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.

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