Monday, July 21, 2008

The academic job search... circa 1992

I've moved, I have internet access (and - gasp - TV), and I'm finally unpacking The Office. In the process, I found a box of Important Life Information that I accumulated between 1989 and 2000. Old credit card receipts (including one for slide film from 1994), information about an internship at the USGS, a letter welcoming me to my first graduate housing (received about a month before it was closed by the Loma Prieta earthquake)...

...and advice for getting an academic job, in the form of two brochures from Stanford's Career Planning and Placement Center (CPPC). (Yes, a photocopied brochure. What do you mean, didn't they have a web page?)

So I give you: the advice and the reality, circa 1992-1993. If you are currently freaking out about job searches, the take-home message is that advice is all well and good, but sometimes you've just got to make your own way.

The advice (mauve, because even in 1992 it was clear that jobs weren't as easy to get as the advice implied):


  • ...Give a paper, poster session, or organize a panel at a national conference.
  • Read job announcements in your field.
  • Learn all the possible sources of job announcements.
The reality:
  • Give a talk at a regional conference in which you work around to a conclusion that your data are really excruciatingly bad.
  • ...Work on a draft of your CV and a basic letter of application.
  • Think of who your good reference letter writers will be.
  • Get employment file packet from the CPPC and set up a reference file if your department does not assist graduate students this way.
  • Spend late nights in the argon lab, trying to nail down some data that are actually worthwhile.
  • Spend other late nights in the probe lab.
  • Go to see the Grateful Dead at Shoreline.
  • Start work on a paper for a special volume built around the session at the regional conference.
  • ...Start applying - you may need to request transcripts from the Registrar's office.
  • Attend the CPPC programs on the academic job search or see videotapes of former programs at CPPC or check these out from the Center for Teaching and Learning.
  • Practice interviews with peers or faculty.
  • ...Prepare and practice a job talk.
  • ...Keep a list of questions by the phone to ask when you are called for an interview.
  • Decide with advisor that the one paper should be two papers.
  • Submit abstract to an international meeting, in hopes of meeting people who might be good to know in a year or two.
  • ...Don't immediately accept the first offer, unless you are sure it is the one you want most.
  • Find out more about what to negotiate from your advisor or recently appointed faculty in your field.
  • Don't despair if you don't get the offer you want - some tenure-track and one year positions come up late in the year.
  • Talk with your advisor and CPPC counselors about best strategies for waiting until next year's job markt --
  • OR accept the best offer and thank everyone who helped you!

  • Meet with committee to discuss progress. Tell them about paper #1 (submitted) and paper #2 (being revised). Ask for advice about what to do next. Be told to "finish."
  • Freak out.
  • Frantically flip through job ads listed on bulletin board. (I wasn't subscribed to EOS or Geotimes.)
  • Find an ad for a temporary job at a private liberal arts college in a cool place. Apply.
  • Get a call from the chair of the search committee, saying that they only want to interview one person, and that person is you.
  • Frantically prepare job talk. Hope that slides are readable on first try. (No powerpoint yet.)
  • Buy dress suit. Find shopping at Macy's more traumatizing than anything in grad school so far.
  • Go on interview.
  • Totally blow interview. Be confused about what courses are involved, give an awkward talk, screw up a question that's personally important to the interviewer.
  • Begin to wonder what happened about that one-person interview thing.
  • Get a call from assistant search chair, explaining that another person was hired, and suggesting that you apply for jobs at research universities, because you don't appear enthusiastic about teaching.
  • Go into another grad student office and sob for a while. Get a very useful pep talk.
  • Start looking through job postings again. Apply for three more jobs.
  • See one more job ad that appears written with you in mind. Apply for it, remembering to express as much enthusiasm as possible without exclamation points.
  • Get a call from chair of the department from the last ad. Ask lots of questions about courses to be taught.
  • Run into advisor who says "Department Chair X called and wants to know if you are going to finish this year." Ask advisor if she lied for you. (Advisor answered that she told the truth: I had two papers finished and could defend this summer.)
  • Study the Geologic Map of Vermont instead of going to graduation.
  • Go on interview. Ask lots of enthusiastic questions about roadcuts. Make a point to say "yes, I can do that" to all questions.
  • Fly home. Answer phone before putting down suitcase. Accept job offer on the spot.
  • Find one day in which all committee members will be in town.
  • Revise tables.
  • Try to get figures to print.
  • Revise tables again.
  • Kick printer.
  • Go for run.
  • Kick printer again.
  • Defend.
  • Deliver dissertation to Kinko's.
  • Go to Phish show in Berkeley.
  • Pack.
  • Move.
  • Prepare for classes with three days to go before term begins.
I wonder how much the advice and the reality have changed. Probably there's more advice to do post-docs before applying for jobs. And advice about checking out possible jobs via the web. I don't know whether the advice matches the reality any more than it did fifteen years ago, though.


Anonymous said...

It's amazing how many future-orientated things require years of advance planning. I can't imagine working on my dissertation and conducting a job search at the same time.

praveenboss said...

good work ... great goin... visit mine...link1

Silver Fox said...

"...Don't immediately accept the first offer, unless you are sure it is the one you want most." -- This is good advice, but seems like one of those things that is often unrealistic.

Great history and comparison of brochure to real-life timeline. (And glad your've gotten moved in, if not all unpacked.)

Ron Schott said...

As someone who took inordinately long to finish grad school (9 years for MS and PhD, with some part-time teaching during the last 3 of those years) what strikes me is how quick Stanford seems to have been to ship you out the door. Was this par for the course at Stanford or were you taken aback by their rush to move you on, as well? It seems some happy medium between our experiences would be a lot more sane.

Kim said...

Ron -

Yes, they pushed me through absurdly quickly. That wasn't entirely typical of Stanford - grad students had seven years from admission to finish a PhD, but many took longer. I was there during an odd transition. The combination of the Loma Prieta earthquake (and very expensive damage to the university), a scandal over indirect costs (you might remember news about a yacht and flowers), and the early 90's recession meant that even a school as wealthy as Stanford had a budget crunch. They didn't want to slow down admitting students, so there was a new push to move people through very quickly. (I was the fastest of my cohort, but finishing in five years wasn't unusual.) I think it may have been good for students who were admitted to Stanford after completing an M.S., but I at age 22, with only a B.A. I had done independent research as an undergrad, I knew how to figure things out for myself and follow a project to completion, but I was still very young. And I didn't have much confidence in myself or my project. (Perhaps my committee was impressed by the independence of my project, though - my conclusions were definitely mine, and I was working with data that weren't easy to interpret. People outside the committee didn't know that, but my committee members, two of whom were also my co-authors, did.)

I've been very critical of Stanford since leaving, but I know at least one person who had a similar background to mine who finished in less than four years and got an amazing job at a very good liberal arts college. She has tenure and a couple kids now. (She may have learned from my mistakes, though - she didn't try to go it alone on research at her first job.)

Academic -

I'm not sure that planning is the answer to the job search problem. So many things can change suddenly - advisors can die or leave the institution, the project might turn out differently from expected, your research and/or teaching interests can change, unexpected opportunities can come up (at other institutions or at your own), and so on. I think it's good to think ahead and think strategically, but it's also good to be able to change course when tragedies or opportunities appear.

I don't know anyone (except maybe the friend I mentioned in response to Ron's comment) who followed the advice and got exactly what they expected in the end. Most of my happay and/or successful friends learned to make the best of things they didn't expect.

Kim said...

Regarding Stanford - I should add that although we had seven years to finish, funding was only guaranteed for four years. (And I had a three-year NSF fellowship - when they gave me another fellowship for my fourth year, I'm pretty sure they thought they could push me out quickly and keep the TA slots open for new students.)