Academic Job Search

Guest Post: Interviewing for a Job at an Undergrad-Oriented School

By psykadamnit

I want to follow up on xykademiqz’s posts on job search strangeness. I’m in a STEM discipline at an undergrad-oriented school. My department has no graduate program, and those departments that do have graduate programs usually only have small MS programs. The focus is on undergrads.

For some reason, most of our candidates in our current search showed the same missteps in their interview presentations. Being an undergrad-oriented institution, one certainly does have to aim a research seminar in our department a bit differently than a seminar at an R1.The audience won’t include many direct competitors who can pick apart your research proposal, and it will include many undergraduates who know nothing about your topic (or, worse, have a bunch of misconceptions about your research area). So you certainly need to spend more time than usual on background. This is the standard advice, and all of our candidates followed it. The problem is that most of them followed that advice a bit too well. They spent so much time on background that it was really hard for faculty to figure out what they actually do and what they actually want to do. Some of them showed at least a few results, others showed literally nothing of what they do. Only a couple actually got very specific about what they themselves do and why their approaches and results are so exciting.

“Wait, isn’t the point of the seminar just to give undergrads an idea of what you do and why you do it?” Yes, that is a big part of it, but it isn’t all of it. We are not looking to hire somebody who will publish in Glamour on a regular basis, but we are looking for somebody who has exciting research projects that are intellectually significant, sustainable, and amenable to undergraduate involvement. In order for us to figure out if you meet that criterion, you have to use your seminar talk to tell us what it is that you actually do. You can’t spend 43 minutes on background and then spend 2 minutes saying “So, I work on stuff related to what I just showed you. Any questions?” Um, yeah, I have a question. What the **** do you actually do?

“But I wrote a research plan! Didn’t you read that?” First, I’m not on the committee. Second, there’s nothing more adorable than a n00b. Tenured professors reading? Really? Most of us are too busy napping! But, seriously, we did read about your research, but we aren’t in your field, so we’d like you to summarize your key approaches and findings thus far, and then follow it with something like “So here’s what I want to do next…” Then we can have a Q&A.

“But won’t that go over the heads of undergrads?” Well, yes, they are kind of stupid. That’s why we really only expect you to spend about 50% of the talk at their level before taking it up a notch. Second, are you saying that you are unable to take what you do and bring some of the essentials to undergrads? Are you sure you should be working here?

Anyway, having been harsh on candidates, I’ll say this much for them: I think they’ve been hit over the head a bit too much with good advice. They were told again and again and again (and then some) that they need to take it down a notch for students. And when we look for people who have a lot of teaching and mentoring experience and want to go to an undergrad-focused school, we probably select for overly-conscientious types. It also doesn’t help that we are doing a search in one of the more abstract corners of our discipline, and people in that sub-field are especially likely to be told “Remember, most undergrads do not appreciate the abstraction the way you do. Take it to their level. You need to take this weird stuff and make it accessible.” Still, at the end of the day, you need to tell us what you do, and tell us why it is exciting and show us how smart you are. Yeah, yeah, the earnest progressive types will say that you shouldn’t be a sage on the stage, but we want to hire a smart scientist who does stuff. Show us what you do, you smart scientist! I mean, otherwise, why would we hire you?

Notes from the Search

We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.

My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.

I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.

One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.

I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.

Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all.  Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance.  I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.

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Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be  be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.

Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?

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Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.

  • For several searches in a row, a colleague always favors a candidate from the same country of origin, even when others in-area unanimously favor someone else. (That same colleague also collaborates only with compatriots and only brings in students from the same country. This cannot be a good thing.)
  • Some colleagues will penalize a candidate for having a presentation style and general demeanor different from their own; we have a subarea that is starting to look like it’s populated by clones or, at the very least, siblings.
  • Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones; I wish it weren’t true, but it is. No matter how well they present, they are never perceived to be quite as polished as the very thin ones, especially by the very thin and polished members of the faculty. This makes me want to eat a cookie.

Interview Season Fatigue

I am fortunate to have a faculty job at a great public R1 university. Owing to the high research activity, there is always someone here to give a talk. There are three seminar series, associated with three departments, that I usually attend (generally biweekly), and another 1 or 2 where occasionally an interesting seminar comes up. (Which begs the question: what’s the ideal seminar attendance frequency? Too many, and you infringe upon your work time, too few and you start getting out of touch, missing potentially important info about trends somewhat removed from your immediate expertise, which is where juicy inspiration for new projects comes from!)

On top of that, we are interviewing for multiple parallel searches, so we have been having 2-3 guests every single week over the past few weeks. Considering that I am involved in the search, I am supposed to not only attend each talk, but also formally meet with every candidate as part of the committee.  And let’s not forget that candidates have to be taken out to eat, several times per visit. I know I am supposed to enjoy department-sponsored meals at nice restaurants and the chance to talk to smart new people, but I am mostly just resentful. My family doesn’t care for me repeatedly staying out and disrupting their evening routine either.

The face-time fatigue during interview season is brutal for job seekers, but if it makes you feel any better, it sucks pretty fiercely for the people on the other side who are  involved with the search. As exciting as the prospect of bringing in bright new colleagues is, all the meetings and chit-chat and the extra seminars are simply… exhausting.

Good luck to all who are interviewing! If an interviewer dozes off or their eyes start to glaze over, don’t take it personally.

Musings on Networking

Presenting work at conferences is an important part of being a scientist. It falls under the broad umbrella of making your research known to the scientific community. Being able to create and deliver a good presentation is an inherent part of graduate and postdoctoral training.

Let’s say you are a junior scientist — a graduate student or a postdoc — and you are attending a conference. Generally, your primary purpose is to present a paper (otherwise it would be considerably harder to justify your expenses to the university financial services and therefore harder to get your trip reimbursed on the professor’s grant). You present a paper and hopefully do a decent job. The probability of having a talk versus a poster depends on the field and the particular conference. In some communities posters are looked down upon; in others, poster sessions are a very important mode of interaction among the conference participants. If you have a talk, ideally you practiced in front of your group members at least once (“the dry run”); in my group we do it once for senior grad students and postdocs, usually more than once for inexperienced students.

So you survived the talk and/or your poster session. What do you do the rest of the time? Are you alone at the conference, without anyone you know? Do you perhaps have some of your group mates around? Is the whole group attending, including your advisor/PI? If there are other group members around, you may even go together to do some sightseeing. Also, it is important to actually take advantage of the technical program and attend the talks and poster presentation of other people whose work relates to yours.

But whether you are attending the conference by yourself or are there with the group, conferences are your chances to meet other scientists and enhance your professional… NETWORK. (bwahahahaha!) Networking is considered a dirty word among many academics, who seem to viscerally reject it as being a gauche corporate term for schmoozing, something that the presumably intellectually pure ivory-tower dwellers needn’t engage in. In my opinion, it just means meeting people, getting to know them, and generally trying to not be a douche to them, whoever they are. Some small fraction of the people you meet may turn out to be professionally useful to you. Others, not so much. But spending a few minutes chatting with someone need not be torture.

Like any group of people, scientists vary in their social prowess. Still, I think it’s safe to say that people in the physical sciences are not considered the beacons of congeniality. These days, however, you cannot be an extremely successful scientist without at least average social skills. For instance, I know a very successful young PI who would come to a conference with a list of people he wanted to meet, and he literally would not rest until he met every single one of them. He is supremely energetic and charismatic, probably on par with the best ad executives, lawyers, or businessmen. He also happens to be a very creative scientist, and this combination of extroversion, charisma, and technical excellence is a great recipe for his success in today’s “show me the grants” science model.

Most other scientists are more introverted or not quite as charismatic. Still, networking is necessary, unavoidable, but can luckily be even fun. Or, at least, it can be practiced to the point of becoming bearable.

— The best way to make good professional connections is at small or mid-size meetings, like workshops, where attendance is smaller but the attendees have a lot of chance to interact with one another. After 2-3 years of showing up, people will start recognizing you and saying ‘hi’ just because they have seen you around. Even if you feel awkward and totally out of place the first (or second, or third) time around, just showing up repeatedly will make people used to you and you might actually start feeling like you belong there. What I would recommend for a junior scientist from grad student to tenure-track faculty is to identify 2-3 small or medium conferences where if makes sense for you to show up every time; it is the best way to find a community where you will comfortable, and where you can feel supported, both in the abstract sense and in  terms of having future collaborators or just general connoisseurs and proponents of your work.

— You don’t have to force it. There are plenty of relatively low-effort opportunities for networking at conferences. Every conference has some sort of an opening reception, most have a banquet near the end, then there is the poster session or sessions, coffee breaks, and lunch breaks. These are all chances to talk to people if you feel like it.  I completely understand not wanting to talk to anyone, wanting to have your lunch or your coffee in peace. But try not to spend 100% of your lunch or coffee breaks alone or with the people whom you know well from your research group. Even if you aim for meeting one new person per week-long conference, that’s still something!

For instance, when you are  alone at a conference, if you pay attention you will see there are always tables with people who also seem to be there on their own. You can certainly  sit at one such table and try to start a conversation. Usually it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s no big deal. The point is to meet someone new, practice small talk, talk about what you do, hear about their work, and then move on. (The art of moving on is also a very important one and one that even many senior folks really have to master — reading cues that the interaction has run its course and you should go your separate ways. And try not take it personally.)

— Many people are very discriminating when it comes to chatting with people at conferences. Both junior and senior people are often guilty of bending over backwards to talk to someone they perceive as important , and don’t think twice about ignoring someone they consider lower on the totem pole,  unimportant,  or generally unremarkable (a student, a postdoc, a woman they consider to just be someone’s accompanying person…) . I have often been on the receiving end of people assuming I am no one of consequence — usually because they think I am a student or someone’s wife, although the former becomes less common the older and fatter I get — so I am relatively desensitized to it, I generally correct people or assert who I am, and it doesn’t bother me too much unless it’s really egregious. One example of a blatant slight was the guy I met at a recent grantee meeting for a federal agency.  We were all walking up to the cafeteria and I was talking to a big-shot graybeard from another institution with whom one of my former undergrads is now a grad student. This other guy came up to us, looked me over like I was the shit on his shoe, wedged into the conversation then quickly screened me out, first passing by me then starting to walk right in front of me and cutting me off from the person I had been talking to. You bet I will remember this guy, but not fondly. 

It is basic decency to talk to anyone like they are a worthwhile human being. But when it comes to forwarding their professional agenda, many people seem to forget this rule. So perhaps it’s useful to rephrase it in the professional networking context: talk to everyone as if they matter to your agenda, because you have no idea when a certain connection, a certain 10-min chat, may actually materialize into something that benefits you. It is never a bad idea to be kind to another person. I personally don’t mind small talk; people usually like to talk about themselves, and I like hearing their stories and learning something new about different universities and areas of research. So I just go on autopilot and ask questions along the following lines: I ask about the university, how large it is, what they do for research, how large the group is, if they come to this conference often, what are the other important meetings in their field. Then if it’s a PI at a public university, I may ask about state support, departmental size, if they have had recent hires, how are tenure criteria, then we may kvetch about funding in general if there is time, discuss where each one of us gets funding from etc. If a student or postdoc, I ask what they do, how far along the program they are, what they plan to do when they graduate, where have other people from their group ended up. If I happen to talk to someone’s spouse, there’s stuff to ask about the city they live in, how their trip was, if they have stuff planned for after the conference, sometimes we talk about kids, which I enjoy.  When you think of it, the whole small talk business is quite formulaic, and thus hopefully less intimidating. The point is that it should not be hard to spend a pleasant 10 min talking to pretty much anyone and learn a little about them. Being a listener is an excellent quality for making connections with other people.

— One  thing that someone mentioned years ago in response to one of my posts over at the Academic Jungle, I think it was Pika, is to forget about sucking up to the big guys and hang out with your peers. This is a very important point.

Everyone always tries to chat up the big shots, who might meet you but will usually forget you, especially if you are junior [unless they know of your work (i.e. they know your advisor) or you have been introduced to them by your advisor  (i.e. they know your advisor)]. It’s also quite amusing how much many of the big shots enjoy all the attention… but I digress.  So just hang out with the people your own age instead. Making friends with other young folks is not only easier when you are a student or postdoc, but those young folks are your actual peers. They are the leaders of tomorrow, and those conference connections of today are collaborative proposals, grants, and postdoc placements for your students of tomorrow.

— Finally, you don’t feel like interacting with other humans? Then don’t. If you are painfully shy, too busy,  temporarily not in the mood to talk to people, or generally misanthropic, that’s fine. It’s OK to keep to yourself, no need for to torture yourself or others; you have my blessing.

But… If you don’t actually mind talking to people, I would say just relax and talk to whoever seems interested in talking to you. That’s all you need to do, that’s networking.

Moving Mid-Career

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Academic Job Search — Know Who Thy Friends Are, reader MidCareerTenured asked a question about upgrading institutions mid-career:

xykademiqz and other: What do you think the chances are for a midcareer tenured scientist to move from a very low ranking research institution to a quality R1? Assume a solid performance in publication and grants on par with an average/good R1 faculty, but nothing spectacular (no Nature/Science or $multimillion grants). Does anyone really sympathize that the effort to get things done in a low ranking institution might turn into much better results in a quality R1? Is it really much harder to move with tenure?

As I told MidCareerTenured, I have no personal experience with moving mid-career. I have had serious “feelers” from several places, including a few fairly formal ones, but I don’t believe in stringing people along when I have no intention of moving right now, so I didn’t accept the interview invitations. Luckily, my department is sensitive to people being courted with outside offers; there are retention funds that are used to  preemptively show appreciation to people who are at a high risk of being recruited away.

However, I can say a few things based on my observation of the people who have either moved from mine to another institution or whom we have recruited after they had become established elsewhere.

In my opinion, it is certainly possible to move laterally or somewhat upward without being a superstar; the question is always what you would bring to the new institution. If you are a respected name and have a niche, you will find a place that wants you, but it may take some time and you probably need to send out some feelers through trusted colleagues. Sometimes, it is about the fit — your expertise may be redundant at one place but sorely lacking at another.

But I would say moving mid-career generally requires that you have an “in,” someone who will champion your case. This is considerably more common than getting interviewed after just applying cold. One reason is that you would have to be brought in with tenure, so colleagues have to commit to spending decades by your side without the acclimating probationary period of the tenure track. That is why it is very important to have someone with a strong interest in bringing you in. For example, there is a person who is being strongly advocated for these days in my department. That person is very good, but I would not say a superstar, yet they have already moved several times in their career (at least 4 or 5), with most of the moves lateral-ish. This person has a whole collective of long-time collaborators in several departments at my university, and these people are jointly putting a lot of pressure on the department and college to make things happen.

If you have been very active at a lower-tier institution, people will be impressed, but I don’t think you can count on them imagining all the wonderful things that you could have done if only you had had more resources.  Instead, I thing I would go for the following mindset: forget that you are at a lower-tier institution. Tell yourself that you are as good as anyone else and these are your technical strengths and this is what you are known and respected for; you deserve to be at  a strong R1. Now, what is it that you bring to institutions that they already don’t have? Often the answer means that you are joining an exisiting strength and are filling a need within that strength. Namely, many strong R1 departments pick several  areas that they want to be leaders in, and then hire to develop those areas to be as strong as possible. Sometimes, a department may have just decided (after some “strategic planning” *shudder*) to start developing a new area, one they previously didn’t have. Usually, such development starts by bringing in someone who’s mid- or even late-career, and ideally someone who has great name recognition. However, not all places are able to afford a superstar. I am not sure what type of place you are at, if you are at a lower-ranked R2, maybe first jump to a top-ranked R2/lower-ranked R1, and there are many very good schools in this group. You could be that productive person who helps them start a program in an area they haven’t had before and really revive their program. Then a few years later upgrade further to a better R1. If you are at a lower-ranked R1, perhaps go for a mid-range R1 first, then even higher after a few years?

Based on what I have observed, ultimately it is about what you bring to the table and where the places are  that have someone who recognizes the importance of what you could bring, and if those colleagues are willing and able (i.e. they have enough gravitas in department) to really go to bat for you.

What say you, blogosphere? Do you have advice for MidCareerTenured on how to move to a better institution mid-career? 

Academic Job Search — Know Who Thy Friends Are

Professors are frequently asked to write letters of reference: recommendation letters for undergrads applying to grad school, graduate students and postdocs seeking postdocs or jobs; evaluation letters for tenure-track faculty who are being considered for tenure, as well as for faculty at various career stages who are being nominated for honors or awards. If I agree to write a letter for someone, I will not write a negative one. If I cannot in good conscience write one that is positive, then I will refuse to write a letter entirely. 

If someone gets a PhD degree in my group, I endorse that person and I vouch for them. Hey, PhD is thicker than water, right? It’s not without reason that a PhD advisor-advisee relationship constitutes a lifetime conflict of interest in the context of the NSF proposal review. I will write letters for students and postdocs as often and for as long as they need them, until one of us drops dead. I would never have a problem with any of my former students or postdocs seeing the letters that I have written for them.

In the context of evaluating tenure-track applications, the issue of the letters of reference comes up for candidates who have survived at least the first and often even the second cut.

For most faculty candidates, the PhD and postdoc advisors are at the top of the reference list, which indicates that the candidate considers them someone on whose enthusiastic support he or she counts. In the vast majority of cases, this trust is warranted: the PhD and postdoc advisors usually promptly respond to the requests for letters and send recommendations that are detailed, informative, and usually glowing. This expediency holds even for the busiest and most famous among former advisors, which goes to show that if something is important to a person, they will find the time to do it.

But then there are others…

For instance, I know a successful mid-career colleague who did not put the PhD advisor on the list of references at all back when he was first applying for tenure-track jobs. I don’t even think the two of them got along that poorly, I mean the colleague published a lot and well as a grad student, but I can imagine he might have been a handful on account of having a very strong personality. I really don’t think the advisor would have written a bad letter, but I suppose you never know. The colleague had decided he had stronger and more enthusiastic references elsewhere and, while he knows this conspicuous absence of the PhD advisor’s letter raised red flags with some hiring committees, he was ultimately able to land a good tenure-track position and is now very successful.

Then there is my favorite from a few years back, where the PhD advisor wrote a paragraph-long email basically saying the candidate was good and productive. Nothing bad, but a freakin’ paragraph. It raised all sorts of questions about the candidate and I think ultimately contributed to them not getting an offer.

I have seen cases where the PhD advisor or the postdoc advisor is near the bottom of  a lengthy list of references. Usually, from the CV, you can see a clear correlation  with the person not having published very well during the PhD/postdoc. In a few cases, the advisor had a reputation as being very difficult to work with. Unfortunately, all this does cast a shadow of doubt on the applicant, but it does also reveal that the applicant knew what was going on, knew that this advisor was not to be counted on. In my experience from the search committees, I am going to say that having a so-so relationship with the PhD advisor can be remedied by great postdoc experiences. I have, unfortunately, seen candidates with a great PhD but a ho-hum postdoc, or a good first but not a great second postdoc, and they usually don’t fare well on the market. It is a sad truth that a bad postdoc can totally tank your academic career, especially if it’s the most recent one.The unnerving part is that who you land with is luck to a great degree, so you may be in deep doodoo through very little fault of your own.

I also remember the case of an applicant from a few years ago, who looked great on paper, had a great record from his PhD,  and listed PhD advisor as first reference. The reference letter from the advisor never came, even after reminders. Before you wonder whether the advisor had died, became incapacitated, or was otherwise indisposed, I should tell you that the advisor did submit letters for other candidates in the same search. So the absence of a letter was definitely meant to convey a lack of endorsement. Whether or not this was a petty or a real issue, it hurt the candidate. What is most surprising to me is that the candidate was not aware that there was an issue, that the advisor would not be supportive. Maybe the advisor was sneaky and passive-aggressive, or even openly deceptive — all sweet on the outside but seething with rage and disappointment on the inside. Could it simply be delusion on the part of the candidate, refusing to believe that the advisor  would not provide support? Could it be that everyone’s egos were just a little too big for the candidate’s good?

But, there is no need to sink into the depths of despair at these unfortunate anecdotes. Most PhD and postdoc advisors are really, really supportive of their group alumni. However, some professors are not nice people. Some students are not nice people either. Sometimes there is just too much of a mismatch between what the two parties expect from one another. In an ideal world, the advising relationship would be dissolved in these cases and the junior person would go work for someone more supportive. In an ideal world, people would also talk openly, and the advisor, who holds considerable power over the student/postdoc, would be able to convey what they are unhappy about and what needs to change. But, this is not an ideal world, so you, the candidate, had better rely on your gut and common sense and try to be honest with yourself as to how much support you can realistically expect and from whom during the application process, because the competition is so fierce that committees will readily relegate you to the “do not interview” list if there are doubts cast upon your merit by the people who are supposed to know you best.