Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hobby Horse

This post is related to yesterday's and takes into account some recurring themes in the comments.

When applying for an academic position -- grad school, a postdoc, a faculty position -- do you have to 'pretend' that you live only for research and have no personal life in order to be taken seriously?

Some may disagree, but my cosmic answer to this is No, of course not, but that doesn't mean that your application materials should contain information about your personal life. If your application statements are focused entirely on your background and interests, you are not pretending by omission that you have no other life. You are not entering an implicit contract in which you promise to have no other life. You are simply providing the relevant information that will form the basis of the evaluation of your expertise and potential.

There are exceptions. If an applicant has a personal issue that is relevant to the position for which they are applying or is necessary to explain something about the academic record, these issues should be mentioned in their appropriate context.

During an interview or visit, there are opportunities to discuss non-work issues. This is the time when you get get a sense for whether a program/advisor is a good fit for your priorities. Visiting students and postdocs can get a sense for what the expectations are for particular advisors/projects, and you can typically figure that out by talking to other students or postdocs rather than asking the advisor something red-flaggy like "So how much are you going to expect me to work?". Even a reasonably sane advisor who is happy to have advisees who have outside interests and don't work 24/7 would wonder about the motivation level of someone asking a question in that way.

There are many anecdotes, real and unreal, of applicants/candidates having to pretend they were monomaniacs focused only on research and uninterested in other human beings, particularly those of the infant sort, in order to get an academic position. I did not encounter this in my own applicant/candidacy experiences, but I have met people who believe in it fiercely. Example:

Many years ago, I had an interview at a college and, as part of the interview process, I met with a hiring committee that included faculty and administrators from various departments in the college, not just people in my field. I enjoyed my conversation with this committee, which was interested in my views of Science in general; for example, as it relates to other fields and to society, and how we teach students about Science. Soon after my interview, I was offered the job, but, because it wouldn't have been a good place for my husband, I turned down the offer.

Six years later, I visited a certain university as part of a lecture tour and had dinner with a science professor I had never met before. As soon as we sat down, he said "I know that you were offered that job at X College in 199x. I interviewed for that job too and they rejected me right away. So here's what I want to know. When that hiring committee met with you and asked you what your hobbies are, what did you say?".

I only vaguely remembered being asked about my hobbies by that committee, so I had to think about it for a few minutes. Finally I replied, "I don't really remember. I probably didn't say much because I don't really have anything I consider a hobby."

My dining companion said "I knew it! I knew I gave the wrong answer."

I asked him "How can there be a wrong answer? As long as you didn't say that you eviscerate kittens as a hobby or something else disgusting and illegal, how can there be a wrong answer?".

He said "For the last six years I have been kicking myself about this. I should have said that I have no hobbies. That would mean that I work all the time. Or, if I did tell them a hobby, I should have said that I read The New York Review of Books."

Me: Why didn't you tell them that?

Him: Because I don't read The New York Review of Books.

Me: Oh... So what did you tell them?

Him: I told them that I like fishing. What an idiot. I admitted to having a hobby and I admitted to having a non-intellectual hobby.

We argued about this in a friendly way a bit more, but I was unable to convince him that his fishing hobby confession had not cost him the job. I don't think he realized that he was being inadvertently a bit insulting by saying that if he had just given the 'right' answer to the insidious hobby question, he would have gotten the job offer instead of me. He was absolutely convinced that that committee wanted candidates with no hobbies or at the very least an appropriate intellectual one.

I do know of departments in which the vast majority of faculty are droids, and I even have one colleague at another university who only accepts grad students as advisees if their hobbies are on his personal approved list of acceptable activities (example: stamp collecting is bad), so I am aware that extreme/insane advisors are out there. Even so, most of my colleagues, postdocs, students have hobbies of various sorts. Many have families. An important part of life is learning to balance work and non-work. That's what most of us are doing.


John Vidale said...

Three related reasons listing hobbies is good - people reading the file gain a fuller picture of the applicant, applicants stick in the memory of the evaluators better, and if one can describe specific accomplishments such as winning a chess tournament, building a canoe, or publishing poetry, one is more impressive.

There is no requirement to list hobbies, but my department values compassion, charisma, ability for outreach addressing societal issues, and breadth as well as technical depth and finesse, so solely a long list of technical accomplishments may not be the best advertisement.

The colleague who thought he gave the wrong answer is astoundingly insensitive, especially if he is just guessing only from your different answer. Wow. It's amazing many rejected interviewees think they were a close second on a short list when they were not, as well.

Anonymous said...

Your field and/or your experiences seem completely atypical to me. In my field of science the majority if not all people, from students to faculty do not have a life. And are not allowed to, except the occasional genius who can do whatever they want because of their brilliance. Two-body or related problems are solved by one body giving up their life to follow the other and not with the help of understanding superiors or potential employers. At least in all cases I know of which is statistically relevant number. Yes, significant others fall under the category "hobby".

Anonymous said...

I do know of departments in which the vast majority of faculty are droids, and I even have one colleague at another university who only accepts grad students as advisees if their hobbies are on his personal approved list of acceptable activities (example: stamp collecting is bad)

Whoah! That's seriously fucked up! I have no idea what the hobbies are of the people in my lab, and I really don't care to know. The people in my lab are not my friends: they are my trainees.

Alyssa said...

Great follow-up post! I agree that personal things shouldn't be on an application. Once you get to the interview/job offer stage, then one can voice concerns of that matter.

I can see where your friend is coming from about the hobbies thing but, just like you, I sincerely don't think the committee didn't choose him just because of that. Some advisors/departments are like that, but some are not. It's just a case of trying to find a best-fit for one's own situation.

Tom said...

I love my hobby as an amateur astronomist, and I'd be more than happy to tell anyone about it. If they use that as an excuse to not hire me, to heck with them. Part of the point of my career is to help finance my life so I can do the things I enjoy, outside of work.

Tinkering Theorist said...

"I don't think he realized that he was being inadvertently a bit insulting by saying that if he had just given the 'right' answer to the insidious hobby question, he would have gotten the job offer instead of me."
You were there and I was not, but he didn't necessarily imply that from what you report. You didn't take the job, so he knows he wasn't even second choice. Also, if he was rejected soon after his interview and before other interview took place, that would imply it was something about his interview and not about the other people. Hopefully it was not really about fishing, though!

John Vidale said...

This getting increasingly difficult to relate to my experience at our decent research university. We just reviewed 30 applications for graduate school in my specialty and have selected some tiers and made some offers. Every one of our top candidates mentioned their hobbies in their application - climbing clubs, trombone, varsity soccer, anime drawing.

The point is for applicants to have a lot to boast about (and have the letters corroborate it), not to exclude their non-work life in the hopes we think they are more "professional". Maybe my field is not representative, but versatile skills are what we want in applicants, and hobbies can reveal some of them.

Anonymous said...

The closest I come to listing personal information on my CV is two items near the end:

1) "Responsible volunteer positions." Here I list major volunteer work that says something about my abilities (e.g. "Raised $X" or "supervised N people"). It also happens to offer a bit more about me as a person, if a school cares about, say, potential for involvement with student activities and service. And it makes for a conversation piece. ("So, you ran a juggling festival?")

2) My one television appearance. It was on a quiz show, so there's some geek cred. And by being on a TV show, I get a Bacon Number. Which means I have a Bacon-Erdos number. Which is awesome. (It's 6, btw.)

Yvette Dickinson said...

I am in a fieldwork based science; and would worry if somebody listed hobbies that did not involve the outdoors somehow. I have learned the hard way that collecting data in remote locations for extended periods is absolutely miserable for both me and the person in question if they aren't into activities which involve the great outdoors somehow.

Anonymous said...

Science is your hobby, otherwise why would you work your ass off for so little pay and so little respect?

Anonymous said...

Anon at 11:56 -- thanks for the link. The article you link to raises some very important points about why women are underrepresented in the sciences, though it doesn't address the question of why women are overrepresented in many humanities fields, where the pay is much lower and the training is often longer. But I'm on board with the author's points about the hidden costs of an academic life. I'm a still-single, childless, tenure-track professor staring 40 in the face, and only now am I realizing the opportunity costs associated with my chosen career path. Maybe I should have thought about this a little earlier!

Anonymous said...

Me again.

Greespun is right about the money. Of course, for most of us it is not all about the money (Greenspun would agree).

We must all figure out what makes us happy. People who choose science, or the arts, or humanities, do so largely because they enjoy it. I love that, and I have no problem with that. I am one of them.

However, I have a real problem with professors from big-name universities who lie to aspiring students telling them how great a career they will have. The facts are that to get tenured at a big-name research univ, like the FSP, requires

1- Huge amounts of work and dedication over the span of decades
2- while making meager graduate student or postoc salaries
3- and then you need to be lucky enough that your experiments/research actually show something that is interesting enough.

Most of these aspiring students will drop out somewhere along these line.

To paraphrase G., deciding to become "a scientist like the FSP" is like deciding to become "an actor like Harrison Ford".

The difference is that you don't see Harrison Ford telling students that they can be just like him if they study hard enough, but I do see profs. doing that.

So, yes, the right answer is "my hobby is reading science magazines and books", which is actually true for me! but now I also read blogs about science profs. :-)

Anonymous said...

I think listing hobbies has different effects for men and women for some evaluations/interviewers. For men, having a hobby demonstrates that they are not single minded droids and may even contribute to society. However in my (female) experience, a hobby can be a dangerous thing, as the suspicion may already exist that, having had children, I am not serious enough about my career. Having "hobbies" just adds to this effect, so it is not usually something I discuss much.