The teaching job that slipped through my fingers, and what I learned from that experience

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from my friend, biologist Greg Crowther. Thanks very much to Greg for being brave enough to share some personal experiences and advice that I’m sure will resonate with many readers. Thanks as well to Greg for only sharing non-embarrassing anecdotes about our time together as undergrads. 🙂

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This blog has featured fascinating personal stories (from Jeremy and Carla) on the often-long, sometimes-quixotic quest for a traditional faculty job.

Today I’d like to add another job-search saga to the pile – this one focused on teaching-focused positions – and to extract some lessons, if possible.

I was a classmate (and cross-country teammate!) of Jeremy at Williams College, where we both majored in Biology.  (Among other adventures, we took animal behavior together, did a class project on the seed-caching behavior of black-capped chickadees, and wrote a manuscript that was rejected by The Auk. We also summarized our field-work experience in a humorous piece that was rejected by a campus magazine.)

Upon graduating from Williams, my career plan was to get a Ph.D. and then teach college biology. So off I went to the University of Washington’s Department of Physiology & Biophysics, where my experience as a long-distance runner could inform my study of human physiology.

During grad school (1995-2002), I discovered (A) a growing appreciation for lab research and (B) a Seattle-based woman whom I wanted to marry.  My career plan changed from “teach college biology” to “do biology research and/or teaching in the Seattle area.”  I did two postdocs, both of which morphed into acting faculty positions (2003-2014).   I wrote a bunch of solid but unspectacular papers, most of which were published in mid-tier journals, and a bunch of solid but unspectacular grant proposals, most of which were rejected.

Also, I became a father, then got divorced, then remarried.  I would not be leaving the Seattle area anytime soon.

As the funding for my projects dwindled (2013-2014), I was reminded that teaching, not research, was my first love and best skill.   On to career plan C: resume part-time teaching, then try to parlay that experience into a stable full-time teaching position.

Before long, I had plenty to teach at the University of Washington’s fast-growing Bothell campus.  UW-Bothell was launching a new nursing program that included a two-quarter human anatomy & physiology (A&P) sequence, so I split my time between that and some comparative (i.e., not-just-humans) A&P courses.

In the spring of 2015, I was offered a two-year position at Evergreen State College and got a one-year counter-offer from UW-Bothell; I accepted the latter.  Even better, UW-Bothell was about to make “my” position (official title: Full-Time Lecturer) a quasi-permanent one.  Better still, it decided that it would hire not one but two people like me!

As required by university rules, a national search commenced.  My confidence was sky-high.  My CV now included several peer-reviewed papers on science education (though on the admittedly narrow topic of teaching science with music) as well as the lab research papers.  I was teaching all of the courses emphasized in the job ad and was getting very good student and peer evaluations.  I made substantive, well-received contributions to faculty discussions.  I genuinely liked and respected my colleagues, and the feelings were mutual.  As one of six finalists (and the only one of three internal candidates who was already a full-timer), I offered a teaching demonstration that showcased my novel approach to a fundamental, tricky topic (electrochemical gradients across cell membranes) that fit the neurobiology theme of the job ad.  I included multiple active-learning activities and a strong conclusion.

I felt unstoppable.  Fourteen years after finishing my Ph.D., I would finally be settling into a stable position that I really wanted and totally deserved.

And then I got a call from my department chair.  “I’m afraid I have bad news,” he began.  I hadn’t gotten the job – either job.  I was a well-liked, already-successful internal candidate, and I couldn’t even place in the top two.

I felt the nausea of sudden, profound disillusionment and disbelief.  It was the sensation of my first wife leaving me, four and a half years earlier.

What had gone wrong?  How had my “sure thing” gotten away from me?

We’ll never know the full story, but I have my guesses.

A piece of feedback that my colleagues were able to share with me was that, unlike some other finalists, I had not made a strong case that I could teach non-A&P courses in the major, such as microbiology or evolution.  This was true, although, in my defense, my interviewers hadn’t brought this up, so I hadn’t either.

Another possible factor dawned on me as I observed UW-Bothell’s introductory biology course in September. The students were given an overview of faculty research projects in which they could potentially participate – including those of the two new A&P hires, even though they had not been given lab space and could not be expected to run research programs.  Presumably their candidacies benefited from their willingness to supervise student research anyway, whereas I had not seriously considered this.

So what do these two things – teaching non-A&P courses and doing optional research with undergrads – have in common?

Well, neither was emphasized in the job ad or interviews.  But both reflect the values and needs of UW-Bothell’s biology department, where a small number of faculty (now 12 full-timers) serve a whole lot of students (~100 majors per year) with as much individual attention as possible.

It’s important that all of the courses required for the major be taught frequently, even when individuals go on leave or refuse to teach their specialty for a 15th consecutive time.  So teaching versatility is prized, especially with Lecturers, who teach more courses per year than tenure-track faculty do (8 per three-quarter academic year, versus 4).

As for undergraduate research, this is a graduation requirement for all biology majors – an unusual one, but one that the department feels strongly about, so the faculty have to accommodate all of the students somehow.  Lecturers who serve as research mentors thus lighten the load of the tenure-track folks.

Again, these were subtle aspects of a search mostly designed to find excellent A&P instructors.  I shouldn’t beat myself up too much for having handled them imperfectly.  But I might have gotten an offer if I had thought even more carefully about my department’s unique values and needs, both advertised and hidden, and worked even harder to articulate how I could help reflect those values and meet those needs.

Hope Jahren touches on this point with her usual hyperbole and humor in her comic book “How to get a faculty job in 20 not-so-easy steps” (see #11):

In every department there’s one dismal job that everyone has been avoiding for years. It could be anything. It could be offering a required course, it could be leading an alumni field trip, it could be writing the annual newsletter — anything. If you can figure out what this job is, and state forcefully that you want to do it, the position is pretty much yours right there. Not only do you not mind teaching “Science 101 for the Declaredly Uninterested”, all the events of your life have been catapulting you towards doing it. You will never feel fulfilled until you can put on your C.V. that you negotiated putting a vending machine in the department’s front office. You get the idea.

Take care not to sound desperate, though.  At The Professor Is In (a must-read blog for aspiring academics), Kellie Weinhold explains how to signal your fit in a dignified manner:

Here’s an example…. “I am particularly interested in this department because of its commitment to examining media communications from a global perspective, challenging the western media normative model, which I’m doing in my own work by examining media portrayals of race and class in the coverage of labor unions in the US and Chile.” You will note, I did not say that I fit. I did not say that I would be a good addition. I simply said you do this and I do this.

So how does one suss out a department’s less obvious values and needs?  My advice would be to begin with the usual observations and conversations and then ask questions about things that strike you as unclear or unusual.  In my case, for example, I was aware that Investigative Biology (a lab-based course by which many students fulfill their research requirement) was sometimes taught by Lecturers rather than Professors, even though the Lecturers aren’t expected to have big research programs that can accommodate lots of students.  If I had asked questions about this, I might have realized just how committed my department was to giving every single major a research experience, determined how I could plausibly teach an Investigative Biology course of my own, and sold the idea to my delighted and gratified colleagues.  As it was, I mumbled some stuff about continuing my educational research on teaching biology with music – which was fine, but NOT a direct solution to a major departmental need.

Anyway, so much for my job-search autopsy.  I could go on and on about other little things that I could have done differently. (I haven’t even gotten to my interview attire, or my choice of dinner entrée….) But doing so would imply, wrongly, that everything was under my control, that the job was simply mine to win or lose.   It wasn’t.  It never is.  You cannot control who else applies, who’s on the search committee, whether your particular expertise is redundant with that of another faculty member, etc. etc. etc.

What you can control, as Jeremy has said:  Reconcile your job search with your other priorities.  Accept that the odds are against you.  Try your best not to take the rejections too personally.  And cultivate a backup plan.

Speaking of which, I’m about to start an online masters program that will allow me to teach high school.

Also, another child is due in February.

Good luck to us all.

9 thoughts on “The teaching job that slipped through my fingers, and what I learned from that experience

  1. Thank you very much for sharing this story! Another thing that may (or may not) have played a role: I think that it can sometimes be harder for someone who is already at a place to get an offer because they don’t seem as novel (and perhaps therefore as exciting). I know people often talk of internal candidates in a way that implies that the odds are stacked in favor of them, but I think it can work the other way, too.

    Congrats on the upcoming birth, and good luck with the teaching program!

    • Glad you brought this up Meg. I agree, I don’t think it’s possible to generalize on whether internal candidates are at an advantage or disadvantage. While I was a postdoc in the UK, I had the experience of being an internal candidate, and having at least one of the external candidates assume that I was a shoo-in because I was the internal candidate. I didn’t get the job (and as an aside I personally didn’t see myself as a shoo-in, or even at any particular advantage over any of the other candidates). And I *also* had the experience of being an external candidate for another job and having an internal candidate for that job assume that I was a shoo-in because I was being flown in from overseas. Because why would a department shell out for that unless they were planning to hire me? (not a sensible inference, I don’t think, but that was what this person inferred.) Anyway, I didn’t get that job either.

      Bottom line: as an applicant for a faculty position, I think it is a waste of mental and emotional bandwidth trying to guess which of the other applicants is “favored” by attribute X (being an internal candidate, being a particular gender, working on a particular topic, using a particular approach, having come out of a particular lab, knowing someone on the search committee…). Whatever generalization you’ve heard, or think you can infer from your own experience–like “internal candidates generally are favored”–is either false, or at least is not something anyone really knows or has any good reason to believe. Just put in the best application you can, give the best interview you can if you get to that stage (and this post has some good advice on that–thanks Greg!), and let the chips fall where they may.

      And unless you have direct feedback from contacts on the search committee, it’s also a waste of time to try to guess why whoever was hired over you got the job and you didn’t, especially if you made it to the interview stage. I totally understand why people do this–I used to do it myself, back when I was a postdoc looking for faculty positions. But looking back, that kind of speculation also was a waste of mental and emotional energy on my part. It was just my mind’s unproductive way of venting frustration that I hadn’t gotten the job. Fortunately, I never let myself get *too* invested in that kind of speculation. I always felt like I’d done the best I could in the interview at the time (even if looking back I could see that there were things I maybe could’ve done better). And because I knew that there were lots of other really good people applying for the same jobs as me, so I knew that whoever was hired over me was going to be really good. I mostly never got my hopes up so high that I expected to get any given job. And I managed never to let myself get bitter, or feel hopeless about my prospects (even though my lifetime batting average on getting jobs after having interviewed is 1/12), or leap to any unwarranted conclusions about being beaten out by inside candidates or whatever.

      • Jeremy & Meg – thanks for these replies. This comment from Meg is one I’ve struggled with a bit recently, having gotten to the interview stage for 2 postdoc positions and 1 tenure track position, but falling just short (to internal candidates on 2 of the 3 occasions). I’ve consciously driven myself to “brush it off”, but it’s difficult to not ponder why or how Candidate X succeeded over you (and even more difficult to not chalk it up to the idea that the internal candidate was chosen before the ad was even released). In most of my subsequent conversations about this, it’s often agreed that internal candidates have an advantage (as Meg noted at the end of her reply). So I appreciate the perspective that searches are (typically) genuine and the best candidates will be selected–”letting the chips fall where they may”, in Jeremy’s words. It’s important for ECRs to keep in mind that they are not in control of search outcomes, but simply need to put their best foot forward and see what happens. Thanks for that reminder!

    • Meg: thank you! I share Jeremy’s view that it’s hard to generalize about internal candidates. In my case, I don’t think it was a disadvantage. Of the 2 people who actually got the jobs, 1 was external and 1 was internal.

      Jeremy: If I were trying to embarrass you — just hypothetically! — I’d probably mention that you tried out for the college’s improv comedy group 4 times and were rejected 4 times. And that this _could_ be taken, hypothetically, as evidence of an innate lack of humorousness that should discourage you from ever making jokes on the blog or elsewhere. 🙂 But in reality, I think that, like me, (A) you are funnier in writing than orally and (B) your sense of humor has improved over the last 2 decades.

      • You’re too late, I’ve already told that story on the blog too. 😄

        EDIT: And you forgot to point out that I made callbacks three times when auditioning for the improv comedy troupe. Which is evidence not for total lack of humor, but merely for an inadequate amount of humor. 🙂

  2. Pingback: 2016, agGREGated: Trump, job applications, pregnancy | My Track Record

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