Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What not to say on a date: obese version

I went on a date with a guy who turned out to be not merely obese, but the kind of obese where the stomach starts to droop over the genitals, definitely on the way to morbid obesity, if not already there.

He had dropped some TMI in an email saying he doesn't drink alcohol (he'll tell me later).

He didn't do anything that weekend other than get his oil changed --- he couldn't at least make something up? --- and he didn't seem to have any hobbies, so for 40 minutes we swapped pet and family stories. He told me about his job as a professional nay-sayer at a phone company, his siblings, his dog, his siblings' dog, and his dog's siblings.

The dog was good because the dog helped his father with his sleep apnea by waking him up whenever he stopped breathing. Dog's definitely better than a CPAP machine. Which his doctors want him to have because he has sleep apnea too. Getting diagnosed was a real pain. After two years of constant headaches, he had to sleep one night in a lab tethered to machines, and during the one hour he actually slept in the lab, he stopped breathing 6 times. Anyhow, all the medications he has to take are incompatible with alcohol, thus fulfilling his promise to explain why he doesn't drink alcohol. So he's willing to take pills, but he draws the line at a CPAP machine. Or, apparently, weight loss surgery.

Poor guy. He probably thinks I'm not interested just because he's obese, rather than because he is both obese and boring.

I surrender to the job market.

It happens this way every year. I tell myself that I'm not going to go on the job market, except for really exceptional positions. This year, I just sent two applications, one of which was solicited directly by the school.

And then I ran across one at a fantastic small liberal arts college, one that I almost attended for undergraduate in fact, so I have had a bit of a crush on the college for a long time (if such a thing is possible). So I applied there. And then to two more comparably-ranked small colleges, both in barely-tolerable locations; I think I met a guy at a conference who used to have one of those jobs. The web form asked if I had department contacts. I didn't know whether to list him, but I figured I may as well. So now a total of five applications.

And the idea of earning a real salary next year in a tenure-track job, especially in the wake of unknown economic turmoil, sounds really good. So I've identified a sixth job. And then I'll go into an orgy of professional association and job listing websites, which I'm guessing will culminate in a total of 20 applications.

So I need to open up a new excel file to list everything. Which I was convinced wasn't going to happen.

Anything to avoid real work.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Weekend update

It's nice to be wanted

Being in a postdoc that can last more than one year, I've not spent much time on job applications. I've just applied to two, so far.

One job I got via email and asked the person running the search if I should apply, and he said yes.

The other, the search committee chair actually emailed me to tell me about the job and said that he hoped I would apply. This job is particularly promising for a funny reason. I had a famous committee member Joel who had a female student Alberta whom I had heard lots of positive things about. I asked Joel to write a recommendation for me, and accidentally he made it non-confidential, so the dossier service actually let me read Joel's letter, which said that I reminded him of Alberta.

While writing the cover letter, I noticed that Alberta just started a new faculty position at this school! So what a great argument: this famous faculty member thinks I am like one of their current faculty members.

Though then I saw her picture, and I realized that it's possible that he was just saying we look alike.

Doing this particularly targeted job application process is surprisingly non-stressful. I worked with someone on the research proposals in my cover letter, the reason I procrastinate applications, and so far all I've had to do is insert a few additional sentences specific to the school. Now it's tempting to try others!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dating tip #432: Effective email

If someone wants to go out with you, they'll say yes no matter what you propose for a first date as long as it's reasonable. If they don't want to go out with you, they'll say no no matter what you propose. Or at least they should. When I was 23, a 46 year old asked me to the ballet, and I was very tempted to go, but I didn't.

(Corollary: the same holds for initial emails on a dating website.)

I got a very sweet email from someone a couple years ago listing about eight possible first dates ranging from coffee and dinner to picnicking at a specific park with hot chocolate in a thermos (seriously).

And just now I got a similar one, not excessive in number, but just in TMI and nervous online laughter: coffee, dinner, drinks (but he doesn't drink, he'll explain it later lol), pool (location specified), bowling lol. Nervous laughter in person is embarrassing, but we all do it and usually can't help it. Nervous laughter in email is completely preventable.

I don't mean this to sound sarcastic. I've just been dating long enough that I've gotten over my natural tendency to write overly long and detailed emails because I'm nervous, so I've learned the value of simplicity for faking confidence.

- "Hi, I really liked X and Y about your profile because I do/am Z and W. Question related to X or Y? Follow-up question? Generic smalltalk question? Statement related to generic question. Have a good weekend/Wednesday/etc."

- "Coffee or dinner? What day/time works for you?"

That is everything I wish I knew 4 years ago about initiating correspondence and meetings.

Choosing a mentor

My advisor is a great guy, but more of a "super-mentor": he'll advise me, but he has evolved beyond even being a PI so he doesn't really have any projects of his own --- some are farmed out elsewhere, plus there are others in the department doing relevant work. Now that I've sent off my last paper, I am choosing new projects, which means choosing additional mentors.

During college and grad school, I've had many mentor relationships. Initially I started out looking for subject matter that interested me, but I'm enough of a deletante that practically everything sounds interesting to me, so I realized that the quality of the mentor mattered more than the quality of the project. It's possible to find an interesting angle on many subjects, but not possible to make an indifferent mentor better. I haven't always stuck with this rule, but when I have, it's been really helpful.

The first RA-ship that went well for me led directly to grad school. I was applying for an RA at a research center the summer before graduation, and interviewed with two advisors. The one whose research sounded totally boring and whose academic background wasn't similar to my interests turned out to be the nicest guy and we had a great conversation that lasted well longer than it was supposed to --- very much like a good date. The one who did a wide range of interesting research and had an academic background like the one I wanted to get turned out to be the rational sort who doesn't really try to connect with people. I went with the former, and while the project was a little random, it was a success. I stayed motivated the whole summer (although I also remember an extensive email correspondence with the guy I had a crush on then; who wasn't, in the end, interested in spite of spending 2 hours a day emailing me.), and created out a project that I'm still proud of. While presenting the project, I met a woman who served on my committee and was one of the most helpful members. I haven't gone back to the subject matter, but it helped me get into grad school, so that's worth something.

By contrast, the advisor who I did not have chemistry with ended up being my first academic advisor in grad school and a complete disaster.

The rule does not always work, though. In early/mid-grad school (grad school was long enough that it not only has a middle, it also has a beginning of the middle), I had an RA-ship with a fantastic professor. He was always in his office and available to talk, and dropped nuggets of advice about academia, and had us to his beach house for a day every summer (and not to dig him a pool, as I heard from someone who was a grad student in the early 70's: a professor asked them to his beach house and they were all excited, and when they got there, he handed them shovels. And they actually constructed the tennis court or pool or whatever.) He sat down with me and walked me through writing my first paper, which got well-published. I could not have done the writing without him. So it was really a great relationship. My research for the center was not so exciting, but he was accessible and helped my own research along.

And then at the very end of the paper-writing process, he put his name on my paper. He made some "track changes" edits in Word, one of which was adding his name to the authorship line. I checked the journal's authorship guidelines and writing help was not sufficient for being an author (thank god for authorship guidelines! I had thought before they were a formality, but hadn't realized how much they protected junior people!), so I told him that he didn't qualify and sent back the next revision without his name. Next edit comes back to me with his name put right back in the authorship line.

I spoke with my (male) advisor and with the (female) director of graduate studies and got two conflicting pieces of advice: keep him on because he deserves something for his time and no way in hell should he get authorship on a paper that he did not do the actual work. I listened to the latter, dropped him from my committee, and dropped a chapter of my life. (E.g., I can't say that I once worked in his research area.) And I never completely trusted my advisor's advice again. So the "good mentor" rule of selecting research projects does not always work. I couldn't have foreseen that difficulty from any of my prior interactions with him or from anything anyone had ever told me.

I'm thinking a lot about these lessons as I'm choosing my next projects. I'm meeting some genuinely nice people and some politically nice people. And junior faculty, who can't really afford to be nice at all. The politically nice people are the department chairs and others who manage large numbers of people, and while they all seem nice it's always a matter of inference how nice they are in reality. Somehow the politically nice people are disproportionately tall, male (even in heavily female departments), and not overweight.

The genuinely nice people are the sorts who could fit in very well as small college faculty, and really like to mentor. I met one today. We had a meeting with a politically nice person, a junior faculty member, and him. The meeting closed with the politically-nice guy saying, "One thing you'll find about [this university] is that everyone is friendly and accessible." I smiled and said "Great!" because I found that idea completely laughable, but they probably interpreted my smile as agreement and "great" as non-sarcastic. After the meeting, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed because they'd just listed about half a dozen projects I could join, and I ended up speaking with the senior nice guy in the hallway as we walked back to our respective places (naturally, the meeting was in the political guy's corner office), and he gave me some much-needed and sensible-sounded overview advice and he sent me 4 emails within an hour of the meeting with background materials.

(Interestingly, he is short. I wonder how many of the good advisors are short, versus political ones are tall. A short male friend of mine once turned me onto this advantage that tall men have, and I read a book about it, and I keep noticing examples.)

So I'm excited. One potential project has a guy who wants to hug my advisor. Another one dispenses sensible advice. Some progress! Now I just have to do my part and come up with something.

Academic sweetness. Really!

I'm finding new projects now, and my advisor referred me to a collaborator 500 miles away whose work I'd always admired, but I'd never investigated because I didn't want to live where he is. Which is good in itself.

But also: the collaborator, equally senior to my advisor, told me to give my advisor a hug for him because "He's one of the most wonderful people!"

How sweet: my advisor's collaborator wants to hug him! Which says a lot about both of them. I hope the collaborator is interesting and as full of good will as he sounds.

The vigilant reader might remember that the first 5 minutes of the very first research group meeting I went to (for a research center in my department not affiliated with my advisor) was spent with two of the four people there complaining about my advisor and how mean he was.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

NPR in a small town

I had dinner with some faculty in a small college town. Someone mentioned a 5 minute piece on an entertainment NPR show broadcast that weekend. The probability that someone would hear a random 5 minute snippet on an NPR show could be fairly low since it's only 5 minutes, but it turns out everyone had heard it.

Faculty media diets really are more standardized than McDonald's ingredients.

Hard copy vs. electronic applications

I applied for a job that asked for hard copies. Since it's such a pain to do that and it costs more to have the dossier service send hard copy, I always send the application in electronic copy and ask if they would like a hard copy as well. I have yet to have anyone ask for the hard copy, and I've gotten interviews from these applications, so I know someone is reading them. I was the runner-up to a tenure-track job at a good school under these circumstances, in fact.

I thought my record was broken when I got the mail:

Thanks for expressing your interest in our [position]. We are very much looking forward to reading your work. We can only accept applications in hard copy, so I encourage you to send it to me later this week; in the meantime, I will hold your electronic copy.

So I wrote that on my to do list, and had been home from Thanksgiving for several hours when I got an email that the administrator's computer had crashed. She needs all the applications again, and I can send by email or FedEx the hard copy. As if those are budgetarily the same thing. I resent my email.

The response then came: "Perfect! We're all set, [New Postdoc]. Many thanks."

So it looks like I don't need to send a hard copy, after all.

My record remains perfect. I am guessing that since I sent it on the deadline, the committee wanted to meet right away and needed the applications right then.