Landing an tenure track job in entomology: perfecting the practice of academic kung fu

This is re-posted from the Entomological Society of Canada’s blog, and is written by Chris Buddle (McGill University) and Dezene Huber (University of Northern British Columbia)

Last autumn there was quite an interesting discussion on twitter among some entomologists in Canada about the ‘job search’ – more specifically focused on the process of seeking tenure-track academic appointments.  Many of us shared our sob stories, and although the time, place and characters varied, the common element was REJECTION.  Those of us who currently are lucky enough to hold faculty appointments remember the rejection to success ratio, and some of us still have stacks of rejection letters.  While most of us really enjoyed the academic freedom that came with working as a postdoc, the job-search process was more often than not discouraging and deflating, and a really difficult time in our lives.

Towards the end of the PhD program, most of us are riding high – our papers are getting published, we are truly ‘experts’ in our fields of study, we are being congratulated, buoyed by our peers and mentors, and we are ready to take on the world.   We found ways to get a post-doc and perhaps traveled to a different country for additional experience, with a sense of hope, optimism, and enthusiasm for the next stage of our careers.

Then, like the world supply of helium, our hopes were quickly diminished.

“I will easily get a job interview at THAT University”.

Nope.  Not even an interview.

“Perfect – that job advertisement was MADE for me – they will hire me.  It’s a perfect fit”.

Nope. A mass e-mail rejection letter instead.

“I’m the GREATEST in my field of study.  Universities will be asking me to apply”

Nope.  That never happens.

I’m sure that I’ll be seriously considered for this position

Nope. The rejection letter came back saying that there were more than 400 applicants for the position.

Even if I don’t get the job, I’ll be able to get feedback from someone on the committee.”

Nope. It’s highly unlikely that, among the 400 applicants, anyone on the committee even remembers you.

There are really two ways to look at this.  It is possible to get discouraged and frustrated, and give up hope OR it’s possible to see that persistence can pay off and eventually the right job will come along, and you will be competitive.  Sure, the opportunities have to be there, but that kind of timing and ‘luck’ isn’t something you can control.

Here are a few pointers that will hopefully help you think about that tenure-track job search, and give you a sense of optimism:

  • It will take a huge dose of patience and persistence, but there ARE tenure-track jobs out there for people with Entomological interests, even in Canada. Recently, Manitoba hired an entomologist, and University of Ottawa just hired an assistant professor on the evolution of plant-pollinator interactions.
  • University professors do eventually retire! (…Although it needs to be noted that the reality in the current economy is that their positions are not always replaced)
  • You don’t have to restrict your options to only University positions.  We know of faculty members who worked in private companies, or in government, and made a lateral transfer, eventually, to academia.  Your holy grail may be a tenure-track job, but other opportunities are equally rewarding and could eventually get you a tenure-track job. Or you may find that life “beyond the ivory tower” is much to your liking anyhow. In fact, you may be interested in the advice column at Chronicle.com by that very name.
  • Be creative with your CV.  There are relatively few jobs for entomologists, sensu stricto, but there are jobs for evolutionary biologists, ecologists, or other more ‘general’ disciplines (Look: you can apply for a term position in biology at St Mary’s!)  Re-work your cover letters and CV to reflect your potential in these jobs, and that you use insects as ‘model organisms’. And always tailor your cover letter and CV to any job for which you apply. Don’t just send in the same material to every search committee. Search committees are looking for that elusive thing that we call “fit.”
  • Keep your eye on the ball:  to get that coveted university position, the peer-reviewed publication remains the MOST IMPORTANT item on your CV.  Publish, publish, publish. During this stage of your career, keep the focus on that part of the research process. In particular, enjoy the fact that, as a postdoc, you are relatively free to conduct research and publish without many of the other responsibilities (e.g., teaching, administration) that will come with a tenure-track post.
  • Be realistic. If a job ad states that the committee is looking for an acarologist specializing in the mites of toucans, and you are an acarologist who studies toucan mites, then you have a good chance of landing an interview. If the job ad asks for a “terrestrial ecologist working at any scale from microbial to landscape” and you fit somewhere in there, chances are so do a few hundred other recent graduates.
  • When you see something that looks potentially appropriate for you, apply. Rejection is painful but costs nothing; not applying to something that might have worked out is doubly painful.  People who have agreed to write you letters of recommendation will be patient with you (if they are not, perhaps they are not the right people to give you a letter…?)
  • Have another postdoc or your mentor read through your application material. Chances are your mentor has been on a few search committees and can give you useful tips.
  • Every time you apply for a job, consider it a chance to improve your application material.
  • When you do land an interview, prepare for it like there’s no tomorrow. You are a researcher, do your best to figure out everything that you possibly can about the department to which you are applying and, even more, the personalities that make up that department.  Once you get an interview, this means your CV is strong enough, and the job interview is about the ‘fit’.
  • Landing an academic position is not always going to be in the cards for everyone. It is best to have alternate plans so that you don’t get stuck in the so-called postdoctoral holding pattern for years and years. At least one of us (DH) committed to himself to start to explore alternate options at the five year mark after walking the convocation stage. Have a plan B. Your Plan B might actually turn out better than your Plan A in the end.
  • Rejection in terms of tenure-track jobs is really just a warm-up to the continual sense of rejection you will feel if you do end up working as a Professor.  You might as well get used to it.  This is not a statement to bring on doom and gloom: it’s the reality.  You must develop broad shoulders.

Rejection is a fundamental and core part of the academic life: The publication process is becoming so difficult that you can pretty much assume that your paper will get rejected the first few times around (check out this paper about rejection rates…).  Funding agencies are cash-strapped, and it’s getting harder and harder to find ways to fund research projects.  High caliber graduate students will ‘shop around’ for the best graduate program, and will often reject your laboratory. Be a practitioner of academic kung fu – use the weight of rejection against rejection itself by learning from it and applying it to your next attempt.

Depressed yet?

Don’t be.  A tenure track has so many advantages, and these far outweigh the annoying stream of rejections. And the other options available to a bright, young researcher are often as appealing (and usually pay more) than being on the tenure track anyhow.  ..but that’s a topic for another post.

Slow Down

I have written previously about how IMPOSSIBLE it is for a Professor to ‘relax’: the work-life balance is  tricky and it’s very difficult to find time to take a deep breath, go for a walk, or have a calm and long discussion with a colleague.   Well, something happened that is causing me to reconsider my stance.

In mid-March, I was invited to travel to Cape Breton University to give a couple of talks to their professors about the ‘publication game’ in Academia, and about the use of social media in Universities. It was a wonderful trip, and I managed to get a little birding done, too.  However, I must be honest in saying that I was in rush to get the talks completed on the weekend before leaving, there was grading to finish up, reviews to complete, and I have two MSc students wrapping up their projects and was trying to get thesis drafts edited  – I was being pulled in many directions and was rush-rush-rushing around, as usual.   So, when finally getting back to the Montreal airport late on a Tuesday night (and after a rather impressive snowstorm in Montreal that day), instead of slowly and calming walking to my car, I ‘jogged’ to the car, slipped on a snowy curb, and dislocated my shoulder.  Yeah, it hurt.  A lot. It’s an on old injury that was re-injured that night.

After the emergency room visit, I stayed home for a couple of days and couldn’t do much other than sit on the couch.  It was nice. It also gave me a bit of time to reflect on how I live my life, and how I always rush around doing too many things.  My wife, who is my rock, a no-nonsense person, and a clear thinker, said to me: “Chris, you need to slow down“.  She was right:  If I had gone a little slower, I wouldn’t have injured my arm.  I’m not exactly sure why I rush everywhere (partly a personality trait…?).  Going quickly does not lead to a more productive or happy life.  Going quickly makes you miss things and do jobs poorly.  Rushing around makes me spend too little time on the important parts of life and instead I work to check-off to-do lists.  As a friend of mine said on a drive home the other day, I don’t want a gravestone to read “Chris Buddle, he got 308 things done today!”.  I need to take time to take things slower, stop and listen to my students, my friends, and most importantly, my family.  A dislocated shoulder is a very small injury – something much worse could happen because of my behaviour of dashing around from one thing to another.

So, I am proposing that I will try to “slow down“.  Perhaps by writing this (personal) post, it will cause others to take a deep breath, and go through their own lives as a more measured pace.  I will still have too many things to do, and will be overworked, but I am going to try to change my overall philosophy and move through my life one step at a time.  I want to start to see the world as a saunter through a forest instead of a mad dash across a busy street.  Maybe every now and then I will go for a walk at lunch (with binoculars) and try to pay a little more attention to my surroundings.

I hope this will stick, but those of you that know me realize that this will not be an easy task. Here’s how I have decided to remind myself of this new motto:  I have printed out little ‘slow down’ signs and have proceeded to tape them up all over the place.

Slow Down! An eye-level sign, as you leave my office.

Slow Down! An eye-level sign, as you leave my office.

This process started last week, and it is helping.  These continual reminders are useful, and causing me to consider whether I should walk slowly and calmly to the next meeting.  Or whether it really matters if I’m 2 minutes late getting home, or whether it really matters if I finish that e-mail NOW instead of later.  I am enjoying this slower approach to life.  Let’s hope I can maintain this philosophy –  heck, maybe it really is possible to insert a little more ‘relaxation’ into every day.

Do you go slowly through this world? Should you?

What strategies can you recommend?

Slow Down!  ...a reminder taped to the corner of my computer monitor.

Slow Down! …a reminder taped to the corner of my computer monitor.

Why Professors can’t relax (even if it will make us more productive)

This past weekend, as I was struggling to get some work done on a Sunday morning, I read Tony Schwartz’s opinion piece in the New York Times, titled “Relax! You’ll be more productive“.

I read it with curiosity and amusement.  I also discussed it with my wife, had a few discussions with people over twitter, and the more I thought about it, the more I decided it warranted a bit of a rant, and required placing Schwartz’s piece in the context of Academia.

Schwartz points out that “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously“, and we can be more productive (i.e., in the sense of doing work well) if we were able to find time to chill-out, relax, and maybe taking a nap would be a good idea.  This does make sense!  Being overtired can lead to mistakes, causes our the fuses to be short, and certainly can cause us to take longer at doing our jobs – even simple tasks can become difficult in the face of a life filled with too much of the ‘go go go’.    Why don’t Professors take mid-afternoon naps?  Heck, can’t tenured Professors relax and ‘do less’ whenever they want?

A nap?  Really?  BWAHAHAHA! This is priceless.  How abut a dose of reality.

I am a Professor, and this job is absolutely wonderful, but it does require (yes, REQUIRE) a busy schedule and a lot of time.   Time management is a big part of my job, and the days are full of teaching responsibilities, grant-writing, meetings with students, administrative responsibilities and writing manuscripts.  Contrary to what Forbes might lead you to believe, the life of an Academic is not stress-free and is not all tweed-jackets, and hobnobbing at the Faculty club.  A lot of the stress is positive stress, but there is stress, and finding time to relax during the workday is an impossibility given the current context of University.

I fully appreciate some of the ideas behind Schwartz’s piece: taking a mid-day stroll outside (like Darwin did each day!) , or a quick nap in the afternoon, would be good for me, and would probably help with productivity but the reality is that there is no time.  And I just can’t make the time appear.  It’s the ultimate limiting resource.  When I do have time that is freed up during the work day, it gets filled with tasks that are deemed important but not urgent.

How about the the #worklifebalance.  Many people with jobs also have families and commitments at home that compete with the resources of time and energy.

Is this familiar to you?

Time to get the kids to dance class and Music lessons.  Homework hell around the kitchen table?  Phew.  Dinner’s done. How about kitchen clean-up?  Who will fold the laundry?  ….finally, it’s time to fall exhausted on the couch at the end of the day.  Ahhhh sleep…glorious sleep.  6 AM!  Up we get, let’s get lunches ready!  Where’s that permission form?  The bus is coming, you’re late!  Shoot – I’m late too.  Gotta run… have a great day!

My wife pointed out that Schwartz’s argument really doesn’t apply to jobs in which it takes X amount of time to do a task, and if you are in a business that is dependent on consumers buying your product, if you sell Y more units of your product, it will take X x Y amount of time to get the product out the door.  There is not really a choice – you can’t relax and do less,  If you did less, you won’t have a sustainable business.  As some of the reader’s comments in Schwartz’s piece state: ‘relaxing’ is simply a luxury that most people can’t afford.

I like this quote from Schwartz’s piece: Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less

YES!  I do agree.  I buy into the ‘why‘ but I can’t see the ‘how‘: if less time is spent on one task, this frees up a bit of time, and it will get filled right away. (and never mind the fact that GUILT will come into play – I really would feel rather guilty if I shut my office door for a 20 minute shut-eye each afternoon…even if that chair is in the corner of my office is really, really comfortable).

A nice place for a nap.

A nice place for a nap.

Academic Institutions could be model systems for re-thinking the workplace and how to consider ways to help employees  find time to ‘relax’ on the job, and that will surely have many benefits.  This will, however, require a paradigm shift, and require a complete re-thinking of the ways the tenure-track system works, and the level of expectations put on Academics.  This could be a great discussion to have, and let’s have it.  But let’s not start this discussion with a goal that is untenable. I am quite sure that my colleagues would have a good chuckle if they were encouraged to ‘relax’ and have a little downtime during the workday.

Let’s start with some things that are a bit smaller and more realistic.

Let’s work our timetables so that lunch time can be free of classes; let’s find ways to encourage people to eat in a common area instead of in front of their computer.  Let’s make sure offices, labs and coffee machines are suitably arranged so that people move around, communicate, and find a bit of time to sit with colleagues and students over a cup of tea.  Let’s be sure that Chairs and Deans give tenure-track staff the right kind of mentorship so they can be productive on the right kind of tasks, and the flexibility and support so they can find the right balance between the various duties of academia.  Let’s recognize, up front, that negative stress, overwork, e-mail hell, and pressures on time are real problems that require real solutions.  If Academic institutions want to be places of higher learning, there must be support and a recognition that ‘down time’ to ponder, discuss and be curious is time well spent.

Well, with that, I’m going to go out for a walk – actually a run – a run to the lecture hall because I’m running late.

Postscripts:

First, I sincerely hope this post does not come off as sounding like I’m whining or complaining. I’m not complaining – I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

Second, you might ask how I found time to write this blog post.  That is more difficult to address – sometimes the really fun things to do can be done quickly, and it seems relatively easy to find a few minutes to write something I am passionate about.  I also seem to get some very positive energy from this exercise.  Hmmm … maybe writing a blog post is my way to relax?

Reflections: how social media has changed my life

About a year ago I started to write blog posts regularly – this was partially because I was invited to give a talk on social media in Academia at the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada (held this past November).   It was around the same time that I started using Twitter more regularly.  Up until that point, I was a casual user of twitter, and did not understand it.

After one year, I can sum up my feeling about blogging, twitter and social media in one word:  exhilarating.

Writing regular blog posts has changed my professional life.  It has allowed me to hone my skills as a writer, and learn to write in a different way – a way that attempts to bring science to a broader audience – an audience beyond the walls of the University in which I work.  An audience that is articulate, intelligent, interested, engaging, and passionate.  Writing blog posts has forced me to articulate clearly about my research, and to think about what I do as a scientist, and why I work on small, obscure animals.  It helps me think about the sort of advice I might give to graduate students, whether it be reviewing papers or thinking about how to succeed as a Professor.

I have learned that there is an incredible community “out there” and this community has something to offer.  I can now keep track of key happenings in science by following Malcolm Campbell, Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and others.  I can learn about Higher Education in Canada by paying attention to Melonie Fullick, and I can learn more about my own University thanks to McGill’s amazing twitter feed.  I can learn about Entomology around the globe, and take part in  inspired,  meaningful (and sometimes hilarious) conversations with new friends and colleagues including Morgan Jackson, Derek Hennen, Dr. Dez, Chris MacQuarrie, Bug Girlthe Bug Chicks, Crystal Ernst, Alex Wild, and many more….  These interactions are barrier-free.  It doesn’t matter if the conversations are among Professors and undergraduate students, or with high school studentsIt’s about keeping the conversations relevant, of high quality, and respectful.

I now have new colleagues from different countries – colleagues that I now collaborate with, including Graham Scott in the UK – he and I share many similar ideas about the value of field work in University courses.  Or Leslie Brunetta – she and I are now discussing neat ways to take spider silk research into new areas. Social media has also changed how I teach, and using blogs and twitter in the classroom has allowed students to see value in their course work that goes beyond the classroom. My undergraduate students tell me that they feel their University education is more valuable when they can interact with other experts.

Writing blog posts allow me another way to share my passion for all things Arachnida, from spiders to Opiliones and Pseudoscorpions.  Yes, our eight-legged friends are awesome, whether they are on your ceiling, in your windowsills, or living on the tundra. Social media has allowed me to write about things that I write about anyway – I am constantly answering emails about spiders, whether it be identification help, or general queries about venomous spiders.  By writing a blog post about these topics, (including “spiders do not bite” – my most popular post!), I can now refer people to posts instead or writing emails.  Writing posts does take some time, but it is a productive use of time.

On a more personal level, social media has given me meaningful and important connections to people: really good people.  People that I respect, people that are now part of an evergroing circle of friends.  We need to surround ourselves with good people.  Life seems to throw a lot of challenges – whether it is managing with the work-life balance, coming to grips with local and global tragedies, constant worrying about the health of our planet, or struggling with mental or physical health. It’s a big, sometimes scary and often intimidating world out there – and it’s easy to feel insular, lonely, and scared.  Social media is one antidote.  Social media is not a cure, nor should it be used as escapism – instead, I am saying that it brings a ray of light, a smile and a shot of optimism.  I am grateful to have become a part of this community.

As my PhD student Crystal Ernst and Bug Girl discussed (partially reflected in this post): social media is a tool that allows for productive discussion about science, life and the confluence of these.  It’s a discussion that can take part in a REALLY long hallway – a hallway that is inclusive, honest, and filled with bright lights.

I will finish with a big “thank you” to all my followers and friends (of this blog, and on twitter).  Your interest, comments and enthusiasm are so important to me and highly valued.

I wish everyone terrific end to 2012 and I look forward to continued discussions into the new year!

The work-life balance: How many hours do Professors work?

Last week I wrote a post about ingredients for success in Academia, and I thought I would follow up this week by examining, in detail, my ‘work week’.  It’s also timely given discussions I have been having with my own students, and about some recent blog posts about time, projects, and the big balancing act of Academia.

I was really curious about how I spend my time:  sometimes it seems that I work ALL the time, and I am constantly feeling pulled in various directions – how much do I really work ? Perhaps more relevant for aspiring Academics:  is it possible for Academics to find a some kind of reasonable work-life balance?   Is it possible to have a family and outside activities and interests and still be successful in your job?

A quick look on-line shows quite a range of opinions on the topic.  You can go back to a publication in 1942 by W.W. Charters.  In this piece, the median hours per week for a Professor was 58 hrs (yikes!) with Associate Professors reporting 52 hrs per work week, and Assistant Professors clocking in at over 60 hrs per week.

More recently, in a nice piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins discusses a question he fielded during a panel discussion about academic careers: How many hours would you estimate that you work each week?

Here is some relevant text that formed the response:

Both the professor from the liberal-arts college and I said that we spend about 50 – 55 hours per week at our jobs…The professor from the midsize university, who has two toddlers at home, seemed almost apologetic when she noted that right now she “only” works about 45 hours per week, but that she’s looking forward to being able to do more when her children start school. And the research professor from the host university, who runs a large laboratory, topped us all when he noted that he spends upwards of 70 hours per week on campus.

What is most striking in that paragraph is the variation in responses!  And, of course, much depends on how you define ‘work’, and the overall context (Young family at home? Running a large research laboratory?).  I would, however, be curious if the perception of those hours is actually true, i.e., if the hours were quantified.

In a project similar to mine, Philip Nel tracked all his work hours for a week, and determined he worked 60 hours.  That being said, he does discuss how his pay is for nine months (unlike mine, which is for 12), and those nine months are much more intense than the three summer months. Nevertheless, 60 hours per week seems like a lot!

With these thoughts in mind, I decided to track my work week (to the nearest 0.5 hr) from Monday to Friday of last week. I also classified work time into four areas:  Research, Teaching, Service, and Miscellaneous.

Research is a pretty obvious category – this is time devoted to my research program, including grant-writing, meeting and discussing with graduate students, editing manuscripts.  Teaching is focused on preparing and teaching my main undergraduate course this term (a field biology course, with one 4-hour lab and one 1-hour lecture per week), and I organize a graduate level journal club.  Service includes my administrative work for the University (e.g., Faculty committees) as well as my editorial work (I am the Editor-in-Chief for The Canadian Entomologist) and committee work for the Entomological Society of Canada.   These three categories are the pillars of Academia and are typical for most University Professors.

I also had to include a category called “Miscellaneous” – this is for various tasks that don’t fall neatly into one of the other three categories.   Typically, I seem to spend a fair bit of time answering e-mails and switching back and forth between different categories:  it all got very confusing, so I decided to lump these periods of time into the Miscellaneous pile.

The results?

Here’s a screen shot of part of my week:

The Work Week (in part)

Observation 1:

Multitasking: I clearly mix things up a lot – and seldom spend a lot of time on one task.  The exception last week was grant writing, as I did manage to devote some blocks of time to that task (I have a pretty big grant application due before month’s end), and I had to do a big lab clean-up.  I am, generally speaking, unable to keep working on one thing for long periods of time, and switching categories occur many times in a single day.  This is one reason why time management skills are essential for success in Academia!

Observation 2:

The research/teaching/administration balance:  At a research-intensive University, such a McGill, there is certainly a high expectation on research productivity.  Some weeks it feels that I never spend any time doing research (and I fully admit that my actual ‘laboratory’ time working on a microscope is limited), so I was quite pleased that over 40% of my time was in this category.  The second largest category was teaching at just below 40%.   This can be highly variable depending on the Academic term.  Some terms have more intensive teaching demands, and I’m sure that at those times, Teaching could easily exceed 50% of the time.   If teaching a new course, development of lectures and content is also time consuming, and would push the Teaching category well ahead of Research.   For me, I am teaching a course that I have taught before, and have a relatively light teaching load this term, so it makes sense that it is below 40%.

Research: Teaching: Service

I spent relatively little time on ‘Service’, but this is quite variable by week.  For example, some weeks my editorial work for The Canadian Entomologist can take a lot more time, and some weeks I have additional committee work to do with my Faculty / University.

You often hear that at a research-intensive University, the Research: Teaching : Service split should be around 40 % : 40 % : 20 % (and these percentages are sometimes touted as being important in a pre-tenure run).  I am relatively close to this, but again, this varies depending on the time of year.

Observation 3:

Irregular hours:  With an active home life, sometimes I find myself doing an extra hour of work in the evening, or getting up early to get started on the day.  I don’t see this as an issue, or concern.  My job allows for flexibility, and it helps ensure I’m home for dinner, and able to walk my kids to school.  That being said, I think it can be assumed that Academics do not work a standard ‘9 to 5’.

Observation 4:

The work-life balance?  Although I am not providing my total hours per week (some things are just too personal….), I do work less than Charter’s median for an Associate Professor, and I am very pleased about this.  I have an active family life, and many interests outside of work.  Again, my hours are context-dependent and have varied a lot over the past ten years.  I surely worked more hours just before my tenure package was submitted, and when I’m away on a field research trip, I will easily work 10+ hours per day, for many days in a row.

That being said, I thought I worked more than what the total added up to.   Did I miss something?  What’s not included?  By in large, I have not included commuting time, and I excluded any weekend hours.  I often work several hours on the weekend – answering e-mails, and catching up on work that was missed during the week. I also excluded time writing blog posts and other social media.  This is in part because I often do these things at very strange times, and also because I’m not certain how to classify this kind of outreach activity – it’s almost too fun to call work!

Final thoughts:

This exercise could be viewed as ridiculous, self-serving, and a waste of time (especially since time is such a limited resource!).  From a personal level, however, I found it very worthwhile.  I think it’s important to do some navel-gazing now and then, and this can help to re-evaluate the work-life balance, and hopefully make changes if they are necessary.   When I first started my position at McGill, one of my mentors told me that it was very possible to be an Academic and maintain a balance with home, family life, and outside interests.  I was skeptical at the time, but after ten years, I believe he was right.

I encourage others to give this a try – see how you really spend your time.  It may give you encouragement, or perhaps lead you to a few lifestyle changes.