Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Greg Crowther.
Previously I have whined about the difficulties of getting a good, stable college teaching job. This whining is perhaps justified by the extremely low supply of these jobs relative to the demand. But since almost everyone, including me, likes happy endings, I now wish to present a happy ending. That’s right – I have received and accepted an offer for an ongoing full-time position. At the age of 44, I have finally climbed aboard the tenure track.
It is tempting to tell this story as, “after my past job-search failures, I learned lessons X, Y, and Z, which I then parlayed into my present success” – so tempting, in fact, that I am going to do just that. However, this simplistic narrative does NOT mean that my fate has been entirely in my own hands the whole time. It hasn’t. Luck (good and bad) has always been a major player, and contributed to the present success just as it contributed to the past failures. For example, my Ph.D. is in Physiology & Biophysics, which turns out to be useful on the job market because community colleges offer tons of anatomy & physiology (A&P) courses to pre-health (pre-nursing, pre-dental, pre-PT, pre-pharmacy, etc.) students, and thus need tons of A&P instructors. I didn’t go into physiology because of these market considerations; I just got lucky.
Luck aside, I like to think that I am demonstrating a “growth mindset” (a catchphrase from the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, but one with good research behind it) and am learning from my shortcomings. One shortcoming that has probably hurt me in past interviews is that I don’t look directly at people when talking to them while thinking hard. My family, to its credit, forced me to practice making better eye contact. Thus, in my latest interviews, I appeared less shifty than I had before.
Another area where I’ve improved through recent practice is that of sussing out institutions’ specific priorities and signaling my compatibility. The school where I was a finalist this spring wants to (A) reduce inconsistencies among its various A&P instructors and (B) decide whether to continue offering anatomy and physiology as separate courses even though most other schools integrate the two. I discerned that the new hire would be expected to take the lead on these tricky issues, and I signaled my readiness to do this, asking relevant questions and offering possible strategies, while refraining from overt bragging about my leadership skills.
Another institutional priority of this school (and many others) is that of being available and engaging to ALL students (not just the motivated and assertive ones). How could I address this in a 15-minute teaching demo on the function of nephrons (in the kidney)? I devised a relevant, straightforward question with many possible one- to three-word answers: “What’s in our blood?” Within one minute, I had gotten responses from each of the six committee members. Everyone was welcome – everyone was participating – and off we went around the nephron together.
Despite my feeling that I was learning from my mistakes and doing my best, this spring could have been excruciating. At one school, I made it to the semifinal round, but then had an extremely awkward interview in which the search committee and I sat at opposite ends of an enormous boardroom table; by the time I got home, I had received an email announcing my elimination. At another school, I was the third of three finalists to be interviewed; 10 days passed, and I started to lose hope; I was then invited to meet with the vice president, and did so; 16 more days passed, and I again started to lose hope; and then, improbably, I received an offer.
The thing that saved me from going crazy was having a good backup plan – teaching high school, in my case, toward which I had been working (via an online program) since the previous fall.
Last summer, before I had really embraced this backup plan, I had been a finalist in yet another search. With my fall plans completely up in the air, I told the search committee, “I really, REALLY want this job!!!” I tried to say it in a humorous way, and some people did laugh, but they may have sensed my underlying fear and desperation. This time around, with the backup plan providing a sense of stability, I was able to avoid sounding unhinged.
And so – after dozens of unsuccessful applications for college teaching positions in the Seattle area (the only area where I can live, due to family reasons) over the past several years – I’ve been hired to teach human A&P full-time at Everett Community College.
I’ll start in January. It’ll be great! And in the meantime, I can finally stop looking at job ads.
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“The thing that saved me from going crazy was having a good backup plan – teaching high school, in my case, toward which I had been working (via an online program) since the previous fall.”
I had the same experience and healthy attitude, although in my case my backup plan was more TBD (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/advice-how-i-almost-quit-science/). But like you, I got comfortable with the idea of doing something else with my life. Which had I gone down that road, wouldn’t have meant that I’d failed, or that I was settling for second best, or that I was wasting my PhD, or that I was letting my academic mentors down, or that I was doing something I wasn’t trained for, or that I was foolish or duped or exploited to ever try pursuing academia in the first place. It merely would’ve meant that I’d decided to do something else with my life. Which is totally fine, people do that all the time, and it’s a good thing.
Anne Krook is good on the importance of this attitude: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/helping-grad-students-pursue-non-academic-careers-advice-from-anne-krook/
I believe you have done a great service in openly sharing your search process and the candid discussion of what is and what is not under your control.
By the way the way, although my context was different, and I cannot explain it, I agree that there is something about not desperately wanting the job that makes you appealing to search committees. For others still searching, I hasten to add that not appearing interested in the job or not being able to articulate why you want their job is a fatal mistake so don’t do it, but being in a place where you’re fine if it goes another way, which I suppose is a form of confidence, does seem to improve your odds a bit.
Agree Brian. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but yeah, for me I think the optimal mindset in which to interview for a job was “keen but not desperate”.
Thanks, Brian! I hope this has indeed been helpful, rather than just being self-pity and self-congratulation in disguise. (Out comes my insecurity about contributing to an ecology blog as a non-ecologist. Imposter syndrome strikes again!)
I think everything you reported could have happened to an ecologist so definitely relevant! Thanks again
Congratulations Greg. I’m very glad your new job is in this area. The challenge on integrating the anatomy and physiology courses into one should certainly envelope any free time you have remaining from your new dad family responsibilities. Best Wishes!!!
Way to go Greg! It is always refreshing to hear about people on the other side of 40 getting a foot inside the tenure door. I think Brian’s comment about not appearing too eager to search committees also has some relevance. Throughout my career I worked non-tenure track faculty positions (mostly research gigs)- and had no interest in the tenured positions for a variety of reasons (flexibility likely a big one). In 2012 (at the ripe ole age of 50)- I was approached about the potential of upgrading from non-tenure to tenure-track, and even then I was hesitant. I did not want to run the gauntlet at my age, and so I was simply granted tenure without all the fuss most endure- although already working for the institution likely played into that. I am very pleased you shared your story, because I know once I was over the age of 40, people often went out of their way to say I should never think about tenure- because I was too old to start down that road. And they made those comments even though I had no intent of looking for a tenured gig. Thus there does seem to be a huge age bias involved as well.
Elliot, I’m glad that things have worked out for you as well! I sometimes wonder about age discrimination, but have no real knowledge of its presence or absence. One thing that I have wanted to convey in job interviews (to address the age issue indirectly) is, “If you’re wondering why a wonderful candidate like me is still available and not already tenured somewhere else, it’s because I am confined to the Seattle area for family reasons, and thus have not had the luxury of a nationwide job search.” But I’m not sure I’ve ever successfully reassured a search committee in that way. One should be careful about raising concerns that the committee didn’t even know they should have and, in doing so, coming across as insecure or worse.
Congratulations. And yes, it is quite a process. Thanks for your unique post on this. I enjoy learning from your blog.
Congratulations! All the best in your new job! I hope it will be less stressful than the job search!
I hope that as well!
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How exciting! Congratulations!