Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Making the decision, part 1

I should be making decisions now, but instead I'm waiting on tenterhooks. Here's the score:

I'm waiting for:
- Tenure-track offer, which will let me know in 2-3 weeks
- 3 more postdoc replies.

My current options:

1. Fantastic school in a terrible city needs a reply this week.

2. Unfriendly school in a great city needs a reply next week. Previously, this was an almost-offer.

I suppose that I might be able to keep my current position, if they don't hate me for having spent the entire year working on my dissertation and traveling for the job market. I owe them lots of work. (Hence the sugar water in my last post.)


Fantastic school has been really accommodating and patient. I've held the offer for 6 weeks, partly because I'd been told at the faculty interview that they'd have a decision in 2-3 weeks (i.e., last week or this week), and now the decision is expected 2-3 weeks from now. Then, as I was about to accept at the deadline they gave me, the postdoc turned out only to be for one year and it was 2 weeks before they found time to speak with me to clarify. By the time that I spoke with them, they decided to offer me a second year if I needed, provided I met the predefined expectations. The training grant is only about 5 years old, and most of their past postdocs were coming from a different field where they can apparently get faculty jobs after a year of postdoc.

(1) They clearly want me.
(2) While they're very busy they do make time for me and have been accommodating.
(3) It's a great school with a lot going on, much better than my grad school (which was also good).
(4) They're by far the best mentoring opportunity. I'd be the only postdoc, and they clearly are invested in my academic future. I feel like I've missed out on mentoring during grad school. Although they're busy, perhaps I can piece together different people's time.
(5) There are enough people around that I can get to know many of them. They're the leaders in the field, I could have a good shot at connecting with them.
(6) It's my only way to continue with the research I'd done as a grad student which is interesting even to non-specialists.
(7) People seem friendly, in general. Somehow I have the feeling that I could make friendly more easily there than at other universities, and in other cities.

(1) When the faculty are around they are terrific, but they are more busy and difficult to locate than anywhere else I've been.
(2) Obviously not everyone is friendly. I had a great email exchange with one faculty member, but when we actually spoke on the phone yesterday, he seemed to be making fun of my ideas.
(3) The late-breaking details make me wary, especially given (1), and more are bound to emerge because I never had an interview, I was never introduced to the people at the research center, and the postdoc doesn't even have a website with details nor was the offer letter terribly specific.
(4) The faculty come from different field, so their professional advice, expectations, and standards may not be relevant, plus combined with (1) they may not even communicate very well so misunderstandings can persist.
(5) It's a simultaneously boring and dangerous city, and I know no one there.
(6) The subject of the postdoc is narrower than most, meaning I may be a good candidate for fewer jobs than if I took a different postdoc with a broader subject.

Personal factors
(1) Frankly, I'm scared. To go to a job which is clearly good raises expectations that I'm not sure I can meet. That sounds silly, but that's how I feel.
(2) I've never been good at maintaining mentoring relationships with mentors whom I never see. I've been put in that situation many times, and always done poorly in it.
(3) I was surprised at how unhappy I was about moving this past year. Here I was moving back to the city where I grew up, I knew the parts of the city near the suburb where I grew up, and I had a vague mental picture for the rest, I had a roommate whom I knew, I had the beginnings of friendships with people that I'd met here and there, I was excited to read the alternative newspaper again and do all the fun things of the city, and yet for a lot of the time I was totally unhappy. Partly that was the stress of finishing my dissertation, but partly I don't feel very secure about moving as a 30+ single. It's never easy to move, but it's always easier when there are lots of people your age who are single and looking for friends. Being at an age when most people are married, and coming to a city where I know no one and don't feel safe sounds like a terrible idea. The way you find your way around a new city is by getting lost. If I don't feel safe, it's not even okay to get lost.
(4) Postdocs are always isolated, and moving to a city where you don't have any friends to be in an isolated job is my idea of hell. On the other hand, people in the city seem friendly. Aside from my one bad encounter people have been willing to talk to me about the city.
(5) It's about an hour (in optimal traffic) from a city where I do have friends. I could even, theoretically, live in the other city and commute and just stay with someone M-W nights.

I can build a strong case for and against the job. That's maybe my problem in general. I can always build a strong case in any direction without having a clear idea which one I want, and it really just comes down to the issues that I already knew: professional vs. personal. I feel like professional factors should trump personal ones, but clearly I'm someone for whom the personal matters a great deal, and can interfere with my productivity if I don't take care of the personal details.

Honestly, after all this traveling, I still don't want to move anywhere. It's too much. I've just started to get used to being back here, and I don't relish the idea of moving anywhere.

An advisor who I respect enormously said the following to me. "it sounds to me like you're not passionate about it. Given this and your preference for [the other city] and your other options, it sounds like you're not leaning towards [Fantastic U]. So, my guess is that you should not feel bad about letting them know that you're truly honored by their offer and that it stands out as the best mentoring and nurtuing opportunity that you have so it's difficult to turn it down. However, for personal reasons you have realized that you would prefer to live in other city A or other city B, and you hope that they will find someone terrific to join their team and that you can stay connected in whatever way makes sense to the people there. Please recognize that I am going from imperfect information here so this may be terrible advice and you should take it or leave it as you see fit, but this is how it sounds from the e-mail....."

I think they're right. I'm so used to optimizing professionally, it's strange to me to realize that I don't have to do that if I don't want to, and I can just build my life in the way that I'm happiest.

Unfortunately, I'm terrible at predicting what will make me happy.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Working late, unanticipatedly

When I end up working late without having anticipated that I was going to, I know that if I leave the building to look for food I will not come back and don't feel too safe walking around after 9 or 10 pm in a deserted neighborhood, so I end up climbing the walls and deciding that 3 packets of sugar-free Swiss Miss are a good dinner. (All that milk powder!) It never works.

Last night I made use of the only "food" available in my office: I had not eaten anything with flavor for awhile, so I poured some sugar into a cup, dissolved it in hot water and drank it, and the flavorless calories killed my appetite, as predicted. And the sugar rush didn't hurt either. I find it eerie not to have an appetite, but here I found it very helpful when I didn't have an alternative. Sugar is everywhere, and generally not a great force in diet, but it can sometimes be useful.

Postdoc paradox

I make less money than a flight attendant, but at least I get obsequious emails from airlines' Elite Customer Care Departments.

From: elitecustomercare9@airline.com

Dear Dr. Postdoc,


As a Premier member of our Mileage Plus program, you are one of our most
valued customers. It is our privilege to serve you.


Sanjay K. Hathi
Airlines Customer Relations

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Time-management II:

I've found a few time-management resources:

The iprocrastinate podcasts can help you procrastinate for a good several hours! Seriously, they summarize personality psychology and research on the area. I had not known of the different models for personality psychology, for instance. From what I have covered so far, task aversiveness is most associated with procrastination: basically, people who are less self-disciplined or ambitious and impulsive are more likely to procrastinate. Only a small subset of people seem to procrastinate from perfectionism. Somehow, listening to the podcast motivates me to do even the annoying tedious tasks that I have to do, such as the endless literature summaries I've been assigned (and my advisor isn't around for me to ask him for something more relevant.)

The book _How to Write a Lot_ written also by a psychologist. It's very short, and the basic point is that you should write every day and you will not be successful unless you do write every day. 2 hours a day, set a goal for each section, and keep track of whether you meet the goal. It was worth checking out of the public library.

Rejected by the government, over and over

Back in October 2006, I applied for a job in the federal government on a lark. They advertise extensively in a professional publication, and after seeing the ad every month for two years, I figured I may as well apply. They turned me down, and I get rejection notices every few months, reminding me that I didn't get the job. It's kind of a downer.

I'm tempted to reapply just to see if I could get the job and get off their rejection letter mailing list.

Has anyone else had this happen ?


ROOM 2469
Date Issued:April 23, 2008
Social Security Number: XXX-XX-XXXX
Eligibility Expires: October 2006
This is a record of your application for Federal Employment in the occupation shown above.  This is not a job offer.  

This notice provides information contained in your record as it appears in the files of the Servicing Office shown

above.  Your qualification and any veteran preference claims are subject to verification.

Series - Position Title:
Vacancy ID Number:
Announcement Number:
Date of Availability:
Full-time Employment: Yes
Part-time Employment: None
Temporary Employment: None
Travel Availability: None
Geographic Availability:

Veteran Preference: 0 Points - NV (not adjudicated)

You must meet all medical, suitability, and qualification requirements to be considered for a position.

Specialty Code:
Specialty Title:
Grade: 11
Rating: ID
Specialty Code:
Specialty Title:
Grade: 12
Rating: ID

Rating Code Rating Message
ID You do not meet the minimum education and/or experience requirements for this specialty and grade.


For additional information, please refer to the vacancy announcement for this position.

Monday, April 21, 2008

College reunion catch-up; science career outcomes

I've been reading through the pre-reunion book of personal updates, and find them revealing of personalities and surprising about careers.


Some people write veiled boasting, sometimes in the Bobo style of boasting of success both in profession and obscure hobby: e.g., "I like to unwind post-call on the llama farm, just 20 minutes from the Mayo Clinic, where I'm doing my neurosurgery residency." I made up that example. David Brooks has already elaborated in great depth on this style which combines serious and ironically-wacky.

Other people are perfectly honest about difficult circumstances that people wouldn't have otherwise known about, including failing to publish during graduate school, having had an ill-fated several-year-long relationship, etc. Some find a middle ground between Pollyanna sunshine and brutal honesty, and mention issues like divorce that people might have noticed by reading the class notes over the years, or issues which are semi-difficult but of the everyday variety such as dating.


A really striking issue --- the reason I'm writing this --- is looking at what happened to people from my undergraduate major. My undergraduate major was in a right-brain field reputed for brilliance at a top-5 school. The two most brilliant people from my major got PhDs in the field from top-5 schools, but now neither is in academia nor particularly prestigious jobs. I'm shocked. I knew that the labor market in this field was challenging, which is why my PhD is in a completely different field from my undergraduate. It's shocking that people whose brilliance I saw continually for four formative years of college, who were at the top of the top of the top, did not get their first choice careers. I know at least one of them would really like an academic job.

The people who left the field for fields with fewer quantitatively smart people, or fields where other traits determine success, seem to have done the best. I exclude myself since I'm fully aware of my neuroses, and am neither on the tenure track nor at a prestigious university.

Faculty job = decreased odds of children

This paper finds that doctors and lawyers have more kids than professors, and fast-track females are less likely to have kids than fast-track males.

Just reading the abstract scaled down my career ambitions by an order of magnitude. I'm tempted to turn down all my options and apply intensively to the non-faculty non-industry jobs in my field.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

No pithy title: ("two deaths and an interview")

Interviews are strangely divorced from real life: you fly to a new place, meet a slate of new people, and they make a decision about whether they want to work with you for the next 1-3 years, while being legally bound not to ask about normal issues like family, friends, religion, deep questions. I had an interview that began bright and early in the morning, almost simultaneously with my friend's death. It's painful to think about. I found out about his death after the first day of interviews, and impulsively checked out of my hotel and rushed to the town where there was a memorial gathering that night hosted by my friend's graduate school department. I stayed up talking quietly with friends, left at 5 the next morning, and made it to the rest of the interview, thoughts of theodicy filling my head as we spoke about his research interests.

My (much older) friend's 80-something year old father had just died of cancer, and I wanted to be able to be there to comfort him. At the last minute, I got invited to an interview just a couple hours away from my former city, which exactly coincided with being able to attend. I flew into my former city, came straight there, and spent the afternoon and evening with my friend and others who came. I didn't intend it this way, but it turned out to be a good way to catch up with other friends whom I hadn't kept well-enough in touch with.

I had made some lunch plans to meet my friend Barbara and her husband after my interview, and while we were all standing around talking, Barbara asked her husband pretty loudly if he was free to join us for lunch, right in front of two people whom I had somewhat complicated relationships with: a guy and a girl. My immediate panic was that the girl would feel left out; she was Barbara's best friend and the one who liked Gene and asked my permission to date him. Because Gene and I had been somewhat involved already, I said I thought it might be awkward, and then he started dating someone else. I was afraid she would blame me that she'd missed her chances with him; she didn't know that Gene had decided a year before that he was going to marry the girl he'd just started dating. In this panic, I asked complicated-girl if she would want to join.

The guy was complicated because of something involving a very close friend's romantic life: he now had a long-time girlfriend, but it still truly hurt her feelings to be reminded of his existence, so gradually I saw him less and less though we'd been closer before. I only saw him at very large gatherings, or when it was just a few people and a foreign movie. She was unusually sensitive, but what could I do: as tempting as it is, you can't argue with feelings. Besides, I'd wanted to stay unambitious on the visit since interviews are hard: if I asked him, his girlfriend would be a natural addition, and perhaps others, and that was too many people. So I kept speaking with this guy, catching up about his life, his girlfriend, his dissertation, and feeling slightly guilty for not inviting him along. When it was time for him to go, I noticed him putting on his coat and rushed to the door to escort him out and exchange a few more vague pleasantries, to reassure him that I really do like him and I really didn't mean to slight him, though obviously not saying anything of the sort, probably just making vague plans to catch up later in my visit, separately.

In the early evening, I set off for my interview and my next day was quite pleasant. My interviewer was the sort who believed in really hosting candidates, so I was constantly accompanied. He took me on a tour of the campus, and we stopped to look at a striking sculpture, he told me about the evolution of his career, and I was completely charmed. We ended early for the day, and I had a couple of hours for a nap before meeting up with the only person I knew in this city, a guy I'd met on a dating site without ever meeting in person; he had since gotten involved in a relationship, but I did want to pick his brain about the city. I checked my email. The night before, I'd debated whether to pay for the hotel's internet and decided against, but somehow managed to find a wireless signal for a neighboring business which had a guest band.

I read email by eliminating the ones I definitely need to delete, and this time I started with "Tragic news" from a graduate school organization in my prior city. These usually announce the death of a grandparent or a professor I'd never met. Naturally, the way I've set up the story, it's not a surprise. A friend in my former city --- the one I'd had vague feelings of guilt for not asking him to lunch, but mostly allayed them --- died less than 12 hours after I last spoke with him. I screamed. All the cliches about not believing terrible news, rereading it, and the simultaneous descent of mental fog and amazing clarity, apply here.

The clarity let me pack, email my interviewer and the dating-site-guy I was supposed to meet that night, figure out travel arrangements, and return to my former city in time for a memorial gathering in his graduate department. I was grateful for people's unexpected kindness. I blurted out the circumstances to the hotel, and asked if the department could get credit; they hesitated initially, and I said that I didn't really care since it wasn't my money, but I thought it would be nicer for them, and they agreed not to charge the department for the second night. It's helpful to be able to dispense with tact and get straight to the point when it's beyond you.

My close friend who had had romantic issues with this guy needed company; she felt enormously guilty and weird. It's a bit ironic, actually: when people die, we think of the girlfriend/wife, the best friend. We don't often think of the girl who'd struggled with romantic feelings that she wished she didn't still have, in that continual struggle between affection and dislike. I was grateful to be there to just spend time with her, so she didn't have to be alone in her apartment. Others needed the presence of reassuring company as well.

The next morning, I left while it was still dark to get back to my interview: it was just a 1 hour appointment with someone who hadn't been free the previous day, but it seemed important to let life go on. Doing something other than my usual routine would make me feel worse, and that was how everyone dealt with it: everyone woke up the next day and went to work. I arrived in the city almost 2 hours before the interview was supposed to start, so dawdled a bit. I glanced at the papers in the newsstand to read the story of my friend's death and discovered awful details. I had no idea where I was going --- the interview was in a different building --- but it was too early in the morning to call my host so I looked at a map in the newsstand, learned I was just a mile away, so bought the map and walked to the interview, arriving early.

Without the interview's timing (that I had no control over), I would have not seen my friend before his death or been able to comfort my friends, so I felt very grateful for the coincidence. On the other hand, his sudden death was random as well, and actually even moreso. Ah, theodicy.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Late-breaking postdoc news

My one postdoc offer letter was vague, and since the postdoc did not have a website, I was short on specifics.

This is what the postdoc offer letter said:

As we discussed in [conference], we are thrilled to offer you a postdoctoral position at the [.]Center starting this summer. I do hope you will consider this offer, as we would be thrilled to have you

The start date would be July 1 but is flexible

Salaries would be based on the [..] postdoctoral fellow scale, as this is a [..] funded position

Please fill out the official application at the website below

I think that we already have most of this information, however we would need an official transript before you could officially start.

Please let me know if you have any specific questions. I am copying [..] on this, who coordinates the academic and training activities in the Department

I was 90% sure that I was going to accept, though. You can't say no to them. Before I accepted, I wanted to clarify a few details and attempt to bargain for moving expenses. In my 10 minute conversation, he had said funding was available for a few conferences. One of my questions was how long the postdoc was for, whether it was the usual 2 years extendable to 3, as virtually all the others I've applied to. Alas:

The post doc is for a year. based on our training grant. We havent had a 2-year post doc, as everyone has gotten funded in the second year either through [US federal funding agencies] grants. We work closely with folks in terms of writing grants etc.
Unfortunately, we dont have relocation funds available

I reviewed my (sparse) correspondence, and there had been no mention of this before. The offer letter didn't have this. Our 45 minute breakfast meeting probably didn't say anything about it, as I would have remembered it more clearly. Our 10 minute conversation did not mention it: all he said was that they would work with me to apply for faculty funding. He never said that applying for the funding was the only way that I could get funding for the following year.

A 1 year postdoc means going on the market again, right away, just in case, and all the facts of temporary life. Hopefully I would be just as lucky as the others, but even so, the fact that this fact emerged only after my questioning is a terrible sign: what other surprises are there?

I've bought myself some time with the decision by asking to speak with him again.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Naîve revelation

The head of my Ph.D. program is this spring's Distinguished Lecturer for my research institute, it turns out. Reading over the email announcement, I can't imagine what brought him to visit.

On April X the Y Institute presents Dr. Snafu Fubar of Shrdlu University as our Spring Distinguished Lecturer. Please help us welcome him.

9:00 – 10:30 AM
Room 666, [My building]
Dr. Fubar will be available for questions and informal conversations. He is excited to meet investigators and students and to learn about their research projects and plans. A light breakfast will be served.

11:00 – Noon
Dr. Fubar presents our Distinguished Lecture, “(Title of His Recent Popular-audience Book.)”

There's no way that "he is excited to meet investigators and students and to learn about their research projects and plans." I doubt he even knows where I am. He walked away from me when I approached him and a group of people at our graduation party last June, looking at me without greeting. That must have been accidental, but it was eerie. Again, it's all inattention, not maliciousness.

Do they pay Distinguished Lecturers?

What's wrong with postdocs

It's suddenly become clear to me that the problem with postdocs has nothing to do with the terms in which it's usually phrased, such as abuse of/balance of power. The problem is that most postdocs are in the fields which put faculty under the greatest pressures: grant-dependent, high expectations about paper output, few positions, perhaps clinical duties or soft money salary. In the fields which do not have these huge pressures, people can just go off to faculty jobs without the intermediate postdoc.

Faculty may be the nicest people in the world, and some are, but they simply have no time to be the mentors that the training grants envision them to be. Mentorship is not rewarded --- publications and grants are most important, so they become first priorities, and mentorship and education are given what little time is left over.

The postdoc position is, in theory, a great idea: lots of unhampered time to build up a publication list before tenure clock starts, but the time is structured by someone who isn't really thinking about your role or life.

Yesterday I was all ready to accept the one solid postdoc offer that I had, but this morning I decided --- forget the work I'm being paid for! --- to investigate my precise research options.

My only actual interview with the postdoc advisor was a 45 minute breakfast meeting at 7 am. I didn't have an accessible pad of paper, so have no notes of the encounter, but we talked in very vague ways about a range of projects, some relevant to the research center's mission and others which had no apparent connection, almost like free association.

Then I had the 10 minute phone conversation while the potential advisor was in the car. Research topics was a much larger area, so I said we'll have to talk later about it. I asked for times when we could talk later, but he offered to send me instead an email with a list of people to contact about their research projects, if I reminded him. I did, and he sent me a list of five names and email addresses with no explanation. So far, I don't see any connection between their work and my research interests, other than broad outlines.

People say about large research institutions that you have to be proactively persistent, but persistence bleeds very easily into pushy. Talking for 10 minutes to a potential recruit while otherwise occupied seems like a signal that I should leave him alone. I'm sure he didn't mean it that way, but it seems almost unbelievable that he wouldn't even offer another time to talk. Or at least, it would seem unbelievable if this hadn't been my experience throughout my entire education.

A friend of mine who is defending just sent me an email which reminded me of the classical situation. She has a job, and just has to defend and graduate. She had a committee meeting scheduled, for which she had emailed each of her committee members to ask about preferred times. Everyone is assembled, except professor A, who walks past the room. They didn't stop him because they assumed he would be right back. He later said that he didn't know about the meeting and couldn't make it anyhow, although he had been scheduled to the time that he had said he preferred.

Professor B is antsy because it's a waste of his time, which he can't spare, and he hadn't finished reading the thesis that he'd gotten the previous week (now that I'm no longer in this position, it seems obvious that 1 week is too little lead time --- my committee would have never let me schedule a meeting less than 2 weeks in advance of sending a draft --- but they should have given her a guideline.) So now she has to start again with the process of scheduling a time for three professors to meet with her, just to decide on an approximate defense date. Which will then be another process of scheduling. While talking about the meeting with her junior faculty member advisor, she burst into tears, not because she was upset about all the changes discussed at the meeting, which her advisor had thought, but because she realized just how powerless she was to finish. Her ability to start her new job on time depends entirely on people who can't keep appointments or prepare for meetings.

Her story reminds me of a recent phd comic.

The power discrepancy isn't malicious. It's just inevitable from the fact that 100% of a postdoc's life is determined by the least important 3% of someone else's life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Update on job search

Here's the scorecard.

Applications: 7 faculty, 16 postdocs, 1 government, 1 research institute, 2 industry.

Interviews: 1 faculty, 10 postdocs (declined 1), 1 industry.

Offers: 1 postdoc (salary x), current job (salary 1.6x).

Almost offers: 1 postdoc.

Pending (very recent interview or notice of being on a "short list"): 1 faculty, 2 postdocs.


My almost offer: "Our committee met and we are prepared to offer you a fellowship but I want to hold off on officially doing that until I am satisfied that you have 'met with' a few more people and satisfied yourself (and me) that you will have the people here to work with. I am very impressed with you, and believe you will add to our program immensely. I want to make sure we will add to you - that is our true purpose.... Please let me know if this is ok with you. I hope we will be able to have you here, but do want to make sure you will be happy here before we consummate our relationship."

Of course this came a week before I was spending an entire week away: 4 days of interviews + 2 days of travel. So I haven't made more than tentative contacts until now, and almost don't want to bother with them because they've been fairly difficult. These are the people who wouldn't pay anything for my visit (which was paid for by another postdoc nearby), said at my interview that they didn't take me seriously until they met me, finally agreed to pay $100 flight change fee because they were late in answering my email telling them of the other visit, and then suggested perhaps I should come back at my own expense to meet with people who might actually be good mentors. They've realized how ridiculous it is to ask someone to pay for their own visit for a job they have not yet been offered, and are settled on my calling potential mentors. It's a ridiculous demand to make of someone in early April. It would have been a reasonable request after my mid-February visit. Now it's very hard to fit in, and not likely to lead to good decisions to just have a phone call.

This morning, I'd been set on accepting my one actual offer, but now I am thinking about the pros and cons, relative to my current job.

My one solid offer has some real advantages:
1. It is from the top school in my area, so has a mystique around it, and theoretically helps future jobs.
2. They brought me in to give a talk, and took me very seriously: they hosted a lunch in the department chair's office with several senior faculty, and everyone seemed happy to meet me. And it was interesting conversation, rather than an interview.
3. They seem very flexible: the mentor is in a satellite campus, but he says I can take an office in the main campus too, and also work with others. I'm not expected to work on any given set of projects.
4. It sounds like they'll let me join a range of research projects. I have to look into this more.
5. They like my work, and they don't want me to change it to fit any set of research agendas that they have.
6. Fantastic seminars, everyone passes through there, lots going on.
7. The main campus is centralized, so a 1 hour seminar takes 1 hour; you don't have to add 30-60 minutes of travel time to get to another campus.
8. They claim they'll work with me to apply for a faculty-transition grant so I could become soft-money faculty there. It's a nice thought, even if meaningless given how difficult the grants are to get.

On the other hand:
1. Research area is somewhat narrow and poorly-funded, so might limit future possibilities unless I'm very strategic.
2. Mentor is less available than even my current mentor: busy, but very nice. This is the guy who, very apologetically, made an appointment a week or two in advance to talk about the position, and started the call by saying I had 10 minutes. I might be able to work with people other than him.
3. No one likes living there. Many young people, especially singles, take on a 60-90 minute commute each way to avoid it. Others spend every weekend in a neighboring city.
4. I have no friends there, not even a toehold of friends-of-friends*. I have a hard time imagining moving to a city where I didn't know anyone at all, and I wonder if I could be happy and productive that way. I know foreign students do it. And I've done it in foreign countries. And I even did it for a summer internship 2 years ago. I guess it's the combination of living in a depressing dangerous city with no friends, taking on an inherently socially-isolating job.
5. After traveling every other week, I feel like I missed out on my current city, and I hate to leave it just as I no longer hate it and have some people whom I'm friendly with.
6. My current job is bringing in a new researcher whom I'd worked with remotely and really like.
7. Money isn't supposed to be a factor, but getting a 30% pay cut is demoralizing.
8. There's this nebulous satellite campus where I'll have to spend some time.

The resources and seminars are a big deal for me. My current campus is decentralized, with the one weekly seminar is 1.5 miles from my office, and only 30% of the seminars are relevant to my work, so I've not been frequently. My PhD was interdisciplinary, so some seminars were 3 miles away and I often just didn't go to those, only the ones on the nearby campus. It sounds hokey, but it's nice to be able to participate in an "academic community."

On the other hand, given the social situation there, the seminars will be a lifeline for me, and I may not have other ways of meeting people. I hate to become the socially isolated postdoc whose major source of friendship is seminars and tagging along with the grad students.

I have friends in a neighboring city, 60-90 minutes away, and I can spend weekends there, but if I wanted to do that on a regular basis, I'd need to find some legitimate way of doing that like finding a half-time roommate, and that's pretty draining on a postdoc salary.

It does work well enough, though. In spite of the horrible city, I really liked my visit to the campus, and felt it was a relief compared to my current one.

I do think that I should look into the sort-of offer some more, and find people to work with, but so far I haven't seen anything terribly interesting in their research; one project they're doing seems inferior and less well-funded to a similar one we're doing, even though they're by reputation a much better school. They also have a compact campus. It's a good, safe city where I already have friends, though it's expensive relative to salary, and they treat their postdocs like grad students, such as 5 people to a windowless office.

So much to do, and I have to give the offer an answer by the end of this week, preferably earlier.

* My one social start there is funny in a mortifying way. I emailed a PhD in an allied field, who I'd been on a date with a couple years ago, and asked if he knew anyone that I could ask about the city and its social environment. He called and gave me the name of a single guy he hadn't spoke with for years, and a number that he'd pulled off google for the private high school where the guy taught. I asked if he had an email address because I was wary of cold-calling some random high school, but he reassured me. I was sitting in an airport and a bit spacey, and without thinking too much about it, I called and asked to leave a message for the guy. The receptionist goes away for 10 seconds and then a male voice answers. She had pulled the guy out of class. He was pissed. I apologized profusely, explained what had happened and that I had asked only to leave a message, and asked for another number and a good time to call. He asked for my name and number instead and of course I don't expect a call back.

Faculty vs. postdoc interviews

Last year, I interviewed primarily for faculty jobs --- some tenure-track, most non --- and just a few postdocs. This year, I had 9 postdoc interviews, 1 industry, and 1 faculty interview. I'd forgotten how different faculty interviews are.

1. Postdocs expect you to fit your research into theirs, and second-guess independent/original ideas. Sometimes it seems like the best strategy for a postdoc interview is to come in and give absolutely the most boring vanilla research idea straight down the middle.

2. Faculty jobs assume competence. When they ask, "What can we do for you to help you meet your research goals?" they really mean it: you are the expert in what you want. They judge you in how well you can carry out what you claim to want to do. It was startling to sit in the interview and realize that I could think for myself and not look for their approval. (Conversely, my first postdoc interviews were strange because I realized that I had to look for their approval which I hadn't been used to from my previous year of faculty-type interviews.)

3. Postdocs are a mutual relationship: they train you, and you do for them, either by direct labor or helping them renew the training grant by serving the purpose. They want to make sure that they add to the postdoc's training, and that the postdoc adds to them: they don't want to take a risk.

4. Faculty jobs require responsibility. On a bad day, postdocs can just sit around all day reading phdcomics and xkcd or getting lost in unnecessary detail. Faculty have to serve on committees, teach, and add to the environment around them. Postdocs have fewer ties and don't invest in their institution.

Faculty interviews don't just want to know how you will carry out your independent research. They also want to know how you will add to community and teaching. That's obvious, but I literally hadn't thought about teaching for over a year, since my last faculty interview, until I was actually sitting in the interview itself. Fortunately, I spent a lot of time last year formulating syllabi, and I remembered them.

5. Postdocs are often narrowly constructed, and the most important part of the interview (which took me a long time to catch on) is explaining how my research agenda fits into the purpose of the training grant. On more than half of my interviews, all of my interviewers were interested in my research, asked many questions, and listened eagerly, and in a few cases they asked for advice on the more rare parts of my expertise.

The explanations about "fit" have to be carefully constructed and very simple and straight-forward. I cannot overemphasize how important this seemed to be.

6. Faculty announcements don't correspond to what they're looking for, or they are constructed in the way that they are for administrative reasons. The one faculty job interview that I got this year was one that I almost didn't apply to because it seemed like there was no way that I fit the announcement. More on that later.

7. Postdocs are sometimes treated like faculty (e.g., substantial research funds), but sometimes like advanced grad students, with required courses. Alternatively, they're treated like medical residents and fellows. At one postdoc program, it seemed particularly revealing that people didn't remember who was postdoc vs. predoc.

8. Postdocs have to ride the balance between admitting ignorance and showing competence. They have to be competent enough to be impressive, and yet they have to have enough areas where they need more "training" that the postdoc will feel like they are adding to them.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Manic panic hair on a postdoc advisor

I was asked to contact a guy about working with him, so obediently googled. The guy's professional university picture looks like the drummer of a goth band, with two earrings and hair with liberal amounts of Manic Panic in it.

Not an aesthetic that I could see in a postdoc advisor.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Whoa, testy testy.

Someone's grouchy or I'm a bad emailer. You decide.

Today I sent an application for a tenure-track job that I just got the announcement for. The address to send them to was a faculty member whose last name was a common hardware store product. Not sure why so late, but perhaps it's not really an opening.

I got the standard, "We received your application." reply from the faculty member. I'm going there next week to give a talk, and thought I'd tell them about it, so I wrote:

Great. Just let me know when you'll need the letters and I'll have them sent.

By the way, I'll be speaking at [your university] next week. Would you like information about this talk when I've
received it?

I received the reply, again starting with a title --- always bad news when it starts with a title:

Dr. New Postdoc, we haven't begun a review of the responses that we've receive to date. Over the next year we expect to fill two positions. You can take a look at the [department] website, research tab, and look at the work currently going in the [acronym] program.

How unfriendly, and what a non-sequitur!

On the other hand, I'd be grouchy too if my last name were a construction supply.

Another postdoc with a chip on its shoulder

So I applied to a really great-seeming fellowship at my current institution, with many of the faculty located in the research institute where I work. It was funded by a government agency under a high level training grant, intermediate between postdoc and faculty. It came with a stipend about 30% higher than average postdoc salary and a sizeable research fund. I'm not sure what's normal for a research fund, but it was four times the size of a research fund for last year's almost tenure-track position and 30% larger than the research fund of a similar postdoc that I interviewed for. It seemed too large to spend, even, since my research is quite cheap, and so I spent lots of time thinking about the new kinds of research projects that I could do with it.

I applied back in February and followed all the application instructions on the website including an "Application letter that includes (a) research areas of interest, (b) objectives to be achieved through the fellowship, and (c) implementation plan for objectives." My implementation plan was slightly vague, but since the cover letter was already about 3 full pages, I figured it was best not to continue on. It's pretty standard.

They asked to meet with me from 11:30-12 on a Wednesday. The coming Wednesday was during a national conference located in this city and the next Wednesday I thought I might be away (and was), so I missed part of the conference to meet with them. Arriving at work in the middle of the day, I hadn't realized I would have parking problems and parked several blocks away in a sketchy neighborhood so I was five minutes late. Four people were sitting around a conference table with room for 20, looking very serious, and the purpose of the meeting was to ask a few questions about why I'm interested and then to tell me that my application was incomplete and that I needed to submit a three year plan. This meeting reminded me a bit of another postdoc that scheduled a meeting in order to tell me that my application was incomplete.

They interrupted each other and interrupted me, and some combination of the personalities and the too-large conference room and the rush of the meeting prevented us from establishing any rapport at all. One of the faculty members started to give the website's URL, but since it's one of those acronyms that no one uses in real life, she stumbled over it, and two more faculty members had to chime in, attempting to complete it. All of which seemed to assume that I hadn't actually seen the website, and had just sent my packet to them blindly.

I asked for details about what they wanted in this three year plan, and it sounded like something that I could dash off, so I promised it in an unrealistically short time-frame. I learned later that this plan is the standard document that many postdocs complete in their first month in the position. Not that that's all that they do during the first month, but they spend a great deal of time identifying milestones, deciding reasonable time-tables, detailing the papers that they want to write and the papers' time-tables. It's basically a sort of grant application, and therefore more time-consuming than actual work.

That night I got an offer, a few days later I saw my friend, the next morning he was killed, then I was at an interview, and then I had work to make up, another trip to plan, and I just didn't get to the three year plan. My current mentor and a senior research scientist in our group had offered to be my mentors under this postdoc, but I hadn't had the chance to figure out enough details to contact them, or to look at a couple other potential mentors. I finally sent an email reiterating my interest, explaining the reason for the delay (interviews and the death of a friend), and that I hoped they would understand if I sent the document in the next week.

Most emails mentioning a death get some form of condolences in reply. This email got a "Dear Dr. New Postdoc." So far, the only time anyone ever uses my title is when I'm getting rejected. Acceptances always use my first name.

The rejection text in full was

Thank you for your interest. However, after further review of your initial papers and interview we have decided that you would not be a good fit for our program and that we would probably not be able to find an adequate multidisciplinary project and mentoring team to support you. So it will not be necessary for you to send further information.

Again thank you for your interest and for your interview and good luck in finding a position.

It was terribly unprofessional on my part not to tell them right away that I expected the three year plan to be delayed and to add one of those non-apologies to the effect that I'm sorry that I hadn't seen the three year plan listed anywhere in the application webpage and then give the URL where they had claimed the directions for writing a three year plan would be. I did neither of those, and I take full responsibility for not being more timely in getting in touch with them, but under extenuating circumstances people often are willing to be somewhat understanding.

So many problems on their side, including:

1. Imposing an additional application requirement a month after submission of the original application, when candidates are rushing around elsewhere and no longer in application-mode.

2. Scheduling a meeting which is too short to be an interview, but expecting it to take the place of an interview, and giving no flexibility about time: it had to be 11:30-12 on a Wednesday and take place in the next two weeks.

3. Outright lying in the rejection letter. The guy I'm currently working with and another research scientist volunteered to be my project and mentor; I mentioned that in my cover letter and in the meeting. One of them had worked before with this training grant, so it's a lie both that I'm not a good fit and that they couldn't find a project and mentor. I'm also a good fit for the training grant in general. This year and last, I applied to the same training grant at several other universities, and got interviews at many.

4. The lack of good will, both assumed and showed. Yes, I come from a high-ranked university and have a single-authored paper in the top journal in my field (though not on a subject where many follow-ups are possible), but I applied to their program because I was genuinely interested and I honestly think the research projects are better than two of the Ivys I visited under the same training grant; I certainly don't intend them to be a safety school. Imposing additional barriers is just playing hard to get, and seems to assume a lack of good will on my part.

My response to their rejection was to say that I was disappointed, and to explain in more detail about exactly how little time I had in the two weeks since we met, and I also mentioned my friend's name in case they thought that I had made up the story. I hope that they google his name and get nightmares from the news articles' description of the accident.

Lack of good will

More generally, I've had two other experiences with lack of good will.

Last year, I applied absolutely everywhere, including faculty positions at public commuter colleges. One of the commuter colleges had very specific requirements for the cover letter, I met the requirements by talking about my public high school's diversity and about how I would contribute to their vocational focus in both my cover letter and interview, and I got an interview and fly-out. They took me at face value, and while I declined the fly-out due to realizing that a 3 course load was too much for starting a career if I ever wanted to do any research, it's to everyone's credit that we all assumed good will.

On the other side, I had three experiences with lack of good will, all at R1 universities, which as far as I understand are considered universally more desirable than commuter colleges. I don't mean to reply to this lack of good will on their part by saying "Some of my best friends are commuter colleges," but truly I don't see any reason why an R1 school would think I wasn't really interested and decide to put up barriers.

- Last year, a tenure-track faculty position phone interview by committee went really well so we scheduled a fly-out, and I sent them everything necessary and then embarked on all my travels. Traveling wipes me out, and takes a long time to recover from. I started getting all these phone calls from them about specifics, and since the trip was already scheduled and I was in the middle of other interviews and half out of my mind with exhaustion, I didn't call them back until after the interview. After a three day marathon of traveling and interviews and evening dinners, I sat down on the train to go home, and as it's pulling out of the station, I attempt to return the phone call, and within two minutes we get disconnected, so I had to wait until I was home, having in the meantime frustrated the search committee chair. Within a day, my trip was downgraded: instead of being picked up from the airport, they gave me the train schedule and instead of the big name brand hotel I was placed in an "inn." It seemed like a pretty clear signal that they didn't want to talk with me at all, and since my time felt in short supply, I cancelled the trip.

- This year, I had the two postdocs with chips on their shoulder where they didn't even want to speak with me. They asked a few cursory questions and then told me over a month after I'd submitted it that my application was incomplete. In one case, they were right and I'd forgotten to attach the cover letter (big oops) and in the other case it was totally manufactured.

I really don't get it.