What I learned from watching job talks

My (small, research-focused) department is in the process of hiring two new people at a level equivalent to ‘Lecturer’ or ‘Assistant Professor.’ One is in a field I’m sort-of in, and the other was about as far away as you can get from my subject while still being in the same department, though both were advertised as having a very broad scope.

I have no idea how this is done at other universities, but in my university, here’s the procedure: the short-listed candidates come in for their interviews all on the same day. In the morning, they each give a 20-minute talk on their current and future research plans, followed by questions, and then in the afternoon they have formal interviews with the panel. In between, they awkwardly chat with each other, are entertained by the grad students, are free to meet with anyone they want at the university, etc.

In the audience of the job talks are the interview panel and a small group of ‘others.’ This is where I come in. The ‘others’ are postdocs, other department members, members of other departments, etc, who have volunteered or been roped into sitting through all of the talks. These are the folks who will be asking questions after the talks (for HR-related reasons, the interview panel can’t), and after all the talks are over, these folks will discuss each of the candidates and rank them while the interview panel watches/listens. After the interviews are all done, the interview panel may reach back out to one of the ‘others’ for clarification, and/or may consult the grad students for their views on the candidates that they’ve been hanging out with all day.

I got to be one of those others, and oh boy it was fascinating. Here are my thoughts and observations, in no particular order. To give a bit of context, in the first batch, all five candidates were SUPERB, and the department would have been very happy with any of them. In the second batch, three of the five were absolute train-wrecks, but the other two were phenomenal (for slightly different reasons) and the department’s currently trying to see if it would be possible to hire both of them.

  • If the job is for an X and you’re a Y-except-Y-is-reaaaaaaaaaally-close-to-X, it’s totally possible to be short-listed, but it’s going to be down to luck after that. In the batch of five superb candidates, two of them were Y-which-isn’t-quite-the-same-as-X, and that meant they just weren’t going to be the top candidate out of that particularly strong bunch. But, look, they were shortlisted, everyone really liked them, this will be great for them from a networking perspective, and if for some reason the other three all turn us down? One of these two would be hired in a heartbeat, never mind that they aren’t really an X.
  • Seniority doesn’t matter all that much. As long as you’re above a certain threshold of productivity and experience, you’ll be judged as appropriate for your career stage.
  • If the instructions are to talk about your future research plans, talk about your future research plans. In concrete details. “I have submitted a grant for Project Z. I’m working with these collaborators to set up Thing W.”
  • Have an answer ready about recruiting postdocs and grad students.
  • Have an answer ready about incorporating undergraduates into your research.
    • Seriously, we had someone list off 10 fascinating, sensible undergraduate dissertation topics that could arise from his work. Super impressive.
  • Have an answer ready about how your research can inform teaching.
    • Bonus points if you’ve figured out who’s leaving the department and what gaps that’s going to leave in the teaching.
  • Do your research about the institution and/or country. A few people really, really flubbed questions that showed that they had no idea about the university as a whole or about how the system works here. Don’t do that.
    • Have a good, specific answer for how you’d work with colleagues already in the department. Bonus points if you work that into your talk.
    • Have a good, specific answer for how you’d take advantage of university resources outside of the department.
    • Are there any academic policy buzzwords that the department/university/government is really into at the moment? This is totally Googleable, and you will get asked about them.
  • Personality can be make-or-break. If at the end of the day, someone says ‘wow, their research is superb, but they’d drive me nuts as a colleague,’ then you’re gone. Or, less damning but still not a good sign, ‘wow, undergrads are going to hate them.’ On the other hand, if the grad students come back and say ‘wow, this person was really great, they were super-approachable and explained their research to really well when we were getting them coffee’? That’s really going to count in your favor.
  • The audience of your talk is going to be a mix of people, ranging from specialists to outsiders. In fact, the audience may have been deliberately tailored for you so as to have an expert in your sub-specialty and someone who does the complete opposite as to what you do. Your talk needs to be exciting to both types of people. Yes, it’s hard. Too bad. If at the end of your talk the specialists say “wow, this person is so inspiring!” but the outsiders are saying “wth, I didn’t understand a word of that,” then you’re not going to get the job. At least not at this university.
    • Some of the grad students and postdocs may have questions planted from their supervisors. Don’t be surprised if the person who looks like she’s about 20 (*cough* me) (I look super-young) asks you really specific high-level questions.
    • But on the flip side of the above point, sometimes the grad students and postdocs really are just trying to make small-talk, because they’re not allowed to leave you alone in the break room but they’re tired/stressed/whatever. They might end up talking to you about pizza. Don’t be surprised either way.
  • It’s really competitive. I’m sorry.
    • Seriously, the first batch where all five were superb? All five were superb. But at the end of the day, four of them are going to be just as rejected as the three train-wrecks from the second group. And there’s no HR-approved way to reach out and say “wow, you were fantastic, please don’t take this to heart.”

Hello, world. I am tired and stressed.

So, yesterday my brain decided to up and power down. Shut off. “Brain says no.”

I’m used to dealing with cog fog, but that usually goes away with rest, whereas this is really something else.

In the past month, my life has been, (1) some sort of who-knows-what causing eight straight days of vomiting, followed immediately by (2) a horrifically painful shoulder/neck injury. I had to take one day off work for (1) and five days off for (2).

Then my parents invited themselves to my city for two weeks. I probably shouldn’t bitch about my parents too much, but the short version is that my relationship with them is not great. I live on a different continent for a reason. Having them visit meant that I had to take three hours out of my workday, each and every night, as well as both weekends off, to ‘spend time with them.’ For someone with serious fatigue issues, this was grueling. This past Monday my body gave me a big, fat NO, and I was forced to spend the day in bed in real, serious pain; I’m still feeling pretty sick. I’m also clearly coming down with my mother’s cold. (Which isn’t really her fault except my parents have horrendously terrible hygiene, so I’m a bit touchy when it comes to them being ill.)

Also, my former PhD supervisor is back to making known his displeasure at me. I won’t bitch about him, either, because it’s not outside the realm of possibility that someone will figure out who I am IRL, but suffice to say that there’s been some tremendously bad behavior on his part that keeps ending up being my problem. And, to be clear, there’s been some bad behavior on my part as well — I’m ill and I can’t make deadlines and when I get stressed I tend to vanish and these are not good qualities to have in a junior colleague. But he and I are fighting about at least 5 different things, all of which could have been solved by him not being a jackass, and it just sucks.

I’m not making enough progress on the research that is currently paying my salary, and my current supervisor is (gently and nicely) unhappy with that. I also missed some crucial deadlines recently due to illness, which made her life much more difficult, and she’s super-stressed-out both personally and professionally and deserves to have employees who make her life easier, not harder.

I’m going to some big conferences this summer and that traveling is going to suck. I’m maybe moving to a different country this autumn? But that’s still unclear? And that uncertainty sucks.

Most of my current problems would be solvable, were it not for chronic illness. If I weren’t ill, I could put in a few late nights, catch up on all of these things, stop people from being (rightly) mad at me. I could have been the model PhD student, rather than the PhD student who always disappears, so that when I reported my former supervisor for some of his bad behavior, others would have been more willing to intervene. I wouldn’t have to worry about the health effects of international travel. I wouldn’t be so stressed about jobs and visas. (I legitimately do not know what I’m going to do if I lose access to socialized medicine.) Me cutting off all contact with my parents could be a viable option when they don’t respect my boundaries, rather than me having to face the reality that I’ll someday soon need their financial help.

At the moment I’m a bad employee. I get it. If I can only accomplish half of a normal academic’s workload, then it doesn’t matter that I’m well-qualified and that I’m extremely good at my job. Life sucks for a lot of people; the fact that I have a PhD doesn’t make my situation any different.

There’s really no point to this post. I”m just whining.

You’re right, I haven’t responded to your email yet.

And, yeah, okay, some of the reason might have to do with poor time management or me purposefully avoiding you or not caring or something.

But.

Last week I spent eight straight days throwing up, and I haven’t the faintest idea why. (Welcome to chronic illness: unless it’s going to kill you, you stop caring why something happens.)

This week I am dealing with nerve pain so bad that I am crying. The pain medication that I have to take in order for “crying” not to be “screaming” makes me incredibly nauseated and very foggy.

Students get my first priority. If I’ve made a commitment to a student, I’m going to do my damndest to follow through or to find someone else to step in. The fact that some don’t understand this says more about them, and about the state of academia, than me.

The job that pays my bills gets my second priority. Even if it didn’t, my supervisor is an amazing person and therefore she is top on my “try not to disappoint” list.

Doctors appointments, a phrase which for me includes therapy, are non-negotiable. I’ve totally edited thesis chapters from hospital beds, and if it’s for something routine I’ll try to do Science via my phone from whatever medical establishment I’ve landed myself in this time, but for the most part if I’m currently dealing with doctors, I’m not dealing with you.

My medication is also non-negotiable. Once I take my evening meds, I won’t be able to Do Science for the next 11 hours. I am alive solely because of these meds.

I’ve been told that I’m not sufficiently motivated, that I’m “not ambitious,” that I should just work harder. That’s like trying to tell gravity that it shouldn’t apply. No matter how awesome I once was, everyone has limits. Everyone has a breaking point. The fact that chronic illness broke me — but, by the by, my shitty childhood didn’t — is not a statement about me but instead a statement about my illness.

I’m still a fantastic academic. I’m a world-class researcher, a great writer, an award-winning speaker, a caring and effective teacher. If I can’t fit the life of an academic into my physical limitations, then so be it.

But yelling at me for not being at your beck and call, for not dropping everything and immediately solving your problem just because you say I should? Yelling at me is not going to get you anywhere. Yeah, I don’t always instantly answer email. By all means, follow up; I’m an incredibly organized person, but, hey, maybe I did miss your email, it could happen. (More likely, you forgot to send it, but let’s not get into that…)

But you’re never going to be scarier than my illness. You’re never going to motivate me more than a 10/10 on the pain scale. And if you have some compassion? Then maybe when I’m feeling a bit better I’ll be more willing to work on your project rather than on the dozens of other things I could/should be doing right now.

I did not march this weekend.

As you’ve probably heard, there was a March for Science on Saturday. Many marches for science, actually, all over the world. There was a small one in the city that I work in, as well as a large one in the closest Very Large City.

As it happens, I’ve spent the past four days throwing up for reasons that are apparently not chronic illness related — I think I just have a stomach bug. It’s a convenient, ready-made excuse.

But the truth is, I probably wouldn’t have marched. I didn’t attend the International Women’s March, nor have I attended a number of other recent marches to do with the politics of my current host country.

There are a number of people who didn’t attend their local science march because the central DC March really screwed up diversity outreach — I respect this choice, though that’s not my reasoning. There are also a number of people who didn’t attend their local science march for the opposite reason, that they think the marches were too political — I have zero respect for this choice, since science is “political” whether you want it to be or not. (Let’s start with the fact that most academic science funding comes from government bodies, move on to the extreme partisanship in the way science is treated in the US, then take a cold hard look at the lack of diversity in the current scientific community.) (There are of course less alienating ways to frame this objection. Objecting to a march because it is too divisive is fine. But denying that something is “political” is, frankly, baffling. I wish everyone agreed on my right as a queer woman to get married. I wish that everyone agreed on my right to access healthcare. I wish that everyone agreed on my right as a woman to be paid the same as a man. But these wishes don’t make it so — these things are political whether I want them to be or not.)

Instead, I do not march because I am exhausted. I cannot stand for long periods of time without passing out. I suffer from relentless, bone-crunching fatigue. If I expend too much energy, I end up in real, serious pain, and taking medication to alleviate that pain only prolongs my recovery time. I am epically behind on work; my partner wishes she could have more of my time/attention; I would be healthier if I were able to cook or (gently) exercise or take better care of my mental health. On the Saturdays when I’m not endlessly throwing up for mysterious reasons, I have priorities that unfortunately outrank activism. Am I selling out? Absolutely. But before you judge me for selling out, please remember that my costs are different from your costs.

Disability advocacy is hard; by the very nature of our disabilities, we are ill-equipped to stand up for ourselves. This is true of other groups as well; women do far more academic service work than men, especially women of color (good summaries here and here). We’re expected to mentor more students and junior colleagues, especially students/colleagues belonging to our minority groups; we’re expected to spend time advocating for ourselves and training other people on how not to be jerks; we’re (sometimes) invited to things in the name of diversity (and then told that we don’t belong there, because diversity). We have to be better, faster, smarter, to fit more hours in the day, to do all the things that others do and then some.

As I said, it’s exhausting.

#criptax

Some of my disability / chronic illness friends are currently tweeting* about the #criptax.

Basically, the idea behind #criptax is that disabled people pay, monetarily, a much higher cost than non-disabled folks, often in ways overlooked by society.

To throw my own hat in the ring:

  • Salary. I’m currently on an 80% contract, because that’s the amount of functionality I can guarantee, especially once you subtract time for doctors appointments and therapy. So that’s 80% of another postdoc’s money, right off the bat.
  • Therapy. I spend twice as much on therapy as I do on food. Between what it costs and the time/energy I have to take out of my day, it’s a full day’s wages, each and every week. Most days, I understand that it’s important for me to take care of my mental health. There were times during my PhD, though, when I was flat broke, that I was going to therapy only because both my best friend and my partner informed me that they wouldn’t talk to me unless I swore that I was regularly seeing a professional, and I resented the hell out of this fact.
  • Food. Most days, I don’t have the energy to cook, which means I either eat very unhealthily or very expensively.
  • Housing. Between problems with balance and problems with vision, I can’t cycle, and I certainly shouldn’t be driving. This limits where I can live — and, surprise, areas within walking distance or easy public transport of major universities are not cheap. Thanks to my disability, I’m also hardly the ideal roommate — I’m hypersensitive to noise and to smells, I have a really odd sleep schedule, and I get pretty control-freak-y when I’m stressed. I also throw up a lot. This year I’m living alone and it’s amazing — I never again want to live with strangers — but it’s also very expensive.
  • Transport. Taking the bus or a taxi when healthy!me could walk or cycle. Paying more money so that I can fly or take trains at times of day that work for my medications. It adds up.

And I live in a country with socialized medicine! All of my visits to people with medical degrees are completely free, I pay a flat annual rate for prescriptions, and I don’t take that many over-the-counter medications. I also don’t have to worry about battling insurance companies, and I’m lucky enough to have a boss who’s flexible enough to accommodate my disability without me having to deal with any of this officially — the administrative time lost by most disabled people is huge.

Anyway, the point of all of this is: having a chronic illness is expensive. We pay with our time, our money, and our energy, just to exist.

* Should I get on Twitter? On the one hand, really great disability-in-academia conversations going on there. On the other hand, I already run three Twitter accounts (two professional organizations that I represent, plus my own name, which let’s be honest is mostly politics these days), and that already seems like Too Much Twitter.

Things I am currently stressed about, in no particular order

  1. My pain has been increasing recently. This both sucks in the short term (I have things to get done!) and is worrisome in the longer-term (what if this is more permanent?).
  2. I still haven’t decided what to do about these new meds. Are they helping my pain? Hard to tell. How much less anxious would I be if I got off them? It’s been two months, the anxiety’s become normalized, it’s hard to tell. How much should I be caring about the fact that they’re really screwing with my memory? That’s such an existential question, and mentally healthy me doesn’t do existential questions.
  3. I’ve been told by two therapists in a row that we “aren’t a good fit.” Rejection sucks. And it’s a waste of time, of money, of mental energy…
  4. It’s been a week and I still haven’t heard any more about my “informal job offer” and this is making me antsy. I’ve gotten rejected for two more jobs in the interim (one that I thought I was a good candidate for, another one where they re-opened the search, ouch). While I know that the academic job market it tough, particularly for foreigners, particularly for someone whose CV is sprinkled with holes and red flags, rejection’s still hard.
  5. A collaborator whose opinion I value is getting very stressed about some data version control issues that we’ve been having. Which I absolutely get — the data’s messy and it’s mostly my fault and it’s a high-stakes situation (time crunch, Big Name Publication, her professional life’s a bit overwhelming, this project is massive and basically everything about it except me has sucked and now I’m sucking and that, well, sucks). But, like, when I screw up it’s a Big Deal but when she screws up everyone just shrugs, and I’m getting a bit sick of the double standard. Also a bunch of people get CC’d whenever she tells me off for screwing something up and it’s like…seriously? You couldn’t tell me off in private?
  6. Two separate collaborators want analyses that I’ve promised them and have I done these analyses yet no I have not.
  7. My supervisor also wants analyses and have I done these analyses no I have not.
  8. My former PhD supervisor decided that last week would be the week that she decided to remind me about all the things that I should be publishing out of my PhD and it’s like…yes, I’m aware of all of these things…
  9. The fact that I have so many unfinished projects and am not finishing them is starting to look less like an unfortunate situational coincidence and more like a character flaw and it’s like, damn, what exactly am I supposed to do about this??

Twitter is making me angry today, and I can’t say why under my real name.

If you’ve checked science/academic Twitter today, you’ve probably noticed that an anonymous account has managed to explode our little corner of the Twittersphere.

I won’t give him a bigger platform than he has already, but in short, a bitter early-career professor who has taken to Twitter to vent about undergrads has said some extremely nasty things about his students, including his students with disabilities.

These tweets have struck a nerve, and it turns out everyone on Twitter has an opinion, from “ugh kids these days are so whiny” to “yo, our students are adults and are deserving of respect” to scores of disabled students sharing their horror stories about how they’ve been pushed out of academia by professors like this man.

I have occasionally thought about what my life would have been like if I had first gotten sick during undergrad, rather than grad school. In many ways, grad school’s a great time to get a serious chronic illness; I basically disappeared for a year, and nobody noticed or cared. Being a healthy undergrad is hard; having a chronic illness is incredibly hard. Being a disabled undergrad? Eek. Reading these heartbreaking and enraging threads on Twitter, it’s really driving home to me how screwed up our system is.

Because here’s the thing. I was one of the top undergrads at my Very Fancy University in my year. Not just in my subject — I was indeed the top student in my department — but across the entire sciences division. I won a Very Fancy Independent Fellowship to fund my PhD. I have perfect scores in various standardized tests. Yes, tests, plural. I also come from rural middle of nowhere, and while I own’t deny that my background includes a lot of privilege, it also includes a lot of hardship. I am a hard worker, and I am smart, and having a neurological disorder changes neither of these things.

But yet, reading these stories, it’s clear that my chronic illness would have prevented me from succeeding in, if not finishing, my undergraduate degree. During the year between when I first started showing symptoms and when I was finally diagnosed, I wouldn’t have been able to access the resources of the disability office, which means my “accommodations” would have been at the mercy of each individual professor. And it’s clear from Twitter that this wouldn’t have gone well. Even today, when my symptoms are reasonably well-managed, there are days when I can’t stand up without passing out, when I’m in too much pain to move, when my medications make me throw up for hours on end — as an undergrad, how would I have managed mandatory attendance policies? What would happen if I had to miss an exam? Or for another example: I can’t stand up for long periods of time — how, exactly, would I have done my required laboratory classes? Or, for another one of my classes, a class which I absolutely loved and which inspired the research that became my PhD — there was a weekend field component. The field component wasn’t graded and wasn’t part of the exams, but attendance was still required. Between my balance issues, my vision issues, my fatigue issues, and the fact that my medications have to be very carefully timed, there’s no way that I could have participated in the field component. Could I still have taken the class?

And if I had said to these professors, “hi, I have this neurological disorder, here’s what I need from you in order to succeed in your class,” if I had gotten back an answer of “well, then, you don’t belong in science,” an answer so many people are giving on Twitter today, what would I have done? I was a fairly insecure undergraduate, a queer woman from rural middle-of-nowhere looking around at straight, white men from rich, posh, urban places. I had, and to some extend still have, pretty substantial impostor syndrome, convinced that someone had made a mistake in letting me into this Very Fancy University. Would I have believed these powerful professors, experts in the field I was so desperate to enter, and switched my degree to something less demanding, or even transferred to a less prestigious university whose students’ backgrounds more closely matched my own?

Maybe.

Moreover, the university where I did my undergrad is well-known for being pretty terrible when it comes to mental health, something that I struggled with during graduate school. (Surprise: severe, chronic pain + serious, incurable diagnosis + all the normal isolating shit that comes with being a foreign graduate student = poor mental health.) Whereby “pretty terrible,” I mean that if they suspect you have a mental health problem, you are suspended from the university with essentially no notice — which means you lose your health insurance, your housing, your visa if you’re a foreign student, your access to anything on-campus (like, say, your academic and social support networks), and so forth. To be reinstated as a student, you have to re-apply, and the process is draconian and can only occur once a year. And I’m not just talking “danger to yourself or others” mental health problems. I’m also talking, say, eating disorders.

So, students lie, and they don’t get the help they need. Would I have done that? Would I have even survived that? (Some don’t survive. Surprise: incentivizing students to lie about their health doesn’t work out well for anyone.)

The accommodations I would have needed as an undergraduate would not have been unreasonable. Flexibility when it came to deadlines and exams. Exemptions from attendance requirements. A way to do laboratory requirements while seated and a discussion of whether unexamined, ungraded field trips were actually a necessary part of a particular course. Clear requirements about what I had to disclose and an expectation of privacy for the information I did disclose.

You want science to be filled with the best and the brightest, right? Then please remember that not all scientists need to be able to stand up for long periods of time. Not all scientists need to be able to function in the early morning, or late at night, or on a regular schedule, or whatever else it is that you’re trying to force your undergrads to do. Not all scientists need to have had their life and their physical and mental health completely together from ages 18 to 22. Not all scientists need to be able to jump through arbitrary hoops that you put in place to make yourself feel powerful.

Your students are adults. Please respect that. You don’t know, nor can you tell, nor do you need to know, which of your students are homeless, which of your students are suffering with a serious health condition, which of your students are dealing with an abusive situation at home. It is your job, as a teacher, to create an environment which is conducive to your students’ learning, and that means all of your students. Sometimes creating an environment maximally conducive to learning will involve laying down the law — hey, boundaries are really great things! — but if “laying down the law” is your primary goal, I think you’re doing it wrong. Try respect. Try compassion.