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Academic Job Market: Thank you email etiquette

While there are a few more positions out there with later deadlines, the bulk of the applications for positions I’m interested in are submitted.  Some search committees are already hard at work.  Earlier this week, within a few minutes of each other, I received two emails.  The first brought my swift-rejection-by-form-letter rate to a full 10%.  The second took the sting out of the first; I had my first phone interview yesterday!

Though a little awkward to converse with four people simultaneously, I enjoyed speaking with the committee.  I’ve heard rumors that sending thank you notes or emails is a thing for campus visit.  But what about for a 20 minute phone interview? We covered a lot of ground and I don’t have anything particularly substantive to say that requires specific follow up right now with any of them.  Anything I can come up with is little more than a fairly transparent excuse to re-drop my contact information into their inbox and perhaps unnecessarily reconfirm my interest.  I’m aiming for respectful, not annoying.

There is no Emily Post for academic job search etiquette.  I therefor appeal to the dezians of the internet with opinions or experience in this matter.  Email thank you notes for a phone interview?  If yes, to whom? All the members of the committee?  Just the chair?  I can’t be the only person with this question.  At least a few of the nine other people this particular committee called probably don’t know either!

Impostor Syndrome: parenting edition

Like every other academic, I occasionally suffer from toe-curling anxiety over not being “good enough” to be where I’m at and fear being exposed as inferior or a fraud.  A solid group of excellent mentors has helped train me to ignore, if not silence, those pernicious doubts.  I credit these years of intense academic training for successfully volunteering to be a soccer coach.

My wife signed my kid up for this local, non-competitive youth soccer league and, because she was annoyed that I wasn’t answering my phone right at that moment, left a message saying I had 15 minutes to respond or she was signing me up to coach the team.  Needless to say, I missed the cutoff, so I bought a pair of cleats and showed up for the “coaches training session” at the beginning-of-season soccer jamboree.  The jamboree was two soccer fields and a hundred kids worth of chaos.  Persistent questions finally landed me at the coach’s training session and years of rigorous training in silencing self-doubt were the only thing that kept me there.

The gender balance and number of people were very similar to those of the afternoon seminars in one of the departments with which I’m affiliated.  The only demographic differences were that just a few of the people at the coach’s training were over 50 and that there is usually at least one other female at the seminar.  No one was rude.  No one made any explicit comments that suggested that I was not welcome.  And yet, it took every ounce of doubt-crushing willpower I possessed to stay at that session.

As the head coach repeated the “three L’s” (no lines, no lectures, let them play), I silently repeated to myself how qualified I was (over a decade of soccer experience, years of parenting experience, pulse) to combat the crushing feeling that the tall confident men were the real soccer players and coaches.  Being the only woman in the group made me worry that I was unqualified to herd a group of 5 to 7 year-olds for an hour.  Crazy, right?  It would have been so easy to just drift away and let the experts take care of it and do it right.  Fortunately, the content of the session was simple (the three L’s, have a plan, when in doubt, scrimmage) because making myself stay there and controlling my body language to appear casual and confident took up most of my mental energy.

Professionally, my opinions are acknowledged and respected.  I work in an environment of high mutual respect, so day to day feelings of being an impostor in social situations are rare or mild.  Feeling so squirmy at this low-stakes, supposed-to-be-fun coach’s training session totally surprised me.  As did, in a different way, how swiftly and intensely my mental coping mechanisms to combat those doubts rose to the task.

Interestingly, “coach’s training session part 2″ was held a few weeks later in an elementary school cafeteria.  It was a little larger, and this time there were two other female volunteer coaches.  After it was over, we introduced ourselves.  All three of us were affiliated with a STEM department at the University.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But I suspect not.

How much to tell: Out on the academic job market?

It’s for real!  This season is my season.  Job openings are starting to pop up and I’m serious about doing my best to land one of them.  In the time between now and the deadlines – some as early as mid-September! – only small things are within my control.  My training, pedigree, experience and funding record are what they are.  My publication record can only get better as manuscripts slowly continue to be released to the wild.  My teaching statement can be polished and tailored to specific departments.  My research plan will change drastically as my scientist pals chime in.  All of this causes much anxiety, but it’s anxiety that I’m trained to deal with.

What is worrying me are the details.  Things that shouldn’t matter at all, but that I’m afraid might – at least a little.  Things that pale in comparison to my publication record, plans for scientific world domination and funding potential.  However, these small things are wholly within my control, so I can obsess about them.  Indeed, instead of re-making Figure 2, I’m currently trying to figure out if I should include a significant leadership position I held in an LGBT graduate student group on my CV.   The question of the day is: should I out myself in my application materials?

Of course!  Right?  Why on earth would I want a job in a homophobic department?  So if being gay is going to be a problem, well, best not to waste each other’s time.  Feeling is mutual.  Ciao, dinosaurs!

Except…  I do actually want a job.  An academic job.  With start-up and my own minions and new colleges and instrumentation.  In the current market, with hundreds of amazing candidates applying for each and every position, if my application makes it into the select pool of candidates that a university is considering inviting for a campus visit, I don’t want to miss that opportunity because when it comes down to it, departments can only invite a few people and the candidate who is not an out lesbian just seems like they would probably be a “better fit”.

If I do manage to score an interview or two, I will casually and cheerfully out myself when the totally-illegal-but-always-asked-anyway questions about my “second body” pop up.  But by that time, I’ll be there face to face, and I will have already totally rocked that interview, so the nebulous “fit” questions will be less of an issue.  I hope.  So I should totally hedge my bets and leave off the line, right?  Except it seems cowardly and wrong to (very slightly) weaken my CV due to fear of bias that possibly doesn’t even exist.

I’ve have a few queer friends make the step from not-professor to professor, but all in fields that are “culturally” and intellectually rather distant from mine, so while I know what they’ve done, I’m not sure how well it translates.  There are about three weeks left for me to obsess about this.  Any opinions or anecdotes, internet?

Ciao DOMA: Now I can die!

>>On Jun 26, 2013 at 7:43 AM, Friend wrote:

>>is a life without imputed income coming your way?

>On Jun 26, 2013, at 11:21 AM, Zwitter Ionique wrote:

>Now I can die!  So exiting!

On Jun 26, 2013, at 11:43 AM, Friend wrote:

Liberating even…

The neighborhood I lived in during grad school was rough around the edges.  Not only were thefts common, but none of the buildings were in any way up to code.  Our friend’s place a block away caught fire one morning.  They were lucky.  They got out, with their two cats and most of the water and smoke damage hit the second floor apartments, not theirs.  Although our abode was furnished with castoffs, there was no way I could replace everything if it was stolen or destroyed.  The chances of either seemed high to me.  I purchased a modest renter’s insurance policy and my worrying stopped.  It was the best $120 I ever spent.

Clearly I’m a bit of a worrier.  Having kids hasn’t helped that.  They are dependent, and especially before my wife went back to work, my death would be catastrophic for them, emotionally, sure, but also financially.  So I got life insurance.  But this time it didn’t work.  My  worrying didn’t stop.  DOMA made it so it would be taxed so hard – because my beneficiary was technically a stranger – that there would be effectively nothing left, still leaving them all totally screwed.  My only real option was not to die.  My wife wouldn’t let me bike to work anymore and I suddenly became nervous on planes. 

The recent ruling striking down a section of DOMA directly increases my income.  Now the amount my employer pays for health insurance won’t be added to my taxable income.  I am excited about my “raise”.  I’m going to have *two* coffees every day!  I’m going to buy the fancy cheese!  I’m going to buy my kids a whole bunch of new socks so I don’t have to do laundry as often!  I’m going to contribute to a retirement fund!

More that that, I feel light!  I don’t have worry.  Because now, I can die.

Other, more eloquent, people are also relieved to be able to die: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/i-can-die-now/Content?oid=17152673

The benefits of chosing the orange shirt

Our kids both still young and have hair of intermediate length, so their gender presentation is largely determined by the clothes they choose.  The older kid in a purple t-shirt with a beetle on it?  Girl.  The younger kid in an orange t-shirt with a shark?  Boy.  These were the shirts they chose on the day we learned to kayak.

The kayak rental shop we chose offered guided tours.  The owner said kids, even those as young as ours, would be totally fine in the front of a tandem kayak.  Also that the guides would tow us home if it came down to it.  This was how we, along with eight other people, ended up in the care of the owner’s two energetic college-aged sons for three hours.

I don’t want to recount the tales of our epic journey that possibly included a semi-embarrassing tow out of the boat lane leading to the open sea except to note that the addition of a large rock as ballast next to a small kid can greatly improve kayak handling.  What I want to tell you about was how differently our energetic young guides and their father interacted with our two kids.

Kids are often hard for adults to understand.  They will speak quietly, sometimes use creative grammatical constructs and, since they are self-centered, will leave out the context necessary to understand any response they give.  Conversations can be slow and sort of annoying.  After a few questions at the beginning, our guides mostly ignored our older kid – which is totally fine – but, oddly, persisted in bantering with our younger and objectively harder to understand kid.  They teased about sharks, asked about favorite colors and sports, pointed out seals and currents, engaged in gentle trash talking about kayaking skills, and joked about eating the leaves and sticks from the water with our younger kid.  They didn’t give hir the option to not respond and xe got over being quiet, realized that it didn’t matter what xe said as long as xe said something and opened right up.  It was fun to watch them build a relationship and create and maintain private jokes over the course of our journey.

When we finally pulled our kayaks out of the water and piled into the van to take us back, one of the guides insisted in sitting next to our youngest, told hir that next time xe had to jump off of the rock we had stopped at with the big kids and teased hir about falling asleep in the kayak.  Our kid’s ridiculous trash talk about how many more times xe had already jumped off the rock and how much faster xe paddled than our guide was warmly encouraged.  At the shop, while waiting for our turn in the bathroom, the father pulled hir aside and gave hir a complete dried exo-skeleton of a baby horseshoe crab he’d found, a brochure from the dcr about their lifecycle and a pin that said “I heart kayaking”.  For our older kid?  Nothing.  It was like xe didn’t exist.

Now, by this point in time, it’s true that our younger kid was much more confident about voicing hir opinions in this context.  Xe had, afterall, had almost three hours of practice doing just that.  This made hir much more rewarding to talk to.  Our elder kid, lacking the benefit of a few hours of casual banter, was still shy and a little difficult to understand and this undermined hir confidence to interact with our guides.  It was easier for everyone not to bother.

There is no way of knowing if our guides subconsciously singled out our younger kid for special attention because they thought xe was a boy and ignored our older kid because they though xe was a girl.  What is certain, however, is that the social boost our younger kid received continues past that interaction.  Xe brought the horseshoe crab into preschool the next day to share with friends at circle time and has already taken the lesson in talking big to heart, with new tales of leaping off of the tall rock a hundred times and swimming faster than sharks, to the delight of young and old alike.

All of us had a great time on our trip.  Our guides kept us from being washed out to sea, skooled us in the ways of the kayak and had some interesting tidbits to share about the local natural history.  It was a bonus that they were happy to lavish a little extra attention on one of our kids.  I’m happy they did.  I wouldn’t want it otherwise.

But.  But…  This is a small example of the social mentoring that happens all the time, preferentially to boys.  Not all parents will hold private lessons in beginning trash talk and creative embellishment at the ice cream parlor to level the playing field.  And as kids get older, well, I am qualified to teach intermediate trash talk too, but mentoring from a true expert is invaluable.  So, as you casually mentor the youth in whatever it is you excel at, try to pull all of them along – regardless of the color of their t-shirt.

Managing minions: logging

Key to managing one, let alone multiple minions is a good logging system.  Before the creation of “the logs”, my freezer was full of boxes, mostly my own, imperfectly categorized by a combination of chronology, project and reagent types.  Minions sometimes got a shiny new box with their name on the side and sometimes inherited an already half-filled one.  Starting with a new minion or changing the direction of a project triggered a period of at least a week where I, together with the minion, must delve into the freezer to search for some reagent or another multiple times a day.  Finding things I’d made usually didn’t take too long, but finding something that I knew a past minion made?  Sigh.

Now, a few weeks before your summer minions start, is an excellent time to set up a logging system for your own personal stash of reagents if you don’t already have such a thing.  Yes, it will be a pain in the ass.  But the time you invest now will pay huge dividends.  You will, of course, avoid two weeks of failed experiments, or having to recreate a reagent due to uncertainty about what the label says.  You’ll have to trust me on that though because you’ll never actually know if you saved yourself from this fate or not – maybe your minion will have really good handwriting or something.  However, the first time that you realize you forgot a control or want to quickly test out a new idea and text your minion “also cycle mp72 with p312 & p313 when you do that PCR.  Tell you why tomorrow”.  BOOM!  You just saved a day.  With the log, the instructions are clear and information dense.  Most importantly, they can be flawlessly carried out in the absence of immediate understanding.  First of all, the exact location of the reagents is specified – not “I think the tube is in the box marked Minion 2009 with a white sticker with a red star on the top that should say something like badass plasmid on the side”.  Second of all, all of the relevant information  – like antibiotic selection or concentration or whatever – is accessible to your minion, should they need that information.

But, you say, my lab already has a logging system in place.  Why not just use that?  You could, except in my experience general lab logs usually lack in two ways that are useful for untrained temporary personnel.  The first is that they tend toward “finished” reagents, and not things that are “in process”, so they probably won’t capture the majority of what you’d find most useful for your minion to be able to find.  The second is that they tend to be hard to access, since they are often made using proprietary software and hosted on a shared drive*.  A temporary minion, if they can get the credentials to get to the shared drive, is unlikely to have the credentials to install the software to read the logs.  That means that your minion will need you to both figure out where stuff is at as well as enter new information about the stuff they create.  For these reasons, I suggest creating a private logging system for your stuff (that perhaps contains working stocks of stuff from the lab logs) that is easily accessible and editable by both you and your minion(s).  Because I wanted the information in my logs to be private yet easily accessible to the member of my scientific army, I ended up using a google doc spreadsheet.  When a new minion comes, I click the “share” button and add their e-mail address.  Done.

Alright!  You’re sold.  You probably already know the sciency stuff you’ll want to include in your logs.  I leave you with a few more pieces of advice.

1) Put in the log number explicitly as a field, to avoid “sorting” disasters.

2) Include the “source” (as in the name of who made/logged the material) and “date” – both of which will help you search your logs electronically.  And will help you cross-check with a notebook, if necessary.

3) Include a “notes” field and encourage verbosity; it will end up containing some gems.

4) Have a field for “box number” to make physically finding the right tube a little faster.

5) Don’t over-think it; grab any tube and label it number 1.  Grouping or prioritizing are completely unnecessary since spreadsheets have search buttons.

6) If a minion makes something good, have them log it right away.  Minion projects can lapse for periods of time that are long enough for an agar plate to completely dehydrate, even in the fridge.

7) Your private log is awesome, but don’t neglect your lab logs.  Anything that hits the threshold of “possibly useful to someone else” should be in a place where it can actually potentially be useful to someone else.

Your logs will be so awesome and useful that it will be hard to shut up about them.  “Did you put that in the logs yet?”  “I don’t know, you should check the logs.”  “Check it out! I just put those new constructs from our collaborators in the logs” “I was looking through the logs last night and thinking…”  Prepare yourself for a little gentle mockery.

* Sometimes restricted access is required by law.  For example, in the case of clinical samples tied to patient information.  Inquire!  Don’t go rogue.

Alright, I peeked.

DOMA “touch[es] every aspect of life. Your partner is sick. Social Security. I mean, it’s pervasive. It’s not as though, well, there’s this little federal sphere and it’s only a tax question. It’s—it’s—as Justice Kennedy said, 1100 statutes, and it affects every area of life.” Once a state recognizes the freedom of gay and lesbian couples to marry, “for the federal government then to come in to say no joint return, no marital deduction, no Social Security benefits; your spouse is very sick but you can’t get leave . . . one might well ask, what kind of marriage is this?”

- Justice Ginsburg

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