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

Serious academics take the media seriously

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The Guardian chose to publish a piece from a “serious academic” who made an argument that we shouldn’t share our work on social media.

So who is this “serious academic?” Well, we have no idea. They are an anonymous “young” PhD student. Does this mean they’re some kind of whistleblower, warning the world about the rampant public sharing of academic information?

Anyway, what does the phrase “I’m a serious academic” mean? Continue reading

Should I stay or should I go now?

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Or maybe an alternative title could be “The Accidental Academic”.

This November I heard back from the two main Swedish funding agencies that I didn’t receive a grant this round. For me this means not only that I don’t have funds to run my lab, but also that I don’t have a position for myself. Because my temporary professor position is coming to an end, no grant also means no funding for my salary and I’m transitioning to being an unemployed academic.

So, should I stay or should I go now? The question has been rattling round in my head ever since I got the grant rejections. Continue reading

The importance of storytelling

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Much of my time lately has been consumed with two seemingly unrelated activities: reading job applications and reviewing conference papers.

Reading job applications requires me to evaluate a person’s credentials, teaching and research experience, letters of recommendation, and countless other intangibles—all on paper—to determine whether this person might “fit” what we are looking for in a colleague.

Reviewing conference papers requires me to evaluate the validity and importance of the research question, the soundness of the science, the relevance of the results, and the correctness of the interpretation of the results, to determine whether this paper “fits” the definition of “good science” as well as the scope of the conference.

There is one key commonality between them: in both cases, it’s very important that the author tells a good story. 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

How honest should I be about my career goals? My post-PhD story.

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My post-PHD journey is peppered throughout the posts I write here but I was inspired by a blog carnival over at the Contemplative Mammoth to put together a single post. After May 28th Jacquelyn Gillpromises to compile all the links, so if you’re interested in what people do after their PhDs, head on over there.

Long before I finished my PhD, my path in academia was never particularly clear. I came to research late in my undergraduate studies and at every stage I have thought: “Well this is interesting, challenging and fun, so lets see if I can find a masters/PhD/position”. I knew that at each of these filters there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the next position. So I remained cautiously optimistic but always thought that at some point I would have to figure out what to do when I go up. Since I was aware of the possibility that I wouldn’t find a position along the academic trail, I’ve never been focused on a tenure-track position as the only career choice that will make me happy. But as I have progressed, I wonder how honest I should be about this fact.

You see I’m not convinced that I will end up as a professor. I know that it takes an incredible combination of skill and luck to land a position. Although I ended up doing a PhD in one of the top programs of my field, when I applied there were other top schools that didn’t invite me to interview. So even at that stage I was aware that there is variance in decisions and that I am not one of the applicants with a flawless CV (at that stage I had good research experience but less than top undergraduate grades and GRA scores). Last year I was one of the selected candidates to interview for two positions in Sweden. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get either but what was interesting was that I applied for the positions with two of my colleagues. The person who got one of the positions wasn’t even invited to interview at the other and the two of us that did interview for both flipped in ranking between the two jobs. I don’t take this as a sign that the system is random but rather that when comparing good candidates, how qualities are weighted will always vary between selection committees. But of course it does worry me that I might never quite make it to the top of the list.

So given what I think is a somewhat realistic frame of mind, I have always taken the ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. That means that in conversations throughout my career I have not been dead certain that being a professor is my one and only goal. But when I’m honest about my uncertainty, I find that it can be mistaken for a lack of desire or drive. Like hinting that you are aware that there are few permanent professor positions and the reality is that you might not get one means you aren’t interested in continuing in academia.

To be clear: I love my job. I am sometimes afraid to admit how much I enjoy it, like a kid not wanting to jinx my chances. Sure there are lots of things that stress me out about this path but when I take a moment to think about it, I love my job. I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating. As a career, I can’t think of any better and I truly hope that I can keep on doing what I’m doing.

But here’s the catch: I’m not willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a tenure track position. I have a family that I need to consider if we make a move for a position, but I also have a family that I want to spend time with. For me that means I work less than I could and that is certainly is reflected in my publication rate. So when I look at my CV, I see that I could do better but I also know that I don’t want to trade-off my happiness now for some uncertain happiness in the future when I have tenure.

So should I be honest about my uncertainty? I have become wary of talking too frankly because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m not dedicated. Thus far I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep going in academia and I haven’t seriously considered other options. I might have to do that when my current funding runs out but for now I continue on working towards an eventual permanent position.

So for me, my post-PhD story doesn’t have an ending. I still feel in flux and don’t know where I will end up, geographically or otherwise. But for now I’m enjoying the ride.

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.

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.

Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture

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This week I’ve been a bit distracted by instructions I’ve been given for a demonstration teaching lecture. It is for a permanent position in my department so the interview is stressful, important, and far from certain. There are three others interviewing for the spot, all colleagues and/or collaborators*, all friends, and all deserving of the position. It is also a little strange in that you can exactly know the CV of your fellow candidates and that all of us will show up for work after the interview, regardless of the result of the job search. The only difference is that one of us will have a permanent job and the others will not (still). I have talked a bit about the Swedish interview process previously and the upcoming one will function in a similar way. One major difference is that in addition to a short research lecture, we’ve been asked to give a 20 min teaching lecture. The topic is outside everyone’s expertise (Ecology of Plant-Pathogen Interactions), so in some senses an even playing field.

I have taught classes previously but not on this particular topic. But given that I’ve never done a demonstration lecture, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tackle the task. Unfortunately, teaching talks don’t seem to be a common feature of the interview process, so unlike the research seminars and chalk talks, there isn’t so much out there (see Meg Duffy’s post on links for tenure-track job searches, for example).

However, I did find this helpful post about giving test lectures with a focus on those given to actual students in an on-going class (yikes!). It would be tough to drop in on a class that has already established a rhythm between the students and teacher, although I think it would be a good test of your teaching. It might not be fair to the students in the course, however, if they are continually interrupted by different interviewees. The teaching talks I’ve heard of are more commonly to faculty and maybe grad students. Anurag Agrawal compiles some advice on finding an academic job with this bit of wisdom on the teaching lecture (you can find more advice here; HT: Meg):

Teaching talks: Many places will have you give a teaching talk—they may give you a topic or let you choose one from a list. Some will want a sample lecture—others may actually want a verbal statement of your teaching philosophy. In general, ask those around you that actually teach those subjects for outlines or notes. It is usually fine to have notes for your teaching talk. They will probably ask you to not use slides, but overheads and handouts may be very useful. The faculty may interrupt you during your talk and pretend to be students asking questions. Try not to get flustered by them, but rather have fun with them.

Even before reading this, I began my canvasing of people for lectures on plant-pathogen interactions. So far I haven’t found it to be a common topic in ecology courses (if you lecture on the topic and are willing to share, yes please!). So after researching for this interview, I might also advocate for including the lecture in one of our ecology courses (I have funding for two more years regardless of the outcome of the interview).

I’ve only had one experience with this sort of interview requirement and that was indirect. When I was a masters student, my department was hiring a number of people to expand and we were also going to an Integrative Biology model from an organismal division (merging depts). So there were a lot of positions (~6) and likely a lot of opinions on how to best fill them from colleagues who hadn’t worked together before. In any event, I got to witness a bunch of job talks and meet with a lot of candidates. It was a useful lesson as a grad student but the one portion that was closed was the test lectures. I’m guessing these were to distinguish people’s ability from very different fields but I don’t know what the exact instructions were. We (the grad students) did hear rumours that some people’s talks were terrible, so it clearly doesn’t do to blow teaching talks off. But how to do it well?

Turning to advice on how to give lectures can give some clues. Improving lecturing has a bunch of hints and tips for generally improving your lectures. Another list of practical pointers for good lectures is focused mainly on the classroom but can also be helpful in thinking about how to demonstrate your teaching. I had to link this good talk advice for the hilarious nostalgia it created for the overhead strip tease (advice: don’t do it, and I think this also applies to powerpoint reveals).

From the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center (many useful pdfs here including one on giving effective talks), it is better to:

  1. Talk than read
  2. Stand than sit
  3. Move than stand still
  4. Vary your voice’s pitch than speak in a monotone
  5. Speak loudly facing your audience rather than mumble and speak into your notes or blackboard
  6. Use an outline and visual aids than present without them
  7. Provide your listeners with a roadmap than start without an overview

There is also this simple and eloquent advice from a twitter friend:

My plan is to demonstrate how I would give a lecture to a course, including emphasizing where I would stop lecturing and turn things over to the students. As I move away from straight lecturing, it feels a little strange to demonstrate my teaching through lecturing only. But I only have 5 minutes to describe the structure of the course, where this lecture would fit in and how I would evaluate learning, followed by the first 15 minutes of the lecture. Given all that is required to pack into 20 mins, this teaching talk is really a demonstration, rather than a lecture. I won’t prepare for it as I would do for a regular course lecture and given my unfamiliarity with the topic, it is also going to take a fair amount of research. This is a job interview, so I know it isn’t really a teaching lecture, it is a performance. One I’m hoping will convince the committee to let me get on with actual teaching for years to come.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done a teaching lecture as a part of their interview! Advice on how to nail this will be greatly appreciated by me but I’m sure others on the TT job search will also appreciate pointers.

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relationships

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.

What it’s like to start a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor (guest post)

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Carrie Woods in the field

Carrie Woods in the field

This is a guest post by Carrie Woods of Colgate University, a Canadian scientist who studies the ecophysiology and community ecology of tropical rainforest canopies. If you have any questions or remarks for Carrie, please be sure to leave them in the comments.

I just entered my new office as a Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) in the Biology Department at Colgate University, a liberal arts college in upstate New York. My office is one of the nicest I have seen and has an incredible view of hills covered in lush temperate forest – perfect for pondering life, science, or wherever the mind cares to wander. Facing this pondering window, I received and accepted an invitation from Terry to post about my experience thus far in interviewing and becoming a faculty member at a liberal arts institution.

My interview was full of friendly faces offering help, advice, and typical interview questions for a teaching position in a liberal arts college. First and foremost, everyone wanted to know what course I was proposing to teach. Is it novel in the department? Will it broaden the scope of understanding of the students? Do I have the expertise to effectively teach the course? If you have done your research, you will know the answer to all of these questions and will instill confidence in every interviewer that yes, in fact, you have perused the course offerings and believe that the course you are proposing to teach is novel, interesting, great for broadening students’ perspectives, and couldn’t be taught without you. I know this may seem obvious but I was expecting an interview that looked at my entire academic career – not just my teaching experience. I even had prepared answers to questions pertaining to my research. But I guess because a VAP position is used to bring in a professor for a year to teach, and only teach, the lack of focus on my research makes sense.

I was surprised though how little emphasis was placed on my research interests or how many publications I had or in what journals. Having only had experience in Research I universities, this came as a shock. I knew that the primary focus of a professor in a liberal arts college is the education of undergraduate students but I didn’t realize how little importance was placed on your research when deciding if you were right for a teaching position. Not one single person asked me about my research. They did, however, peruse my CV for mentoring and teaching experiences (which I placed ahead of my research experience, as per the suggestion of every liberal arts college faculty I knew). I could be misunderstanding the entire process though. It could be that my research experiences were sufficient and, therefore, not in need of discussion. My seminar was clear and focused on undergraduates but I did not dumb down my research or complicated multivariate analyses. I took those challenges head on to show that I could effectively teach complicated concepts. So maybe, my research was important to show that I was a well-rounded scientist.

I decided to take a teaching position after completing my Ph.D. for several reasons. First, many of my colleagues that had new assistant professor positions, regardless of what type of institution, seemed to be drowning in course development. I had never developed or taught an entire course before so I heeded their calls of distress and decided to find a position where I could develop and teach a course before applying for a post-doc or tenure-track position. A VAP position is exactly that. Second, science is a discipline wrought with waiting. There is little immediate gratification in scientific research – except of course for those moments during data analysis when your hypothesis is accepted or when finally figuring out the story of your paper or when a paper is accepted for publication. But other than those brief moments, science is pretty thankless and requires resilience to pursue an idea from birth to publication. In between these brief gratifying moments in graduate school, I found teaching to be extremely rewarding. Watching someone learn a concept that you taught is a very gratifying experience. These rewarding teaching moments carried me through those times when motivation for my research was waning. I found a love and passion for teaching during graduate school and wanted to pursue those passions a little deeper (hence the VAP position).

Since arriving around 9 am this morning, four different people have come by to welcome me and offer any help they can. I feel grateful for their friendly faces and help in navigating the new avenues of a faculty position at a liberal arts college as I am just starting to get my toes wet. I am super excited about finally teaching my own course. So excited in fact that I have already outlined my lectures, ordered my textbook for the bookstore, written my syllabus, and have some ideas for exam questions and the first day of classes isn’t for two weeks. I would have started sooner if it wasn’t for my busy summer of field research in Costa Rica, two conferences, my dissertation defense, and graduation. Now that those tasks are complete, I can finally focus on what I have been excited to do since I first discovered a passion for teaching in graduate school. It’s a very cool moment.

As for the future, this next year will likely dictate where I end up ultimately in academia: liberal arts or research I. I honestly haven’t fully decided where I want to go yet. However, looking out my window at forest-covered hills and being in a department with such an amazing group of friendly and supportive people, thus far, liberal arts is winning the race.

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.

Teaching universities as the farm league

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Many people seek faculty jobs at teaching universities even though they would prefer to work at a research university.

This isn’t unethical. A job is a job, and just because some people see a job as a calling or a sacred vocation, most people in the world are doing it for a paycheck above all else.

I have seen plenty of professors at teaching institutions look down upon their research-active colleagues in their institution, even though these researchers may be teaching quite well. (Of course, it’s even more common for some faculty at research institutions to look down upon, or feel sorry for, faculty at teaching institutions.)

Which is more desirable job? Being a professor at a teaching-centered or a research-centered institution? What do objective measures say? There are two obvious ways to use numbers to answer this question. First, there is significantly more demand for the research faculty positions. Second, the salary of research faculty positions is appreciably higher than the salary of faculty at teaching institutions.

More people want research positions. Maybe they’re not more desirable, but they are more desired. (This makes sense, because the training required for a faculty position is all about research training and typically includes no training in teaching whatsoever.) A number of scientists who are excellent in all respects, but still don’t get a research position, might wind up taking a job at a teaching institution, even though they may continue to pursue their primary goal of being a faculty at a research institution. Is this wrong? No, it is not.

Nevertheless, because of the politics and emotions that people invest into their jobs, it is not socially acceptable at a teaching institution to communicate to others that your preferred job is at a research institution. This doesn’t require dishonesty, but it definitely means that you can’t be fully honest and you might have to be a little deceitful if this is your goal. You never want to say at your job that you want to eventually leave, after all, and this might even be true if you’re flipping burgers.

Though more people want jobs at research institutions, jobs at teaching schools are still mighty hard to land. Given this keen competition, and the huge differences between what happens on a research campus and a teaching campus, teaching institutions get to have their pick of candidates and have the latitude to pick out job candidates who, more than anything else, want to be at a teaching university. Ideally, a campus wants to hire someone who isn’t immediately looking to leave. So, teaching campuses prefer to hire people who are dedicated to working on teaching campuses.

That is, if search committees can identify who those people are. Good luck with that.

Faculty who want a research position seeking a job at teaching institution, if they are to be successful, need to mimic the true believers who are passionately interested in spending their careers (if not their lives) at teaching institutions.

To put this in context, let me offer a one-paragraph lesson in mimicry. In biology, we recognize a few kinds of mimicry. Batesian mimics falsely adopt the signal of another organism that honestly signals its status. (The classic example is a viceroy butterfly, which isn’t filled with toxic cardiac glycosides, but it looks a lot like a monarch butterfly, which picks up toxins from feeding on milkweeds as caterpillars.) In contrast, Müllerian mimics are only distantly related to one another but they have evolved a set of characteristics to honestly communicate their defenses. (The classic example is a set of mimicry complexes among Heliconius butterflies). Another kind are aggressive mimics, which could be predators that resemble their prey (such as jumping spiders that often look like their ant prey) or a caterpillar with a pattern that looks like the head of a viper, or a moth that looks like the face of an owl.

So, when scientists who want research positions choose to apply for teaching positions, what kind of mimic are they? It varies.

They could be Batesian mimics, which essentially are parasites on the system and reduce the effectiveness of the honest signal of the organisms that they mimic. These mimics don’t want to teach much at all, aren’t interested in developing that skill, and calculate the amount of effort they have to put in to just keep their job as long as necessary. They want to maintain this mimicry signal, and the quality of mimicry varies. They do hedge bets and are interested in being perceived as teaching-focused just in case they aren’t successful at moving on.

Aggressive mimics of teaching faculty actively reveal their colors as soon as they’re hired. These people are toxic and everyone identifies the mistake right away. Including the person who took the job. Let’s forget about these, because they’re both rare and annoying people in general.

There are Müllerian mimic professors, too. These are those that would prefer a job at a research university but they are also mighty pleased with a teaching institution too. They are showing their true colors when they say that they are dedicated to the teaching mission of the institution. They do belong, and they look like the dedicated faculty of the university because, in fact, they are.

What is the relative proportion of the Müllerian and Batesian mimic varieties? Or, in other words, how many professors in teaching positions who want to move on to research positions are actually dedicated to doing a great job at their current institution?

I don’t know the answer to that question.

Here’s a question to which I do know the answer: Among the faculty who move on to research positions, how many of them were dedicated to doing a great job at the teaching institution before they left?

That’s an easy one. In all of my experience, these people were wholly dedicated to their teaching jobs and before they left, they were recognized locally on their campus as spectacular in all respects before leaving.

I’ve worked with and known a goodly number of people who have moved on from teaching jobs to research institutions (and there are a number of commenters on the site who fall that pool, some of whom I know well and some I don’t). In every case of which I’m aware, the departure of that faculty member was a great loss.

These great losses were not the departures of the research programs, but because of excellence in teaching, collegial performance of service, and contribution to the institution as a whole. The departure of these people was seen as an inevitable “moving up” to bigger and better things. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but nonetheless people were uniformly happy for them. We all recognize that when dealing with employers, you need to look out for yourself above all else, as only you can be counted on to make choices in your own best interest, even if you have dedicated your career and then some to a specific institution.

I imagine these professors who moved “up” to research jobs may have always wanted such a position, and they essentially published their way out of their teaching position. That’s the standard interpretation. However, if you choose that route, then my experience indicates that you can’t just publish your way out. You have to do it while earning the respect and admiration of your colleagues. (This is something that can’t be done by faking it. There are people on my campus who are faking it, and it’s pretty obvious.) You have to be dedicated and do a good job and have the interests of your students and your institution in mind. All of these people who I know that have made the move have been tremendously nice people above all other identifying characteristics.

This much is clear: most faculty don’t move to a research institution once they start a teaching position. What happens to these people who don’t move, over the course of their careers? Here are a variety of possibilities:

  • Love teaching and accomplish lots of great research too
  • Love teaching and lose the passion for research
  • Teach badly, focus on research and be miserable
  • Hate teaching, give up on research, and be bitter
  • Be ambivalent and focus on doing the minimum
  • Be mediocre with delusions of grandeur
  • Move into administration
  • Don’t get tenure, and find a job outside academia

I’ve seen all of the above, and there are probably varieties I’m missing.

Where do I fall into this pool? I’m not in this group – I deliberately looked for a teaching-centered position from the outset, even though my initial motivation in taking a job at a teaching institution wasn’t well informed.

Since I am doing a decent amount of research at a teaching institution, is a research university a preferred job? I don’t think so. I don’t think I have a single ideal job. I do really want to go to a university where I can do more research and where it is valued, but there are lots of teaching-centered institutions that fit that label. I evolve over time, and my attitude towards research and teaching are very different from when I started out.

I’m mostly satisfied in a teaching institution, and I don’t think I’d be more satisfied at a research institution. Nevertheless, I would consider a good move. There are a few crippling aspects of my current position that I would hope to ameliorate. First, I’d like to be in a department that is adequately staffed to support its own students; I am feeling increasingly guilty for complicity in an organization that is undermining it own mission. As a small example, it’s unfair to our students (as well as myself) that every professor in my department has >100 advisees every semester. Second, our campus research infrastructure is experiencing continued neglect, and the people in charge of promoting research on campus aren’t focused on what matters. (Last, and this isn’t a small thing, I would be nice to be paid market rate.) I’d have to be sure that a job I move into wouldn’t have other hidden problems that are worse than these ones, of course.

If I do move, then I wouldn’t see it as “moving up” even if others at my university would see it that way. Most of my job is working with students, in the classroom, in the lab doing research, and in the field. That would happen wherever I go, and since I’ve been in my current job I’ve been blessed with a string of incomprehensively wonderful students. Every time I bring students to my field station in Costa Rica, my colleagues here uniformly remark, “you always have the best students.” And I agree with them. I’ve been blessed, and I doubt that blessing could transfer to a different institution.

Ultimately, in my book, the desirability of the job is in how much I enjoy each day, on a day to day basis. It doesn’t matter too much if it’s a teaching or research institution. This is regulated by the collegiality and professionalism of my colleagues and the opportunities that are seized by my students.

If you enjoy both research and the teaching, a true move “up” wouldn’t be about the relative emphasis on research or teaching, but the overall capacity to do both well.

Less valid complaints about not getting a tenure-track faculty position

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We produce way more PhD scientists than the existing demand for tenure-track faculty positions. That’s a straight up fact that we all recognize. The corollary to this fact is that people planning to get PhD must recognize that there must be a multiplicity of careers to keep in mind while in graduate school.  (There’s a great guest post at Dynamic Ecology on this topic.)

So, I’m sympathetic to the notion that there are many excellent people out there that, on account of both deterministic and random processes, don’t land faculty positions despite a sincere and dogged pursuit of that goal. I have some colleagues whose research record and teaching skills (as well as collegiality) have merited a great position, but haven’t landed one, or who took a mighty long time to do so.

Obviously, the system is messed up in a variety of ways. I’m not going to get into that, because, really, you can find that on every other blog out there. That niche is well covered.

Tenured professors are probably in the worst position to remark on the fact that it is hard it is to get a faculty position. So, to make my point here, I’m going out on a limb, albeit a sturdy one.

I take issue with one specific variety of complaint: “I never got a faculty position because of X.”

If X is anything other than the paucity of jobs, then these statements typically rely on unsubstantiated claims, false expectations and incomplete knowledge of oneself as well as job availability.

What are the kinds of X I’ve heard over the years? All kinds of crazy stuff. Some people who don’t get a job can find all kinds of rationalizations. There isn’t a secret job czar out there preventing any search committee from picking somebody, and there’s no collusion going on among different interview committees. Some people get lots of offers, some only get one, and many don’t get any. The outcome is initially determined by what’s inside the application, and finally by how the person interviews. There is a great deal of hap involved. Very good people might not get jobs.

On this theme, here is the outrageous X statement of the week:

Discover the secret of the 17-year-cicada, but it won’t get you tenure

When I first saw the link to this post in the Scientific American Guest Blog, I was excited to finally learn the elusive secret of the periodic cicada! Clicking through, my mind spun with possibilities: Were cicadas actually Somali pirates in a past life? Were cicadas once married to a reclusive billionaire who enslaved hamsters in a miniature dungeon decorated with novelty leather goods? Are cicadas actually descended from beluga whales in a fluke of evolution? Was there some mathematical modeling combined with cytogenetics, fossil reconstructions and ultra-fine-scale radiometric dating that fully resolved the question about whether their periodicity evolved only in prime numbers?

I wasn’t even close.

It turns out the “secret” is that male periodical cicadas have a ritualized courtship routine, involving annoying whirring in a very specific fashion, that’s required to be able to access females. I think it is about as elaborate as lampyrid beetles (fireflies), though without the light show.

As far as my 10-min bibliographic search got me, I believe that this find was first published in the journal Behaviour in 2001 (pdf). It’s good work. According to Google Scholar, it’s been cited 37 times since it’s been published, which is well above the average paper (not that the number of citations directly reflects how valuable or important something is, of course). This finding is important for outreach, considering the public interest in periodical cicada emergences.

I admit, however, that I was disappointed to find out the “secret” because I was expecting something more amazing. I imagine that figuring out precisely how cicadas use their loud sounds to attract females would require some tricky timing in the field, since sex is highly seasonal. It takes 17 years of development for an individual to get to the point when it’s ready to have sex, though there’s a decent emergence, somewhere, on most years.

The dilemma of the cicada researcher isn’t that different from most scientists who study highly seasonal phenomena. I also can relate to this problem. Up until I came up for tenure, all of my data collection in a year was done in a 3 week chunk of time, not because of seasonality, but because it involved working in a distant rainforest when I wasn’t teaching. So I know how hard it is to do research while having to travel and cram your work into a short period of time.

This piece wasn’t written by John Cooley or by David Marshall, the cicada researchers who figured out the “secret,” but instead by “musician, composer, author and philosopher-naturalist” David Rothenberg. Cooley was interviewed by Rothenberg. I don’t know either of them personally, and Rothenberg is good writer. If you’re not an entomologist familiar with animal behavior and field biology, you might allow Rothenberg into tricking you into thinking that the solid and interesting research by Cooley and Marshall comprised “such a momentous discovery.”

Here’s what Rothenberg writes:

It is shocking that even after publishing numerous papers on this unique aspect of animal behavior, there is no permanent place in academy for either of them.

and

“Frankly I’m shocked that you guys don’t both have prestigious positions, for the remarkable cicada discoveries you’ve made.”

Really?

I’d like one of those prestigious positions, too.

Tenure-track positions are not awards for prior discoveries. They are investments into the promise of future work. Unless you have a Nobel Prize or are a member of the National Academy, you aren’t hired for what you’ve done. Universities hiring tenure-track faculty only take into account prior publications and discoveries as an indicator of what they may expect in the future. Publications don’t win you a job, they are only one prerequisite. To get a job, you need to convince others that you are capable of generating a string of publications like the ones you’ve already been able to do in the past.

I don’t want to pick on Cooley and Marshall, but since Cooley was letting Rothenberg size up his academic prestige in the Scientific American blog, then I suppose it’s okay for me to do so in this more obscure venue. In the context of the academic job market, I want to put their achievements in the perspective of my own experience.

I finished my dissertation around the same time as Cooley and Marshall, and I’ve probably taught as much as they have since we finished our dissertations. Our publication records aren’t markedly different, though if you care about those things, my h-score is only slightly higher and I’ve had a more recent papers. In terms of research citation, recognition, productivity and so on, we’re roughly on the same par, I suspect. They probably garner more media attention when there’s a big cicada emergence, like the one that prompted Rothenberg’s post.

Another difference among us is that I’m a tenured Associate Professor and that they aren’t on the tenure track. So, why is that? Is it because they’ve chosen to work on an organism that’s difficult to work with in its seasonality and longevity? That’s what Rothenberg implied. They’ve chosen a difficult research angle, and though making discoveries, they are being punished for working on a less tractable system by not getting a job. At least, that is the tacit message of the article as I read it.

Meanwhile, I have a few colleagues in mind, with a research record way more robust than myself, Cooley or Marshall. And they’re not landing faculty positions, either.

The scientists who are landing faculty positions have CVs that are ripe with potential. You look at their past performance, and you think to yourself, “this person has a really great research career ahead of them.”

Why are there so many scientific researchers, with a consistently solid though non-rockstar record, such as Cooley, who can’t land tenure-track job?

First, and obviously, faculty jobs in the sciences are very hard to get, though not as bad as in the humanities.

Second – and this is my main point in this post – they’re not applying for the jobs.

How do I know that? Isn’t that presumptuous of me? Only slightly.

Let me put this idea another way: Going through the records in my department, I can go through and find the names of everyone who applied for the job in which I am currently working, to which I applied in 2006. Is Cooley’s name in that list? Is Marshall’s name in that list?

In 2006, I applied to 91 faculty or faculty-esque jobs (like a museum), for all of which I was qualified and for many of which I was a good fit. I got a handful of interviews, and two offers. (One more offer might have been forthcoming if I continued shopping for a job.)

Is Cooley applying for 91 jobs per year?

You might be saying to yourself, “91 jobs? How could there 91 jobs in a year?” If so, then my reply is, “There are that many jobs every year. They’re just not published in Science or Nature. They’re jobs that you might think are below you. I’m in one of those jobs that might be below you. I don’t think it was advertised in Science, though it was in the Chronicle of Higher Education.”

Keep in mind that both Cooley and Marshall are generalized cicada biologists, with academic experience and publications in entomology, behavior, ecology, and evolution. There are lots of academic tenure-track jobs for which their CV is suited. Few of these jobs, however, are at research universities.

When many scientists say they can’t get a faculty position, what they often mean is, “I can’t get a faculty position that enables me to do lots of research, doesn’t require much time teaching, in a place where I wouldn’t mind living.”

Wouldn’t we all.

We are hoping to advertise for two positions in our department in the fall, and we are probably going to be open to all kinds of fields and subfields. Is Cooley applying? If he isn’t, then he doesn’t have the right to say that he can’t land a tenure-track job, and he shouldn’t enable Rothenberg to complain on his behalf.

At our university, Cooley wouldn’t be a rock star, but he’d be one of the best researchers on campus. I don’t know how many double-digit h-index scientists we have, but he’d be in a small minority.

I’m open to being wrong. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised to go back to that file cabinet in our departmental office, maybe in the basement, and see a cover letter from Cooley. (I can’t do this since I’m writing this from the field.) The university where I work is a perfectly fine full-time job that allows one to conduct academic pursuits, and both the place is gorgeous and our union ensures that we have good benefits. If it’s good enough for me, then, frankly, it should be good enough for him, because we have the same level of academic prestige (unless he’s published with a pseudonym for most of his prior work).

All kinds of academics have been taking jobs in far away places because those were the only ones they got, and this has been true for many decades. (For all I know, in a department of biology study of integrative cicada biology might be viewed as important as a department of literature might view the translation and interpretation of an Old Low Norse epic poem.)

Yes, there is a huge problem in academia, which is arguably broken, that many people are being trained for jobs that aren’t available. However, many of these complaints are coming from sources such as Rothenberg, that don’t understand what constitutes massive progress in science, and don’t have an appreciation for the breadth of tenure-track jobs available to scientists.

I bet that our open call for a “biologist” at CSU Dominguez Hills will garner perhaps couple hundred applications, and probably fewer. At the same exact moment, there will be thousands of biologists out there claiming that jobs aren’t out there.

When I do that math, then I don’t feel quite as bad for the scientists with a PhD who say that they can’t find any permanent academic job.

Startup needs for researchers in teaching schools

Standard

When I started my current job, most of those who dropped by my office to say “Greetings,” first stopped short with a question: How did you get that monitor? (I have a big monitor. They no longer make them that big. I think it’s really helped me work more efficiently.)

I answered, “I asked for it.” It really was that easy. I gave up my printer for a big monitor. No biggie, I just brought my own printer.

When you start a new faculty position, you have to use the opportunity wisely. You’re over the moon that you actually landed the job, but don’t act too hastily. When you get the phone call, say that you look forward to discussing the offer very soon, don’t say yes. Once you sign on the line (it’s probably not dotted), you’ve lost all of your leverage for anything you want in the future.

Some schools leave things more open to negotiation than others. They’ll tell you straight out if something is fixed and can’t be changed. Often, things are flexible. You need to enter the conversation with the fact of negotiation. See what you’re getting as a starting point for discussion.

Salary is really, really important, because all of your future raises will be based on your starting salary. If you’re at a public institution, then salaries are probably public record. If you can’t find it online, then talk to a librarian at the university. These data matter.

You need to know what kind of ballpark startup you can expect. You should get this from the search committee rather than the Dean. You should find out what recent hires have got, and you should get at least that (depending on your specialty, maybe a lot more). Some schools will have a low five-digit offer and on the higher end some will have low six digit offer – and very wealthy campuses could shave something more. (This range sounds insanely low to faculty at R1 universities. Yup, I agree. Some places actually have startup that comes in four digits.) Sometimes people don’t like to talk with specific numbers. This isn’t the time to be shy. You don’t want to lowball your startup, and you also don’t want to get laughed out of the room for asking for an order of magnitude too high. Hopefully during your interview process you’ve built up enough rapport with your search committee, and your potential new chair should ideally be some help (if not your partner) on this as you go through the Dean.

What are the other things that you should or shouldn’t negotiate for? Here’s a quick review of the biggies, other than salary. Keep in mind that there is no grand wisdom in here, just a set of observations that plenty of others have made.

-Reassigned time from teaching. If it’s a teaching school, they hired you to teach. However, it will take a while for you to get on your feet and start up your lab. The longer you can prolong the reassigned time for you to focus on getting started and submitting grants, the better off you are. You don’t want to be a prima donna and ask for much much more than what others have gotten in the past, of course. You’ll note that I’m using “reassigned time” instead of release time. This is an important distinction in my book. “Release time” sounds like you’re getting out of a responsibility. “Reassigned” correctly indicates that you’re working just as hard on a different kind of assignment. Another thing that you should establish up front is under what circumstances, if any, funds are used for reassigned time in the future. If you bring in grants, can you negotiate for reassigned time even if it isn’t in the budget? Or, if you have to buy it with a grant, what is the rate? Especially at private institutions, the rate at which individual PIs are charged for reassigned time can be bartered. I’ve seen some people get outrageously great deals, only because they asked for them.

-Equipment and supplies. If your research requires a special piece of equipment that’s lacking, like a certain kind of mass spec, microscope, or whatnot, then this is your chance for the school to buy it for you. Keep in mind, though, that having equipment could be a curse rather than a boon. I have to admit that I can’t think of a fancy machine that would let me to things that I’m not already doing. You don’t want to admit this too readily, though, if that’s the main form of your startup. Often, once you get startup, you can spend it how you want. You can ask for cash for a big piece of equipment, but if you get it on the cheap or your needs change, you might be able to spend it in another way.

-Moving expenses. Sure, this is nice. But if you can convince them to shave money off of moving expenses to increase your salary, or reassigned time or something else, that is probably of more use to you.

-Space. If you want a better office or lab, now is the only time it’s going to happen, until someone retires or leaves. Nobody will get kicked out for you (usually), but if there is a variety of possible space then you should make your needs known.

-Staff. Will they guarantee that you have funds to hire a research assistant or tech? Small schools might be able to get you a paid part-time undergrad to work in your lab.

-Travel. To you, money for staff, travel, equipment and supplies all looks the same. But to the resource managers at the university who have to cobble together the funds for you, they aren’t. They need to get your startup from different pools of money with different rules. If you want to get money to travel to conferences, that might need to be specified up front. It also might not be possible, or might allow you to get a larger total amount.

-Duration of startup. Have you seen the Richard Pryor movie Brewster’s Millions? (This shows I am not young.) Pryor’s character has to spend a ton of money – all of it – in a short period of time. Most people who get startup are given a deadline to spend all of their money, and it typically arrives too soon. You’re so busy getting settled into your classes your first year, you can’t set up your lab on time. It’s likely that they’ll be pleased if you want your startup to be distributed over multiple years. That’s flexibility that you’ll appreciate. (I didn’t get the bulk of my startup until after I was tenured, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

There are a lot more details, and nuances about what kind of resources are better than others, but most of this depends on the specific circumstances of your particular needs and those of your institution.

Before your start your negotiation, there is a classic book about negotiation that I strongly recommend reading: Getting to Yes. This book will help you take away the adversarial approach to arguing over resources and instead help you find common ground. It should never be an argument, it should be a collaboration. Read this book before you get an offer.