Monday, September 12, 2005

Counting Chickens

"What do you want another advanced degree for?" asked a friend, shaking his head and looking suspiciously at me as if I'd suddenly gone insane.

"I can't find a real job with my PhD, so I thought that maybe I should go back to school so I could do something. Else." I said flatly, hoping I didn't sound as disappointed as I felt. The truth was, I was trying to be positive about this, but my alternative plan to return to school did not appeal to me at all. I was convinced this was merely the hopeful (but expensive) prelude to yet more misery and failure. I paused for a minute, trying to think of something to add.

"You know, cut my losses so I could do something useful and financially rewarding with my life. For a change. Before I die." I finally gave up trying to think of something optimistic to say and stared glumly into my pint of beer, watching the bubbles expand as they rose quickly to the surface from the bottom of the glass.

I had been sporatically working on applications for both veterinary school and for a science writing master's program during the past three months. The problem with this alternative plan is that both veterinary medicine and science writing are jobs that lack financial security and the wages are at least as terrible as what I earn now as an Adjunct Professor. In short, I would not be changing my life at all; I would instead rack up a respectable debt load while redirecting my frustrations onto a different career path, a path that I would enjoy less than a career as a scientist. I felt trapped by the realization that by pursuing this route, I would be committing yet another life mistake: I should consider applying to law school instead. At least I had no illusions about actually liking the law, and I could put all my years of frustration, anger and poverty to good use by making CEOs miserable and poor.

Some days, I am convinced that I harbor a professional death wish that will prevent me from ever getting a real job in my field. For example, my latest bout of melancholy was triggered this past Friday after a well-respected college in the area called me and requested an interview for a full-time position that will become tenure-track at the beginning of autumn semester 2006. That position would start at the beginning of February 2006. I was one of three candidates whom they wished to interview for this position.

This was exactly the opportunity I had been struggling and hoping for all these years! While I listened to the caller, my heart began to beat faster and a warm grin spread across my face, feeling like the return of a long-lost friend. But my excitement lasted for only one heartbeat because the caller informed me that the interview was set up for Monday morning (this very morning, in fact) -- when I am teaching a class. I tried in vain to reschedule the interview but the caller refused because the search committee members were only available to meet candidates on this one day. Nothing I suggested was acceptable. Finally, I was so frustrated with this impossible situation that I found myself babbling idiotically about the verbal agreement to teach full-time for one year at my little school on the hill. I wanted to sound valuable to them, as if I was worth rescheduling this interview for.

Big mistake. As soon as I said that, the caller said she would withdraw my name from the interview process because, as she said, "what goes around comes around." I resisted the urge to tell her that this was the stupidest piece of mindless drivel that I'd ever heard, and that, if this anecdote was actually true, my life would be vastly different than it is today, that my life would never have sunk to the professional and personal depths it is now firmly mired in. I held my breath while I took a moment to think the worst about the caller.

The caller attempted to soften the letdown by saying that there will be plenty of chances to interview for a tenure-track position in the future, but this only served to make me angry. She was either lying or woefully deluded regarding the reality of the current situation in academics. I barely resisted the urge to correct her by pointing out that this would have been my first opportunity to simply interview for a tenure-track position after my two years, one month, one week, and three days of searching for a job and that, with my current success rate, I was more likely to be pushed in front of an onrushing subway train by a homeless man than I was to be hired for a real job.

Thankfully, the phone call ended without any embarassment to me. But I was so discouraged that I called my dissertation advisor who is three thousand miles away, hoping for some words of comfort or advice. But instead of talking with him, I found myself babbling once again, but this time I was stupidly trying to explain what had just happened in a one-sided conversation with his voicemail.

The moral of this story: Never count your chickens before they've hatched, and don't waste your energy by counting them after they've hatched either, especially when they turn out to be dragons.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

12 Peer Reviews:

Blogger thePsychologist said...

I guess it wouldn't have been possible to get a substitute or something like that..? :( :( I hope you don't feel to sad ;(

8:04 PM  
Blogger Tabor said...

What a crazy and complicated set of events. It really amazes me that the interview committee wasn't more flexible. I think your move toward a different approach in your field is a good idea. It is a compromise you may have to make.

6:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is wrong with the veterinary medical field? I know a young woman who recently graduated with a VMD degree and she is making almost as much money as I am. The only draw-back I could see is that it would involve another four years of training and more tution $$$.
Really, I just don't understand what is so freaking attractive about the life of a gypsy professor. Take a reality check here: the graybeards have entrenched themselves into academia. They have no plan to let anyone else have a place at the table. Unless you've won a noble prize.
My solution would be to scrap the whole tenure system. Scientists and engineers would be better off going to polytechnics. Instead, they get dumped into finishing schools for founcy lads that have been turned into Boston Universities.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't get down GirlScientist. I know plenty of PhDs who are very successful outside of academia. Saying an advanced degree makes life hard is a bit like me saying my beauty is such a burden!

If anything is holding you back I would respectively submit it's your very strict and narrow ideology. This narrow view of the world limits you to like-minded enclaves like academia. And of course law! - maybe that is a great idea.

Keep up the great blog.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sucks. Having spent some time pursuing the academic pipe-dream myself, I can sympathize. One could argue you should have skipped the class for the interview (left a note or whatever -- claim sickness or a family emergency), but it doesn't really sound like it was a serious tenure-track interview anyway, with the last-minute scheduling and inflexibility. Dunno ... was there any guarantee that the initial hire would be converted to tenure track in the fall, or might they have just run a new search?

What is there to say? Academic science: many called, few chosen. It's powered by a constant supply of idealistic and naive young people to do the work, most of whom won't end up getting long-term/permanent academic appointments. It's a pretty corrupt system, but I think it's been that way for a while.

If you want to continue to pursue the academic science route for a while, have you considered doing a second postdoc? That way you can continue to get research done, and there's a bit more security than semester-to-semester adjuncting (and also, usually, health insurance is available).

4:30 PM  
Blogger JLVEGAPI said...

Animo!!!!! ya vendran tiempos mejores. . .

6:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...many called, few chosen. It's powered by a constant supply of idealistic and naive young people to do the work...."

Which is also a description of the whole entertainment industry. So academia and Hollywood do have something in common.

8:22 AM  
Anonymous C. Corax said...

I'm late posting here, alas.

Sounds to me like they already had their minds made up for who they wanted and so could afford to be inflexible.

My favorite vet at the practice where I take my dogs, quit after some years to pursue her passion: research and writing.

Out here in this part of western Mass, when a vet turns up with knowledge of birds, they have an instant, huge clientele. So you could do worse. But the debt is a shame and unavoidable if you go back to school.

Since you already have a phd, you might find vet school easier than the average student would. Maybe you could go part time and work? Sounds exhausting, but poverty is exhausting.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous miz_geek said...

I know it sounds like a platitude, but if they're such jerks about scheduling the interview, imagine what it would be like *working* with them. You're better off. Truly.

As far as actual advice, I don't know what to tell you. I'm a bird fan who's married to a PhD in History who amazingly got a tenure-track job this year (after a year of adjuncting and two years of a post-doc). So, it can happen. But I can think of plenty of his fellow grad students who are out of academia or adjuncting/visiting. Heh. I'd thought it was better in the sciences.

One last story to maybe make you feel better: for the other on-campus interview the spouse had, they offered the position to the other guy, and when he turned it down, they cancelled the search rather than offer him the job. And you know what? We are much better off without them.

12:30 PM  
Blogger James said...

Hey ... I didn't track this when you posted it mostly because I was too busy trying to track my own life in the last few weeks.

Listen, to be honest, I think you were being set up as interview fodder. Yeah, they shortlisted you to three people, but my guess is that they had already decided who they were going to choose and it wasn't going to be you. They needed enough bodies going through the ringer to show that they at least gave the appearance of trying to be open and fair, but they had already made their selection. If they really, truly wanted you as a viable prospect for for the job they would never have put upon you such impossible conditions to get to the interview. You don't tell someone you're really looking to get when they should show up for the job, you try to arrange for a mutually convenient time to accommodate all concerned. The interview committee has to be members of the faculty and that faculty members would be THAT locked into their schedules that they couldn't accommodate more than one interview astounds me and speaks for a college that's either very fortunate with its choice of candiates and when they set up interviews, or is otherwise playing some sort of game here. I hope I'm wrong, but the attitude of the person you were talking to speaks to me of someone who wasn't nearly as interested in you as her lack of empathy/sympathy would seem to infer.

I've said it before, and I'll belabor the point but again, but I think eventually something will come through for you. Keep plugging, keep the faith (as hard as this is to do very often), and keep your eyes open - yeah, like you really need me to tell you any of this. Bottom line, I have faith in you and that you'll likely come by something in time, and I hope that's worth something to you.

5:06 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words. I am not as depressed about this as I was, although I am still upset by how it was handled. I did receive several notices from readers (in email) recently regarding job openings, so I will grit my teeth and apply to those, hoping of course, that something good comes of it.


1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you considered consulting? You can start out at with good money, most likely find work related to your field, have job security, often flexible hours, and work on a variety of projects to keep yourself interested. You also won't need any other schooling.

4:31 PM  

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