Reality check: Applying for the Dream Job : Part 2



Dear reader,

Thanks for continuing on from Part I. Here, I add a human component to Part I, reacting to the criticisms, advice, and to-do list for my career by actually considering that I have growing family, a desire for work-life balance, and  goals in life additional to being a tenure track faculty.

The crux of Part I was that I need to publish more, apply broadly, jump start my career, and move around a lot to land that perfect (or at least good enough) tenure track job. Let’s unpack the implications of this from a more holistic point of view than I had in Part I.

  1. I’m not complaining nor am I surprised by the prescriptions. I had a good sense for all these challenges when I started graduate school and that sense was strengthened when I took the postdoc. Publish or perish is not a new revelation, and the peripatetic postdoc life is well known. The rules have always been clear (mostly, see below), and I’ve intuited the holes in my CV for some time now.
  2. However, I do take umbrage at the implication that, to succeed in academia in the future, the majority of us will have to take a post-postdoc, assistant professorship as a stepping stone. The argument goes, that there are so many people on the market now, to be competitive, you have to have run a lab already. In other words, we’re in danger of another level being added to the process. Postdocs used to be quite rare—they were fellowships that exceptional people took before becoming faculty (I think E.O. Wilson is a good example). But now the postdoc is a standard step in the pyramid process. Is the post-postdoc about to become normalized too? Perhaps, and maybe 20 years from now, it’ll be expected. But I am disheartened by the idea of having to take a sub-optimal (for me!) faculty job to eventually land in a better (for me!) faculty position. **
  3. At some stage, how much can one move? How many postdocs does one accept? Moreover, I have a spouse, and have already moved them for my work once. How many times can I ask them to move to a new place, make new friends, find new jobs? And my family is growing. How many times can I move my kids, especially as they approach those challenging middle school years during the post-postdoc I’m now supposed to be considering to jump start my career?
  4. Finally, I am trying to optimize more than just my faculty job aspirations. I want to move to a place where my spouse can find good work, where we can build a good community, where my kids can go to good schools, and where we don’t have to spend more than half of our income on housing and school. I want a broader quality of life to go along with that tenure track job (which brings some good quality, I agree). Am I willing to hang on for a post-postdoc and spend 3-6 years in a sub-optimal place (again, per my specific parameters) in the hopes of perhaps getting a better faculty position perhaps in a better place?

If you’re paying attention to tone, you’ll have intuited by now that the answer is bordering on no. I’m not really willing to apply broadly and move a lot to land that final job. Publishing more is the only thing that I will reasonably do to make myself more competitive. So, I will do that, and keep applying. Frankly, I am not confident that anything will come of it. My postdoc has gone on too long already and extending it another year won’t really patch the holes in my CV. So, I may be coming to the end of the line.

At some level, dear reader, you’re thinking to yourself: “Sounds about right. Objectively, you’re not good enough. You haven’t published enough, and you aren’t willing to move enough or sacrifice enough to become a tenured faculty at your dream school. There’s no judgement in that statement. It’s just how the game is played, and the game demands more.”

To which I say—fair. I’ve suspected this for some time. I decided long ago that I am going stay in the game, while playing it at the level of work-life balance that I am happy with, until the game tells me it’s time to get out. I’ve done that, and now—empirically, i.e., no interviews—my playtime seems to be coming to an end. So, I’ll pack up my good memories, friendships with great people, and large set of transferable skills and take my PhD out into the real world. I’ll have some sadness in doing that, but no sense of failure (a topic for whole other set of blog posts) and no regrets.


** PS. I wrote this piece and then let it sit for a while. In the intervening time between when I wrote it and when it was published, I talked to a number of folks and realized that perhaps the post-post-doc, temporary assistant professorship isn’t really all that new. Lots of people move around at the pre-tenure stage apparently, so it seems that this is an obscure rule I just didn’t know about. I still take umbrage, but my surprise is lessened. Now you know too.