Thursday, October 25, 2007

Just one question:

I realize on second reading of this that they have specific open positions, 53 of them to be exact, but the way it reads is that anyone should decide what they'll apply in, and just send a letter unsolicited to the appropriate department.

I did see a small college recruiting in such a way, though, which makes sense. And they don't teach enough of my field so maybe I have a chance!

Position: Multiple Positions
Salary: Unspecified
Institution: Princeton University
Location: New Jersey
Date posted: 10/22/2007

Princeton University
Faculty Positions

Princeton University invites applications from junior and senior scholars for positions as tenure-track assistant professor, or tenured associate or full professor in any of its departments in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, or engineering.

Princeton University is an equal opportunity employer and complies with applicable EEO and affirmative action regulations. Please submit a cover letter and cv online at

Confidence in the job search

Two observations as I browse the Chronicle of Higher Education listings:

1. Some schools don't categorize their jobs correctly, so I just look through all of them for the locations I'd live in. In contrast to everything else in academic life, I see a broad array of fields, some of which I've never heard of. The availability of a wide selection almost feels like the menu for choosing an undergraduate major, as if I could suddenly decide to apply for a faculty position in Quantitative Assyrian Film Studies. In reality, there are 400 people with PhDs in precisely that field madly competing for the one position, but that's not visible from the Chronicle website.

2. Last year, I applied to a wide variety of jobs, looking primarily at the fields and how I fit in. Somehow I felt less nervous to be applying for a range of jobs and to treat all the jobs the same. I applied for one job at an urban commuter school and I looked at their website just the same as I looked at the website of the more traditional research-oriented universities, and spent about the same time writing cover letters. Writing 70 cover letters each individual one doesn't mean all that much, so the process went smoothly. I got interviews at all levels of places. Now that I realize that the urban commuter schools may offer fantastic teaching opportunities, if I want research I need to go elsewhere, so my search is far more directed, each cover letter means much more, and I feel more tempted to procrastinate.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

This is how academic feuds start

As I was about to leave town, I had a somewhat awkward conversation with a guy (Gene) who I've liked since the first time I met him a couple years before. We agreed we don't want a long distance relationship, but that we should get to know each other and think about dating if we were ever living in the same place.

On a visit back to my former city, Gene and I were chatting and a few people picked up on the dynamic and remarked in a positive way on what a great guy Gene is, and so on. However, a friend of a friend called me up less than five minutes after I left a gathering where I'd been with her and Gene and others. She said that she knows that I date a lot, and noticed I was talking a lot with Gene. She'd just met Gene a few weeks ago, and really likes him and would be interested in pursuing him, but she doesn't want to intrude if I'm really interested. I said that I wasn't expecting the question and I would get back to her in the next day or two.

It seemed a bit strange that she would ask my permission. It's definitely none of my business who Gene dates. I'm not dating him, after all, and he should make his own decisions who he likes. On the other hand, maybe it made sense for her to put our acquaintanceship ahead of someone who could be a passing interest. On the third hand, the way she phrased the question, she may have expected me to say, "Yes, actually, there are 100 men lining up outside my window, it sounds like you don't have any, and I don't even live here. Go ahead."

I slept on it, and when I woke up I had a strange feeling that I would regret being polite-as-expected. Yes, I do date a lot, but mainly because I enjoy meeting random people and so the dates mostly yield funny stories and some escapism since very few of them are actually plausible. Gene is someone I have a lot in common with, I vividly remember the first time I met him, and while I haven't been dreaming about him for the past few years, there's really some actual potential there. I emailed her and said that this was the first time in a couple of years that we were able to consider dating, and I really hoped to give it a chance, especially since there was a chance that I would be living closer in a few months.

More recently, my interactions with her were extremely strained, literally tit for tat on the most minor issues having nothing to do with anything. The interaction bothered me so much that I mentioned it (without her name) to Gene who said he thought it was puerile and territorial.

She's a powerful impressive person, and totally the sort who could become the president of a major university. Many horrible novels could be written from this set up.

Publication bias in blogs

Publication bias is a real concern in academic publishing, and even moreso in blogs. At least, I think, in my case.

While I enjoy puzzling out generalities of the postdoc life (such as it is), I have to admit that one reason that I blog is to get out my gripes so that I can forget about them and move on with my life and not burden my friends. Alternatively, if I have some theory, I will present all the evidence in favor of it, and conveniently neglect other facts, and realize later that I was slanted. Both my current postdoc and Gene have more postitive attributes than I gave them credit for in my posts, and while there's certainly clarity in getting a snapshot of one's current feelings, one-off writing done on the spur of the moment when I'm no good for writing anything real can be pretty slanted.

No neat resolution. Just posing the problem.

Update on my postdoc dilemma

If I get the dream postdoc, I will take it. If not, I'm leaning towards the postdoc abroad. I even found a subletter for my current apartment.

I agree with the commenters that I have no obligation towards this guy. He makes no effort to play well with others, and I agree that it would be well within my rights to leave as soon as possible. I'm considering only what's good for me, and have two concerns that I'm still considering.

1. Job search: my field is such that I am on the job market every year until I get a tenure-track job, so job search complications will come up in just a few months.

- I found the job search taxing even within the US, and had to stifle yawns in the late afternoon interviews; thankfully, I interviewed well even when I was exhausted. Still, adding more than a dozen hours of flight and a time zone shift to each set of job interviews makes it more difficult, and I hate to handicap myself.

- I would have to offer to pay for my trip to the US in order to not deter people from interviewing me, but each trip costs a bit more than half my monthly salary.

2. The additional projects that I would take on to get up to 100% are actually in a hot, well-funded area that I have had long-standing interests in, and I would be working with someone who I actually like, not with him. I can't take on anything new until I submit to journals some of my papers because as it is I'm juggling 5 different things, but I would like to talk with the person running the additional projects to get her input on the situation. I think she'll be sympathetic, and maybe she could even help me find a temporary fix.

Chicago Man: I have some language skills, though all academics speak English, they often have English seminars, and there's an expat community in the city so I could find dates. Marriage is high on my agenda, but marrying someone abroad means you might get stuck there. Not the worst thing in the world, and as a commenter said, eventually I just need to jump and see what happens, even if I don't believe in Fate.

Enjoy the silence

I had an interview a few weeks ago for a dream postdoc: not only is the research innovative and truly something I'd wanted to do well before hearing about the position, the school top notch, and the department interests overlapping with mine, but they pay attention to postdocs' professional development to an extent I'd never seen before. They actually have professional development seminars for postdocs, include them in department activities, and have a strongly encouraged ethic to mentor others' postdocs so postdocs interact with other faculty; they even seem to treat their RAs significantly better than most places.

I sent them an update yesterday afternoon with my confirmed defense date, and also an offer to start even earlier than I'd offered before (they want someone ASAP) and haven't heard back even a perfunctory "Thanks." I also hadn't gotten even a perfunctory response to my thank you email (yes, I also sent a paper thank you note). The silence starts to bring back all the reasons they might not be as interested in me as they were at the time that I interviewed (1).

I'm not normally so zen, but it seems like half the battle of the job search is to embrace the times of uncertainty as times in which other things can be done. Hearing an outcome poses new dilemmas and distractions. Having not heard yet, one can continue with life as normal, putting the job search out of one's mind. It sounds so simple, but is so difficult to carry out.


(1) For those who like to read awkward job interview anecdotes, I include the following:

a. It had been raining early in the morning, but wasn't raining when I left. Due to torrential rain I was soaked from the waist down by the time I arrived at the interview. Absolutely soaking wet: wringing out my skirt yielded water and there was even water inside my waterproof shoes. I forgot about the water and it didn't make me nervous or on edge at all, and my skirt was dark enough (and quick-drying stylish polyester!) that it might have just looked stiff rather than wet, but the chair I first sat in was still wet the next time I sat in it.

b. I had a phone appointment as part of my interview, but the phone appointment cancelled and wanted to reschedule. When I was back home, the phone appointment called me at the designated time, but only had 10 minutes to talk before they picked up their daughter from pre-school and spent most of the time talking about irrelevant details, and then he suggested we talk yet a third time and gave me a range of times in which I could call if I wanted. Since we didn't have an appointment I forgot about it, but the next day I emailed, but he didn't respond. Obviously the guy is busy and a bit disconnected. Probably not a big deal, but this guy does something related to what I would do.

c. I was an early interview. They posted many notices with different deadlines: the deadline on the post I was responding to was 6 weeks earlier than the last posted deadline, which actually hasn't passed yet. In theory they could interview people a month after me, and the later candidates probably have a slight edge.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Should I stay or should I go?

I want to decide whether to stick with my current postdoc for the entire year, or to go to a postdoc abroad --- see previous post for details.

Lists are reductionist, but let's see what I can do.

The 3 major things I need to do this year, professionally.

1. Revise dissertation and defend. Under control at this point.

2. Finish and submit 3-5 papers, including ones from dissertation. (b) Start new projects to solidify research agenda.

3. Job search.

The real question is which position will leave me in the best position to accomplish these three things, and the subgoals necessary to accomplish them (e.g., improving my work habits.) Since the first is under control, the major questions are about 2 and 3. If I had to choose only one of the two to do, the research pipeline is clearly most important: if I have research flowing, finding a job will be easier and maybe even more efficient (apply to fewer jobs that I'm better qualified for).

The postdoc abroad is far better than my current postdoc at helping me with my research agenda. I can renew the postdoc abroad to be a total of 2 years if I need to. And I can suck up the extra travel costs associated with the job search. As long as I keep my spirits up and my goals in perspective, I can make it work. My current postdoc is not an area that I have substantial future research interests in, I feel like they're using me, and I have not risen even to the level of liking the work in the time that I've been working there. The postdoc abroad has a research agenda that we planned, and gives me time on my own to do my own work.

Wow, that was an easier decision than I expected. At least, the binary decision looking only at professional goals. There could still exist a research job which dominates the postdoc abroad by being in this country (easier for job search) and gives me time on my own to work, but I'm not likely to find one.

Personally, of course I want to date people where there's a future, and living abroad makes that harder, perhaps. That's really an unknown.

A confession: how I got my current postdoc, and what I think of it currently

I have a small confession: I haven't been entirely honest with you, dear reader. (That's in the singular because I have no proof that I have more than one reader.) I had wanted to be vague for anonymity reasons, especially since I intended to cover more general issues, but now I really want to puzzle something specific out, so here I present the real story.

Back last year at the beginning of the job market, I applied for a postdoc abroad. I would not normally apply outside the US, but I had my reasons at the time. In order to get this postdoc, I had to find sponsors, spent literally two months sending emails around the relevant schools, and finally dug up two sponsors with interesting research opportunities relevant to my past research. I wrote a proposal, they and their school wrote letters of support, and the whole application entered the vast bureaucracy. My reasons for applying for the postdoc became no longer relevant, it looked like I had other jobs lined up, and I forgot about the postdoc abroad. Around the time that I was discovering that it was a bad idea to accept a position with teaching that I'd been offerred and was on the verge of accepting, and that things were otherwise not going as expected, I got an acceptance to this postdoc program abroad.

The idea of living abroad was exciting, and I felt like I was definitely ready for a change like that. At the same time, I had a few reasons against accepting it:

  1. Searching for a job from abroad is a big pain.
  2. It's recommended to keep American health insurance while abroad in addition to foreign health insurance, which can be expensive on a foreign postdoc salary.
  3. A letter from foreign people may not mean as much, and I might end up out of the US network.
  4. The logistics were a bit daunting given how much else I wanted to accomplish at the time.

Suddenly, I got an offer for the postdoc here which would let me do whatever I wanted. Right after my visit to that postdoc, I got increasingly urgent emails from the postdoc abroad asking whether I was going to take it. I decided I liked the postdoc abroad better than the other, so accepted the postdoc abroad and turned down the other. My current postdoc still hadn't entered the picture.

My current postdoc entered the picture when I spoke to the guy running this project while interviewing for the other postdoc here. He told me he had a few month long project, which would pay a lot, and let me travel a lot. Taking the short postdoc in addition to the postdoc abroad seemed to answer some of my problems. So I accepted the short postdoc, and told the postdoc abroad I would be delayed.

The short postdoc deteriorated. Money was reduced to 50% of that promised. Travel was reduced to 30% of that promised, and just today to 15% of that promised. Duration of the project has nearly tripled. And I'm doing work that at any other school you would give to an undergraduate research assistant, and the guy I'm working for comes to his office less than every two weeks, so I haven't seen him for a month and don't have any other co-workers on the project.

The one part of the postdoc which interested me consistently was the travel, and now the most interesting part of the travel has been cancelled. One major reason remains for me to stay with the project: I said I would.

Phrased in stark terms: I can keep a promise or I can make a good career decision.

Fortunately, that's horribly over-simplified.

Another post will detail the dilemma. Which is a post that I will write primarily for my own interest, not anyone else's.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Signalling: Confidence and jobs

The main topic of this blog is the job search and transition into an academic career, but I talk so much about dating partly because it's very similar to the job search. In both cases, you have people who can learn a limited amount of information from each other before making increasingly greater commitments to each other, and so must rely a great deal on the information that they receive. In both cases, that means that messages can be sent non-verbally through many channels. These non-verbal signals shouldn't be overthought, but I've found that I can ignore them only at my own peril.

Some examples which have come up recently for me:

1. Patterns of communication: replying too readily signals eagerness or desperation, which depending on the context may or may not be a good idea. I don't think that work should be the center of my life, but I've found that treating work communication before personal communication helps me in both areas: there's no disadvantage to replying to every job search related email or phone call right away, and there's often an advantage; by contrast, answering an early dating email or call right away makes it seem like I've been just sitting there waiting for a phone call or an email, which I have so I'm worried about people being able to tell that. The one exception, I've heard, is teaching: if you reply right away, people say that students always expect instant reply; I intentionally delay answering until I have more time. Since I do have my email program open quite a lot of the time, I can in theory answer anything instantly, so have to restrain myself not to, both for external impressions and so I can get some work done.

Extraneous communication signals irregularity, and people aren't sure what to make of it. Sending emails or making phone calls for purposes other than the normal ones of setting up meetings or pre-date chitchat make people wonder. At least, they make me wonder when the roles are reversed. I made a mistake, I think, in contacting a potential employer to ask whether I could mention them as a potential mentor in an application for a national fellowship: the kind where you get money with few limits on where you research (anywhere at one or more institutions, anywhere period), and this is someone who I genuinely would want to work with at the institution. The next morning, I thought better of it because it puts them in an awkward situation, and said never mind in hopefully a reasonable way. While the request signals my interest, and it looks good that I'm applying to such a competitive fellowship, it may have made them feel uneasy, and that's never good.

2. Earnestness versus status. During my job search, I had a few interviews with places which were in the lower tiers of schools, many of whom were so incredibly nice to me. One postdoc said to me, "Tell us what you would need in order to accept this position." Someone else repeated over and over how famous one of his collaborators was, and how important this body of work was. (Funnily, the body of work is a bit out of my area, so the fact that I had never heard of it didn't mean anything about its importance, but somehow it seemed maybe it was unimportant because this guy was trying so hard. It turns out that it really is quite important and I have a friend who's learning about the area right now.) They wrote up the offer letter while I was visiting and I walked away with it. I turned them down, but I wonder what I would have thought if they showed a bit less earnestness.

Recently I had an interview for a postdoc at a top tier school, and they also were almost excessively nice and earnest. Because they had status, it didn't feel insecure or ingratiating, just nice.

Likewise with dating: someone who's really desirable in some way and seems excessively nice, just seems cute for it. Someone not so desirable who is trying so hard seems creepy, and that's exactly how I felt about the guy telling me about his famous collaborators.

Many more parallels to come in future posts.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The use for self-help books

At the beginning of last year, I bought a few books on work habits and procrastination and read them, and found them helpful, but didn't pick them up after that. The other day, I was despairing, so I picked up a 1983 book _Procrastination: why you do it and what to do about it_ and was amazed again at how its cycle of procrastination captures my private despair. I felt the same way when I went to a lecture on the "Impostor" phenomenon: 200+ people who looked bright and hard-working in the lecture hall also felt like impostors along with me. It's an amazing feeling.

The surmising about exactly why people procrastinate and what they should do about it, I could take or leave, but knowing that I'm not alone in going through these cycles of despair gives me hope that I don't have to procrastinate. Just the few pages where someone wrote in 1983 about my most private shameful experiences are the worth of the book to me.

I didn't procrastinate until I started college, and I got worse because I hung out with people who procrastinated, some of whom were proud to call themselves slackers. It's my fault for picking up bad habits, I don't mean to minimize that. It's helpful to realize that nothing happens in isolation, and if I'd hung out with premeds, I might not have increased procrastination more.

As I finish my dissertation in the same rush of procrastination that I picked up in college, I hope that I will have more discipline and consistency in the next stage of my life. One of the books on procrastination contends that people who procrastinate are addicted to the adrenaline of finishing something at the last moment. And there's something to that. But it's even nicer to come to a paper and find it already partially written. And I feel much more proud of myself to push through a block instead of despairing and deciding that I may solve the problem while checking email.

I just went through a big push to do a ton of work that I could have done literally a year ago. And I had allocated a lot of time for it. And I had lots of papers that I had gathered. When it came down to it, though, I found myself in my apartment still with no weekend access to my office, and all my papers locked in my office, and I pushed through and resolved obstacles and no obstacle took all that long to get past. The longest that I got stuck when I was insisting on plowing through snarls instead of giving up was maybe a total of 6-8 hours of work. And the 6-8 hours were somewhat frustrating, but eventually I found my way through, and finished. I don't feel a rush of adrenaline, and I don't feel particularly proud for having done so much at the last minute. I do, for the first time in months, feel competent.

I will feel even more self-efficacy to do a little every day, and assume that every day will include at least one snarl. I think at the beginning of last year I tried a little every day, and I really set my sights low, so that if I hit a hard point, I would say that's enough for the day, and give up. And then I'd be afraid to go back to the snarl that awaited me. Of course there is an absolutely glaring flaw right in the center of my chapter: it was a flaw that was pointed out in the middle of my dissertation proposal defense. My advisors had gone over this chapter with me a few times in the past several months, and they waited until the defense to tell me that the entire chapter was invalid because of the logical flaw. And they do have a point. But there's no way to resolve it cleanly, and the show must go on, so I pick up after it as best I can. But the shock and betrayal that I felt to have this flaw raised at my defense instead of an earlier time was enough to keep me from working too hard on this project. I just danced around the edges: literature here and there, but no substantiative work. Until the 0th hour, quite literally.

There's much more work to be done, but I finally have a real draft of the chapter after reworking the entire thing. All that remains to be done are small things here and there that I really can make a detailed list for, rather than one of those general lists like "Finish paper."

Most importantly, though, I feel competent.