19 March 2014

academia and jobs

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A rant on the academic job search

I’ve tried to avoid the academia whining/bashing as, for the lucky few (currently including me), it is an incredible gig. That said, this oft-tweeted Slate article struck a chord as it could have happened to me. My story has a much happier-ending (mostly because I said No before trying to negotiate).

Earlier this year, to my giddy excitement, I was asked to interview for a position at a Small State College in a Nice Place I would have been excited to live. Then, to their credit, the chair of the search told me the union-negotiated (and thus non-negotiable) salary which was almost 20% less than my current post-doc salary (which is roughly consistent with NIH postdoc salaries). Much to my own surprise, after the weekend of pondering, I turned down even the interview (only the second I’ve been offered) knowing that, as the main income earner for a family of 4, that I couldn’t accept the position. I certainly don’t envy a search committee working with these constraints. Thus, my story had a different ending than the one in the Slate article because the chair of the committee was up-front from the start (who knows if this was true for Nazareth or not), and I was realistic about my expectations before even interviewing (and thus not wasting my and their time).

At a personal level of sample size of 1, this is crazy. In many ways, I’m a great candidate 1 as I truly enjoy teaching, I’m relatively unambitious (that is, I enjoy doing work that pushes the frontiers of scientific knowledge but don’t give a hoot about seeing my name in Science or Nature), my research can be cheap, and I have a family that wouldn’t mind settling in a small town in the middle of nowhere. If they can’t convince me even to interview, who are they getting?? I know it’s a “buyer’s market” in academia but the aphorism buyer’s beware seems to apply here.

At a society level, this makes me concerned about the future of college education. Paying less than the starting salary for a high school teacher 2 in Vermont is not a good way to recruit ‘talent’ for a position that demands far more than your typical 40-hrs a week. The best PhD/postdocs are likely to take positions at R1 institutions where they must focus on getting grant money and research, and little attention is paid to teaching. Who is left to take these teaching positions at small colleges and universities? Will they be happy (and thus successful as teachers) in these positions for the 10-50 years that professors often persevere with the tenure-handcuffs?

And if you’re wondering where this leaves me…so do I. The good news is that my post-doc funding isn’t about to run out.

  1. Yes, I probably have an over-inflated self-worth but it’s validated everytime I come home to my kids and I give a damn about very few other people’s opinion (and if you’re reading this, you may be one of those people).

  2. By the way, I in now way mean to disparage the many great high school teachers out there who I think do amazing important work, but it doesn’t tend to require 5-6 years of PhD research, moving two or three times for the right post-doc, and then hoping that you get a job in the field you’ve trained for the past 8-10 years.

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