Play the Game – Part 2

In my last blog post, I talked about my experience searching for my first assistant professor job, and talked about being on a search committee. I left off describing how the process was like a game, except that as a candidate, you don’t get to play the whole game. All of that changes as Department Chair.

As Department Chair, I now get to play the game from start to finish, and the game looks REALLY different. The game has seemingly different instructions and is far more stressful than it ever was before. So here’s what the whole game looks like, from the seat I now sit in.

The game starts when you have to write the job posting. Well, that is, after you’ve received approval from the Dean to have the search, who in turn received approval from the Provost. Who probably asked God’s permission… The job posting has to sound appealing to applicants and must differentiate your position from the possibly hundreds of others out there. I’ve always felt fortunate when interviewing to be in a field in which there are still so many job opportunities, but now I just see it as more competition for good candidates! If we’re interviewing good people, the competition is also interviewing these folks… and what if other institutions started earlier? What if they have more money available to attract top candidates? Might they snatch up our candidate before we even get a chance to interview him/her? What if they take our “perfect fit”?

Perfection-Board-Game

Next, you have to choose a search committee. This is the group of faculty (and sometimes staff and students) who you are entrusting to make important decisions on behalf of the Department in a timely fashion. They put in a lot of time reviewing CVs, publications, letters of reference, and personal statements, and from a lot of candidates. They are the first line of defense, often having the first contact with the candidates. It is not a trivial commitment of time or effort. The search committee must represent the diversity of the department in every sense of the word. I am currently in a department that comprises two disciplines, so the difficulty in finding the right balance of faculty is compounded.

 
After the search committee reviews all of the applications, the committee then typically does 30 minute Skype/phone pre-interviews with a subset of the applicants – sometimes as many as 20, which can help narrow down the pool to thoroulettese that have real interest in our Department, who have good communication skills, and who ask well thought out questions. Based on these initial contacts, the committee then determines who will be invited for an on-campus interview.

On-campus interviews are a time-intensive endeavor for the departmental faculty: there are meals to be had, individual meetings to be had, seminars to attend. Also, someone has to organize the troops and make sure all travel, scheduling and room arrangements are made (shout out to the BEST STAFF EVER). As the Department Chair, I spend a lot of time with each candidate. I try to see the candidate at the beginning of their visit, so that I can provide them with the context they need to appropriately evaluate us. I give them a guided tour of their itinerary, so that they have a good knowledge of who everyone is and how they fit into the Department. I go to their 20-questionsseminar, and I have to pay better attention than I’ve ever had to pay during a talk before. I want to be able to really evaluate their ability to explain their research, but even more, I want to be able to evaluate their ability to answer questions (which means I have to be able to formulate an intelligent question). The seminar is extremely important – not only does it give us some indication of the candidate’s research abilities, it also give us some idea of how they would be in the classroom. I also like to meet with the candidates at the end of the day to recap their visit, answer any lingering questions they may have, and let them know our timeline and next steps as best I can. Because I spend so much time with them, I get to know them quite well.

And then it gets even more difficult. We have to make a decision. If we’re lucky, we’ve had several outstanding candidates visit, and now we have to try to figure out who has the highest chance of being successful in our Department. The search committee collects feedback, makes a recommendation to me, and it is my responsibility to decide who uno-cardsreceives our first offer. This is tricky – we may be competing with other department for the same candidates. Some already have offers pending by the time they receive our offer. Also, I have to reconcile the recommendations of the search committee with my opinions, which may or may not coincide. We have a shared goal of moving the Department forward and bringing in faculty who we think will be successful, but we may have different views on who could best contribute to our mission. I don’t want to do wrong by Department, and I feel like a have a great responsibility to them, but I also don’t want to do wrong by the candidates. I want to ensure we’re hiring a candidate who has a high probability of being successful in our Department.

The hardest part of this process for me is telling candidates that we are NOT going to offer them a job. I know, and I hope the candidates know, that just because we’re not offering them a job doesn’t mean that they weren’t outstanding. Because I spend a lot of time with the candidates, I get to know them and often become quite fond of them, and so I want to see them all be successful. And while I recognize that it is strictly a business transaction, the lines between business and friendship can be blurred. This is especially true in my field, which is a very small world, and often friends are applying to positions in my Department. I know I will see the candidates again at conferences and will encounter them in other venues, so I want to be sure that I build bridges regardless of whether I hire them.

All of that being said, it is definitely exciting to be able to make a job offer to someone At the same time, it is scary! What if they don’t like us enough, what if we don’t offer enough money, what if they “swipe left”? There are so many different emotions at play. When I get on the phone with a candidate I’ve just made an offer to, I’m guessing that I’m just as nervous as they are! Is the candidate going to tell me that they have another offer – a better offer? Are there unknowns that I hadn’t thought of? Maybe there are collaborators I should have introduced them to around the University that would have made our Department more attractive? If they’re a senior recruit, we need to determine whether they are eligible for tenure at our institution, a whole process in and of itself. Maybe they also have a two-body problem? Perhaps they’re worried about finding good schools for their children? What if the Provost doesn’t approve the offer we want to make? While I’m hoping that we find a new faculty member that we can help grow and succeed, I have to remember that each faculty candidate has their own definition of fit, and we may not be it.

And then… game ogame overver, because our candidate has accepted our offer. Or is it? If the first offer doesn’t work out, it’s back to the drawing board. Again, hopefully we’ve interviewed several outstanding candidates. If we’re fortunate, the next outstanding candidate on our list has not yet accepted another position. So the game starts again. What will this candidate need to be successful? Will we be able to attract him or her? Will the Provost approve this letter? So many things to think about, so many rules to the game, and they are always changing.

Ultimately, we all hope to win the game. To me, a win means that not only did we hire someone, we hired someone who will be an asset to the Department, and to whom the Department will be an asset. The process is long, expensive, and exhausting. It is a lot of fun, but also fraught with emotion. But like with any game, you can’t win if you don’t play!

 

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Play the Game – Part 1

In Pennsylvania, deer hunting season opens in October. This is a big deal if you’re a hunter (I’m not), something you’ve looked forward to all year. It’s also a big deal if you’re a hiker (I am) – you’d better be careful to wear your hunter orange when you go for a walk in the woods, you don’t want to get mistaken for a buck.

hunter-orange-shirt

In academics, around the same time, recruiting seasons opens. This is the time when bright-eyed and bushy tailed graduate students and post-docs look for their dream job, and where departments seek to fill a coveted tenure-track position. It’s a little bit of a hunt, a little bit like match-making, a little bit of a game, and a lot of stress. I’ve gone through the process as a job candidate, a search committee member, and now as a Department chair, and I can tell you that this academic match making, this process of finding a perfect fit, of finding a 10-point buck looks very different depending on where you sit.

gameoflifeOnce upon a time, there was a younger, wiser version of me. In my late 20s, I’d been in school for a very long time, and on the verge of finally graduating for my last time. My husband and I had a baby about 10 months before we defended our dissertations, and I was ready to get out of school, find a real job, and be able to afford to feed my child. So I started my first academic job search. I applied for 5 positions, all tenure track. One was close to family and an alma mater, so I had emotional ties to the area. Another was also an alma mater, again emotionally appealing. All were different: one was in a Department of Preventive Medicine, two were in a medical schools, and two were in Departments of Biostatistics, in Schools of Public Health. It was good that they were different as it allowed me to try to determine where the right “fit” was. Fit. That elusive, indescribable thing we’re all trying to find in jobs and in life. For me, it was important to find an environment in which I could be successful – a place that values the skills I excelled at. It was also important for me to find a place in which I was comfortable socially. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time at work and wanted to be in a place where I’d have fun.

clue-cover-banner-1I was invited for on-campus interviews at 4 of the 5 places I applied. The first place I went was the one closest to my family, which was helpful since I was exclusively nursing my 4-month-old daughter at the time. It ended up being a good practice round for me – a good way to learn the rules of the game. They didn’t offer me a job, and it is probably for the best. I likely would have accepted it mainly because of location, and not for the other aspects of fit I was looking for.

Overall, I found the interview process to very different from what I’d expected. I thought it would be extremely stressful, and well… it was definitely stressful. I was still nursing my daughter for 2 of my other interviews, so needed to ask for breaks in my schedule for pumping. My doctoral advisor (a man in his 60s) told me that I wouldn’t want to work somewhere that wasn’t willing to accommodate me – maybe some of the most important advice he gave me during my job search. And while everyone was accommodating, it did add stress to an already stressful process.

But I was surprised by how much fun I had interviewing. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet new people, to learn about different departments and their values. I was interested to hear who felt that there was work/life balance at the institution (often getting conflicting answers within the same institution), and what research was going on where. cranium-boxI learned a lot from the interview process, lessons that I’ve carried forward with me throughout my career, such as how to answer questions with poise even when I had no idea what the person was asking. I learned how small a world biostatistics is, and how people are just people, no matter how many books they’ve written, how many theorems are named after them, or how much black they wear.

And in the end, just like every game, you win some and you lose some. I was fortunate to have been offered jobs from 3 of the 4 places I interviewed, and even more fortunate that one of the offers came from somewhere that felt like the best fit.

The next stage of the game: negotiation. I was terrible at this part of the game. I didn’t know what to ask for and didn’t know that practically everything is negotiable. And really, after nearly 9 years in graduate school, any real salary felt like a million bucks! Luckily, my pay-day
new chair was fair to me, and my offer contained a very competitive salary, relative to the other offers I received. This is extremely important, because salary increases are typically based on a % of your current salary, so if you start low, it is difficult to make it up over time.

So I accepted the offer and marched off into the sunset, right? If only life was so easy. You see, I have a two-body problem – my husband also needed to find an academic position. However, we got extremely lucky. We won the game! He found a position at the same institution, and so off we rode, into the sunset.
Fast forward a few years, and now Assistant Professor StatGirl is on a pizza-mathsearch committee. What a different process! Now, it was my job to help decide who would come visit our department and make recommendations about to whom we should off
er the position. I got to help court the candidates. Again, it was fun for me, for many of the same reasons as when I was interviewing. I learned some interesting new statistical methods. I got to eat dinner at some of the best restaurants in town. And when it was done, the committee made our recommendations, and it was out of our hands. I met some really interesting people, many of whom took other jobs, but people I still call my colleagues and friends – the ones who got away!

And that was that. I didn’t think about what came before the search committee. I didn’t think about what would happen if no one accepted our offer. Because I didn’t understand the entire process. I didn’t get the chance to play the whole game. Stay tuned for part 2 – in which I tell you about the rest of the game.