Getting Settled

The Paleantology project is getting settled. I’ve accepted a position at Southeastern Louisiana University. I’ve been meaning to write a little bit about academic job searching. Since I’m starting to prepare my lab documents, now seems like the time.

My search was a little different than other accounts we often hear in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior space, in that I  always intended to end up at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) – a liberal arts school or small university without many graduate students.

By the time I leave for my job next month, I will have done a total of just shy of two years of postdoc. I started my postdoc with a six-week old toddler, who I am now watching eat yogurt at the coffee table. I will have to give up part of my NSF postdoc funding, but I found the job, and the place, and the school. I’m making the right choice.

Jeremy Yoder had a thread on Twitter this morning where he talked about the numbers behind his job search. I didn’t keep as detailed of notes as Jeremy did, but I probably applied to about 17 jobs, had phone interviews at 6, on-campus visits at 3, and received two offers. This reflects, very much, what Jeremy said about the number of applications sent being proportional to job openings. I’m an evolutionary biologist who uses computational methods to answer questions in statistical phylogenetics, particularly questions about how we incorporate fossil information into phylogenetic trees.

So I’m not applying to genomics jobs. I’m not applying to ecological physiology jobs. And my research might sound sort of esoteric. The number of jobs at primarily undergraduate institutions is already smaller than the number of R1 jobs (at least the years I applied). My interests put me in a smaller subset of those jobs.

On top of that, we have some tricky business. PUIs often write job ads that are a little broader than research schools, particularly big research schools. Big-name schools can rely on getting hundreds of applicants, even in specialized fields. Without the name recognition of big schools, PUIs may try to increase the depth of the applicant pool by making it wider. Many of the ads I applied to were something like “Faculty line in computational biology. May specialize in evolution, ecology, bioinformatics, genomics, ecoinformatics, cancer biology, neuroscience, or a combination thereof.” That’s a wide net being cast.

I applied to jobs for which I thought I would be a great fit, and never received a call. I applied to jobs where I thought I was a tangential fit, and had phone interviews. I had phone interviews that went awesome, only to see the seminar calendar get loaded up with genomics and neuroscience folks. And I get that – PUIs have smaller faculty rosters. Getting students into medical school is often a high priority. Having folks who can teach evolution, or bioinformatics, as well as a course in cancer genomics or neuroscience lets the department grow its course roster while increasing the number of courses about which the med school students will be excited. But I definitely did have moments, after everyone else in my house had gone to sleep, when I sat up wondering if there would ever be an opening for a theoretician who is passionate about working with students.

Next year would have been my last year of postdoc on my personal funding. I could probably scrounge some funds after. I would have hit the market harder, and maybe applied to some schools that weren’t PUI. I also would have applied to other postdoc fellowships, and jobs in industry. I have a skill set that would bring me success in industry. I have always known that card is in my back pocket. But I would have fought like hell to get a chance at the job I really want.

There is one other thing that I want to note about my PUI job search. Christie Bahlai wrote about her job search season, looking at the angle of challenges posed to people marginalized in science. And those challenges are real – having children so soon before moving for my postdoc, I was carrying some debt from medical and moving expenses that I was trying to pay down.

The money aspect can be pretty scary, and I’ve seen a smattering of comments to that effect from grad students and postdocs on Twitter. In my job search, with all three on-campus visits, I put less on my credit card than one conference, typically. You certainly can ask for a department to directly book flights, as opposed to reimbursing you. I did not have success with this, but I know others who have. Interview clothes don’t have to be the latest style. I bought everything I wore on clearance at Nordstrom Rack or TJ Maxx for under $100 dollars the first year. Due to post-baby weight loss, I had to buy some new things the second year – I spent about $15 on a plain, white button down to freshen up my skirt-blazer outfit. I bought a new pair of dark jeans, not for the interview, but I ended up wearing them on the interview.

Right, the baby. The first year I was on the market, I had to kick back a schedule for not having enough nursing breaks. It might be illegal for them to use info about my marital status or children in their hiring decisions, but they sure knew about it. On my second year on the market, I was never asked about children … because I volunteered it. The two schools I had on-campus visits at where in areas where I wasn’t familiar with the school systems and daycare. It’s info I needed. I will say that I was treated with nothing but respect when I asked about nursing accommodations, schools, etc. More respect than I’ve than been treated with at some workshops. I can’t promise that being honest about my kid didn’t hurt me (I don’t have that job where I had to push on the schedule, eh?). I can’t promise being honest wouldn’t hurt you. But I can say that I’m happy with my results. If being a mom cost me a job, that job probably would have eventually driven me out, anyway.

I read this piece out loud to my husband. He noted that I hadn’t mentioned him. And I didn’t know what he meant. And he said, “Well, the childcare.” On-campus PUI visits mean flying out one afternoon, being gone for a full day, and usually coming back the following afternoon. My husband works second shift, and had to rearrange his schedule on days I was gone so he could make the daycare drop-off and pick-up. He’s the best; I couldn’t do this without him. He did a lot of legwork to support me in this search. For us, this is a minor and annoying hardship. For someone without support, this can be a serious issue. If you’re reading this, and you’re on a search committee, do be aware that planning early early and being flexible with dates is really helpful with folks who are juggling these responsibilities.


The primarily undergraduate institution search is a little different than many of the job search we often hear about. I’ll follow up after the Evolution Meetings, where I will speak on Saturday (see event 8) about PUIs and why I chose that path, with a less personal essay and some nuts-and-bolts of these applications.


Edit0: Since I started writing, NSF announced they are ending the DDIG. The faculty position I have builds directly on the research I wrote my DDIG on. That award allowed me to be independent and establish my research program early. I am grateful for the opportunities afforded by that program, and I am saddened that others will not have this funding available to them.

Edit1: A couple of people have asked if I will publicly post job materials. My plan is not to do that, but if you want to see them, please do get in touch. I’m open to reconsidering this position, so if anyone thinks I’m wrong to not share, weigh in!

Edit2: A couple people have asked about bringing up nursing when scheduling an on-campus interview. I went with a simple:

I am presently still nursing an infant. I will need $X lactation breaks of $Y duration.

To push back on a schedule:

Thank you so much for sending this schedule. I have some concerns about the lactation breaks, which are scheduled for $X times. Would $Y alternative schedule be workable?

In my case, I just wanted a quick pump before my talk, so they slated me in an additional 20 minutes of prep time. No big deal.

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