most of them are not yet equipped to write manuscripts and if I equipped them, then far too few of them would ever come to press.

In sum, what is it that I need from my institution to get research done? I have the freedom and flexibility to be able to focus on writing. The campus culture doesn’t expect me to provide a sophisticated mentoring agenda for every student who comes into my lab, and I’m evaluated on the basis of the output (of students) rather than the methods. The bottom line is that I am sending students on to graduate programs, and that I am producing scholarship with student authors, and that I am bringing in grant money. That is valued, and I’ve never gotten any guff about how I go about making that happen. That’s how my campus allows me to get research done.

How can you apply my personal anecdote about my own campus to figuring out how other campuses can support your productive research program? You need to identify what route – or routes – exist for research success and whether those campuses enable those routes. You need to be able to envision exactly what you need to be successful, and then see if that is possible within the job. This takes an understanding of how you run your lab and how you get stuff done. This might be hard to figure out if you haven’t done it yet.

What is the worst indicator of whether a campus can support your research? Whatever they tell you. Having administrators that support research in concept is important. However, whatever they imagine you need, and whatever they want to provide, may not be what you truly need. You have to figure out what you really need, and I think this is highly individualized.

For example, if your program relies on the upkeep of some model organism, are there technical staff or work-study funds to pay someone to maintain your critters without you having to worry about it? If your work relies heavily on some fancy piece of equipment, is there one of those on campus with a service contract that you can use for your research? If you need to go two weeks at a time to a collaborating lab during the academic year, do you have the flexibility to schedule your classes to make that happen? If you need relatively untrained students to do repetitive work in the lab, are there funds or people that enable that to happen predictably or consistently? If you have a field site six hours away for your project, does the institution have a van that you can use to take students out and do you have a student population that can afford to go away for extended work?

A lot of professors who aren’t getting much research done at teaching institutions are frustrated because their institutions lack what they need to get done – not just in terms of equipment, but in terms of flexibility. There is often a structural mismatch between a professor’s research ambitions and what is possible on campus. You want to avoid that mismatch. You can do that by being flexible in what research questions you ask and how you go about answering them, or you could do that by finding the campus that can give you what you need. (I’ve done both; the latter was more by accident than design.)

Is the way the job is structured able to give you the time and resources that enable you to focus on research? You can’t tell that from a job ad. Unless you know exactly what your research program is going to look like, you can’t even learn that from an interview.

Last, can you be a serious and well-recognized researcher on a campus that doesn’t even seem to care about research at all? You definitely can. It doesn’t matter what people say or think on your campus. If your campus gives you the time, space and resources to make you successful – whatever it is that you need – it doesn’t matter what the campus culture is at all. Talking about research on a teaching campus won’t do your research program any good. You just need to, privately and in an individualized fashion, get it done.

The hardest part about being a researcher at a teaching campus is that this part of your job is very solitary. To be successful on a teaching campus typically means that you’re doing it on your own, and with collaborators who aren’t with you on your campus. This is radically different from what you experienced at research institutions in which you worked with a lab group. Even if your buddies worked on different projects, you still had one another.

How do you run a productive research program over your career in which you won’t have a peer, or highly trained mentee, working on directly related questions? Your specific answer to this question can tell you whether or not a job at a teaching institution can support your research agenda.

How can you tell this from the institution’s website and from the job ad? You can’t. Which is why you need to apply, and then find out if you land an interview. To be continued.