Sunday, May 22, 2005


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

21 Peer Reviews:

Blogger Tabor said...

I just can't help thinking (mother's intuition) that the cat is out of the bag and these people know your blog. Your blog shows you as an intelligent, hardworking, and honorable person. Someone figured this out and therefore realized you would be an asset to their instition. It's a guess and I am only telling you this so that you are CAREFUL with your blogging.

5:24 PM  
Blogger mallarme said...

Indeed. A writing adjunct at SMU was recently not-renewed when her blog was discovered:

Obviously, a somewhat different situation, but similar enough to take some care.

6:57 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Hi Tabor .. you are correct and I will admit freely to serious misgivings about writing this entry. I was being somewhat disingenuous myself when I said it was taking me a lot of time to write because I was ill. The truth is that I was afraid my judgment was impaired by my illness so I wanted to think about it a little longer before publishing this here. I finally decided that I have said nothing bad about my future employer, that anything "bad" that I have said about them reflects my own limitations/stupidity rather than anything negative about my future employer.

I hope this is apparent in what I write, too because I feel such tremendous joy when I think of this school and the opportunity it represents and the sacred trust that they are making by investing in furthering my career. And the Dept Chair is everything I could wish for, despite my intense skepticism going in to the interview.

Wow, Mallarme, that blog is truly interesting. I assume there was more there than what I am now seeing now, correct? (I see two months of entries).

If I had remained employed where I am now, I am certain I would have started a second public blog to deal with my frustrations with the job (they don't pay well enough that I can afford valium, instead), but I would have protected my true identity by inventing a false "secret" identity to blog under, rather than using a couple cute pseudonyms (because after all, nothing is truly secret any more, is it?).


7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, just as some of your previous ones. I agree with tabor that reading your blog must make people want to employ you. Just so you know: a couple of weeks I got curious who you were, and it didn't take me long to find out. Just put some of your previous work information together, and if you know NYC you can figure it out and find your other webpage (which hasn't been updated 11/15/2003). So you see it is possible.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Well, that is absolutely great news.

In this post and in several others you talk about how you ask fellow adjunct professors at the college you currently teach at about the universities you're applying to, and the adjuncts tell you how good they are. I'd be under the impression that after applying to so many universities you'd know that yourself fairly well, certainly not less than the other adjuncts.

On another note, I have to disagree with Tabor here. If the department chair who gave you this attractive offer had found you before you wrote this post, she would probably not have recognized you. You got the job offer on your own merit, not on your blog's. Further, if the department chair had found your blog and recognized you, wouldn't she have asked in the interview something like, "You're the person who maintains Living the Scientific Life, right?"?

4:40 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Hi anonymous .. it's true, I am not difficult to find on the web, but I don't want to belabor the point.

Hi Alon .. it's great to see you again. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I am not very familiar with the quality of the schools on the east coast, except Columbia and NYU, so I am learning by interviewing. I am a skeptic when it comes to claims of greatness made by schools so unless someone who knows tells me about the quality of a particular school, I don't know.

I am not sure what the Department Chair's reaction would have been if she knew that I write this blog. At first, I thought that nothing would happen, but last night after I got home, I read a story about the unintended effects of blogs in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That story gave me nightmares. After reading that story, I began to wonder if the ease of discovering my identity is a liability that could eventually destroy my career.

This morning, I am trying not to think about it. Today, I have a final exam to write, papers to deliver to the school and an interview to conduct.


7:27 AM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Hedwig you are a wonderful writer and heroine of your own life story. I don't think the fact of its diaristic reality is what make your blog so engaging. It is the quality of your perceptions and your loving maintainance of them as you tender them into script.

Spring is a wonderful time of gifts and I would thank you for your having delivered the clench of the professional embrace that has been clasped about your being. What crispness of clarity to see yourself in the lens of those who would treasure and find enrichment in your intellectual quality.

The Dickensian tone is gripping. It would seem that you worked hard and achieved distintcion. I hope that the inheritance to come from this has truly been wrenched from poor keepers and been safely delivered into worthy hands.


7:48 AM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Hedwig may fly to roost and leave her readers pining. Proffessional engagement and its dignities may damp the howl of winds that have blown her through the ethernet.

8:09 AM  
Blogger James said...

I am so happy I was able to contribute to your ease of mind with a latte --- a long-distance good deed, how cool!

I'm very happy to read this, I can't beging to tell you. Great!

Now as for this:

"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!!"

Please, oh please do pursue this. Take this bastards for every penny you can get, but do it with a smile and not a trace of anything suggesting you're rubbing their noses in their lack of ethics and their fundamental base treatment of someone who was desperately looking for work. This is inexcusable, uncalled for, and merits punishment, but at this point the main thing is for you to get the money owed you by these people and from there getting on with your life.

Again, I'm very happy for you --- I knew you'd make it eventually so long as you kept moving forward as you were. Feels way cool to be verified!

11:18 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

The one advantage of anonymity is that to know who you are one needs to spend time looking for you. People who just sweep your blog once in a while won't bother looking for your identity unless it's obvious.

Even if you do get outed, you're not in much danger. The way you sound, your current employer isn't going to stay your employer for much longer, and you haven't dissed anyone else who has power over you. You're not in the same situation as, say, Botanical Girl, who has repeatedly bashed her PI on her blog.

On an unrelated note, I've been stuck on page 51 of Midnight's Children for weeks. So far it's like the beginning of The Tin Drum, only much worse. The extreme non-linearity of the plot, at least in the parts I've read, makes it very hard to follow and understand.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

I am so happy to read this post. You are deserving of all the praise being heaped upon you. Your dedication and consummate professionalism are finally being noticed.
Just think what you will be able to accomplish without the threat of poverty breathing at your neck all the time. What you've achieved under the most dire of circumstances is truly a testament to your strength and character. So imagine the future with some security, and how much that will free you to soar.
You rock.

5:45 PM  
Anonymous parrotslave said...


So happy to hear that your perseverance is paying off.

This or something better!

7:44 PM  
Blogger Mike the Mad Biologist said...

I'm glad to hear things are getting better for you!

7:17 PM  
Blogger Deodand said...

I'm curious as to where one acquires brambles in New York City :)


10:38 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks Bill for your kind words. You make me wonder if you are perhaps a poet or other literary type yourself?

James .. you are one of my blog pals who makes the blogging effort so worthwhile. The fact that I have people like you who check in on me (and buy me lattes, yum!) is a reward that far exceeds anything I expected.

I can hardly wait to get my lost wages (I should say, my landlord can hardly wait to get my lost wages!) Hopefully, getting them will provide an adventure that is worth writing a blog entry about, but probably not. I was given the name of a person in HR who I will talk to tomorrow (when I am on campus to file grades). A five minute conversation might be sufficient to resolve the issue.

Hi Alon! I do try to be careful on my blog, which accounts for most of the lag times (and rewrites after publishing) for essays that appear here. I want to tell my stories, but I also want to be true to myself while simultaneously remaining as true as I can to the objective truth of the situation. Of course, I am human and I have the capacity to act like a dumbass, too.

I have never read Midnight's Children but I have been reading The Tin Drum for one year. Er, more than one year, but less than two years. I haven't gotten far enough in the Tin Drum to enact my "100 page rule" so I struggle onwards. I would have given up on the Tin Drum on page 27 or so (I found the character intriguing, initially .. I mean, who wouldn't be intrigued by a crazy person who speaks by tapping out rhythms on a tin drum?) because the author won some sort of literary prize that indicates he might be a literary genius .. I am hoping that the genius of this writing becomes apparent to me by page 100.

Speaking of books that I am currently reading .. I am reading The Grail Bird for ther second time and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the 10th time (or is it 11 now?). I am getting ready to reread the entire Lord of the Rings epic for my bedtime book and to read some books about evolution for my subway literature.

Hi RD! I am so happy that I can tell you about something good that is happening for me finally. Lots of despair and sleepless nights later, here we all are, and me, with a promising job, too!

Thanks parrotslave, Mike and Deodand for your kind wishes. By the way, Deodand, there are brambles (of the blackberry variety) located in every empty lot in NYC .. I know the phrase "empty lot" and "NYC" are counterintuitive, but there you have it! There are more empty lots in NYC than you might imagine!


2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats... It's great that you have found a school that you would be happy to work for and they want you. ~ Alison

4:03 PM  
Blogger P.M.Bryant said...

Contratulations and good luck on this new opportunity!

5:40 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

About The Tin Drum, have you reached the part where Oskar decides to stop growing? That is where the book really starts. The best parts are in the middle, which describes the Nazi rule. Don't let the fact that Günter Grass won the Nobel Prize in Literature largely for The Tin Drum intimidate you, though - I thought The Old Man and the Sea was pointless even though it won Hemingway the Nobel Prize.

7:42 AM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Alon, I have reached the part of the story where Oskar decides to stop growing. I guess I'll have to give that book another, more attentive, reading -- after I finish reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, first!

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey do you think you should update your "profile"? :)

And I also wanted to say yes, please be careful with the blogging

10:37 PM  

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