The most stressful and enjoyable time of my academic career (so far)
This is part of a series of posts tackling the academic job search from my recent experience. Read the rest here.
After the countless hours and days spent putting together my application, sending it to multiple institutions and departments, going through the “pre-interviews” online… I waited. It felt very much like after a first date, when you are not completely sure if things went well, or if the feelings were mutual. Some chairs simply ghosted me — which definitely made it feel very much like so many failed first dates — and never heard back from them.
During the online interviews I usually asked their timeline to complete the round with all their candidates, so I could have a date in mind by when I should be rejected or invited to an in-person interview. If I hadn’t heard from them by that date, I sent another e-mail to ask. Was that too desperate, too pushy? If my impression was that the on-line interview went well, I sent that e-mail. If the on-line interview didn’t go too well… I still sent that e-mail and ask for feedback after the rejection. I’m all about feedback and I think the honest advice that some faculty gave me only helped me improved.
Around November I started getting a few e-mails to invite me for in-person interviews. My in-person interviews run between November 2019 and March 2020, and it was right before the lockdown when I had my last in-person interview.
I ended up receiving three job offers, which coincidentally were from the three last institutions I visited. It could be that after a bunch of in-person visits I got better, or it was just serendipity. Either way, going through the extenuating process that is an in-person 2-day interview was excellent practice. It helped me gain confidence in my skills, and dramatically improved my research plan. I like to think that by the end of my US tour “Searching for the Faculty Position” I came up stronger and better.
But what happens during this in-person visit?
Usually, they flew me in the night before. Most of the times they let me at my own leisure, and I took the opportunity to treat myself to a nice dinner, and some self-care time before practicing once or twice my seminar and my chalk talk. The plan was always to go to bed early and have a good night sleep, which I failed at every single time.
I recommend that you rest that night prior to the first day of the interview and find something to do that relaxes you. I would even advice against practicing your talks or reading more papers as I did.
Meetings with Faculty
This part was very interesting. But until I immersed myself in it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I have to talk about my own project with every single faculty member? Would I have to repeat myself until I drop dead? The fact is that most conversations were very pleasant, about research, about the institution, the research environment, collegiality of the department, students, their own career… It was very interesting to hear everyone’s perspectives about different aspects of academia within and beyond the walls of their institutions.
Though it didn’t happen often, I was also able to witness some big egos that made me wonder if I would want to actually join said department. It sounds like a cliché but it is absolutely true: you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. So don’t forget to ask your questions and leave with the answers you need.
Meeting with Trainees
This was my favorite! Trainees were normally very open and honest, had great questions and were extremely welcoming. If trainees don’t look comfortable or content… I’d say that’s a big red flag. Trainees and their well-being are crucial for a department, and though brief, lunch time with them can tell you a lot. Take advantage of this great opportunity to get to know them and to ask about the departmental training style.
Seminar and Chalk Talk
Usually the seminar (or job talk) will be the day before your chalk talk. It is in the format of most talks you have given before, but you need to make sure to dedicate a bit longer to your future directions, make very clear how you will branch out from your current supervisor, and show all the preliminary data you can to prove them you are already moving towards your independent research.
Remember, you are the absolute expert in the room. You’re going to tell them about the latest research years of your life, and your future plans. This is your baby, and no one knows better about it than you.
The chalk talk, as I said before, is the point where most people mess up or don’t live up to the expectations of the search committee. I recommend you ask for feedback after every chalk talk. Everyone likes it differently so you’ll have many different opinions but I took some advice and I believe this gradually improved my ability to present this way. I honestly enjoyed this format, but I suggest you practice as much as you can with different people, and remember that timing is crucial.
What to Bring?
Though trivial, I thought it was important for me to know that I had “everything I needed” with me.
· Notebook: I walked around with a little notebook where I took notes about everything: resources available, techniques they were using, research topics, anything they would tell me about the department, the town…
· Water: You’ll need a lot. You’ll be talking non-stop for 10h+ every day. It is exhausting, and I’m a talker…
· My own laser pointer and markers: they normally provided these, but I always brought mine in case theirs were not working.
· My presentation: I did not carry my laptop around and I only brought my presentations loaded in a USB (and other 2 as back up! always prepared for the worst).
· A clock/timer: I strongly recommend against using your phone to time your talk so you don’t run over time. Phones are distracting and I actually brought my timer from the lab as I don’t use a watch. As I said before, sticking to the time allotted for your chalk talk is very important.
Regrets and Mistakes
Now, my situation was a bit special. As I said, my last interview was right before the lockdown. This impacted my search in several ways: one of the three offers got frozen, and I was not going to be able to join that academic year which obviously posed an important threat given my immigration status (if I had no job, I couldn’t stay in the country). It also prevented me from second in-person visits which would have happened in regular circumstances: these visits are often meant to bring your family/partner with you, explore your potential soon-to-be town, dig deeper in some aspects of the offer, additional face-to-face discussions (i.e. budget), etc… The pandemic was new to everyone, and so departments and candidates were struggling to navigate the situation.
I have to admit that it was not easy. In parallel, I was living through the worst personal situation I could have imagined, the death of my mom. Due to covid-related travel restrictions, the impossibility of traveling to my hometown to be with the rest of my family during such a horrible time only added a great deal of anxiety to an already stressful time.
In hindsight (and also according to most therapists’ opinion) I shouldn’t have made such a huge life decision during a traumatic event like that. And yet, I went through the negotiation of my start up and organized a cross-country move.
I shared with the chairs of the search committees my personal situation. They were extremely understanding, but I regret not having asked for more time to deal with my transition (both from postdoc to PI, and to a better more stable mental state). If I could, I should have taken a few months off, but my immigrant visa situation was not forgiving of the situation.
My little piece of advice is that if you can, make this type of decision while you are in a quiet state of mind. Talk to people who understands what it takes to make this type of life-changing decisions, especially if it involves a long-distance move. Get as much advice as you can, and weed out all that does not feel helpful.
Take your time, it is a very important step. It may feel like this is the most difficult part of the academic journey, but I kid you not, once you reach this point things are only going to get more stressful and demanding. Surround yourself of supportive peers, find good help and mentors (within and beyond your institution) and never be scared or ashamed of asking for help. That will be key to your success and to keep your sanity.
I personally found much support and comfort talking to other women faculty who gave me their candid opinions and told me their very own experiences. Many times I could see my own experience reflected in their past struggles and made me feel less alone.
If you have questions or comments, please reach out or leave them below. Thanks!
This is part of a series tackling the academic job search from my own experience. Other posts: