A couple days ago, I said I would tell you about my most recent job interview that occurred last Thursday. I am writing this story mainly because it illuminates so many things, and also because it is the most positive experience I've had so far interviewing for an academic position. It also is a rather peculiar story, or so I think. The short story is that the interview went well -- to my great surprise -- and I also learned a lot, especially about Sweatshop U.
In response to my "shotgun" job application methodology that I am now thinking of patenting, I had been contacted by this particular school a little more than two weeks ago regarding an interview. The Chair of the Biology Department called and spent a fair amount of time asking questions that vaguely annoyed me such as "you've certainly worked a lot of different jobs, haven't you?" and "why doesn't your current employer keep you?" and "I don't understand why no one has hired you yet."
By the time that first conversation ended, I was tense and cranky. And I was still sick, too. In fact, the day before my scheduled interview with this school, I was still quite ill so I cancelled it because the two-hour each way commute was so daunting. But more than that, I didn't want to interview there because I could not imagine trying to rebuild my shaky self-esteem while working under a Department Chair who was so unaware of the current job market. I did not ask to reschedule the interview for a later date.
I hoped that my interview cancellation would make this school go away. But it seemed to increase their resolve: the Department Chair pursued me relentlessly, calling several times per week, first to reschedule our interview and then to ask more questions. After the fourth phone call, I was convinced that she was accusing me of some sort of misrepresentation when she asked for yet another explanation for my "unusual" work history -- a history that I thought attested to my resourcefulness and determination to remain in science despite all the hardships I'd faced. I felt a particularly uncomfortable jab of pain behind my eyes when she suggested that a car would make commuting easier. I was certain that she was misrepresenting the situation, as Sweatshop U had done, when she claimed that working for her school would be a great opportunity. In short, I dreaded the interview. Finally, she contacted my postdoc advisor and asked him the same series of questions that she had subjected me to.
Meanwhile, even though I was still sick, I was interviewing with other, much closer, schools, scrambling to locate that elusive summer job that might pay my rent through the beginning of autumn semester, when I had two Adjunct job offers, both of which I intended to accept. Even though I was so ill, I felt I had to interview because, according to my fellow Adjuncts, summer positions are very difficult to get, even for returning summer Adjuncts. Because of this scarcity of summer jobs and the likelihood that I would not be hired, I also planned to apply for welfare and food stamps to help pay some of my bills after my Unemployment Benefits ended this summer.
The evening before this interview was to take place, I casually mentioned it to my fellow Adjuncts. A silence suddenly fell over the room. I looked up from the stack of papers that I was grading and saw them all staring at me.
"Wow, that's really impressive," the retired government microbiologist said finally. "They're a very good school."
Surprised, I told them the remainder of the story and concluded by saying that I didn't want that job because the commute was too long, the Department Chair was out of touch with the realities of the job market, I thought she lacked tact and I was tired of trying to explain my work record to her.
"Hey, they don't pursue anyone -- they don't have to pursue anyone, especially for an Adjunct position -- and they are pursuing you," commented another of my fellow Adjuncts. "You should take this interview very seriously."
My fellow Adjuncts have never steered me wrong so, despite my misgivings about the situation, I followed their advice: I took the interview seriously. I prepared for the interview for the remainder of the evening, hoping that my efforts would be good enough despite my late start.
The next day, I wore the best outfit I own, a silver-grey silk suit with thin white pinstripes and a white-on-white striped blouse. I had saved my money for months and purchased this suit almost one year ago (at a substantial discount), in the hopes that I would soon be using it for interviewing. This was the last piece of clothing I bought before my funding ended and this was the first time I've worn it. I looked great, even if I must say so myself.
The next morning, I sat on a speeding subway train, clutching my black TravelPro briefcase in my hand while reading and rereading the meticulous notes I had made the previous evening about each faculty member's interests and research. Occasionally, I looked at my reflection in the subway windows, readjusting the collar of my blouse ... should I wear it outside or inside of my suit collar? I couldn't remember which way was proper. I tried not to be nervous and even though I never truly get lost, I suddenly had visions of my fellow Adjuncts sending out a search party a week later to find me, lost and hungry, brambles tangled in my hair, somewhere in the wilds of NYC.
Despite my misgivings, I made it to campus without a problem. Because I typically budget "getting lost time" into my travel plans, I arrived early, in fact. Sipping on a latte (thanks, James!), I wandered the halls of the Science Building, admiring display cases full of rocks from all over the world and dozens of topological maps of the area, each stretching fifty feet down the hallways. Judging from the science building alone, this was the best school I've interviewed with.
I arrived 20 minutes early in the Biology Office, where the secretary was in a heated telephone conversation with a woman who was demanding that her daughter be registered for a summer biology course that was closed. At some point in the conversation, the caller revealed that she was a state judge.
"That doesn't change the fact that the course is closed!" The secretary stated flatly in her Long Island (Lon-Goy-Lan?) accent. I liked the secretary immediately.
The Department Chair appeared and invited me into her spacious office.
"I spoke with your Postdoctoral Advisor and he had a lot of good things to say about you," she said as soon as I had sat down. I was pleasantly surprised and relaxed a little bit. The conversation evolved from there. In fact, we talked about science for two and a half hours. It was fun and interesting and I was pleased to discover that the Department Chair was a woman whom I could easily respect and admire and with whom I would happily learn from and work under. Honestly, I was astonished to realize that I had misjudged her so badly -- I have never misjudged anyone so erroneously before. And to think that I almost blew off this interview as a result! I am still puzzled by this egregious error, and the only explanation I can arrive at is the combination of my long illness with a telephone interview (I hate telephones) seriously impaired my judgment.
"We want to hire you," the Department Chair said soon after I went into her office and she repeated this several times during the interview. Much to my intense relief, I was offered a year long Adjunct Assistant Professor of Biology position so I will not have to constantly look for work for the following semesters.
The Department Chair informed me that they are opening up a search for a tenure-track position in evolutionary biology and she wants me to apply for it. Since there are only two or three tenure-track positions available in this field each year, I think it is very unlikely that I will get it, but her confidence that I could get it was inspiring and exhilarating.
She then advised me to develop collaborations with the faculty so I could get my name on a few more papers. This astonished me because Adjuncts are never provided such opportunities, according to my sources and experiences. She also told me about a "teaching postdoc" that she wants me to apply for because she wants me to stay there (in the event that I am not hired for their tenure-track position? She never stated that, but I assume so). This postdoc provides two years of funding, one year for research and the other year for teaching. This truly is a great opportunity because they are obviously willing to invest time and resources into helping me develop my career further. I fell silent, too overwhelmed to speak.
It all sounded too good to be true, but she seems to be a person who would not misrepresent the situation nor her intentions. Perhaps to help build my trust or maybe to reassure me that she was sincere, the Department Chair showed me the current wage scale and stated that my wages at Sweatshop U are $10.79 below union minimum for an Adjunct with a PhD, that I was in fact being paid the union minimum for an instructor with a Bachelor's degree. She was very concerned that I should claim my lost wages by filing a grievance with the union. Of course, I would be insane not to pursue this: this sum of lost wages is sufficient to pay my rent for two months!!
I was quiet because I was stunned by everything, especially by this last revelation. I didn't bother mentioning that I had told Sweatshop U's Science Department Chair that I was barely scraping by on unemployment when he hired me, that despite knowing this, he turned in my paperwork so late that I went six weeks without any income at all, and ended up paying rent with my credit card and mooching food and metrocards from friends so I could get to work. Adding this insult to that very real financial injury made my blood run cold. I realized that Sweatshop U's Chair is probably as untrustworthy and unethical in all his endeavors, especially in his science, as he was when dealing with me when I was so vulnerable.
Later that same day, I went to Sweatshop U to pick up some papers that describe the desired format for the final exam, and I saw the Department Chair. He pretended not to notice me even though I could see surprise in his eyes (surprise that I was dressed so well? That I was there on a vacation day?).
"Hello," I smiled quietly at him, cheerfully imagining that he had been discredited as a scientist and spends his nights sleeping on a park bench. His dark bushy eyebrows gathered together into a giant furry unibrow as he ignored me and walked away without even a backward glance.
© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist