I am frequently asked by graduate students and postdocs, “How did you get this job?”
I usually answer, “I saw an ad and I applied for it.”
It’s true. There was no inside track. I didn’t know anyone in this research center. It’s not always a case of who you know, after all. I saw a job ad on an academic email listserve and I thought, “That looks interesting.”
The hard part was writing the application. On the surface, it appeared that I did not have any experience in administration. But in reality, as a postdoc I ran my PI’s lab. I had a ton of experience managing lab personnel and negotiating collaborations. I had written not only peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, but also progress reports and final reports for grants, IACUC protocols, and reports for the university – both for myself and for my PI. This job running the research center really wasn’t all that different – just on a bigger scale.
So I agonized for much longer than usual over the job letter, finding ways to highlight my experience and make it relevant to the job I was applying for. I demonstrated my communication skills with the letter itself. And I got an interview. And even though I didn’t understand the jargon in the question about management styles, I convinced them that I did indeed know what I was doing… and I got the job.
So if you’re interested in this kind of non-traditional academic job, you probably already have relevant skills and experience. It’s all a matter of presentation.
And being enthusiastic never hurts, either.
Some of you know that I turned down a tenure-track job offer earlier this year, but you may not know why. Here’s the story.
I applied to a large number of tenure-track positions, at many types of institutions, and ended up landing four campus interviews this past spring. Since I have a pretty strong teaching record (the result of several years as an adjunct before my postdoc) and because my publication record is good but not stellar, all of these interviews were at teaching-oriented schools with ambitions for increased research but not much funding. I went into these interviews with an open mind and a desire to like these schools and see myself pursuing a career there.
The first interview was at a small branch campus of the same university where I did my postdoc (I was at the large R1 flagship campus). I liked them, they liked me. The college was small, but the science building was relatively new and had great teaching labs and other teaching resources. The startup funds were astonishingly low, but throughout the interview process the committee and I discussed ways that they could build some infrastructure that would allow me to conduct my research. The teaching load was very high – either 3 lectures per semester, or 2 lectures and 2 labs per semester, which somehow was presented as a preferred alternative to the 3/3. Even though the funds were low, and the teaching load was high – and the location was, shall we say, less than desirable – I was seriously considering it.
Two days later – on a Friday – the provost called me to offer me the job. I let it go to voicemail – that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? – and panicked for a bit. I still had three more interviews to go. I wanted to have time to see other possibilities and maybe have some negotiating room if I had other offers. But, perhaps best not to look a gift horse in the mouth, right? I called the provost back, and the job was offered to me, but with a low, non-negotiable salary, a low, non-negotiable startup, and I was told that the infrastructure that we had been talking about was NOT going to happen. Huh. Then I was told that they wanted an answer by Monday. Double huh. I asked for one to two weeks to make the decision. The provost said that s/he would talk to the search committee chair and let me know.
Sunday night, I was at the airport en route to my next interview. The provost from school #1 called back and I again let it go to voicemail. I listened to the message – to learn that they were withdrawing the offer because I asked for time to make a decision.
Seriously. All I asked for was a very short period of time, and they withdrew the offer.
I did not return that phone call. To hell with them. I went on to my remaining interviews, performed pretty well (I thought so, anyway), and did not receive any more offers. In retrospect, that’s a good thing. None of these places seemed like particularly good places to work. At all of them, the teaching load was high (usually a 3/3), the research funding was low, and the departments had ambitions, which meant that expectations were pretty damn high. At every interview, when I met with individual faculty and they told me what it was like to work there, I had a horrible, panicky, sinking feeling in my gut that told me DO NOT WORK HERE. Even though nearly all of the faculty members seemed to like their jobs and their colleges, and most of them seemed like they would be great colleagues, at some very basic level I knew that this was not the right job for me. So I went looking in a different direction – and landing my current job almost immediately. It’s a much, much better fit.
And that’s why I turned away from the tenure-track path, and don’t feel bad about it at all.
Major report about the Center is due today. This report is one of the primary responsibilities of my job. I have written the 100-or-so-page narrative, that’s all ready to go. But we are still pulling together the financial reporting side of it — which is the responsibility of someone else. And it’s not ready yet and I am getting antsy about it. We also have to gather some signatures. This is going to be a big pain in my ass.