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.


  1. This is a great post. So interestingly I am on a K23 award and my mentor just announced she is leaving at the end of the academic year (so in about 5 months). As she is my primary mentor I was little annoyed and obviously worried for my own career. Of course she tried to talk me into going which I can't (family and love my department). I actually sought out a new mentor and things fell in place so fast (like one week) that I just told my soon to be gone mentor I am laving next week for the new mentor with my equipment and RA. We only have one paper which i will obviously tie up.

    Now the soon to be gone mentor is:
    1. Acting shocked I am leaving next week...umm...so I was not the one who announced I am leaving.
    2. Also I think was expected me to do more of their work for their current work before she leaves.

    Should I feel bad? I am not sure why now she feels like I am the one who is the bad guy. In the end I need to continue my work as I am aiming to submit my first R01 next year. This new mentor (who I knew from before and very psyched) will def open doors for me. I mean is it my obligation to stay longer?

    Anyways I love your post and going via them all now

    1. I get it both from your point of view and your former mentor point of view. Of course, she would have wanted you to help, but it's a risk that we take when we decide to move that our people will do what is best for them. Everyone deals with it differently. At the end you have your grant and personnel and you need to do what is best for your project and your career.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I've seen a quite a few transitions that's supposed to be a done deal but didn't pan out eventually. So I'm afraid that it's truly necessary to live this double agent life until you've signed the letter. The thing I hate the most about academia is how long everything takes.

    Nothing seems to be happening fast enough (including waiting for my current institute to change).

    1. Amen to that! It was a real exercise in patience.

  3. I just read your blog from start to finish over the last week (before now I had only read drugmonkey occasionally). It's amazing how your journey has in many ways mirrored my own (we even started at almost the same time). I'm also now starting to learn more about how to move (or at least get other offers). I'm not quite a two R01 lab yet (maybe 1.5 equivalent), but 2019 is all about submitting more proposals to hopefully make myself a more attractive candidate if/when I hit another one.

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