Friday, April 25, 2008

How I Got A Job

I said it before. The best advice I ever got in graduate school was from Dr. Shellie who advised, "The best way to graduate is to get a job." I did just that; on July 18th I will defend my dissertation. In late August, I will teach my first class as an Assistant Professor.

People have asked me, "How?" I'll try to recreate the steps and the rough time line.

Step 1: Get a mentor.
September 2006

Some graduate students are lucky: their advisor is a great mentor for the job search. For me, this is not the case. I have spent my graduate career forming an army of mentors who can advise me on topics ranging from family-work balance to handling misogyny. Resources have been incredibly varied: old co-workers, assistant deans, professors in other departments.

But for initiating the job search, one stands out. On MentorNet, I found myself a mentor who had similar interests in balancing research and teaching. She listened to my existential crisis about "having a life" vs. "being the golden researcher." Above all, she was fantastic at kicking my butt. As I fretted over whether to graduate this year or next, she wrote,

DON'T LINGER. You will realize as soon as you are out of there how little this last year really meant to you.

Step 2: Go on tour.
July 2007

With my butt properly kicked, I scheduled summer visits with four professors at three different universities to discover the kind of institution that fit with my own philosophies of education, research, and community. I called it my “Summer 2007 Tour.” I needed to answer some questions. Would I be happy at a small university where I got my bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering? Or would I prefer a large state institution like my current one? Something else entirely? After six years of misery and cage fighting, it was my top priority that I find a place where I could be happy.

So I browsed the web, found some people at various universities in the Pacific Northwest, my target geographical location. I sent out e-mail to folks my mentor suggested. I sent out some e-mail to people I had never met before. For example,

Dear Professor,

I plan to be in the Seattle area this July. Given that our research interests in reliability are closely related, I would like to meet with you to have a friendly chat about our current work, about your experiences at Seattle U., and hear your advice about the academic job search.

A note to those of you afraid to network: All of them replied.

My first meeting was with a woman who had been an instructor at a large state school, and now works at Pacific Lutheran University. She said that what she liked best at PLU was that she was no longer the best teacher in her department. She enjoyed being surrounded by a community of educators who put their students first, and who challenged her and guided her to become a better educator.

At the smaller institutions I visited, I was impressed by the real sense of community felt by students and faculty. Faculty talked about how they enjoyed working with their colleagues, how they enjoyed multiple opportunities to teach small cohorts of students. During a campus tour I attended at Seattle University, there was a sincere pride expressed by the student tour guides who talked about their math lab, writing center, and personal attention from their professors.

My summer tour showed me that I would contribute most successfully and happily to an institution that values teaching excellence, emphasizes a sense of community, and seeks to educate the whole person.

But my summer tour also presented a huge stroke of luck. I met with a woman who had been hired by my undergraduate institution in 2005. We were talking about general job search advice, and she stopped, "You know we are hiring this year, right?"

What?! THE school. The very school that I loved so much as an undergrad. I can remember talking with my friends in room 103 of the engineering building about what we'd do when we grew up. I said, "I'm going to be a professor here."

So it was sealed. I would apply.

Step 3: Make a support group.
September 2007

Another stroke of luck. I had a tight group of very accomplished friends who were all braving the job search. Applications would be due in November-January. In September, we started writing our application materials. We read each other's materials. Gave each other feedback. Talked about the rumors and stories we heard about the job search. Helped each other remember stuff we did that would look good on the C.V. "Don't you remember, you moderated that panel, what, second year?" Took each other out for ice cream when we were freaked out about never getting a job. Gave each other pep talks. "No you are not going to be here next year!" Listened to each other's practice job talks.

Step 4: Practice the job talk in front of a live studio audience.

It didn't make sense to me to practice my job talk in front of most professors at my university. These were top researchers who wanted to see a job talk which demonstrated a contribution to the field. They wanted me to say stuff like, "I invented gravity!" Wrong audience.

I was going to interview at small teaching schools. My interviewers wanted to know if I could teach. So I practiced my job talk in front of professors at my university who had worked at smaller schools. I practiced in front of undergraduates at my university. I practiced at another teaching university about two hours away. I videotaped a practice and sent it to my mentor. I got lots of good feedback.

It was funny in a way. All my friends applying to research institutions had to prove they could do research. Having gone to a huge research university, the smaller institutions assumed I could do research. I had to prove to them that I could teach. I only talked about my research for about 2 slides.

* * *

In the end, my job search was:

12 applications. 4 phone interviews. I did an on-site interview at my top choice in January, and they gave me a job offer right away. I didn't feel it necessary to interview anywhere else. I had gotten the dream job I wanted since I was 19 years old.

Other resources:

The Journey to a Teaching Oriented Faculty Position by Tammy VanDeGrift and Janet Davis.

How to Get a Teaching Job at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution by A. Malcolm Campbell.


Amanda said...

Great post! This is really helpful, especially with the timeline and everything.

Traveler, not tourist said...

"DON'T LINGER. You will realize as soon as you are out of there how little this last year really meant to you."

I needed that. Sooo badly. Thank you.

Jane said...

This is excellent, excellent advice. I am so glad that you have an army of mentors and supportive friends behind you! Best of luck to you on your defense and in your new position!

shannon said...

i'm glad you followed all those steps because it means you are coming home!!! :)

i can hardly wait to see you next week. LA!!!

Mikael said...

Great post.

And the plan you sketch actually ends up resonating well with what I'm actually doing myself.

Mentoring? I bumped into one of the Big Names in my chosen field of research on a conference last summer. He has pretty actively taken me under his wing, prodding me to do my research, feeding me with ideas and encouragement, and pointing me towards the precise ideas I'd need to finish it off.

Touring? I just (a week ago) got back from a four-week tour of the US, visiting universities where local researchers had been inviting me to "Pop on over". At most of the universities I visited, I would be happy working, and indeed applied. It looks now as if one of them will end up offering me a postdoc on a research grant they're about to land.

One thing I might have to add is, actually, blogging. I blog under my real name, and with regular mentions of my own research interests. At least one of the visits I did was to one of the authors of the paper I -learned- the field from; and that visit started with him leaving an invitation on my blog.