Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Networking for mid-career academic job transitions

I have spent most of the past year interviewing for academic jobs, exploring new opportunities and negotiating start-up packages. Never as before I realized how valuable my network is.

When you go on the job market as a faculty member, everything is different. You are not scrutinized on whether you will be able to do the job, you are a colleague looking for new opportunities. You speak the same language as the other faculty and do not need to be interviewed to see if they understand the ropes of this business. Conversations are a lot more geared towards convincing you to bring your money elsewhere and you have the benefit of time for figuring out whether the new place has the colleagues and resources for your lab to grow, expand in new directions, and thrive. As a more senior faculty, you are also expected to contribute and your role will be very different from a newbie.

With an intimate understanding of the ins and outs of administration and power structures, and of the things that are important to you in running your lab, there are several questions that you need to be answered requiring input from inside or outside the potential new institution. In some cases, those are not questions that you can ask directly during interviews unless the person interviewing you is a friend or a trusted friend of a friend. For example, while you can ask an Associate Dean or Department Chair how they get things done to understand their leadership style, you cannot ask them how much power they really have to get things done. When they tell you there are training grants and internal grants, you cannot really ask them whether they are assigned in a meritocratic fashion or whether there are fiefdoms controlling them.

Often the people recruiting you will let you know very clearly who is who, who controls space, who controls money, and who controls promotions so that you can behave accordingly when you talk business with them. But members of your network with loyalty to you may also provide more insightful details about their personalities and the academic strings they pull and that pull them. As you go to conferences and study sections, you meet friends and future colleagues in an informal environment and can gather additional information from casual conversations on how things are going... little-known fact: when faculty get together for a drink/dinner most of what we do is complain about funding and other work things.

Because if my network, there were multiple people I could talk to honestly about my needs and my fears and who could give pointed advice. In addition, they could introduce me to their friends within the intended institution who could provide insider information. Surprisingly, without any news of my job search getting back to the relevant stakeholders in my institution (though some colleagues peripheral to me were contacted by their networks to investigate about me). This ability to be stealthy may not always be the case and it is entirely your choice how far you spread the word that you are looking. It depends on how afraid you are of your institution finding out and whether you are tenured or now. However, I highly recommend that you spread it with everyone you trust since there could be options popping up left and right. You use can your network broadly once the interview process gets serious (the second visit) and you need to find information about individuals you have met who could be in the position to make your life easier or harder and about individuals who have left.  Everyone always puts their best face forward during interviews and no university is perfect, so you need to know whether a place is worth the time and aggravation of moving a lab. One great benefit of a mid-career transition is that you can take your time. You should use it wisely.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The life of a double agent on the academic job market

This was written last Spring as interviews started getting serious, but of course I couldn't talk about it....

Academic job transitions take a long time! When I applied for my first faculty position, I started sending out applications in September, interviewed January through April and accepted a job at the end of May for the following April. 19 months, including almost a year after having signed an offer and waiting for admin processing, grant transfers, and lab construction. It was stressful, but I loved most of it. After the initial dreadful wait for someone to invite you for an interview, academic visits were a whirlwind of meetings, talks, and dinners. I'm an extrovert and truly enjoy interviewing. I got to talk to a lot of people about my science and I got to hear about their science. I also got to see different universities and departments, and I got to imagine myself there in a whole new life. While I was waiting to move, I was in the best situation possible: I had the prized academic job and I could still mess around in my postdoc lab with my friends spending someone else's money.

The second time is much different. Mostly because nobody at my institution or in my lab knows. It's the first time that none of my bosses or colleagues are expected to write me recommendation letters or act as references. Things that used to be open, like practices for job talks and chalk talks have been hidden on weekends and behind closed doors. I have been disappearing for interviews without much explanation or with some random excuse. I have a great network of local friends and colleagues outside my institution who have been phenomenal in helping me prep. But as much as I still really enjoy interviewing and I am stoked about the options available to me, the secrecy has been incredibly difficult to bear.

I have wanted to come clean many times, sometimes out of anger or frustration, and other times because I want my trainees to know what is going on. Everyone I talk to recommends I stay quiet until I have an offer I am willing to accept. I have seen friends be open about how much they hate their current situation and tell their chair they want to leave, and that generated a lot of animosities. Moreover, I still don't have tenure and if nothing pans out, I will still have to go up next year and will need the department to support me and the school to think I want to stay forever. But differently from the "real world" outside of academia, my job search, negotiations, and transition can take months or years. My lab has to keep going and publishing and I don't want them to feel uncertain about their employment until I know what is going to happen. I take on teaching responsibilities I may not be able to fulfill, and I am involved in discussions about future planning I have limited interest in, but I have to remain present in my department like nothing will happen. At the same time, I must appear excited about new positions, but not desperate, while being sufficiently aloof to obtain the best start-up package possible.  If I am not given a great shot at success in a new university there is no reason for going out of the frying pan into the fire.

Don't get me wrong. I am complaining, but not really complaining. I am incredibly excited about this transition and I am getting better and better at this double agent life. There is so much relief in seeing a light at the end of a very long tunnel and in seeing that so many efforts may be rewarded. I just hadn't anticipated how emotionally taxing this could be and wanted to share the struggle with so many I know are going through the same thing. This job is amazing and sucks at the same time.