Friday, May 30, 2008

The transition to the new postdoc

1. There's a mailing list of incoming grad students, so I joined it for help looking for apartments. About half the students start out their posts congratulating each other on having been admitted. "This is a really great school, so I want to congratulate my classmates!" I think it's mostly international students, and I suppose it makes sense since it must be really competitive and a bigger move forward for them to be going to grad school in the US, and particularly this one.

2. Lots of foreclosures listed in the "for rent" section of Craig's list. Many others state whether or not they accept Section 8 housing vouchers. By contrast, the expensive places emphasize that you never have to go outside to get to your car.

3. The international students have a FAQ for "how to survive coming to grad school", and I find it really reassuring somehow that I'm not the only one who finds it slightly overwhelming to be moving after a year of traveling and not getting settled to a city filled with foreclosed homes.

4. Some of the tips are really nice to remember.

"US is just another country and [school] is just another University.Both the things are handled by people. They are not HEAVEN, with angels all around. People have their shortcomings, so is with the institution and the country."

- Some are funny:

"Avoid pennies like the plague - you just cannot get rid of them and they make your wallet heavy."

- Some are surprising:

"Jobs to be done in your country before leaving: Practice Walking (Welcome to grad-student life in US of A)"

- Some are way too familiar:

"A laptop will be your life. It will be the person you will be staring into with a far away look in your eyes, for most of the year. The Ghost in the machine will be your companion, as it is the one-stop friend who will help you through assignment submission, over the internet, watching movies on DVDs, listening to music, having 3-min breaks with You-Tube Clips."

- Some are surprising that they are different in the US:

"You will tend to bring a 3-litre pressure cooker, (the one-stop all purpose cooking vessel). But the larger 5-litre version is more suitable, though bulky. That is because in the US, you will cook many meals at one time. There is no time to cook fresh food everyday. It is more usual to cook in bulk and eat piece-meal out of the refrigerator. Good bye, fresh food, Welcome to American life."

"Food serves more than its nutrient value. It is an anti-depressant."

"Amongst clothes, if you are the type who can gain weight, you will definitely do so in this part of the world. So it helps if you have go a few not so figure hugging clothes."

- Some are reminders how things are in the US and not elsewhere

"There are no fashions in the US. The fashion is what you wear."

"The rule in the US is that nothing should be bought at full price, only purchase during a sale, with marked down prices."

"Shopping is a national sport in the US, and retail therapy is prescribed to keep away depression. Electronic toys(like Cameras, Television sets, etc) bring joy to daily life and can be a surrogate for good food."

- Reminders of what I am grateful for about US:

"Schools for children: Public School education in the US is free. ... Here you meet the school nurse and agree on the final list of immunization taken and need to be taken. She would tell you of a list of places where you can go for these shots for free. ... I can tell you schools here are a lot of fun for kids and sometimes for parents as well. " Amazing that a grad student can come to the US with their whole family and just enroll them in school and get free shots. Even if their spouse isn't allowed to work.

"Public libraries in the US are marvellous. The most amazing thing for me was that they trust you completely as you can show any mail with your address typed on it and they will make a card for you. You can borrow more than 10 books/ CDs at a time."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Stragglers will always be stragglers

1. Straggler 1 has told me that they have invited one of the candidates back for a second interview. They called me up, and they told me that, and that everyone was still in play. I said okay, and waited to hear for more about their game plan. They said, again, "So we invited one of the candidates back and it's not you." And I think they may have repeated it a third time in case I didn't understand. "We just want to make sure the fit is right," she explained. That mysterious fit.

I'm not sure what the etiquette is in this type of situation. I just like to hear as much information as possible so didn't want to interrupt her.

It's an interesting thing, "fit". Looking at the candidates, they were surprisingly regional given that this school is in the top 50 of US News: one from the same university, two from the same metro area, and one was a commuter flight away. I'm in a different time zone. A few of them wondered whether I would be happy in that region of the country, and even asked me whether I am a "[their region] person".

I am guessing that the reason that they invited me in the first place was because I had a long paragraph at the end of my cover letter about how much I liked their school, specific features that I had picked up on a past visit there, and I meant every word.

I have my doubts, but I also have reasons why I would really like it. I have two close friends and a couple other friends nearby, one of whom I might date if I were living there, plus there's an absolutely fantastic ethnic supermarket chain I just discovered, and there are some good recreational opportunities in the area. But it's true I feel more at home in other regions of the country, and I'm sure likewise. A friend of mine who grew up close to that university thinks that I would hate it there. I'm guessing that the ones from the area are probably better "fit" for them.

2. Straggler 2 emailed me back, a week after I emailed them with possible dates, that they will let me know when they have figured out which dates are good ones for them. So I'm holding open the entire month of June for them.

I'm also not sure what to tell the postdoc. I accepted them conditional on Straggler 1, and said that I would let them know what Straggler 1's decision was, and gave them a time-frame that has probably long since past. Meanwhile, I hadn't mentioned Straggler 2 at all to them.

I want to tell them exactly what I know, and that I plan to find an apartment and sign a lease in their city. That's a signal that I am committed to their program, but not absolutely until I find out.

Most importantly, I want them to feel like I really want them, and that I am not hesitating to accept them. That's really important in them wanting to work with me. And honestly I'm increasingly excited about coming. It's a famous place, and last night I even met a guy who is moving there soon too. Okay. Rah rah rah! I'm going. Rah rah!

I will tell Straggler 1 that I've committed to the postdoc definitively for the coming year. But I'm curious about Straggler 2. It's located pretty close to my postdoc, so at the very least it's a source of free airfare out there, which I could definitely stand to accept.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Revising a paper in response to reviewers' comments (did I mention these were 11 pages single spaced 10 point font?) makes me feel like I must have written the original paper in a single paper while high and didn't show it to anyone before sending it in. Fortunately, I don't smoke, so I know that wasn't it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

More stragglers, with timeline

1. Straggler 1: a tenure-track faculty job at a top-50 university (public)

Mid-February: Application deadline.

Early April: Visit.

End of April: Last candidate visit. Communicated with department chair, who says committee may meet "within the week" and certainly the next week, and send recommendation to Dean. Hopefully it will be a matter of "a few weeks at best."

Mid-May (3 weeks after last communication): Search committee chair says that they distributed video of all the talks to the faculty who weren't able to attend and they'll hopefully be able to schedule a meeting for late this week.

I was tempted to tell the search committee chair that they're not the slowest and one of their colleague schools will be doing their September hires in July or August, but held my tongue.

But I really would like to sign a lease where my postdoc is. I was told not to tell them that is the reason that I am eager to hear.

2. Straggler 2: "I'm from the Government and I'm here to help you."

Sometime in March: Attempted application to a government postdoc. The links weren't working, so I emailed them.

Late March: As a result of my email, my CV got circulated, and they write to me with a semi-discouraging note. A week later, I realize that it wasn't entirely a rejection letter, so reply accordingly.

Early April: They grudgingly concede that they may have room for me.

Mid-April: I write back expressing interest, and apologizing for delay.

Late April: Two phone interviews with the main people, and they really were the best possible phone interviews.

Early May: Very interested, but can't fly me out. I reply within an hour of getting the email that I am also very interested. No response.

Mid May (16 days later): A sort-of offer: "I have not communicated with you in a few weeks while waiting on word about possible funds to bring you here for a visit. It is best for everyone to meet before making a commitment, but our budget is a bit uncertain at present (not always) and I am not sure that is going to be possible with you. Nonetheless, I would like to offer you a position (pending approvals, of course). The start date is flexible until September (we need to use the money for this position this fiscal year)."

I reply within an hour getting it that I was very interested in working with them, but I accepted a job two weeks earlier and said where it was, as my current position runs out in June, but I would be interested in working with them in the future, please keep me posted if any position comes up in the future, and also if they have any seminars with their research in places where our paths may intersect.

I get a 2 liner in reply that they're happy I found a place.

It must be frustrating for them that they can't act faster. The people in the department are all from solidly middle-ranked places, which is surprising because it sounds like they have really great resources that you don't have in universities, no teaching, and not soft money. I wonder why.

But really, what can they expect? I can't turn down another offer or sign a lease for a "position pending approvals".

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Stragglers, continued

After getting a phone interview for a faculty job that really had very little connection to me, I figured it was good practice. The phone interview went okay, but I had no research connection to the jobs so of course I'm not a good candidate.

In answer to one question, I gave an honest question instead of fluffing up my experience to meet the question, one of the interviewers did that for me, and I went with it and elaborated. So I guess they liked me because I have a fly out. In mid-June or July. School starts right after Labor Day. Are they insane?

I'm going because they're not so far from my postdoc and I can use the trip to look for housing, I guess. There's no way that they want to hire me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Postdoc gratitude

My health insurance was scheduled to end 1 month before my new postdoc started, but the postdoc is going to pick up health insurance for the two months prior to my starting to make sure that I am able to maintain continuity. (Their administration requires things come in 2 month blocks, so I'll be double-insured for one month.) Very nice of them, and beyond the call; they really did not have to do this. I'd even briefly shopped around for gap policies.

When I spoke with the postdoc program manager for the department, she told me all about the people in the area, and where I might want to live. She was conscious that postdocs are sometimes isolated because they work on only one project, and I'd have to work hard to put myself out there, but they'd put me on the student listserv and encouraged me to come to all the student events. I'm really excited to hear how conscious they are of everything.

By contrast, in my current position, the administrator for the research center within the larger research institute introduced me to maybe one person and was never conscious that I have a good experience.

I'm really impressed by them.

She also asked about the faculty position I'm waiting for, and I said I wasn't sure, but at this point it's so late that if I got the position I would try to start a year later. As much as I dread moving where I don't know anyone, and I know it will still be difficult no matter how nice people are, I'm so relieved at how welcoming they've been so far and that they are conscious of making sure that the transition goes smoothly.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Email formula

This is an incredibly helpful communication tip that I learned from someone who worked in the university's teaching center: make a statement, then ask a question related to the statement.

It sounds simple, but I reword emails that I write this way from the way that I write them at first, and they come off as so much friendlier.

E.g., An email to my postdoc advisor as we are submitting lots of abstracts together to a conference.

Before: "Do you know how to submit all the related abstracts together as one session? I haven't seen anything on the website, or heard back yet from the email I sent to the conference asking about this."

After: "Your past emails sound like you know how the conference likes to accept related abstracts. I looked on the website and asked the conference, but haven't heard back. Do you know how we should be submitting the abstracts as a single session?"

The second way states a lot more about my assumptions and what I know right now, and prevents miscommunication.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The stragglers: three months after application. . .

I applied for a tenure-track faculty job at a well-located university in early February, submitting my application on the deadline. The university is top-75 overall, and has one well-known researcher whom I read for my quals, but not much directly relevant to me. Now they're expanding.

The department is one to which I have very little connection: the project I'm working on this year ties into the department, but it's not an area where I've any past experience. My past research does fit into the job description, so I did some research and wrote a fairly decent research statement proposing a plausible research agenda that I'd never contemplated before seeing their job posting. Naturally, I figured my fabrications had gone the way of all b.s. and long ago become compost.

Yesterday, May 7, I got a voice mail asking me if I was free for a phone interview on a date over 3 months after their application deadline. What were they doing for the past 3 months?

Teaching: it's the students, silly.

Susan Groppi has a great post about the lessons of teaching: it's not about the teacher; it's about the students. It's a lesson that I learned as well, though in a completely different field; I had also wanted to tie the material of the introductory course to events in the wider world.

When I first realized that teaching is about the students, I felt so self-centered that I had ever thought otherwise and embarrassed that I'd ever thought otherwise. I'm relieved to see someone else writing about it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Decision... but no official commitment from them!

A few days after accepting the offer, I realized that I don't have an official offer letter, just an email.

I assume that the process is pro forma, but I have to apply to the school and they writing up the offer letter now. I just finished submitting an online application to the school together with a Statement of Interest, an official transcript, and a set of recommendations. I also had to list my GRE scores and college courses in various required categories: I have 20 semesters in an area where they require 2 semesters, but only 1 semester in an area where they require 3. That would kind-of be funny if I had to take summer school in order to qualify for a postdoc.

My statement of purpose was one sentence: "I enjoyed my visit to the research center, and look forward to joining all of you in the fall." This short statement of purpose was not just out of chutzpah and protest at the procedure, but when I sat in front of my computer to type something, anything, relevant, I was wrung out and burnt out. Producing another cover letter feels harder than running a marathon.

Nonetheless, until I have the letter in hand, I suppose I shouldn't withdraw myself from anything. And so it drags out.

Update: I asked, and it turns out that it's pro forma and it's just what the school does for their paperwork. Whew.

It is a topic for a different post how administratively (e.g., health plan) some postdocs are treated as students and others are treated like employees.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


I sent my pre-written acceptance note.

My academic influences --- my father, a couple of my friends --- kept reminding me that I should think about which position would yield the best job afterwards. And the place with the nebulous research still hadn't written back, so I have no idea what I could have done there. I'm sure it would have worked out, somehow, but I have no idea whether the research I would have produced would have been sufficient quality to go to the next step. I had to send something before Monday or that would have been too much delay. So I really had only one choice unless I was willing to scrap everything and wait for new answers from other jobs.

(For all I know since it's been 5 days since I last communicated with them --- they were sending me relevant background research I should read --- they gave the job away since I was sitting on it so long. Part of me hopes that they did. Though I know that they didn't.)

The advantage of going somewhere where I don't have any friends is that I can totally reinvent myself.

Green mohawk, here I come!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

My decision: maybe not?

Since I wrote my acceptance letter, a few things have happened. The most fundamental one being that I haven't sent it yet. I wrote the letter with the intention of sending it, obviously, but while I was writing the blog post I remembered one last lead at the nebulous-research place; I did, in fact, send off a note to them saying simply (because it was my third note, the previous sent April 20 and 29, and they'd promised an answer initially the week before and then the day before), "Any news? I'm sorry to be pushy, but I have been sitting on another offer for a long time, and I should give them an answer relatively soon." I sent it towards the end of the working day, and unsurprisingly didn't get an answer.

I did start to look at apartments in my presumptive new city, and did marvel that more than half of the ads mention whether or not Section 8 housing vouchers are accepted; some of the Section 8-accepting apartment buildings come fairly close to the gentrified areas. Interestingly, housing is not much cheaper than here or my previous city; you just get more. For instance, a 3 bedroom/3 bathroom over 3 floors with a hot tub costs per person the same as my current and past 2 bedroom. That makes sense: the landlords know what university-affiliated folk are willing to pay, and that's a national market, so they give them something that they are willing to pay that much for. A hot tub seems extravagant, but surely it can generate enough extra rental income to pay for itself in a year. One apartment complex stress that you do not have to ever go outside if you live there: the garage is directly attached. The subtext that I can't help but read is, "Never see another poor minority again!"

I pictured myself getting a beautiful one bedroom, working in a cramped office filled with partitions and women who talk about shoes for hours at a time (this happened), and coming home every day and just crying. Or, alternatively, being completely alone in one cubicles among many in a distant part of campus, and having no advisors anywhere nearby, nor answering email, which is how they've been so far. Then I called a friend who lives 2 hours away from the new city, and cheered up at realizing that I could piece together a social life over the phone and in person. And I looked at the facebook groups for incoming PhD students to the school, and realize they are all in the same situation as I am coming to this awful city for an education, only I have a PhD already.

Then this morning, I got a note from the government job with subject line "Compatibility." They liked me, and are interested in moving ahead, only they had budget problems this year and can't fly me out, so want to know if I like them. An hour after they sent the note, they got an enthusiastic reply. So we'll see.

Maybe my advisor was right that as prestigious as the other postdoc is, and as exciting as the academic opportunities are, I just don't care that much about them.

My feelings about the prospect of this prestigious postdocs is that the excitement of lots of new opportunities wears off, and they become the status quo, with the same set of unproductive work habits.

Every semester of classes in college and grad school brought the rush of excitement, except first semester freshman year. This semester was going to be different than the previous ones. I was excited by my classes. I was going to learn a lot. I was going to go to every class, start the homework early, and go to office hours to ask for help. I was going to come on time, sit near the front, and ask questions. Sometimes I did stick to my resolution, and these were my best classes, even though they weren't the easiest. Other times, I felt completely defeated. In a new city with no friends, difficult-to-contact advisors, and so much to get used to, I'm afraid it would be more the latter. Getting used to a new place and establishing new habits is a task in itself. The times I've been most productive are after I've already been somewhere for awhile.

I've gotten so used to my rehearsed interview answer about my research and professional goals during my postdoc that I've forgotten my real goal: get some work habits. Going to a new university where I've never been and where the presumption is that I'm productive is a plus: change your location, change your luck, as they say. Though if I feel like people think I'm far more productive than I really am --- as some seem to assume --- that could backfire because it would feel like an impossible task, especially because some of my research center colleagues are in fields where the average work habits are far far above mine. But this school might feel just as alienating as my old one. And with no compensating social life, I would feel even more alienated. On the other hand, having no friends could force me to make more work friends than I normally would, and maybe be encouraged to learn better work habits.

I've read a few chapters of this cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) book that I read several years ago, and have noticed myself arguing with my assumptions, realizing that it's not a black and white question. The new job is unlikely to be perfect, and I won't fully meet any of my goals, but I'll meet some of them partially, and get exposed to new topics. Feeling defeated would not be the end of the world, and even the terms which I count as failures were helpful to me. Giving up on my research for weeks or months at a time and concentrating on teaching was considered in the eyes of my advisor and graduate program to be a waste of time (which they told me), but it made me a devoted teacher, and my teaching statement and skills are now good enough that I came in second for a tenure-track job at an elite small college, losing only to someone from a less-well-located small college who already had tenure. That's something none of my classmates could have done. I could have balanced my work better, but maybe it was important to concentrate on teaching when I was just learning how. During my last year of grad school, I couldn't teach, but I threw myself into job application preparation, with no thought to my research, except what I needed for job talks, but job preparation requires a lot of time and I had to learn a lot; I could have balanced my research better, but I did do some. So even the difficult years did have redeeming qualities. and it's not like I've ever been not lonely, no matter where I lived. Other than in college where I ate every lunch and dinner with friends.

The upshot is: I don't know. Sending the letter last thing on Friday is the same as last thing on Sunday night, so I'll mull it over a bit before then. Part of me says that it's not a big deal to move somewhere for a year. My parents live here, so I can only take the essentials, and mail some books media rate, as if I were just going off to college. The other part of me is thinking how stressful it is to not only try to start a whole new set of research with new colleagues, but then socially to need to be "on" in order to make new friends at work and away. Though if I make friends at work, hopefully that will encourage my work habits.

This job is not a bad thing. Really. I'll just keep reading that CBT book.

Friday, May 2, 2008

My decision: well, almost.

The main issue before me was whether to accept or turn down the postdoc at the good school. No one else needed to know yet, and right now I am just waiting until I hear from the faculty job who just interviewed their last candidate on Monday.

My decision was somewhat complicated by a few new postdoc possibilities coming up just now: a solid place where I interviewed and liked them, one in my current city with someone that I'd actually wanted to work with last year but that hadn't worked out, one in my former city, and one with the government where I had simply the best phone interview possible.

Despite these distractions, I had a bird in the hand, and it was getting restless. The other bird in the hand was a solid offer, but the research is nebulous: the one project which sounded good would let me do a study I proposed on someone's blog in January 2007, but never had the resources to do; they have taken so far about two weeks to get back to me, and people in the other projects there have been similarly difficult to contact.

My main concern was whether I could be happy in that city, so I spent a lot of time on the phone with people who live there. I found lots of people who hated it, but they had all chosen to live in the same claustrophobic suburb filled with strip malls. One former postdoc I spoke with said she'd moved into that suburb because she was coming from far away, and her sister found her a place in the same apartment complex. The interesting thing about the suburban people: they had never even thought about living anywhere else, even though they were unhappy in the suburbs.

Finally I found two people who lived in the city, and liked it. Finding them were complete coincidences. One guy was someone from a dating site who I emailed with ~4 years ago because a close friend noticed we went to the same public high school and for some reason decided that meant I should email him. I wrote to him while searching a dating site for his city, he wasn't a paying member, but found me somehow through facebook, and we arranged to speak about the city. Even though I'd never met him, I knew that we had similar baseline expectations for places and toleration for ambient crime.

He acknowledged that it was not the most exciting or urbane place in the world, but in his five years there he had made friends that he had kept. By contrast, in his current city he felt like people regarded friends as more expendable. He still goes back to that city to visit for weekends, several years after leaving. That was my gut feeling about it: everyone that I spoke with was really nice. Partly they were nice because it's not the most exciting place, but nice is nice: I won't look a gift horse in the mouth.

I also got in touch with this woman who I found similarly randomly. I posted to an internet site, and a guy wrote to me and put me in touch with this couple, who were long-time residents with related ties to the university. Somehow they just seemed like people I'd like to know. She told me about all these off-beat things that go on, the type of events which are fun and self-consciously wacky, and invited me to stay with them, and gave me other people's contact information.

Both sets of people also said it was safe, and they never knew anyone who was mugged. It's not going to be easy to meet people, but I am finally convinced that if I want to be happy, I can be happy there. If I want to be happy is a key phrase: sometimes it seems like I find reasons not to be happy. It's a funny psychological trick that options become less attractive once you have them. Maybe it's a self-image thing, and if I had better self-image they wouldn't lose attractiveness just because they were options.

A few more things convinced me:

- I have friends 1-2 hours away who I'd like to be near, and recently found out about more taking jobs nearby.

- My field there has a huge number of activities and seminars and lectures. It seems like the center of the world, especially compared to my current school with weekly seminars, if that. My interdisciplinary PhD program left me spread thin across two campuses a few miles apart, so I never really got to go to seminars and activities regularly in my major field since I lived closer to the campus of my minor field and spent my time and had teaching jobs there.

- The research is a natural follow-on from my dissertation. I'd been reluctant because the research center is narrowly focussed in a poorly-funded area which is not taken entirely seriously. (Illustration: at least two interviewers in related fields actually told me they didn't take me seriously before meeting me.) The advantage is that I'm already well-positioned in the field. It seems silly to redirect to something else when there are senior faculty around the country who know my one published paper, and everyone agrees it's in a good journal.

- I started to be able to picture my life there. I have only vague memories for what is where, but I could live near the "hip areas" a mile from campus (which is itself in a terrible neighborhood) and bicycle to work.

Still, I have written my email accepting the postdoc and it's sitting in my drafts folder. I think this comment from the psych postdoc really resonates with my situation: "Personally, I think it's drummed into us in grad school that professional should always outweigh personal, but we have to live our lives...I find that sometimes I pretend I'm unsure when it's a tough decision but deep down in my gut I know."

Part of my gut is really seduced by my alternatives, but these are not birds in the hand. The nebulous research place I wrote to on Wednesday, and they said they'd get back to me yesterday. I suppose I will sit on the acceptance email for the rest of the day and send it if I have not heard from the nebulous research place by the end of the day. I want to write to them to tell them this, but it feels weird to make an ultimatum.

Yay, comments!

Thanks for all the comments. It's neat that one person said it was like she was reading her own diary. It's eerie how similar people's dilemmas are. The advance of the internet is that people who normally can feel isolated can realize there are others around with similar situations. Not that this is social interaction, by any means, but electronic empathy is not bad!

In the dietary aside, Segel Zutar was concerned about my drinking sugar water. I understand where that reaction is coming from, and that was my initial reaction as well --- I'm a brown rice type, fruits not fruit juice, etc. --- but based on the tentative evidence about unflavored sugar water, I tried it a few times and was surprised that it didn't feel unhealthy, so found it was a helpful tool when I want to eat, but can't for some reason. Possibly not great for blood sugar, but white bread has the same glycemic index as white sugar. Anyhow, that's a side note.

On the decision, see the next post. I made one!

PhD comics hits the postdoc nail on the head

The postdoc experience encapsulated in a comic.