Monday, October 17, 2016

5 common misconceptions about the tenure-track job search

by Kim Cobb

I'm writing this on the heels of a somewhat disturbing chat with an incredible, young female scientist who had gotten some very bad advice regarding her upcoming job search from her well-intentioned advisor.

Below I'll list some common misconceptions about the tenure-track job search and some strategies for success, as someone who has sat on numerous search committees and been involved in numerous searches as a candidate.

Misconception #1:
It's best to wait until you are "marketable" to apply, ideally after several years of postdoc.

This is so wrong, it's hard not to jump out of my chair in frustration. I would argue, based on my own experience as well as those of my former students and postdocs, that you begin to be highly "marketable" in the last months of your graduate tenure or in the first year of your postdoc, with one caveat. If you're a graduate student, you need to have an awesome postdoc lined up (see Misconception #4 below), with a clear idea of how it will take your science to next level. Fancy fellowships help, of course. Also see related Misconception #2.

Misconception #2:
The more publications you have, the more "marketable" you are.

By this logic, your market value should simply increase through time as you publish. But that is very much not the case. Yes, in general, larger publication counts will garner a closer look, all things being equal. But there are more exceptions to this than I can list here. For example, high-profile papers still pack a punch, especially for early career researchers. Second, for people early in their career, steep investments in method development made in graduate school could translate into a somewhat delayed, relatively small batch of publications. However, their work could very well launch them into the academic stratosphere within several years. We might call this the "rising star" effect, and it is the Holy Grail of search committees - to nab that young researcher who is destined for greatness but is still discussed mostly in terms of "potential". Translation:  apply early and often. Make them sweat it out, trying to read the tea leaves of your CV and your research statement. And sweat they will, trust me. And you never know, you just might end up on the winning side of a committee's gamble on the next Big Thing.

Misconception #3:
You should only apply to those positions that you would likely accept.

This is also a doozie. Despite what you think you know about a department or a university, you are quite likely wrong. Your long-term success as an academic depends on so many factors that you can't possibly assess from your limited vantage point. We can begin with the very tangible things like amount of startup, salary, course loads, student support, and other items that are subject to negotiation once you are offered the position. We can continue listing things like neighborhoods, childcare facilities, parental leave, commitment to diversity, quality of leadership, affinity to close colleagues, institutional culture, etc that you can only really find out about through close, on-the-ground inspection and sleuthing. So no, you cannot possibly know where your best home would be a priori, no matter what your well-intentioned advisor thinks of That Place. So apply everywhere that you see a fit to the ad. Apply and interview like you mean it. If you get an offer, *then* you can worry about whether you can negotiate favorable terms, whether you like the place, could see yourself being happy there long-term, etc once you visit a couple of times, talk with colleagues, visit neighborhoods, tour homes, etc. You may be surprised how amazing it feels to hear the words "We'd like to make you an offer" - the first step to you falling in love with your potential next academic home. Of course, there is no match for the words "We'd like to make you both an offer." Pure fairy dust.

Misconception #4:
If you apply early in your postdoc, or even before you start one, you will have to cut your postdoc short to begin your tenure-track job.

Here at Georgia Tech, we have been known to wait an awfully long time (yes, well over a year) for the candidate of our choice to finish out their postdoc to their satisfaction. The top programs recognize the value of this flexibility, given that a productive, more mature scientist with deep and diverse collaborations (and likely grant writing experience) is much more likely to be successful on the tenure track.

Misconception #5:
It's best to be up front about your potential 2-body issue, because many institutions will leap at the chance to make two great hires at the same time. And anyway, hiding it is dishonest.

Good God no. Of the two parties in question, the person who should apply to a given ad is the person who is the best fit for the ad, period. If both parties are equally suited for the ad, then both should apply, but with no explicit or implicit link. That said, it is important to realize that female applicants are still rare enough that they will likely get a closer look than one would think. When in doubt, apply, especially if you are female.

And should you get an interview, make absolutely no mention of your significant other. This may make you uncomfortable, but there are legal protections against any discussion of your significant other for good reasons -- too many people will (consciously or subconsciously) downgrade applicants with 2-body issues because 1) it can be hard to find $ for two positions at the same time, so why bother trying? and 2) even if you do find the $, now you have to seal the deal with two candidates instead of one, so why bother trying? It's all very fraught, on both sides, even when everyone has the best of intentions.

The best way to minimize the hurdles that stand in the way of your dual tenure-track positions is to wait to raise the issue until they have named you the winner of the search. As unnatural as this might seem, you wield the most power when you have that offer in your hand. They have made the incredible leap of saying "We want you to join our family. Will you?" and they are beyond excited at the prospect of you saying "Yes." Once you have the Chair on the phone to discuss next steps, it is time to bring up your significant other (SO), who is also seeking a tenure-track position. Now brace yourself. There will be hemming and hawing. There will be disclaimers about how difficult it is to secure two tenure-track lines in "this environment". They are just doing their job, protecting your prospects for joining the faculty despite no offer for your SO, should that transpire. Do NOT take this personally. They probably know next to nothing, if anything, about your SO. Now do your job. Acknowledge that you know it is difficult, that you appreciate any effort they could make to investigate the possibility further. If you have the chance, mention that it has always been the express goal of your couple to get 2.0 tenure-track jobs, and that you are willing to wait for the right job opportunity to come along because - and this is key - you still have several years of applying ahead of you (see Misconception #1 and #2 above, and realize how waiting is especially costly for 2-body situations). The more desperate you are to land a job, the less leverage you have. Maximum leverage comes from being able to walk away from an opportunity while being very clear what it would take to make you sign on the line. Go there. And get comfortable. When the dust settles, see what they are able to offer, and then decide with your partner what the best path forward is for your couple.

Disclaimer:
Please note that I do not endorse many of the circumstances that I list above, even as I recognize that they may place profound constraints on your tenure-track job search. I only aim to further the prospects of young scientists, especially young women, in securing a tenure-track job, should that be their goal. Too many people operate in an information vacuum. I know I did.

Blatant plug:
All that said, please do apply to our tenure-track climate position(s) we're advertising in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. We are committed to conducting a search of impeccable integrity, and hope to attract a diverse set of applicants into the pool, to match our diverse set of existing faculty. And if we do end up offering you a position, will you pretty please say "Yes"?

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