Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lessons from my postdoc

In no particular order, these are the lessons I learned from the job search that led up to my current postdoc, which was a mistake to accept from the beginning:

- Don't try fancy tricks: I took my current job as a stop-gap measure before I was going to go abroad. It was an offbeat interesting thing to do --- trying to do multiple things at once --- that completely failed and left me with an unfulfilling and frustrating year, and not very much money either. If I had taken my second choice, which was just a plain old postdoc at the same school, it might have been more boring, but that stability is good and probably ultimately more fulfilling.

- Take only a job that cares about your professional development. In this postdoc, my professional development was an extracurricular activity. That's why my pay got cut in half before I even started because I needed time for my own work. The postdoc that I would have taken otherwise did care. Even the visiting assistant professorship at an elite college, where I would primarily be a teacher, cared about my professional development more than this postdoc did.

- Prominent million dollar professors are dangerous. Some students of these professors with a million dollars in grants manage to do very well, but some just end up being used. I have a friend from a different school whose advisor was a million dollar professor, who just ended up being an underpaid programmer, and is a programmer even though PhD is nothing related to computers or engineering. This guy I worked for this year was a million dollar professor which meant he was never around, he assumed that I could discern what he wanted if we spoke for just 15 minutes every month or two, and he didn't care at all about my professional development.

- Have good will to everyone, but trust no one. That sounds obvious, and I was really good about making sure that no one took advantage of me throughout the job process, but I took this job without a paper offer because I was assured that there was funding and he wouldn't leave me loose. The existence of money to pay me was not the thing that I should have been concerned about. What I should have been concerned with was how much of the money was going to me, and what my responsibilities would be.

It's interesting to think back at last year, and what my options were. I didn't apply to enough postdocs last year, and didn't really understand the job market, so what happened was slightly weird especially since I expected 3 specific offers that I didn't get, but would have preferred any of them to what I took.

I think I said this already, but to review the real actual offers for myself.
- First offer: postdoc teaching 1 class a semester at Ivy-ish university with 6 days to decide before I had even interviewed everywhere. Turned it down when I got:
- Second offer: VAP at elite small college. Which I was in the mindset that I was going to accept and was on the verge of accepting when they told me that it would be bad for me to take it.
- Third offer: research scientist at top-5 that wanted to use me.
- Fourth offer: a real postdoc abroad.
- Fifth offer: the real postdoc at my current school.
- Sixth offer: didn't get the real paper offer letter until my first day, and didn't get salary commitment until I started the process of moving. By this time, the process of travels and offers had stretched out for about four or five months, much longer than it usually would, and I was just tired. I'm not usually such a sucker. I can bargain with cab drivers in Arab countries, but somehow I let there be an exception because I was tired and impatient and trying to be interesting.

With what I know now, I would have done a few things differently on the labor market in 2006-07:
1. Applied to more postdocs, even if not in the fall to keep applying through the spring in spite of all the traveling I was doing just in case no real offers came through.
2. Not applied to temporary teaching positions at all. Safety option would be postdoc at mediocre school.
3. Not apply to positions that just want to use me.
4. Accept only positions where I know exactly what I will be doing, how much I would be paid, how long it will last, and nailed down as much as possible. Uncertainty is a risk, and risks feel stressful, and this job was one big uncertainty. Even until now.
5. Accepted the only job that cared about my professional development: the postdoc at my current institution. Even though it didn't come with group health insurance and even though it paid less than I had been promised in my current job (which didn't come through on that.)
6. Not think seriously about moving to a new city until I had lived in my current city for a few months without leaving. That might mean moving to the new city during the summer rather than stretching it out.

I lost financially, but I think I am coming out ahead as far as my CV goes. My CV lists my current position as a type of job that a grad student might have, and technically I was a grad student this year. So my first year of postdoc is at this prestigious place instead of at my current mediocre place. But I think I might have been happier if I had settled and settled down and just lived for awhile and caught up on my papers and been normal for awhile before looking for another job.

Given that I did accept it, there were some things that I could have done better as well:

- Meet people even if they are all hidden away in their offices and no one introduces me. I was used to there being common areas, seminars, etc. where people meet, or at least being taken around and introduced, but everyone just stayed hidden away all the time. The only people I met were one girl who came to my office, a few people at a Christmas party, and a guy who I met at a conference elsewhere who took a job here.

- Regular updates. Even though I went months without seeing my advisor, and probably only saw him a total of six times in person (seriously, six, I'm not exaggerating. I can get out my calendar and count them all) for the entire 14 months that I worked for him, giving weekly email updates is a way to stay engaged with him. And keep calling. Even though I rarely got through.

- Talk and engage even when irritated. I used this blog to vent instead of taking my grievances to my advisor, and it would have been more healthy and helpful if I had tried to have constructive conversations about exactly what the plan was and what I should do.

- Decide in advance. I was keeping this double-think that I was going to go abroad even though I knew it was probably a bad idea for my career if I wanted to live here. But I kept the option open and that made me not commit to being here right away and made my advisor not commit to me, because I had some weird idea that if I committed to this postdoc I would be boring or mediocre somehow. Although partly the lack of commitment was because the project was initially supposed to be 3 months and now somehow it's stretched out to 14 months and still not done.

- Do things quickly even if it's gruntwork. Find ways to make gruntwork okay. 30% of my job was secretarial work and 60% of my job was lit summary tasks that an undergrad RA would have done, and I was ticked off. But the remaining 10% of the job was where I could have taken the undergrad stuff and done a great job with it, and made it interesting, and gone beyond. But instead I dragged my feet and complained because it seemed like the tedium would last forever, therefore ensuring that the tedium did last forever. If I had just accepted that I would be spending 100 hours doing undergrad RA tasks, and just tried to finish, I could have counted down from 100 and moved on from there. Plus then I would have learned more. As I was finishing up the undergrad RA tasks a month or two ago I was just thinking how even though it was tedious, I would have had a better handle on the project as a whole if I had just done it right away when I started. So tedious things are okay too.

- Remember that nothing lasts forever. So many of the issues that I had this year came from an assumption that somehow things weren't going to change ever, when in fact they did change every few months. Initially I was convinced that there were no men here to date which made me plot to move to another city and invest lots of time in my job hunt, and then somehow they've started popping up all over the place like gophers in that game now that I have gotten settled in and started going to activities and meeting people. (And actually before that I was dating someone for a couple months and it seemed pretty solid when it wasn't.) And the tedious work wasn't forever either.

- Corollary: Don't panic! Like it says on that book. I had a few biological clock panics this year and it really didn't help anything. Somehow things work themselves out even if not in the way you expect.

- Engage. It's hard to engage when traveling. All I want to do is go home and stay there after I've been traveling at least every other week and sometimes more, but going out and doing things even when I'm tired from traveling would have been better for me overall. And perhaps find a way to decrease traveling.

- Don't try to move subfields without a huge amount of research. Otherwise all the interviews are a waste of time. I went on maybe six interviews for jobs that I had a low probability of getting because they were in a new subfield. My dissertation was on A. My current job was going to let me work in a new subfield B, though that project ended up being given away to someone else even though it was a major factor that brought me here. So I figured I could apply to projects in B elsewhere without much additional research. I applied thoroughly to every single position in a good city in area B without making a serious effort at a research proposal.

By contrast, in subfield A people appear to be ready to give me the moon and stars. Just now I emailed a government official who is the retiring director of a big department in my area of research looking for her replacement, and asked for an informational interview and whether they have more junior positions. I saw her name because I saw the senior job announcement. She wrote back enthusiastically, and said I may as well apply for the senior position because my research interests match the department's so closely.

The reason I wanted to switch is because I don't have a great deal of confidence in the future of funding in this area A and ability to find a job where I wanted to live, and I also feel like it's not as "important" as B. And just for variety. A's such a small area. B is expansive. But if I wanted to work in B I had to put lots of time and lots of reading, and instead I just spent tons of time writing applications for jobs in B that I wasn't competitive for because I hadn't prepared enough for them.

- And one last job search tip that I learned this year. This one is the rule of improv theatre, and it works for job interviews too: affirm everything. I am very much myself on interviews, and I trust a bit too much and convey things that could be seen as negative. Like 80% of faculty live on campus, and at the moment that I hear it it sounds claustrophobic and weird. I did say, "How great that you have such a community among the faculty and probably get to know people in other departments that way. And the campus housing looks really beautiful and well-planned." But then much later on in the interview (2 days is such a long time!) I let my guard down and asked if it ever feels like they're in a bubble. When I should have stayed on message. Affirm affirm affirm. They said their major concern was "fit." Affirm affirm.

So, that's all, folks.

Probably won't be blogging much after this, though maybe about my interviews next year once they started happening.

Last day!

Today is the last day of my former postdoc, and tomorrow is the first day of my new postdoc.

First of all, on the small level, I can't believe everything that I was able to do today. I stayed home in the morning, catching up on email almost emptying out my inbox. I got into the office in the early afternoon and in four hours, I:
- Wrote most of a summary of my work for my advisor.
- Wrote 3 pages of my paper, and they were good.
- Filed away all the papers that I had been putting off until "later".
- Caught up on loose ends as I realized I needed to for the status update, including tracking down an errant collaborator who has been MIA for the past 5 months. (He claims he never got our paper comments.) Ironically he was the most prominent of our collaborators.
- Chatted with my one friend who was in the office today.
- The dreaded phone conversation with my advisor. I committed to finishing the paper I'm working on and edit 2 more collaboration papers which have been crashing my version of Word.
- Turned in my key. I ducked turning in my ID. I hate to lose that kind of thing.

Tomorrow I am starting a system of working every day, no excuses, on a project that I need to progress on for an hour. We're going to check in with each other. It sounds minor, just an hour, but that's an hour more than I'm doing now.

Next post: lessons.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Questions before choosing a grad program

These are questions that I wish that I'd asked before choosing a grad program. I had been admitted to two programs at elite universities, and I chose the one at my undergrad institution where I liked the location better. My career would have gone totally differently if I had asked these questions and chosen a program according to them. Not necessarily better, but different.

I was looking only at the universities that graduates went to, and obviously they were good. But I had no idea before I started grad school what soft money even was, much less how it becomes the bane of existence for many faculty members.

The questions were mainly about faculty jobs:
- What proportion of graduates go onto faculty jobs?
- Which departments? Professional schools? Research institutions?
- What are the conditions of the faculty jobs that graduates go to?: hard vs. soft money, salary levels compared with similar alternatives, how much time do they spend applying for grants, number of courses taught.
- Do people change their research area according to the grant availability? Okay, this always happens to some extent, but how often and how substantial are the changes?
- How hard is it to get faculty jobs? How much postdoc do people do before getting faculty position?
- Which job markets do grads go on? What is the job market procedure usually followed?

Sunday, July 6, 2008


1. Today's the wedding of the-guy-I-almost-married. That's the epithet I use sometimes in real life, too. It puts me in a bind. Our worlds still overlap --- his profession and related issues are a topic of conversation in my circles. Because I considered marrying him, I can speak with authority about a world that most people don't see from the inside and I feel the need to say how I know. I have begun saying "a very close friend," even though that's disingenuous because we have spoken only once since he gotten engaged and that was probably the last time ever. That time, just a few weeks before his wedding, he told me that he continues to follow me by facebook.

So today he goes from the-guy-I-almost-married to a very-close-friend-I-never-talk-to. Congratulations on your new status, my VCFINTT.

2. The hard part comes when I move, and start encountering people that he and his wife know, though thankfully they're moving. I will be visiting a community where he is now a prominent figure. If he ever comes up, he will be mentioned by title rather than by first name. I'll be living within a few miles of where his wife has lived for the past few years, presumably encountering her friends.

3. Coincidentally, while packing today, I ran into a book that Gene gave me when I left my previous city, a foreign language edition of The Giving Tree, which is the only children's book about which I have always since childhood felt unadulterated sadness and anger: the tree gets exploited by its friend the child, and is inexplicably happy.

I'm four years older than my VCFINTT, and when we were dating, he had a lot of mental health problems. His family was in theory supportive of him, but also had always been completely crazy and disordered. When we started the relationship, I had just six months before gotten out of the only truly awful relationship I'd ever been in, and I really just needed an affectionate relationship, which this was. I bounced back after several months with him, and I gave him a great deal of emotional support for years during this time, although it was a difficult time for me as well: a year into our relationship, I failed my quals and was kicked out of my program, and had to petition to return. Getting a call from him at 3 pm saying that he was still in bed and needed help getting up, and spending countless hours talking him out of bed at the worst of his depression was a downer, especially on top of the usual stresses of long-distance relationships. I loved him, so I tried to help as much as I could, but I also set boundaries, and after a few years he was upset about the boundaries. By the time I broke up with him, I had no respect left for him, and was angry to have lost prime dating years, ages 26 to 29, doing what I thought was the right thing in supporting him.

Now I realize that it was silly of me to devote so much to someone that I'd not decided to marry. He came from quite a conservative background, so I expected a proposal after a year even though he was only 23 then since that is what his friends were doing, but we were in different cities and neither of us was willing to leave or change programs, which were both long and we were both holding on by our fingernails. His program had no direct equivalent near me, though we researched his doing a supplementary masters at my school, and I was afraid that I might not survive transferring programs.

So we stayed in a holding pattern. That's why the Giving Tree is going to the top of my give-away pile.

4. Of course I love him and always will, and I am sad that we'll never talk again. Sometimes I have fantasies of old age, whether or not his wife is still alive, if he ever gets sick, I can visit him in the hospital. Maybe if one of his parent dies, I can pay a mourning call. And then I realize how silly it sounds to wish for these things.

He's the only person I ever foresaw getting old with, and even though I chose to end the relationship some part of me still wants to follow his life.

5. I've never even been engaged, and with such a life of expectations washed away, I feel divorced.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Loneliness and academia, part 40

Loneliness seems to come as a side-effect of the academic lifestyle. I am on a fairly large mailing list for an activity with a new faculty member in his early 40's who keeps sending updates on his mother's health. It seems strange to do, because he goes into such depth about which medical tests, and what the outcomes were. I know him personally, and I'm glad that I know that his mother is sick and he needs extra support, but I feel like knowing the details is kind-of intrusive even as a relative friend of his. For the many people on the list who don't know who he is, it's downright weird to know that this guy's mother had X and Y medical tests and treatments.

But then I realized that everyone needs someone that they can tell all the details to, and he doesn't have anyone. He's never mentioned a father, so apparently his father is no longer in the picture, perhaps no longer alive, and I don't remember if he has siblings, so his mother might be his only immediate family member, so it's even more traumatic that he's at risk of losing her.

He's moving to the same city as I am, and he's clearly reached out to me. He's refined and attractive, but so clearly lonely and longing. Not that there's anything wrong with those things. Being lonely is a good thing, in a way, because it means that someone likes people --- compare my misanthropic once-long-distance-boyfriend who broke up with me the morning of my job interview in his city --- but it also creates a vibe that makes others want to run away from them, at least when it comes to romantic involvement. This instinct to run away from loneliness and need is one of the tragedies of human nature.

Setting up new postdoc

More progress:

1. I just made $1980 more for next year by pointing out that I have one year of postdoc experience. I wasn't sure if it counted because I just got my degree last month, but my position this year was called "postdoc."

2. I get paid for August, but now need to figure out how to work in as much work as possible at the same time as I am moving from two different cities. And don't even have an apartment yet.

3. Office space continues to complicate apartment hunt.

Originally: I was going to be mostly in the central location, and only occasionally in the distant location (which is where my advisor sits), so had the option to live in the cheap public-transit-accessible edge of the city where it's easy to find housing remotely. The central parts of town are more ideosyncratic, so harder to find housing at a distance.

Now: I am supposed to have "a presence" in both places, though we'll talk about the split once I get there. I could live in the easy place and resign myself to a 25+ mile commute to the distant office, and public transit for the other office. If I go in half the working days in a month, it's still under $100 per month extra as long as I don't have to pay for parking.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Moving decision paralysis

This post is me talking to myself about moving since I'm trying to make a decision. It is boring. Move along. Nothing to see.

I grew up in my current city, so moving here was easy. I knew which neighborhood I wanted to live in, and where to find apartment listings, and I even had a friend in my former city to live with. All I had to do was come here and find an apartment. I was lucky, and we took the first apartment we saw, though we spent 2 whole days going through the rest of our list to make sure.

Coming to a city that I'd never visited prior to my interview is much harder. Simultaneous with looking for an apartment, I have to decide which neighborhood. I am an urban person and have never lived in a full-fledged suburb before, so I'd planned on living in the city. Plus almost everyone I spoke to in the suburbs sounded bored and lonely. I've lived in most of the major cities in the US, and went to elementary school with 8 year olds throwing gang signs, but I wasn't prepared for the kind of city with vacant lots that people turn into inner city farms.

The inner city farms and burnt-up boarded-up buildings and lack of supermarketsprompted my flight to the suburbs. A friend who grew up in the area reassured me that it was not white flight, since everyone who could afford it moved out of the city, and indeed in my several trips back and forth to the suburbs in the middle of the day, more than 95% of the public transit riders were minorities. I convinced myself that I liked an apartment complex built in 1950: it was well-designed, a 20 minute walk to the train, and cheap, and I bought some fantastic cheap produce half a mile away. Plus, the two guys I knew who were moving to the city at the same time also sold out to the apartment complexes.

After two trips back and forth to the suburbs, I started realizing the implications of a 40-45 minute commute each way, and decided to give the city another chance. This time, an RA in the department suggested a neighborhood where I could safely walk alone at night, and which had a supermarket to boot. An awful overpriced chain supermarket, but I didn't take it for granted. I could get to both offices in under 20 minutes without a car. This neighborhood, ironically, was also mass-produced industrial housing, no less soulless and depersonalized than the apartment complexes, just about 40 years older and more compact with no 1 bedroom apartments. I didn't have much time to call landlords in advance, and after days of heat exhaustion, I didn't really care that I only saw a few apartments.

I left the city without getting an apartment. I have one possibility in the suburbs and two in the city, and I have to make a decision and sign a lease, so I can get on to the next step. I'm on the verge of signing a lease for a city apartment that I'd need a roommate for, but it feels risky to put money on the line and commit to living with a roommate I've never met. Holding out for a 1 bedroom that I've never seen seems somehow preferable to a roommate whom I've never met, although if I am holding out on that I will feel in suspense the whole time. I've usually had roommate situations work out well even when I've never met them, but it is always complicated.

The suburbs sound boring and listless, except I now know two women in the suburban apartment complex where I would live, one of whom is doing a grad degree where I'm doing a postdoc. And I know a few more people in the same suburb, so it could actually be socially okay to live there. Except there's nothing to do there. And I could have a 2 bedroom apartment for less than a 1 bedroom in the city. And that produce market was nice. Even though it's not my first choice to live in the suburbs, at least then I would have an apartment that I have actually seen and have the issue settled. In talking to people, some of whom are not happy in the suburbs, many of them said that they took the place in the suburbs because it was easy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Plausible deniability

When I was visiting my new postdoc to get my ID and such, I was incredulous about the money thing. Several times I asked them, "My advisor and I agreed that I was moving and starting Sept 1. Should I change that plan since I am being paid starting July 1?" And they said that I did not have to change anything. At the end of our meeting, the admin asked what I was doing during the summer, and I said that I was at my current job through July. She asked if it was a problem for me to be paid by two sources, and I said that my current job wasn't government funds, so it shouldn't be. All she said was that I should check with my advisor to see whether I needed to do anything special given that I was being paid all summer.

I got an email from my advisor saying that I'm not being paid now, and I should say when I want to start working and being paid, so I asked the admin about the apparent discrepancy:

Finally, do you happen to know whether [advisor] has okayed paying me for July and August? His email below sounds a bit like he thought that I was registered for insurance, but not getting a stipend now. When I called him on Friday, I just left a message and didn't get a call back, so haven't yet been able to speak with him about this.

Her response:

I know he will provide the health insurance for you starting July 1st, but my understanding is that he can't pay your
stipend if you aren't here yet. If you could begin the Post Doc sooner than August 31st, we have the stipend to support you. But if you aren't here during July and August, then he can't pay you. Does this make sense? This was the concern I expressed to you last week.

Let me know what you and he decide about your start date. We can revise your letter to reflect the correct dates, if necessary.

That was not the concern that she expressed last week! In email she just has to cover her behind. I hate how outlandish it makes me sound, "You thought we would pay you when you weren't working? How ridiculous!"

Sometimes I feel like my life is stranger than everyone else's.

Update: I got back 1 month of the pay by arguing that during August I'm presenting at a few conferences, so it's relevant. And I got half an office at the main campus, instead of a room shared with 17 people. And after thinking so much about it, the total time that all took was 90 seconds.