Applying for jobs when you have a job

With a combination of hard work, excellent mentors, and some luck, I landed two tenure-track offers during my postdoc, negotiated for almost everything I needed to make me happy as I started my research program, and began my appointment as a faculty member four years ago. Still, I apply for jobs every year, which is mentally frustrating and takes up a lot of time. Why am I still in this boat?  The two-body problem, which sciwo has already eloquently discussed on this blog and which many contributed ideas to. This year, my husband and I ended up with a series of interviews and negotiated a better situation for ourselves, although we have yet to sign on the dotted line anywhere. In this post, I’d like to share some of my experiences with how to manage applying for a job when you have a job.

How did we end up with our current approximate solution for the two-body problem? The year my husband and I met, we were postdocs in different states and had both already begun applying for jobs. He is a humanist, in a field that has first-round interviews at a conference (side note: this interview scenario would be a nightmare for me, interviewing in a hotel suite with a panel of faculty members, who could easily be all male. How do women in the humanities, or humanists generally, do it?). By the time we both had campus visits, none of which were remotely paired in the same geographic area, we were engaged. He accepted a job at an R1 in the Midwest. I had a year left in my postdoc, got a job offer from my current institution and brought up my partner. The Dean politely glanced at my husband’s CV and mentioned how many institutions were near my current institution.

And then, almost two months later, I got another offer and both institutions became interested in finding two positions for us. Ultimately, we did not get two tenure-track offers and my then-fiancé made a tough decision: he left his tenure-track job to take on a multi-year non-tenure-track position so we could be in the same place. I’m sure many of you have made this sacrifice, or thought about it, or will make it in the future. At the time it was tough, but the idea of starting our marriage living apart was tougher.

Since we moved to our current positions, our day to day life has been wonderful. We often think about what would have happened if we had stuck to our independent tenure-track jobs.  We probably wouldn’t own a house, we probably wouldn’t have our dog, and I doubt we would have our baby. But my husband might have been happier at work, and I might have been too; one of the insidious side effects of an unstable two-body solution is that it makes one continually re-evaluate one’s current situation and see the dark underbelly of one’s current institution. We sit under different Deans in our university, and the culture in the humanities at our institution is less inclusive towards non-tenure-track faculty than in the sciences; my husband cannot attend faculty meetings, he can’t advise senior theses independently, his courses are scheduled during the department seminar time. These small slights would not occur in my department. And there has been the eternal stress of his contract – while we’re lucky it’s not year-to-year, it is not permanent and so we’ve always mentally had one foot out the door.  Not an ideal mental state when one is recruiting lab members.

This year, we both had multiple campus visits; our past applications were choosier (i.e., one or two a year), and there weren’t great jobs in my husband’s field. Also, I learned from colleagues at a conference last year that my application was viewed skeptically in a few places: people thought I was angling for early promotion at my current institution and wasn’t serious about moving. This year we did garner two tenure-track offers at another institution, and our current institution has offered to elevate my husband’s position to Senior Lecturer, which is a full faculty member here and a permanent contract with access to research funds, travel funds, etc. We will likely stay, although no decisions have been made yet.

Some things I wish I had known earlier:

1) The most important factor in getting a solution to a two-body problem is time. The first time around, it helped I was deferring my first faculty job for a year anyway. Everywhere I interviewed knew this to begin with, as I had a prestigious postdoc with three years of funding. This is the reason why we were able to be in the same place initially to begin with: I got my first offer in March and only signed my contract in October. Apply early in your postdoc, and stick to your timeline especially if you are applying to R1 jobs; it is rare a research-oriented university will pressure a scientist to start immediately.

2) Go to every interview, even if you have an offer. This is hard to do, especially as places can try to strongarm a candidate with a verbal offer into quick decisions. If you can, don’t cancel interviews once you have an offer but do tell your future site visits about your offer and give an honest timeline to the institution that has made you an offer (I like two weeks post-date-when-I-may-get-verbal-offer-from-last-interview). If you can be transparent about your timeline needed to make a decision with everyone, hopefully they’ll give you time to do it. My pet peeve about academic interviewing is that the institution will never let the applicant feel in the driver seat, even when you get the offer. Things I’ve heard during my time interviewing: “We got 200 applicants for this job, so have many people we can move on to.”; “We need to fill this search, and at some point that will be more important than filling it with our best applicant.”; “You should make your decision about where to work based on science and not your personal life.” (That last one was my “favorite”.) The sentence “I can’t give you an answer [until two weeks after I hear from my last interview].” is your friend.

This is an R1-specific tip; time to decide can be hard to negotiate for a teaching faculty position, where filling the spot in a timely way becomes important and an institution might worry that waiting means missing out on the person who is second on their list. In my experience at R1s, the person at the top of the short list takes on unicorn status – colleagues really want that person, and are more likely to redo the search than to try recruiting the next candidate. This becomes less true if the search doesn’t fill multiple times, but in that case the department is more likely to want to keep negotiations going with their top candidate.

3) Get it in writing. During our first round of negotiations, one institution put in my offer letter that it was pursuing a position for my husband. Nothing more concrete than that, but even seeing that in writing mobilized my current institution. Also, getting one institution to put a delayed deadline for signing the contract can help extend your time for saying yes (i.e., if one place will give you two months, that can get the other institution to ease up on their one-week deadline).

4) If you want to stay, communicate early with your chair. My postdoctoral advisor is chair of his department and I asked his advice on whether I should tell my current chair that I’m applying for jobs or not. What he said turned out to work well for me: “If you want to leave, wait until you have an offer. If you want ultimately to stay and want to negotiate something like a higher salary/more space, tell your chair when you have an interview.” I have a good relationship with my chair, and telling him about my first interview was a good idea. He was completely understanding and said he knew this had been coming and was ready to advocate for me.

5) Know what hill you’re willing to die on. What do you want from your current institution? Be ready to tell your chair when you talk about that first interview. I told my chair from the beginning that ultimately we wanted to stay but needed permanency (or the option of it, pending tenure reviews). This is one aspect of the two-body negotiation that has also bugged me: I end up negotiating less for myself because I am pushing for two salaries. Everytime I do this, I worry that the authors of Women Don’t Ask are screaming “Ask for more for yourself too!”.  If you have advice about this, let me know.  In the end, I said I wanted two positions, but nothing else for me currently.

6) If you have a colleague at the campus you’re applying to, get them to tell the search committee you’re serious. Telling colleagues at other institutions that I am open to leaving my institution got me onto short lists. It’s hard to write about the two-body problem in a cover letter, especially when one’s partner is in a radically different field. We opted to not discuss our situation in our cover letter, even when an institution advertised two jobs in our fields (it actually happened twice!).  But there are different approaches to this: see this for one awesome successful example. Our tack has been to bring the other up when we have a campus visit with the department chair and the chair of the search committee. One of the nice things about having a job and applying for other jobs is that it’s not as scary to mention the two-body problem!

7) Tell your lab when you have interviews. I interviewed with pre-tenure faculty members for grad school and always asked them about their pre-tenure status and what would happen to me if I were their student and the faculty member was denied tenure. I think it is important to discuss with any prospective applicant to my group where I am in the tenure clock and that I may leave. I told my lab in confidence about my interviews, and that I was only telling my chair but not other colleagues. For a couple of them this was tough to hear the first time, but it is an important step.

8) Find friends to practice your job talk with. Google hangouts can be really useful for this; I was nervous about telling many people on campus about my interviews, but I do have one colleague I talked to about my upcoming visits who watched my practice talk. I highly recommend not skipping this step.  Even though, as professors, we give lots of talks, job talks are a special animal that require some energy to cultivate.

9) Get ready to answer why you’re interested in leaving your current place from an academic standpoint. The internet has made being on the job market easier: when I brought up my partner during campus visits, the department chairs usually already knew about our situation (and saw it as a positive). However, in every one-on-one meeting, potential future colleagues wanted to know why I was looking around. Some of them seemed a little concerned, as though they were wondering if I was a toxic personality or something. I would urge people to have academic reasons to discuss why the institution one is interviewing at may be a better fit than one’s current situation. In my case, I am glad to have my current job but there are things I am looking for and I detailed those. Be ready with something believable and be ready to repeat it in every meeting.

In the end I think our two-body story will have a happy ending, although my husband and I have aged during this process. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about what’s worked for those of you in this situation, and what you worry about if your solution is still unstable (or if this problem is on the horizon for you).

7 thoughts on “Applying for jobs when you have a job

  1. Great post. I wish someone had told me #5 and the last tip was really key during the interview stage. The only one I’d disagree with is telling your lab. For me it took multiple years of interviews before I made the move, and so I think it would have unneccessarily worried them. But I have primarily MS students, so the time to degree completion is shorter than for PhD students. In the end, I left a few students, but they were co-advised and have progressed well.

    • Thanks for laying the ground for this post with your two-body problem post! I agree that telling one’s lab is a touchy one – I think being open that one might move and will be open as real options unfold is good though. And it helps build good committees, coadvisors, etc.

      Originally I had two #5s – which one was relevant to you as the list stands now?

    • I think timeline is a consideration when deciding when to tell the lab. For me, I knew even if I got the offer, we wouldn’t be moving for another 15 months, so I didn’t say anything to the lab until everything was signed on the dotted line. That still was plenty of time for my students to finish. If the timeline will potentially be much shorter and students may need to scramble for a replacement lab or advisor, probably telling them that sooner is better, even if the offer doesn’t come to fruition.

  2. As a grad student whose adviser went on the job market — the PI told us when they had on campus interviews. All of the lab members were really supportive (PI was shocked if weng so well) and we were kept informed every step of the way. I think I would have felt resentment if my advisor didn’t tell me until everything was final. Plus it was good to have that heads up to plan projects and make the necessary arrangements for the potential change.

    I recommend discussing with your lab early — be open and honest. Another plus to being transparent-ish in this process is it provides good experience for when we are on the job market.

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s great to hear about your experience, and I agree that learning about things like this from your PI gives more insight into the future job market you’ll be entering.

  3. Thanks for this very thoughtful post. As new faculty now, having survived the search process and now having served on search committees, I appreciated all of your points here (although for #2, there are so many different inputs to the system). And I’m re-gaining my appreciation for #8 – job talk or regular talk, so necessary.
    When I was a wee grad student, my adviser went up for tenure and went out for a few interviews (in retrospect, this was for leverage on his part). He told us at the time of interviews, and it’s likely that I would have moved with him.

  4. In am in the same situation here. My husband has a tenure track job, I have a non tenure year to year contract. I am going to the job market again and there are a few places that offer positions for both of us
    (we are from humanities and engineering). Should we mention that in our letter? How did you bring it up? Thanks for the advice.

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