Sunday, March 23, 2008

Possibly humiliating reapplication

In summer 2006, right before I went on the job market the first time, I had a prestigious summer position at a research institute, and I always saw myself there after graduation. For seemingly arbitrary reasons that I'll explain below, they didn't give me a permanent position. Now I'm thinking of reapplying.

Apologies in advance that this is rambling. Partly I am enumerating the issues for myself.


I have an MA in X and a PhD in Y with X subspecialty. X is a traditional discipline and Y is interdisciplinary.

This research institute used to be really top-notch, taking faculty from top universities, and feeding them back into top universities; that no longer happens so frequently, but they're still quite good. I'd decided that I wanted to work in such an environment because it seemed to defer the need to apply for grants, and I liked it.

The research institute has several divisions, including X and Y0 (of which Y is a subset).

I had a weird summer, though.

1. They placed me in division X, the subject of my MA, rather than Y0 the division corresponding to Y, my PhD. They prepped me for positions in division X: sending me to the lunchtime seminar, working closely with a member of that division, meeting with the head of the division. I had no idea why --- perhaps because that was my return address on my cover letter since that's where my office was.

We spent some time disentangling this assignment. I rather liked division X because it was small, friendly, and geeky. For instance, they encouraged each of the individual members of X to take us to lunch, so we had lots of small lunches with division members, and an individual lunch with the head. X seemed to pay better and be slightly easier. Division Y0 was enormous, anonymous, and professionalized, but just fine. After conferring with the heads of each division, we decided that for permanent employment I should apply to the area of my PhD subject, which I was a little sad about just for personal reasons.

2. I had two assigned mentors whom I rarely saw. The main one traveled, spent weeks at a time at his beach house thousands of miles away (how crazy to have a beach house that they have to fly to), and spent all the rest of his time at an office across town at the nearby university. The other one was nice, but seemed to have Asperger's syndrome: he was really smart, but he was impossible to interact with. (Once he gave hiking recommendations, and literally spoke for at least 10 minutes without pause, rattling off all the different locations from memory, how to get there down to the highway exits, what the trail is like with precise distances and landmarks, and even including hikes which have a 5 mile walk through a river because there is no trail (and that's just 5 miles out of the total 20). It really seemed like he wasn't ever going to stop, so I tried to get him to stop, and eventually he did, but seemed hurt. He hinted that he wasn't doing anything that first weekend, and was always happy to have someone to hike with, but I thought that seemed a bit inappropriate, so ignored the hint. He was cute, though.)

The only guaranteed time I saw anyone was at the weekly group meeting, which they usually joined by conference call. I sometimes went weeks without seeing them at all. They described their travel schedules only in the near future, as if they'd start spending large periods of time at the office starting in a couple weeks once this busy period passed. I figured I would just wait until they were back rather than bother them by phone since it's easier to communicate face to face anyhow.

3. I didn't finish my paper that summer, and in the rush of finishing my dissertation and job market talk and job applications, I actually didn't finish the paper until after defending this fall. I was clear that I couldn't finish their paper before finishing my dissertation, which professors assured me was perfectly reasonable, but the mentors occasionally turned the screws on me. Of course, now it's been nearly 4 months that they've had the completed paper and no one's said a peep about their suggestions for it.

DISSED, part 1

When I actually applied, I had been offered a VAP at an elite small liberal arts college (SLAC) that I really liked, in the field of my MA. I hadn't known that a VAP was less desirable than a postdoc; rather, the only people who told me that were also people who disapproved of teaching positions in the first place, so I didn't trust them. At the last minute, the SLAC dean whom I had been negotiating salary with (successfully!) informed me that he didn't think I should take the job. But that comes later.

Problems with my interview:

1. I'd assumed that I would go to the research institute for the vast majority of the year, but had applied to teaching positions out of my guilty pleasure of liking to spend time with other people, and had the classical crush on a job. I came to the interview all starry-eyed about the SLAC. I really liked them, and I was convinced I would take that job.

2. I trusted the people interviewing me. I had spent the whole summer with them, and in many cases had quite good, casual relationships with them. All the moreso because my actual mentors weren't around. Some people were still just as friendly, and the interview consisted of just shooting the breeze about research; I made sure to tell everyone about my research and interests, but it was clearly very casual. Others set up clear boundaries, including my Asperger's mentor, who had to cut our meeting short because he was meeting someone for beer.

The disadvantage of this trust, of course, was that I answered all their questions. Stupidly. The first rule of the academic job market is never to tell research positions that you've applied to SLACs. Never. But I did because I liked them.

3. Every single interviewer asked me whether I secretly wanted to be in division X, rather than Y0 what I was interviewing for. I said that I had no interest in X except as applied to Y0, and would totally be uninterested in X in the other contexts that people work in, and my research is clearly in Y, not X.

I was honest (again a problem) that I really enjoyed my time in X because it was so small and personal, and I hadn't been told about the Y0 options, but that was a social thing.

Unfortunately, my job market talk was constructed to be impressively technical, which worked against me because they interpreted it to mean that I secretly wanted to be in X. That's a possibility that had never occurred to me.

4. A good thing: the interviewers understood that it was unfair for people to offer to be mentors, and then never be around. They apologized, even, and said that they had never had these particular mentors before.

So, in the end, I got a phone call from the head of Y0 who was very apologetic that they had decided not to offer me the job because the committee had concluded that I secretly wanted to be in X. They said it had nothing to do with the delinquent paper, which was 3 months past the rumored deadline. This, of course, made me really not want to finish the paper, since it seemed clear there was no point any more.

I admit that part of my thinking when I accepted my current job is the fact that it is clearly within Y0, thus proving my interest. Even if I didn't want to be with them.


I've gotten an offer from one postdoc in area Z1 and am waiting to hear from two postdocs that I interviewed for in area Z2. The area Z is related to my dissertation topic and current research, but separate from Y0; people tend to specialize far more when they're in the areas Z. Y0 tends to be hard money, and Z is often soft money. (The industry job will probably make me an offer, but I just want to hear the number.)

A tenure-track job in Y0 just told me that they are interested in my application; at least enough to have noticed that they couldn't find my letters because they'd been submitted in hard copy rather than electronically.

I don't think that I have any other real options unless I apply to more positions.

1. Part of me sees myself at that first research institute. Even though I had a bumpy time there on the particular situation, I really saw my career unfolding there. It just seemed right. I know the major people involved in my research area (within Y0), and I would like careers which look like theirs. I could also branch out and do research in areas that I haven't seen since my qualifying exams. Maybe that is too unscientific for a major life decision, but it's comfortable enough that I would like the decision whether to go there. I'm tempted to email the guy in charge of Y0 at the research institute and ask if I could reapply, explaining that I think that I demonstrated my interest in Y0 over the course of the past year, and send my latest two papers and CV. I'm afraid I'll get dissed again, and that would hurt my future chances. Alternatively, I'm afraid that they'll accept me, and then I'll decide that I prefer one of the postdocs, which is at least as bad for my future relationship with them.

2. Seeing my potential options this year --- currently just one option and staying at my current job --- I wonder if I've narrowed myself too much. The two areas of the postdocs are sufficiently different from my PhD area that sometimes I find myself thinking longingly about all those topics that my classmates pursued, but I haven't touched since my generals. I think I may just be a contrarian. Which makes decisions hard, since I always want the opposite of whatever I decide.

3. Seeing my geographic options this year is even stranger. Even if I got accepted everywhere I interviewed, my choice would be two places where I would have a 1 hour commute from the university's city to the nearest liveable city for singles = finding a place to stay on weekdays, and go back to my real apartment for F-Su? The third place is liveable for singles, but has a lower stipend and higher cost of living than the other two, and it would quite literally be difficult to live there on the stipend: the other postdocs said they only manage because of their spouse's salary.

The only bird in the hand is in an unliveable city more than an hour from the nearest liveable city for singles; and my office (along with advisor's office and others, but no other postdocs at least in the immediate area) might be a few miles from the actual main campus. It's at the best university for my area, but in other respects my current situation is so much better.

I want to go back and reapply all over again. To everything.

On the other hand, I'm pretty happy with the three postdocs I interviewed with, and I think if I picked reasonably good research areas within the postdocs, I could still keep in touch with Y0 in order to apply to future jobs in it. I want that hard money, instead of being limited to the soft money typical for area Z (the immediate postdoc areas).

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