Friday, July 19, 2013

Tell All

From a reader seeking your comments:

"I am currently on my 4th postdoc position and still have a 4 years left on my current fellowship. I've decided that I don't want to continue moving around, even for a permanent position. If a position opens up in my current town, I will apply, otherwise I plan to look for a job outside of academia in a few years time. Several people have contacted me with further fellowships or jobs positions abroad that they encourage me to apply to. Some of these people are current collaborators. My question is, how do I let them know that I don't want to apply to these jobs, without risking losing my collaborations over the next 4 years? I feel that if I let people know my true intentions, they will write me off as 'leaving academia', stop collaborating with me, inviting me to conferences etc... Even if I do eventually do something else, I still want the next 4 years to be productive scientifically, yet don't want to apply to places I have no intention of going to for that to happen. "

It is always tricky giving advice with only partial information about the context and people, but, as usual, let's not let that stop us. One possibility is to imagine this scenario in the context of our own collaborations and speculate about what we would want this person to do if we were working with them. Using that approach, this is what I think:

You should not apply for jobs you have absolutely no intention of taking no matter what. If you were merely leaning towards staying where you are but could possibly move for a great job, then it is worth applying anyway and seeing what happens. But if there is 0.00000% chance of your accepting another academic job if offered, I recommend not applying.

I realize that advice leads you to a situation of having to explain to your colleagues why you are not applying for academic jobs, but I also think you should be open with your colleagues about your decision. If I were your collaborator, I would keep working with you for the next few years but would know not to plan on doing so in the long-term (assuming your non-academic job wouldn't involve such collaborations). In fact, I am reminded of a situation years ago when a colleague of mine left academia but we kept working together for a while to wrap up a project. This was fine with me, and I appreciated having some notice because it affected my plans regarding proposals, students, postdocs and so on.

There are likely to be some conflicting views in the comments (I hope!), but perhaps seeing a range of opinions will nevertheless help this reader wrestle with the options and come to a good decision for this particular situation.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Not A First Class Guy

Owing to my frequent travels with a certain airline, I have a certain 'status' that has some nice features that make travel possibly bearable. Every once in a while I have to travel with another airline for which I am a nobody, and I know how soul-sucking it is to deal with the long lines and little seats all crammed together at the back of a plane in which every overhead bin has been (over)stuffed by those allowed to board first.

Anyway, my sympathy for the non-frequent flyers does not extend to my wanting to join them in misery, so I take full advantage of shorter lines and simpler security procedures whenever posssible. However, to get to the Premium Elite Special Place at check-in/security, I have to get past a gate-keeper.

I understand the purpose of the gate-keeper. I see them turn away people who are not allowed in the hallowed grounds of the Premium Elite Special Place and who need to be directed elsewhere. The gate-keeper helps keep the Premium Elite Special Place uncrowded and efficient. I hope they would let someone in who really needed a short line in order to make their flight, but I admit that overall I am glad to be able to get through check-in and/or security in a reasonable amount of time for most flights.

Over the years, I have become resigned to having to show my special-status card and having it scrutinized to make sure that I really am allowed to enter that special zone. I have become resigned to traveling with colleagues who do not have to show their card or who just flash their card quickly to gate agents who then stop me so that I can prove my worthiness to entire the Premium Elite Special Place. This is a very minor inconvenience, and I can usually get over the fleeting feeling of micro-humiliation by reminding myself of the alternative.

And yet this bothered me on my travel this week: As usual, I had to show my card, it was examined closely to make sure that it was not an expired card etc., and I was allowed in. The man behind me saw what I had to do and started to get out his card. The gate-keeper said to him, loudly and with apparent unconcern that I was a meter away and would hear: "I don't need to see YOUR card, sir. You LOOK like a first-class guy."

Memo to Airlines: Consider adding to your training of these gate agents some instructions about not blatantly insulting middle-aged women who do not look like "first-class guys". 

Little did I know that this minor little irritation with a certain airline would be dwarfed by what happened during the rest of the trip, but that is another story.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Prospective Grad Student Fail

Earlier this summer I met an undergraduate from another institution. The meeting was arranged by one of the student's mentors, who wrote to me saying that this student would benefit from meeting people whose research topics are similar to what the student has been doing for an undergraduate research project. This student is at a small school and, as a Prospective Graduate Student (PGS), they would also benefit from talking to a professor at a research university. So we set up a meeting.

From the very beginning, the conversation was confusing for me. PGS informed me early in the conversation that "no one else" (but PGS) is working on the particular research topic that we apparently had in common. I said, "Are you being sarcastic?". Oops, PGS was serious. So I said, "You mean other than me and a few dozen other people?" I explained that this was a very active topic of research, worldwide. I gave some examples.

Then PGS told me that some equipment at PGS's undergrad institution was very important for the research, but very few other places have these. I said, "We have two." Most research universities do.

PGS explained that the TopTwo schools according to the US News rankings were of most interest for graduate school, but this led to a question for me: Should PGS apply to "lesser" schools like mine? (meaning: not TopTwo). Um, no. Actually, I said I couldn't answer that for PGS in particular, not knowing anything about PGS's record, but I gave some examples of various subfields in which both, one, or neither of the TopTwo was a good place for graduate research.

My overwhelming impression was that PGS was immature, had spent too much time talking only to the undergrad advisor and not enough time immersed in the literature relavent to their research project, and was not at all prepared to have a professional conversation. The meeting was set up by a professor, not the student. I am not sure I will agree to that particular arrangement again. If a student wants to meet me, they can contact me.

Whether PGS will succeed or fail in graduate school, if accepted, is anyone's guess. Chances are that PGS will figure things out eventually.