Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Academic Job Search: Notes from the Frontline

by Jessica Conroy

I did it. I landed a tenure track faculty position. And not just any position, but one I really, really wanted.

I’ve been summing up the last year or so in my head recently—whenever I feel guilty about not getting as much done as I had wanted, I ask: what, exactly, did I do the last year? Then I feel better, because the answer is I applied for 13 jobs, and prepared for and went to 6 job interviews. In between I had 2 field seasons in the tropical Pacific, analyzed a mountain of water isotope model data, and worked toward getting 3 very different manuscripts ready for publication. And I spent a very intensive (but fruitful!) week at NSF Expert Witness Training Camp. So I guess I did some stuff.

Getting a job takes work. Thirteen times over I carefully crafted my research and teaching statements to match the institution and the call, polished up my CV, and sent applications into the ether. Once the interview invites started rolling in, I spent weeks making my job talk as perfect as possible--keeping it as scientifically sexy as possible, but still interesting to the igneous petrologist in the room (who also votes on you, remember). Prior to each interview, I also researched each institution and department to death, and practiced my talk like a maniac (since going over time in a job talk is the kiss of death). And maybe I made some flash cards with interview questions, too, because I tend to overdo things.

The interviews themselves were the most exhausting experience of my life. That is not hyperbole. Being something of an introvert and a classic imposter syndrome case (it waxes and wanes, but never seems to go away for good), being ‘on’ for 2 days straight six times over was an ordeal for me (confession: I drank 5-hour energy during my bathroom breaks!). But, despite the hours of stressful prep (and the mental exhaustion that sets in afterward), the interviews were actually kind of fun. You get to meet lots of interesting people and talk shop. Only in a couple instances were people jerks to me, or was I the victim of mansplaining.

 What required the greatest emotional fortitude, though, was the waiting afterward. I had heard from three of my highly successful mentors, all amazing scientists who exude Science and Nature papers from their pores, that “You won’t get the first job you apply for,” and “I didn’t get X job,” etc. This is frightening information, I think, for the first-timers on the academic job market. Those of us who have gotten to the point where we are getting academic job interviews are not used to failing. But, fail I did. I learned that you can have a great interview experience, give the best talk, and still not get the job. And this has to do with ‘fit’ and ‘need.’ Completely reasonable, but even when I didn’t end up wanting the job, rejection stings a bit.

 But, here’s the bright side: Of all the applications I sent out, I got offers from my top 2 choices. I even wound up having to decline interviews at four more schools after those offers came in. So I did ok! I’m proud to proclaim that starting in August, I’ll be an assistant professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign!

Dual-Career Issues 
Like many other female academics, I have an academic partner. In grad school I fell in love with a charming, handsome thermochronologist. We got in engaged in 2011, and have spent the last 1.5 years apart as he finishes up his PhD in Arizona. Long distance is not fun, and is not a long-term option for us. We knew our ultimate goal was two tenure-track positions at the same school. But how to make it happen? We had seen it work at Arizona, and at Georgia Tech, but we had also seen it not work. My plan was [to try] not to worry about it until I had an offer. So I never brought it up, until interview #4. I was asked what my fiancé did, and I just decided to be completely honest, and not make a big deal about it. Although I did talk him up, which was easy to do. I quickly realized that the question was being asked in order to inform me how wonderful the institution was about spousal hire. Not to ‘out’ me as a candidate with a two-body problem. This happened a second time, as I set up an interview at another school. Then I mentioned my academic partner on the phone to the search committee chair, and the department arranged to have us both fly out to interview at the same time.

Both institutions where I got offers were very open to finding my fiancé a position. Illinois moved quickly, and had him out for an official interview about 2 weeks after I got a formal offer. He rocked it, they loved him, and it was clear he would fill a need in the department. There were many reasons why we picked Illinois, but one of them definitely was their progressive attitude about spousal hire.

Since he is earlier in his career, we thought it best if he had a couple years off from teaching to build his lab and get his dissertation papers out. So Illinois offered him a 2-year research assistant professorship with the start up to build his lab. His position will transition to a tenure track line after 2 years. We got it in writing of course (very important).

Thus, the stress of the job search has ended. We’re going to be Fighting Illini come fall!

Now, I can worry about getting tenure.

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