Monday, 29 April 2019

A portrait of a job search

As some you may know, I recently signed an offer letter for a tenure track job starting this July. My time as a postdoctoral researcher in northeast Ohio, the time in which I started this blog, is coming to an end. Through my time learning the ropes of scientific careers in the past few years, I've always found information on the job searches of others important and interesting. So I decided to add my own. What I present here is a case study, specific, idiosyncratic, uncontrolled. It cannot be generalized. It is however, data. Add it to your sample, and consider your sample critically.

About me:
I started my postdoc in autumn 2013 with 1 paper in press. By my time on the job market last autumn I had 13 papers published or in press, so a bit more than 2 papers a year as an average. About half of those are first or last author. All of them are in society journals. I have no glam or baby glam pubs. I had no major grants of my own, though I had applied both for a K99 and an R15 and listed both on my CV (the R15 was pending for part of the job search season, not discussed for the later part). My teaching was limited, largely to my gross anatomy lab instruction I did in graduate school with a smattering of lectures in allied health anatomy courses over the past five years, as I was in a 100% research position. Another characteristic of note of my CV was a complete change in career direction between my PhD (in paleontology) and my postdoc (experimental physiology in an animal model of disease). I have about three times as many publications in the latter field than the former at this point.

About the jobs I applied for:
I applied for 45 jobs. Geographically (for personal reasons) these were located almost entirely in the northern Midwest and rust belt (Illinois, Michigan, Ohio), and the mid Atlantic region (New York to North Carolina). I applied only to full time, tenure track jobs. In terms of universities I applied to everything from Ivy leagues, to R1s, to Medical schools (osteopathic and allopathic), to regional four year teaching intensive universities to liberal arts colleges. In terms of area of specialty, I applied to jobs focused in Anatomy, Physiology, Neuroscience, Evolutionary and Comparative Biology. I had three versions of my research statement targeted at different levels of research support, and three cover letter templates. My teaching statement and diversity statement were almost identical for all universities that required them.

I got five phone/skype interviews, exclusively from job searches looking at least in part for someone who could teach gross anatomy. From those, I got three on campus interviews. 2 of these were at four year colleges looking to expand undergraduate anatomy instruction for nursing and premedical students. These two institutions were eye openingly different, one being a regional state campus, one being a very small private liberal arts college. I learnt many things I didn't know about the diversity of undergraduate education in the US. At both interviews, incidentally, my lack of teaching experience, particularly with undergraduates, was brought up as a concern. The third interview was at an osteopathic medical school with a growing research focus. The initial interview was very focused on my ability to teach gross anatomy, but after my research seminar there was growing enthusiasm  for my capabilities as a researcher, and a second campus visit resulted in a offer that maintained my involvement in teaching gross anatomy while giving me significant research support and percent effort allocation. The result was a position pretty close to my ideal. Which was fortunate, as this was ultimately the only offer I received.

I am loathe to draw any conclusions from this, so the only remarks I will make are the ones that occurred to me comparing my experience to what I had maybe expected from my own data collecting. Applying broadly helped me, but not in the ways I thought it would. On the one hand, I could have only applied for anatomy jobs. On the other, it was not obvious from the job posting, or even from my first interview, that the job I eventually got would be what it was. A narrower set of job criteria might have made me miss it. Ultimately there were too many unknowns to really make a very good filter. The second is that different parts of my CV mattered in different ways at different times. My standout characteristic I thought would be my research productivity, except what got me through the door of interview in every case is my ability to teach a specific subject, even if my teaching experience might not be what the university ideally would want. And yet again, it was the specifics of my research agenda, and my grant writing experience, that led to the second visit at the job I took. As someone once told me, all job searches are a compromise. I turned out to be that compromise in ways I couldn't have known. Finally, getting the right feedback was essential. I asked teaching faculty to review my job talks for teaching positions. I asked neuroscience faculty to sit on my practice chalk talk for a neuroscience department (which wanted me to teach gross anatomy. Medical schools are odd beasts). Every time, the specific things they pointed out and suggested were brought up as positives by the places I visited.

And yet, for all this, I can't help but feel that I was lucky. How can you generalize, learn anything from 1 job offer in 45 applications? I know I did as much as I could, and it worked out for the best. But some of this, more perhaps than I am comfortable with, was good fortune. The right place, the right time. The opening seems so narrow that I feel I barely squeaked through. A relief, yet also sometimes an uncomfortable feeling.

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