The application hole

So we had hundreds of applications for our recent faculty opening and it was split up into three stacks and each pair of committee members had to nominate their best ten then we shared the top 30 with each other then started to argue things down until ten for phone interview and then ranked and brought the top five candidates in. It was/is a long process, but I read every single application that was placed in from of me. Every word of the max-3 pages research statement, max-2 pages teaching statement, max-2 pages diversity statement, and their cover letter. I peruse the CV (those are way too long). For the CV, I look for background, experience, publications, and past research focus. Mainly just counting the things and scanning for words. For the statements, I read every last word. I have this mentality that if someone writes something and it’s my job or I’m interested in the topic, then I must read all of it. Everyone gets a fair shake. Unless they’re a bad writer….

In a faculty meeting, someone mentioned that they only look at the CV, and one person said they only read the first paragraph of the research statement. What the fuck? I know we’re all busy, but you agreed to be on the committee! How would they feel if that’s all people looked at for their grants (oh wait, I guess that does happen). Is the golden rule not a thing anymore? Each application is about 15 minutes if you’re fast, and 30 minutes if you’re slow. I timed myself. Now, I could have spent more time, but at least everyone got a fair shake. I did these at home, which sucked, but I think I did a good job. I remember when I was interviewing that one committee member was basically perusing my info on the spot in the interview and that he clearly had no idea what my background was. I thought it was because he forgot, but now that I see this from the inside I realize that he was just lazy or wildly overworked! I listened to all this talk, but because I’m scared of all these experienced and connected ‘colleagues’ I’m scared to say anything. Our department head just sat there, too.

So if your application didn’t get any pull, it could be that you weren’t qualified or connected, or just that reviewers don’t care. Try not to get discouraged.

Losing the hiring battle

As I’ve written about, we’re in the midst of a hiring swing which has created a divide between faculty members that are arguing between two candidates: the good pedigree with a good post-doc but very generic research (and no intention to change it), and the okay pedigree with industry experience with definitely unique ideas.  Half of us love the unique ideas and half of us like the pedigree.  The typical candidate also has a very common academic lineage, which is helping their chances.

I was backing the unique ideas (and industry connections), but my side lost in all of this, as the other candidate won out.  So the department will just be a lot more of the same.  Yawn.  Super yawn.  Because we are hiring a little later in the cycle it turns out that The Candidate has other offers.  Now we’re having to bend over backward to basically get someone for which we already have a few of their type.  And the other profs here that work in the same field want to give The Candidate everything they want so they can all share the equipment and create a ‘super-group’ so to speak.  This is all so fucked up.

This is also really eating me up because most of the students I talked to also prefer the other candidate.  So we have more cronies buddying up, and the system becomes more generic.  My department is heavily biologists and engineers and my background is physics.  For this reason (along with other more outwardly observant reasons) I really didn’t want another person who’s part of the club, doing the same shit, and breeding more of the same.  For selfish reasons, I feel like I’ll be even more isolated, from a research and personal perspective, if The Candidate joins on.

So here’s where we’re at now: we’re waiting.  They have multiple offers, and we’re being pitted against the other schools.  The Candidate doesn’t seem like they want to be here, to collaborate with us, and contribute to the university so much as they just want the most money and equipment.  I want someone that really wants to be here.  Part of me hopes that The Candidate doesn’t pick us and the other one accepts another offer out of spite. I’d really like to break this cycle though.

I have nothing against career academics.  My favorite collaborators and mentors are career academics and the best scientists I’ve ever met, but right now for this position in my applied department, I have this attraction to nontraditional candidates (e.g., have spent time outside of academia).  If we were too applied, I would be swinging the other way and begging to get The Candidate on board.  I want more diversity of thought, and The Candidate is as generic as they come considering the current makeup of my department.

Been getting dumber

In industry, the more ‘top level’ thinking I got asked to do, as I started to do more leadership, the more I felt like I was getting dumber.  When I picked up here I started to feel smarter again as I was engaging with other researchers, reading more publications, interacting with students, and teaching.  Lately though, as I’ve been heavy on grant-writing and less-so on manuscript drafting/editing, I feel like I have been getting dumber.  I’ll try to solve a problem or direct a student’s research and I feel I’m missing the ball sometimes.  This might also be just a motivation thing.  I am feeling more tired and moody (the moods swing both ways lately).  I’m considering supplements for the first time in my life, which myself and SO are reading up on like crazy.

Now that the big NIH deadlines recently passed I can get back to just pure science so I’m hoping my brain perks up.  Grant writing is nice because it allows me to focus my thoughts into a cohesive research directive that will inevitably change, but it’s not as problem-solve-ey as I prefer.  This ‘getting dumber’ feeling is translating into my personal life where I’m lacking motivation and missing things that I feel my smarter brain would have picked up.  I wonder if this is also because I have too many balls in the air right now, and neurons are being pre-allocated?

Barf

A lot of foods I like literally make me sick right now.  I can’t make my noodle broths, I can’t make any barbecue, and I can’t drink to forget that I can’t have the foods I can’t have.  Also, waking up not because of my alarm, but because I feel like I need to barf is just great /s.  Good grief.

Mansplaining

I never really took to the term mansplaining. It doesn’t roll off the tongue. This is a term that has been around for a while that describes a concept that has been around for far longer. While I’ve noticed that this most frequently is done by men, I have (rarely) seen women ‘mansplain’ things to me. The condescending talk, and talking over me is something I’ve always had to deal with. A lot of things bug me about this, but one of the largest is that people will often have more respect for people who mansplain (I’ll use the word even if I don’t like it so everyone can at least know what I’m talking about with the caveat that everyone is capable of being an asshole; guys do it more frequently). When those in power have a condescending mannerism, eventually people will listen and no one will call out the person for mansplaining. I’m guilty of the latter. I will show in passive-aggressive ways that I don’t like the guy, but I don’t ever call them out. I see it less now than I did in industry, but I still see it way too much. And there never was a recourse. Assholes would still behave like assholes. I just wish there was a way for me to call people out on it in either one-on-one or group settings without causing a big problem.

I bring this up because there’s this set of meetings I’ve been a part of in my service activities along with the usual faculty meetings where this has been happening all the time. I keep telling myself, “this will be the day I speak up.”. Then every time I sit there and let it happen. I actually feel like I’m part of the problem when I don’t speak up. It’s not that frequently directed at me, but I feel for the folks it happens to, and I very much dislike it.

Graduates finding jobs

Our department has these newsletters where they highlight the awesome stuff some of our alum go on to.  It makes us feel good that we’re doing something, and makes students want to flock to us because they think we’re great at placing students in high-paying, fun jobs.  However, this has set a false standard for students.  They are coming in thinking employers will flock to them, it will be easy to get a job, they’ll have enough money to buy their dream car, and they’ll be doing some novel work at their dream job straight out of college.  Truthfully, maybe 5% of the students from each graduating class are getting jobs like this.  There aren’t as many of these types of positions in industry, and students are just not prepared for the ‘real world’.  On the engineering side, coming out with a BS or sometimes even an MS, the majority of students go into QE, process, new product development, systems, or testing engineering.  From talking with them, the majority of students would prefer to go into early feasibility engineering (some say they want to go into business or marketing….kids….): coming up with new ideas, building new prototypes, testing them themselves, and getting their devices into some sick patient’s body.  Luckily, I had early mentors that prepared me very well for the few unicorn-jobs that are out there.

Aside from that, the students are coming out with skill-sets and knowledge that aren’t conducive to highly challenging careers where you need to balance work ethic and knowledge to get your foot in the door.  I do three things in preparing undergrads: 1. Bring in industry people looking for good students, 2. Prepare students for the types of jobs that are out there and what they would qualify for, and 3. Teach them the skills they need to get in the door and be successful.  I want our newsletter to be inundated with students doing incredible stuff, and not just have to highlight specific grads because it’s all we could get.

Prep point 1: I was talking to two grad students from the same undergrad program and they complained that there were only a few employers from the medical side of things at their career fairs at their top-5 undergrad institute.  Here, we have a dozen employers looking for good students right now.  The exposure is key.  Students learn about the company, the company learns about the students, and the biomedical internships have increased 10x since I joined a few years ago.  So I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done here.  And this was easy because I know exactly who to call to get them to come to the career fairs.  Prep points 2 and 3: Students need a dash of reality.  In every industry, we need paper-pusher scientists.  And if you want something more stable from a work-life balance perspective, I’ve noticed these are pretty damn regular.  Good pay, good home life, but lacking in creativity.  In addition, some students just aren’t talented enough.  I’ve done a good job of fostering more applied skills so at least students will have that experience if they haven’t done so hot in thermodynamics, so students are placing into jobs more easily, but it’s still not where I’d like.  The median was 1 month after graduation that students have found a job by before I started, and it’s 2 months before now.  The economy is also doing well, so that may be a factor, but I feel way better about the recent crop of students than the first when I came in.  And half have gotten medical jobs via advertisers at the career fairs here.  I’m pretty proud of that.

Overall, contacts matter so much in finding work and I tried to bring as much of that as possible in combination with teaching students the skills they need.  Next to one specific project I have, this is definitely one of my favorite projects.

Some pessimism

I really do love what I do.  It’s better than any alternative I can think of other than one where I would never have to vie for funding and would just get handed great students and unlimited funds to play around.  And I’ve had posts about how I love working on my own research, staying young because I’m around young people, having my own hours, and being responsible for my own success.  But there have been a few things that have been bugging me lately, presumably because the honeymoon phase is over.

Lazy or Unproductive PIs: I had to work my ass off to get a position here, and I’ve been working my ass off to further my research.  I do this for a lot of reasons, but one is to ensure the university is getting their money’s worth.  It’s a way I show gratitude.  I know lots of other people that worked their asses off to try and fail getting into the tower, and who would definitely be hard workers and good contributors, but instead they’re floundering from one adjunct or research prof position to the next.  Then I see the occasional PI here that doesn’t apply to more than maybe a grant every other year, teaches 1-2 classes a semester, publish from their lab maybe every other year, have no students, and gets to keep their cushy tenure jobs.  I’m not saying everyone has to work their ass off all the time, but not giving the university their money’s worth when someone else could come in and do it is kind of infuriating to me.  I guess this is part of the problem with the tenure system, in general.  But it just bugs me that qualified, hardworking people I would love to collaborate with are turned away, yet lazy ones get to stick around.  Something similar to this happened in industry, and I also hated it, but at least the occasional stockholder-driven purge would occur and those highly paid unproductive people would be out.

Recruiting:  This is referring to both student and faculty recruitment.  I’ve already beat the topic of faculty recruitment down to a pulp.  TLDR; I’m tired of faculty focusing on which school and lab they come from and not looking for the rare candidate that didn’t go to a top-tier program but has proven they are a great researcher by actually producing after they left grad school.  I’m also tired of some of the way students are recruited into the program.  Like a lot of programs, we have a scoring/ranking system, we have a set number of openings and then we draw a cutoff line and admit the students above the cutoff line.  We shift the rankings for three reason: race, gender, and favoritism.  I’m okay with the first two sometimes, but the third one gets me the most.  Because one of the letter writers for a student happens to know someone on the admissions committee they should get bumped a rank or two?  Don’t get me wrong, there have been some times where we’ll have 300 candidates, 15 openings, and someone will bump an underrepresented student 50 slots to get them admitted.  I kid you not.  Fifty fucking slots.  That’s wrong.  But the favoritism primarily rubs me the wrong way.

Admins:  I naively thought I wouldn’t have a boss when coming here.  While my current bosses aren’t as shitty as those I had in industry, they still get on my nerves.  If I get told to try a reverse classroom or move more stuff to an online platform I’m going to go crazy.  I fucking hate Blackboard and all programs like it.  I would rather spend my own time grading than put students through the cheat-fest that are the online platforms we’re using.  I don’t like that I spend 20% of my time in useless meetings about nothing.  And I don’t like the fake smiles and promises they give to students and faculty every day.  These are the folks in industry that would have left their science degrees behind in favor of a cushy marketing gig because they’d be the smartest in the room and can lie pretty well for living.

Students not paying attention:  This is sometimes a problem and sometimes not.  I hate looking out and seeing a student clearly playing a game or watching a show with headphones in.  Why even show up to class?  It doesn’t really affect me, but it sure as shit is affecting the students behind you.  I don’t take attendance, and you clearly either know the material or don’t care if you fail, so why even show up?  It doesn’t really offend me as an educator, but why pay the large sums of money required to take classes here and piss it away.  I was always (and still am) starving for knowledge.  Kids…….