Getting an academic job in one million extremely difficult steps

Future Assistant Professor

Well, apparently this is happening.  🙂

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog.  What have I been up to, you ask?  Oh nothing, just GETTING A NEW JOB IN MINNESOTA.  You know, no big deal.

Minneapolis St Paul road signI’ve also been quilting, posting pictures of fabric-related things on Instagram (@allspiceabounds), going to Cambridge Modern Quilt Guild meetings, and generally trying to keep my head above water.

Many of you who know me in real life or follow my Instagram account have known about this job news for a while, but I wanted to take a moment and write a little more about it, as it has basically taken over my life since last August when I started preparing applications.

First, the details: I’ve accepted a position as an Assistant Professor of Biology and will be starting this fall.  I’m absolutely thrilled!  After 8 years in Boston doing my PhD and postdoc, I’m beyond excited to be gearing up for the next chapter of my career.  I’ll finally have my own office (for the first time in my life), my very own research lab, and the freedom to develop new courses and drive my own research program.  For me, the autonomy that comes with a professorship is the huge reward that I’ve been working toward for my entire career, and what more than makes up for all the not-so-great parts of academia, in particular the long hours and abysmally low paycheck.  In all honesty, this job is my dream come true.  You know, no big deal at all.  🙂

Another extremely rewarding aspect of this job will be the opportunity to train students in evidence-based decision making.  In the current political climate in the United States, it is my personal opinion that this type of education is critical.  In a society in which the difference between fact and fiction is no longer obvious, I am excited to help students develop the critical thinking skills that will enable them to become informed citizens and productive members of society.  I could go on and on about this, but I think you get the point.

Now, a bit about how I managed to get this job in the first place.  As you may or may not know, getting a faculty job at a university is extremely difficult.  The competition is fierce.  You are competing head-to-head with over 100 (sometimes several hundred) extremely well qualified candidates in an international search that will result in exactly ONE person getting the job.  And there aren’t many jobs to go around, which is why they are so competitive.  This means that you apply all over the country (or internationally, if you’re willing to move that far away) and resign yourself to uprooting your entire life should you be lucky enough to get an offer.  I submitted 22 application packages from Boston to California and everywhere in between and, by some miracle, managed to hit the academic jackpot in Minnesota.

The application and interview process was absolutely brutal.  It was hands-down the most stressful thing I have ever done in my life.  You work your entire career for the opportunity to apply for a job that you have a slim-to-none chance of actually getting, and then you wait (and wait, and wait…) for the phone to ring.  Most of the time, it never rings.  You sink into a state of mental anguish in which you question whether you are, in fact, a worthless piece of crap.  Sometimes you get a phone call – woohoo! – asking you to fly out for an interview.  Now you have exactly 2 days to convince a bunch of strangers that you are the best thing to hit their department since sliced bread.  You know, no pressure or anything!  You practice answering an endless slew of potential questions in the bathroom mirror or in front of your cat.  You memorize all the faculty members’ recent papers and come up with lists of insightful questions to ask them over dinner.  You prepare a one-hour seminar that, no question, has to be the best talk you have ever given in your life.  THE BEST TALK OF YOUR LIFE.  Piece of cake, right?

My physical and mental health took a nose dive during this time, topped off by a 24 hour stay in the emergency room with what I now know were stress-related issues.  On the flip side, this experience (my first ever hospital stay) opened my eyes to all the wonderful, extremely caring, supportive, and hard-working people who work in hospitals.  I am extremely fortunate and thankful to live in a city with such amazing healthcare facilities and talented professionals who were a huge comfort to me during a frightening time.

Anyway, after all the applications and interviews and stress and anguish, I managed to actually get a job.  And you know what I learned in this process?  Well, A LOT.  But first and foremost (in my own personal experience) that getting an academic job really was all about “fit,” as everyone had told me all along.  It’s hard to believe when you’re going through the application process because no one can actually explain to you what this mysterious “fit” is all about, or how you can improve your fit, or highlight your fit in your applications, or whether your fit for a particular job is any better than anyone else’s.  It’s immensely frustrating.  But, when I started going on interviews (both over the phone and in person), it all became painstakingly clear.

You will know when you have a good chance of getting the job.  People love everything on your CV (the academic equivalent of a resume).  Everyone is giving you big smiles.  You say things and can tell that everyone is delighted.  You have a long line of people waiting to ask you questions after your seminar.  Essentially, you are exactly what this department is looking for.  As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no way to figure this out before the interview stage, but once you are having a conversation with live people in real time, you will know.

Likewise, you will know when you have no chance of getting the job.  People ask you why things are missing from your CV.  You get confused looks instead of smiles.  When you tell people what you need to do your work, the overwhelming response is “we don’t have any of those things.”  And most importantly, you think to yourself, “I don’t think I would be successful here.”  You will know.

With all that said, there is a huge amount of luck involved in getting one of these jobs, and I was extremely fortunate to land in front of the right people at the right time.  Based on my personal experience on the job market, my best advice is to apply to as many places as possible in the hope that you will be the perfect “fit” at one of them.  The right school will find you.  That is their job.  Your job is to just keep applying.  They can’t find you if you don’t apply.

Carolyn at PhD commencement

Now that I got a job, the only things left for me to do are finish up my postdoc work, move across the country, turn an empty room into a functional laboratory, train students, teach classes, develop new classes, pull in grant money, finish publishing my PhD papers, finish publishing my postdoc papers, publish new papers, advise students, serve on committees, continue to go to conferences and give talks, GET TENURE… you know, just a few little things, no big deal.  🙂

Oh, and make sure I have enough winter gear for my new life in Minnesota.  I’m coming from Boston, so it shouldn’t be too different, right?  RIGHT???  🙂

Many heartfelt thanks to everyone who reads this blog for all your support and encouragement over the years.  To any of you who live in MN, please reach out!  I am coming your way!!

45 thoughts on “Getting an academic job in one million extremely difficult steps

    • Thanks Rhonda! Yes, I know at least 2 sewing bloggers from MN, and I hope there are many other sewists & quilters in the area. I will need some new friends. 🙂

  1. It’s such a delight to read your wonderful summary of the process, and I am so pleased for you. Congratulations! I’ve missed your blog posts and look forward to future ones.

  2. Congratulations. What a story to share. I’m so proud to hear about all you have done. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Congratulations!! I work as a professional advisor for undergraduate Biology majors…. working with students is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating! Good luck! (We also just hired a new Biology professor…. so I got to see up close how difficult that process was- Good on you!)

    • Thanks Liz! I completely agree about working with students – it is a roller coaster ride. Opening their eyes to the scientific process is the most rewarding part of my job, but the long-term process of training students in the lab requires a lot of patience. Good luck to you in your work – it is a noble profession for sure!

  4. Congratulations! I’m so happy that all your hard work is getting recognized, and will follow you on Instagram right away. Looking forward to reading about your new adventures!

  5. Congratulations! I’ve read your blog for a while but rarely comment. I’m in my second year on the tenure track at a small SLAC in the midwest, a few to several hours south of where I assume you’ll be. I’m also a transplant to the midwest – I’ve previously lived on all three American coasts and in Europe, and I love it here. Hopefully you will, too!

    I’ve been on both sides of the hiring process now (my department hired again my first year here) and I think you are exactly right about the role of “fit” in the hiring process.

    • Thanks Katherine, and thanks for de-lurking! 🙂 Huge congrats on your new job, and best of luck as you continue to settle in!! From everything that I’ve been hearing, I think the Minneapolis area will be awesome. I’m excited to start exploring. I found it so interesting how the “fit” factor was so obtuse and mysterious during the application process, but it was as clear as day during interviews. Now I know. 🙂

    • Thanks Michele! GO SCIENCE!! I am only one person and can only do so much, but I will do my best to make sure my students know how to recognize BS when they see it. 🙂

  6. Congratulations and well done! Interesting to read about your experience about “fit”. I know how hard it is to get a more permanent position in science. The process in The Netherlands goes a bit differently from the US and I believe there may even be fewer positions available here. I am at the moment not willing to move for a new job so will probably end up leaving the academic world after my postdoc. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted. I admire you for being willing to move such a distance though. Good luck during these exciting times!

    • Thanks Emmely! I have some colleagues in Europe, and yes, the job market seems quite different and even worse than in the US. I know a few people who have been jumping around from one temporary position to the next for many years now. It must be immensely frustrating. I hear you though on not wanting to move. Your personal life is more important, as it should be! I gave myself exactly one year on the job market and told myself that if I didn’t get a job, I would happily walk away from academia and just do something else. I couldn’t take the instability any longer. Best of luck to you as you decide what’s next for you. 🙂

  7. Congratulations! That sounds like such a mamoth task, and yet it comes down to fit which is so hard to describe. I think based on your insight into how EBP is key to progressing society, you will do an amazing job and make academia relevant in young people’s lives. Hope they have good fabric stores nearby 🙂

    • Haha, thanks Emma! From what I’ve heard, the fabric situation in MN is pretty good. 🙂 Thanks for your kind words about making academia relevant to students. If I can teach them how to tell when someone is feeding them BS, I will be happy!

  8. Congratulations! What a whirlwind, but I’m so happy for you. I’m just one state over and occasionally make it to some of the Minnesewta meetups, so hopefully we’ll be able to cross paths!

  9. I was so happy for you when I first saw this announcement on Instagram. Well done! And I am sure you will be a fantastic professor, your enthusiasm shines right through.

    I know what you mean about how draining the academic job hunt process is. I have been applying for more permanent jobs (including the US) absolutely everywhere for a couple of years now, but unfortunately it is not working our for me. I have a postdoc contract for 17 more month, and after that I may take a long holiday while I decide what to do with my life. Waiting for something better to come up is taking its toll on me, so I think I am getting ready to leave academia behind. But before that happens I’ve got another year to enjoy what I’m doing right now =)

    • Thanks for the good wishes, Vaire! I’m sorry the process has been so draining for you – it really is brutal. I gave myself exactly one year on the job market and told myself that if I didn’t get a job, I would happily walk away from academia and do something else. I was (and still am) so sick of the instability of postdoc life, sick of being broke, sick of being exploited by the system, etc. I got lucky and sincerely hope that a permanent position will be better than my current situation. When you love your work, it’s easy to accept situations that otherwise would be unacceptable. Best of luck to you as you figure out what’s next for you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with walking away, and you’ll probably make a lot more money doing something else. 🙂

  10. Congratulations!!!!! Both of my older sisters are in academia, so I can appreciate how hard you must have worked and the amount of perseverance needed to successfully earn a teaching position. I’m so happy for you!! I hope the move goes well; I’m sure you’ll have no trouble making new friends, sewing and otherwise. 🙂 Wishing you great success on your new adventure!

  11. Congratulations!
    I left academia after my PhD (in Germany getting a PhD is almost a requirement for higher management positions, so I had both paths open).
    Funnily enough, for me even the non-academic job search was quite similar to what you describe 🙂
    Of course it is way easier to find something, but finding the right position was also a lot about fit. And every single step on the way to my current job (which I absolutely love) was so much easier than for other positions I applied for. From writing a cover letter to the interviews, the whole process felt like everything is just falling into place, right where it belongs.

    I wish you all the best for your move, settling in and setting up your lab and of course getting tenure!
    Your quilts will be put to good use in the MN winter, I suppose 🙂

  12. Congratulations Carolyn and wish you the best with all the work you have to do until you settle down in your new base, I always enjoy reading your posts as no matter the subject your posts are always detailed and full of information. I get what you say about the fit factor, I’m looking for a job at the moment and it is so clear during the interviews if I fit or not in the specific firm, hope I find the write job as well 🙂

  13. Oh, Carolyn, I’m delighted to read this great news! How wonderful to see that your years of hard work and commitment have brought you to this “dream come true” moment. Sending you warm thoughts and well-wishes as you embark on this new chapter.

    On a side note- a lifelong friend (born and raised in a Boston), moved to Mpls. In her early married years. Her comments: “ You just make up your mind that the winter is cold”, and “It’s unbelievable how polite drivers are- insisting that you proceed through the intersection before them. 😀 ( Sound familiar? Didn’t, think so…) Your days of riding the T are numbered.

    Congratulations and Good Luck in everything.

  14. well, I know this is months old, but I just wanted to say CONGRATULATIONS!
    you look so happy in your cap & gown picture…
    always enjoyed your blog in the past –
    I’m hoping you’ll find time for a little update, if you get a chance…
    🙂

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