Saturday, September 24, 2005

Thoughts about the Job Search

Readers who know that I am seeking a job often email me to ask; "Would you leave NYC if you were offered a job elsewhere?"

The answer, of course, is yes. The fact is that I am no stranger to long-distance relocations. Almost exactly three years ago, I made my biggest relocation so far when I moved from Seattle to NYC to pursue my postdoctoral research. This adventure took me 3,000 miles away from the West Coast of the United States to a part of the country where I'd never been before. Unfortunately, it also required me to sell my entire breeding flock of lories (many of whom I had raised myself from chicks) because I could not find a place to keep them all, despite seven months of persistent long-distance searching. Interestingly, even though I'd never mentioned it, all of my dissertation committee members were well aware of my love for my birds and, knowing that I was leaving for NYC ten days after my defense, they were quite concerned about what I was going to do with them and how I might cope with this loss.

To be honest, when they asked, I pretended that it didn't affect me emotionally because I was eager to prove to everyone (including myself) that I was willing to do whatever was necessary to pursue my career. It's not like my birds are real people, I reminded myself in those days, thinking that was what everyone else wanted to tell me if they could only do so without offending me. Besides, properly keeping my flock represented a lot of work and it would be nice to be free of the responsibility and commitment. Or so I thought.

But because I am a scientist, I underestimated my capacity to love birds: in fact, birds are my number one occupational hazard. Somehow, they manage to transform themselves into family and friends, so the loss of my flock of birds was the most enduringly painful sacrifice I ever made for my career, a sacrifice that I was not sure I could make and one that I wish to never make again. Even today, I miss them all terribly and every day, I wonder if I made a mistake by giving them all up.

Fortunately, I did manage to keep a few pet parrots, most of whom are a rare lory species that I raised myself. Living with these (comparatively few) birds generally helps me cope with this bigger loss, although .. although .. .

Despite the fact that I wish to keep my few birds with me, I do apply for faculty positions overseas. In fact, driven by my deep sense of disillusionment and disenfranchisement that developed during my past year of un(der)employment, I am more inclined to relocate overseas than I am to move to many places in the United States -- provided of course, that I can bring my birds with me.

That said, I once was willing to live anywhere simply for the pleasure of studying my birds. However, I am tired of relocating and because my next move might be my last, I find that I am no longer willing to relocate to "just anywhere". I know from experience that I would be emotionally and socially lost if I could not live with birds. I would be miserable without access to a nearby natural area where I could go bird (and bug) watching. I would be depressed if I was unable to participate as an essential and respected member in my new community. I would end up isolated if I could not find a local watering hole where I could hang out with my neighbors and talk about politics, science, nature, college football and life in general. And of course, I'd need to live near a college or university campus because I want to be close to the academic life since that is the only life I ever excelled at, the only life that I feel comfortable living. Because I don't own a car and don't wish to, I want to live in a community with good public transit, and where I can commute on my bicycle without fearing for life and limb. The community to where I relocate would also have to respect my agnosticism, my socially liberal politics combined with fiscal conservativism, my obvious environmentalism. The combination of all of these qualities seem impossible expectations to meet, don't you think dear readers? Am I too picky? Is there a place for me out there somewhere, or should I plan to only consider living in expensive (but socially familiar) metropoli such as New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, Tokyo or London for the remainder of my life?

These musings make me wonder about the bigger picture: how much sacrifice should one make for his or her career? Which sacrifices are simply "too much"? How does one know when a sacrifice is too much to make? Have any of you, dear readers, figured out a formula or method that helps you make these difficult choices? How did you figure this formula out? Could you share your secrets with me?

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

10 Peer Reviews:

Anonymous miz_geek said...

Honestly? I wouldn't have thought of those five cities as places that meet those criteria. I can think of a lot of places that would fit. Most college towns, for instance (off hand, Ann Arbor, Madison, Minneapolis are all great towns.)

Anyway, your needs don't seem unusual at all. And many of them seem more neighborhood-related than metropolitan-area related. The local watering hole and community participation parts, especially. Most places are what you make of them.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Dawn said...

Well no secrets from me. But the hurricanes down south made me think again what if? If I had to evacuate and could not take my dogs with me? would I go? I am responsible to know one but myself and my husband, no children, just dogs, 3 ancient sheep and the wild birds that I feed 24/7. We were in a bad shape the end of summer this and last year due to over dry woods and grass. I had to make a plan to evacuate, but again the dog next door? A 90lb lab, after filling my van with my dogs where in the hell would I put him?
The point is everyone has to take care of himself the best way he can. I cannot sit in judgment on what anyone can or cannot do in a given situation (not my job). You do what you can with what you have. You learn and you do better next time. Do not beat yourself up over your past decisions, hindsight is always 20/20.
You are a smart women, you will make the right decision when the time comes. Try not to be so hard on yourself. You are a good person.


1:13 AM  
Anonymous Leah said...

I agree. Lots of smaller schools could fit your criteria. I'm sure you are looking a lot of places for job searches (side note: where do people look for jobs once they have a bio PhD? I'm applying to start my PhD program next year.) But have you been looking at small schools? You might look for a small, liberal arts type school -- many of them seem to be located in little college towns that are close to nature. Offhand, you should check out Whitman, Sweet Briar, Linfield, etc etc. I'd suggest Pacific University (my alma mater), but we just hired two new biology professors, so I doubt there will be an opening for awhile.

Also, would you go somewhere if it meant you didn't just study birds? Would you go if you could lecture general bio, perhaps anat/phys, and an ornithology class?

The sacrifices that are too much are those that pain you, like giving up your birds. Sacrifices that aren't too much are ones you can live with (say, monetary, or living in a part of the country you don't *love*). Only you can determine which "sacrifices" are worth it and which ones aren't. For me, being across the country from my family may not be worth it, which I'm bearing in mind in my grad school search. I suppose the best formula would be to sit down and list what you might sacrifice by applying to different places . . . but it's time consuming. Still, it will help you determine if you could bear to live in that place. For example, must the town you live in have a good thai restaurant? Can you live w/o it if one is nearby? What if one isn't?

I wish you lots of luck in your job search. I know it's been a long, grinding haul . . . but it's not done until you're settled in. Just keep at it :-)

10:19 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Let me expand a bit on what Leah said: where exactly have you applied to? If I remember correctly, you said you'd applied to 300 positions. But how spread out in terms of location and type of institution (liberal arts college, major research university, etc.)?

Plus, how many of these 300 were actually hiring? I'm at least 5 years away from this chaos, so obviously I'm not informed about the viability of your shotgun method, but from what I've gathered from Ms. Ph.D.'s blog, it doesn't work. Is it possible that your difficulty in finding a job is compounded by the fact that you're not focusing your applications on institutions that are hiring?

3:30 PM  
Blogger Lucia Malla said...

I read you always, but never commented. Time to show up.
I live my life as a "basic tripod": personal, professional and arts. That's my "formula", full os variables and assumptions, but it's still the way I see life.
To keep the tripod standing, the 3 must be in the same level. If I give up everything for a career, the tripod would not be standing, because my inner feelings about art and about my personal life will be cut. So, everytime I make a sacrifice in one of the areas, I try to compensate the others, so the tripod is still standing.
I don't know if this works for everybody - it has been working for me though. Hope you find your answers. :)

8:36 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

miss geek and Dawn: thanks.

Leah: job searching with the PhD is more of an art than a science, I've found. I have 42 websites that I check for jobs in my field, but I also rely on word of mouth, my infamous "shotgun method" (described more below) and yes, even this blog. I have been applying at lots of small schools, none of whom I'd heard about before I started to write my cover letter for them.

By the way, one of my cooking specialities is Thai cuisine, so that problem has been solved. Well, sorta. I do need practice.

Alon: For the past two years, all my applications were in response to job ads. I applied to everything I could find in ornithology and everything I am qualified for in evolution and molecular/cellular biology (This year, I am not very eager for multitudes of rejection letters so my application rate is significantly reduced). I have also applied for some physiology (endocrinology) positions. "Everything" includes colleges with 1000 or so students all the way up to major universities with on-campus student bodies of, oh .. approximately 40,000 students. I have applied in the USA and overseas. The overseas countries where I've applied include Europe and the South Pacific, and even a few colleges in Asia and the Middle East, although I did refuse to apply to one ME college that might have hired me it became obvious that I needed some sort of bodyguard to simply live in the community.

Contrary to Ms PhD's experience, my "shotgun" method of applying for a job was the most successful method that I've used so far. Of course, this was only successful for my local metro area, and it was an act of desperation since my next disaster (homelessness) was staring me in the face. I simply sent out a bunch of applications to all local universities and colleges with a biology or science department that I could get to using public transit, whether or not they were hiring. This crazy stunt netted me several dozen interviews and subsequent job offers. Sure, those offers were all part-time Adjunct positions that pay abysmally, but at least I could pay my rent (while moonlighting as a pet care provider covers the rest of my expenses). This "shotgun" method of applying for jobs also managed to get three telephone interviews for a tenure-track position -- better than the result of those other applications that I wasted so much time and effort on!

My current position, which is full-time temp (not tenure-track), is the result of that "shotgun" methodology, in fact. I did get lucky when I accepted a part-time Adjunct position at a really good local college that then decided to hire me full-time for the 2005 academic year. But if I hadn't used that method to find a job -- any job -- well, who knows which street corner I'd be sleeping on today?

Lucia Malla: it's good to see you commenting here! I like your philosophy of life. I can already see that I have sacrificed those other aspects of my life for my career because at the time, I thought that I would eventually be able to recover those other parts of myself. Unfortunately, I am farther away than I ever have been from achieving that, with the added insult of not having a worthwhile career, either! But in a way, I am a product of where I came from. Graduate school tends to reward those of us who are singularly focused on career, although some of people manage to graduate with an intact "tripod". How they manage to do that, I don't know, since I was one of the people who gave up everything in quest of the impossible. (of course, I never minded sacrificing everything, except my birds, because I sincerely love what I do, mostly to the exclusion of all else anyway. I just never thought that I would end up in the situation I am currently in, that's all.)

Thanks everyone for your comments, You've given me a lot to think about.


2:54 PM  
Blogger Tabor said...

First, I agree with prior bloggers that your needs are not all that strange. In terms of sacrifices, I guess I was always stupid and lucky. I just jumped at moves and decided to worry about it later. I had regrets then, but now when I look back on it with perspective I feel they were good experiences even with some regrets. I do remember one job I absolutely hated with horrible dysfunctional people and I am so sorry I wasn't more proactive to getting out of that.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous miz_geek said...

Wow. I hadn't realized it was that bad in the sciences. My experience (through the spouse) is in history, where there is a huge over-supply of PhD's compared to tenure-track jobs (and people would moan to each other, "why didn't I go into biology?").

And the sad thing is, many qualified historians I know have left academia. They do computer programming, teach in private schools, and work for the federal goverment among other things. I guess the thing to figure out is what skills you have that are generalizable and transferable (if that's the way you want to go).

A lot of the job search stuff is just luck. I will say, however, that if you had no teaching experience before adjuncting, this year's adjuncting should help.

Also, yeah, the shotgun method is how most people get adjunct/visiting jobs. A tenure-track position is one thing, but if the start of the semester is looming and they need someone to teach Intro to Biology (or whatever), an unsolicited CV from someone wanting to Adjunct would probably be most welcome.

Anyway, continued luck.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Humour and last laugh said...


9:16 AM  
Blogger Ranger of the West said...

I can somewhat relate to your wanting to relocate to the right place. I grew up in the hot sunshine but ended up moving to Wisconsin two years ago to start a M.S. program. I never imagined living outside of the West Coast/Southwest. Once I finished my M.S. I told myself I was going to move back West. But I found a great opportunity in Ithaca. Its 3000 miles away from my family and friends and I'm not sure how I'm going to handle the gray, cold winter. Its hard how to calculate what sacrifices to make for a career.

11:46 PM  

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