The Good Old Days

I started applying for faculty jobs in 1983, after about a year and a half as a postdoc.  The job market was tight then, as the US was coming out of a deep recession.  (Sound familiar?)  And faculty jobs in microbial evolution simply didn’t exist in those days.  So I applied for any and all positions that had anything to do with ecology or evolution, whether at big universities, small colleges, or anywhere else.  The first year I sent out around 75 applications, as I recall.  And I do mean sent out, because in those days applicants had to copy things and mail them.  I had one interview, but no offer.  Meanwhile, Bruce Levin’s grant that was going to support me going forward got rejected.

My wife and I had one child, and our second was on the way.  I wasn’t panicked, although maybe I should have been!  However, I did start vaguely thinking about back-up plans.  I was good with numbers, and I’d written a couple of papers on the analysis of life-table data with Phil Service when we were grad students.  So when I saw an announcement for some talk on actuarial analysis, it caught my eye.  I thought that might be a possible alternative career.  I went to the talk, and I might even have gotten a business card from the speaker.

In the months ahead, Bruce revised and resubmitted the grant and, thankfully, it was funded, so I was secure for a while longer.  The next year, I again sent out applications far and wide.  I had a couple more papers, so my CV was stronger and the economy was improving, too.  I got three interviews and, with my postdoc secure, I actually declined another one.  However, the interviews were near the due-date for our second child, so I worried that I might have to cancel (and reschedule, if they’d allow it) the interviews.  Luckily, #2 arrived in time.  So I left my wife at home with a 10-day old baby and a toddler … and took off for back-to-back-to-back interviews.  Soon after I got home, I got two job offers on the same day.  (When it rains, it pours.)  One offer was from UC-Irvine, and that’s where we went after deferring the start for a year so I could get more research done as a postdoc.

I see there’s a lot of angst out there about the job market in academics.  And rightfully so.  Positions are scarce, and the competition is extraordinary.  I feel fortunate that I got a very good faculty position to start my career.  Things were tough back in the day, but they are much tougher now.  I admire all of you who are pursuing your dreams, but it never hurts to consider a backup plan – whether you need to use it or not.  There are, after all, many roads to happiness and success.


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12 responses to “The Good Old Days

  1. Thanks for sharing this Rich. It resonates with my own experience. Indeed, my postdoc actually did run out. I was starting to pursue my backup plan when I was offered the job I now hold:

    And here’s my fellow blogger Meg’s story of how she almost quit grad school, and probably would have had her adviser not happened to be in town at the time:

    In the comment thread on Meg’s post, we talked about the interplay of stochasticity and determinism here. Both Meg and I (and it sounds like you as well) are very lucky to hold the positions we now hold. What helped me to deal with this was the fact that my scientific career, while important to me, wasn’t the only thing that was important to me. So was my wife’s career, and our social lives, and many other things. So while I obviously can’t know for sure how I would’ve felt if I’d ended up as a schoolteacher in London rather than as an ecologist in Calgary, I hope that I still would’ve been happy, just happy for different reasons. As you say, there are many roads to happiness and success.

  2. duffymeg

    Wow — an actuary! I always used to think about what I would do if this whole academia thing didn’t work out, but I haven’t had a viable career in mind in recent years. Fortunately, so far the academia thing is working out. 🙂 But I still sometimes think about what I would do if I were not an academic, because I think it’s a useful way of reminding myself that, while I sometimes find it stressful, I love my job and wouldn’t want a different one. It would be possible to, say, quit and go to film school (as Randy Olson did:, but I have no desire to do that.

    I also know some people who keep their backup plan in mind as a way of helping them set boundaries. Someone I know, when someone suggested she’d be more hireable if she just added on component X to her work, replied that she’d rather go to her back up plan (K-12 teacher) than add component X. (In the end, by the way, she got multiple tenure track offers, without adding component X.) In some ways, that’s similar to what was covered in the “7 year postdoc” piece:
    At its core, the piece is saying that, by not stressing about keeping her TT position, she was better able to achieve that mythical work-life balance.

  3. AnxiousAssProf

    Once you get a faculty job, what is the backup plan? With funding the way it is now, being out of a job (denied tenure) in ~3 years time is a very real possibility for me. With the added difficulty that you’ve become, if anything, more specilized and therefore less generally employable?

    • That’s a difficult problem and hard question. I don’t have the answer. I would advise anyone in this situation, though, to at least keep an eye out for alternatives.

      For example, if you’re at a major research-oriented university, and if you enjoy teaching, then you might consider applying for openings at small liberal arts colleges — especially if your area of research can be done inexpensively and still excite undergrads, as might be the case in some areas of ecology. Or, if you’re in a high-tech or biomedical field, then consider applying for jobs in the corporate world.

      Of course, these ideas are not really meant for you, since I don’t know you or your situation. Rather, these are some ideas that I might discuss with someone I knew, depending on his or her particular circumstances.

    • ritebrother

      I was in the same boat, and can empathize with the panic you feel. The small grants I had when I started had ended, and my larger NIH and NSF applications were getting good scores but not getting funded for largely programmatic reasons. My two re-appointments during the pre-tenure period had gone well, but it was clear that the lack of a major grant was going to be a problem. What saved me was forcing myself out of my well-worn research focus and aggressively pursuing collaborations where my background could be complemented those of other investigators to allow pursuing a new research focus. This fortunately led to an NIH R01 in time for the P+T deadline. I’m not sure if this applies to you, but it’s something to consider. In today’s funding climate, collaborative proposals that combine expertise and resources are more likely to be successful – but you may have to get out of your comfort zone a little.

    • AnxiousAssProf

      Thanks for the advice. I’ll breathe deeply and get back to the bench but keep an eye out for alternatives and collaborations.

  4. My colleague’s about-to-finish grad student just landed a data analysis job at a San Francisco firm. Guess his starting annual salary! I guessed $60K, which is close to starting salaries for faculty with an additional 5 years of postdoctoral experience. The answer, though, is $160K! That’s right, more than I, as a current full professor, will ever earn.

    If you can analyze big data, you can command your price right now. I’ve always told my grad students that the things they learn while pursuing their PhD, especially the quantitative and analytical skills, are transferable to all kinds of situations. So, don’t shirk the stats courses.

  5. Thanks for a great post! In my experience, it takes skill, determination, and an awful lot of pure luck to get a career in academia. For my part, having a PhD on avian zoonoses was a good thing when H5N1 hit Europe in 2006 – for a while the funding was easy. But that was hardly a thing I could have anticipated.

    I read this post by a Swiss PhD candidate that handed in a resignation letter 3 months before completing his PhD:

    He has some good points, and some less good points, but it tells of the hardships the people that stand in the doorway feel for the future.

  6. NobodyReally546

    It is not enough to win The Glass Bead Game. Others must lose.